Monday, February 2, 2015

Advice for First Time Gen Con GM's

Saturday evening Numenera

I cannot believe that we are now less than six months away from Gen Con 2015!  While this may seem like a long time for those of you who haven’t attended the “Best Four Days in Gaming”, ask a con-veteran and they will tell you that their preparations have already begun.  I am sure that some of you may be considering tagging along with the masses for your very first Gen Con experience, so I’d like to tell you a short, personal, cautionary story.  

Don’t worry, it has a happy ending.  

How Not to Have a Relaxing Time

This past August I attended my very first Gen Con, marking my triumphant return to the game-convention scene.  Prior to Gen Con 2014, my last convention was with the Gaming Association of Southwest Pennsylvania (GASP), at GASPCon 2001.  Even before that, my convention experience was limited to college conventions at Lehigh University and Penn State.  If you’ve ever been to one of these smaller, local conventions you know that they are typically very relaxed gatherings, similar to a big weekend event at a local game-store, but with a few more people.  But even the largest college-con I attended had maybe 350 participants.  That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 56,000+ attendees at Gen Con 2014.  Although I watched plenty of YouTube videos of previous Gen Cons, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  

When I first signed up, in February 2014, I was absolutely ecstatic!  I was going to be gaming side by side with incredible people, seasoned screen-jockeys, and industry giants.  I would have the opportunity to meet so many people that felt the same way I did about our most favorite hobby.  So I did the exact opposite of what a novice convention-GM should do:  I signed up to run five, four-hour events.  

During the weeks leading up to Gen Con 2014 I was feeling an entire range of emotions about the trip and my schedule: nervous, anxiety, fear, intimidation, nausea, sleeplessness…

… maybe 2% of my brain was excited.  

Through all of my jitters, however, I made sure that I was well prepared for the events.  I read through the adventures several times, and made extensive notes along the edges and on separate sheets of paper.  I prepared character sheets and handouts well ahead of time.  For the one adventure I wrote, I ran a demo session with my local gaming group.  I even drove four hours to Ohio to GM for a bunch of gamers that I met on Twitter, just to have the experience of being completely out of my element. 

I’m still happy that those guys weren’t serial killers. 

I could barely sleep Tuesday night before driving to Indianapolis, and by Wednesday morning my anxiety hadn’t receded.  Luckily I was attending Gen Con with four of my good friends from the Pittsburgh area.  Our six-hour journey was one long RPG-laced conversation.  This helped… a lot.  That Wednesday evening I had the opportunity to meet up with the team of game-masters running Numenera and The Strange for Monte Cook Games.  I soon found out that I wasn’t the only person nervous about getting behind the screen at the world’s greatest gathering of gamers.  This also helped… a lot.

After a better night’s rest it was Thursday.  I woke up, went for a run, and got ready to put six months of planning to the test.  At 12PM in the JW Marriot I sat down and ran my first convention game of Numenera.

The rest of the convention was an absolute joy!  

Getting Ready for Gen Con 2015

So it’s already February, and maybe you want to go to Gen Con for the first time, and you feel compelled, like I did, to run a session or two (or five) of your favorite role-playing game.  There are plenty of places on the internet to go seek out words of wisdoms from luminaries far greater than me on this subject.  But since this is my blog, and you’ve already read up to this point, I’ll go ahead and share my advice for enjoying Gen Con 2015.

1)  Start planning now

Yes it’s February, and Gen Con may seem like a long way away, but if you are running an event on your own you should try to submit your event sooner rather than later.  Event registration isn't until May 17th, however there is priority placement for submissions before Friday, February 6th.  Think long and hard about the kind of game you want to run, and how it can translate to a convention setting.  Four hours may seem like a long time behind the screen, but the time is going to fly once you start playing.  Depending on your game of choice, you may find yourself really stretched for time if you plan to run a published module.  While there are options for longer events, some stretching though entire evenings, consider your own comfort level, GM skill, and mental stamina before signing on to run an event longer than four hours.  Running an all-nighter with friends, expecting to take frequent breaks between scenes, is nothing like running an event for paying, Red Bull guzzling, convention-goers.  

2)  Watch your schedule

Don’t run five events for your first Gen Con experience.  Not only will you be exhausted, you will end up missing out on so many other events and activities.  You are going to want to spend time in the exhibitor’s hall, which is only open from 10am – 6pm, and you are going to want to hang out with all of the new friends you will make.  Keep in mind that you are not limited to only play in scheduled events.  I really wish that I had known how easy it was to put together pick-up games.  True, I ran five scheduled events, but I also ran one pick-up game of Adventures in the East Mark, and played in a pick-up game of Numenera.  That last informal event was one of my top-five moments of Gen Con 2014, and it never would’ve happened if I was scheduled for two events that Friday.  

3)  Know your adventures

There are some game companies looking for game-masters to run published or planned events.  Even though you may agree to demo a game for a company or organization, this does not mean you will have months to prepare the game or adventure they want you to run.  At Gen Con 2014 I ran two sessions of Eschatology Code for the Strange, written by Bruce Cordell, and two sessions of Into the Violet Vale for Numenera, written by Monte Cook.  While I signed on to run these adventures several months ahead of time, I didn’t receive the actual modules until two weeks prior to Gen Con.  To prepare, I made sure that I was very familiar with the Cypher System, and ran it for several players outside of my regular gaming group.  I demo’d games at my local club, at GASP, and with those awesome gamers in Solon, Ohio (you guys were great, by the way!  Gotta do that again!)

If you plan on writing something on your own, you also need to consider playtesting the adventure multiple times before Gen Con, preferably with folks of various skill ranges.  When I ran “Appian Slay”, a Savage Worlds Weird Wars Rome adventure last year, I only did one full playtest a few months before the convention.  This was a mistake!  While I caught a lot of small issues in my first run-through, it was mostly with new Savage Worlds players.  When I arrived at my Gen Con event that Friday morning I had an entire table of hardcore Savages.  The way those guys played the adventure was absolutely nothing like my first playtest.  It was still an awesome ride, but I wish I was better prepared for more experienced gamers.   

There is more help out there!

These are just my thoughts and ramblings, but if you are on the ledge about attending Gen Con 2015 as a game-master, please check out these fantastic resources:  

Gen Con - Obviously a great resource!  Make sure you understand all of the rules and requirements for running your own events.  Here's a link to the Event Host Policy.

Pinnacle Entertainment Group - Are you a fellow Savage Worlds fan looking to run events at Gen Con this year?  The GM Roundup instructions can be found here.  

Bill Cavalier aka the Dungeon Bastard!  - Our most honorable Dungeon Bastard has several great YouTube videos aimed at making your Gen Con experience 100% awesome!

Bill Cavalier also has great day by day coverage of Gen Con 2013 that is worth checking out, if only to get an idea of how big the crowds are going to be. 


If you yourself are a seasoned Gen Con veteran, please leave feedback and advice, not only for new convention-goers, but for those of us who are still learning the ropes!  How do you plan your events, and what do you do to prepare yourself for the “big show?”  As always, if you don’t agree, or think I missed something, let us know!   

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