GMing at Conventions

Tips for mastering tabletop
RPG sessions at conventions

Conventions hosting RPG sessions are becoming more and more popular. They are great opportunities to experience tabletop RPGs with new GMs or players. But compared to gaming sessions at home, convention games come with some pitfalls: time pressure, a lot of noise and completely unfamiliar participants can turn GMing at a convention into a nightmare. Here are a few hints and tips to make sure your convention games run smoothly.

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Difficulty: Expert

Time to read: 14 min

Challenges of GMing
at an RPG-convention

Here are the most common challenges when gamemastering an RPG session at a convention.

1. Noise
There are only a few conventions out there offering separate rooms for the roleplaying game sessions. Often you’re sitting next to a table with other RPG groups or board gamers. The surrounding noise is extremely intense there. That’s why it can be tough to narrate intense atmospheric stories (e.g. horror or personal drama) in such a situation.

2. Time pressure
At conventions the RPG rounds are organized in time slots of 3 to 4 hours. Reason being is that there is not enough space for every participant to play at the same time. In order to offer everyone a chance to play an RPG game at the event, there are time limits. That’s why at a convention it only makes sense to play very short scenarios.

3. Unfamiliar players
You won’t be able to predetermine who plays in your session. Will there be players looking for action and tactical battles? Or players valuing story-rich and dramaturgic depth? There might even be too many or too few players turning up at your gaming table.

roleplaying game convention

Location is key – try to get
the best gaming table

The most important tip right away: The location of your gaming table has the biggest impact on the atmosphere of your RPG session. That’s why you should scout out the event site at the start of the convention. Try to find a table in a separate room or in the corner of a hall. Then ask the organizers if you can run your gaming sessions there. Of course, if you’re playing with background music, a separate room is a must. Otherwise you would annoy the other sessions with your music. Also make sure that the power socket is next to where you’re sitting.
I always ask the convention organizers for a separate room several days before the event starts. I’d rather play in a closet or in the basement than in a noisy hall, where several sessions are run next to each other. I tend to GM a lot of Cthulhu games, for which it would be impossible to create a creepy atmosphere if I played in a room full of other people.

roleplaying convention timetable board

How to promote your RPG session 

(to get the right players for your game)

Convention organizers tend to promote all RPG sessions at their events in advance on their website or on a notice board at the event. By giving them a well-written teaser text, you can somewhat influence the kind of players who sign up for your game. In reality though, these session teasers are unfortunately poorly done by most GMs. You come across texts like, “Cthulhu session in the 1920s”. With such minimalistic information, it’s impossible for anybody to tell what type of game to expect.

The better you describe your game session, the higher the chance that you’ll lure in the right players for your play style. Here’s a list of the most important 10 points your teaser text should include:

10 points to include in
your session teaser:

  • Name of your session or adventure
  • Start time and duration
  • Setting: High-Fantasy, Low-Fantasy, Cyberpunk, Sci-Fi, Horror, etc.
  • Rules system: Cthulhu, D&D or Pathfinder, Shadowrun, FATE, etc.
  • Number of player slots (min./max.)
  • Suitable for beginners: yes/no
  • Pre-generated character available: yes/no (bring your own)
  • Short description of the characters: Who are they? What’s their goal? E.g. detectives on a murder case, convicts on the run, etc.
  • General plot of your game: Treasure hunt, heist, high school drama, etc.
  • Play style: Action-heavy (a lot of dice rolling), story-heavy (little dice rolling), focus on character stories (conflicts within the group), Sandbox vs. linear story, traditional RPG vs. story game. Or any mix of these styles.

Special tip:

Add an image to illustrate the theme or mood of your scenario.
This will make your teaser look really professional.

Provide safety tools

At cons, you’ll often be playing with a group of complete strangers. That’s why safety tools are a must. They make sure that everyone feels comfortable by excluding sensitive issues from the story.

Using an X-card should be the bare minimum for every con game. It’s a sheet of paper with a big X written on it, that’s placed in the center of the table. Whenever a player feels uncomfortable with a certain topic, she/he can simply touch the X-card to signal the GM to skip or fast-forward a certain part of the story.

“Lines and Veils” by Ron Edwards is another great technique for handling sensitive issue. Before the session starts, everybody at the table gets to say which topics she or he would not like to see in the game. “Lines” are no-go topics, and “Veils” are subjects that may be part of the session’s plot but should not be covered in great detail.

Both of these tools are really helpful for creating a safe gaming atmosphere. They help to prevent inconvenient situations, where a player might feel uncomfortable or event choose to leave the gaming session.

x card for pen paper rpg

Setting expectations (C.A.T.S.)

Setting expectations is incredibly useful to have everyone at the table enjoy the game. By providing a good session teaser text (see above), you have already done this to a certain extent. Clarifying the concept, general plot and tone once more before the start of your session just makes sure that everybody is on the same page.

C.A.T.S. by Patrick O’Leary is an acronym that guides you through this process. It stands for these four parts:

  • Concept: What your game is about. A bit of foreshadowing, what kind of story the players can expect.
  • Aim: What the players are trying to achieve and which kind of story the group wants to tell. Solving a mystery, staying alive, experience drama or even fail gracefully?
  • Tone: Which kind of tone is most suitable for the story. There might even be several to choose from (serious, dark, epic, gonzo, etc.)
  • Subject Matter: Which topics will be part of the game and which ones will not. Which safety tools will be available to exclude taboo topics.

Use pre-generated characters

A timeslot of 3-4 hours is usually not enough time to also cover creating new characters. Yes, there are some indie systems which are built for generating characters in less than 10 minutes. But in most classic RPG systems it would take too much time. That’s why you always should bring along pre-generated characters to a convention.

Make sure to pack a few copies of these characters, because the players will write on them or accidently take them home. Me, I prefer using laminated character sheets and dry-erase markers. It only takes a second to wipe them clean, and then I’m good to go for the next session. Besides, this makes the sheets sturdy and keeps them free of wrinkles.

Ideally, each character has a short backstory, covering these two questions: 1. Why is this character involved in the story (her/his motivation)? 2. Where does she/he know the other characters from? Both will make it much easier for your players to immerse themselves into your setting. Additionally, you can skip the “how-you-got-to-know-each-other-scene” to jump straight into the main plot.

Use an easy rules set

During an RPG convention, you don’t have a lot of time to explain the rules of a game to your players. That’s why you should choose rules-light systems for your session. “Rules-light” in this context means that you are able to explain the rules in less than 15 minutes. Or pick a big, popular roleplaying game like D&D or Cthulhu (basic Roleplaying System). Most RPG players out there are already familiar with these games and their rules.

Alternatively, if you want to go with a more complex system, you should simplify the rules for your convention game. You could for example skip dice modifiers or complex combat moves. I also recommend streamlining the character sheets to only show the relevant skills instead of the full list. I usually reduce the 100 skills on the Cthulhu character sheet down to the 10 relevant for this session’s plot. This saves time when explaining the rules, as well as when playing the game.

Start the story in medias res

As mentioned earlier, you’ll usually run out of time with your convention game session. That’s why you should start your scenarios without long introductions. Try to skip scenes like the get-together, the meeting with the employer or the planning phase. Start in medias res, right where the action begins. The players should explore a dungeon? Let them start right at the doorway. They should extract somebody from a high-security prison? Start with a scene in which they drive to the security facility dressed up as inmates.

Instead of narrating how everything came to be, provide the details of their backstory on the character sheets. Or use a flashback to explain what has happened up until now. With this, don’t be afraid of railroading. To get right to the start of the action, using railroading is totally ok. This counts even more so for convention sessions.

Here is some inspiration for starting a session with a tense high-stakes scene:

Keep your plot short and simple

For a timeslot at a convention, any standard plot is much too long. Expect to only have 2 to 3 hours for the whole story. This is what’s left after subtracting the time it takes for saying hello to each other, explaining the rules and for decorating the table and clearing it afterwards. So, your 4-hour-timeslot shrinks to 3 hours of gaming time. That´s why you should only play very simple and short scenarios at a convention.

You should reduce the classic course of introduction->peak in the middle->finale to introduction->finale. For this, try to avoid red herrings or extensive investigative parts. Make it easy for your players to get to the finale of the story. “Easy” does not necessarily mean that your scenario has to be straightforward. Using a branching story arc is absolutely ok and certainly very exciting for your players. But you need to leave out the boring parts, the McGuffins and gap-fillers. I’m talking about scenes like travelling, buying stuff and very often also the investigation scenes. Instead, focus on the challenges and conflicts in your story – the parts in which your PCs’ decisions matter.

Whatever scenario you choose, don’t try to shorten a 6-hour-adventure down to 3 hours. That never works out. You would have to cut out complete scenes from the original story. And this would be at the expense of the story’s atmosphere and dramaturgy. Instead, I’d recommend playing short adventures which have specifically been written for 2-3 hours. Because the author already had a 3-hour time limit in mind, when he wrote this story.

dungeon dragons roleplaying time running out

Pacing is crucial

You’ll always be pressed for time when GMing at a convention. Try to pass on this pressure to your players with clever pacing. Pacing stands for speeding up or slowing down scenes to control the time flow of your story. For convention sessions this means don’t let them catch their breath. Drive them from one scene to the next one. For convention games, it’s absolutely ok if your players feel pushed by you. Also make sure to help them along when they’re stuck in a particular scene. Just make sure to keep the story going. The main goal is to finish your game within your given timeslot. There’s nothing worse than having to stop the session before the finale is over. It would deprive the players of the sense of achievement of having concluded the adventure.

Decorate your gaming table
to create atmosphere

Plain gaming tables at conventions are usually sparsely decorated, to put it mildly. With a few props and some decoration, you can turn your gaming table into an immersive environment for your players. First get yourself a colored tablecloth around 50 by 100 inches in size. This will turn even the dullest table into an eye-catcher. Next, put two appropriate props suitable for your story’s setting on the table. This could be a candelabra, a compass or an old book. You’ll find stuff like this in the decoration department of furniture stores or at garage sales, and they don’t cost a fortune. Finally, I recommend printing out a sheet of paper with the name of your RPG scenario and a suitable image on it. Put this on your table or on the wall next to it. This will make it easier for your players to find your table in the turmoil of a convention.

If this whole package seems like too much work for you, then at least get yourself the tablecloth. It will have the biggest optical effect for your session, it is easy to transport, and putting it on the table and stowing it away afterwards only takes a few seconds.

tabletop rpg gm tip

If there is one single takeaway from this article: Start packing a tablecloth for your convention games.

Plan some time to set up
the gaming table

For your convention session you should always be at your table 30 minutes before your session starts. You’ll need this time to prepare your GM equipment, decorate the table and sort the handouts and characters sheets. You should be done preparing as soon as the players show up. This will make a really good impression on them and lets you start with the game once the players are ready to go. Every minute saved before the game starts will remove pressure off of you, if the game takes longer than planned. And it always takes longer than planned.

Good convention organizers will consider the time necessary for session preparation and will plan long enough breaks between the session timeslots. Because in reality most sessions take longer than they should. Similar to preparing a gaming table, clearing it after the game takes some time. And most players like to do some kind of debriefing too, instead of leaving the table right away.

The 10 most useful pieces of equipment
for GMing at a convention

tabletop rpg convention equipment

01 Tablecloth

To decorate your gaming table and have it stand out from the others. The bare minimum every GM should have for a convention game.

02 Props as decoration

Old books, a candelabra, a compass, some keys… for an immersive environment.

03 Pre-generated characters

You won’t have time for making characters at the event (unless you’re playing an indie system).

04 A watch

Your no.1 tool for pacing. Keeps you from running out of time.  A highly underrated GM-tool.

05 Tablet PC, phone or mp3-player

For playing background music, if the room allows for it.

06 Bluetooth speaker

Because the built-in speakers in your laptop or phone sound very bad.

07 A dimmable desk lamp

Lets you add light effects, if you get a separate room for your session. Available for 20$ on Amazon.

08 Extension cord

To power your laptop, speakers and the lamp, if they ran out of juice. Usually there are no power sockets next to the GM’s seat.

09 Drapes or cloths (2-3)

To cover unwanted sources of light (windows) or disruptive decoration of the room you’re playing in (e.g. shelves, paintings).

10 Sheet of paper with your session’s name on it

Makes it easier for your players to find the right room or table at the convention. And it looks cool.

Summary: 4 crucial tips
for GMing at conventions

  • 1. Try to get the best room or table for your session
    Try to get a quiet spot to avoid noise and distractions from other games.
  • 2. Promote your session with a detailed teaser text
    Tell people what your game is about and what it’s not. This will attract players suitable for your playstyle.
  • 3. Decorate your table – bring a tablecloth
    Set the mood for your game and turn a dull table into a cool stage for your story.
  • 4. Pacing is crucial
    Make sure you reach the finale and provide a satisfying conclusion of your story to the players.
    Nothing is worse than having to end a session early.
pen paper rpg convention game

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