(This article shares tips about convention GMing advice based on one of the best sessions I ran. I wrote it three years ago for a now-defunct magazine. I’ve updated it slightly. Enjoy!)
There’s something about running games for complete strangers at conventions that morphs a seemingly mundane tabletop RPG session into an unpredictable and riveting experience worth writing stories about.
There’s something electrifying about having hundreds of gamers crowded in an open hall. It puts everybody’s moods in a kind of excited expectancy. Players sitting at your table usually have no idea how their experience will turn out and often find themselves playing with complete strangers. Convention RPG sessions are often made up of a few players that know each other and one or two random people that get picked up in the lineup to round up the table.
The social dynamics are skewed from the get go. You have a core that is used to playing together with its own set of social rules. You then graft other players with vastly different backgrounds and social etiquette. Merging a group of mismatched players into a functioning group is likely the most challenging feat a convention Game Master has to perform. If you fail at this, you risk finding yourself with a group of half-interested players chucking dice in between bouts of dejected texting and social media updates.
Fortunately, in the following story, a ‘Learn to Play D&D’ session I ran at Pax East 2012, I came in ready…
“Hi, my name’s Phil. I’ll be your DM for the next few hours.” I read their body language and got ready to rein them in: “I’m sure you’ve all heard of those D&D games where the Dungeon Master tells you that you meet at a tavern. Then players spend the next 25 minutes being jerks to each other until they grudgingly accept to work together.” I got a few giggles and one or two knowing nods, my first hook was set.
They still were unsure. That moment of hesitation was my window of opportunity to pounce. “I have to say, I kinda hate those games. I’m not really that kind of DM. In fact the adventure I was supposed to run for you today sucks. That’s why I threw it away and decided you were going to help me design the adventure!” At that point, I had their attention, but I hadn’t quite established my credibility as a dungeon master yet.
“We’ll assume that your characters know each other but you’ve only adventured once before. That last adventure both went great and seriously wrong at the same time. Now I want YOU to tell me what went wrong and what went well in that adventure.”
As the players recovered from their surprise of being required to be active in establishing the adventure, I quietly observed them, trying to identify likely leaders. More importantly, I tried to spot the tables’ instigators. There’s always at least one at all tables. He’s that one person (often a guy) that pulls levers, kicks doors, and opens chests before the rest of the group can react. That person can either be a game’s main driver or its worst enemy.
I’ve found that getting the instigator on my side was often key to a session’s success. You do NOT want to have a bored or unhappy instigator at a gaming table.
One player finally piped up: “We were sent to rescue a dragon and we got the dragon killed!” It looked like I had found my instigator. The game was played with level 1 characters so such a quest made little sense. But that smartass hadn’t played at my table yet…
“Oh that’s good, but just convince me why beginning adventurers would be hired to protect a mighty dragon and I’ll run with it.” After some back and forth between the players, which “inadvertently” helped establish the social bonds needed to run a great game, another player suggested “we failed to recover a dragon’s egg from some kind of cult.” That player had a calm and smiling disposition. I noticed two other players deferring to him. I later learned he was a dungeon master himself and had brought players from his group. Good, I had identified the table’s leader.
I looked at everyone, “That’s very good! We’ll say that you guys dropped the egg, perhaps even broke it when you were fleeing the claws of the dragon-men cult! Now why don’t you tell me what went really well for you guys?” The instigator didn’t miss a beat and said “We found this huge treasure chest!” By that time, some of the other players were already facepalming.
I wasn’t born yesterday, I’d seen this trick used before. “That’s an AWESOME idea man. In fact…” and that’s when the whole adventure clicked in my mind“… the chest is one of those heavy contraptions made of enchanted elven oak, reinforced with dwarven steel and featuring a very complicated puzzle lock!”
“Of course…” said Mr. Instigator, convinced I was going for a cheap DM cop-out to kill his idea.
“Here’s the thing though, the reason why you’re all going on this next quest is that you’ve found the whereabouts of the key to that puzzle lock! You see, its design is closely associated with an ancient Elven god of chance and trickery. One of you managed to find an old, abandoned shrine dedicated to that god, chances are you’ll find what you’re looking for there.”
“Hey, That’s kinda cool man…” said the Instigator.
I had established my credibility, things were going to be just fine.
I distributed character sheets. The 3 new players picked the fighter, the mage and the paladin. The dungeon master picked the rogue and, no surprise there; our instigator chose the drow ranger. To set up the adventure, I used an open-grid map featuring a whole dungeon (from the D&D 4e basic set). Using a simple chart I made (see at the end of the article), I generated the content of rooms as they were explored. I made sure to always go back to the “trickster god” theme when prompted to react to a player’s action. This reinforced the idea that I was making them play in an adventure they had co-created.
For instance, in one room, I mentioned an empty, dust-covered pool. (I’d rolled “Empty, hidden treasure”) When the rogue’s player asked me about the pool, I said “While it seems empty from where you stand, you hear the distinct echoing sound of falling drops of water hitting a liquid surface.” As he started interacting with the pool, I made a point of telling the other characters they were unable to hear or see anything. This prompted jeers and catcalls for the poor rogue who was convinced something was afoot.
When the rogue finally gathered the courage to dip his hand in the seemingly empty pool, I told him “you feel icy cold water on your skin as your hand closes around something”. “Can I take it out?” asked the rogue, sensing I was going to spring a nasty trap on him. “Sure, in fact it seems to be a small bag filled with some kind of cut stones or beads” I said. The rogue quietly pocketed them, the player beaming at having figured out this illusory trick.
Later, when faced with a stuck door, the shy guy playing the dwarven fighter asked me is he could roll a dice to bash it down. I nodded and used another of my dirty DM tricks. “I don’t really care about figuring out if you can or can’t open the door. I mean look at that axe of yours right? So here’s what I propose, you’ll roll to see if, once you bash it down, you kept your balance and don’t fall on your face at the feet of whatever’s waiting on the other side. Are you cool with that?” He agreed, rolled so-so and the door exploded in a cloud of splinters and bent iron bands. The player was all smiles, until a patch of green goo, dislodged by his forceful entry, feel of his character and promptly started a slow and painful process of acidic digestion.
As I taught the newbies how combat worked, my fellow dungeon master piped up to help them by sharing advice and tricks to remember the core rules of combat. I’m always grateful when I have someone who knows the rules at the table. It allows me to focus on running the event and get rules-related support when I need it. Thus armed with the fresh knowledge of sticking pointy things and casting fiery spells into green piles of goo, all players mobilized to help the poor dwarf whose beard had already melted off his face.
As combat progressed, I started to see the signs. “Hey, I have this power on my sheet that lets me freeze and move monsters around” said the mage, a very quiet gal. “Oh you WANT to use it to pull that green slime away from the dwarf” answered the rogue. “Now that the fighter is free, I’m going to heal him and then bash the monster!” said the priest’s player. “If you move in that square instead of that one, I can squeeze in and sneak attack it” said the rogue.
These discussions of tactic, this unification of purpose around a single threat, this was what I sought from the start. I had started a game with 6 individuals; I now had a single gaming group sitting around me. The game would be a smashing success.
The room featured a large, glyph-like pattern on the floor upon which rested the oozing monster. When I noticed that the players were getting low on hit points, I leaned over the rogue’s player and whispered “You’ve ran the game before, you know how bogged down in numbers we can get. I just want to remind you that your character can look around and ask questions about the environment.” “Oh right!” he said “What about that set of runes there, can I roll to see what it is?” After he succeeded, I informed him that the glyph was actually some sort of ventilation mechanism.
The drow ranger said “So is there any kind of lever in the room?” “Dude! Never give a DM ideas!” said the rogue.
That’s all right boys, I was way ahead of you.
“I’m happy you finally asked, you see, there’s a strange, bone-like lever surrounded by Elven inscriptions set in the wall just beside the ranger.” The whole group groaned. “I can read Elven” said the ranger,” what does it say?”
“There’s some ambiguity because the modern Elven word for lever has similar roots to those of the fingers of the hand. I guess it roughly translates into ‘pull my finger’” I answered, deadpan.
When the laughter subsided, the players promptly beat the monster without triggering the explosive gas trap. They adventured for another half-hour or so, disarming a whirling blade contraption and recovered the solution to their puzzle chest. I could see on everyone’s face they enjoyed themselves.
I even got one of the best compliments a convention Dungeon Master can get. During the adventure, the instigator said “Can you come to Newark and run my game?”
Beyond what I discussed above, running a convention game is very different from running home games. For instance, you have to deliver a self-contained playing experience with a well-defined beginning and a satisfying end. You want players to leave the table knowing the fate of their characters. You have to make sure to have an adventure that will fit in the allotted time. The best way to insure that is to have a “final scene” ready ahead of time, one that takes about 15-20 minutes to run.
My favourite ones are challenges where all players need to cooperate to succeed. The whirling blade trap I mentioned above was such a scene. I asked one character to take the lead in getting the treasure while all the other players described how they helped, each rolling against an appropriate skill and giving a bonus or a penalty to the lead player based on its success or failure. The scene culminated with characters jamming the blades with magical ice, shields, weapons, and, in the case of the dwarf, his face! That allowed the rogue to duck and weave between the remaining blades to recover the quest’s reward.
Thus I was able to satisfyingly conclude the session. Sometimes you end up rushing a scene for completion, cutting some corners like making monsters easier to kill. I’ve noticed that players don’t mind that, as long as they get to have a story they can retell later.
One last element worth mentioning with convention games is dealing with unpleasant or overbearing socially-oblivious players. This is the darker side of conventions. A convention GM has no choice but to deal with players that steals other people’s fun. In such case, I tell GMs to immediately call out rude behavior. Whether it’s making sexist comments, criticizing other people’s way of playing, ranting or just being a jerk, the game master has the responsibility of being the bigger bastard. For instance, if someone cracks a sexist joke at my table, I give a benevolent warning that I’ll have no such thing, or any other kind of intimidating behavior toward any player. If the behavior persists, my tone hardens and I tell the perpetrators that they will be expelled from the table with no reimbursement or prejudice. If things get heated, I invite the other players to take a 5 minute break while I resolve the issue. I call for support from the event organizers if needed. Under no circumstances I raise my voice or lose my cool. When things go bad, you want to salvage the session for the remaining players. You want them to see you being cool and professional so they can return to playing with the minimum amount of awkwardness.
All these tricks I’ve shared can be learned through experience and practice. All convention GM have similar toolkits. Some use visual aids like miniatures and 3D props; others make funny voices and always speak in character. Yet, whatever the tricks we have up our sleeves, we all share the same goals: spreading fun and bringing new players to the fold. That’s why I keep volunteering for these events. That’s why I love the game.
Chatty DM’s Instant Dungeon Room Generator
Roll a d10
1-2: Empty, roll again: Treasure out in plain sight (1-5), hidden (6-8) or camouflaged (9-10)
5-6: Trap, roll again: Trapped Lock(s) (1-2), Trapped Treasure (3-4), Complex Contraption (5-10)
7-8: Puzzle, roll again: Riddle/Word puzzle (1-3), Magical puzzle (4-5), Mechanical puzzle (6-10)
9-10: Monster. roll again: Distracted (1), Hungry/Hostile (2-5), Neutral (6-9), Friendly (10)