Running a Con Game pt. 1: Whaddya Want?

So you’re interested in GMing a RPG at a gaming convention! That’s awesome, both because Gary Gygax himself identified this as a way to ascend the higher levels of Role-Playing Mastery, and because as it happens I have to get ready to run a series of games at Anonycon in Stamford, CT on Dec. 4-6. So by writing a series of how-to blog posts using my own process of prepping for this event as an example, I’m hoping to trick myself into doing this work. Thanks for playing along!

The first step is to ask yourself “what do I want to get out of this experience?” When I take that advice, here are my answers:

1) I want to learn and get hands-on experience with Metamorphosis Alpha. I played the hell out of its successor, Gamma World, but the original rules and setting (available at that link as a free .rtf file) remain excitingly unexplored.

Getting to run the game you want to play is a great reason to volunteer to GM at a convention, Gentle Reader. If the RPG you crave isn’t on their schedule already, step up and run it yourself! Of course, if you’ve had problems finding people who want to play Super Awesome Let’s Pretend Time: d1,000,000 Edition among your usual group, recruiting players will still be an issue. The smaller the convention and the more obscure your passion, the bigger this problem will be. Future posts in this series will focus on ways to draw folks into your game.

2) I hope to do some playtesting of MA’s new edition, which uses the D&D 4E ruleset. That’ll mean doing things like having 4E characters mix it up with MA monsters and visa versa, as well as converting the original-edition MA characters to the new rules to see how well it preserves their spirit.

My motivation here is gets it exactly wrong. Good advice would have you playtest your adventure before you get to the con, not conduct playtesting once you’re there. For the Forgotten Heroes tournaments I helped create for Goodman Games and run at Gen Con, we ran the adventures multiple times beforehand with different groups in NYC. You don’t have to go that far, but it’s easy and recommended to take an adventure your regular group liked and use it as the basis for your con game, or slip the material you want to run at the con into your ongoing campaign.

3) I want to explore the mysteries of the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, which is fascinating to me because it was part of my first-ever experience of D&D and remains deeply strange: the pyramid seems to have been constructed as a forward-only time travel device and contains a tiny silver floating thing labeled “NEDRAW II” that I only recently realized is a link to MA, which speaks volumes to me about the early days of TSR history and the links between the first-ever fantasy and science fiction RPGs.

OK, I approve of my motivation here. Since it’s up to you what to run, why not choose something you have a personal connection to? If the mojo of your adventure is meaningful and exciting to you, your players are likely to be inspired by your enthusiasm.

4) I want to game with strangers and learn from their play-style.

This is especially valuable for playtesting, but I give this desire two thumbs up. Playing with groups whose approach can be totally different from your own can challenge your assumptions, and conventions are great for that. It’s an essential educational experience for every gamer. Pardon me while I flip through Master of the Game in search of textual support for this bold claim!

5) I want to help advance the outreach efforts of TARGA, the Traditional Adventure Roleplaying Game Association.

If you’re running something you think is a traditional RPG (read: specifically old-school, not just “is still played on the tabletop like they did last millennium”), you should want to help support TARGA too! More generally, it’s a good idea to see if you can link up with a publisher or organized play group, like the Kentucky Fried Gamers. Doing so can help you find players (the publisher may help promote your event, gamers may choose your game because they recognize your sponsor’s name). You may also be able to get some goodies like freebies and flyers to hand out to your players, prizes to award, a T-shirt, hat, or badge for you to wear, etc. Many publishers have demo teams devoted to this kind of thing that you can join, and you should go ahead and write to anyone you can think of who might be interested in supporting your event.

Here are some of the things I don’t want:

1) I don’t want to have a good time. I hope it happens, but it’s a secondary goal for me at Anonycon.

What I’m going to be doing at Anonycon- running four games in three-and-a-half different systems, related only by their themes – is insane and approaches making sense only in light of my non-fun objectives.

Don’t try this at home. Why are you doing this if not to have fun? Although, one of the ways to not have fun GMing at a convention is if you don’t get enough players for your events. Running the same adventure multiple times is easy because you get really practiced by the end of the con, which helps run it smoothly even when you’re worn out. And it’s enlightening because you get to see how different groups approach the same scenario. But it does mean that if you find some players who like your style, they can’t stick with you because they’ve played the adventure already. Doing related adventures using the same system and same pregen PCs is a good middle ground.

2) I don’t want to impress people with what a great GM I am.

One of the many reasons that convention games can go bad is that the GM is trying too hard. If what I want is to impress people, I’m likely to talk too much, sucking all the air out of the room and not leaving space for the players to, y’know, play. And if my motives for running a game are all about my greatness, there’s a pretty much 100% chance that I’ll be crestfallen when the players don’t shower me with praise. I’m going to show up and do my thing the best I know how. If the other folks at the table pick up on the example I’m trying to set and run with it, awesome! If not, maybe I’ll learn something for next time.

Part 2 of this series has advice on coming up with titles for the events you want to run!

11 Responses to “Running a Con Game pt. 1: Whaddya Want?”

  1. November 19, 2009 at 7:22 pm

    Added the advice I wrote in this comment to the main post.

  2. 2 Eric
    November 19, 2009 at 11:18 pm

    Hey Tavis,

    I just wanted to say hi, and I’ve signed up for some of your games at Anonycon. I started reading some of your posts on the OD&D board and wound up finding the mule. This will be the third Anonycon I’ll be attending. I won’t be GMing any games there, but I’ve gotten a lot out of the con experience as a player. I too have read the Gygax book on Role Play Mastery, and I think this was part of the reason I started going to this con to begin with. On the other side of the coin of what a GM would want at a con, I have a few things I want (as both a player and a bring-it-to-my-own-game GM.)

    1. Have a good time – Why not? If an experience is going to be something I can bring with me as a better gamer or GM, I’d certainly prefer to learn something neat to export. I’ve seen lot of things I know I DON’T want in my games, but for a convention where I’m paying an admission fee, I want my experiences filled with games that I’m happy I played rather than think “I can’t believe I wasted the last four hours with that schmo.” With that in mind, the primary goal is staying clear of games that have clunker potential where another game with equal (or close to it) upside and no downside exists.

    2. Varied games and varied GMs – I especially placed a priority on this the first two years of my Anonyconning, where I wanted to see as many different approaches to GMing and playing as I could. I had not gamed all that long, and it helped. The experience, though, was decidedly a mixed bag, with as many “not putting THAT in my home game” moments as “Hey, cool, I’m bringing that in!” ones. In somewhat of a contrast to this, three of the seven Anonycon slots of mine are your games, but I’m going into them being somewhat familiar with your writing.

    I’ve also tried variety with my home game groups: I’ve had five or so semi-regular GMs over the last two and a half years, and I’ve learned from them all. I’m now running what looks to be a weekly game that I’ve described as “old-school sandbox” and so far, everyone involved seems to be having fun with it.

    Anyway, just tossing in my two cents on expectations on the con experience. See ya there.

  3. November 19, 2009 at 11:34 pm

    I’m looking forward to meeting you there, Eric! One of the best things about going to cons is getting to personally encounter people you know through their writing.

    I’ve also had my share of terrible experiences at convention games. The worst have been ones that I’ve run, probably because I have more invested in it than when I just sign up for something to see what it’s like and the answer is “awful”. I hope that admitting that I’ve GMed some stinkers doesn’t cause you to regret planning to do a dozen hours of gaming with me :)

    I think that acquiring a degree of humility is the con GM’s equivalent of the con player’s experience of learning “that’s what I don’t want in my game.” Sometimes as a GM you do the best you can but due to the mix of players, differences in styles, phase of the moon, etc. everything goes sour anyway and you have to acknowledge that your power to make people have fun is limited at best. Sometimes I’ve also had the opposite: sessions where I was catching a cold, totally wiped out, etc. and the players had a great time anyway – perhaps precisely because I was too tired to try too hard!

  4. November 21, 2009 at 1:02 am

    Hey, I’m running Mouse Guard tomorrow in part as a playtest.

    Good catch on the Warden in C1. It’s one of my favorite modules, though I’ve never run it or played. (I harbor a loose dream of combining C1 + I1 + B4 + X1 + D3 someday.)

  5. November 21, 2009 at 1:43 am

    Over at the Metamorphosis Alpha forums they have a members-only forum called Ask Jim Ward where I’ve taken the opportunity to pump him for info on the apparently shrunken and mirror-reversed Warden II. (Tracking down the module’s authors, Harold Johnson and Jeff Leason, remains on my list).

    Canonfire! has an interesting but lengthy extrapolation here (http://www.canonfire.com/cfhtml/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=730), from which I’ll quote the spaceship bits:

    Within the Hidden Shrine was discovered the Silver Coffer, which contained a coppery figurine, narrow with fins and which flew about of its own accord. The markings on the amazing figurine read “II-Nedraw.” This was the doom of Tamoachan.

    The Olman gods are not of Oerth and not of the parallel Earth of the Maya, Toltec and Aztec. They are “alien” to both worlds. From the sky they came and after living among the Olman people for a time, to the sky they returned. When the gods physically departed, they let it be known that one day, they would return. From that day forth, the priests among the Olman have waited the gods return from the heavens. The some number of Olman priests in Tamoachan believed this time had come with the arrival of “II-Nedraw.”

    Research among some of the most ancient and obscure records of Oerth, particularly those kept by the Arch-Mage Drawmij, identifies “II-Nedraw” as a survey drone of the Earth colony ship Warden-II, by some “metamorphosis” transposed into II-Nedraw. The Warden II, sister ship to the original Warden, was a space faring vessel that moved among the heavens, transporting colonists from a dying Earth, one of Oerth’s parallel spheres. Encountering the same strange anomaly that fatally impacted the original starship Warden, the Warden II was drawn through a “blackhole,” a rift in the dimensional continuum, into Oerth’s reality, where the Warden II broke apart before crashing in pieces to Oerth.

    Lest this be thought wildest fantasy, the records of the Oerthly Cave, and the strange glowing vale nearby in the mountains, document where two portions of the Warden II crashed. A third section made a controlled crash landing in the waters off Tamoachan. The survivors wielding strange magics were taken by many of the Olman as the returning sky gods of their legends. Others dissented. When fighting eventually broke out and the strangers began to use their exotic weaponry to settle the matter, Tamoachan was doomed. The dissenting Olman priests, aided by almost all of the wizards of the city, fought the strangers and those Olman priests calling them gods. All were destroyed, as was Tamoachan.

    The only survivors were the Nacehual – the monks Cipactonal and his companion Oxomoco. To them fell the task of sealing the Hidden Shrine. Before placing themselves within the Hidden Shrine in a dreadful slumber, they were visited by a vision of Quetzalcoatl….

    Author’s Note:
    The II-Nedraw (Warden II spelled backwards) is an obvious, if thinly veiled reference to Jim (Drawmij) Ward’s Metamorphosis Alpha game of 1976, wherein the story of the lost Starship Warden is recounted. The Starship Warden already appears in Greyhawk lore in Faceless Men and Clockwork Monsters from Dragon 17.

  6. 6 Max
    November 21, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    Here’s hoping that you do have fun and get a good batch of players for your games. I’m looking forward to it!

    Thanks for writing this up, it’s neat to see the process from another point of view.

  7. March 18, 2010 at 12:45 am

    Im looking in to getting one, who has got experience of one of these:


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Past Adventures of the Mule

November 2009

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