The Art of the Con, addendum: a Grognard overcomes his fear

I just wanted to direct readers to James Maliszewski’s recent post about OSRCon. He goes through exactly the kind of fear I was writing about in Chapter 1, only to find it completely unfounded.

As it turned out, I had no reason whatsoever to be concerned. I very quickly felt quite comfortable, due in no small part to Chris Cunnington’s excellent organization and discussions with me beforehand. But, much as I wish to praise Chris, even more do I wish to praise the con’s attendees, who were, to a man, some of the friendliest and most pleasant gamers I’ve had the occasion to meet. As I noted in a comment to an earlier post, gamers have a reputation for being socially awkward misfits who are in large part responsible for the bad impressions outsiders have of our shared hobby. I came away from OSRCon with the feeling that, while that description may be true of somegamers, it certainly isn’t true of most of them, certainly not any of those with whom I interacted over the course of two days. I won’t go so far as to claim that “the ugly gamer” is wholly a myth, even if I am sure that he’s not as common a creature as conventional wisdom would have us believe.

If you’re not reading James’ blog, Grognardia, you should be. And if he can GM at a convention after thirty years of playing solely with his home group, then you can, too.


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The Art of the Con: Preface

So, convention games.

I’ve got a fair bit of experience running RPG event at cons. I’ve been organizing ENWorld Chicago Gameday since about 2002; we hold it three times a year, and I almost always run at least one RPG event in addition to my facilitation duties. I’ve also run one event at GenCon, as well as GM’ed games at Forge Midwest. I’m sure this is a lot less experience than some, but it seems a not-insignificant amount to me.

For a while now, I’ve been thinking that I should document what I’ve learned so far about running RPGs at conventions. At the very least, I hope to create a resource for my beloved Gameday community, as I am always grateful to see people step up and run events for us.

Ergo, I give you The Art of the Con, a series of articles that will hopefully provide aid as well as encouragement for anyone looking to run roleplaying events at gatherings big or small. I hope to address what I see as common pitfalls and misconceptions about convention games, as well as offer tips that may both speed their preparation and enhance their presentation.

So, in the next installment, we’ll get started by talking about how to get started.

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The Art of the Con, Chapter 1: Fear of Flying

The most common reaction I get from gamers when I talk to them about running a convention game is abject fear.

“Yeah, I’ve though about running an event, but I’m kind of nervous.” “I’d like to run [Game X], but I don’t know if I’m ready.” “Who, me? No way; I don’t think I could do it.”

Now, to be fair, I was of the same mind when I was first approached about GM’ing a game for ENWorld Chicago Gameday (much less being asked to organize the whole thing). The very idea of running an event for complete strangers who had signed up in advance for a four-hour slot with the expectation of being engaged and entertained, their long drive to the con made worthwhile, was very intimidating to me. I mean, I’m just some guy. What skills do I have to offer? How could I possibly come up with an event that would guarantee four hours of fun? It’s too hard!

Now, of course, I know that this is all a total crock. After getting a few cons under my belt as a GM, I honestly was wondering what the hell I was so afraid of.

Look, if you can run a game for the close-knit group of friends you play with each week, you can run a game for anyone. As was probably said once by somebody, somewhere: Strangers are just people you haven’t met yet. And these people you have yet to meet are coming to the convention with excitement in their hearts; they want to game! They wouldn’t be there otherwise. You don’t have to worry about convincing them that playing in your event is a good idea; they signed up for it. They want to play your game and have a good time. You just need to give them the game for which they signed up. Ideally, your chosen game’s rulebook already gives you explicit instructions on how to do that.

Sure, it’s probably easier said than done. Not everyone is comfortable in the sphere of social interaction; I know I’m not. Facilitating a roleplaying game, like public speaking, can be very intimidating. And, obviously, some RPGs rely far more heavily on the GM to drive the game than do others. I know that it can feel like the burden is all on you to keep the event from being boring and awkward.

But, as we’ll see in future installments in this series, preparing yourself for GMing at conventions is all just a matter of elbow grease. You compile a list of tasks, figure out your deadlines, then just set ’em up and knock ’em down. By preparing yourself and making effective use of your pre-game time, you gain a confidence that, I assure you, will come through when it comes time to run your event.

And it bears repeating: everyone is there to have fun. RPGing is a social, communicative, creative act. The players don’t want the game to “fail” any more than you do. They’re there to burn off steam, whoop it up, and share their energy. They wouldn’t be there otherwise!

The fear you’re feeling is really just anticipation about an unknown; you’re excited, but don’t know how things are going to turn out. Instead of letting that anticipation feed feelings of fear or apprehension, channel it into excitement. Use that pent-up energy to fuel enthusiasm about running your game; let it become motivation for generating ideas, or even getting grunt-work done (like handouts and character sheets).

I realize that a lot of this sounds like rah-rah motivational speaking. And, really, a lot of it is. All I can say is that I’ve been afraid, too. It goes away with practice. In the end, I promise, you’ll look back and wonder why you were ever afraid in the first place.

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What He Played, And When He Played It

Inspired by another blog I stumbled upon—and to serve as a bit of an introduction—I’m going to make an attempt to list all the RPGs I’ve actually played, and roughly in what order I encountered each.

Middle School:

  • Basic D&D (Holmes “blue book”)
  • AD&D 1st ed.
  • Top Secret
  • Champions 1st ed.
  • Tunnels & Trolls
  • Arduin
  • Star Trek (FASA)
  • Star Frontiers
  • Villains & Vigilantes
  • Space Opera
  • Fantasy Wargaming
  • Time Masters

High School:

  • Call of Cthulhu (1st ed., or perhaps 2nd)
  • Lots more AD&D, a little more V&V


  • Rolemaster
  • Spacemaster
  • More Call of Cthulhu (5th ed.), more Champions (4th ed. “Big Blue Book”)

As an adult, after a long gap of leaving the hobby all together:

  • D&D 3rd ed.
  • Mutants & Masterminds, 1st ed.
  • Star Wars d20
  • d20 Modern
  • HERO System 5th ed.
  • Call of Cthulhu d20
  • Tekumel: Empire of the Petal Throne
  • Arcana Unearthed
  • Weird Wars d20
  • Skull & Bones d20
  • Serenity RPG
  • GURPS 4th ed.
  • Polaris
  • Iron Heroes
  • Burning Wheel
  • Burning Empires
  • Dogs in the Vineyard
  • Gamma World 1st ed.
  • Truth & Justice
  • Spycraft 2.0
  • Spirit of the Century
  • True20
  • Dread (the Jenga one)
  • Hero’s Banner
  • InSpectres
  • Paranoia XP
  • Agon
  • The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries
  • FantasyCraft
  • Spione
  • Don’t Rest Your Head
  • Misspent Youth
  • Best Friends
  • Burning Rose
  • Giants
  • Mouse Guard
  • Cold City
  • Diaspora
  • The Pool
  • The Shadow of Yesterday
  • 44
  • Dresden Files RPG
  • Fiasco

I think we can see some patterns emerge here. The most obvious that I fall into what seems a common demographic: RPG’ers who started in the heyday of the hobby, drifted away from gaming (or at least RPG’ing) in the ’90s, and then were brought back by the release of D&D 3e. I’d argue there’s also a not-uncommon sub-demographic into which I fall, i.e., RPG’ers brought back by D&D 3e who subsequently discovered The Forge and now are rabid fans of indie RPG publishing.

Otherwise, this list also shows what a huge impact both the Internet and adulthood can have on one’s experience of the hobby.

As a teen, my gaming was generally done with whomever my current group of 3-4 friends were at the time. Living out in the suburbs and being too young to drive meant that getting together to game was infrequent. When we did game, we generally fell back on games we already knew—especially since I was typically the only one who owned anything other than AD&D. That, and play typically took the form of one-shots; we met too infrequently to maintain full-blown  campaigns.

In college, getting together was easy; my college was small, and we all lived on campus. Still, the campaigns (if you can call them that) were short. After three or four sessions, we’d move on to something new.

But, once D&D 3e came out, there was the Net. ENWorld,, Usenet… information about games and access to gamers themselves was everywhere. It was then that I finally played RPGs with people I didn’t already know. I joined a D&D group, then a second, and then a HERO group. I started going to the local ENWorld Gameday, GenCon, and Forge Midwest. I played in a D&D campaign that lasted something like seven years. I had transportation, I had disposable income, and I had growing confidence about gaming with complete strangers. I don’t feel like I even game all that much (e.g., I’m only in a single Burning Wheel group right now), yet that last list above is pretty staggering.

And then there’s all the games on my bookshelf that I haven’t played…


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Let Them Tell You About Their Character

You’ve met this person. You’ve probably been this person. “Let me tell you about my character…” What follows is an excruciating (to you) narrative all about that person’s beloved character from their ongoing campaign, or a campaign long past, or whatever. Odds are good that this narrative isn’t even documenting events that occurred during an actual game; it’s backstory that was written during chargen, or maybe it was story implied by events in game, or that spanned events in-game, concocted between sessions.

Why are they telling you all this? Because they want that story to matter. Unfortunately, in a lot of RPGs (or, at least, a lot of RPG groups), that story doesn’t matter. It’s tucked into their PC’s backstory because the pre-play the only time they have any control over their PC. It’s narrated into the corners of play and session downtime because the actual game being played isn’t particularly concerned about any of this story-stuff. So, they corner you at a convention or a party and talk your ear off.

I wonder, then, why this has become such a cliche. Because, really, being a cliche means that it is accepted behavior, i.e., it happens all the time, expectedly so. But why? Why are people playing games where the “story-stuff” of which they are obviously so enamored is forced onto the sidelines?

I’d love to be able to answer this, but I don’t think I can. The answer I want to give is “Because they don’t know it doesn’t have to be that way”, but I realize that sounds elitist.

But does that mean it’s not true?


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Hello, (Fantasy) World

For a while now, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about RPGs as I begin to fall asleep at night. I mentally compose essays and then think, “I really should start a blog or something, get these ideas documented.”

Well, there’s no time like the present. Let’s see if I can keep it going, and if anyone reads what I have to say.


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