Pithy Convention GMing Advice

As we move into con season, I thought it would be good to pull together some specific, concrete, and tight advice for running at cons. As GMs we can be verbose, so this advice should be kept to one or two sentences at most. Here’s my starter, please add any others you might have:

  • While you’re waiting for players to arrive ask first comers about their con experience. Avoid talking about you own, and listen to their conversation.
  • If a player mentions something they love about the game before the session starts, try to incorporate that towards the end.
  • Tell players the structure of the session right away (cc, break, play, end time)
  • If you’re doing at table character creation, tell players they can pick some things on the fly. This helps slower players.
  • Use and explain safety tools.
  • Take a break or two.
  • Have writing implements.
  • Demonstrate you’re keeping an eye on time.
  • End early so players can make their next session.
  • Do epilogues.
  • Don’t dawdle.
  • In the last 30 minutes hard frame scenes to get to a conclusion.
  • Tell players at the start that in the last 30 minutes you may start to hard frame scenes to get to a conclusion.
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This is all great advice!

I’d add:

  • Know generally where help is, from event organizers to security to your friends.
  • Remember that you are a player too, so make sure you have fun. If you aren’t, say so. If you can’t fix it, stop playing.
  • Take care of yourself. Stay hydrated. Stay fed.
  • Don’t be afraid to delegate. Let them draw the map, or play an NPC, or go track down the thing you forgot. Everybody wants to help.
  • Beyond safety tools, keep an eye on social dynamics and shut down people being talked over or pushed out of the spotlight by more aggressive or excitable players.
  • About halfway through, take a break and ask everyone to come back with something they really want to see in the second half, then angle for that stuff to happen.
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  • Know the system, and particularly pay attention to which rules should be explained to new players and which can be glossed over, glanced at, or only unpacked if they come up.

  • As an icebreaker, ask folks what they like about the relevant genre (say, superheroes) and use that to suggest classes/playbooks and guide a bit what you bring into the session.

  • Lob some softballs to players who are hanging back or being more quiet. Give them, specifically, a chance to shine in the session!

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  • Let the players introduce themselves.
  • Introduce yourself.
  • Ask the players what they expect from the session.
  • Introduce your take of the game and scenario, and probably also what you expect from them.
  • Have a list of names prepared (my own consist of 50-60% female names.)
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  • Safety tools. Whether that’s X-card, primer at the beginning, both, or more
  • Write NPC names on note cards and hold them up when speaking as them
  • Give players little tents to display their character name and concept for the table

Actually, any information that you can provide in visual form alongside the “conversation” will help those players who learn from reading, writing, and seeing.

  • Places, Objects, and People should be backed with their name on a card
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  • At the start, I like a light check in:
  • How I’m doing (“It’s been a long con and I’m a bit hoarse”)
  • How I might take care of myself during the game (“I don’t hear well over background noise, so I going to stand so I can easily lean in”)
  • My relationships at the table (“I haven’t met anyone here before”) so people aren’t guessing about that part of the dynamics.
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  • Establish your order for calling on people early, but make clear if a player has something, they can jump in.
  • Early on demonstrate that you give everyone spotlight
  • As important as being an active listener is showing you’re listening: lean in, physically react to suggestions, nod.
  • Try to figure out each player’s comfort level with collaboration and tailor what you ask of them to that
  • Don’t assume everyone shares your genre touchstones. Be prepared to explain the pitch.
  • (Bonus) You’re carrying too much stuff. Yes, leave some of that in the room.
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  • When everyone has arrived and settled, mark the occasion with a specific Welcome to this table / game / magical realm
  • Lampshade everything logistical: Exits Breaks are here, here, and here.
  • Start by asking everyone who they are and what their experience with the system, the genre, the mood. Then go first to model levels of detail.
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I usually run Games on Demand, so people chose the game they sat down to play. In the past year, I have started asking ‘why did you choose this game?’ The answers are usually really informative.

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Make sure everyone writes their character name on the BACK of their table tent as well so folks sitting next to them can read it even if they can’t see the front.

Keep a bag of individual cough drops or mints handy for anyone who needs them.

Establish your phone policy clearly and enforce it during the game (I place mine face-down on the table and ask everyone else to do the same)

For games you’ll run repeatedly, laminate the character sheets or pregens and hand out dry-erase pens for markup. Sheet protectors will pinch hit if needed.

Assume no one will bring dice and pack along as many as you need for the full table to each get what they need to play.

Make sure you can easily tell players the nearest place at the show proper or online to buy/download the game you’re playing.

If you run online or have projects you’re working on, don’t be shy about having a few business/calling cards to hand out to players who want them.

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Hard-earned experience there, @JimLikesGames! See you soon! The thing about dice applies to pencils as well and I will never in a million years understand it.

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I used to have (but lost, curse) a bag o’ gaming supplies: a handful of pencils, index cards, a mixed set black and white Chessex D6s, and a couple of sharpies.

It made life tremendously easier. I should build another one.

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Heh, yeah, other folks mentioned pencils up thread so I didn’t want to pile on.

I DID pack along an electric sharpener to use, though! (Which counts as a tip, make sure folks can sharpen the old-timely Ticonderogas!)

See you tomorrow.

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Over a decade ago, I write advice on Running a Con Game. Not much has changed for me since, except that I prep my scenes even more lightly, just bullet points; and when we sit at the game table, I talk about safety mechanics.

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(By safety mechanics I mean especially Script Change and the X Card.)

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