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I Was a Teenage Game Master

or the ABCs of Convention Gming

Note: This article was originally published in issue #20 of arcane magazine and in the 02/19/1999 issue of Pyramid Online.

by Chris Pramas

I went to my first GenCon in 1989. I had always remembered those ads in the back of all TSR's early products telling me the wonders of the Con of Cons and that year I decided to find out if it all was true. So I flew out, crashed on the floor of some friends who happened to live in Old Milwaukee, and dove head first into the biggest con in the Western Hemisphere. It's kind of funny to look back at that year, when I knew no one and had no idea what to expect. Now, it's a yearly ritual, something I take for granted. Then, it was much more mysterious. As you might have guessed, since I've gone every year since then, I had a great time and told all my friends about it. Many of them came the next year and have been with me ever since. Over the years, I've gone from simple player to GM to aspiring freelancer to publisher. Quite a ride, I must say, and in many ways in all began that fateful year I said, "I think I'll go to GenCon."

It should come as no surprise that I've played in a lot games in a lot of cons. A few have been great, outstanding examples of what roleplaying can be that will live forever in my memory. A far larger proportion, however, were exercises in mediocrity or simply downright bad. Over the years I began to notice the mistakes that I saw GM after GM make. When I started running a tournament of my own at GenCon, I tried to implement what I had learned. My game, an Ars Magica tourney chronicling the continuing adventures of the covenant of Castellum Collis, ran for four years and was, I think, a great success. While I was forced to stop running the game due to my spiraling involvement in the industry as a freelance writer, I did learn a great deal about the fine art of game mastering. What follows are some suggestions, solidly based on my own experiences, for how to run a successful roleplaying game at a convention.

First, a warning. Running a good game takes a great deal of time, effort, and preparation. If you think you can show up with a few ideas jotted down on a napkin and run a satisfying game, you are wrong. If you can't commit to working on your own game, do everyone a favor and don't run one.

The Basics

The first thing you need to do is pick a system for your game. It's really best to go with a game you know very well. Otherwise, you spend precious time looking up rules, or worse, you end being dictated to by the rules lawyers who infest every con. After you've picked your system, decide what kind of game you're going to run. Will it be a single round game or a multi-round tourney? Do you plan to make this a continuing series or is it a one-off? Both of these decisions will affect the way you develop your game so it's good to make them at the outset.

The next thing to do is to sit down and come up with the basic plot line for the game. You needn't hammer out the nitty gritty at this stage, but give some thought to what you're trying to do. Is your game going to be political intrigue, a classic dungeon crawl, something experimental, or all of the above? You should also decide how many players you'd like to have in the game. Commonly, you'll have up to eight, but many cons let you decide. I've found that six is a good number. More than that and the game becomes more like babysitting than game mastering.

The Characters

Many GM's leave character creation up to the players. This is usually a big mistake for a couple of reasons. First, spending an hour or more of your game on character creation is a big waste of time. People go to cons to play, not to make characters. Second, creating the characters beforehand lets you tailor the plot to suit them. You can write encounters specifically to play up the strengths and weaknesses of particular characters, which really serves to engage the players and to get them to identify with their characters. It also makes things easier on you, since you'll know exactly what each character can and cannot do. You don't have to worry about the guy who wants to make a Monk/Paladin/Acrobat if you design the characters. All that being said, there are a certain games that are designed for quick character generation that can be successfully run at cons without pre-gens. Over the Edge and Feng Shui are both games of this type.

Try to remember that characters are more than a bunch of statistics. There's nothing worse than being handed a sheet of paper covered with numbers and then being told to roleplay. You must provide the players with a character's history and roleplaying notes if you expect any kind of meaningful interaction. This is where you'll spend much of your time preparing your games. The first year is usually the worst, since you have to come up with six to ten characters that are interesting and playable. After that, you can tweak and update them in the wake of experience.

Another thing to consider when making characters is whether they'll be fun to play. You should try to give everyone a character who is unique in some way. It's no fun to play a character that is second best at everything. I remember playing a Call of Cthulhu game in which I played a high school student. I was under the impression that we were all high school students and that that was the angle of the game. Then about an hour in I realize that two of the characters are in fact professors who specialize in magic. So I'm running around with a baseball bat while these guys are slinging Elder Signs and casting spells. Their characters were simply better at everything than all the other characters. This is not fun and I quickly lost interest in the game.

Writing the Game

Now comes the really hard part: writing the game. You can have the best characters in the world, but people are still going to hate your game if the adventure itself is lame. It isn't within the scope of this article to try to answer the age old question "what makes a good adventure," but there are a few things you should try to bear in mind when designing a con run.

First, you should try to design your game so that it engages all of the players and, most importantly, their characters. Games that focus on one or two characters over all the others tend to marginalize the players of the other characters and make them feel unimportant. I once played in a Pendragon game in which I got to play Mordred. It's not every day that you get to play one of the classic villains of literature, so I jumped at the chance. The adventure was based on an episode in Mallory and dealt with Mordred turning from a good knight to the evil knight we all love to hate. Since the adventure was based on my character, I had a blast, especially given my love of the Arthurian mythos. All of the other characters in the game, however, were lesser knights who were basically my flunkies. A number of my friends also played in this game and expressed severe dissatisfaction with the small role they had played. After all, it was their game too, and I had gotten to have all the fun.

An excellent way to avoid the aforementioned problem is to try to plan scenes for each of the characters. These are encounters specifically designed for individual characters, yet another bonus of using pre-gens. Even if the story revolves heavily around one or two of the characters, giving each player a moment to shine makes them feel that their characters is really involved in what's going on. These scenes are most often dramatic situations, but can just as easily be based around a character's special abilities or knowledge. For instance, one character in my tourney, a magus named Octavius, had the flaw Demon Plagued. A particular demon was striving to corrupt his soul and Octavius was trying to keep this fact from all of his comrades. So each year, somewhere in the game, the demon would show up (usually in disguise) and make trouble for poor Octavius. Other characters in the game had similar scenes. Another thing to remember is that you're working with a time limit. At GenCon, this is usually four hours. Whatever the limit, you must be sure that your you can finish the game in the allotted time. If you don't finish, you can't just get everyone together the next week. If want to send your players home with a gaming experience they will remember, there really must be a sense of closure. One trick that I've used to great effect is to design an optional encounter. This is a scene you can use towards the end of an adventure that is not crucial to its outcome. If the game is proceeding as planned, use the encounter as normal. If you find that the game is running late and you're worried about finishing, skip it and get to the climax as soon as possible. If you're planning on running a multi-round tourney, you also need to consider the structure of each round. Often, GM's get carried away with the grand plan of their three round tourney. They give little thought to how each individual round plays but think only of the whole. This is great if you advance to the final but the truth is that most players won't. You have to make sure that each round of your tourney is fun to play in its own right. The characters should have the opportunity to complete a task that's important in the emerging plot. Thus they'll feel as if they made a difference, accomplishing something even if they don't get to see how the whole story plays out. I actually built this into my tourney by making round one all Grogs and round two Magi and Companions only. The Grogs, common soldiers who protect the much-vaunted magi of the Order of Hermes, always had a crucial task to perform and their triumphs usually set the stage for the game's final.

Running the Game

Alright, now you've designed the game and you've got the characters. If you're lucky, you've even had time to playtest it with your regular gaming group. Now you're at the con with six hungry players sitting before you. You think you're ready for every contingency and the next thing you know your game has been ruined. What went wrong?

Running a game for a group of people who are not only new to you but also strangers to each other can be quite a challenge. The one thing you can't plan for is the type of players you're going to get. A popular reason for running multi-round tournaments is that you can weed out the disruptive elements and insure a quality group for the final. You're not always going to have that luxury, however, and there are all those first rounds to get through. In my experience, you need to be on the lookout for three types of players who can ruin your game. First, there's the type I like to call the know-it-all. This category includes the dreaded rules lawyers, as well as those who consider themselves to be experts in the background and history of the game. The worst specimens of this type combine both characteristics. Now there's nothing wrong with knowing the rules and background of a game. In most cases, it's a positive boon. However, there will always be those people who feel that they must prove before the world that they know more about the game than the GM. They'll interrupt you to quote rules, start lengthy arguments on your interpretation of a rule or part of the games canon. Anything really to show off how much they know. The best thing to do with these players is to be assertive early. Don't let them interrupt, explain to them calmly but forcefully that its your game and your going to take whatever liberties you want to with the background and rules. This usually solves the problem. If it doesn't, ask them to leave and stop wasting everyone's time.

Second, there's the type I call the needy-children. I don't mean children in a literal sense though. I'm talking about players who need to be the center of attention all the time. They often will talk louder than everyone else and attempt to browbeat the other players into following their lead. They try to have their characters involved in every part of the adventure, even if their character is somewhere else. They try to butt in on other character's scenes and steal them. In short, they are rude and inconsiderate. As a GM, you need to be aware of how a needy-child can dominate a game. If you sense it happening, make a note of players who have lapsed into silence. Then start specifically asking the silent characters what they want to do and ignore the needy-children. Try to give everyone a chance to act before resolving situations and don't assume everyone is following the lead of the loudest player. Your players will thank you.

Lastly, there are those I simply call idiots. As you can tell, I have no patience for idiots. These are the types of players who show no consideration for all the work you've put into designing an adventure. They have their character pick fights for no reason, insult major NPC's no matter the circumstances, and run off on their own with blatant disregard to the actual plot of the adventure. I often wonder why these people play at all, since they have absolutely no interest in the adventure provided. If you don't get them to behave early on, your game is doomed. It's best to simply ask them to leave the game, since the tight schedule of most cons does not allow time for the years of therapy that these people need.

While it is easy to blame the players for disastrous games, sometimes the fault lies squarely at the GM's feet. Apart from issues of preparation and style, the GM needs to maintain a sense of fairness and equity throughout the game. Try to give everyone a chance to participate, and stay away from the deadly game of favorites. No one likes to be snubbed, and this is double true in RPG's. Above all, do not let one player kill or incapacitate other characters. This usually results in the dead characters' players leaving the game and feeling ripped-off. In one Stormbringer game I played, the GM let one player run wild and this ruined the entire game. The GM loaded the character down with potent magic items and then let his player utterly dominate the game. Then, when a friend and I plotted against this classic needy-child for a lack anything else to do in the adventure, the GM simply told the player what we had done. As we prepared to for a showdown, the GM favorite used a magic item to dominate our wills and take over our characters. Not only were we forced out of the game, we had to give this yahoo our character sheets as well. The sad thing is that this was a demo event sponsored by Chaosium and such actions on the GM's part were hardly going to sell people on an otherwise fine game.

Wrapping Up

One way or the other, with the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, your game will end. While you may be tempted to rest on you laurels (or knock back a fifth of Scotch depending on how the game went), there are a few tasks that still need doing. The most immediate of these is to determine the "winner" of the game. This is not necessary at all cons, but many provide gift certificates for each event and its your job as GM to hand them out. How you do this is entirely up to you and in many ways depends on your temperament. Some people refuse to play the winner/loser game at all, and simply have the players dice off for the prize. I've even seen it done before the game starts to kill the spirit of competition in its crib. Many GM's go with the prize concept to encourage better roleplaying, using it as a kind of carrot and stick device to get better performances out of their players. Prizes are then awarded by either popular vote or GM fiat. There are problems with both methods (popular voting usually rewards the blatant over the subtle, while GM fiat is by its very nature be extremely arbitrary). I tried to fall somewhere in the middle myself. I would let the players vote but reserved the final judgment for myself. I usually found that my judgment and that of the players coincided, but sometimes I did overrule the vote if I thought someone was really being overlooked. Again, there's no right way to do this, but it can become an issue (some folks take it mighty seriously) and it's best to plan ahead.

If you're planning on running a sequel to your event the following year, definitely sit down and write out how the adventure played out and what key actions the players took. Believe me, you'll be glad you did nine months later when you're working on the next adventure and you can't remember exactly what happened the year before. I made that mistake once and I never did it again. Repeat players, a sure a testimony that you're doing something right, expect a sense of continuity between years. That is, after all, one of things that brings them back to your table time after time.

Final Thoughts

After reading this article, you may well think all of this is too much bother to run a few games at conventions. I would urge you all, however, to give it try before giving up on the idea. Yes, it's hard work but there are still many things to recommend it. There's nothing quite like the feeling you get after a great session. When you get the right group of players and they click with your story, it's a beautiful thing. When players take your characters and give a virtuoso performance, or add a whole new level to their personality, it's a joy to watch. On a social level, it's a great way to meet like-minded gamers, as well as industry people, who are usually very happy that you've taken the time to promote their game a convention. I'll never forget the final of the third year of my tournament. The game went extremely well and I was quite pleased. Afterwards, one of the players came up to me and said, "That's the best game I've ever played at GenCon." That's when it's all worthwhile.

Copyright ©1997 Chris Pramas

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