D&D One-Shots, Part 4: More Tips

I’ve spent the best part of the summer running D&D5e for (relative) newcomers to the hobby. I’m at the point where I’m probably going to take a breather and look to my shelves for some other games to prep one-shots of now, but I’ve learned a few more things that are worth sharing since the first post that started it all. So, here goes:

Maps Are Good, Even Without Minis

A map – even one sketched with a Sharpie on plain paper – is really useful if you’ve got a set-piece combat scene. I’ve talked before about how I’m not a huge fan of minis and grids – and in this context it makes the game a little bit more complex – but a map is really useful. Next time I run, I’ll try and find some evocative art as well – even just pictures of a monster or scene – to help players get into the moment.

This is what a table for 12 D&D players looks like

Ambitious Stuff Works!

Over the summer, I ran a D&D Activity Group with another GM on a residential week. We had 12 players in two groups of 6, playing for 1hr 15min a day for the week. We thought up linked plots for our groups – one was escorting a pair of children who would turn out to be werewolves, one was hunting a beast from the town who turned out to be an escaped werewolf. We had four sessions as separate groups, and managed to drag them together so the final two sessions could be a huge 12-player group as they joined forces to face the source of both of their problems.

We had a real range of experiences in the game – a couple of experienced players (more on them later), some who had played a few times before, and some completely new to the hobby. Now, I’m not going to run for 12 players again very soon – but the session where they linked up and shared their stories was -amazing-. It’s the kind of ambitious cross-campaign shenanigans that I’m usually wary of, but thanks to my amazing co-GM we managed to pull it off. So don’t shy away from doing the epic. It works.

Bring Dice, In Sets

For my games, I’ve brought a big pile of dice and got my players to pick out their own d20 and any other dice they might need. This is not the best way, I learned from my co-GM in the werewolf game. The best way is to have a set of dice for each player. They have their own dice, can move them around and put them on their character sheet, and have ownership of them for the game. A player’s relationship with their dice is a key part of the game, and by having their own they get to try this.

Use Your Expertise

If you’re lucky enough to have a few players with some experience in your group, use them! Conventional wisdom might say to encourage them to play the more complex classes – the wizard or the sorcerer – but I’d say that it works better having the player next to them playing those, and them helping them out. They need to have a players handbook – they can look up spells, if you don’t have spell cards, and even conditions – I’m a big fan of saying, eg “OK, you’re weakened – Scott, what does that mean in-game?” and letting them manage it.

Use The Good Stuff Out There

I’ve mentioned Spell Cards, but having the Monster Cards lets you avoid juggling a monster manual and you can show them the art on the back. I have run Goblin Gully a few times (with my adapted notes here), but I also found Troll Trouble by Gary Whicker to be an excellent first level adventure – a good mixture of dungeoneering, role-play, and interesting action scenes. It’s a long time since I’ve run it, but The Goblins and The Pie Shop is a fun little one-shot too that I posted up on here. Come to think of it, it still sees a lot of traffic, so I’m planning to put some more 1st-level one-shots on here as I write them. But for now, I need a break from D&D – you can have too much of a good thing after all.

D&D One-Shots, Part 3: Goblin Gully

In my last post, I talked about running a one-shot for six complete newcomers using an extended/modified version of Dyson Logos’ Goblin Gully one-sheet dungeon. I added some stuff to it, mainly to give a bit of an introduction to the core mechanics (with a straightforward battle against some bandits) and a chance for a bit of out-of-dungeon roleplaying (by interacting in the town before venturing to the dungeon).

It worked really well as a 1st-level introductory game. The dungeon is just complex and multi-layered enough to give a chance for tactical decisions, and the final encounter really emphasises that sometimes you don’t have to defeat the enemy, just capture them. My notes that I used, in addition to the original dungeon, are below. And check Dyson’s stuff out! There are loads of really good maps, geomorphs, and adventures on his website.

Synopsis

The PCs are young, thrusting adventurers out to earn their fortune. They have recently taken their first, exciting, job – escorting the merchant Donia and her husband Reaghan through the High Forest to the village of Stone Stand.

They are attacked by bandits, and Reaghan is wounded before they are able to chase them off, and they learn that there is much increased bandit activity – linked to the goblins near the Kalil Slave Pit. At the town, Donia and the innkeeper Jarrod engage them to investigate the Slave Pit and drive off the goblins.

Cast

Donia is an able and capable merchant, middle-aged with a steely stare and an eye for business.

Reaghan, her husband, is a feckless idiot, an ex-adventurer who doesn’t see why the PCs should have been hired since he can easily deal with a few bandits.

Jarrod, the innkeeper of the Wyvern’s Rest, is a stout and hearty barkeep who  just wants the best for Stone Stair.

Scene One – Ambush!

As the players round a corner in the depths of the High Forest, less than a day’s travel away, their cart sticks in the mud – closer inspection (DC 10 perception) shows that a groove has been hollowed out in the road deliberately to trap them. As they inspect, Spencer and his Bandits approach – Reaghan immediately challenges them, and is seriously wounded by an arrow for his troubles.

There is one Bandit for every PC, plus Spencer, the leader. They attempt to flee if the battle starts to clearly go against them, which it probably will.

Spencer: As a normal Bandit but hp 18.

Searching the bandits they find two potions of healing (regain 2d4+2 hp) and a map showing the details of the Kalil Slave Pit, with scrawled notes on it – Keep Adventurers Away from Stone Stand, and from the Pit – Maglubiyet will reward you (10 gp/adventure head – double if alive!).

Reaghan can be stabilized with a Wisdom (Medicine) DC 10 check, or any healing that restores even 1hp. If there isn’t a cleric or paladin in the party, consider them finding an extra potion of healing – maybe on Spencer. Once he is stabilized they can continue to the village.

Tracking the bandits

If they are keen to track them, they can make a Wisdom (Survival) DC 10 check to show that they have a basic camp about half a day’s march away. There they may be able to ambush the remaining bandits, or question them about the goblins

Questioning the bandits

Spencer and his men are opportunists – they dug the hole in the hope of a cart coming along because they’ve tracked the PCs for the past day. The goblin bounty has made ambushing carts much more lucrative as there are often adventurers amongst them. They will plead with the PCs to let them go, or failing that to at least take them back to town – Wisdom (Insight) DC 10 will reveal that what they are really scared of is being sent to the goblins.

Scene Two – Stone Stair

Stone Stair is a picturesque village in the middle of the wilderness, nestled on either side of stone steps up a hillside, making it very defensible but also reliant on imports for food. The one tavern, the Wyvern’s Rest, is run by Jarrod, a retired adventurer. As they are settled and rested, they will learn that Stone Stair has been beset by bandits – none have dared attack the village itself yet, but many supply carts have gone missing, and there are rumours of goblins abroud in the hills to the north as well.

Jarrod and Dorian will offer the PCs 200 gp to clear out and/or investigate the old Kalil Slave Pits – a mysterious wanderer, Kras, will tell them that he has seen the bridge has been restored to it.

Gathering Information

They can question any of the NPCs around town about the Slave Pits – on a successful DC 10 check of an appropriate skill they receive a True rumour from the Goblin Gully sheet, on a failed on they receive a False one – but will know it is questionable.

Scene Three – Goblin Gully

The PCs can make their way to the Kalil Slave Pits and explore Goblin Gully as per the one-sheet. Additional notes for each location are below.

By investigation, the goblins believe the black pudding to be an avatar of Maglubiyet, and have been throwing sacrifices in. They have been running short, so last week two goblins were pushed in, and their claw marks are visible on the walls as they tried to escape.

  1. Entrance – two Goblins up a tree. They attack with their shortbows.
  2. Antechamber
  3. Grand Hall – four Goblins guard here (or one per PC)  (Passive Perception 9 if sneak)
  4. Bridge Room – two Goblins will attempt to support combat in 3 – but not leave their posts.
  5. Bridge – to cross quickly is a DC 10 Dex save or they will be left hanging off a thread, a further save or they fall for 1d6 damage
  6. Gully Floor – the bodies carry a Scroll of Bless
  7. Empty Room – goblin in 8 to surprise
  8. Contains Graz’tur, a goblin boss, and three Goblins (XP 350)
  9. Secret Chamber. The door is trapped, and secret (DC 10 to find, DC 15 to disarm – or DC 15 Dex save or 1d10 damage from a dropped rock)
  10. Secret Storage. There is a +1 Longsword here, but if it is disturbed then the Animated Armor at the back of the room attacks with its ornate two-handed sword – this sword detects as magical.
  11. Four goblins, can be ambushed easily
  12. The Pit. Contains a black pudding. Required DC 15 Wisdom save to flee and shut the door. The door to the Pit is barred by heavy wooden bars, and the sword in 10 can be used to seal the portal permanently.

So, there are my notes for Goblin Gully (posted with Dyson’s permission, I should add). What are your favourite short dungeons to introduce D&D to newcomers?

Next post, I’ll talk about prepping one-shot games for D&D.

D&D5e One-Shots, Part 1: Getting Started

Previously, I told everyone they should be running D&D5e one-shots. Here, I shared some of my techniques for pregens, as well as some actual pregens. In the next few posts, I’m going to actually talk about what techniques and tricks I use to make D&D5e one-shots sing, starting with the start of the session. For this post, I’m assuming that you’re running for players who have played D&D or another tabletop RPG before – my next post will be about players who are completely brand new.

Pregens / Characters

D&D5e is unusual in that, thanks to Adventurer’s League, often players will expect to be able to bring their own characters to the table. Also, if they have D&D Beyond, they can probably whip up a character in 10 minutes to your spec. I try to embrace this as much as I can – if I advertise a game, I’ll be clear that although I’ll bring pregens, if they’ve got (standard array) characters at the right level, I’m happy to have them instead. They do have to meet that spec though – no “I randomly rolled these stats,” or “My sorcerer is 4th level instead of 2nd, is that still ok?” – again, with the app it’s really easy to make those adjustments, so they should be at least initially balanced to the other PCs.

I usually turn up with a selection of my own pregens, a few extras from the excellent FastCharacter website, and let them pick. Running D&D, of course, that you might well have players who really know the system – so if they want to adapt or change stuff from a pregen, they can usually just go ahead and do it.

Forming a Party

This does mean that you can often have a fairly disparate band of PCs at the start of the session. I’m blogged here about using charged questions to help bring groups together, but I’ve recently started using Backstory Cards, and these have worked really well to not only tie a group together but also tie them to the setting.

With Backstory Cards, you have a few lists of individuals, groups, and locations, and then ask questions of the players to establish some shared history. With a set of cards, they can be drawn at random by the players, but I just pick some interesting questions from the cards and my lists, and manage it so that everyone gets some screen time.

Example questions might include:

  • Pools, you and Fuuwde did something in Hightower that at least one of you regrets, or is ashamed of. What lengths will you go to hide it?
  • Van Erp, your allegiances aren’t clear when it comes to the Dock Rats thieves’ guild. How did Jansora find out? What don’t they know?

As you can see the questions are pretty multi-levelled – I’m not too bothered if we don’t get right to the bottom of the question – just spitballing a heist in Hightower that went wrong will be enough to bond the players together. I use a mixture of groups, individuals and places from the one-shot itself, and peripheral to it – so, although the city watch might not specifically be mentioned in the scenario, they are around, and having some history with them means they can be on stage during scenes as much as the players (and I) want.

I do this straight after an introduction – so the start of the session looks like this:

  • players go round the table and introduce their PC’s name, race, class, and anything obvious they have set in their mind about them
  • we do the backstory cards – making sure that each PC gets some screen time. I’ll use this to drip-feed anything important about the setting, too, as they do this – sometimes I’ll amend my prep notes as well if something particularly juicy comes out
  • players introduce their PCs properly. I get them to do this like an opening montage in a cheesy TV series, like Robin of Sherwood or Quantum Leap – we see each PC in the middle of an action scene from a previous (or future) adventure, doing something that defines them in some way

This all of course takes a bit of time, but it’s well spent. At the end of this process (which I normally budget about 30 minutes for, longer if players faff around with their characters) you should have an adventuring party, rather than a collection of individuals. I’ve lost count of how many one-shots (and D&D is over-represented here) where half an hour in I still didn’t know the character names of my fellow PCs.

So that’s my approach for the start of the session. In my next post, I’ll talk about running D&D one-shots for players that are completely brand new to Tabletop RPGs, which simplifies some of these ideas a bit.

D&D One Shots: Pregens

After my last post on the why of running D&D one-shots, I’m now going to start on the how. My next post will be about prep and play at the table, but I’m going to focus on one aspect of prep today: the pregens. I’ve blogged before about making successful pregens for a one-shot, but this is just about my D&D approach.

I don’t like the D&D character sheet for one-shots. It’s not alone; I don’t like many ‘offical’ character sheets for one-shot play. They aren’t really designed for the same function – they are worksheets for long-term play that can account for hours of character development, equipment gain and loss, and notes. There’s just too much on them.

So, after some requests from followers, I’m going to share my 2nd level D&D pregens for a one-shot that I ran recently. I’ve tried to make them as straightforward and easy-to-use as possible. I have a bit of a tin eye for design (GCSE Grade D – I blame the teacher) but I hope I’ve made them as clean and consistent as I can. There’s a few things that bear explaining

LAI of the sea hagSkills & Spells

Now that there are Spell Cards for D&D, I don’t as a rule select spells for my pregens – the player can just pick out the cards they want to use, or use their PHB if they’ve got it. You’ll see on these that there’s everything ready except the spells. I’m also pretty flexible in play if players want to swap out spells that they know – if they haven’t cast it yet, they’ve not committed.

Skill bonuses are only on if they are different from the default stat bonus. This does mean that, as GM, you need to remember that Wisdom is the base stat for Perception, but it makes the sheets much cleaner.

I haven’t put Passive Perception on the sheets. I’m not a fan. I’d rather the players rolled Perception against an opponent’s Passive Stealth – dice rolls are better for the players.

Gender, Weapons, Equipment

I used to try and have a mix of genders for my pregens. I’ve moved on. My pregens now can be whatever gender their player wants them to be. I try and pick names that are suitably flexible – and, obviously, the names are optional too.

The weapons can similarly be swapped out by the players if they want to – and I usually go with letting them have whatever they want for the same stats. Want to have a broadsword instead of the axe? Yeah, whatever, just use the same stats. Change the damage type if you must – but, again, it often doesn’t make that much difference.

I don’t give my pregens equipment. They have what they can be reasonably expected to have. If something sounds dubious, or a stretch, they can always make a check for a loosely relevant skill to see if they remembered it. I do this in every game where equipment isn’t really a feature of play.

Personality, Ideals, Bonds, Flaws

I don’t use these for one-shots. Instead, I do a shared party set-up similar to the one I talked about here to give them a shared history as a group and some emergent backstory – more on that in my next post. I just find that they run a little deep for what will come out in a one-shot – it’s better to give the PCs links to things and events they will actually encounter, whether that be their fellow PCs or important parts of the adventure.

2nd Level Pregens

These are my 2nd level pregens, which I used to run Maryska Connolly’s excellent Lai of the Sea Hag from Uncaged Vol. 1. Some of them use races from Volo’s, just because I realised I’d not used it yet, but there should be enough information on the sheets to use them without.

Tiefling Rogue

Bugbear Barbarian

Human Fighter

Tabaxi Bard

Tiefling Rogue

Dwarf Paladin

Dragonborn Wizard

More to Come…

Next post, I’ll talk about some techniques for running D&D one-shots, including how to deal with players bringing their own PCs, and balancing combat (hint: ignore 50% of what it says in the DMG).

Review: Call of Cthulhu Starter Set

I have a complicated relationship with Call of Cthulhu (CoC), Chaosium’s venerable, once disappeared, now resurrected d100 game of acute sanity-smashing horror. Like Traveller, terrible experiences in my early days as a player have made me resist it’s appeal. Unlike Traveller, I suspect that CoC is really quite good. It takes the right GM (or “Keeper,” in CoC parlance) to make it sing, certainly; but it’s an ever-present at UK conventions now – the tendency for PCs to die or go insane in the face of cosmic horror makes it an ideal one-shot game.

So, the Starter Set. It’s a slim boxed set, with three books, handouts, investigator sheets (some pre-generated – always useful, some blank), and a set of dice – with an extra tens d10 for bonus dice rolls. Like all Chaosium’s recent products, it has stunning art and layout, although the covers of the books leave me cold with their massive text and small pictures.

The Fluff

20190626_173110Alongside the pregens, there are four adventures in this starter set. The first, Alone Against The Flames, is a choose-your-own-adventure solo game, in which you generate your investigator (which is a nice touch!) and attempt to avoid being burned in said flames. I know from my own experience that these things are a bugger to edit and write, but it’s a great way to learn the basics of the rules and even character generation, and well worth the effort. It would be great if new games could have something like this – I can think of only this and the excellent Monkey 2nd incarnation that have this.

The next adventure is Paper Chase, a one-on-one (“Duet,” is I think what the cool kids call them these days) adventure; and Edge of Darkness and Dead Man Stomp, two ‘traditional’ group Cthulhu adventures. These are, I believe, all ‘classic’ CoC adventures that have been updated and revised, which is no bad thing. All do very well to showcase what 1920s CoC is all about – investigative, slow-burn but not boring, and satisfyingly dangerous.

What the adventures are also excellent for is explaining how to run them. There’s plenty of advice for the GM, sorry, Keeper, and reminders about rules which are really helpful. I wouldn’t mind more of this in all published adventures – I like a reminder of rules I’m likely to forget – and ideas for pacing and what to do if the players get off track. Dead Man Stomp also has a mature and helpful section on how to address racism in the 1920s – the adventure is set in Harlem – in a sensitive way.

The Crunch

The second book contains “introductory rules,” and is easily the slimmest of the three. It manages despite this to contain character generation, skill description, and sanity and combat mechanics, which is admirable. I’d go so far as to say you could just use this for long-term play – you could easily buy Doors to Darkness after this and continue your game.

What’s great is to see them condense what appears as a traditional “hardback book” game with plenty of rules into a slim pamphlet with just the important ones. I guess this does demand the question of what else is in those two big hardback books that makes your game better – and the answer of course is Chase rules; every game needs Chase rules, and Luck spends and more gorgeous art of course.

The One-Shot

This is an excellent resource for the one-shot GM. Both of the two full-party adventures are ideal for single-session play, and contain a lot of explained structure that really helps you to think about prepping your own investigative one-shot (for more on this, see the series I did that starts here).

Indeed, this is an ideal entry drug to the joys of Cthulhu one-shots, to the point where I’m actually considering running Dead Man Stomp myself at one of my meetups – as much to get my Cthulhu chops in as anything.

All in all, a great product – and a fine addition to the new crop of Starter Sets. Even if you play Trail of Cthulhu or Cthulhu Hack, all the adventures in it are classics that it’s easy to drift or steal structure from – and it’s excellent value.

Running at Conventions, Part 2: Bringing the Bling

In Part 1, I talked about beating the nerves before a con game. I’m now going to tacle another part of prep – the bling that you can bring to the table. I have to admit first off that I’m not always the biggest fan of bling. Bling for bling’s sake is no good, and it’s absolutely no substitute for a well prepared game with engaging pregens and NPCs. I’ve been in a few games where there were plastic standees and pretty maps, but no core plot, and they didn’t fix the game.

I’m going to split bling into three sections – Must-Haves, Setting, and System. Must-Haves, as you might expect, are the things you need to run the game – which often have some bling within them. Setting bling helps your players to understand the world, while System bling helps them understand the rules.

Must-Haves

character sheet comparison

D&D5e sheet. I think his Acrobatics bonus is wrong, now I look at it

You need character sheets. Most games, these are pregens. You’ve got a number of options – whatever the system provides, either written on with your neatest handwriting or form-filled in a .pdf, or ones of your own design. I’ve seen some nice pregen sheets where the GM has used photoshop to design a flavourful sheet that gets into genre. I don’t do this. I tend to use my own sheets, but it’s usually on Word, and I try to prioritise clarity at the table over looking pretty. I’m proud of my D&D5e character sheets – which I think I borrowed heavily from a twitter post from a Critical Role-er – and if you can get a clear, clean sheet, that wins for me. I sometimes laminate – if I’m going to use them more than once, I almost always do.

You need dice, pencils. Wipe-pens if your sheets are laminated. Don’t assume that all players will bring these things – in any given con game, at least two won’t bring anything. Specialist dice, you need enough for a big pile in the middle of the table – and be aware of dice requirements even for traditional dice. When I run 13th Age at 4th level+, I make sure I’ve got stacks of d8s, for instance – similarly for Marvel Heroic or other Cortex games, it’s d8s that often run short. For a d6 dice pool system, having a couple of blocks that are the same colour makes it easy to distinguish yours from the players’ when they have to borrow them.

(For Marvel Heroic, when I used to run it a lot, I had a 6-piece rubber muffin tin for my dice, each one filled with d4 – d6 – d8 – d10 – d12 – plot point tokens so that players could easily assemble their handful-of-dice for each task)

You need water (to drink, if that isn’t obvious), and I consider a stack of index cards (either card or wipeable) essential, too. For initiative, for writing down NPC names and sticking in the middle of the table, for Fate Aspects, for writing down player and PC names.

Setting Bling

Different settings sometimes require bling – although I’m not a huge fan of character portraits as I prefer to leave it up to my players to set the appearance of their character. There are compelling arguments either way though!

My usual setting bling just runs to some picture sheets that give some ideas for what various things in the setting might look like. I adapted (stole) the idea from Gaz of the Smart Party, who in a Tales from the Loop game got some of the evocative Simon Stålenhag photos to add to the mood of the table. I use them in a more direct way – when I run Glorantha (usually 13G) I have a Friends sheet, that shows what Ducks and Trolls look like, along with some Orlanthi so the players have some idea what they might look like, and a Foes sheet with Walktapi, Broo, and Scorpion Men on.

You can get play mats printed of course, and the Big Book of Battle-Maps looks like an amazing investment if you use that sort of thing (even without grids, it’s often useful to be able to position PCs in the action). I try to have pictures of NPCs ready, but often I don’t – I do have name cards to put into the middle of the table, to avoid all the players having to write down someone’s name when they meet them (and often ask how to spell it).

Other useful setting bling, aside from character art and standees, include lists of names. Even when I’m fully prepped, I’ll often have to name NPCs on the fly, for when the players decide to interview a previously-unimportant bystander, and it’s nearly impossible to get names at short notice. I’m a fan of Fantasy Name Generators and the Story-Games Names Project to get my lists from, but there are many others out there.

System Bling

bling

Some of my bling. I need a bigger ARU.

I’ve written about this before, in posts about running Fate and Conan one-shots, but here’s my general rule: if players (including yourself) have an economy they spend and need to track, they should have something to track it with.

I usually use simple glass beads, purchased as huge job lot from Dice Shop Online when I was running Tenra Bansho Zero and needed up to a hundred, but it’s nice if you can get something thematically appropriate. I have Campaign Coins for Fantasy games (Fate and Fortune points in WHFRP, Fortune in 7th Sea 2nd ed.) and little plastic skulls to track Doom in Conan 2d20. All Rolled Up sell lots of things you can use for this, including plastic counters you can draw your own symbols on that can be used for loads of things.

Cards are also incredibly useful, and it’s always worth a quick poke around the internet before running a game, as often people will have produced them already, even if there aren’t ‘official’ ones available. I wouldn’t dream of running Mouse Guard without the Action Deck, because it makes selecting your three-rounds-in-advance combat actions so straightforward, and there’s something awesome about giving a player a condition and handing them the card with them on.

One-sheet rules summaries are really useful, too. I like to make my own for behind the screen with rules I’m likely to forget (healing rules, usually, or the ‘what happens at 0hp’ question – things that are important but rarely come up). If the players have resources to spend, I’d strongly suggest that they need a sheet telling them what they can spend them on – this can just be a printout of that bit of the .pdf. If your game has critical hits or fumbles, having them printed out so the player can roll on them is better than them having you look them up in the book for them – if it’s feasible to have printouts of these.

All these things can, of course, be laminated, and that will make them re-usable for lots of games. All of which does add up to The Grognard Files’ claim that convention games are a conspiracy by stationers’ and printer manufacturers – we will get through a lot of ink to get these things ready. But they’re worth it, and you can pick and choose which you think is right.

Is there anything I’ve missed? Bling at the convention table has increased in my experience just in the last couple of years, while at the same time miniatures seem to be less common – what’s the best bling you’ve seen at the table?

I’ll be returning to talk about Convention Gaming in a few months – in the meantime, I have some reviews to get posted up. As always, if there’s anything you’d like to see on the blog, drop a comment here or get me on Twitter @milnermaths.

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!