Top Ten Convention Game Pitfalls

By on 23 February 2008

Do you buy your New Favourite Game, open it at the beginning and then flick past the How to Roleplay section? “Oh, I know all that!“. Well do you? If you go back and look at your books and read through those bits you can find some little gems. Similarly, the How To GM bits can also include great bits of info and some timely reminders. If you’re going to run a convention game, it’s worth starting with the basics. Go back and read your books, you’ll want all the advice you can get.The following article is intended to give the novice or, indeed, more experienced convention referee (GM, DM, Keeper, etc.) some guidance on how to run a game. Note this is mostly for your more traditional game, but I’m sure the Indie crowd can get one or two pointers from it too! Clearly, we are all experts and feel sure in ourselves that we know how to run a game as easily as running a bath, yet somehow, at every convention, some of the games are lacking. Maybe even my own. Below are my Top Ten Tips for running a successful game for a broad set of players.

Some people yearn for interaction of Amateur Dramatics proportions, some are Gun Bunnies and demand to kill things by the wagonload, others enjoy puzzles, yet more prefer machinations and intrigue. Most people prefer some combination of those things and possibly more as well. The best any referee can do is be prepared and avoid the basic pitfalls. Preparation allows you to have all the mundane and laborious aspects in place beforehand, leaving you free to add atmosphere, detail and weave a compelling tale, with the help of your players.

All the points below are made with the benefit of hindsight and having sat through several man-weeks of convention games. Any quotes from games are genuine. This article may appear ‘preachy’, or in some cases down-right irate. You may well be intimidated enough, without me coming along and shouting at you and telling you you’re doing it wrong. You’ll get over it. The main intention is to give you guidance. Food for thought. Hold a mirror up to your games and see where you could have done things better. You never stop learning, I know I don’t.

Of course the unwritten rule, the most important one, Rule Zero if you like, is that everyone enjoys themselves. If that happens then you’re doing something right, even if you ignore everything else I say, make it fun – for everyone – and that includes you.

Playing Fast And Loose – “Just make a roll”

Brace yourselves, this first one is a biggie. In fact, you might want to read the rest and come back here in a minute. The bane of my convention-going life is the phrase “I like to play fast and loose with the rules”. Please don’t. Ignore the rules completely or use a rules-lite system if you like, but if you’re going to use the rules, know them and use them properly. Quite apart from anything else, some people might be playing your game to see how the system works.

It should go without saying that any referee should know the rules to a reasonably high level of competency, which facilitates the smooth running of a game and, importantly, doesn’t get in the way of the story. Even if it’s your New Favourite Game, recently purchased, make sure you know the basic rules off the top of your head and thoroughly review any specialist rules that will come up in your game (e.g. Grappling if there’s going to be a Bring Them Back Alive plot*). Generally it is best to avoid loads of complex extras and sophisticated rules as keeping all the players in line and the plot moving will take up most of your time, you shouldn’t have to stop and re-read pages of rules or work out complex formulas.

If you’re getting players to “Just make a roll” then you probably already know whether you want them to succeed or not. Assuming we’re actually using the rules (it’d be rude not to), let the players use their abilities to roll against. If there isn’t a relevant one or it’s something that the players need to know or achieve in order to complete the scenario, then just let them have the information or have them succeed (or fail as drama dictates).

You may well feel you like role-playing over roll-playing, as people are wont to quote, but don’t forget the other word attached to our hobby – it’s a roleplaying game. If you don’t like the crunchy side of roleplaying, that’s cool, but don’t half-use a perfectly good system – include it or don’t. A lot of gamers like the “game within a game” and there’s nothing wrong with rolling some bones after a good bit of interaction or scenery-chewing. If you know your system, then the rules will not slow anything down, whereas, sort-of knowing the rules, or using them inconsistently or arbitrarily will only serve to frustrate players and unbalance the action.

As a side note, no game should ever hinge upon a die roll to progress. If there is a vital clue that the players must get, make sure they get it. Same for lockpicking, climbing or whatever skill you think the players need to make, don’t let the outcome of one roll stall an adventure. Make sure there are other ways round (failing rolls can make things more difficult or uncomfortable, but they shouldn’t kill the adventure off completely), or simply don’t ask for a roll if you can’t handle the risk of failure (“With your locksmith skill at 75%, there’s no need to roll, you click open the door to the Boss’ office in a matter of seconds!“).

* It’s all very well having well rounded characters, with lots of interesting skills and 97% in Painting for the Artist, but if none of the characters have Computers and your scenario revolves around a cyber-criminal rather than an art thief, you’re missing something. Having abilities for flavour is cool, but make sure you’ve also covered off things that are likely to happen in your game and give your players the tools to do the job. I recently played a game in which we were constantly asked for psychology rolls, which the most learned of us had at 10%. Lots of dice hitting the table, no results coming out of it.

Preparation Is The Key: Part One – “I’ll have to look that up”

Too many games lose their atmosphere or pace due to unnecessary flicking through books or tying to find an obscure rule. Preparation is the key. It helps if you’re running a game you play week in, week out and know backwards. Regardless of whether you are or not though, it’s best to do some crib-sheets with essential information on. Make certain you know what all the player character’s special abilities, talents and power do, because someone’s going to ask you about it. By extension, get your bad guys sorted out and write little notes for yourself on how things work. If it’s an Opposed roll, what will the player have to oppose it with, etc.

Preparation Is The Key: Part Two – “I read this on the train on the way up”

Similar to knowing the rules (if you’re using some), read the adventure thoroughly before you run it. Preferably, run through it with friends and get feedback. It kills atmosphere and stalls the game if you’re going to have to flick through sheets of paper to find out what happens next. If it helps, write out a little flow chart for yourself detailing the main encounters, where they lead to, and highlight any clues or other useful pointers. Having “cheat sheets” with key statistics, descriptions of important NPCs, their character quirks or other handy information can really help add pace to your game and maintain the ambience.

Preparation Is The Key: Part Three – “387 points of damage”

In one game I played in, we paused for ten minutes while our referee consulted umpteen charts, got a calculator out and after some time, declared we’d done the opposing submarine 387 points of damage. “Is that good?” we replied after a stunned pause. All the dramatic tension had dissipated and it certainly didn’t add to the gaming experience. A great time-saving measure (especially for games with complicated systems or rules) is to “roll in advance”. This can involve physically rolling the dice, knocking up a quick Excel spreadsheet to do it for you, using Java or other techie skills, or fudging it. For non-essential rolls you can assume your bad guys roll average (in an opposed roll, just take the average for their dice – or for initiative, assume they rolled the mean). In a game like Feng Shui, where five or six mooks might attack each player character, a big list of rolls you can tick your way down saves a lot of time and gets the players back where they need to be – in control and directing the action.

What Do You Do? – “Why didn’t you use your Dilithium Crystals?”

There’s no real point in starting your adventure with the PCs all tied up in a dungeon with no way out. If there is a way out and they have to pull together to do it, combining their skills, then cool beans. If, however, it’s to kill half an hour until a Plot Device rescues them and there’s nothing they can do before that, your short-changing your players. Make sure you’ve got options for your players (or at least the illusion of such) and asking them what they are doing (don’t forget the quiet ones too).

Also, the players need to know what they can do. Make sure you have explained any special powers or equipment that are necessary to the plot or scenario, so that players will know to use them at an appropriate juncture. After the Enterprise has blown up, it’s no use asking your irritated players why they didn’t use the Dilithium Crystals to save the day, if you hadn’t made sure they knew it was an option. Lots of people may well be new to your game world (as well as system) and things your regular group may take for granted and use in play-test may not necessarily occur at the convention. Take time to explain obscure equipment or bizarre powers. Similarly, if there is a mechanic for Fate Points, Hero Points, Bennies or some other “save your bacon” system, ensure you remind players at critical times that these can be used (they’ll forget), rather than just allowing a derailing failure to occur. You can’t explain everything in advance, you’ve only got a four hour slot, but try to get the basics covered and deal-breakers definitely need highlighting.

Everyone Gets To Act – “Yes you do”

You’ve asked them what they’re doing, now make sure everyone gets to do something. Don’t let the loudest player take all the limelight. I don’t just mean rolling initiative and taking turns stabbing the Orc, it also applies to general play. You’ll find that some louder, proactive players will dominate proceedings. Make sure you take time out to speak to the quieter players, who may well have valuable contributions to the game, and get them to express what they’re doing.

Also, make sure you feedback the result of everyone’s actions, even if it’s only a one-liner. I’ve had some games were all the referee seems to do is say “Yes you do” to whatever the players say, including to mutually exclusive statements. E.g. two players both say their character is taking the Important Scroll and the referee says “Yes you do” to both of them!? It is highly important that you let people know the result of their actions (Who’s actually got the scroll?) to maintain the illusion of the game world and keeping players focused on what’s happening and so they feel included in the story and know what’s going on. Everyone’s got a different little picture in their head of what’s occurring and what the world looks like. The more cohesive you can make all these little pictures by giving out the right information, the better.

As a side note, there’s no harm in going through a quick 20-30 second rundown of What Just Happened every round (turn / trip round the table / other time unit) to keep everyone aware of what’s going down in groove town.

Stamp Your Authority – “I’ll tell you what happens, how about that?”

You’re the boss. Oh yes you are. If you let players run rampant all hell will break lose and it will remind you of being in the playground with one kid shouting “I shot you” and the other “No you didn’t” ad nauseum. You are the arbiter of disputes, the Solomon of the gaming table. Be fair in your decisions and be man enough to admit mistakes, but ultimately you need to be hard. Make an informed decision, stick to it and move on. Don’t hang around for hours of rules-lawyering, it’s only a four hour game and people are there to play.

It’s All In The Detail – “It’s all kind of grey…”

In a White Wolf game I once participated in, we tried to follow someone through the Umbra; kind of like the spirit world, a shadowy reflection of our own realm. I’ve just made it sound twenty times cooler and more interesting than the referee at the Con made it sound, for their description was “It’s all kind of grey“. Any further enquires or efforts to get some handle on our environment (over a good hour real time) were met with the same statement. This gave us nothing to interact with, no direction and no sense of anything actually happening.

Bringing a game world to life is all in the details. Tell the players what they see and add extra bits… do they really have two thugs attacking them (“I’ll attack the one on the left“), or is there a tall, rangy brute with rotten breath and a swarthy weasel-faced goon trying to carve the character a new face? Similarly, the extra information sets players minds in the world and helps their imaginations. Take the same sci-fi location from two distinct angles. If you’re playing Prime Directive, then you would probably describe the smooth brushed-metal surfaces of the shuttle cockpit with subtle cool-blue lighting and voice activated controls. The same team in Serenity would more likely note the oil stains slicking the cockpit floor and cigarette burns in the console with missing switches. Bonus tip – don’t forget other senses than sight (“The cockpit smells of stale tobacco smoke, and as you slump into the seat the cracked leather sticks suspiciously to your bare forearm“).

No Game Has Ever Suffered From Too Much Pace – “What happens next?”

No game I have ever been in has suffered from too much pace. Lots have suffered from not enough, but never the other way round. Make sure things are happening, give the players things to do and options to follow. The best tournament scenarios for this sort of thing are ones involving an in-game time limit, or more importantly, a clear objective. Stranding six players in an unfamiliar environment with people they don’t know is nowhere near as effective as having them all be acquaintances – have a note on each character sheet detailing something small but interesting about a couple of other characters. Having loads of detail about all the other characters is confusing and rarely, if ever, gets used to the extent anyone would like – a line for each should do it.

If the players all have a mission to follow, the chances are that no matter how much they faff about or get distracted, they’ll ultimately go for the mission. It also gives you something to nudge your players towards. Having a time limit or a chase is also an effective way of keeping people on track and focused.

Experienced Characters – “But I’ve only got 14% in Lockpick”

Why give your players starting characters? Sure, in complicated games you might not want to overwhelm new players, but if the system is fairly straightforward, why not give the players reasonably competent and powerful characters to work with? Even in more complex systems, you can usually push all a character’s abilities in one direction, creating stereotypes, but also giving the player one main area to concentrate on. This will also enable a player to identify when it’s his turn for the limelight (“We need to break in? Step back, I’m a locksmith”), and gives them a strong sense of what they can do. If you’ve set your scenario up correctly then those advances skills are going to come in handy and anything the character is really good at, should be called upon. Although you’ll always want to challenge players, it’s good to have some small, achievable goals liberally scattered throughout the adventure. This gives your players a sense of empowerment and success.

About Gaz Bowerbank

Founder member of The Smart Party, Gaz has been roleplaying for what is rapidly approaching 30 years, which makes him feel old. On the plus side he’d run and or played just about all the games that were out there, until small press publishing got popular, and now there’s never enough time. Roleplaying is only one of an eclectic mix of hobbies, but takes up most of his time and Gaz can be seen at many UK conventions and one or two abroad too, his name’s in the odd publication and the list of playtest credits is too big to mention. If you want an opinion or advice (on just about anything) ask this man. Bring beer.


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  2. Philip Glass

    1 September 2011 at 12:00 pm

    And, if I may be so bold, number 11: do not let the players tell of their actions in “reported speech” (“I ask the smelly big brute to step aside or be trodden underfoot”). Get them to interact directly with the people they meet – and each other!.

  3. Dave McAlister

    1 September 2011 at 5:33 pm

    That depends on the player to be honest. Some don’t like playing that way while others are more than happy to chew the scenery with the best of them.

  4. Neal Freeman

    10 October 2011 at 6:41 am

    Number 12: If you must have a massive plot device in your adventure without which the PCs cannot possibly succeed, signpost it thoroughly. The most irritating con game I ever played had the referee telling us at the end “ah, well, you were supposed to save the dwarf at the beginning. Without doing that, you couldn’t possibly succeed”. Aaargh!

    Number 13: Make sure you actually have time to complete the game. Nothing’s more irritating than getting to the end of 4 hours for the ref to say “ah, well, you only got about one-third of the way through”. Aaargh again!

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