The Twin Masters of Con GMing

(This is the start of a series that I’m going to try on Wednesdays — at least for the next few months — where I talk a bit about one of my deep passions, convention GMing.)

There are two broad reasons that people go to convention games: for an experience and to see how a game works. And while that probably gets a “duh” response from a bunch of you, here’s the rub: you can’t predict the mix you’re going to get.

As a convention GM, you’re both crafting an experience for and with these unknown players and demonstrating the game. Most people want both, though to different degrees. But you could just as easily have players who don’t give a damn about the game because they just want to play in a fun story (or worse). You could have players who don’t give a damn about the adventure you’ve prepared because they’re there to finally see how combat or magic or whatever works in this new-to-them game. And you could have those two types show up to the same game.

I call these the Twin Masters of Con GMing. You, as the con GM, need to be ready for a situation where you have all of one or the other, or whatever mix happens at the table.

Players Seeking Experiences

You’re going to get a lot of these, especially if you’re running older games. You write up a fun blurb for the con and people show up jazzed to be a part of it. One of my first con games, a GURPS Horror game set in Disneyland, grew crowd after crowd of people wanting to play in a zombie apocalypse set in the happiest place on earth. They wanted this experience I was billing.

I got lucky during those games, because that’s not the only experience people could be seeking. There are your trouble players who go seeking the experience of frazzling a GM. Or you get the group of friends that swarm a table and want the experience of playing together, which is a very different dynamic than people who don’t know each other before sitting down.

The mindset of this type of player is focused on enjoyment and the moment.

Your job as a con GM is to prepare an experience for the table, but it’s also to be prepared for other experiences the group or individuals might want to push on you. It’s rough, but we’ll talk in future installments about how to be a “Bend Like Reed” GM.

Running a Game Showcase

The more I run “the small press hotness” or other new games, including playtests, the more I get people who are more interested in a game because they haven’t played it before than I do for the adventure pitch. (In fact, many of the indie play cons pitch games simply by saying the title of the system, and that’s what people glom onto.)

When this happens, your job is to have enough mastery of the game to demonstrate it, answer questions, and direct the flow of information for optimal learning. The mindset of this type of player is focused on discovery and understanding.

Column A & Column B

Of course, not everyone is two-dimensional. People want to be entertained and to entertain in return. People want to discover cool stuff. But the mix is where it’s hard, because you, as a GM, likely have your own desire. Sometimes I want to show people the cool shit they’re playing, and sometimes I just want to have a fun light experience.

How do we, as con GMs, deal with this situation we’re constantly throwing ourselves in? That comes in the form of many skills that I’ll want to talk about later:

  • Reading people at the table
  • Building rapport, both between you & them and with them & each other
  • Building up your “reactive GM” muscles
  • Retaking control of the table

Next week, a new topic! But here’s where I wanted to start, because understanding the job we’re doing helps highlight the skills we need.

Agree? Disagree? Please add your thoughts in comments!

– Ryan


6 Responses to The Twin Masters of Con GMing

  1. I always assume people are there to play a fun game with me, which is a little Pollyanna but puts me 100% in the right frame of mind. I don’t want to be responsible for anybody’s agenda any more than I want to be responsible for their fun.

    Sometimes someone will clearly articulate their category A or B-ness, and that’s cool, as a potential friend I want to help give them what they want.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      The word “fun” is so subjective, though, that I don’t use it in this discussion. Everything above is about “people having their fun” — but fun is different for different people, different moods, different times of day, different reactions, etc.

      I also assume people want to have a fun game with me. But as a guy facilitating a game — possibly having to teach it or bring the initial catalyst of awesome — I have to be prepared for different ways that people want to get their fun. And that’s what I’m trying to talk about here, about being that prepared.

      – Ryan

  2. Doug Dauton says:

    Great stuff, as always. Twitter love activated.

  3. Mike Olson says:

    I’m with Jason — since everything I run these days is basically a playtest of something, I take the “system showcase” aspect as a given, and just try to make good on the gimmicky premise that probably brought them to the table in the first place. Added to that: Out of any five-player group, on average somewhere between zero and three of them are strangers. At conventions, I increasingly end up playing with (and running games for) people I already know, either as con-friends or as just, y’know, friend-friends, so I’m kind forced to assume that at least part of the reason they keep playing in my games is because *I’m* running them.

  4. Jeff Tidball says:

    It seems to me like back in the day, conventions were willing to run longer event descriptions, and that you could use those to telegraph to prospective players what kind of experience you were offering. However, as this impression is based on fuzzy recollections, it is highly suspect.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Part of it is based on fuzzy recollections. Part of it is based on stuff I’ve seen over the last couple years (including these past summer cons). But you’re right to say it’s suspect — I think I’m compressing multiple thoughts that should be separated into one idea. I’m going to chew on that a bit. Right now, I think the individual ideas are valid, but yeah, reading it again it is a bit weak smooched together like this.


      – Ryan