First time GMing strangers at a convention - any advice?


GM Discussion

Silver Crusade

So back in the day, I used to be the main DM for my RPG group in middle and high school, playing D&D, Star Frontiers, and AD&D, though more AD&D than anything else. That was back in the days before that newfangled 2nd edition AD&D stuff, let alone Pathfinder.

After high school, the group went our separate ways, and I stopped playing RPGs until last year.

My RPG experience since then has been mostly Pathfinder Society, and I've GMed a few sessions for our local group. Even though we have different people show up each week, it's a small, friendly group where we all know each other, so it was similar to being the DM for our home game back in high school.

In February, I played at my first ever convention, but didn't GM. My 2nd convention is coming up this weekend, and I volunteered to GM one session. I intentionally picked an adventure to run that I've previously played, so I was already familiar with it. But the side effect of that is that none of my friends from my local group can play at my table, since they've already played this scenario, too.

I have a decent amount of experience GMing for friends at this point, but going into a convention and running for a table of complete strangers will be a new experience. I fully expect all the players to know the rules, and especially their specific characters, better than me. After all, I've only been playing Pathfinder for 6 or 7 months, and it's a high enough level adventure (tier 5-9) that everyone will have to be experienced players.

Any tips?

Dark Archive

1 person marked this as a favorite.
Pathfinder Adventure, Adventure Path, Maps Subscriber

1/ Consider having extras of faction missions so you can pass te

2/ Know your scenario well enough that you can get back to the rails if they wander off. Expect things you haven't seen before that actually work. Know your tactics too.

3/ Gauge the combat worthiness of the table in the first combat encounter. If they shred the combat and are having fun roleplaying together, don't sweat it. If the combat shreds them, don't sweat it. If you kill the same PC twice because they're unwisely and consistently getting themselves in reach of scary!bad!things, don't sweat it.

4/ Make sure that anything you do that's different than average is something you can explain clearly in a noisy room.

5/ If there was anything that was particularly weird about how your table proceeded through the adventure, figure out how you would handle similar oddities in your run.

6/ Be aware that facing AWAY from the crowd TOWARD the wall is generally best for the players to be able to hear you. Be further aware that a noisy room means you will need to project perhaps more than your norm - this can make, for example, soft-spoken characters hard to portray.

7/ Pre-pick the minis you will need for the combats in the adventure so that you don't have to fumble through a big stack of minis looking for the one you want. Well-chosen representative enemy figures can make an adventure just that extra bit cooler. I must run Nesting Swallow again so that I can take pictures, dammit.

Dark Archive

Pathfinder Adventure, Adventure Path, Maps Subscriber

As for the "they're strangers" part.... Have fun, assume good intent, explore, report, and cooperate. The best thing about Living campaigns, for me, has been meeting new and interesting people from all over who share a love for interactive story.

And for a green star metal spiked chain fondue server, as well...

Grand Lodge

1 person marked this as a favorite.

8/ Make them introduce their characters to the rest of the table, clockwise. Make them detail:
a. The name, gender and race of the character.
b. What they are wearing and are armed with.
c. What rumours the party may have heard about this Pathfinder around the Grand Lodge (eg he owns a bakery, her force bombs are horrifying, his sword is an Azlanti relic, she despises all devils)

9/ Roleplay your NPCs. Make Ambrus Valsin gruff. Make old people hunched with wavery voices. Make Goblins shriek. There's no point being embarrassed, you're at a roleplaying convention.

10/ Don't refer to characters by their class, refer to them by name.

11/ Don't be afraid to raise your eyebrows at players who are quite obviously playing from the point of view that they have no regard for the rest of the party/the GM/the game. Just because a player can do something, doesn't mean they should do something. Stupid combo characters, I'm looking at you.

12/ When someone does something awesome, reward it with creative descriptions, plenty of flavour and maybe even some adventure progress that is unexpected. Reward creativity.

There's plenty more, but that's all I can think of.

Shadow Lodge 5/5

I was in your same boat Fromper earlier this year. I'd only attended one convention (the same one last year) prior to running at one. I made sure to play a couple of games the first day. While I did play with some players I was used to playing with, I also played with a few I wasn't. This helped break some of my nervousness. Of course, I ran 5 games, and my first and third had those same players in it so it helped a bit. I just kept reminding myself, these people are gamers just like me. They're here to participate in a game, and as long as I try to make sure we all have fun, we'll all have fun.

I had a blast, and can't wait until October when U-Con will take place so I can run at that one too. :)

Scarab Sages

13) Know an escape route...
Seriously, I think the advice is more or less spot on. Make sure not to force anything on the players.

Time slots at a convention are not long enough to adapt to another playstyle, especially not for less experienced players (more precisely, less convention experienced players), so don't try to make those that look for different aspects of the game then you usually emphasize suffer for it. Look at all the aspects of a szenario (roleplaying aspects, combat, etc) and try to give them all their fair amount of space.

Give players that tend to emphasize roleplaying or tactical gaming space, but cut them short(subtly, best by moving on without actually interrupting them) if they overdo it.

Don't be too disappointed if the experience doesn't seem to be as 'deep' or homogenous as a home game and don't be too disappointed if you don't make everybody happy. It happens (and sometimes players at a con seem to look for reasons not to be pleased with their gm).

2/5

1 person marked this as a favorite.

feytharn is right on about just not having the time to do everything the way you would "at home" or perfectly (where everyone is happy). As a True Dungeon DM I have had to cope with having just 12 minutes to get a group of players through a room... and these are strangers, you don't know their individual needs/expectations... so you do the best you can.

5/5 Venture-Agent, California—San Francisco Bay Area North & East aka Pirate Rob

This applies as both a GM and a player.

I love playing with players and GMs I've never played with before in PFS.

I always feel like I learn some rules tidbit that I had otherwise been unaware of. My old jokes are all new and I meet new and interesting characters.

If you've GMed a few sessions for your local group you're more than prepared to GM at a convention. Just make sure to prep the scenario and give your players an awesome time.

The Exchange

1 person marked this as a favorite.

Fromper--

For me, the #1 thing you want to do as you sit down at a convention table as GM is to set the expectation for fun an make sure you are in the proper mindset: enthusiastic and confident (even if you might not feel it inside).

At conventions, people won't always know each other and they may not know you as a judge and that can cause a certain amount of unnecessary angst. So play up your excitement at the gift you're about to give the players and be confident in yourself and your players.

Open up with something like this:

"Hey All. My name is Painlord and I've been playing this dumb, silly game for about 2 years. Now, I've played this scenario already...and had a blast. And I've prepped it thoroughly and I think there are some great scenes and great opportunities for roleplay. I'm excited about it. I hope you are too."

"I'm going to make this a good run for you and I want you all to trust me enough to just have fun and roleplay your yahoos."

"Let's start this thing! Introductions...let's start with you..."

-Pain

Liberty's Edge 5/5

Pathfinder Companion, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Society Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

Pain's advice is spot on. DM'ing is a lot like any other live performance. The one thing that is nearly guaranteed to make an audience nervous is a nervous performer. If you appear comfortable, they will get comfortable. This will allow them to immerse themselves in their characters and the story.

I'd also suggest having a good idea of how time-consuming a scenario will be and how this will work with the time constraints of the convention. Some PFS scenarios play very quickly and can be finished in well under four hours. Others can and do take five plus hours to run. Knowing how long the scenario will take can really help you with pacing.

Grand Lodge

There is already a lot of good info in this thread. I only skimmed most of it, but I'm going to add a couple I didnt notice.

14?) Try to spend as little time on the mechanics of the game as possible. Don't take too long organizing your initiative method (tracker, notepad, cards, etc). Dont get into long drawn out conversations about how a rule works . Make a ruling and move on*.

15?) If you do wind up with some strangers and some you already know, try not to spend much time chatting with your friend, as it takes tiem from everyone. This should be something to keep in mind in general, but it can be worse when some people at the table dont know you and may not feel like they could join in.

*:
What I generally do in situations like this, if I am not 100% sure on the ruling and had to make a decision on the fly, is to tell the player that if they can find their interpretation in the book and show it to me, I'd be willing to admit that I'm wrong, and we can revisit the issue when they find it or during a break, depending on the issue

Dark Archive 5/5

1 person marked this as a favorite.
Pathfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber
Seth Gipson wrote:

There is already a lot of good info in this thread. I only skimmed most of it, but I'm going to add a couple I didn't notice.

14?) Try to spend as little time on the mechanics of the game as possible. Don't take too long organizing your initiative method (tracker, notepad, cards, etc). Don't get into long drawn out conversations about how a rule works . Make a ruling and move on*.

** spoiler omitted **

I use the latter part of #14 in my introduction. "Hi, I'm Leg o' Lamb and I'll be your gm today. I like to keep things moving and try not to get bogged down in a rules debate. During the game, I may ask one of you to look up a rule."

During the game, without giving away the above spoiler, I will make my ruling and ask for feedback. If someone makes a convincing argument for the opposite of what I ruled, I'll change my mind. If not, then we move on. This works for 90% of disagreements.

If a serious defense is mounted, I'll ask another player at the table to look up the rule while I get feedback from the table. I like this because it gets the other players involved so they don't get bored or, worse, upset because one player is dominating the session. If my ruling is not a happy one, ie, I ruled against the player, then during a break we can sit and discuss the matter and/or outcome.

Just remember that everyone wants to have fun.

Lantern Lodge

There's also the tried and true method of just imagining everyone in their underwear. If that doesn't work then just remember everyone there just wants to have fun. If you get someone who is so much trouble you cannot work with him or her, or if that person disrupts the fun of the table to the point of ruining their experience, you can always ask that person to leave. In the end, you are the boss of fun for the table. And part of players having fun on the table is when they see you, the GM, having fun as well.


1 person marked this as a favorite.

Lots of good advice above which need not be repeated.

I've GMed at many cons, some small (local game days) and some large (Gen Con, DragonCon), and the greatest challenge, I find, is time management. You *really* need to run the scenario in 3.5 hours, because it never starts *right* on time, and there needs to be time for paperwork and so on before players rush off to their next table or to grab a quick bite.... before their next table.

At large cons, *usually* you'll be running one scenario multiple times, so you don't have to prep 4-5 scenarios - this allows you to become very familiar with the scenario; if you *are* running several different scenarios, it's a bit more challenging, but KNOW THE SCENARIO.

While you prep, it's worth planning ahead for what can be hand-waved, cut, or otherwise expedited; the key here is to accelerate play without simplifying the narrative or eliminating role-playing opportunities. Note that this does NOT mean cutting, say, a thug encounter along the road, necessarily - while it might not advance the narrative, it IS intended to divert/consume resources; maybe, instead, you remove some non-encounter rooms in a dungeon to expedite.

Or whatever - decide "what can we skim through" to keep in-time and complete the scenario while preserving its flavor and challenge?

Another valuable rule is the One Minute Rule - if a player takes more than a minute to decide his action, s/he auto-delays and the next player goes. This keeps combat dynamic as well, always a good thing.

I also can't emphasize enough the value of plenty of hydration and healthy snacks to keep blood sugar stable! Bottles of water, a cooler with carrots, fruit and so on. GMing is actually really taxing - at a six person table over four hours, the players spend about 40 minutes each in actual play (rolling dice, announcing actions, speaking in-character) while the GM "plays" the WHOLE TIME! Do that 2-3 slots per day for 2-3 days and it's a hike through the desert :)

(I ran 9 slots at Dragon Con one year with a sinus infection - hating life, I assure you...)

In short, my GM rules: Prepare, Manage, Annunciate, Hydrate... I probably need better words so it doesn't spell PMAH :)

5/5 Venture-Agent, California—San Francisco Bay Area North & East aka Pirate Rob

Well Fromper, I hope we've given you a few tidbits of wisdom here and there.

I'd love to hear how it ends up going.

The Exchange

I still have video of my first attempt at judging.

*shudder*

I got better.

-Pain

Silver Crusade

Honestly, I don't think it went that well.

Part of the problem was the scenario - many PFS scenarios completely railroad the plot so the players don't have any way to get off track. This isn't one of them. The players decided not to believe an NPC about a plot point, had trouble tracking the bad guys, and I had to improvise when they wandered some place that the adventure never intended them to go. I don't think I did that great with that part, though I did manage to get them back on track.

When things were on track, they blew through the combat encounters like they were nothing. Again, I think that was the scenario. When my local group played the same scenario about a month ago, the combats weren't overly tough. The group I was GMing at the con was a lot more powerful than my local group of mostly non-optimized PCs, so they had no problems beating the snot out of the bad guys.

I don't think it was my worst gaming experience of my life, but it certainly wasn't the best. We did pretty well with the time control, though - we finished in exactly 4 hours.

I think I do better GMing at low level, simply because that's where most of my playing experience is. I'm still relatively new to the game, so I don't know much about mid-high level tactics, which makes it tough for me to play the bad guys in a challenging way at that level.

And having to improvise when the PCs wandered to a village that they were never intended to visit in the scenario led to some weirdness. I actually used to make stuff up in situations like that all the time when running 1st edition AD&D home games 20-25 years ago, but I haven't done that sort of thing since then. So having to come up with something on the fly in a limited time control situation was tough.

Anyway, it was a learning experience. The main thing I learned is that I probably shouldn't be GMing anything over level 5 until I've had more playing experience at that level, preferably with a variety of PC types.

Dark Archive 5/5 Venture-Captain, Florida—Tampa aka Dominick

Honestly, don't be too hard on yourself! I think its better you are trying to improve every event even if you were Judge McSmoothy. Personally, I always look for ways to organize and judge better ever convention and game day.

This was an event I organized so let me share my game day impressions. I didn't hear about issues from players Fromper, and I appreciate the help at the convention. For mid to upper deck, I always hear if there are problems. Players after a few levels will be very vocal about the judge very quickly.

When I walked into the room, people were smiling and having fun, you didn't notice because you were working hard. The gauge of a good judge is simply this: "Did the table have fun?" It is less about knowing every sub case of the ruleset, and knowing how to manage the personalities involved, and help everyone have a good time.

That you reached beyond your comfort level and tried it is a credit to you. They went off the tracks and you handled it! Many people would have been in a panic, and spoiling the fun trying shove them back on the rails.

I usually will assign a lower and an higher module to judges so they can prep properly. Some will get two higher mods if they have been around the block a few times. I would give you another middle deck 5-9 module if you wanted it, and I think you can handle busy events just fine.

In short, you were a fine judge and I would love for you to volunteer again. No kittens were injured in the running of that mod. I would love to see you volunteer at our busy cons, and I would schedule you without any hesitation.

Please come back, you made the grade and we need all the help from good judges that we can get!


Fromper wrote:


Part of the problem was the scenario - many PFS scenarios completely railroad the plot so the players don't have any way to get off track. This isn't one of them. The players decided not to believe an NPC about a plot point, had trouble tracking the bad guys, and I had to improvise when they wandered some place that the adventure never intended them to go. I don't think I did that great with that part, though I did manage to get them back on track.

As GMs we get kind of used to the railroadyness that lets us just sit back and be the conductors. I have one really difficult for me scenario, there is a lot of roleplay (which I'm not stellar at) and a lot of openendedness and there is parts that cannot be decided until we're sitting down at the table. I didn't like it the first time I ran it and was scheduled to run it 4 more times at a convention 3 weeks later. I learned to like it for the randomness. Sounds like you did a good job tho

Fromper wrote:


When things were on track, they blew through the combat encounters like they were nothing. Again, I think that was the scenario. When my local group played the same scenario about a month ago, the combats weren't overly tough. The group I was GMing at the con was a lot more powerful than my local group of mostly non-optimized PCs, so they had no problems beating the snot out of the bad guys.

Ability level between groups is always interesting (for me at least) but it's hard to normalize the game when you're constantly being chewed up

Fromper wrote:


I think I do better GMing at low level, simply because that's where most of my playing experience is. I'm still relatively new to the game, so I don't know much about mid-high level tactics, which makes it tough for me to play the bad guys in a challenging way at that level.

Always important to know where your comfort level is. If you do end up with a higher tier scenario again, while you're prepping read over things, I tend to make cheat sheets for feats and spells when I'm running higher tier. Despite having played some of those there are things I'm not familiar with. There is no shame in looking up how a classes "thing" works and having it written down. Better than just ignoring it.

Fromper wrote:


Anyway, it was a learning experience. The main thing I learned is that I probably shouldn't be GMing anything over level 5 until I've had more playing experience at that level, preferably with a variety of PC types.

As Gms we should never stop learning :)

Shadow Lodge

2 people marked this as a favorite.

My advice would be to start the convention with a TPK. Sets a good tone for the rest of the convention!

Silver Crusade

I didn't mean that it was completely awful. Just that things went wonky, and a better GM would have handled it better.

I definitely prepped the heck out of the adventure, so I was ready for all the spells, powers, feats, etc of the bad guys. It was the stuff I couldn't possibly have seen coming that threw me off, like the PCs not having the ability to track the bad guy as necessary, and thinking an NPC who was there to put them on the right track was actually lying to them.

Dark Archive 5/5 Venture-Captain, Florida—Tampa aka Dominick

Fromper wrote:

I didn't mean that it was completely awful. Just that things went wonky, and a better GM would have handled it better.

I definitely prepped the heck out of the adventure, so I was ready for all the spells, powers, feats, etc of the bad guys. It was the stuff I couldn't possibly have seen coming that threw me off, like the PCs not having the ability to track the bad guy as necessary, and thinking an NPC who was there to put them on the right track was actually lying to them.

There is an old engineering saying, "Better is the enemy of good enough!"

What I mean is the measure of your slot should [u]always[/u] be, did the party have fun. They had fun!

5/5 Venture-Agent, California—San Francisco Bay Area North & East aka Pirate Rob

Thanks a lot Fromper, I really appreciate you coming back and taking the time to be debriefed. (Weird term to use here, but I couldn't think of better)

If I could ask one more thing from you: What tips would you provide to somebody about to embark on the same journey?

Silver Crusade

Dominick wrote:


What I mean is the measure of your slot should [u]always[/u] be, did the party have fun. They had fun!

I hope so. When dealing with people I don't know very well, it's sometimes hard to tell. I need more skill ranks in sense motive.

Silver Crusade

Pirate Rob wrote:

Thanks a lot Fromper, I really appreciate you coming back and taking the time to be debriefed. (Weird term to use here, but I couldn't think of better)

If I could ask one more thing from you: What tips would you provide to somebody about to embark on the same journey?

I think debriefing is a good term for reviewing and learning from experiences after the fact. At the company I work for, I had a previous boss who tried to implement a whole project management system that involved debriefing after a project ends, which I think would be a great idea if we actually followed through and did it.

I'd say the most obvious advice is to prep the heck out of the adventure. I'm always amazed to hear of people running scenarios "cold". I'm also amazed at judges drawing maps at the table. Unless it's something really simple like a couple of rectangular buildings/rooms, I make sure everything's drawn/printed in advance.

But my point is that the better you know the scenario, the less likely it is that something will come up that will throw you off guard.

But when something weird does throw you off, just remember the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "Don't Panic!"

If it's a rules question, listen to the players, look it up if necessary, but make a quick decision rather than letting it slow down the table. Now that I think about it, that's the one thing I did really well at, even though my players kept using spells, feats, etc that I'd never heard of. I think my old "make a snap decision and move on" instinct from years of being my group's main DM back in high school kicked in for that part of it.

If they get off plot, try to find a good excuse to get them back on plot without it seeming too forced. This is the part I had trouble with, though I got there eventually.

Liberty's Edge 5/5 Venture-Lieutenant, Alaska—Anchorage aka Dragnmoon

Care Baird wrote:
My advice would be to start the convention with a TPK. Sets a good tone for the rest of the convention!

That is how I started my First US Gen Con!

Sovereign Court 5/5

Hey Fromper!

My husband was one of the players at your table (the Lightning sorcerer) and had some positive feedback for you.

He said he had fun and that you were very fair and listened to everyone at the table. Note: As GMs sometimes we have a tendency to be very self-critical - give yourself a break. :)

You deserve credit for being willing to run and for taking the big step of running at a convention for strangers. Add to that the knowledge that people had fun and - BAM! - good job!

Wherever the rails of the game are (PFS or otherwise) you can always count on the party to veer off of them as quickly and completely as possible. Throw in playstyles that you are not used to and it can get overwhelming very quickly.

Next time you run (and I hope you will try it again!) I do suggest running a lower level table. With fewer PC and monster abilities, there are fewer mechanical things to keep track of and more brain space to spare for "You want to go where and do what?!?!

When in doubt, kill one as an example to the others. Then kill another one so they know it wasn't a fluke. :)

Shadow Lodge 4/5 Venture-Captain, California—San Francisco Bay Area South & West aka JohnF

Kristie Schweyer wrote:
Next time you run I do suggest running a lower level table. With fewer PC and monster abilities, there are fewer mechanical things to keep track of and more brain space to spare for "You want to go where and do what?!?!

As a counter-argument, though, the players at a higher-level table can be a valuable resource for a GM who is still learning some of the more obscure classes, feats, etc. (and are more likely to have a good grasp of the rules as they pertain to their characters).

I haven't stepped up to judging at a con yet, but I've run tables at a couple of local game stores. Admittedly when I ran my first higher-tier table I had another excuse, too - my wife was playing on the lower-tier table, and I didn't want to run the risk of killing off her character (which was a real possibility); that could have led to a few strained moments.

2/5

As others have pointed out, when you are running a game and juggling the various tasks of adjudicating, its sometimes hard to tell if the players are enjoying themselves and its especially easy to doubt yourself afterwards as to whether it was entertaining for the players. Try to cut yourself some slack in that department... also, keep in mind that not everyone who had a good time will come to you and thank you for it- that's just the way some people are.

Community / Forums / Organized Play / GM Discussion / First time GMing strangers at a convention - any advice? All Messageboards

Want to post a reply? Sign in.
Recent threads in GM Discussion