aka the Games of Summer (a riff on Boys of Summer, you get the idea)

Over the last three weeks I have run three convention sessions for three different RPGs. Preparing for a convention game can be a challenge. All three games are from big publishers (Chaosium and Fri Ligan), which helped with players being familiar with or having played the games in question. All three sessions were fun, the players enjoyed themselves, and there was a minimum of table issues. In only one case did I use a VTT, because I felt like the visuals enhanced the game. I did set up all three games in Roll20 though, to hold information and the maps for myself.

What are the pitfalls of running a game at a convention? There are a few, though I dare say the rewards (mostly) outweigh the downside for me. An online convention is cheaper to be a GM for even though we were responsible for figuring out how to run the adventures ourselves. Both Gen Con and Nerdburger Con offered some advice in that regard. (note: the link to Nerdburger Con has been taken down)

For me there is an emotional element to running at a convention. I am anxious before the game starts but there is an energy to convention stranger danger that I look forward to. Who are these players? What kind of characters will they be? Often you are surprised. But when a game does not go off, I do feel let down or that I failed. If it is one of my own games, this really sucks. No one wants to be the GM sitting with an empty table because players are not interested in your fantasy heartbreaker.

Another issue I run into is how much “stuff” to bring. Not an issue for an online convention, but I realized had these been in person, I would have needed a lot of material on hand to get through the adventures. I have witnessed (more than once) a GM bring their entire home campaign with them to a convention to let new folks play in it. This seems like too much, even if everyone involved appears to be having a good time. I was grateful I could use the PDF version of everything. One downside of many of the big publisher games is how much stuff you need to run them. Most of the small press games do not require quite as much “stuff” to run them at a convention; in fact, this is one of the draws of such games. I think there is always a danger of over-preparing hand outs and gadgets and extraneous material instead of focusing on the mechanics and the content. I found myself being more efficient with prepping for an online convention than I would have had it been in person.

Two of the games were for GenCon Online and the third was for a friend’s small publisher convention, Nerdburger. In all cases there were pre-generated characters for the players to use. Each convention also had a Discord for GMs and for players. I am going to talk about each game in brief but am happy to expand on any of them as desired.

HeroQuest Glorantha: Wyrmghost Ruins (GCO)

It had been a minute since I had run a game of Heroquest and frankly, it showed. I have been working on a genre pack for the new Questworlds and contributing to that discussion on occasion. But running HQ; well it had been a few years. I refreshed myself on the rules and familiarized myself with the adventure, which was not really written to fit into a four-hour convention slot. I had to curate that content a bit. The players were either not familiar or barely familiar with the game and some time was spent going over the dice, mastery, and conflicts. I chose not to do any extended conflicts during the session because of the time constraints.

Heroquest is a fun game to run and it creates a different dynamic at the table with a single roll resolving a given conflict. The negotiations with the players provided a lot of fun, but also shaped the direction of the game. The scenario provided a lot of options and directions for the players to go to reach their goal. Although I did have to shorten some content and made a few mistakes, I felt that everything went smoothly. One place I could have improved is making the conflicts more difficult, which I had the tools for, but my rust was showing and I was focused on keeping the content flowing at a good pace.

Runequest Glorantha: Trouble at Day’s Rest (GCO)

This adventure was designed to be run at a convention and did not need any shortening. I have run Runequest: Glorantha a little but this was my first time running it at a convention of any kind. One of the players from the Heroquest game was in this one as well and they wanted to check out RQ because they had not played it in many years. This was a theme of this table: for most it had been ten or thirty years since they had played RQ. There others were mostly new to it, with one player having some experience with the RQG rules. A fun table to run.

And I have to say, the system ran exactly as it should have. I reminded them to use their runes and augmentations to help with rolls. Combat went quick as all the numbers needed were right there in front of us. I do not think I did the strike ranks for missile fire exactly right nor for spellcasting. The players found their own way to the plot coupons without me needing to dangle them seductively. The adventure was well written and made this possible.

Coriolis: Message of Profit (NBC)

This is a Coriolis adventure I have been working on for a bit. I may even turn it into something I sell on the Fria Ligun Workshop. While I had some friends look it over, this was the first real playtest of the adventure. Fortune favored me with a good group of players. The adventure was designed to touch lightly on religious and political issues, always with an eye towards minimizing orientalist issues inherent in the setting of the game. Player feedback suggested I had done alright, but I want a few more playtests to be sure.

The adventure was designed to drop the characters into the action almost immediately. There was a small info dump but no long “person in black trench coat hires you” negotiation; the characters had agreed to the job before the game begins. I did not make the pilot roll for docking and I have mixed thoughts on it. Docking is routine, no need for a roll. However, a pilot does not have much to do otherwise in the adventure and perhaps I could have built more tension by making the approach to docking not routine? Maybe give someone with pilot skills something to do later on?

There were avenues the players could have taken that lay outside of their main mission, but they decided to stick with what they were hired to do, extrapolating things that did not exist in the adventure. I thought that was funny and enjoy watching players over think, though I will occasionally step in and say, “you are over thinking it”. Players enthusiastically prayed to the icons, giving me darkness points (DP) to work with. I used them but was not mean about it and think I should have been meaner; that is what the points are there for. One of the changes I am going to make is give specific uses of darkness points that are specific to this adventure and not just generic ones from the book or things I come up with out of the blue.

Using your own material can be great and is necessary to run some games in a convention setting. Quickstarts are not always great for doing that and tend to act is if I am allergic to quickstarts anyway. I should have formally playtested it at least once, though.

Coming up in the next few months it looks like I am running more RQG at PAX online and a session of Aquelarre there as well. I will run the same adventure of Aquellarre at GROGMeetish 2020.


9 responses to “CON Man”

  1. Wanted to say I really

    Wanted to say I really appreciated this rundown and will return to it if/when I'm preparing a game for a convention. 

    "In only one case did I use a VTT, because I felt like the visuals enhanced the game."

    What is a VTT?

    Also, I run a meetup group in my town. We often host one-shot events for the purposes of trying out new games and introducing new players. Please let me know if there's a way I could get a hold of any of the scenarios you ran, either now or after you publish.

    • VTT = Virtual Table Top. In

      VTT = Virtual Table Top. In my case its Roll20, but also Fantasy Grounds, Foundry, Astral table top etc…

      The Coriolis adventure, absolutely. I am turning into something readable by others.  The scenarios for HQ and RQ are not out yet as is my understanding but when they come out, I will remind folks.

  2. Fun in Four Hours

    (Putting this here because it seems like Sean does a lot of Con GMing and I'm interested in his answers, but I'd be happy for anybody to chime in).

    Sean, with all these Con games and one shots and just generally being a game running machine, I'm interested in what you find makes for a good one shot game experience. Do you get something different out of it compared to a more ongoing game? Are there specific limitations on the types of fun roleplaying you can get n these contexts, or equally things it is easier to do if everybody knows this is one and done?

    Picking some more specific things from your write ups, you mention that the scenario for the Hereoquest game wasn't written for a single session, and, although I haven't played it, I have the impression that this game normally rewards a longer investment of time. Did you have to restrict the players options to fit the shorter period for example? I would imagine a lot of the fun of playing Heroquest fits poorly into the traditional preprogrammed series of encounters model of scenario writing in any case, but this could be my lack of imagination. Similarly in both the Runequest and Coriolis games I get the impression there was also a fairly structured series of planned events for play, given your mention of plot coupons and needing to find opportunities for a pilot to get in on the action.

    I'm going to use the dread word agency now – to what extent do you feel players had the opportunity to express agency for their characters and co-create a story with you, as opposed to some other experience? I hope this doesn't sound critical, I'm really just intersted in understanding convention / one shot play a bit better. Is that agency not really the goal here? Is it easier to fit into four hours than I am imagining, given I don;t have much con going experience? Or what things work well in a limited time to support it?

    (I should probably declare my ulterior motive here, which is I'm thinking of running a game at an online con and am then frozen and unsure how to make that really fun for all the players – ).

    • Ross – these are great

      Ross – these are great questions. I am happy to talk about my experiences. Regardless of what I can offer, I encourage everyone to run a con game, online or in person. My reason for this is that it offers you an opportunity to put into practice all the theory we talk about. When you run for strangers or con folks there is the opportunity to run a game outside of the expectations of a normal group of players. In some ways running for folks at Adept Play has been like that, except it is a great big convention that (hopefully) never ends. Of course there is anxiety associated with running for strangers and Cons do get player feedback. But I think the benefits outweight the downsides.

      In all cases it pays to have players who buy into the idea that this is a convention game. That mindset is different and if someone is coming to the con to play (or run) their normal Saturday afternoon crisps and dip game, they may not get the most out of it. But most players understand there are constraints and just roll (or role) with it. 

      The Heroquest adventure – Wyrmghost Ruins, is not really meant to be played in one session. It is recommened for 2-3 sessions. What I did is cut out some of the setup and tried to keep the game at a good pace, which meant keeping my narration and the negotiations as short as possible. Heroquest does not fit into the conventional mode(1) but the system works so well (in my opinion) that conflicts are short and over with in a few breaths. I did cut some spots, but I never narrowed felt I robbed the players of informed and realistic choices. They had a few paths to go on and I worked with the way they went.

      Now the Runequest: Glorantha adventure (which I did not write) and the Coriolis adventure (which I did – but have not finished and published) were designed for more conventional uh.. convention play or one-shot play. They had a limited number of situational changes, or scene changes and the clues were not difficult to figure out. Well to be clear, the RQ:G clues were not difficult, my Coriolis adventure needed polish. However, one thing Message of Profit did well is dump the players into the action right away. There was no wrangling or hiring process; the characters had what they needed to deliver and so the players asked some questions about details and then moved on. 

      Thoughts & Lessons

      My thinking on one-shots and con games has changed over the last 20 years. The situation video where Ron and I talk situations and such was part of that process too. The Indie Games group in my local city (Atlanta USA), has also been part of that process. Often times we are introducing a brand new game each month. For conventions, pre-generated characters do work well, but they are not a must. I try and alot 3 hours for one shot or con play, with the fourth hour for character gneration / game description. When teaching a game, I give the basics and then we move on into play and I let the players know when a situation might be of interest to their character or for rolling. 

      In all three cases I did feel that player (and character) agency was front and center. I made it a priority and I think players were able to make informed decisions, which is how I define agency. In some ways agency and consent go together in that regard. All the freedom to chose does not mean a dark without a fair dose of what it is you are choosing. But as mentioned, players do understand that there will be a more limited scope to the game session.

      One thing to note, and I was reminded of this when Tommi ran the Holmes Basic one-shot for us, is that you do not have to finish the adventure for it to have been fun and a good experience. The point is not to finish, but to experience what it is like to play the game. In that regard, designing or running shorter and narrower advenures often works well. 

      I also do not think a sand/kitty box / open world approach works. Give the players a goal to accomplish in 3 – 5 hours. Focus on one or two parts of the system that area easy to access and understand. 


      1. In the days of the RPGA during the D&D 3E/3.5E days we played and designed adventures with a tight, 3 combat encounter and one rp encounter philosophy. 

      2. It's true, I might be part man, part polyhedral dice set at this point (i.e. game running machine). 

    • OSR con games with sandbox

      OSR con games with sandbox

      I also do not think a sand/kitty box / open world approach works. Give the players a goal to accomplish in 3 – 5 hours. Focus on one or two parts of the system that area easy to access and understand.

      There are two kinds of con games I have run where a sandbox has played a role.

      The first is that I offer a single adventure location, start at the entrance typically, and we play as usual. The sandbox is there in the background, informing the refereeing as usual, and the outcome of the play will affect the game world, too. As a referee this gives me a solid understanding of the game world and a heightened appreciation of the play, since it has continuity and further effects, but the players could as well not know about it.

      Another is the open gaming table; essentially games-on-demand style open table, where anyone can come in to play or listen, get a pre-made character or make a new one and also leave or stop at any point in time. The first people there choose the adventure; I usually offer about three distinct alternatives (for example: traditional D&D dungeon, high weirdness, catch a weretiger in a town). Typically there are a few dedicated players who stay for a longer time and several others who drop in for a while and drop out again. Players drawing the adventure map and filling new players in helps, as does having some players who know what is happening. If the characters all die or they leave the adventure location and return to civilization, we quickly deal with the downtime stuff if any and move on to the next adventurous part, though typically many players also take their leave at such a juncture point, so the new ones incoming get to choose the next adventure. Lots of being explicit about choosing the adventure; waffling around (or "roleplaying") is not a virtue in this circumstance.

      The latter has worked well at physical cons (I have done it and seen it done at Ropecon and Tracon, the first with lots of experienced roleplayers and the second with more of an anime child/youngster audience); I am not aware of digital attempts.

    • Tommi … you’re kidding,

      Tommi … you're kidding, right? "Sandbox," for nothing more than invoking setting a bit, or for offering several options about what to play or do next?

      I'm calling it. The term is trash. We've reached the point I anticipated in my essay ten years ago, where "sandbox" means nothing at all besides "play."

    • Ron, no, I do mean that the

      Ron, no, I do mean that the con game is set in a proper sandbox, the one that you (generic you, not you in particular) have been using for your home games and will be using in the future, with continuity, characters with agendas, stuff happening. It might not show up in play during the con (or it might, who knows), but it is there. Maybe someone who has been playing in that particular game world happens to play this time, and if so, that is relevant; but maybe it does not happen.

      Without such a sandbox you have been cultivating, the best in a con game is offering a couple of choices without that much context.

    • I appreciate the

      I appreciate the clarification, as well as your tolerance for my outburst, but my grumpy reply still stands. What value added or difference of choices does the alleged sandboxiness make for the players? Is their experience of play any different because you have a larger-scale sense of value or reality about the backdrop of play?

      But we shouldn't pursue it here. I think it's better for me to clarify that your techniques (the real Tommi's, not generic "you") are very strong for enjoying play; I do not intend any criticism of them whatsoever. My negativity is reserved for the term, which as far as I can tell operates as a cultural signifier with nearly infinite and disconnected meanings. We may not agree about that, but I've shouted my shout and am OK with leaving the thread in peace.

  3. New (In Person) Convention – Player Expectations & Prep

    I am running a game at JordanCon (In Atlanta USA 16th to 18th of July). Because its a post-COVID world and I think because the hotel has staffing issues, some of the times are tight. I am running a 90-minute session of Ruins of Symbaroum. This is the 5E version of Symbaroum. I know many folks have strong opinions about the system and maybe in the post-con debrief we can discuss that. For this particular convention I think the provided backdrop/color and the stripped down 5e work okay. Especially in a 90-minute window.

    I am beginning prep with that idea in mind, with an eye towards what is easy for a player to digest and also engaging. Something that will encourage them to play what is in front of them. I would love for people to provide any thoughts they have. Especially as a player, what they expect and what engages a player. I realize this may be a bit general so let's do this:

    When you prep, do you have a process that helps you whittle down the extraneous bits to get to the core of what you need? 

    As someone who has come to play, but not done prep, what helps you buy into what is happening?

    I know I have a lot of convention experience, but I also know I have some bad habits and want to be mindful about creating a good play experience, as opposed to fucking off for 90 minutes. 

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