The Ancient And Esteemed Brotherhood Of Gamemasters Is Now In Session

Bang a gavel.

On Saturday, I am running two game sessions at SimCon– one session of Changeling: The Lost (Fear-Maker’s Promise), and one session of Hunter: The Vigil (Blood Drive). And, if I have time for pick-up games, I might throw in a little taste of Maschine Zeit.

Now, I’ve been running games since… well. Let’s just go with “around a decade and a half.” Not like I’m a stranger to tooling around the game table and playing a cold and heartless god — er, I mean, being a kind and beneficent storymonger. I like to think I don’t suck. I don’t, however, have huge bundles of experience when it comes to “running games for total strangers.” I think I ran my first con games at DexCon many moons ago, which is where I met one of the smartest and nicest dudes alive, Rob Donoghue. (I was and perhaps remain a huge idiot. I ran Changeling for him and some other total strangers, and it was a great game, probably the best con game I could’ve envisioned. But I had no idea who I was sitting with, and then he invited me to lunch, and suddenly I found myself with him, Fred Hicks, and a few others, and I suddenly realized I was hanging out with a gaming brain trust. What an asshole I am, I had no idea of the caliber and quality of people surrounding me.)

I’ve since run games elsewhere, and they’re always a mixed bag. The Hunter games I ran at GenCon were interesting if only for the variety of gamers who sat at the table — the first group was perhaps the best, willing as they were to band together and pretend to know one another. The other two sessions consisted largely of people acting at opposite interests, and doing their best to dick one another over. That remains doubly odd for the last group, which consisted of a table of dudes who were all friends before they sat down. Like, they came together. And this is how they game? By constantly trying to fuck each other up? Eeessh.

(Oh, for the record, those GenCon games happened to be when I first conceived and ran the Blood Drive adventure. It’s a shame, I guess that adventure never really caught on? I never heard of anybody actually purchasing it, I don’t think. I really wanted to subvert the normal Hunter plot — instead of “Kill The Monster!” it suddenly becomes “Protect The Monster!” Couple that with an adventure that’s basically one giant chase movie and it, to me, works in some good tension. Then again, see earlier notes re: I am both idiot and asshole, so who the hell knows?)

What’s the point of this post, you ask?

Hot damn, somebody’s impatient. Stop jumping around like you have to pee. I’m getting there.

And get your hands out of your pants. It’s rude to paw at yourself in polite company.

The point is, I’m running con games on Saturday and it’s been about a year or more since I’ve run any games at all. (Insert sad face here.)

Thus, I come to you. And beseech your advice.

I know a shit ton of you have run games as gamemasters, dungeon masters, storytellers. Further, many have run con games, to boot. Which means it’s time to cough up some advice. Give me — and the other readers — some tips on running games. Con games, but “regular” games, too. Whatchoo got? You are the terrible minds, after all, so purge your poison here for all to see.


  • My skills are needed!

    No, really, I run con games a lot. You’ve already mentioned one of the big pitfalls – con games include con gamers, and some con gamers come to games just wanting to fuck around, rather than actually play the game they signed up for (sometimes they show up drunk). There’s not really anything for that, other than reading your players and being ready to say, “Fuck it, sure, go hunting for elephants in the Bronx Zoo” if that’s how they want to play Bunnies and Burrows.

    But I think that the biggest issue in con gaming is pacing. You’ve only got 4 hours, generally, and that means probably 2 hours of real gaming, once all the fiddling about is out of the way. That means you need to smush your WHOLE PLOT into 2 hours, otherwise you get what I tend to get when I play con games: 2 hours of fucking around, 1.5 hours of investigation, 30 minutes of the final battle (note: NOT REQUIRED, and you also aren’t required to add orcs to make it “harder on the players”) and then the rest of the plot and the resolution hand-waved because you ran out of time and all the players need to go watch Pikachu boink Bun-Bun, or whatever the hell is happening in room 211.

    The resolution is important, because it helps people feel like they participated in a real story, rather than just a half-assed pickup game. And that might mean fudging a roll during the middle of the game, but that’s fine. As you once said, skip to the meaty bits.

    • “Skip to the meaty bits” is maybe the best thing to take away here, especially since (inexplicably) Simcon’s game sessions are… two hours, not four (?!). Not sure how that leaves much time for anything at all, but hey, I guess it just means I need to punch it into hyperdrive.

      That’s all good advice, though. Thanks, Matt. Your expertise is valued, and it will reflect in an annual bonus!*

      — c.

      * you will receive no actual annual bonus

  • I’ve given con-running advice so many times, I should run workshops on the subject. I’ve run several in the western cons (which are always smaller it seems… RIP ConWest, RIP). Anyway, I have distilled my wisdom and fartitude down to these Five Big Things.

    1 – Use premade characters. Do not waste an hour of a four-hour block creating characters. Include role-playing hints and some minor backstory, but let the players know that part is optional. Let people move some poitns/powers around if they really want, but try to avoid this.

    2 – Take Index Cards, motherfucker. Prep those sons-of-bitches up with visual aids for your players. Every major area gets an index card that describes the area (still describe it yourself also, but this card will stop you from having to repeat it). Also use them to hand out items (so no one has to book dive), any special super secret powers/clues a character is destined to get, whatever. Again, I can not stress this enough – Index Cards fucking ROCK for con games.

    3 – Leave the Screen – Don’t bring a DM/ST/Whatever screen. You’re area is going to have notes and shit, sure, but at a Con you don’t have the huge master plan going that you might for a more casual game, and there is no need to protect your Super Secrets. The point of this is it puts a barrier between you and your players. This may be fine amongst friends, but amongst strangers this can really become distracting and disconnect your game.

    4 – Play By The Spirit, Not the Letter – Do NOT drag your game down with bookdiving. Warn the players up front that you’ll be doing (sometimes) gross interpretations to keep momentum going. Also inform them that your Robot Brain is currently out of reach, whacking it to some slash fic between Six and Boomer. This means sometimes you may fudge rules that are Set In Stone. Then hit them with stones if they say anything about it.

    5 – One Scene/Hour – In my experience, Con games run in four hour blocks. Plan one scene/encounter per hour, and keep it flowing. Keep an eye on time and if you see it might end soon, stretch it out some.

    Hope those help Chuck. The most successful con-game I ever ran was using Gurps, and it was a parody game of Resident Evil and Parasite Eve using rednecks. As the game progressed, the characters started mutating. I’ll maybe make a blog post or something about it, but at one point I whacked an index card in front of each character that said “SUPRISE! You’ve been horribly mutated! Thanks to the evil zombie-witch, you’ve just gained the ability to . While this technically makes you a freak, you are a freak that can … so that has to count for something. Right?” The game was equal parts comedy/survival horror, and was a blast. I think I ran it twice more that year.

    In all things though, have fun with it. Con games are a blast, but the lack the intimacy you’ll find in casual groups. Go for more Michael Bay and less Scorcese – action is king.

    • Rick —

      All good stuff. I use pregens, and I don’t ever use screens, and because I’m using pre-made adventures I wrote, I shouldn’t have to go too deep into books or notes.

      Dying to hear more about the GURPS game.

      — c.

  • When running games in general, be patient. Let your players finish their thoughts and lay out what they have in mind. If they’ve latched onto an idea for an action that they think is really keen, don’t be too quick to bash it down with the rolled-up newspaper of your mighty GM label. Sometimes the dice will negate what they want to do anyway, and sometimes the other players will jump in to verbally smack them around.

    For con games, don’t over-prepare. I fell into this trap back at GameX. Originally i had a big multimedia intro for the game & its story and it just got way too complicated way too quickly. Having a structure for the adventure at hand is great, but the less actual [i]structure[/i] it has, the more flexible you will be for players with questions, ideas or way too much Bawls in their system. Not to mention that going without a great deal of structure helps give the impression that you’re shooting completely from the hip, and players dig that, at least in my experience.

    There’s two pennies for you, ready for a pair of unlucky eyelids.

    • Josh:

      Muy excellente. Patience is never my strong suit, but I think I’ll do okay there. Alternately, one thing I do want to do is keep everybody moving — games can swiftly devolve into an hour-long “strategy session” instead of “story session.” I mean, fun is fun, but we’ve only got two hours, too.

      Over-preparing, fair ’nuff. I shoot from the hip pretty regularly in games.

      — c.

  • Because it popped out the brackety things, let me clarify that after “you’ve gained the ability to” there was some wierd and funny power. I think the big fat army boy got osme osnic attack, but it sounded like a bullhorn rendition of the “Heart of Dixie”.

  • Sorry :P Amber woke up in the middle of the night a couple of nights back, and I was had a bottle warming in a cup of boiling water at my desk while I was trying to stop her from shattering glass. I forgot about it afterwards, and while asleep, the cat knocked it over on my hundred-dollar keyboard, completely shorting out all the electronics in it and completely FUBARing it. So, not I am back to my old POS keyboard (which was used so long, half the letters are gone from the keys) and my hands aren’t used to this thing again yet.

    Insult to injury huh? Not only is my G-15 slagged, now I typo more than ever… and if I ever stop and visually look for a key, half the time I can’t find it.

  • I’d like to see someone (anyone!) give advice on finding and/or running games in an online venue. Cons are infrequent and, as we get older and the world thinks we deserve more responsibility (mwahahaha), it’s harder to make time for meatspace games. Much less find folks that want to play in meatspace.

  • Other people are giving awesome advice. I’d just add: Keep an eye on the time and have a sense of where you want to be at the “two hours to go” mark, the “one hour to go” mark, and the “half an hour to go” mark. Come prepared with ideas to short-circuit to where you want to be if you’re not close.

    Also, puns.

  • All great stuff here. Most of any points I would have touched on have already been highlighted.

    Rick’s point on being over-prepared is a great one. I’m very much an “on-the-fly” DM. I love to make shit up according to the personalities of the players I’m stuck with. It has to be fun for those particular people. Cookie cutter sessions aren’t my bag. Patience is definitely a must, but you can’t let the gamers start to control the session. Think of yourself as a mediator…you listen to all sides but you have to know when to quiet everyone down and move along.

    I haven’t done any “DM”ing in about 6 years so I may not be able to give the greatest advice here, and I’ve never done it at a Con. I have run random events for complete strangers, though.

    I don’t know much about the game you’re playing, but when I had a hard time limit, I usually tailored my games to have a time limit, too. Something like “You only have 2 hours before the sun sets and you’re trapped here overnight with a giant mutated, coked up clone of Robin Williams…and people…no one wants to be stuck in a room with a coked up Robin Williams.” This ensured that the game kept moving and that people didn’t get bogged down with themselves too much.

    Oh…just make sure, if you have any personal ground rules, that they’re clearly written down and handed to the gamers so that there is no question if something happens. For the love of the Earthmother, don’t forgt to have fun! If you aren’t having fun…chances are the gamers aren’t having fun.

    • Man, good stuff, everybody. Keep it coming, if you’re so inclined.

      Also: I’m now contemplating switching it up and running Bad Night At Blackmoon Farm instead of Blood Drive for the Hunter game. Bad Night is an adventure that lets the players set their own pace through the event — Blood Drive is more dependent upon a set pace, and the players setting the clock might be better in terms of a short con game session.

      Tell you the truth, I’d love to know if anybody here has ever run either Fear-Maker’s or any of the Hunter SASes.

      — c.

  • It was a lot of fun – I was playing a biker jackass inspired by Francis from Left4Dead trying to bring a couple of other idiots in line to form a proper cell. The ending was incredibly anti-climactic, but everything else about it was fun. Maggie ran it really well.

  • Also also:

    Deal with both ends of the extreme: Have a plan in place in case the players figure out your plot within five minutes. (Once, i had a game that involved a long drawn out hunt for an antagonist, that was put paid by intelligent player action. So i made sure the antagonist was across town and that the players needed to make it across lexington kentucky on a february evening when the UK home game let out. It was better than a natural disaster.)

    Also: Expect that there will be players who will be suffering from caffeine deprivation, sleep deprivation, Blue balls, Hangover, and DUMB. Have something in place to help them along. Each time they need that help, make the final fight harder.

    Additionally, as a means to kick off the game, you might slot the first hour of actual play as “James Bond Opening Sequence Time” and make it actually hard for the players to get killed, allow, even encourage the idea of doing things that the rules don’t cover in order to deal with the immediate problem.

    Ideally this sequence involves the following:
    1) a mysterious box
    2) “Keep it safe from….agh….”
    3) *blamblamblam! “Stop! Police!”
    4) tires squealing as the players bob and weave through tunisian traffic
    5) Defusing something explodey, preferably nuclear explodey.
    6) “What are you lazy-asses laying around for? Dust off in 5!”

  • Do not go overboard on the NPC’s.

    This is, perhaps, the biggest problem I’ve encountered in games. A game master will get very excited about the world they are creating, and they make a giant population to fill out that world. That can be nice, to have a lot of characters in reserve, but the NPC’s should never be the focus of the game.

    When the game master ends up having a conversation with himself between two NPC’s – that is a sign of Fail. Yes, that’s capital letter Fail.

    • Word, JR. The SASes in question that I might run are relatively NPC-light.

      …well, okay, Fear-Maker’s Promise isn’t, but most of those NPCs are fairly peripheral and are there only for players to interact with, should they choose.

      — c.

  • To add to J.R.’s sentiment, it’s easy to avoid extra NPCs if you’re doing a straight dungeon crawl or beat-‘em-up for your demo. Mysteries can be a bit trickier, but having the players deal with one NPC at a time is probably best.

    You could almost set it up BioWare style, with NPCs by themselves in different parts of the room waiting for the PCs to talk to them and not interacting with each other. Might seem a bit stiff on the outset, but it should work well in the environment of a quick & dirty demo.

    And conventions are all about doing things quick & dirty.

  • It was a blast and a half right up to the last scene. I ran it as an introductory game for a cell of 3 hunters, of which two players were new to roleplaying and completely 100% new to the Storyteller system. I tend to play fast and loose with the rule system, tossing out called-for dice rolls when I feel cinematics would work better and fudging things here and there to smooth out what I feel would be unnecessary rough patches within the course of the game. Some STs are hardasses; I’m incredibly forgiving and apt to permit things a lot of others wouldn’t.

    Dropping the monsters into the game at tense moments lent a lot of good roleplaying, and so did passing out the letter props (specifically aimed at creating tension and division within the cell). Since it was a personal game between friends that kept an eye towards joining compacts or conspiracies in the future, I took the opportunities presented to add personal touches — one of the cops that shows up, for instance, was one of the hunter’s ex-girlfriends, and also a member of AKD tasked with possibly recruiting the occultist of the cell. Personal touches aren’t really something you need to worry about for a con game, though. You’re not likely to know who you’re runinng for, and you’re not likely to see them again in any case.

    It had a lot of really amusing moments too, including one when the incredibly paranoid occultist (who took his poison pen letter to heart) tried to throw a Molotov cocktail at the first slasher — and botched spectacularly, setting his back and ass on fire.

    The ending scene was incredibly anticlimactic and frustrating, for several reasons. While I admit that I hadn’t read with as much detail as the rest of the book the last scene (Lay Down Your Guns) — I chose to focus instead on the penultimate one, with the Calculator, thinking that’s as far as I’d get that night — the way it was presented both in the book and the options the players left me with as they made choices for their characters kinda left a smidge of a sour note on the entire affair. I’ve never been comfortable with killing off PCs. NPCs I’ll slaughter by the dozen. But PCs I’ll tend to fudge in favor of, especially if said PCs belong to brand shiny new players.

    As a cell, the hunters had no Endowments to deal with the End Boss, which didn’t help. As a new cell, they had no Tactics (since they hadn’t enough txp with which to buy them), which didn’t help anything either. They didn’t have some of the specialized skills (ie: Demolitions) that would have made things easier. Had I been more prepared, I probably could have smoothed things out a bit better. (But the players all agreed that the lack of choices within the scene as written didn’t make things easier either.)

    Again, not something you’re really going to have a problem with, since you’re the author and all.

    Anticipate that your players are going to throw you some loopholes, and accept that you won’t be able to anticipate everything they’ll come up with. While this is a staple of tabletopping, it’s moreso for a con (I would think), since home-based RP is something you do with people you know — people you can read and anticipate exactly because you know them — and con gaming is more or less with total strangers.

  • Oh, and I followed up MURDER WILL OUT with SPEARFINGER, which ran a whole lot smoother, but ended up destroying the cell due to some character choices made within the context of the game that couldn’t be resolved.

    I haven’t run Hunter since, and I miss doing so. It’s my favorite line of the 2.0 series, hands down.

    • Well, you’re Hunter’s favorite player, so it all works out.

      Hunter is, of course, disappointed that you never ran Bad Night at Blackmoon Farm or Blood Drive, but Hunter’s an egotistical developer — er, I mean, an egotistical game. ;)

      — c.

  • Now, on the subject of rules, I’ll actually offer something of a dissenting opinion. I use con games, often, as a way to decide whether to buy a game, and if the GM doesn’t know the rules and is obviously handwaving a lot of them because s/he doesn’t, that irritates me.

    It only irritates me because it’s not like there’s A Game and you have to run It. There are lots of games out there that do (or can do) exactly what you need, and if you’re running, say, NWoD, it behooves to know, say, what happens if you spend a Willpower point, or what “one success” means versus “two successes” (answer: usually NOTHING, and I wish GMs could get that through their heads, but I digress).

    Now, all of that said, I totally agree that bookdiving during a game kills your momentum. I recommend having a laptop or something handy to rules-check quickly, if you need to, but moveover, I recommend boning (huh-huh) up on the rules before you run the game. Playtesting is also handy for that, and lets you run your game under controlled conditions, as it were.

    • @Matt:

      Here’s hoping that by now I know the rules of the Storytelling System. :P

      But you’re right; I do appreciate the rules of the road being clear, concise, and from-the-book.

      — c.

  • A lot of specific advice I’dve given has already been provided, so I’d just stress a few more general points:

    Run A Game Where Their Decisions Matter
    This seems like a weird thing to say, but most of the worst con games I’ve ever played were ones where the GM had clearly decided, well in advance of meeting us or possibly even attending, that they knew how the game was going to turn out. (Usually this is because they had a Big Surprise Twist planned for the end, though this rarely surprised anyone as it was often evident from five minutes in what the shocking revelation was going to be in the end.) This isn’t to say you can’t reign players in if they’re going totally off the wall or making illogical, anti-character choices, but at the same time, never write the lead on the way to the ballpark. We all know players will occasionally “break” adventures with insane – but plausible! – plans we never thought of, so if that happens, go for it.

    Let the Players Riff
    In professor land they call these “teachable moments” – unexpected instances where the students take a hold of a topic and get really into discussing it, despite the fact that it’s off topic for the days’ lecture. Generally speaking, it’s best to run with it, because if you don’t you’re essentially punishing their enthusiasm, and that will shut them down hardcore in the future. While you don’t want to waste three of your four hours listening to the hunters talk about their old girlfriends or whatever, if they’re having fun with a subject, let it ride for a few minutes – when it looks like it’s running out of steam, time to move on. One of the things I hate most about bad con games is when we players are getting into a fun roleplaying groove, only to have the GM harrumph, check their watch and constantly butt in about “getting back to the adventure.”

    Be A Boy Scout on PCP
    This is just generally agreeing with what’s been said before about (over)preparing for a con game. Handouts, pregens, pre-drawn maps, NPC stand-up cards (I like using random photos to give them faces), you name it – not only does this save you precious time in your con slot so you don’t have to make characters, draw maps, repeat descriptions, whatever, it also impresses players who often as not are expected some hastily thrown together module being told more or less off the cuff. That alone can go a long, long way.

    Respect the Limits of the Medium
    Not to get all writer-y, and since you mentioned running SAS stories it’s likely a moot point anyway, but one of the best things I’ve found as a player/GM at con games are those that respect what can be accomplished in a four hour time slot. This isn’t to say you can’t be a little ambitious, especially if you follow the cranked up Boy Scout rule, but I’ve seen a lot of otherwise good, well-intentioned con games fall apart because the GM was trying to cram the entire Illiad into less time than it takes to watch the director’s cut of Return of the King. (I think this usually happens because they have a great idea for a long-term chronicle but never found a group to run it with, so they try to run it at a con all at once instead.) Insanely rushed at best, and downright terrible at worst.

    That’s my $.02. Remind me next time you’re at DexCon or Dreamation, and I’ll sit down at a table with you and put my dee twenties where my mouth is. :-)

  • Stand up. Sit everyone else down. You’re the emcee and you need their attention. You need to reconcile the disparities in the play group to make sure that the lone visitor doesn’t get overwhelmed by those three friends who showed up together. Be generous with the mic, but make it clear that the mic moves through you. This can seem tyrannical if you don’t play it right, so play it right: you’re there to make sure that all the important stuff gets mic’d.

    Good structure for a convention game, in my experience, defines the play space and then lets the players move around almost freely within it. Then it lures them in a direction with cookies so that their freedom is constrained by their choices — they could go anywhere, but they hopefully choose to go after the villain. That said, play space can be anything: a motel room, a lighthouse, Nashville or Tennessee, or a whole planet. You are well within your right to declare play space “in bounds” for a convention game, though it’s more elegant to do so in game terms. Outside the motel room are space-aliens who eat any who leave, or, anyone who flies out of Nashville flies right out of the story.

    Momentum is important. Freedom, in a convention game, is less important. It’s vital to gameplay, but convention games are about sending them away from the table feeling electric. Protect the fun. If a single scene with a ton of freedom is what you have time for, and it’s fun, then media res the fuck out of it. Protect the fun. Don’t be afraid to tell; I don’t care what the storytelling rule is—sometimes you need to communicate with the actors, not the audience, and it’s more important to be clear than to be an artist. Protect the fun.

    What are the cardinal sins of storytelling? Boredom and confusion. Protect the fun.

  • Hmm… I’ll have to get back to you with wisdom this afternoon. Need to get started on drawing a comic. I also desperately need coffee.

  • Decade and a half, huh? Well, sir, I have been running games since I was 11 years old. And that’s almost 28 years! And you know what? I don’t think it really amounts to a hill of beans if you don’t follow all of the EXTREMELY USEFUL advice given above.

    Also, throw in some ninjas or pirates or zombies. The kids these days love that stuff.

    • I’m actually being sponsored by Speed Stick. It’s a new commercial campaign to fight GAMER FUNK.

      Actually, in my limited con experience, Gamer Funk has been blessedly minimal.

      — c.

  • The best advice I’ve ever heard on running con games is “Brontosaurus.”

    Seriously. When planning your session, you want to think “Brontosaurus.”

    A Brontosaurus is very very thin at one end, much much thicker in the middle, and very thing again at the other end.

    That means: railroad >> sandbox >> railroad

    Start the game off with something completely obvious that needs to be done RIGHT NOW.

    “You’re on a sinking ship and your pants are on fire, and flying monkeys are attacking. Roll for initiative.”

    THAT’S how you start a con game. Don’t ask your players to figure something out at first — give them an immediate threat they have to deal with. That gives newcomers a chance to test-drive the combat system and get comfortable with their character sheets, and a chance to shine. And you as the DM don’t have to sit there waiting for folks to make plans.

    Once that opening scene is out of the way, I generally have three to four “middle” scenes in mind — maybe another combat, a couple of cool interaction/investigation scenes, but I try not to have any “necessary” scenes. Whatever the players decide to do in the wake of the opening, I ought to be able to get the necessary clues/plot machinations into place. Double up on clues everywhere to make sure they find the critical info.

    But for the ending, I go back to railroad. The final fight scene needs epic, and you can almost always manipulate things to bring it into play. I try not to plan for complicated reversals or anything like that — but I want to make sure the bad guy is given the weight he or she deserves.

    Generally speaking, I stay away from complex plots. If my adventure requires that the players discover very specific info at very specific times, I rethink things. Instead I focus on coming up with six or seven really cool scenes, and hope to be able to work four or five of them into the session.

    But seriously. Brontosaurus. Your players will thank you.

    (Brontosaurs concept via Kevin Kulp (I think))

  • I wholeheartedly endorse and support Corey’s “Brontosaurus” advice. Having both practiced this in games I’ve run and experienced it, it’s a surefire way to pull off a successful con game. Corey’s metaphor (or Kevin’s?) is much better than the way I’ve always thought about it: start a fire, give the players what they need to put it out, and then start another fire. Ignite, rinse, and repeat.

  • Pretty good pieces of advice so far.

    Funny thing is, when I used to be a real GM, I would always be at my best (not that I am at all good…) while storytelling for complete strangers at cons. Go figure.

    Well, there’s one piece of advice that I always tried to follow when planning and/or running a 2-hour to 4-hour one-shot game session: Start with a BANG!, that is to say, in medias res. One of my favorite Bangs was a big cliche but it worked nicely with absolute beginners: “You open your eyes to utter darkness and find yourself tied up to a cold stone slab. There is a swish-swash in the air, and, when your eyes adjust do the dark, you notice a glint of metal, a flicker of movement, just above your chest. You realize it’s a pendulum, and it is going to slice you down neatly if you don’t do something. Quickly. So, what’s gonna be?”.

    I would also make use of pre-gens and a 30- to 40-minute per scene formula. Since I started the story in medias res, things would go fast towards climax and resolution.

    And now I’m really longing for those good old days… Damn, I have to resume my D&D campaign.


  • I’ve been running games since the early 80’s and I’ve run Bad Night At Black Moon Farm (not at a con though, sorry). I don’t consider myself a great GM, but I think I get by okay. The advice above is more than I could hope to give. I agree that it often seems players often come to a table just to dick around. A lot of my more recent games depend on my control over atmosphere and my ability to set the tone at the table. Black Moon went extremely well BTW. As is usual for me, I changed things up a bit, but didn’t do much to this one (I emailed you once when I was about to run Dust to Dust from Ghost Stories – changed the setting and all necessary elements to a West Virginia coal mining ghost town I called Hamlet, in WV’s New River Gorge area – unfortunately that game ended there because you convinced me unintentionally to switch over to “new” Hunter, where I was running it in a homebrew/old Hunter game). I also ran the first half of Spearfinger, but my game currently is on hiatus while I deal with some things life has thrown at me.

    I think the only pertinent advice I have is that in a large setting like a con, I think you have to scale everything correspondingly. A hook that might get a group of friends who are used to playing together every week on track and focused, may not be nearly as effective with the typical con group. So go over the top a little bit. Exaggerate some story elements, increase the stakes (figuratively), and find something that will bring everybody in right off the top.

    Just my $0.02.

  • In my above post, you can’t hear me coughing to cover up the part where I say “since the early 80’s.” Please insert said coughing in your head and say that sentence under your breath, de-emphasizing it. I’m an old fart.

  • Rick Carrol wrote:

    “Oh, one last piece that anyone who has been to a con should know:

    Put on deodorant. Politely recommend other convention goers do so as well.”

    So, it’s not an urban legend? I’ve read allusions to this.. er… situation in John Kovalic’s Dork Tower strips, and there’s also a funny story involving Steve Jackson at his first gaming convention here in São Paulo, Brazil. Legend goes that he was amazed to find that convention goers didn’t stink of rancid sweat, and that they were nice to him.

  • Pre-generated characters are a must, especially in White Wolf games! Don’t take that as a knock on White Wolf because it is actually a compliment. WOD is my favorite gaming system, but character generation is extremely rich and detailed, and would take too long in a convention setting.

    Go for the “easy to role-play’ virtues and vices. Sloth, Lust, Wrath, Pride – those are easily accesible vices for inexperience role players (which is what you might have at your table), and can be a great deal of fun for the experienced and the inexperienced alike. Envy is a little tougher in a one-shot adventure. Similarly Faith, Justice, and Hope are simple to RP – Fortitude not as easy for a one-shot.

    In addition to the standard character sheet you really want to have a sheet that details the character’s merits and powers (contracts, tokens, etc). Also, a few “standard” dice pools calculated at the top of the detail sheet will speed things up temendously. For example “Perception = Wits + Composure = 4 dice” . Not only will it help speed up the rolls they will need to make over and over again, but it will also help the players (newbies especially) get a handle on how the rolls are calculated.

    Lastly, but most certainly not leastly, if you”d like to GM a full 4 hour session you should consider picking up a slot at “RetCon: Long Island’s Gaming Convention” this August, especially if you happen to be in the New York area.


    P.S.: “Brontosaurus”… great advice!

  • In Media Res? Right? You know all about that. Not a bar fight per say, but starting with conflict always gets attention at the table.

    If the con players want to fight among themselves, let them. That’s fun to.

    You’re running a pre written game, so the technique I used t my last con game won’t really help, but either way, index cards are completely the way to go.

  • 1. Predict losing half an hour at the beginning and end of each session, and pace according to that schedule.

    2. Keep it moving. If it gets slow, make something happen (even if it’s a guy with a gun).

    3. Make sure you have plenty of time for the big finale.

    4. Try to read your players for cues, and do what they think is cool. (This is the hardest for me, but I’ve generally gotten the most success from it.)

    5. Try to be upfront about what the game could contain (shit like “This game may contain nudity, violence, and a lot of goose feces. Let me know if this stuff bothers you.”)

    6. If it’s not working, be willing to talk to the people at the table and toss everything aside to give them a good time.

    Really, most of the advice for running a con game revolves around the idea of customers paying for a ticket to see a comedian or a play — they’ve spent their time and/or money to be entertained, so I should damn well entertain them.

  • On smelly gamers, it’s not a legend. Quick story:

    I was running Cartoon Action Hour demos back in the day. One player game up and REEKED. I thought it might have been just me, but other players were visibly wincing. So I handed him his ticket back and told him that he’d have to leave. He (of course) got loud and obnoxious, and I pointed out that the con policy on offensive behavior was quite clear. He threatened to boycott buying our games. I nodded and said that I was comfortable with losing his sale.

    Everyone else at the table bought a copy of the game, right then.

  • When making pre-gen characters for a con game, go a couple of steps beyond the stats. In fact,t he best con games I run are those that don’t use stats.

    In addition to stat sheets, give players a sheet that has a brief description of their character and what that character wants as it relates to the up-coming game. Also on the sheet, list the other characters and how this character relates to them.

    So you might have:
    Prince Darling’s [character description]
    You’re excited about the upcoming meeting of nobles because you were worried sick about having to assume the throne after your uncle died. *Anyone* would make a better king than you, and now there’ll be a way to decide who that should be!

    Advisor Martin [character relation]
    Your uncle’s chief advisor and a really smart cookie, it was his idea of getting this competition together! You try to follow his advice whenever you can, but sometimes you get confused about what he’s talking about.

    Lady Buttercup [character relation]
    The love of your life! She’s ever so wonderful and, once this is all sorted out, you can’t wait to run off to the country where the two of you can live simply, raising sheep and children for the rest of your lives together.

    (etc. for the rest of the characters)

    Do this well and you give each player a reason to talk to at least one other player. You also give them a guide for how to react when approached by another.

    Now, you’ll get some assholes who will play the characters you specifically described as life-long friends as bitter enemies, but you at least have a leg up on your random con-game player who wants to come in and experience something new and a way of getting people pointed in the direction of your story.

  • Yeah, smelly gamers is absolutely not an urban legend. I am a very, very large man and I know I can get a bit misty from time to time, so for cons (if my room was in the hotel/space/whatever) or nearby I’d shower usually twice a day – once at the start and once before midnight. You know how geeks get after hours. Boom chikka wow wow.



    Anyway, one year at Noxicon there was a group of SCA-dians that came in (and don’t get me wrong, I am a SCA-dian myself, I love the Society) that camped out in the nearby park for the weekend during the convention. By Sunday morning, these people smelled like what you’d expect to find in Chuck’s beard after a full night of binge drinking in Eastern Europe with a touchy-feely donkey as a booze buddy. It was so bad, the guy running a MERP game called it when they came in, and we decided (amongt ourselves) that they won the Assassin game – period. Eventually, the con organizers (two really sweet Evergreen hippy chicks) offered them a deal – patchouli or the door.

    I just want to say, that sometimes the overbearing scent of patchouli is worse. In short – don’t be these people! As nice as they were, and as nice as many other gamer-geeks can be, effing bathe! If I can cover up my rather brutal odor, so can you!

  • Whenever I’m running a short one-shot, I saddle up and ride the Brontosaurus.

    The term “kickstart” should not be overlooked. If the players are in need of character background info, give them a small packet to skim before explaining the basic mechanics of the game.

    When you’re ready to begin though, give them an explosive opening and feel free to use cinematic rules. This sort of non-strategic exercise in problem solving will give the group something to bond over while they’re driving the story for the next hour or two.

  • Glad everyone found the Brontosaurus metaphor useful!

    @Peter: good call on providing pre-defined relationships. I do that myself, although I don’t sweat trying to have a description for each other character in the group. I give each character some quick notes on a few other characters (“You and Ritsuko are buds, you’re afraid of Eri, and Millicent’s a stuck-up cow”) just to give the players something to run with if they like — though I never make anything in the adventure depend on those, for just the reason you mention.

    I always think of the character sheet’s job as providing a springboard for players’ inspiration — give them enough details to play with, but not so many that you stifle them.

  • Re: Character relationships.

    Yes, very yes. What I did was to include a bit on the sheet that says stuff like, ‘you are in love with one of the other characters, (your choice.)” and then offer a bonus to one roll when it comes up at the table. Roleplaying incentive and roll playing incentive. Fun stuff.

  • Lots of good stuff here.

    Definitely bathe. Go light (or no) perfume/cologne. Deodorant yes, but over powering scents can be as bad (if not worse for those of us allergic to them) than really bad B.O.

    Jess Hartley has a wonderful series of articles related to this topic. If you haven’t read them, definitely worth a look: (Article: In Which We Offer Part One: The Basics)

    Pre-gens: I have 8 per set that cover a wide range of what players like, each with a specific niche (or two). (The bank roller, the melee specialist, the brawler, the gun-nut, the thief, the healer, the occult specialist, the face, the lie detector, the lair, the driver, the fixer, and the computer specialist – if you’re curious). Each comes in a nice folder with paper protectors, and the powers/rituals/merits are printed out straight from the book and added to the package.

    (This year for GenCon, I want to put in an introduction sheet with an immediate plot hook, and an extra sheet devoted just to willpower/vitae/plasm, health, etc so they don’t have to mark up the pre-gens or the folders.)

    Index cards: I buy stock in them (pun intended).

    Handouts: Surprisingly, this went over well. One of the stories I run involves a fair and fair committee (based on my home town county fair). I printed up the rl pdf for the fair giving the map to the fair grounds, and photos of the committee members. It ran as a who done it, and they loved basing their decisions on who to investigate next on the way the people looked in the photo. “They have a member in charge of goats?! Oh, we need to investigate that one first.”

    Also, if you use the media (newspapers, radio, etc) for plot hooks or news, write up the articles/broadcasts to distribute at the game session. Double points if they have hidden reveals that the players can spot on their own if they take the time to look at your handouts.

    Now, on the flip side… sometimes no matter what you do, the session is a failure (time of day, group chemistry, mistakes, you haven’t eaten yet, you forget a key point in the story), and sometimes for no discernible reason.

    Also, sometimes you have that one player that hates everything you do. It doesn’t matter that the rest of the table has laughed hard and had a ton of fun the rest of the session (gimp suits for the win), asked to keep playing even after the time slot is over, and still talk about it a year later.

    Just walk it off. These things happen. You can’t be perfect all the time. Well, maybe you can be, you’re the Chuckinator. Me, I’m just a minion aspiring to greatness.

    • I wouldn’t expect any greatness from me — just well-honed mediocrity, spit-shined to a blinding gleam.

      I do shower, though. That remains a piece of advice I’ve already gotten in my “cabinet of tricks!” Shower! Deodorant! Clean shirts! Those who game with me, dangit, they can count on that much, at least.

      — c.

  • First, you must determine YOUR goals for the adventure. Running an adventure specifically designed to introduce players to a new system is very different from running a “competitive” scenario; both of these differ significantly from running a mod with a great story or a killer finale battle. Only in knowing exactly what you want to accomplish will you find success.

    Second, all of your planning and prep should enhance your goal. if you are introducing a new system, make sure you have good rules summaries / cheat sheets to hand out to folks and spend a bit of time running through the basics. Should you be running a competitive scenario, make sure you understand the scoring and timing rules and that the players are aware of everything they should know up front. Have a great story? Figure out best how to tell it. Make some GM cheat sheets for the major NPCs with descriptions, voices / accents, and whatever else you will want or need. Your adventure have a tremendous climactic fight? Then make sure you allow enough time for that final encounter. Foreshadow the hell out of whatever you can to build the tension and excitement for that showdown.

    Third, find as many ways to inject some descriptive RP into the session. Role playing tends to be the first victim of 4-hour con slots and that does NOT need to be the case. Make your attacks descriptive enough to evoke a simple image and expect the same from your players. If they very statically tell you their attack results, quickly ask them for the nature of the attack and give it a description. Make sure when players give you their own description you play that up a bit so folks get the hint.

    Fourth, finally, and most important. Do whatever you need to do to ensure that you and your players have fun. If everyone has a great time, you done good.

  • I would also say threaten boot people the the first time they even start to quote Holy Grail, but that is something that apparently will never end.

    And don’t get me wrong – I fucking love that movie. But really, twenty years later… it’s getting fucking old.

  • Yeah, I’m a day late and, like, the 63rd comment, but HEED ME.

    Best advice I have for you is keep doin’ what you do, even if you haven’t done it for a year. Your games were grand.

    Oh, and maybe be a little more laid back in light of the extremely short play period. That’s advice for you as a person and you as an ST. Chill and enjoy it. It’s your first chance to game in a year.


  • Well, you’ve made me feel old, so congratulations on that. (“A decade and a half, that’s about as long as I… no, wait… he’s a decade short. Crap. Crap! He’s almost a decade and a half short!”)

    I think you’ve probably got more advice than you can use here, but that’s not gonna stop me.

    It’s already been said, but doesn’t suffer too much from repetition: A convention game isn’t the whole combo meal. It’s short story writing for a crowd that usually writes shelf-murdering decalogies made up of 600-page novels. You’re running a demo, a teaser, a trailer.

    On the upside, you don’t have to feel bad about spoilers.

    Something we as “nerds” often have trouble with: At a con, personal presentation counts for so freakin’ much. I can’t tell you how much of a bummer it is to sit down and have someone try to manage my expectations. A GM that talks himself/herself down at a con is begging to fail. A GM that brags is no better. A polite greeting and a brief expression of happy anticipation? Solid gold.

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