Building Reusable Convention Adventures, Part 1: Adjusting Your Mindset to the Convention Game

Preparing to run my very first playtest of Zaya’s Promise, several years ago.

Preparing to run my very first playtest of Zaya’s Promise, several years ago.

When I started ConTessa, I hadn’t ever visited an in-person convention before, much less run a game at one. I started the organization not only because I wanted to give support to others, but because I, also, needed the support. In the five and a half years since, I’ve been on the hunt for ways to develop custom adventures for convention games I could prep for while undergoing the stress prepping for ConTessa, and that I could run at many conventions without getting bored.

It wasn’t until this year, prepping four games for three different systems, that I realized I’d inadvertently created a system for developing adventures expressly designed for convention play that are modular, reusable, and scalable. This isn’t easy, especially that last part. Any convention game you run has to adjust for the size of the time slot you’re running it during. There’s no ‘next time’, or ‘next session’. You only have your group for the time scheduled, and that’s that.

The biggest complaints I’ve heard from players have been about games that either didn’t get finished during the slot scheduled or finished too quickly, leaving them wanting more in either case. You and your adventure have to grow and shrink according to the dynamics of the group at your table, and while this does take some ability to improv, there are steps you can take to make those moments easier.

The biggest complaints I’ve heard from GMs is that the players did X when they expected them to do Y, instead, usually followed immediately by someone somewhere saying, “The GM’s best-laid plans never survive contact with the players.”, with the words slightly different or rearranged every single time. While this is true, it’s… not helpful.

I put a lot of thought into this mostly because I got so tired of hearing the cliche, but it kind of helped me in the end. Not only does it neatly solve the problem, but it makes it so you actually have to think less, which means using less energy, and putting less stress into your prep.

Don’t lay plans.

Don’t try to read your player’s minds.

Get out of your player’s minds all together. You don’t know anything about your players. With rare exception, you’re likely not going to know a single person sitting at your table. If you do know someone, you won’t know everyone, and you have no idea how the group dynamic is going to play out. You can not predict the future.

Instead, focus on the things you know without a doubt. You know your adventure. You know your world. You know what you want to accomplish, even if all you know right now is vague, like, “I want it to be a dungeon crawl,” or, “I want to recreate the struggles of high school,” or, “I want to make an adventure mishmashing five of my favorite movies together.” It might be really specific, it might be super vague, but it’s something you know.

Forget about what you don’t know. What you don’t know is irrelevant. What’s left is going to be our playground. The places, people, dynamics, clues, motives, forces, and objects that define what’s going on in your adventure right up to the moment the characters enter the game. I’m going to walk you through clarifying your ideas, preparing an overall outline, setting up base information about your adventure, creating modular idea spreads that help you improv, creating memorable pregenerated characters, helpful player handouts, breaking the ice with your group, using safety mechanics, and scaling your game to group dynamics.

Part of what makes GMing at conventions so fun for me is that no two games are alike, even when running the exact same adventure. I can’t wait to see what my players are going to do in my playground every time we sit down at the table. It’s my hope that by sharing my technique, it’ll give other GMs some ideas, and maybe quell some anxieties (I get terrible anticipation anxiety about a week before any convention, myself.)

In the next part, we’ll talk about creating the beginning and end for your adventure, then filling in the middle via outlining. Until then, remember, stop trying to read minds!

Articles, GMing, How ToStacy Dellorfano