If you want to run a convention game that will really dazzle your players and stick in their memory, you've come to the right place. If you just want to run a game at a con for free admission, read on anyway. You'll likely learn something you can use. While I can't promise that your game will be the RPG equivalent of the Odyssey, I can tell you that if you put some focus on the following ideas the overall enjoyment of your game will be on the rise.
I've been running con games for years now and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. A large part of that is due to the time and effort I've spent honing my ideas, but it also has to do with these core elements. While none of these are hard and fast rules, they have shown to be extremely helpful in my experience as a convention GM.
Pick a system you are familiar with and love.
Undoubtedly, we've all had this experience: everything comes to a grinding halt while someone (sometimes everyone) stops to look something up. A firm grasp of a system can go a long way. My go-to system is Savage Worlds for its simplicity. If I don't know a rule off-hand it's incredibly easy to figure out a quick and dirty way to make something work. I find it preferable than knowing all the intricacies of more complicated systems inside and out (Heroes Unlimited, you make so little sense to me,) but the bottom line is that running a system you know well makes a much smoother game.
Be logistically prepared.
I know what you're thinking. I said this would be simple and I threw logistics into it. Your brain already hurts. Bear with me though, because all I mean by this is that you should have a checklist of these basic gameplay aids:
- Extra dice required for your system (if applicable)
- Pre-generated maps
- Pre-generated characters
I know that prep work can be overwhelming, but you will look much more put together if you have these things at the ready. Dice and pencils are obvious staples.
For maps, GameMastery and Wizards of the Coast both have some very nice ones available for sale if you're not into cartography. If you are in the habit of drawing your own maps, do it beforehand. It's much easier to swap between locales which have been created prior to gameplay than to have everyone wait while you putz around with a wet erase marker. This will assist with the pacing of your game.
Consider theming your game.
A major deciding factor for me in running convention games was how much fun I had in a Fallout/Mad Max themed game a few years back at KublaCon. Themed games are not for everyone, but if you've ever read something and imagined how fun it would be to see an RPG set in that world, this idea might be for you.
If there isn't a system for your setting of choice, or worse if there is one and it isn't very good, this might take some adjustment.
Serenity RPG, I'm looking regrettably in your direction.
In a later post, I intend to detail my process for adapting an original plot of mine for Avatar: The Last Airbender into a 6-hour session which several contributors to this blog helped playtest. Theming your game with something you love is a fantastic way to boost enjoyment, because if you are a fan of a franchise enough to base a game in that world, chances are that your passion for it will shine through. The enthusiasm will be infectious, and you will end up meeting like-minded people with similar passions. (Sometimes my brother will go on and on about how amazing it was that he got to play Sokka.)
Raise the stakes.
Most of us game to experience something different and that brings a lot of excitement. Otherwise, we wouldn't come back to it again and again. I like to think of a proper one-shot con game like it's a movie. There is exposition, rising action, character development and choice, and a big climactic finish. Try to gear everything so that it builds to a grand finale, because every player likes to feel that their choices had an impact and that what they did mattered in the big picture of the world you've created together.
Relax and have fun.
At the end of the day, running a game should be fun. If you aren't having fun, take some time to be introspective and try to deconstruct why. There is a very innately human capacity for storytelling that we dip into when we DM a game. More than anything, be proud of the fact that you are creating something new in the world in the minds of people who will be brought closer together by the shared experience. You should be proud of that. If you can approach your game with a smile and roll with the ups and downs, you're more than halfway there on your quest for a fun and memorable game.
Justin Rhodes is a San Francisco Bay Area native with a background in writing, game design, film, and theatre. He has been DMing for the better part of the last decade.