The Top 10 Things That Can Make a Convention Game Awesome

They kicked out the Troll so let’s start having fun!

I recently wrote a post about things that could make convention games less than ideal. I don’t want to imply that such games were all bad though, many of my best RPG experiences have been at Conventions. In fact, some of the games I’ve played have been downright amazing. I’ve tried to isolate some of the elements that contribute to such games.

10) That Guy

I swear it’s the only one!

There’s one version of “That Guy” that can be very useful: The non-selfish instigator. That player can spell salvation for an otherwise bland, risk-aversive group. While others may hesitate to take decisions or spend too long pixelbitching the environment, the instigator goes forward, kicks doors and pulls levers. The presence of this guy can even turn the game into pure gold when the GM learns to channel the instigator’s impatience and enthusiasm into a pacing mechanic. In such cases, if a sufficient level of trust can  be established, the instigator won’t go out of his way to get everyone killed.

9) The Venue

Con games can be quite bloody noisy. So noisy that I considered putting it as one of the “sucky” elements in the previous post. However, sometimes a game will be held in an area that is both airy and comfortable. This is especially true if you can manage to sneak a game in a quiet corner of the convention. Such cozy environments remove the stress of having to filter out ambient noise and allows players to act more natural and get into the game more easily.

8) Friendly, Enthusiastic Players

The great majority of players I’ve GMed for have been nice people. Yet, once in a while you get that one (or several) gems that just makes the whole table shine. They’ll be cheery, will promote table cohesion and just irradiate fun. Such people often become what I call positive leaders, establishing a sense of camaraderie that make the experience a charm for everyone.

7) An Organised GM

You spot them from 20 feet away. The table is ready before you sit down. Every player has a full-colour character sheet, a set of pencils/markers and dice. The GM has a rad GM screen, tokens and  initiative markers. She knows the adventure front and back and she’s ready to go as soon as everyone is seated.

6) Perfect Character Adventure Synergy

Dave the Game has a saying that everything on a pre-generated characters should get used during a convention adventure.  Rogues need to spring traps, Investigators need to find clues and Bards that use Tribal Belly Dancing should… You get my point. This is important because players expect their characters to play a significant role in the session. You absolutely want to avoid having one or more players sit around for 4 hours and never make a significant dice roll/action.

5) An Assertive, Fair GM

They exist, and when you play with one, you remember it. They are not tyrants, but have a razor sharp focus on the game’s pacing and everyone’s fun. They don’t take crap from anyone, have no tolerance for rule lawyers and call out “Those Guys” when needed. They make sure everyone has a fair time in the spotlight and will interrupt extroverts with a polite “Hang on to that thought” and look at other players who haven’t spoken much to ask “What does your character feel like doing?” We need more of those.

4) A Phenomenal Adventure

A convention adventure is a strange beast. It needs to fit in 4 hours (or less) and it often must cover what the game is all about. That’s a tall order that’s not consistently met. Yet sometimes you hit just the right adventure for the group arranged around the table. My favorite are those that mix exploration (setting or rules), conflict resolution and difficult choices. But it goes beyond that, the very best adventures are those that bring you to the cusp of abject defeat and then lets you manage to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat… without obvious manipulation by the GM.

Emphasis on that last part. 🙂

3) A Celebrity Game Master

Many times I’ve had the privilege of attending a game run by people whose names appear on the cover of the game books I own. When that happen, chances are the gaming experience will be EXACTLY as the creator envisioned it. If you are given the opportunity to be in such a game, Carpe the hell of that Diem!

2) Game with Friends you Haven’t Seen in a Long Time

I used to go to conventions to network with peers and drop my card in the hands of potential patrons. While I still do this to an extent, conventions are VERY much about sitting at tables with friends I only see too rarely and GAME GAME GAME. RPG sessions with friends can attain that special space where magic happens and the game transcends itself. That’s why I so much look forward to convention season.

1) A Safe Environment

The absolute best roleplaying games I’ve played were where I had no fear of expressing myself and going where I would not usually do.  Sometimes, when multiple conditions from that list are met, you can unleash your inner actor and go to town. I recall episodes where I would be crawling on the floor, acting the moves of my character to drive the point of his intent  home… much to the feigned horror of my co-players. A safe environment, bereft of judging, prejudice and any of “Those Guys” can truly unlock the full potential of convention games.

Be among those who can foster such games. Strive to make the experience better for those at your table, regardless if you’re a player or a GM. It will reflect on the whole table and it WILL make for better memories.

What about your favourite convention games? What clinched it for you?


  1. The genius Kevin Kulp described a perfect con adventure as being like a Brontosaurus — very thin at the beginning, thick in the middle, and very thin again at the end.

    What he meant was that the adventure should start with very few obvious options for the players, so they don’t waste time in the beginning wondering what to do. I always start my con games with “Roll for initiative!” and put the characters right into a life-or-death scenario so that they’re rolling and doing cool stuff right out the gate.

    Then in the middle, give them options and choices and let them decide what to do. They can explore, gather clues, make each other laugh, whatever. Branching pathways in the dungeon, a bunch of wacky NPCs, whatever. You can find out what sort of game this table wants, and give everyone a chance to shine, but ultimately you’re guiding them towards the finale, where options get narrow again.

    Whatever they decide to do, the finale is again a high-speed, one-way express to awesome. In con games there’s no reason to hold anything back. You don’t have to sustain this in a campaign, so going completely over-the-top is a big part of the fun. Let players do crazy stuff, pit them against impossible odds, and kill a whole a bunch of them if it’s appropriate. Campaign play can often be resistant to big transformation or shocking upsets, but a con one-shot is a great time to completely mess everything up.

    Great post!

  2. @barsoomcore – I love the idea of starting players out already in the thick of things. It’s one of those blindingly obvious ideas that I can’t believe never occured to me (in 20 years of con-going). As a GM you’ve already designed everything else in the character’s background, why not start them past the first decision point? Technically they agreed to go on the adventure by signing up for the game!

  3. @barsoomcore: I could not agree more. Kevin is a reference for con games and that template is great!

  4. I am most definitely one of this list’s “That Guy”s. I’ll push buttons, pull levers, generally try to keep things from bogging down. This led to my halfling mage leading the charge through an old-school dungeon in a recent D&D Next playtest.

    Unfortunately, that same game also showed us the worst part of my type of “That Guy”. We get bored VERY fast when we can’t affect things. With one bad roll, I was polymorphed into a butterfly by a trap, and couldn’t try to save against it again for 24 hours.

    So I sat there, stewing, for two real-time hours before the DM decided he felt sorry for me and let me change back to myself for the final fight of the night. But by that point I was tired, bored, and just wanted to be done.

    It’s amazing how quickly my instigator tendencies began working against the party when they had been suppressed for so long.

    So yeah, my type of instigator can be great in a group. But leave people like me out of deathtrap dungeons, or games that can take us out of the game for extended periods.

  5. I, too, am a ‘That Guy’. I get bored when the players get bogged down in the decision making process or pixelbitching as you put it.

    My old saying s, “XP doesn’t happen in a vacuum.” Not that XP is the only desirable result. But if they want to roleplay their responses to when I trigger the trap, that’s good too.

  6. Great post.
    I run several con games a year and always follow a similar format regardless of game or genre:
    1: Open up in the middle of something exciting.
    2: After the initial chaos slow it down a bit and let players get to know each other and engage the story.
    3: Quickly escalate to a no-holds barred final scene.

    This format seems to keep players focused and on track. A few other tips I would add for GM’s running a game:
    1: Be the guy with the most energy in the room. As a good GM you have to be the Alpha. Your energy level will dictate pace, excitement, and tone. When I run a game I don’t sit at the table, I stand, I move around, and I engage players directly.
    2: My games always start with the following assumptions in place: The characters have “agreed” to go on the mission/adventure, and the characters (not necessarily the players) have already been briefed on their mission or understand their current circumstances.
    3: Avoid having the players “wander” into the adventure. A great con scenario makes the players feel like they are playing in game that ended in a fantastic cliff-hanger last week.
    4: Don’t be afraid of railroading the game. My home games are very open, but at a con we’re here to get a job done in a short time frame. The players aren’t here to “explore” the setting.
    5: Keep them off balance and on their toes. Use deadlines, countdowns, and the ever present threat of destruction to push characters into action. Even “that guy” has a hard time being trouble when the action is full-throttle.

    Just a few tips from a guy that has learned some really tough lessons in the con trenches!


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