Life's a Die, and then you bitch

A Gamemaster's Convention Survival Guide

Midori Hirtzel

So, you’ve honed your craft as a GM in several play-sessions with your friends, and you think you’re ready to take your act “out on the road” and GM an event at a convention, do you? After all, how different can it be?

Really different. For one thing, you must be able to fit your storyline into the time constraints imposed by the convention; you won’t have the luxury of leaving crucial plot lines hanging “until next time,” as there’s a very good chance you may never see the players again (at least, not until next year). For another, you’ll probably have no idea of the caliber of players that you’ll be getting, and you’ll have to take anyone who buys a ticket to the event regardless of their roleplaying skill. While for your own game you can attempt to screen out “undesirables,” at a convention you won’t have either the time or the authority to do so, unless you really want to make a bad name for yourself (but that’s another story). With these and other concerns in mind, and backed by experience as a GM at a number of conventions, here are some tips for surviving the convention experience in one piece:

1. Start early. Ideally, you should start planning your event before you even sign up for the con. You might want to set aside a piece of paper for your ideas, and just jot them down as they come to you. Remember to start thinking early and to think often; that way, you won’t find yourself scurrying around the week before the con, realizing that you haven’t done anything.

The same thing goes for characters; if you’ll be providing pre-generated ones, start creating them as soon as you have the event ideas roughed out. If possible, get your regular group to help you; after all, two (or three, or four, or five) heads are better than one, and this will take some of the load off you, the busy GM. You might also want to look through some of the sourcebooks put out by the particular game company in question; sometimes their NPCs can be made into characters for the event with a little tinkering, or they may even provide ready-made character templates for your use (White Wolf’s Werewolf “Tribe Books” and Vampire “Clanbooks” are excellent for this sort of thing).

2. Provide pre-generated characters if at all possible. Personally, I think that this ought to be required of all but a few convention events. By providing pre-generated characters, not only will you be able to tailor the characters to your event, but you will also be able to finish your adventure in the time alotted, without having to walk the players through character creation -- a plus if you happen to get some players who are unfamiliar with the game system. My husband told me once about the Amber Diceless RPG game he played in where the players spent most of the event creating characters; since people come to your event to play, you really want to avoid that sort of thing.

When distributing characters to the participants, I’ve found it helps to let them choose what they want to play. This is most easily accomplished by displaying the names and character classes (read: clans, tribes, auspices, levels) of each possible PC, and putting them up for grabs. If you have two players who want the same character, have them flip a coin or roll a die for it. It also helps to have extra characters on hand; for example, if your event calls for five players, you ought to have at least seven (preferably more) characters to choose from. Also, I have discovered that it helps to create more than one of each possible character type (so long as they’re not complete duplicates). This way, if two players will play nothing but, say, neutral good clerics, and you’ve had the foresight to create two of them, there won’t be a problem. Just use the characteristics from one character, and maybe change the gender or the personality profile. For example, I created two almost identical versions of each of the PCs for one Vampire event I ran: one male and one female. It was that easy!

3. Remember who is charge. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: it’s your game. Don’t let the players run roughshod over you. It’s probably a good idea to come prepared with a basic outline of your plot, and try to stick to it. If the players get off the beaten track, you can gently try to get them back on course.

This tip also works if players start to get argumentative. Try to defuse arguments as quickly as possible, and go on with the game, or you’ll run the risk of boring or annoying your other players, who have nothing to do while some loudmouth bitches at the Gamemaster for half an hour. Not fun for anybody, except maybe the loudmouth. Even if you’d like to debate the rules with said player (and let’s face it -- do any of us really like to do this?), please remember that you have a responsibility to your other players, who came (and often paid money) to enjoy themselves.

4. Be flexible. Even if you think you’re prepared for every eventuality, there’s a chance the players will do something you never expected. When this happens, don’t panic. Simply try to salvage whatever you can of your scenario, and perhaps guide the players back on track. Yes, I know that’s easier said than done, but you wouldn’t be doing this if you didn’t have grace under fire, right (just a little GM humor there...)? It often helps to test the plot out beforehand by hashing it out with friends before your big moment, and making sure that there’s more than one way for the players to accomplish their goal. For example, there might be a number of ways that the Werewolf PCs could find the whereabouts of their missing packmate, from the flower shop where he bought his mysterious new lady-friend a bouquet, to the Ritemistress’s memories of a similar occurrence when she was a young woman, to a visit by a group of faery knights...the list goes on and on.

Also, you need to be able to take things in stride if the players don’t take to your plot. Or, as a friend of mine put it: “You can create a map of the West, have the history and culture of the West all planned out, and call your event ‘Go West,’ and there will always be a group of players who go (wait for it... :-) East. “ When this happens, again, don’t panic. The solution is simple: just turn the map around, and make everything in the West in the East. Silly? Maybe. But when you’re desperately searching for a way to salvage your scenario, it just might work.

5. Relax and have fun. After all is said and done, isn’t that why you’re doing this? After all, this is supposed to be fun for the GM, too! And isn’t that what it’s all about? So don’t get too worried about how your event is going to turn out; the object here is to have fun! So good luck, and happy gaming!

copyright 1996

Original text copyright 1996 by Midori M. Hirtzel; title logo created by Jennifer Pleskow. Originally converted to HTML by Jennifer Pleskow; posted to Black Unicorn Wood by Midori Hirtzel-Church.
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