First published on RPG.net.
Running a game at a convention can be quite different from your weekly episode in an on-going campaign. The first time you try it, you might wonder how to adjust; here are some thoughts and tips. First, here is a really good post on this topic. The rest of the thread is pretty good too, but this post was excellent. I will now add my own thoughts below, collected from several old posts on the topic.
System Choice: If you want to reach more people, consider using a very well known or very simple system. Alternately, if you want to use a less popular and more complex system, market it to the hard-core fans and make sure to advertise on specialized forums.
Game Description and Title: Think of a game concept that people will grokk easily but won’t see multiple examples of at the same convention. For example, you can latch onto popular culture and what’s currently hot in books, comics, movies and television; a “Heroes” or “Perdido Street” game would probably be very catchy right now. On the other hand, advertising a dungeon-crawl in a generic fantasy setting may not get a whole lot of interest by itself. (Other factors play in, I’ll get back to that in a bit.)
Other concepts that are easy to grasp and attract interest include genre or setting collisions (e.g., noir + Roman Empire, wuxia + Aztecs, post-apocalypse + superheroes, western + sci-fi, etc.) At the other end of the spectrum, boring or discouraging game description are the ones that don’t give a good idea of what is special and interesting about this particular game and setting.
Describe the game in a couple of clear sentences, and leave the reader hanging with some sort of a surprise, mystery, peril, or question. Make it short and punchy, and give it a catchy or intriguing title. Don’t hesitate to browse old pulp magazines to get ideas of lurid — and intriguing — titles.
Pre-Generated Characters: Unless you have a really simple 5-minute character creation system, it’s best to go with pre-gens for convention games. Not only does it save time, it guarantees that the party will hang together reasonably well. If you really want to save a space for your S.O. or best friend, have one or two extra pre-gen characters beyond the number of game spots you advertised (e.g., have 7 or 8 characters if you advertised 6 seats).
Try to cover a range of skill sets, give niche protection, and think carefully about whether some of your characters are inherently more fun to play than others. Stay the hell away from having a favourite character in the bunch — it’s an invitation to favouritism (or resentment when a player plays your favourite “wrong”.) Also note whether any characters are essential to the story and must be included for the game to work.
Also, be warned that if you ever, ever put an assassin or sniper character in the bunch, the one player who is an asshole will immediately zoom in on it and snatch it. It doesn’t matter that your assassin has 36 excellent reasons to cooperate with the party; the one asshole player will see it as a walking engine of destruction that must kill every single NPC and half the PCs in your game. For this guy, sniper character = playing a Doom LARP.
Simplify! It’s extremely tempting to have too much material because (1) we’re all afraid of having too little to fill our allotted period, and (2) we’re used to our well-seasoned, more smoothly functioning regular gaming groups. However, at conventions you have half-a-dozen strangers who don’t know each other styles nor, very often, the system. Investigations and minor encounters can bog a game down to the point where you get barely a third of your adventure completed in time.
Go Modular: If you can, prepare a bunch of optional scenes that you can throw in depending on your players’ in-game decisions. Modular scenes give you the flexibility to respond to PCs’ actions so that the game does not feel like a railroad but you’re not left floundering for what to do next. This is much more feasible if you opted for a very simple system; it’s a lot easier to prep a bunch of small scenes and stat the necessary NPCs, vehicles and critters in some systems than in others.
Something for Everyone: At this point, consider whether you have enough scenes to give every character some shining moments. YOU built those pre-gen characters, you know what they can do, so give them chances to do it. The players won’t forgive you if you hand them characters then deny them opportunities to do cool stuff.
And Speaking of Preparation… Have a list of named NPCs, locations that may be encountered, possible scene elements and things that can happen in the scene, etc. You don’t have to stat every NPC, but having a list of names ready will save you from every character encountered being named Bob or Frank. The list of possible scene elements will help think on your feet when the PCs do something unexpected, or on the contrary, get stalled. For examples of such lists, check out the Fortress of Shadows’ Feng Shui fight scene locations, with their lists of “cool things that could happen.”
At the Convention
Attitude: Be welcoming and cheerful. Make sure to get enough sleep the night before so that you won’t be exhausted and crabby at your own game. Even though you may be nervous, try to act as a gracious, confident host — and start the game as quickly and smoothly as you can. At the end of the game, don’t forget to thank your players; they had a lot of other things they could do and they chose your game, that’s pretty important.
Opening Scene: It’s best to open with a scene that is vivid, clear, and forces the PCs to make a strong decision. The worst thing you can do is probably to leave the players confused, floating, and ask: “So, what do you guys want to do?”
For example: opening with your PCs witnessing two cops with weapons out, pursuing a ten-year old. Do they catch the kid and give him to the cops, hide the kid, follow the cops, take photos, etc.? That scene forces the character to act in some way (unless they’re jackasses who just want to go “roll to see if I’m getting drunk!” — then you know you should have no mercy on them!)
On the other hand, opening with a scene where the characters are looking for the Corsican Hawk (a macguffin), telling them their spaceship has just landed on Rigil Kentaurus, and asking “So, where do you want to go?” is weak and vague, at least for a convention game. Focus!
Props & Extras: It’s always fun to get little extras. Don’t spend more time on the bells and whistles than on the important parts of the adventure (plot threads, scenes, characters) but if you have time, consider making a few handouts or props that you can pass to the players. System cheat sheets, character pictures, maps, letters, etc. are fun for the players and can help everyone remember the details of the adventure (“What was the name of that guy we were working for? What are we trying to do?”)
End with a Bang or a Flourish: It’s like herding cats when the clock is ticking and you’re trying to get your game to a good stopping point. But do try to get to a satisfying finish, even if you have to insert one of your movable or modular scenes instead of the closing scene you had originally planned for. It’s often a big fight, but it can also be a big rescue, a big escape, a big revelation, etc. Something that provides excitement, partial or complete closure, and a denouement. It’s important that it be a starring moment for the PCs, not the NPCs. Make them sweat and strain for it but make them look good, and the players will leave satisfied.