3 Tips for Running a Con Game

Summer con season is in full swing, and that means con gaming! I love playing and running RPGs at cons. It gives me a chance to try out new ideas and game with folks I don’t see or have just met. If you’ve never tried gaming at a con, I highly recommend it as a great change of pace from your usual table(s).

I’ve GMed a number of games at cons, both as a Venture-Captain running Pathfinder Society and just a schlub running his own creations. A convention RPG event is a different beast than a home game, and you have to approach it differently to pull it off. Here are my top three tips for running an exciting con game (which players love) and doing it in the time the con gave you (which the con organizers love).

1) Preparation, preparation, preparation! – Gaming conventions set aside a certain amount of time per game, usually referred to as slots. Slots can be anywhere from 2-6 hours in length, with most shaking out at 4 hours. Four hours is not enough time to create characters, look stuff up in your books, scribble out an adventure etc. That might fly in your home games, but gamers come to a con to game so it’s important not to waste their time. If you are running your own creation, get it in shape before the con. If you are running a prepared adventure (say, for Organized Play), make sure you have read it cover to cover at least three times. Have your maps pre-drawn (if you just stick to drawn maps, see below), tab your books , hardcopy or PDF, so you can find any monsters, treasure, special rules and so on you might need. If you are not running for some sort of organized play, where players will generally have their own characters, provide pre-generated characters. And even if it is organized play, have level appropriate pre-gens in case you get a new player at your table. In short, do everything you can before the con, so when your slot starts you can just sit down and roll dice!

2) Put the “Special” in your Special Event! – At a con you are generally running a game for new people, and they’ve come to your table to be entertained. So this is the time to pull out all the stops! If you have 3D terrain to use, use it instead of flat maps. If all you have are flat maps, no worries; try to pre-print some good looking colour ones, or add colour to your hand-drawn maps with markers, paints or art crayons. Print any hand-outs (player hand-outs, pre-gens) in colour on good paper, and laminate if possible (lamination will not only keep the pages, especially character sheets, in good shape longer, it gives surface player’s can use wet/dry erase markers on). If your game uses minis, provide good looking minis for the players to use, and put effort into finding the appropriate minis for your monsters and NPCs.

But the special doesn’t stop with the materials. You have present your adventure or scenario in a fun, positive, and exciting manner. Any text you have to read allowed should be practised out loud before the con, so you can get a feel for the words and pick out any points that should be punched up. Keep energy in your voice, don’t mumble, don’t talk into the page, and try to make eye contact with the players as you read to keep them engaged. If you have any acting skills at all, or even just a selection of funny voices, this is the time to bust them out! Keep the energy up and the action moving, and don’t let the rules bog you down. I have never once remembered a con game because of the GMs slavish adherence to the rules.

Okay, I have. But not fondly.

3) Stand Up! – This could probably be a subsection of point two, but I think it’s important enough to warrant special mention. A con is a busy place, and you are usually in a hall with a bunch of other tables, all noisy and distracting. The single best way to keep the players’ focus on you is to stand up. Placing yourself higher in their line of sight forces them to look up from the table and pay attention. If you stand up your players can also see and hear you better, and are less likely to get distracted. And standing puts you in a more dominant position than your players, which allows you to control the events and energy of the table better.

Standing also energizes you, and forces a certain urgency into what you are doing, which in turn keeps the action flowing. It also allows you a good view of what is happening on the table, and gives you more space to cut loose with actions and gestures. Remember what I said about busting out those acting skills? Only so much you can do from a chair!

Of course, if your are physically unable to stand for long periods, then pick your moments: combat, or important NPC interactions are good times to stand. And if you can’t stand at all, maybe find a way to raise your seat, or make sure there is some separation at the table between your space and the players’ space. Though not as effective as standing they will help keep the focus on you when you need it.

Those are my big three “best practises” for running a con game. I have other tips and tricks, depending on the game I’m running, the venue, number of players, and so on. But following these three will get me (and you) through just about any con game you care to run. Just remember the most important thing: keep the fun! If it isn’t fun, for you and the players, you’ve missed the point of running the game at all.

Have con GMing tips of your own? Share them in the comments!