Get Ready to Roll: How to Plan and Prepare for GMing Successful Convention Games
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1224
We just played session #09 of my Basilica campaign that’s half sandbox, half Temple of Elemental Evil. The party was bequeathed land as reward for escorting settlers safely to the area. As it turns out, the land is a swamp with ruins of an old moathouse on it.
Girding loins and such, the party approached the moathouse and I was able to unleash the giant toads waiting near the drawbridge. Alas, no characters were fully swallowed this time. I even had a halfling in the party. And if it weren’t for that halfling and the dang cleric, elf, and dwarf, I’d have gotten away with it too!
But now the party has alerted bandits within the ruins, and next session we shall see what happens.
In other news, the Master of the 5 Room Dungeon Workshop has been keeping me busy, in a great way. We have three sessions under our belts now and are in full-swing. It is awesome meeting RPT GMs, talking shop, and comparing notes. Next week we begin encounter buildouts, and that should be a ton of fun.
And one final bit of news, Sly Flourish asked me to mention his Kickstarter. Mike produces excellent material, and I’m sure his Lazy DM’s Forge of Foes is going to be awesome. Congrats on your project’s funding, Mike!
Ok. On with the tips. While this week’s tips focus on convention gaming, they could easily apply to one-shots, league play, or any time-constrained game. I hope they are of interest.
How to Plan and Prepare for GMing Successful Convention Games
Hola fellow game master! Are you planning a convention game for 2023? I was asked about this a couple of times recently, so here are some ways to make your con game a great success.
Make a Game Plan
Convention games present a few variables. So I would start by planning like it was a meeting agenda:
Total Time Available: 240 Minutes
- [-15] Pre-game setup if you are allowed
-  Wait for players to find the table/room
-  Onboarding
-  Adventure kick-off and Room I
-  Room II
-  Room III
-  Room IV
-  Room V and wrap-up
-  Clean-up for next table
Total Time Planned: 160 Minutes
This is just an example agenda. Create your own, be a bit more generous with time than you think will be needed, and total it up. We’ve got a spare hour and 10 minutes with this plan, which gives us a fantastic buffer. It’s better to over-estimate time needed because we can always throw in filler encounters.
I am also using the 5 Room Dungeon framework as an example. Just slot in your planned encounters and expected gameplay time if using another method.
Prep Some Extras
To start, I would prepare for additional gameplay in case things do go fast:
- A twist encounter as a Room VI
- 3 back pocket encounters designed to unblock the party, guide them back onto the critical path, or use up additional resources
- Pre-generated characters
- Spare characters in case extra players show up or there’s an early death
- Props, maps, minis, and any physical aids that help gameplay roll smoother
- Player handouts like cheat sheets, clues, adventure background, setting tips, and rules tips
With regards to characters, my rule of thumb is if it takes more than 10 minutes to get a character ready for play then use pre-gens. Unless the goal is game system tutorial, then spending too much time on chargen deprives us of time for adventure.
A fantastic compromise for when you want players to have a hand in character generation, but not bog down a session with long chargen, is to provide partially finished characters. This is my default for all one-shots:
Step 1. Build your adventure or characters, then the other informed by the first. By that, I mean build an adventure around the characters to ensure encounters offer ideal spotlights and choices.
Step 2. Create characters and get all the tricky rules stuff built out.
Step 3. Leave certain areas or sections blank for players to fill-in during onboarding.
This means we save a ton of convention time by building out most of each character in advance. But we still give players ways to customize their character so they get familiarized, feel greater connection, and have a sense of authorship.
Examples of great player character customization options that don’t mean refactoring the build:
- Starting equipment
- Choose 1d4 special abilities, skill, or feats
- Choose flaws and boons for extra flavor
Presenting lists of options in the form of a chargen cheat sheet would help speed up this stage of the game even further.
A strong start generates excitement and energy to fuel the whole session. This becomes challenging when meeting strangers, setting things up, figuring out characters, and so on.
Therefore, prepare a strong onboarding period at the top of the session to efficiently handle admin stuff and get players excited for the adventure to come.
Here’s a sample agenda for a half-hour effective onboarding and energy build-up period:
-  Introduce yourself and have players introduce themselves. Ask each player to provide their RPG experience and what kind of characters they like to play most. Create a name card for each player to put in front of them.
-  Introduce the setting and the adventure premise. This helps orient players and complete character tweaks.
-  Rules tutorial. If you can hand out a cheat sheet and walk through it as your rules tutorial you help players learn the system and navigate the cheat sheet.
-  Character selection (pre-gens), character customization, and character introductions. Also spend a brief period walking through the strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities of each PC to help the group’s teamwork. And ask each player to add their character’s name and class or niche to their name card.
What we’ve done here is reduce social anxiety by getting introductions out of the way. Then we framed the upcoming session to gather interest and help with character selection and tweaks. Then we taught just enough rules to get the game started. Finally, we helped players make the pre-generated characters their own and ready for the first encounter.
Keep your adventure simple and let players complicate it. This saves you prep time and helps you focus on customizing encounters for more spotlight opportunities and interesting player choices.
Use a timer on your phone during the session to stay on track.
Call one or two mid-session breaks for you to recalibrate and make any necessary adjustments for a strong second half and epic finale. Make one break about an hour or so in. Then another break just before the finale.
Add variety: The 5 Room Dungeon model ensures encounter variety. If using a different approach, ensure you have a mix of action, roleplay, and puzzles. Note that when I say puzzles, that could mean funhouse dungeon style puzzles, party dilemmas, or special story constraints. Anything that gives players interesting choices with a cost.
Start with a strong premise: Crafting a compelling adventure plotline that will grab your players’ attention and make them excited to play. This could be an intriguing mystery, an epic quest, or a unique setting that invites exploration and discovery.
Prime your audience: You’ll likely be GMing strangers. Communicate your refereeing approach and basic social contract stuff, perhaps picking a few points from the Same Page Tool to help your players understand how to lean into your GMing style.
Create memorable characters: Craft NPCs that are distinct, colorful, and memorable. Give them unique personalities, quirks, and motivations that will make them stand out in your players’ minds. Your group won’t have multiple sessions to get to know and remember NPCs, so go a little over the top.
Offer meaningful choices: Give players interesting choices that will affect your adventure’s outcome. This will make them feel like their decisions matter, give them a sense of agency, and reward them for engagement.
Provide challenging obstacles: Every encounter should have at least one of the three conflicts: physical, social, or puzzle. Create obstacles that will challenge your players and test their skills and creativity. This could be anything from puzzles and riddles to combat encounters and social challenges.
Use good descriptions: Use vivid and evocative language to describe things in your adventure. But be short and clear when triggering encounters or answering questions. Clarity trumps colorful rambles. I find it very difficult to hear in some convention halls, so speak loud and clear, as well.
Create a sense of urgency: Keep the pace brisk by motivating players to take actions. A ticking clock, for example, will encourage faster decision-making. This not only increases the drama, but helps give you more time for a great ending that isn’t rushed.
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
My 3-Phased Approach To Drawing Maps
RPT GM PJ and I were chatting over email. He mentioned that it’s easy to get lost in the tools while creating maps.
When drawing maps, I try to separate the process into stages.
Stage 1 involves making quick thumbnails. It takes seconds to draw blobs to assess size, proportions, and relative positioning.
In Stage 2 I draw bigger thumbnails and add more details like foes, traps and hazards, elevations, terrain, distances, transitions, etc.
Then in Stage 3 I hit my drawing app or tool for a final version that doesn’t look like I was drinking a lot.
Each stage gives me a clear goal. I was getting frustrated trying to ideate in a Stage 3 tool like DungeonDraft or Inkarnate. By breaking the process into phases, I avoid confusion and a lot of wasted time.
The Likely Path for Sandbox Campaigns
RPT GM Ryan emailed me with this great approach to sandbox design:
Hey Johnn! Love the 5 room stuff you put out. I’ve taken what you’ve done and sort of done a modified version of your idea that I use in my sandbox Forgotten Realms campaign I’m running.
It’s a sandbox, so I have to be prepared for the unexpected, but I take the 5-room dungeon idea and put it into what I call the Likely Path.
Essentially, it works like this. Before the session I spend an hour studying where the characters are, what the major NPCs are doing or plotting, major places the characters might visit, background history, and what the characters are trying to accomplish.
First, I write a paragraph about what happened last session (and read it out loud to the characters at the beginning of the session: ‘Last episode, the party…‘).
Then, I write down the 5-room adventure as a series of 5 encounters called The Likely Path. I get inspiration from reading the monster manuals, Forgotten Realms history and lore (mostly from the Forgotten Realms wiki), and sometimes published adventure material.
Then, I write down a list of interesting monsters and magical items or ideas you can keep on the side in case you need to improvise. These could also be secrets or plot hints you want to reveal, or a trap/puzzle you want the characters to face. (5-10 of these is a good number.)
By using a combination of the 5-room adventure Likely Path, plus being prepared to improvise on the fly by studying surrounding areas, backgrounds, history, etc., and having published dungeons and random tables on hand, every session turns out to be a unique and surprising session where even I am not really sure what is going to happen. (Really I have no idea – I write the likely path as a guide, and to have a few encounters ready to go, and it keeps the sessions grounded, but it always goes off the rails in a fun way.)
All of the above usually takes about an hour to get ready, so it’s not too bad, and I’ve gotten into the habit of writing down the summary at the end of the sessions for next time so it is easy to remember.
Making High Level Play Feel Like Low Level Again
Over at my Campaign Community forum, RPT GM Kiester Chronicles was saying his joy is in low level campaigns but his players don’t want to stop playing their 12th level PCs.
I shared these ideas on ways to make the game feel low level once more:
Focus on the details. As you know, characters gain access to more powerful spells, abilities, and equipment when they advance. Encourage players to describe their actions in detail, and to think creatively about how they can use their abilities and equipment in different ways. This will help to make the game feel more grounded and realistic, rather than like a series of flashy special effects.
Focus on world building instead of plot building. And give everything a secret (from the excellent old Dungeoncraft column). High-level play tends to peel back player Fog of War. Use world building and secrets to draw it closer in again and make the game feel mysterious once more.
Add temporary limits to magic and technology. In high-level D&D, characters have access to powerful spells and magic items that can drastically change the nature of the game. To make the game feel more like low-level play, you could limit the use of magic and technology as part of your adventure constraints.
For example, anti-magic and chaos magic zones, the god of magic dies (again) or becomes imprisoned, or villains start putting curses on PC equipment and whatnot. Another example: in the funhouse Dungeonland adventure by Gygax, the PCs are shrunk to ant-sized proportions, adding all kinds of new challenges to the party.
Increase the difficulty. That’s what my Faster Combat 5E course is about. Punch up with tactics, CombatScape design, and other factors beyond Legendary Resistance and killer lair actions. Set up more complex puzzles and traps as well, via more sophisticated villains. By increasing the difficulty, you’ll encourage players to think creatively and rely on their skills and abilities, rather than just their powerful spells and magic items.
Emphasize the role-playing. D&D is a role-playing game, and the more you highlight role-playing aspects of the game, the less it will feel like high-level power-fantasy. Deeply explore the backstories of the characters, and keep the party roleplaying with NPCs. By focusing on the characters and their relationships, you’ll create a more immersive and realistic game world, which will help to ground the game, even as your characters gain in power.