I’ve mentioned this a lot – like, a lot – but I’m currently preparing three TTRPG sessions for a local convention. For this week’s blog, I thought I’d share a few things that I do to prepare an RPG session that’s meant to entertain people for a couple of hours.
Now, to be honest, very few people reading this blog are likely to end up running roleplaying games at conventions. Unless you enjoy the challenge of running a game for strangers, and in public, this may sound like the worst imaginable experience. So you may feel absolutely no desire or need to run a convention game – and that’s fine. I GMed for years before I had the courage to do it in a public venue. But doing so taught me a lot, especially because it forced me to work within pretty tight restrictions. Also, I’ve always worked better with deadlinues, so here we are.
TL;DR Running games at a convention can improve anyone’s GMing, but fortunately you can learn from my experiences without doing it yourself.
Make it easier to focus on the story
A convention game is always a once-off session, so it has several built-in restrictions. For example, you won’t have a lot of time to deal with character creation, rules clarifications, world building, and so on. Any time you spend on these things means less time to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. For me, nothing feels worse than having to end a session before the story has reached a proper conclusion.
One trick is to download or create pregenerated characters. You miss out on an important part of what draws players to a game, though. On the positive side, the players may see these as relatively disposable characters, which would also encourage people to take more risks – which can often be a big part of making a one-shot enjoyable.
One way to deal with this problem is to choose a variety of characters, to give your players a lot of options about what kind of character they want to be. It will never be quite the same as for a home game or an ongoing campaign, but at least it will give you an idea of which kinds of characters would be work for the story. (As a player, nothing frustrates me more than a character who doesn’t add value to the group or contribute in a meaningful way to the story.)
Of course, if you’re running this for a home group, you can let them create their own characters from scratch. If you ask them nicely, your players may even let you use their characters as pregens for your convention game.
Prepare the story itself
For convention games, like most other TTRPG sessions, you can either use a published adventure or write your own. Published adventures are often called modules because you can slot them into an existing campaign, or run them as a separate thing. Just make sure that you can run the story in the alloted time.
The advantage of writing your own story is that you are the expert on the scenario, so you can answer any question correctly – or make up an answer that fits the story, if you didn’t think of one beforehand. The biggest problem is that unless you’ve run it a number of times, you may run into unexpected problems on the day. Of course, that just means you should run the one-shot for a group of friends, first, and use the experience to improve the module.
Personally, I use published adventures because I often don’t have the time. Even if I end up changing most of the source material, it gives me a foundation to work from – especially if I need to run several games in a row or if I just feel generally uninspired. But even though it does make it a little easier, it still takes a lot of preparation.
For me, the best part of published adventures is often the maps. Even if your game doesn’t use miniatures, it helps the players visualise the setting (and it helps me keep track of where everything is). It also helps to have a specific antagonist, or a problem that they need to solve as a group. They don’t need to be a villain, as such, but the player characters should have some sort of conflict to deal with.
Read the module a few times, and decide which parts most appeal to you. You can also pick parts that best showcase the system you’re using, or the mood you want to create, or just ‘cool bits’ that you think the players may enjoy. But don’t feel obliged to keep every part of the module just because it’s there.
Not all adventures are well written, and even excellent modules can have parts that are boring or pointless. Which is why you need to read them carefully beforehand and make copious notes.
If you are sure that you can rely on the structure of the module, you could use it as is and simply add a few notes of your own, or create a summary sheet for yourself to help you quickly find information you need. Alternatively, you can use it as a springboard and make notes about your favourite parts, either as a bulleted list or a series of short paragraphs.
If you want to adapt it more heavily, you can create three bulleted lists for what might – or should – happen in the beginning, the middle, and the end. I highly recommend SlyFlourish’s book, Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, which you can get on DriveThruRPG. He recommends that you write an opening, a list of intriguing or notable locations, a list of names, and a list of secrets and clues that you can introduce at various points to keep the story moving.
If you struggle to come up with descriptions on the fly, you can also make a list of words or phrases that you can use in-game to create the atmosphere you want.
If it’s a combat-heavy system, you should be sure to make notes about anyone the players might end up fighting. Be sure to focus on their special abilities, or any aspects that make them memorable, rather than on things that simply mean it takes longer to beat them. But I would also recommend that you make a list of alternative ways for the players to solve their problems, or to get what they want.
The real secret to running a one-shot is not to overcomplicate it. Your players will do that themselves, without any prompting from you. If you’re going to run the same module a few times, write down various ways for the session to end.
Most importantly, keep an eye on the time. Set yourself a goal for how long the beginning should take, and how long you need to have for the ending. Especially if you think the session will end in a fight, because those always take longer than you expect. And if you find the game running behind schedule on the day, be sure to know which parts of the story you can skip without affecting your ability to conclude the session. Even if it means all the characters die before the end of the story.
Know your limits – and your strengths
Now we could argue about whether it’s better to simply accept your limits or to struggle valiantly against the odds. But this post is already long and it’s getting late, so I’ll just summarise as best I can.
My final piece of advice I want to share right now is to figure out what you do best, and what you are likely to struggle with. Try to make your strengths the focus of the game session itself, but plan for how to handle any aspects of the game or module you find particularly difficult.
Most of all, accept that even the best laid plans – and the best prepared module – will go off the rails in places. But as long as you can bring it back on track, and ensure that the story has an ending – any ending, you’ll have succeeded. Good luck.