Useful Tips for Convention Gamemasters

Running an RPG at a convention is a lot of fun. You get to represent your favorite RPG and act as its ambassador. Running games at conventions are different from running games for your homegroup. There are more hurdles to overcome when your setting is not familiar. I was reminded of this while attending MACE in Charlotte, NC this year. Below I’ve outlined some tips to aid you in making your convention game a success.

  1. Dealing with the noise
    Conventions are noisy. Roleplaying games are usually set up in large halls that accommodate multiple tables. You might get lucky and find yourself sharing a room with one or two other tables, but not likely. Even better if you’ve bribed the facilitators of the con, you might even get a private room all to yourself. Though most of us will find ourselves in a large hall where you will be competing with other tables and echoing voices. The best way to mitigate the noise is to look around the room for open tables that are farther away from everyone else. A lot of times conventions will leave open tables for pick-up games. Once everyone has arrived at the assigned table, suggest moving the group to one of these outlying tables. If your table is to close to another active table, pick it up and move it. A little distance can go a long way.
  2. Positioning yourself at the table
    I find most gamemasters seat themselves with their backs to the wall or corner of the room, though this might seem like the perfect spot it’s not always the case. When choosing a spot at the table, take note where neighboring gamemasters position themselves at their tables. The best place to sit is with your back to them. With your back to them, your voice will not compete with theirs. This method works best when flanked on one side. Facing a wall or corner is also a good option; it allows your voice to bounce off these surfaces and back to your players as opposed to continuing into the hall into other people’s games.
  3. Projecting your voice
    When competing with excessive noise from competing tables, projecting your voice is crucial. The easiest way to combat this is to stand up when speaking. Standing frees you of any obstructions like a gamemaster’s screen which can block sound. Sitting down is fine as long as you are aware of the objects in front of you that might block your voice. If you have a prepared script or boxed text to read, make sure your head is not down facing the table or that your voice is not obstructed by the paper your holding. Be mindful of who you’re speaking too. Do not favor one side of the table. Move from side to side as you speak so everyone hears what you are saying.
  4. Be sensitive to the subject matter in your game
    You don’t know who is going to sit at your table. It’s part of the fun of running games at a convention. Do your best in your game’s description at sign up to describe the adventure you are going to run without spoiling it. If your game covers a subject that may cause issues, think about changing it. Keep the edgy stuff for people you know. The last thing you want to do is give someone a bad experience. In situations where the story develops between the players and GM, have a brief discussion beforehand and work out the content. Be flexible and ready to work around them.
  5. Getting the most out of the time slot
    When running a game at a convention fill your scheduled timeslot to the fullest. Players sitting at your table have specially allocated their time to participate in the event and expect the session to fill the timeslot. Whether you’re running a published adventure or one of your own creation make sure it will last the entire session. There is nothing worse than ending a four-hour session in an hour or two.
  6. Know your stuff
    As an ambassador of an RPG, you should have a working knowledge of the rules and the adventure you are running. Test play your scheduled adventure before you run it at a convention. Run it as many times as it takes until you are comfortable running it without having to look at your notes or the rulebook. The best convention games are ones that don’t get interrupted by having to look something up.
  7. Planned breaks
    Gaming is a sedimentary activity. We sit for way too long. When planning your adventure make sure you plan for breaks to allow your players to stretch their legs, take bathroom breaks, run to the dealer’s room, or get a bite to eat. Good places to break can come after combat or if you wish to create suspense do it before something big and ominous is about to strike. Use breaks to look over notes or special rules that apply to the next planned block of action.
  8. Conveying the rules
    Not everyone who sits down at your table is going to have intimate knowledge of the game. It might be their first time playing a roleplaying game. The best way to prepare incoming players is to produce a quick start rule book or a quick reference sheet for them. GMs will often go over the basic rules of a game at the start of a session but having a little quick reminder card in front of each player will speed up gameplay and may mitigate questions about the mechanics.
  9. Bribing your players
    The game should be enough to entice players to your table, but that doesn’t mean you can’t grease the wheel a little. Offer snacks or takeaway prizes at your table. Everyone loves to take away a little memento of their experience. It could be a candy bar, roleplaying accessory, the adventure you just played, a recipe for the delicious homemade item you consumed, or your character sheet. Souvenirs are a great reminder of the time spent in good company. Do it too well and you’ll begin to question are they here for the game or the giveaway.
  10. Have a backup plan
    Conventions are chaotic. Be prepared to improvise. Not knowing who is sitting at your table causes the issue of not being able to anticipate players’ reactions to the events in the adventure. There will be a time when you’ll have to adjust your adventure on the fly to keep up with your players’ actions. It’s next to impossible to anticipate where they might take it. Do your best to make it look like it was planned all along. The players don’t know things went awry. Put on your best poker face and bluff your way out of it. Running your planned adventure more than once before a con helps deal with these types of issues.

These are just a few things aspiring gamemasters can do to make their games the best they can be at conventions. These are not the end-all, written in stone, rules but suggestions for making your game a successful one. For more advice on running games at conventions see our other article 13 Tips For Running A Successful Convention Game. The tips presented here and in our sister article may also be applied to games run at a gaming store. A lot of the hazards at conventions are also found when running at your local gaming store. If you have any additional advice for running convention games please leave a comment for our other readers to enjoy.

~Stephen Pennisi

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Great advice Stephen! Several of these I hadn’t known, but they make perfect sense.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Stelios V. Perdios says:

    Yes. Gaming is a sedimentary activity as gamers become rock-like over the course of a game if they don’t move or get food…

    Liked by 1 person

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