Sunday, 19 June 2011

My first experience running a con game

So, yesterday was my big day -- running my first ever game at a con :)

All in all it was a very interesting and positive experience, and I'd definitely do it again. I thought I'd write a bit about a few of the points which stood out the most.

Random Chargen
After some indecision, in the end I made the choice for fully random character creation (rather than getting the players to choose from a selection of pregens). Random chargen is such a big and (I find) fun feature of old-school D&D that it seemed a shame to not showcase it. To ease the process I'd created a few spell books for potential magic-users to choose from (see here), a very simplified list of cleric spells, and a quick-pick equipment selection.

I usually find that as a DM I can knock out Labyrinth Lord characters in 15 minutes or so, whereas generally players tend to take significantly longer, due to, I suppose, being a bit less familiar with the system, and probably thinking more about the various choices. So I was very relieved that yesterday it all went very smoothly, and, thankfully, quickly. The one point which threw me slightly was what to do if a player rolled up a character with really crap ability scores. This did happen (I think he didn't have anything above 10), and in the end I said he could have a 13 in a score of his choice, just to give him a +1 to something. I think perhaps it might have been better to just let him roll completely again, or maybe to get each player to roll two sets of attributes and choose their favourite. A minor point, anyway.

Character Connections
I made sure each of the PCs had a specific connection to one of the others, by getting them to roll on a random table ("you owe another PC lots of money", "you're a sibling or parent of another PC", etc). This was a tip which Samwise7 gave me in a comment to a previous post, and it was excellent advice.

In practice only one out of the three randomly generated connections actually had any impact on the game (that the thief character was a hired bodyguard of the magic-user), but it really helped to give the players something to riff off, so to speak, right from the beginning.

Playing with Strangers
This was one of the main things I was anxious about beforehand. I'm used to playing with a regular group, where we all get to know each other's tastes, personalities, sense of humour, and so on. I had fearful visions of sitting at a table with six strangers looking at me in a kind of stony silence, only broken by the occasional pitiful die roll. Haha. Of course, nothing of the sort happened. A friend and player in my regular game came along to the con and gave me moral support, which helped a lot (I'd definitely recommend that new con DMs try to drag a friend along!), and the other players were really friendly and enthusiastic, which was a huge relief. I mean, it's obvious to me now that, looking at it realistically, people go to a gaming con to play games and have a good time, so the vast majority of them are, I suppose, going to put something into the game they've signed up for!

This was a very good experience for me, anyway, to be able to run a game with strangers (albeit a small group), and feel confident that they were having a good time.

That brings me nicely to the next point -- the tone of the adventure. I tend to favour weird and wacky, bordering on the surreal and nonsensical at times. Much as I love this type of play, I am certainly aware that it's not everyone's cup of tea, and it's not necessarily what people are going to expect when they sign up for a game at a con. So, as I was writing my far-out sci-fi / fantasy dungeon crawl I was, at points, aware that some elements of it may be too much. The malfunctioning dimensional toilet and the sewage-elemental, for example. I personally found these kind of elements so beguiling that I just couldn't make myself remove them or tone them down, and just decided to go with it and see how the players took it!

In retrospect I think it was too much. If I'd clearly stated in the description that the game was going to have a far-out gonzo kind of vibe to it, then fair enough, but I didn't, and I think the players who didn't already know me were a bit taken aback at points. However in general the session went well, and the more nonsensical elements weren't on the whole too overwhelming.

Adventure Mission
This is another point which I'd seriously reconsider next time. The game I ran was a straight up dungeon crawl -- here's a dungeon, there's rumoured to be treasure inside, in you go. Again, I'm not sure if it was due to player expectations (though I did state in the session description "an old-school dungeon crawl"...), but I got the feeling that something a little bit more plot-based might have worked better, and kept them more engaged.

It's interesting, when I think of the big AD&D cons back in the day, I always imagine they were playing straight up dungeon crawls, so I guess that was where my inspiration came from. I have no idea if this is really how it was though.

The End
Time ran out and we didn't finish the adventure. This is, of course, far from ideal! There were several possible endings (apart from a TPK), and unfortunately we didn't reach any of them. I guess there are a couple of factors here, one being the mission of the adventure, as discussed previously, and how easy it is to reach a conclusion, and of course another being just the actual real time restraint on the session as compared with the length of the adventure.

This was something I'd considered when I was writing the adventure, and had just kind of blindly hoped I'd got it about right and it'd work out. I mean, I think everyone had a good time, which is the main thing, but I guess a really memorable session needs a feeling of conclusion somehow. Definitely something I'd consider at greater length if I do it again...


  1. Awesome and congrats. Excellent advice. I ran Caves of Chaos which was first old school con game.

    It helps very much to run something you know, something you've run for home group. The all low stat guy I'd have challenged player to run. "Survive even with your handicaps. Be the comic relief."

    Con games pacing, fun fast and sloppy. I push, push, push. Frentic pace. Something is always happening either players are doing it or I'm doing it to them. If they need to rest/heal back at "town" handwave it "bam! you're healed, have new supplies, casters spells are restored. You're at bottom of entrance stairs, what do you do."

    Fast pace helps with "plot" motivation. They get sense of urgency / need to finish without knowing what. Other goals for dungeon crawl are get money and xp (re xp I generally award full party xp to each player. And typically characters raise a level or two during 4-8hr game.) I encourage you to give dungeon crawl another try.

    Confidence/Fear is I believe one of the biggest hurdles. It helps to remember everyone at the table is *trying* to have fun so they're all on your side and help you when stuck and forgive you the minor hiccup.

  2. THANKS for sharing this valuable advice. Could you possibly share your random table / list of PC connections? Also, how did you decide specifically to which other PC the PC was connected?

  3. P.S. I am running my first Con game in August, and have already decided to embed a specific goal into the dungeon crawl, i.e., a specific artifact the group has been sent there to recover. Would that kind of strategy have solved your "plot" issue?

  4. It helps to remember everyone at the table is *trying* to have fun so they're all on your side
    That's an excellent way of putting it, and something which I hadn't quite conceptualized beforehand!

    Carter, I was hoping you might find some insight from this, remembering you had a similar experience coming up. Glad it was of help!

    The goal to recover an artifact sounds like it'd provide enough of a hook, I think. The goal in my game was clearly a time-limited opportunity to raid a location which probably contained a lot of valuable stuff, but somehow that didn't seem enough. I don't know, maybe it was just the way my players played it, but a few times one of them said (in character) things like: "I don't even know what we're doing in here!" or "I said we shouldn't have come in here!". Maybe I should have made it clearer that the place really did contain a lot of valuable stuff, or even a specific valuable thing -- not just the presumption of it! And it probably didn't help that the party got locked in with no way out very quickly! Haha.

    Norman, that's a really interesting idea to run the Caves of Chaos as a con game. It actually didn't even occur to me to be awarding XP, but I can really imagine a kind of fast-paced "make a raid then back to town, repeat" kind of style working well. Think I might have to try that next time, or maybe as a one-off day event for my usual group :)

  5. Oh yes here's the very short character connections table I used (thought there probably wouldn't be more than 5 players!):

    1. You owe one of the other PCs a lot of money.
    2. You have an on-going rivalry with one of the other PCs.
    3. One of the other PCs is your parent / sibling.
    4. You have a debt of honour to one of the other PCs, whom you hate.
    5. You're a hired bodyguard of one of the other PCs.

    I just got the players to roll one each and to choose which of the other PCs it applied to.

    JB's table of character connections might provide inspiration as well.

  6. ps. I'll hopefully share a PDF of the adventure I ran, as I thought it was a rather cool location. Just have to type up the hand-written notes...


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