This week’s blog was going to be about preparing to run a module at a convention, but then the most marvellous thing happened. Someone asked me for advice about running a module – specifically Death House, which I’ve run several times now. Forget your first TPK* – I consider that a real GMing achievement.
(*Total Party Kill. It’s a thing.) I much prefer the experience of being asked for advice to killing off an entire group’s characters. So today was a good day.
However, as soon as I started to think about what to tell them, I ran into a number of obstacles. See, I’d forgotten to take some practical concerns into consideration. Which also meant that I was going to jump straight into the next piece of preparation without addressing other, more basic considerations and decisions.
So instead I thought I would write something short about some practical things you need to think about before you get too far ahead of yourself. (Like I almost did.)
Running a convention game is all about restrictions. If you’re playing at a convention and you are not involved in organising it, a lot of things are out of your control. It helps to know what they are beforehand, and to plan accordingly. But you can use the same tricks to help plan your first game at home, to make it as efficient as possible.
The physical space
Before you run a convention game, you should give some thought to the venue. You may not have much control over seating arrangements or table setup. Check beforehand if the convention and the venue is disability-friendly. If it isn’t, let the organisers know that it’s not acceptable and try to find a more accessible convention.
Either way, you probably won’t have as much freedom as you would in a private game. So don’t plan to use a lot of music or sound effects. Your ability to create a mood at the table will largely rely on your ability to use descriptions or create atmosphere through the story (or the rules).
Convention halls can be very noisy places, with lots of distractions. So keep in mind that your players will also need to concentrate on the game in a busy venue. It’s another reason you should try to keep the session as focused as possible.
For a home game, you need to think about a lot of other things. What kind of room is it? How big is it? What shape? Do you have a table for people to sit at? How big is it, and many people can fit around it? If you don’t have a table and chairs, will people be able to sit on the floor, couches, or beds?
Note that none of these situations are deal-breakers. I’ve played games in the most awkward situations. You can figure out a way to deal with that. But you need to think about it beforehand, and plan for how to deal with it. And let your players know what they should expect. You never know whether someone has specific seating requirements, so be honest and check if the arrangement will work for them. Trust that they will be able to suggest a solution that works for them.
Quick side note about accessibility: Be aware of lighting issues, too. Lighting can be a great way to create atmosphere, but it’s more important for your players to be able to clearly see the character sheets, rulebooks, and other notes. This shouldn’t be a problem in a convention game, where you generally can’t control the lighting. But it’s helpful to remember that when you prepare any handouts, cheat sheets, etc. Have an electronic copy of any printouts available in case you need to share them with anyone who can’t read the handouts.
The rules (for players)
You also need to figure out how many copies of the rules you need. Now, as I mentioned before, some systems have different books for the GM and the players. Some only have one rulebook. Either way, you will need to make sure that everyone can have access to the rules when they need to.
Next, will you use digital or physical copies? If you’re using PDFs or a website, how will you and the players be reading these? Even if it saves you lugging physical copies around, you need to be sure that you will actually be able to use these tools.
Similarly, if you are using physical copies, will you and your players need to use the same rulebook? And will you need several copies of the rulebook? It can get quite pricy if you need to buy more than one copy, which is another reason cheat sheets are a great idea.
Of course, your players may not need access to all the rules. This depends a great deal on the system. If you are using cheat sheets, the summaries you hand out might be enough. But many popular systems have smaller sets of rules that only apply to specific character types, like spellcasters or combat. So you may need more than one cheat sheet for any system.
Finally, you need to consider things like dice, maps, minis, and any other accessories you would like to use. I know many GMs who are fond of specific tools to make their games more memorable. But it takes time and money to build up a collection of accessories to use.
The cheapest thing to make are handouts manipulated to look like old paper. There are plenty of tutorials on YouTube, but at least you don’t have to worry about them getting lost because they’re easy to replace. If your players need physical dice, you may need to ask them to buy a cheap set or provide some for them to use.
If your chosen system uses combat, you need to decide whether you want to use minis and maps, or theatre of the mind. There aren’t many systems that explicitly require minis for combat, but many of them assume that you’re likely to use them. Of course, there are practical implications for the amount of stuff you need to carry around, the size of the table you need for setup, the choice (and cost) of maps, and so on. Your choice simply depends on how much you can afford, or how much trouble you can go to.
Something you will definitely need in terms of handouts are pregenerated character sheets. Again, these are easy and cheap enough to print so that you don’t have to worry too much about getting them back afterwards. But watch those dice!
It’s easy to get lost in the fun parts of preparing a session. But there is always admin that needs doing, and ways to make it easier for players to start playing. It really helps to spend time and energy thinking about the practical part of running a session, though. And remember that it always takes longer than you think it will.
Regardless of whether you’re running games at conventions or at your home, take the time to plan ahead. It makes a massive difference. Have fun!