Prepping a Convention RPG session

When you’re getting ready to run a game of your favorite TTRP at a convention, what and how you prep is different in some fundamental ways from prepping for your regularly scheduled group.  Trying new games is a big part of why many people attend a gaming convention like Enbicon and doing everything possible to showcase your chosen game or games in the best possible light is an important part of your job as the gamemaster.

  1. Pregenerated Characters.  As discussed earlier, you’ll only have a limited window in which to play your game.  Taking time out of that window to create characters is something to avoid.  It will always take longer than you think.  You’ll need to explain every choice, every option.  You’ll need to explain things that may never come up in the game in case it’s something one of the players is thinking about taking.  Character creation, even for a relatively simple game can easily eat up 60-90 minutes of your allotted time.
  2. Cheat sheets are a godsend.  Tons of modern games have characters with special abilities.  Whether that’s feats, talents, items, spells, super powers, merits, flaws.  Whatever the game system calls them, it’s a lot for players to remember.  Especially when many of them are situational.  Having a two sided cheat sheet is a big, big help.  One side can be for the system basics – what dice to roll, how to calculate successes, how to track damage etc. and the other can be a character specific list of that character’s special abilities.  I highly recommend formatting them clearly, bold the title and any activation costs or requirements.  If you’ve got the time, using something like Microsoft Publisher or an online Magic Card Creator can let you make game specific “Ability Cards” you can give to the player, which is handy and makes for an awesome souvenir. 
  3. Hit the high points.  Any given scenario at a convention is almost like advertising for that game.  You want to be sure that the scenario you have prepared gives the players an accurate taste of what the game is or what it is known for.  If you’re running Deadlands you’ll want to be sure to include both western and horror tropes.  If you’re running D&D then you’ll want a dungeon and possibly a dragon.  If you’re running Call of Cthulhu you’ll want cults to investigate and dispatch and mind blasting horrors.  Lean in to what makes the game you’ve chosen to run special and fun.
  4. Playtest your scenario.  If you’re running something of your own design (and honestly even if you’re not) gather a group of friends and playtest it.  Check it for fun.  Check it for pacing.  Check it for weird rules things you’ll need to remember.  If at all possible, test it with multiple groups as different groups will approach things in a different way.  
  5. Linear design and obvious plots are your friend.  In a home game or a campaign you have the space and the time to let the players wander and approach things on their own terms.  A convention game does not have that luxury.  You are on a timetable, probably 3-4 hours, and you need to be finished on time.  A convention game is not the place to run a sprawling megadungeon (note – unless that is exactly what you’re offering and you book the time to do so) or to let the players have free reign to wander the countryside.  
  6. Focus your story.  While your goal is to showcase the game, you also want to tell a complete story.  A convention game has more in common with a stand alone TV episode or a short story than it does a novel or a sprawling trilogy.  Make sure your story has a beginning, a middle and an end.  You’re not going to have the luxury of “continued next session” and it’s quite unsatisfying to run out of time and not be able to complete the story.
  7. Figure out your game’s rating.  If you look at your game through the lens of TV or movies, what rating would it receive and why?   Even an “R” rated property can be rated for different reasons and some people will be okay with some things and not others, even if they fall under the same rating.  There is a difference between being rated “R” for gore and being rated “R” for strong, pervasive language.  Both of which are valid reasons a film could attain an “R” rating.  This does not remove the responsibility of talking to the table beforehand but gives the players an idea as to what to expect.
  8. Aim for simplicity.  Some games can be overly complex but learned over time.  Additionally this may be the first experience players have with the game.  A convention game is not the time to bring in a custom initiative system, third party variant action rules or dozens of pages of adventure backstory.  If your chosen game has a free quickstart, those are amazing resources – pregenerated characters, short adventure and condensed rules in one package.  If your game doesn’t have such a thing, I still recommend checking out a couple to see how they work.
  9. Make a checklist of what to bring.  Adventure print out (or on your laptop)?  Rule books?  Dice?  Maps?  Minis?  Pencils?  Make the check list as you go, not at the last minute and then use the checklist when you’re packing everything to go out the door.

By Chris Fougere

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