Advice to Convention GMs

    My husband and I co-DM'd two games at DunDraCon (DDC) 37. This was, by the way, the first time either of us ran a convention game – ever. John has had the experience of running games for strangers before, but I have to admit I've barely played with gamers outside of our rather stable, well-adjusted, and highly social gaming groups, and that mostly at DDC or over a decade past.
    All in all, this has been an excellent experience, and we're planning on running convention games again. That's not to say we didn't have a bit to learn about running games for strangers. I would love to get together ideas from both other game masters and players about what makes for a good convention game, from a more general perspective.
    To kick that off, here's a list of things John & I learned. I'll be editing this page as I get more tips together, and feel free to add to the conversation at or, or by using the Contact form.

Game Design

    Steve S. suggests that "if you have a mystery/puzzle ... have a large number of extra clues -- ranging from subtle to glaringly obvious -- that you can give out as-needed if [the players] seem stumped or going off-track; ALSO have a large number of red-herrings, extra combats, and/or other distractions, to keep them from delivering a coup-de-grace to your mystery-scenario in the first half of your timeslot."

    Jim P. suggests, "Prepare, but don't force the players to follow one track. If they come up with alternatives that you hadn't thought of, your scenario should be flexible enough to accommodate it."

    Mona S. suggests, "1. Know the game you are running. Hopefully this will have included actually playing or running the game and not just reading the instructions."

    Astrid E. suggests, "Always prepare twice as much material as you can use, modularize it, and prepare to either drop sections or add at a moment's notice.
    "Grow a thick skin and a strong sense of how to run a game BEFORE the con."

    Mark S. suggests, "My tip: prepare, prepare, prepare. The GM can use any rules, any setting, pre-gen the characters or create them at the table, or even allow a player's character, but the GM provides the foundation for everything that happens in the game, and if that foundation is unsound, there will be problems. You need not know the story, but you must know the bounds within which it will fall; you need not know every rule in the book, but you can look up the rare one you don't, and your *sense* of the rules should be impeccable; you need not know who your players are, but you must be prepared to offer every player an opportunity to excel in their play, no matter their rules knowledge, personality or RP skill. On this last, aim for a mix of characters--simple to play and complex; straightforward and manic; with diverse motivations but a common goal, and then try to match the characters to those that come to the table. Because if you are prepared, there will be many hooks everywhere to get everyone involved naturally. It takes time to prepare like that, but it works really well."

Game Listing

  • If you're doing anything remotely different from the Standard Rules Doc for the game system, just provide all characters - don't allow player provided characters 
  • Very few players look at website links, and most will not read large world building text blocks. 

Convention Preparation

  • Play test with more than one gaming group - you will find new places where your game breaks, and get a better idea of the time slot needed.
  • If asking others to help with pre-generating characters, make sure you are *very, very* clear about the nature of the game - don't try to use just the DDC printed program description.
  • AT LEAST two (2) weeks ahead, list all the materials you'll need for the game and make sure you have it all - including print outs. When packing the materials up, check and double check that list.

    Astrid E. suggests, "Get lots of sleep before your game, it helps you remember things and be more patient."

During Game

  • At the start, go over player-provided characters thoroughly & clarify anything that looks funky - it's easier to nip funky characters in the bud than to have other players get frustrated by the guy who's "getting away" with his munchkin 
  • Extra GM provided characters are _very_ useful, not just for giving everyone a chance to chose a character type, but also if you need a Roc to fall on someone :)
  • Don't be afraid to be mean. Allowing one rules argument is likely to invite tons more.
  • Move along - when a player is consistently taking his time to figure out what his character is doing, skip and come back. If he's still having problems, rule him delayed.
  • Even if you listed for "Rules Knowledge Useful or Expected", make sure everyone is familiar with the basic game rules and where to look for common statistics on their character sheets - especially when using non-standard sheets for pre-generated characters.

    Astrid E. suggests, "Don't hesitate to eject a player if they are ruining the game for your players, or you as a GM.
    "Be reasonable, but remember Rule 0 - "The GM is always right."
"Don't abuse your players" (examples include oversharing world building minutea, under-describing the scene and then smacking them with hazards they should have a chance to notice before the hammer falls, etc.)
    "Please remember that this is supposed to be fun for everybody involved."

    Patrick R. ( suggests, "Have good table control. Make sure everyone gets a turn and don't allow yourself to be focused on a subset of the players. Some players are sticks in the mud, more audience than participant. Some players always have something to contribute, even if they're not in the scene. It's not about who's the loudest, quickest, prettiest, or most creative--it's about everybody. Every scene, go around the table and make sure each player is involved."

    Richard C. advised as a follow on that giving more manic players some kind of task or objective available only thru working with the other players or within the scenario can often help them settle into the spirit of the game.

    Gil T. ( suggests, "1) Hydrate. Your throat will thank you afterwards.
    "2) Consider setting an hourly or bi-hourly alarm on your phone. At least set an alarm to let you know when you've got 1 hour left before the game is supposed to end. Also consider setting an alarm to...
    "3) ... take a break shortly before the end of the next sign-up session. This is usually a good time to give your players some time get some chow. I would advise keeping the break to 15 minutes, especially as breaks usually add at least 10 minutes to corral the players back to the table.
    "4) If you don't want people using their phones at the table, state that at the beginning and ask everyone to silence theirs. Personally, I don't mind it. Keeping every individual player's attention for 6-8 hours is difficult to begin with, so it's cool if the player occasionally takes a minute to check their email, Facebook, or Twitter rather than having them get bored.
    "5) I can't speak for all types of RPGs, but, with the ones I usually play or GM, I see the GM's role as providing opportunities for the players rather than leading them through a wholly established story. If the players have abandoned the plot and ignored their character's options, it's still good so long as they are having fun.
    "6) Don't be a jerk. Don't interrupt people when they are talking. Don't criticize player's decisions out-of-character. Don't narrate rape scenes in explicit detail. Don't throw things at players to get their attention. Don't assume the players at the table will only want to play their gender when doing character selection. Try to watch the profanity when there are very young children at the table. Don't belch in public. Shower daily. Essentially have some basic human decency at the table, have fun when you can, don't turn into an angerball when you don't, and try to help everyone else have fun."

    proudgeek159 suggests, "regarding rules disputes: If both parties have rational arguments for their interpretation of the rules and it won't break the scenario, have the player pick odds or evens, then roll a D6. That way the player can't complain because the gods of the dice actually made the decision. This will speed up play, and keep peace around the table."

    Jeff H. suggests, "Project. Get your voice and words out there. Show confidence and a little swagger. The Players are there to be in your game, don't let them down!"

Misc. Tips and Thoughts 

    As a player, I view DDC as a chance to try out new game systems, therefore I look for games in the "Beginners Welcome" and "Characters provided by GM" categories. I don't think I've been in a single game with those two categories that hasn't had crashers lined up. 
    Something I picked up from my critical writing group: when receiving feedback, keep the source and the context in mind. That's neither a blessing to disregard a criticism nor to blow it up all out of proportion.