This series is an extremely subjective report about gaming conventions. Despite the temptation to be second person dictatorial (“You must, you should, you shall”), I’m going to keep this first person apologetic (“I did, I think, I was”), because I really can’t tell you what your convention time will or should be. In part 3, I consider running games at conventions.
I’ve never been particularly confident running games, and as zero hour approaches, I turn into a total shuddery basketcase – skipping meals, missing sleep, and forgoing personal hygiene. Conventions probably appear to be the worst place for a Nervous Nelly or Anxious Andy like me, but I’ve found them to be an excellent fit, mostly because the players have quite literally invested in having a good time. They want this four to six hour block to be fun, and that translates into a fair amount of forgiveness at the gaming table.
I’ve never signed on to run a convention game with the expectation of tit-for-tat, regardless of how much I like… um… remuneration. Don’t misunderstand, there’s nothing wrong with a free pass for a day of GMing, but it doesn’t work for me, since I get all caught up thinking I have to justify my game, since I’m getting something out of this session. I’m better off just running for the love of the game, and if someone constructively comments that my game was completely awful, I can say with a clear conscience, “Well, I didn’t get anything for it,” and then punch him in the face.
Bring the Bling
Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m completely off the hook. Just as the players bring excitement and engagement, I have to push myself to bring the best game I can, a real brain-blaster that’ll leave the players thrilled and awed and wanting more. This is no time for coasting. I should devote myself to running out the best game these players have ever seen, with all the crazy fancy doodads and geegaws that I’ve long since given up on in my home game, since, “They just take me for granted.”
I’m talking about pictures and presents, tea-stained letters with charred edges and fully featured battle maps with 3D elements (whatever you can get through airport security), jewelry and music and costumes and Broadway actors to voice all the NPCs. I need to go completely over-the-top to guarantee a fine time had by all, and players who walk away thinking about the scenes instead of the dice.
Given the player investment, I have found this to be a perfect time to roll out new features of my games. For example, I was able to practice and commit to the Rule of Yes, as I was faced with mostly strangers, which meant there were no lasting consequences to giving every bit of latitude to the fun-for-fun’s-sake players. It can’t impact my Saturday night game, it won’t set any uncomfortable precedents, it won’t open the power-gamer Pandora’s Box. It’ll just be me saying Yes as often as I can, and maybe start to learn how to incorporate it into my home games too.
Also, I tried rolling in the open for the first time, and it was a truly beautiful thing. Either this is a game with random elements or not, and if it’s not going to be, then I should do away with dice altogether. So I simply let the dice fall where they may, and allowed the game mechanics to do their work. Yes, characters fell and one even died, but everyone knew these outcomes were objective. I received no angry glares or silent judgment, and the player with the dead character even comforted me, saying, “Hey, it happens. I still had a great time.”
Everyone is Welcome
I was amazed at how many people jumped in on my games when they had never played before. This is a pretty big thing, and it’s something I already talked about as a player. People are going to be coming to these games as newbies, with no preconceptions or prejudices about how the game can run, and I need to be able to accommodate that lack of familiarity. To this end, I brought two flavors of pregenerated characters to one game (simple and complex), and built in time to create the characters in another game. It was a learning process, and it worked extremely well.
In fact, the game where we created the characters was a huge hit, and the players were able to really take ownership, though this did require a fair amount of preparation beforehand, as I brought the character sheets and printed creation steps for everyone there. The result, as you can imagine, is a table of players who all wanted to rush downstairs to the vendor booths and buy the game. I’d call that a success.
Smaller is Better
Ah, curse my expansive nature! I have gotten better, but it’s to my shame that I admit I’ve run games at conventions that would have needed, at minimum, 37 hours to play, and that would just be to get through the introduction. I’d spend all my time developing this massive, sweeping game world, with rules and laws and backgrounds and settings, with governments and motivations and in-fighting and intrigue, and dump the poor characters into the middle of all this, and then become frustrated when they barely touched the first encounter before time was up.
This wasn’t their fault. I was a great big storytelling moron. I had lost sight of the idea that conventions are all about short stories; not novels. Recently, I did better but still not perfect, and that means that I still have some work to do, but at least I’m aware of it. I know to build a tight, balanced game and realize that it would be perfectly fine for that game to end a little early, giving these poor, happy players a few moments to decompress and move on to their next game, instead of missing lunch and having to sprint up three flights of stairs to their next session.
Running games at conventions is a unique privilege, and not one to be taken lightly. At my last con, I had a massively wonderful time, and learned a ton (as is evident from at that text above), and unlike previous unsuccessful experiences, it left me wanting to run (don’t walk) to my next convention, with dice in hand, story in heart, and a ton of props in my bag. I want to tell a story, and I want it to be fun. Wanna play?