Are you a Game Master for your RPG group? Good for you! You’re the backbone of the hobby! Are you thinking about running an RPG at a convention? That’s great too, but while GMing for your group of friends is one thing, running for a group of strangers you may never see again is something else entirely.
With that in mind, I’d like to share a few thoughts on what I think goes into running a good one-shot RPG session at a a game convention.
Pro Tip: Biggest convention to run a tabletop game in the United States is Gencon.
Pro Tip 2: Biggest game convention in Europe (and possibly the world) is Essen Game Fair.
You’ve only got four hours. Do you really want to spend any of that time rolling up characters? As opposed to, you know, playing the game? Of course not. And while making those character ahead of time, you might want to make sure they have:
- Gender Mix: Not everyone is comfortable playing characters of a gender other than what they are. Ideally, character gender shouldn’t matter to the adventure, so you can name the characters “Terry” and “Ralor the Seeker” and “TX-1099” and let the players pick the characters’ genders themselves. If you need to have gendered characters, make sure you’ve got an even mix of male and female; even then, let players know they can change character gender (and even name) as they see fit in order to best enjoy the game.
- Character Motivation: Make sure every character has a compelling reason to be on this adventure. It doesn’t have to be much, but enough that players aren’t tempted to say “My character is more interesting in this other thing” that derails the session.
- An Easy Roleplaying Hook: This could be an accent, an accessory, a verbal tic… something fun and easy for players to grab onto if they want to.
- Unique Team Role: Every player should have a time to shine. That’s harder to do when everyone’s shining at once. Each character should be the best there is at one thing: the sniper, the scout, the hairdresser with the fastest scissors in the West.
- Overlapping Competency: That said, you need to make sure the adventure won’t collapse on itself like a black hole with a broken leg if one of the characters isn’t played. If the adventure requires a hairdresser in order to be completed, make sure at least one other character can use a pair of scissors without hurting himself.
This is my catch-all for all the stuff on the table that isn’t dice or character sheets.
- Maps and Miniatures: If your game uses battle maps, make sure you’ve got them prepped before showing up. It sucks to put the game on hold while you sketch out the battlefield on a dry-erase grid. (Yes, I’ve done that. No, I’m not proud.)
- Cheat Sheets: No more than one page long, these things briefly list mechanics or setting details the players may need to reference during the game. If they’re character-specific (like spells or special abilities), consider printing them as part of the character’s sheet.
- Handouts: Classic handouts are things like letters from an important NPC, clippings from newspapers, and notes written in a script that needs to be deciphered before it can be read.
- Table Tents: There are several varieties of these things, but the basic model sits in front of the player and displays her character’s name. It makes it much easier to remember everyone’s names, which in turn enhances roleplaying and immersion.
“That’s all well and good,” you may say, looking at me over your glasses. “But that’s all useless without an adventure to run. Have you any suggestions for creating such an adventure?” Of course I do.
If you need some tips on improvisation in your next game, go here.
- High Stakes, High Octane: This isn’t your home campaign that has to last for another two years. This is a single shot of exciting adventure. Pull out all the stops! Put the world in danger! Blow it up! No one cares, so long as they’re having fun.
- Obvious Goals: With such a limited amount of time, you don’t want your players puttering around looking for plot hooks for the first 30 minutes. Tell ’em what’s up in the first scene – or even before the game begins. (“You’re all vassals of the Doughnut King, and he’s sent you to kill the Pickle Demon that’s been harassing local travelers.”) That doesn’t mean you can’t switch things around and add mystery once the players are engaged (“The Pickle Demon is working for the Doughnut Queen!”), but don’t lead with it.
- Modularity: Design your adventure with an eye towards dividing it into modular chunks. Not only does this give you satisfying break points (for bathroom breaks and the like), but it makes it easier to adjust the adventure on the fly. If things are going faster than you’d expected, toss in another module between two that you were already planning. If the game is dragging a bit, snip out a module with a bit of narrative hand-waving (“…two days later, you arrive at the hidden temple in the middle of the jungle…”) and keep the game on track.
This isn’t the first guide to running convention guides around. It’s probably not the first one posted this month. But it’s the first one I’ve written, so if you have any additional ideas of how to run a con game, I’d love to see them in the comments.