Thursday, May 5, 2011

Unconventional Convention Convening

Are you ready for Convention Season?

It turns out I'm not. And as of this posting I have a little over three weeks to prepare for the major local regional convention, and I have nothing yet properly prepared to run in the game room there.

I need to fix that. Also, I think I can squeeze an IPTD post out of it, so bonus.

Wait. Didn't you talk about this once before?

I suppose I did, in that other piece Don't Fear the One-Shot. This is a little different, though. This isn't just a case study for everyone's benefit. It's a to-do list for my benefit as I try to get some games ready for total strangers to play. Also, this is a specific flavor of one-shot: the convention game. Its requirements are a little more stringent.

It's the Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

The great thing about conventions: you meet people with similar interests from all over. At a convention dedicated to x, you will find all the x-fen, x-heads, and more than a few x-dealers.

Science fiction conventions are a little bit more distributed; you have movie fen, book fen, costuming fen, art fen, fantasy fen, science fiction fen, horror fen, filk fen, and gaming fen to name nine. Count me among the latter, obviously; this isn't a costuming column.

And at that event, I expect to find people who want to play things. All kinds of things, in fact. What a stroke of luck! I'd like to get in there and runthings. So this is a good place to find players for those games you might not be able to run for your regular group, if you have one.

Here is a wellspring of players to draw from. There are other pressing, vital questions though.

What am I running?

When picking games for convention play, there are certain best practices to consider.

First, it's gotta be short. Four hours* is the accepted upper limit for such games. Longer ones are possible, but whatever it is has to be absolutely gripping to get players to eschew other events or food. Additionally, do you as a GM want to run something which makes you miss a meal? If your magnum opus requires eight hours or more, you ought to consider breaking it up into multiple sessions.

Second, it's gotta be something you know. The convention table is not the place to be learning a new game. Unless, of course, it's a brand spanking new game that you've picked up at the convention. In that case, a little fogginess is understandable.

Third, it's gotta be simple and easy to pick up. The convention may be a great place to pick up players, but unless the convention is dedicated to a specific game system, you're not necessarily going to pick up players that know the game you're running. As per the first requirement, you've only got a limited amount of time to run this thing. You want to spend as little of that time as possible explaining the game to the players.

Last but most importantly, it's gotta be fun. Life's too short for games that suck.

* (When talking about "convention time," expect people to arrive 15 minutes late and be ready to let them out 15 minutes early as a courtesy. So four hours convention time is about 3.5 hours. 2,5 if it overlaps dinner.)

The Picks

For the sake of variety, I want to run three completely different games. Even better, games in three completely different genres.

For the sake of fun, I really want one of them to be Memento Mori's Inspectres. It combines a goofy, dysfunctional team vibe with the expectation that weird stuff's going to happen. That should make for a pleasantly great set. That covers the horror genre, if only with a threadbare doily.

For a fantasy game? There's D&D, but interestingly I see fewer people playing 4e and more sticking with 3.5 or Pathfinder. I want to avoid that particular minefield and go for something in a completely different system. GURPS or HERO have viable fantasy components and I know both systems well enough. Of the two, I've run HERO more recently, so I want to go with GURPS. I need the Fantasy and Magic sourcebooks. I might also get some help from the others, especially Martial Arts, Thaumatology, and Low-Tech. The adventure itself will be determined later.

Lastly, I need a science-fiction game. GURPS is taken, so I've got to go with something else. Eclipse Phase may be a bit too involved; too few people know the setting. Shadowrun is well known, but it edges towards fantasy in spots. Hellas I don't know quite well enough, a|state is rather bleak and edges toward horror... I'm already running one thing by Jared Sorensen, so Freemarket is out. How about Doctor Who? It's hip, it's trending, the system is beautifully simple... let's do that one.

And for a back-up, in case I get the chance, I should bring Fiasco and a few choice playsets. Maybe I could even make up my own—I'd been meaning to draw up one set at a science-fiction or anime convention...

Now the Work Begins. And More Work Than You'd Think, Too!

Deciding on the games—Inspectres, GURPS Fantasy, and Doctor Who—is only the first step.

Before Planning, Envision Your Goal

I call the event "The Mental Walkthrough." It's where I envision the event from start to finish, and each step along the way think what the player will be dealing with. What things will the players be interacting with beside me on their way to and during the game?

This works for a lot of other projects too. Here's the list that I came up with.

Sign-up Sheet

Your local convention, if it has a game room, will likely have some sort of standard sign-up sheet. Gank that format if you can, but if not, it's no crime to create your own as long as you make sure all the information is clear, clean, and easy to grasp.

In fact, I have my convention's sign-up sheet. I should totally post that, and as soon as I find a place, I will.

Other Advertising? Probably not, but why take the chance?

Most conventions will have a board, clearly posted where you can stick the sign-up sheet. But then, most conventions have other boards where you can post notices. (If Filthy Pierre visits your convention, then his counts too.)

The sign-up sheet will probably be enough, but if people at that convention really know you and like your games, then you'll want to stick small (index-card sized) notices on some of those other boards so people know to look for you in the game room.


Pregenerate them. Don't count on players coming to the table to have their own characters, much less know how to generate them.

But that's not all. If you want a group dynamic for your game, which is filled with total strangers, you'll want to do some writing. Describe the situation as each character understands it, and don't be afraid to have those accounts vary a little, because not everybody knows everything and perspective can be a real drag.

It's a trick I learned from writing LARPs: Think of the game as a particle physics simulation. It's one thing to create a setting for the particles to bounce around in, but for greater control of the outcome, give each particle initial velocity and an attraction or repulsion to other particles in the simulation. That backstory you're writing for the characters is that initial velocity and spin.

System Introduction

Your players will be playing a game that they're not necessarily familiar with. Here's another writing exercise to get out of the way: create a one-page summary of the system that you'll be using. Make multiple copies. Hand it out at the start of the game and hopefully you'll spend less time explaining what's going on during the run.


A piece of paper, folded into thirds, makes a convenient standing name plate. Why not provide these for your players with the character name already filled in, so they can identify each other both in- and out-of-game?


Four hours isn't time for a lot, but I've observed on Living Forgotten Realms nights at the FLGS that it's still possible to run two or three combats in that time frame if the players understand what's going on.

I'm preparing on the assumption that a combat takes an hour or so. Don't forget to save time for regular old roleplaying, rules lawyering, and other interruptions. This is a convention, after all, and it's full of all kinds of people.

Write it out. Yes, write some more. After putting the perfect adventure together in your head, don't expect it to remember every last little bit of it when you sit down at a table full of unfamiliar people in a noisy room (and it will be noisy).

Additional Props?

This is kind of a special occasion, so any physical props you bring to this will add a little extra gravitas and suggest to people that you're really serious about your having fun and goofing off. Or something.

Your game might use maps for combat. Don't forget the vinyl mat and markers. Or fire up Illustrator and draw your maps to cover multiple pages? (I'll cover that in a future column, if you like.)

They don't just have to be paper, either. Inspectres suggests having a special interview chair and camera set up to receive those nuggets of commentary that foreshadow events or change the game. Well, I have an especially comfy chair that I am not commuting back and forth to the con, but I do have a movie camera and tripod. I'll be taking those to the con anyway, so it makes sense to set it up someplace for those interviews.

I also have a number of plastic bowls for holding dice or counters, and those will make better containers for pools of dice than a mere printed sheet of paper will. So the bowls have got to come too.

It's things like that. What physical items can you bring to a game to enhance it for those involved?

And squirrel it away for a rainy day!

And you should be just about ready—Whoa, you've got a lot of papers there! Character sheets, system overview sheets, sign-up sheets, maps, and a fully written adventure. You'll want to keep it somewhere so it stays fresh and sorted.

Get a big honking stack of manilla envelopes. Bonus points if that envelope has the two big circles and a length of string for a closure, because you might be using that envelope more than once. Have in each envelope exactly what you need for one running of that game.

The Benefits of the Envelope Experience

The main benefit of having everything in a single envelope is that you have everything you need to run the game in a single envelope. Mind you, that benefit covers a multitude of sins, so to speak.

You can file that envelope away somewhere once you have everything compiled, and all your pages will stay in order. When you need it, you can grab that envelope and have everything in hand. And when you're ready to play, you can take all the pages you need out of that one envelope and get to runnin' at a moment's notice.

Or take a half-hour beforehand to read through it, just so you remember all the major beats.

And keep the original documents handy so you can refill the envelope for a fresh run later. Once you've played that game, you'll be missing pages—character sheets, system overviews, nameplates, etc. Print those things up again, and you have the envelope ready for the next event you go to.


The assumption here is that preparation is good. It doesn't necessarily mean writing everything down and having a whole bag of props for all your players, but it does mean knowing everything you need to make the game work, and taking sufficient notes and creating sufficient adventure write-up that you can actually run that game.

And now that I've established everything that I need to make this work, I need to get to writing and planning.

Wish me luck.

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