Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Preparing for the Con

As I'm sure many of you are well aware by now, this Friday and Saturday I'll be attending OSRCon here in Toronto, where I'll be running two sessions of my Dwimmermount megadungeon, as well as participating in a panel discussion and playing in a Forgotten Realms adventure refereed by Ed Greenwood. Though I'll admit to some degree of "stage fright" at the prospect of refereeing for a bunch of total strangers, I'm also really looking forward to these two days. This is the first time a gathering of this kind has happened in the city and, with luck, it'll become a tradition we repeat every summer for many years to come. Plus, it'll be a good opportunity to make contact with other fans of old school games locally.

Now, as I've noted before, I'm not a regular con goer, let alone experienced in the ways of con refereeing. Victor Raymond gave me some excellent advice in our lengthy conversation yesterday, but I'd still love to hear any additional advice anyone can offer me. So, if you're someone who's ever refereed an event at a convention, especially a dungeoncrawl-style adventure, share your words of wisdom with me, please. Any insights, thoughts, or warnings you can offer me would be greatly appreciated.



  1. I've never been to a convention, so the only bit of advice I can give is to remember to have fun.

  2. If you make pre-gens make at least two more than the total number of people signed up.

    If your adventure has a goal, prepare to skip the middle section of the adventure so that you can finish at the ending.

    Give each PC one piece of equipment that isn't a standard item and has no game mechanics attached to it.

    If you use group initiative when it comes time to roll pick the shiest member of the party or the one who hasn't spoke in a while to roll.

    Bring extra pencils, paper, dice and a pencil sharpener.

    Arrive 15+ minutes before start. Double check you are in the right place.

    If by 10 minutes into the time slot you aren't rolling to-hit then you are doing something wrong.

    Give more treasure than you would in a campaign, especially with magic items. These people won't be back to wreck up your campaign, so you can get loosy-goosy.

    Don't be afraid to call a five minute break when the players go off in an unanticipated direction. Half of them need to smoke/pee/get a drink anyway.

  3. Jeff,

    That's some terrific advice. Thank you so much.

  4. When you need to give players choices, give a few defined ones and finish with an open-ended one. If making characters: "You can be a fighting man, a magic user, a cleric, or anything else." Most people will color in the lines, but this sets the tone of anything goes and keeps people from saying "why can't I (my favorite thing)?"

    Give players henchmen, pregenerated on index cards (e.g. using Meatshields!). Keep a list of their names so you can more easily track who is dead. End fights with a recitation of who is left: "You withdraw from the room, leaving the bodies of Ogwulf and Thordrim to be consumed by spiders..."

    Write a seating chart for yourself that shows the name of the player and character in the position around the table where they're sitting. Record info you might want often like their armor class and henchmen on this chart.

    Use an environment that's several times bigger than they could possibly explore completely. Give them a nudge toward the interesting stuff - a partial map from another explorer, a trail of footprints, a wand of treasure detection - and then tempt them to stray off this clear path.

    Shake hands and introduce yourself to players as they arrive to establish the social context, then when the game is ready to start do a little invocation (e.g. a monologue setting the scene, or going around and having everyone introduce their characters) to establish the imaginary context.
    - Tavis

  5. All of Jeff's advice is gold. Also, I think it tends to imply one important item: keep your eye on the clock. You want to keep a steady pace, provide a satisfying resolution at the end if possible, and still let everyone go in time to get to their next event. It aint easy.

    Also, I'd say there should be no 'if' to pre-gens. The amount of time lost to character generation is never worth it, I don't care how speedy you think you can be.

  6. Even if you don't make pre-gens, bring pre-made equipment lists! Picking equipment can take FOREVER if you're dealing with folks who haven't played in a while.

    My own recent forays into running an Open Table have convinced me that banning the nastier alignment choices would be a good idea. With strangers at the table, even if the guy playing an evil character is a Good Player and respects the game, the other players don't know that. If he starts doing some dicey things, those other players can get a little edgy, because they don't trust him not to take things too far, due to their own past experiences.

  7. Everything that everyone else said. For a strict dungeon-crawl, make sure you have a way to get the players into the action right away. For Castle of the Mad Archmage, I use many of the various direct entrances to lower levels, because having parties continually tooling around Level 1 can be dull both for you and for them. Unless you're anticipating the search for a way in (or down) as one of the goals of the session, don't be afraid to tell the players "You have a map to the stairs leading to level five, and now you're at the top of the stairs looking into the darkness below."

  8. - Ban Evil alignments.

    - Beware players that seek to disrupt the game with "in character" behavior like lewd or offensive actions or "out of character" antics like obsessive rule discussions. I don't know why, but these guys seem to show up in surprising numbers at con games.

    - If you end up with any women at your table be mindful of their presence with respect to your behavior and the behavior of the other players.

  9. - start them 'in media res'

  10. Always have pre-gens ready. ALWAYS.

    If you have a four-hour slot, have a scenario ready that you think your home group could finish in two.

  11. Using a whiteboard so that other players can view the "seating chart" is a good idea.

    If you're using minis, there is a great deal of time wasted with people picking them out,but if you aren't using minis a whiteboard is -- again -- a good tool for being able to sketch a diagram or a marching order so that everyone can see.

    This DM advice is brought to you by the Whiteboard Council of America (TM).

  12. Have people identify their names/character's name on a folded piece of paper in front of themselves. Makes it easier for strangers to communicate than "Hey you."

  13. Wow. Some excellent advice here!

    Looking forward to meeting you on Saturday, James. I'm going to be running a Weird West game during the morning then listening to your panel discussion and chatting with folk. :)

  14. To amplify Matt Finch's whiteboard propaganda, I read some thing (from Tavis maybe?) where white boards were used to sketch the rooms and their exits to speed up mapping. Then you erase it after it's been mapped. This might cut down on the tedium of describing rooms for the mapper, which might slow the pace down.

  15. File cards are worth their weight in gold. For example with a thick black texta and a fold you have instant name cards. You can also add stuff like AC and class/race to them, but it's mainly so that both you and them can quickly know each other's character's name.

    Don't be afraid to reseat people in initiative order so you can just go around the table. [This does depend on what type of initiative rules you use.

    Don't get hung up on either mapping or puzzles. I'm assuming you will be using yout excellent dungeon blocks. And sometimes something that is obvious to you is completely overlooked by players. And sometimes something that you thought hard is immediately answered.

    If a player is particularly shy or retiring talk to them directly to shine the spotlight on them.

    And make sure that any rule variances are made clear to the people they affect at the start. But also remember that your decision is final and move on. Don't get bogged down in an rules argument.

    And most importantly of all: have fun yourself. {People are more likely to pick up their mood from you, and besides, you are here to have fun too. You are not the only person who will be new to the situation (unless you get a group that has gamed together before.]

  16. It's been forever since I went to a Con, but one schmart thing I remember was a GM who always brought a pack of blank sticker nametags that you could put your character name on. That really helped with immersion because we instantly knew who was talking and how to address each other. (One player actually spelled his characters name out phonetically so we would get it right.)

  17. I'm in similar boat as James -- Very small number of cons that I've been to. DM'd for strangers a small number of times. My #1 observation would be: Gamers at small cons appear to be exceptionally well-educated, very game, good sports, supportive of what you're doing, and helpful. It will almost surely be a good time.

    Other stuff posted above is good, although you surely have your own game-management techniques that you're used to. That said:

    - Yes, pregens. There was a time I thought I could skip that for OD&D but I don't anymore. (And I think you've already done this.)
    - My alignment thesis is "no opposed alignments". My pregens are made all Lawful or Neutral, job done.
    - Yes, document names. No, I don't use a whiteboard (and I'm guessing that's equipment you can't afford to carry). I have a premade one-sheet roster for the pregens and write the player name in next to it, with a number around the table, then try to refer to the character name in play.
    - My initiative technique is the inverse of R.P.'s above: the seating order number defines the flow of initiative (i.e., around the table like any boardgame). If they want to delay/switch order then players get up and run around the table to change seats before the action comes around (kind of like musical chairs). Good times. (But not for everyone.)
    - Also, I guess I usually find I need an additional side-table, chair, TV dinner tray, etc. to hold extra papers and books (minis?) to the side of the game table. Scout that out early and grab something. Maybe I'm alone on that.

    So that's some pieces that work for me.

  18. [Oh, and I guess my teaching's seeped through and on a tight rule adjudication I actually check-in with the players (both in particular and in general) and ask "Does that sound fair to you?". Just gives me some confidence that hopefully no one's steaming because they think I ramrodded something unfairly, particular if I don't know their personality already.]

    Henceforth I will not admit that I wrote the preceding. Roll dice in public and play tough.

  19. James---

    Ken Rolston's article "How to Make the Most out of FRP Tournaments: Guidelines to Keep Your Group Going" (in Dragon #70) is absolutely top-notch. While it's addressing the players vs. the DM, if you reverse engineer the advice---like the PHB "Successful Adventures" section---it gives you a lot of insight about how to run (or not to run, as the case may be) a good convention game.

    Some other thoughts:

    - bring spare dice, PC sheets, and books
    - have a spare copy of your maps and adventure, in case something gets spilled (also: consider putting your maps and keys in sheet protectors)
    - if you ask who's mapping, someone usually steps up
    - you can outline your house rules up front if you don't have too many, or just explain them as you run into them ("well, we're about to get into combat, so this is how I handle initiative..."); that way you're not wasting time lecturing at the beginning of the session
    - for your pregens, I provide MUs with spellbooks, and ask both the MUs and Clerics to choose their own spells; if you want to speed the start time up, you can shortcut spell selection by detailing their starting spells (including some that they may not necessarily take ahead of time, perhaps, too)
    - giving the players handouts with some info/goals at the start can also keep players who don't have to memorize spells focused/in the game; these are the folks who can also set up the party's marching order, too (starting goals/background info can also help players prep for spells, ask for additional/different equipment, etc.)
    - I tend to provide each pregen with 1 unique rumor/piece of information/mission/goal/vision/dream/desire/quest/whatever (which may or may not end up coming up in play, depending on where they wander around in the dungeons), as well as at least one non-standard magic item/spell/class or racial ability, so that everyone has something new/interesting to read on their sheets
    - I let the players keep their PC sheets, and also print them up ahead of time on classic TSR style sheets (the 1977 ones, in my case)
    - If you have product to spare, consider awarding one or more prizes in each session (copies of some of your books, discount coupons on future purchases, etc.)
    - Following the lead from CoC (and The Hobbit), if you can provide the players with some handouts over the course of the adventure, that's always fun---maps are of course the best, but journals and fragments, illustrations, and perhaps other props are fun to look at/examine and to pass around

    From a DMing POV, I always make sure that I have some snacks in my backpack (granola/candy bars, and some apples), a big thermos for water, and plan for when breaks will be (in particular if you're running a 6-8 hour long session).

    Depending on how large the table is, you may end up standing for a lot of the session in order to project better and/or to see better. If you think that's likely, be sure to wear comfortable shoes that are well-broken in. If the site is likely to have very aggressive air conditioning, you may want an extra light-weight shirt/sweater/sweat shirt/whatever to keep warm.


  20. Good stuff. I learned some good stuff from Harley Stroh as well. (See this post) A good way to keep players engaged is to get them rolling dice. Per Harley's recommendation, I have players roll for the damage they take when they are hit, and I even take it a bit further and have them roll wandering monster checks. This gives them direct feedback that there are potential consequences to being noisy and/or putzing around.

  21. This is ALL great advice! I esp. love what Blotz's comment about nametags. I recall one GM in particular who could never remember anyone's real or character name while all the PCs had it down after 2 sessions. It's like he just didn't care or pay attention and by the 3rd game several players didn't come back.

  22. Binder clips! Anything you write down during the session that you need close-at-hand, write on an index card and attach it to your DM screen so it doesn't get buried in the materials spread before you. Also works for player-facing information.