The Most Important Advice for Running Games at Conventions

I run a lot of games at conventions, and I play in a lot of games at conventions, and I enjoy it. There’s lots of advice around about running convention games (this set of forum posts from UK Roleplayers, for instance – also applies outside the UK, or Conventional Wisdom from the lovely Baz Stevens is also a good place to start) – but the most important advice I’d give to anyone running a game for a group of strangers has nothing to do with the game being run. It isn’t about hit points or armour class, it’s about spending 3-4 hours comfortably with 4-6 other human adults. Below would be what I consider to be the most important rules for comfortable convention play:

Introduce Everybody

Start by checking that everybody’s in the right game. I like to leave my rulebook / character sheets out before the game so that if people wander up or arrive early, they can reassure themselves they are in the right place.

Then introduce yourself – your name, and that you’ll be running the game. Ask everyone to introduce themselves around the table and make sure they do this sensibly. Even if most of you know each other. Especially if most of you know each other. Pay attention to anyone who is new to the convention – sitting at a new game with complete strangers can be a terrifying experience! By managing this interaction and when the introductions pass around the table, you also get to read the energy of the table – who’s loud and will need moderating to put that constructively, who’s quiet and will need bringing out, who is tired and will need waking up.

At this point I sometimes ask and see if we should move folks around – conventions can be noisy places, and if you’ve even got minor hearing issues it can be much easier if they are sat next to the GM – and if everyone knows they need to speak clearly. Likewise any quieter players usually do better if they are next to the GM, where more forthright players can be at the opposite end of the table and still engage fully with the game.

Introduce the Game

Ask if anyone has played the system before. Don’t ask “Has anyone not played Savage Worlds before?” and make it even more uncomfortable for the new guy who hasn’t even played Savage Worlds before, and who has already been put off by Steve’s Monty Python jokes. Don’t make obscure references to systems (“this is like the OSR version of Mouse Guard with Aspects from FATE”) to make them even more obscure. You might need to explain genre and tone, but no more (by the way, there’s some great advice on setting a serious tone here; the blog is focussed on Symbaroum, the Swedish-designed game of grimdark fantasy, but the advice applies generally). This is also the time to talk about lines and veils if your game might explore adult themes.

Tell them what dice they need, and check if people have dice. Put some pencils (or dry white pens for your fancy laminated character sheets!) out and let people take them. Don’t roll your eyes if anyone doesn’t have dice, or pencils, or any paper. Just have some – if your name’s on the top of the signup sheet, it’s your job to bring spares.

Tell them the timings for the session. Tell them you’re going to have breaks in the game (more on that later) but that if they need a comfort break they should just go. There’s nothing more awkward than having an adult ask to go to the toilet (well, apart from a GM tell them they can’t.)

Give one-sentence descriptions of the pregens and manage the players choosing them. If you’ve got some PCs that require a bit more system knowledge to play, steer the right players towards them, as per this. Manage the players if there’s any uncomfortableness in sharing out the pregens.

Introduce the System – Tour the Character Sheet

Once the players have their PCs, you need to introduce the system. This needs to be as swift and minimal as possible while still leaving players knowing some basics of what they do; the easiest way I’ve found is to do a tour of the character sheet; pick the spare pregen you brought (you did bring one, right? You always should…) and tell them what each bit means. Because your prep is awesome, anything specific to the character will already be explained on the sheet, so don’t dwell on that. Because the right player has the wizard, you won’t need to explain the magic system to everybody. Do this quickly but without rushing, and field any questions players might have.

Take Breaks

Now, go – start running the game! About an hour in, at an appropriate time in-game (often this is after the first conflict and the players have learned the basic premise of the game), take a break. Use the bathroom, get a coffee, check everyone’s okay; field any developing rules questions players might have now so they don’t interrupt play.

This last rule sounds like the simplest of this list of simple rules, but it’s the one I most often see ignored. You just can’t keep playing at a decent intensity for 3-4 hours without some breathing space. If you don’t schedule this space, your players will take it anyway – either by just wandering off to use the toilet, or having off-topic discussions and checking their phones. So schedule a break. Because I’m an awkward player, I’ll ask for one if my GM doesn’t give me one.

Now, of course, these aren’t “rules” anymore than what I think works and doesn’t work. But it surprises me how often the fairly basic spirit of these rules isn’t followed by people running games at conventions. It’s the player’s responsibility too, for sure, but if you’re running the game and it’s your name at the top of the sign up sheet, you’ve got more responsibility for making sure everyone is comfortable – even if you’re facilitating a GMless game like Fiasco or Melancholy Kaiju. Are there any others you think I might have missed off? Or any you disagree with? Stick ’em in the comment below and I’ll agree, or argue, with you!

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