Game Mastery and the Art of the Con

Ken runs a table of D&D Adventurers League at TsunamiCon 2014!

Over the past few years, one of our most frequently revisited topics on the Metagamers Anonymous podcast is the art of running “con” games.  In contrast to the sprawling campaigns we enjoy in our everyday gaming or even the limited series arcs we like to run for four of five sessions at a shot, con games are designed to be completely encapsulated in a specific period of play, typically four hours.  Needless to say, the strategy for running effective convention games is only marginally related to the art of the campaign, as it serves an entirely different need and requires an alternative form of investment from the participants.

Many GMs approach this practice with a sense of apprehension, whereas other game masters find the format infinitely more rewarding.  Either way, there is definitely an art to running an effective con game.

In the strictest sense, a con game is a singular scenario or streamlined adventure.  It can often be winnowed down to three or four scenes or story points, with a strict observance of the time required to move from one sequence to the next.  Fluid games are popular at cons, as they provide players a sense of agency while giving the GM a largely reactive role.  Alternatively, many con games are on rails, driving the story from scene to scene in order to derive the greatest story potential from the limited scope of the game.  Most fall somewhere in between, with players bashing through the GM’s hooks and obstacles as willing accomplices in the developing scenario.

Liz runs a World of Darkness game on a Sunday morn.For some games, numerous examples of suitable con games are available for GMs to explore, and they are no less challenging to manage.  Take any two dungeon masters with a copy of the very same D&D Adventurers League scenario and you may still end up with radically different experiences at the table.  This is because every adage invoked in campaign design regarding the chaos of player engagement is magnified in a four-hour game, wherein players are expected to have a more casual commitment to their characters.  Gamers can play it fast and loose, plot holes are virtually irrelevant, and character death is often celebrated.

With TsunamiCon approaching fast, it’s time to accept the challenge.  As a game master, you play an essential role in our community, and a game con is the perfect environment to celebrate it.  Players are ready to sign up for this year’s events, so get your games listed now.  It only takes two scheduled games to earn the GMs badge discount, and running at least one game each day of the convention will net you a free weekend pass.

Posted in The Captain's Corner.

One Comment

  1. I run upwards of 20 convention games a year at various game cons. Spread that out over the years and that adds up to a fair number of games. In all that time and across all those games a few things remain fairly constant.

    1) Planning is critical

    It’s not necessary to plan every detail of everything that will happen because, well let’s be candid here, you won’t know anyway. What is critical is to know the world in which your game takes place, and to be prepared to draw from that knowledge to fill in when needed. Know who’s involved, know what they are involved in, know where they can be found, and to what extent they will go to pursue their plans. Know your genre and the things that make a game look and feel like the thing you are trying to emulate. I do this by immersing myself in the genre itself. I read books, listen to music, watch movies from the genre all to get the thoughts and images and trappings of the genre drilled into my head.

    2) Keep it simple – At a convention you have a limited amount of time to get the idea across. This is really not the time to try to be clever and complex. A straightforward problem with a relatively small number of moving parts will give the players plenty to work with and give them plenty of entertainment.

    3) Write characters that fit the gamed – If you’re making pre-gen characters, write characters that fit the game and have some reason for being involved. Also create connections between the characters that give them reasons to be together and to care about one another. Again this is not a time to be overly complex, my goal when I write a character for a con is that the player can pick up the sheet and in 5 minutes understand the character enough to begin play. More might come out as we play, but they should be able to get enough to start pretty quickly. Also, spend the time and effort to make attractive clearly printed character sheets.

    4) Assume that the players know NOTHING about the game system you’re running. They might very well, it’s entirely possible that they will know more about the game system than you do, but don’t assume that.

    5) Build your game in scenes. This sort of outline for the game gives it a framing similar to a television show which makes it easier to manage the time for the game. For a convention game time management is critical. If you run short (which I have done) you short change your players. If you run long (which I have done) you burden other players and other gm’s either who come after you or who are expecting these players at their game. I keep a stopwatch running when I’m running a con game so I know where I am.

    These are just a few ideas that work for me. Your mileage may of course vary.

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