Running at Conventions, Part 1: Beating the Nerves

I’m just back from UK Games Expo, the UK’s biggest games convention, one of the highlights of which was hearing The Smart Party (plus Grognard Files and Jackson Elias representatives) talk about Running Games at Conventions. My most recent post about pregen prep even got a shout out, and you can just about hear my mumbling across the floor talking about 13th Age, and Con games being a lot about demoing/teaching the game.

One comment in particular stood out for me – Paul Fricker talked about getting nervous before convention games. It’s reassuring to hear someone who runs all the time talk about it! A quick twitter survey revealed a big diversity of reactions from those of us who regularly GM at conventions, from those who didn’t really get it any more, to those who find it a major issue.

And it is. To run a game in front of strangers, in a fixed time slot, in a strange place, is challenging. Myself, I still get a frisson of edginess before I run a game – much less than I used to, and I’m trying to explain how I minimise it in these posts. I used to worry terribly about con games, but I’ve got it down now to a positive shot of adrenaline, like Paul has, and I think this is how….

1. Accept That It’s Not Easy – and Do The Human Stuff

Running a con game is not going to be easy. Leaving all the nonsense about the GM being responsible for everyone’s fun aside (they aren’t), you still have responsibility for the social contract, for making sure everyone is comfortable, and for bringing the character sheets. I know some very, very experienced GMs who flat out don’t run at conventions – for them the pay-off isn’t worth the stress. Just by pitching up to do it, you’re taking the first step – and it’s impossible that any of your players could do a better job, or they’d be doing it instead.

Indeed, everyone at the table should want you to succeed, and if they don’t, then you shouldn’t care what they think. For me, it’s not so much the social balancing of running for strangers, as it’s the balancing of running for a mixture of friends and strangers – I can’t recall a time I’ve run a con game where there weren’t people who were already familiar with each other at the table.

So do the human stuff. Get everyone to introduce themselves, even if some of them know each other – especially if some of them know each other. I have what is almost a script at the start of each game that covers practical stuff – we will finish to time (I usually finish early, especially in a 4 hour slot), we’ll have 1 or 2 breaks, if you need a break just shout out, if you need a comfort break just go (we’re not in school, are we?), that sort of thing. I used to write bullet points with these things on, so if you think you might forget, do that. Let everyone get drinks or snacks or go to the bathroom before you start, and check everyone is ready to go before you start.

2. Know Your Stuff

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Always plastic poppers

The one thing that still gives me nerves is the practical stuff. At Games Expo, I hadn’t run games there before, and there were a few things to navigate – a booking system via the app to book player tickets in, running times for the slots, where the rooms were – that were my primary sources of stress before the game. 13th Age Glorantha is a crunchy, narratively open system, but I’ve run it plenty of times before. Finding the Windsor room, or booking tickets in on the Expo app, were new to me.

So before most cons I have a cheat sheet about practical stuff. It has slot timings for games, things written down like “find the room” before the slot I need to be in it, and notes on anything I need to do like book players in or order food. This is an A4 sheet that gets folded up and put in the same pocket every time, and it’s there so I can check it if I need to (I usually don’t, like so many things the process of making it is the end product).

All my game prep goes into a plastic popper wallet, pregens, any maps I’m using, index cards if I need them, the rulebook if it’s small. Just like the photo. It’s always a plastic popper wallet so I can glance in my bag and be sure that it’s a game in there. Routines, rituals. I get to the game space early – ridiculously early in the case of Expo, because I wasn’t running anything in the slot previous – and unpack. I scan my notes and highlight anything I need to remember, and sometimes even pick out extra bullet points – all to internalise it as much as possible immediately before running.

3. Know Your Rules

Rules one-sheets are your friend! For many systems you can find them on the internet, but making them is a process that is worthwhile in itself. In condensing the rules I need to know onto a side of A4, I internalise rules and exceptions and build confidence for the game. The aim is to not have to open a book at the table (I have the book in my bag – I’m not infallible!) in ‘normal’ play.

Things that often need to be on this – rules for healing (usually a completely different system to the rest of the game), what happens at 0 hp (your health tracker may vary), the rules for PCs assisting other PCs (again, an exception rule that comes up an awful lot in play). There are others depending on the game; so for 13th Age, I have a list of the conditions so I don’t need to remember what Dazed or Vulnerable actually means.

4. Have Contingencies

I try to make sure I can handle, if needed, from 3 up to n+1 players, where n is the number I advertised for. At Expo I’d heard rumours of drop-outs, so promoted my games for 6 players hoping I’d get 4 or 5, and had one game of 3 and one game of 6, so this didn’t exactly work how I’d planned, but I’d prepped for every option.

In a crunchy game like 13th Age or D&D, I have encounters scaled for each option of number of players – in other, simpler, games, it’s easier to wing it. I try to have some ‘collapsible’ scenes as well that can be easily cut (or rooms, if it’s a location-based adventure like a dungeon – in case I need to cut to the end of the adventure, or the players are having fun just roleplaying instead of advancing the plot). Some idea of where additional clues can be put in case the players get stymied. I’m a big fan of lots of clues, and lots of opportunities to find them.

That’s the first selection of tips for running at conventions. In Part 2, I’ll talk about the least/most important part of prep, and another way to beat the nerves – bringing the bling!

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