Convention Games Part 3 – Taking part in a Convention

Every year it is someone’s first year attending a convention and sometimes it can be a bit overwhelming.  So consider this as a friendly guide to how to get the most out of convention attendance.  This is by no means a policy guide or anything of that nature, just tips of things to do in the convention space.

  1. Play Games!  A gaming convention like Enbicon exists to give people the opportunity to play more games.  Even if your normal gaming group is attending and the normal GM is running their normal RPG or Board game that you love, branch out.  Try something new.  The vast majority of games run at a gaming convention are there for people to try something new.  Never played a miniature game but it looks cool?  Talk to the person running the table about it and odds are there’s a time for demo games.  Heard good things about that new RPG that someone is running?  See if there’s space to sign up.  A convention is a low cost way to try a variety of games outside your normal.
  2. Play with different people!  Even if you are dead set on playing D&D or Vampire or Twilight Imperium or whatever other game is “your game”, see if there’s a table where you can play with people outside your normal gaming group or friends group.  One of the best ways to grow as a player and as a GM is to play with other people.  Everyone brings something different to the table and every group has different dynamics.  Playing in or running a convention game is an amazing way to get different experiences.
  3. Support the Vendors!  Conventions are expensive to put on, even a small one like Enbicon and the Vendors and Sponsors do a lot of heavy lifting to keep the costs as low as possible.  For Enbicon they let us charge the attendees half of what the ticket prices would be without them.  In return it’s nice to support them if you can.  If you know you’re going to be attending a convention and have the means to set some money aside for vendor support it’s highly encouraged.  Many of the vendors, especially for Enbicon, are small local geek centered businesses and convention support means a ton.
  4. Volunteer to run something!  One of the reasons people attend gaming conventions is to try new games.  Role Playing games, card games, board games, miniature games, complex games, simple games.  If you’ve got a favorite game then offer to run it.  For many conventions it is better to contact them and schedule your game so you are guaranteed table space.  Some conventions also have dedicated space for “pick up games” where unschedule games can be run, though this usually works best with relatively quick board games and card games as it gives attendees something to do in between their scheduled events.
  5. .Volunteer to help with the convention!  Many conventions, especially small local ones, are done by volunteers and it is a lot of work.  Not only leading up to the convention but also at the convention as they handle badge pickup, attendee registration, answer questions, serve as gofers and so much more.  If you can volunteer, work out specifics with the staff.  Volunteering “to do anything” is well meaning but it’s far better to say “I can work Registration for two hours on Saturday morning”.  If you are going to volunteer, make sure it is something you can commit to.  Volunteering and then missing your shift stresses out everyone.
  6. Ask Questions!  Respectfully of course but if there’s a game that catches your eye then ask about it.  The GMs running games are doing so because they love that particular game.  They are, for the moment, unofficial ambassadors for that particular game.  It’s best to ask questions during the game setup or tear down and not during the game itself but sometimes people running board games will answer questions during play.  RPGs though you should wait but perhaps if there is a break you could talk to the GM.
  7. Observe things!  Watching a game can give you a good idea as to what it’s like to play the game, what’s involved in the set up, how long it takes to play, how the turns work and so much more.  
  8. Have fun!  Everyone at the con is there to have fun and play games and (generally speaking) talk about games.  People from all walks of life and of all ages come to conventions to share their passion for games – board games, miniature tactical games, card games, role-playing games.  Talk to the vendors about their wares, pick up a new game from one of them and then just ask “hey, who wants to try this?” and see what happens.

By Chris Fougere

Convention(al) Horror

Since we’ve been telling stories to each other, we’ve been telling scary stories. It only makes sense that sometimes when engaging in all of the many tabletop, collaborative storytelling games that we continue that tradition. There’s a unique exhilaration of being afraid, or of being brought into a narrative enough that you feel second hand fear and even dread for the characters you and your follow players are embodying. Take it from millions of horror fans all around the world in absolutely every culture film, prose, and games: horror is here to stay. As a storytelling device and genre, horror has been the tool by which people have been able to tell stories that traditional media simply refused to tackle. Adult themes of abandonment, religious abuse, racism, themes of sexual abuse, and other things more traditional storytelling sweeps under the rug in ‘good taste’, horror has seen fit to play front and center either literally or by weaving deep stories with nuance and careful consideration.

When we sit down at our home tables to discuss and play games with these themes such as Call of Cthulhu, Vampire the Masquerade, or Ruins of Symbaroum, we have the ability to directly talk with our players before the game begins, during session zero, and likely if you are friends away from the table have frank and friendly discussions about what you should and should not to at the table to meet everyone’s needs, comfort and limits. Sitting at the convention table however we lack a lot of that luxury. Characters aren’t being made, they are often handed out or chosen from a pile. Not every person is going to feel comfortable going over deeper limits or exploring their personal issues, let alone them to strangers. Elements of horror at the convention table need to be handled with care and precision – not only your players, but you too deserve to have your mental, social, and physical limits and space respected.

So what can be done?

Having been a lifelong fan of scares and frights, and a huge fan of sharing horror with my players, I’ve developed a quick start guide I use when doing something either short notice or for spaces like conventions where you have neither the luxury of access to your players ahead of time, or possibly zero control of the type space you’ll be assigned to run your game.

  1. Know your personal Limits, and offer no Judgement to Others for Theirs

    At the very beginning when folks sit down, have them write things they hate about scary movies or games on a piece of paper or a cue card. On the other side of the paper, write your own limits and things you hate on the other side. Quickly compile the things people hate, and without saying who turned in what – have everyone agree that regardless of the kinds of monster they will be playing as, or fighting against, the group agrees to not cross these lines.
  2. Be Up Front (Content Warnings Are Your Friend)

    When you sit down to write your scenario, think about what you are going for. Zombies tend to come with gore, vampires with topics related to consent, and slashers with both! A cosmic horror may involve disturbing imagery, and even ghost stories tend to lean on topics of tragedy, sometimes very real history (Candyman comes to mind as a ghost story that hits many triggers). When you post your game to the convention and put out a call for players, be very clear about what themes your game will be touching on.
  3. Be Ready To Ad Hoc

    As Dungeon Masters and Storytellers, we all know there is a well practised skill with improvisation that really sets a dividing line between a massive failure of a session, to providing moments of incredible fun for us and our players. No where is ad hoc and improv more important than in horror. I say this because core elements of what you have written or prepped may suddenly become unusable once everyone is at the table. A moment that everyone agrees to simply ‘fade to black’ on that needs no description or discussion may be needed, room or scene descriptions may need to be edited live and wording may need to change on the fly. Why? Because your table has been placed next to a table of mostly minors on a Saturday afternoon, or a player at the table asked that cats and dogs not be harmed or that harm not be described. This sounds easy enough, but when running horror at convention, the instances of how often you may need to do it tend to be multiplied at a rate you may not have anticipated. Prepare for this however you can, possibly with a few extra pages of notes or multiple options or end states in case of player failure.
  4. A Tight Grip, But A Light Hand

Horror isn’t for everyone at its most serious or darkest. Sometimes getting everyone together for a horror tale requires the gore and frights to take backstage to action or dramatic elements. Often one of the most effective elements of horror seems antithetical to table top games – the risk as reward of the dice translate well, but respect of player choice means that making your players feel moments of helplessness almost anti-game in nature. This means balancing that helplessness to rewarding players with ‘rays of light’ or ‘hope’ based not on clear deus ex machina, but by rewarding their choices. If someone selects a player character who is a soldier, something mundane but also extraordinary can totally turn the tides for players (IE: Resident Evil’s rocket launcher). If someone selects a character with faith (or True Faith in Vampire terms) then solutions to problems should exist entirely because of that choice should be made clear. Essentially, curate the experience based on the characters more than you might normally – this will give a cinematic feel that really has brought people to scary movies for decades.

I hope some or all of this is helpful as you navigate horror games, both at the convention floor, and in your own home games! Thanks for reading!

By Katherine Alexandria

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

Convention Games 101

When you agree to run a game at a convention rather than for your own friends there are several key differences that need to be kept in mind to make things run smoothly.

  1. You will only have a finite amount of time for the game.  Usually you either book a set amount of time (60 minutes, 90 minutes etc.) or a block of time (12pm-2pm).  In either case keeping track of the time is important.  There may be other attendees moving into the space when you are done and your players may have other games to get to following yours.  The time you have is for setup, instruction, gameplay and teardown and be aware of how long each of those things take.  Some games (Arkham Horror and Firefly I’m looking at you) have longer than average setup times.
  2. The odds are good that you will be playing with people who have no experience with the game.  In many cases, when someone sits down to a table at a convention it is because they want to try something new.  You will need to teach people how to play.  Make sure you know the rules.  Make sure that if there is errata you know what it is (and bring it with you).  If you’re using any house rules, have those printed out and make sure you tell people ahead of time what they are, possibly in the description you submitted.
  3. Submit a description of your game for the schedule/website etc.  Your game is one of many during the convention and if you want players you need to sell the game to them.  Some conventions have printed schedules with descriptions, others have websites with electronic versions.  Make sure you submit a description of your game, even if you just copy the blurb from the back of the box or the company website.
  4. Be aware of your table footprint.  Some games take up an inordinate amount of space.  If you’ve got boards, decks of cards, play mats, dice cups, dice trays, dice towers, player handouts, maps, miniatures, standees etc. that all takes table space and needs to be accounted for when you submit your game.  RPGs in particular can take up more space than you think when you’ve got 4-6 players plus a GM with all their dice, character sheets, dice trays etc. it takes up a lot of room.  Most tables at a convention are either rectangular (30”x72”) or Round (60” or 72”).  Some conventions may allow you to book two tables or place two rectangular ones together.  If you need more space than this you should bring your own TV Trays or similar but check with the convention staff first as there may not be open space for more tables than the layout allows for.
  5. Be accommodating.  If a player realizes they made a mistake fairly quickly let them take it back.  If a player doesn’t seem to grasp a rule or something it’s your job to make it clear.  Some games seem to delight in byzantine rules or scoring mechanisms or placement rules and if a player makes a mistake let them correct it if they ask.
  6. Do not play the game for the players.  Some people have a tendency to backseat drive when they are teaching a game.  “You should move here” or “You should use this ability”.  Do.  Not.  Do.  That.  The players are there because they want to play the game you’re presenting.  Even if a player does something that isn’t optimal as long as it’s not wrong (and even if it is you should remind them of the relevant rule but absolutely let them make their own legal choice), then let them do it.  Answer questions as they come up, remind people of the mechanics when necessary but do not play for them.
  7. If at all possible for a board game, be the impartial referee.  Make choices for enemies, roll dice for them, read card text aloud, keep track of the turns, the scoring and all the fiddly bits but if at all possible do not play in the game.  Run it as a game master.  Your job should be to teach the game to new people, not to play the game with new people and it’s much much easier to do that if you’re not concentrating on your turn or your strategy.
  8. Be knowledgeable about the game.  If people enjoy the game they are going to have questions, the most predominant ones being “Where can I get this?” and “How much does it cost?”  If possible direct them to your FLGS rather than a big box store or online.  If you’re running an RPG many, many companies have free quick start rules online that provide pre-gen characters, condensed rules and a short adventure.  If that’s available for your game, absolutely direct the players there.  
  9. Bring extra materials.  If you’re running a board game make sure everything is in the box (I once ran a game where the actual rules were accidentally packed away in an expansion box…that I didn’t bring) that you’ll need.  If you’re running an RPG make sure you’ve brought everything you need and a few extra sets of dice, some blank paper and pens. If your particular game uses special things – tokens, minis, standees etc. make sure those are with you.  If you’ve made a checklist of what to include then make sure you actually use the checklist.
  10. Be enthusiastic about your game.  In theory you’re running the game because you enjoy it so be sure to convey that joy.  Even if you’re running the late night session or the dog days end of convention session.  You are running/showcasing a game that you love and you want other people to feel that.

By Chris Fougere