Roleplaying conventions are a great place to try out new games, both as a player and as a GM. In most cases, as a player all you really need to do is show up and be prepared to share the spotlight with the other players. As a GM though, there’s a little more to it.
Running a game at a convention is a great way to test your GMing skills and to focus your storytelling. However, even if you’re a seasoned veteran behind the screen, running a game for people at a convention is different to running for a group of friends in a regular game. It’s not necessarily any harder to do but because of the constraints of the convention format there are some things worth keeping in mind.
...con games have specific, time-related, things you’ll need to accommodate if they’re going to be successful.
The biggest constraint is that generally convention games are limited to one four hour slot. This might seem like a long time, it may even be longer than your regular game sessions, but unlike those sessions, con games have specific, time-related, things you’ll need to accommodate if they’re going to be successful.
Firstly, a convention game should offer a complete story arc within the session’s time-frame. Unless you’re running a game like Microscope it is very poor form to leave a story incomplete. As a result, you need to keep an eye on the clock and be familiar enough with your story that you know which pieces you can cut or narrate through. It may be hard to leave out one of your favourite scenes but nothing is more important than giving your finale time to play out.
With this in mind though there are several things you can do to maximise the amount of playing time in your session.
Create characters in advance or at least have a very streamlined character generation process.
Prepare, prepare, prepare. Have your rules and tables ready to hand out so no time is wasted leafing through rules.
Leave plenty of blank space in your story notes so they’re easy to follow and your game keeps moving
Be open to sticking around after the final scene and chatting.
The last time-related thing to keep in mind is that people will want to spend some time at the end of the session talking about what happened in the game. They’ll also maybe want to talk about what might have happened and possibly about the system as well. Be open to sticking around after the final scene and chatting. This is a really important part of the con experience.
For those keeping track, this means that between initial setup and debrief you should bank on having about three hours of playing time. In a perfect world you’d practice the game ahead of time, perhaps with your regular group or online at sites like constantcon or roll20.net. In all likelihood though, you’ll be playing through for the first time. This is okay, but to maximise your chances of success you should be intimately familiar with the game and system and have incorporated some of the ideas above.
...at least one of the players at your table will have signed up because they want to try the game. Resist the urge to just do everything for them...
Aside from time constraints there are other important considerations when running con games. One is that it’s not only possible, but likely, that at least one of the players at your table will have signed up because they want to try the game. Resist the urge to just do everything for them, instead, consider creating a sheet with a short summary of some core rules. This is a great way to not only save on explaining time but it’s to keep new players engaged.
Along with those people who may be new to your game system you may also encounter people new to roleplaying altogether. These people are extremely valuable. Treat them well: you may be responsible for deciding if they’ll continue in the hobby or not. Additionally expect them to have no idea about the type of equipment roleplaying requires, so have extra dice, pencils, and miniatures (if you use them) on hand.
Another vital skill for a con GM to have, and one that has a significant impact on your players’ enjoyment, is the ability to track and share “spotlight” time amongst the players. In a regular game this is not such a big deal as this spotlight can shift from week to week. In contrast, you’ll find that as people have varying levels of forcefulness in a social setting, you’ll need to be far more vigilant about the access your players have to the spotlight. Keeping a little tally sheet of instances where each player is in focus can help you make sure everyone gets a time to shine. A simple way to achieve this is to look at the beats in your story and then create characters such that they all get a chance to come to the fore at some point.
One last thing, and this is huge. As the GM you’re responsible for maintaining an appropriate tone at your table. The Code of Conduct for your con should spell out these expectations but in brief, you should have zero tolerance for any language or behaviour that makes people feel uncomfortable.
“X, Y, and Z might come up in this story how do people feel about that?”
None of this means that you have to ban salty language and mature themes but you should note that these are likely when you submit your game description. It is also wise to talk about mature elements ahead of time. A good way to broach this is to say “X, Y, and Z might come up in this story how do people feel about that?” If these things are problematic for any players firstly, try to find some compromise but it may be that, ultimately, the game is not for them, and that’s okay.
Now, by no means is this intended to be an exhaustive treatment of how to run a con game, like most things there’s no substitute for experience, but it should give you somewhere to start. Once you’ve run a few you’ll probably get to like the challenge it presents or at the very least you’ll have been reminded of some of the things you’ve been letting slide in your regular game.