Audience Participation: Con GM Problems

Hey! So, in a new segment I’m calling “Audience Participation,” I will ask you guys for some input! Here goes.

Let’s assume, hypothetically, that I’m working on a book with some really cool people about being a convention GM. Yes, hypothetically. And we’ll assume that you’re the target audience for this book. With all that in mind:

Please give me one or two problems you’ve encountered as a convention GM that you wish someone would have given you advice about beforehand. It doesn’t matter whose fault the problem was — yours, someone at the table, someone totally unrelated to the game, or no ones at all. And it doesn’t matter if you know now how to deal with the problem or if it still plagues you. (I’m looking a lot for the latter, but problems you’ve solved are problems that other people still have, so that works.)

Include as much detail as you’re comfortable with. If you’d rather email me than comment here, you can to so at: AudienceParticipation@RyanMacklin.com, with the subject line “Audience Participation: Con GM Problems”

Thank you!

– Ryan


25 Responses to Audience Participation: Con GM Problems

  1. That Guy.

    When he sits down at the table, everyone there knows who he is, except you. And the table mood drops significantly. He’s loud, hard to control, and won’t leave the table without a fight, even if you kill his character. He’ll raise holy hell with con staff if you kick him out, because he paid his money and got “cheated out of a game.”

    He takes most of the spotlight by bullying the table into silence, sometimes by literally just talking over people until they stop. You realize who he is an hour into the game, but by then you’re committed, and you have to make a choice : try to control him, or make a scene.

    You’ll know who he is next time, and you’ll be more prepared for his quirks. But if he’s in your game officially, your hands are a little tied.

    There’s one or more at every convention, and especially when you’re GMing in a new town, discovering these people the hard way sucks. But it’s a good clue when a player pulls you aside before the game starts and says “I’m giving up my slot. I won’t play with that guy because he’s a dick.”

  2. Rob Donoghue says:

    Only one or two people show up for a fully booked game.

    • Carl Klutzke says:

      Or two or three extra people show up for a fully booked game.

    • Jack Graham says:

      Yeah. Having only a few people show up is utterly ego-destroying. You just have to go into every slot expecting to only have two people and be happy when there’re more. Or throw in the towel — which is not an option if you’re serious. One can run an awesome game with only two players, provided you don’t let it demoralize you.

      Or, if they’re cool, ditch whatever you’re actually supposed to be running and whip out Car Wars.

  3. Dixon Trimline says:

    Well now, I came with one of my own, but that one from A Terrible Idea above is pretty bloody good. Anyway…

    My biggest problem is time management. I come with what feels like a nice, tight, 4-hour game, and it turns into a sprawling 13-hour grind, and all the players realize the only way to escape the game is to kill me and hide my body in a dumpster.

    My biggest fear has always been, “What if my game ends too quickly?” And yet, that has never actually happened. However, the game dragging out much too long? Yeah, that has happened several times.

  4. Grim says:

    Ironically, the audience. Tables in general rooms will often attract sightseers, or people who’ve played the same game in a previous session and will comment, or say ‘Ooh, this is a really good bit’. It’s a bit interfering and disruptive. More so even than the loud group on the next table over.

  5. Not everyone at the table is in synch about the type of game we’ll be playing. Yes, we all know which game, but games can have multiple modes of playing them, and that’s where the problem starts. I’ll never forget a 1:00 AM game of InSpectres that Rich ran for us at Gen Con. Though the game has a humorous vibe, we (sleep-drunk fools) took it and ran with it way past the line of slapstick. We had fun, but Rich didn’t. Things like that.

  6. Rob Donoghue says:

    When the description in the Con Book was wrong.

  7. @Rob – That “one or two people” showing up is a killer, and a confidence drain. Even being a GM and knowing that it happens to Better GMs will go a long way.

    Here’s another : Finding out you’ve been scheduled to run your super-tense horror chiller, sharing a medium sized room with a Paranoia laser-fest and a Champions slug-em-out.

  8. Carl Klutzke says:

    1. How do I collect tickets? How do I turn tickets in? What are the darned tickets for, anyway: can’t I just run a game?

    2. Somebody is already running a game at your designated table. And at all the other tables nearby.

    3. Your event is so far away from the main part of the con and in such a non-standard location that your players can’t be expected to find it without a map, a compass, and a native guide.

    4. The program book, the online catalog, and the tickets don’t all show the same location for your event.

    5. Your event time was listed as AM instead of PM. (Yes, it really happened.)

    6. You can’t hear your players over the talking from the other five events in the same small room.

    Sorry, I guess I went way past your request for “one or two”.

  9. Ken says:

    The games where everyone who turns up have either not read the blurb and / or have turned up without pencils, erasers, and / or DICE!

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      While I’m not going to respond to most of these right now, as they’re more questions for gathering interviews and the like, I will address this one real quick:

      It’s nice when people bring dice. But if you aren’t bringing enough dice in case they aren’t, that’s the sign of early failure as a GM. In fact, if a GM doesn’t bring enough dice for everyone, I’m of the opinion that they’re a super inexperienced GM. (Though, that might not be fair — maybe they just had a bad morning and had to rush or whatever.) But trusting a random group of strangers who have shown up to your table for their own reasons to be prepared is, at times, asking for disappointment. And having a kit ready to alleviate that is Con GM 101.

      Having note read the blurb is a problem that I’ll be getting in to.

      – Ryan

  10. Just imagine… you’ve run through your great intro scene, the PCs are on their way, and then through no fault of their own, they’re lost and bored. Somehow that great plan for the plot that you had either A. didn’t take nearly as much time as you expected, or B. isn’t anywhere near as intriguing as you thought it was. Now you’re fresh out of things for them to do, only two hours in to a 4 hour timeslot…

  11. Lon Sarver says:

    Biggest problem I’ve had is tailoring the amount of material I’ve prepped to fit the needs of the game on the fly. When I don’t have enough material to fill the slot, or when I have so much we can’t play through it all in 4 or 6 hours, it’s hard to improvise/edit to bring the game to a satisfying end on time.

  12. Wes Otis says:

    Making characters and having players complain that they to weak or not min/maxed enough. These are the same people who are rules lawyers. They are more interested in bending the game to their will then involving themselves in the stories.

    I feel my games need more then one answer to what ever problem is put forward. Even in horror games need to have a way out. It’s never easy mind you but you can make it out alive.

    I always make female PC because when I started running con games few women played and I wanted to make them feel welcomed to my games. Not a big deal now but then I felt it was important.

    • Neko_indi says:

      As a female gamer, I always despised the “token female character”, often because she was usually a magic user with no physical stats (I disliked playing mages), and was written to lean on one of the male characters – so stereotypical! To top it off, I was usually stuck with playing her because “you’re the girl”. Everyone else got a choice – why not me?

      In retaliation, I once wrote a Shadowrun module that had an entriely female cast of characters – and no, you couldn’t change your gender… oddly, they turned out to be one of the most popular sets of pre-gens I ever ran, and I ended up using them for subsequent modules.

    • Wes Otis says:

      I never build female characters different from the male ones in so far as making them back up healers or mages. They are always interesting characters with flaws and bonuses. I try to avoid stereotypes as much as possible. I run a lot of GURPS and Cthulhu. I also give players a choice of gender they would like to play. I know players who don’t want to play cross gender and players who don’t care.

  13. You’ve got a rockin’ table full of engaged, creative, super hot players, and also one guy who is sucking the fun out of the room for whatever reason. Maybe it is his fault, maybe not, but if he’d get up and leave everyone – including him – would be having a better time.

  14. Badger says:

    The Cheater.

    And i’m not talking about the Rules Lawyer, who’s incredibly obvious to everyone at the table within five minutes of the session. I’m referring to that devious charlatan who, every time he or she makes a roll, it’s a success- and, more than half the time, declares it to be a crit. Worse is that The Cheater sits off in a corner or some location away from everyone else by a few feet, so you can’t actually see their dice after they roll.

  15. Tim White says:

    I have a whole series of blog posts about specifically how to be a good convention GM over here: http://timlwhite.com/2007/12/21/tabletop-rpgs-5-principles-preparation/

    The principles I wrote were based on both what I saw the best convention GMs doing, and what we heard the worst complaints about from bad GMs.

    A capsule summary:

    *Be prepared: if you run on the fly, you’d still should have everything else prepared: character sheets, dice, pencils, and a pretty good set of ideas to forge into a fun experience. If you are running a prepared scenario, you should know ot inside and out.

    * Positive Energy: the best GMs get you hyped to play, push energy around the table, and make you feel hyped that you played. They worst ones say, “this game sucks”, or, “I’m really hung over.”

    Fun: the best GMs remember that everyone is there to have fun, and quickly squash antifun. Lesser GMs let antifun (rules arguments, player disputes, continual interruptions, player dickishness) take over the table. Bad GMs contribute to antifun.

    Fairness: the best GMs at a con actively try to make sure everyone at the table is treated fairly, from spotlight time to rules calls to not treating pretty girls differently from sweaty chubby guys in-game. The worst GMs play with their friends at the table and ignore everyone else, or give spotlight time only to people who demand it.

    Focus: The best GMs stay focused on the game, and corral the fun and energy and preparation into an experience. Lesser GMs get sucked into out of game conversations, and let bystanders distract from the game, and let the game wander into places that only one player or only the GM wants to go.

    So, there you go, those are my categories that I see make the best and worst con GMs.

    One quick personal story that covers all those: I was at a con put on by a friend, and he really wanted to have a Cthulhu game for me to play in, since I’d run so many for him. Sadly, he had no GMs, and stongarmed a friend to do it. The friend didn’t prepare, was pissed to have to do it, and was grumpy as heck. So we make the most of it. 30 minutes in, the GM forces the party to split, and informs all but two players to leave the room. So we all go watch the auction for a bit, figuring we’d be pulled back in soon. 2.5 hours later (after numerous attempts to sit down again), we got pulled back in for the last 40 minutes of the game, and he no joke tried to split the group again! When the proctor came around announcing the end of the slot the GM was bewildered, wondering why it was suddenly over. He had no idea there was a time limit. And in the end, I have no idea what the game was even about.

    No prep, total lack of fairness, no fun for anyone, enough negative energy for three reality shows, and complete lack of focus.

    So there you go!!!


    Focus: the best GM

  16. Graham says:

    Noise. It’s my biggest thing. You sit down to play and there’s lots of noise around the table, from other tables. They’re having fun and shouting. I can’t concentrate. What do you do?

    Admitting a game isn’t working. You’re two hours into a game and it’s just not coming together. Do you politely end it? Or pull a brilliant ending out of the bag? There’s no right answer.

    (I am deeply suspicious of any problems, above, which involve One Guy Who Is An Asshole. It’s rarely actually about one guy.)

  17. Laura says:

    The massive amount of noise compounded by how closely the tables are placed in the room. Players and GMs have to try to be louder than the people around them to be heard. Plus if you’re running something like a horror game, it can make it harder for the tone to hit when people are constantly shoving past the chairs because there isn’t enough room to move around the tables.

  18. Neko_indi says:

    “You don’t have to stick to the module.” Part two of that being: “The players don’t have to stick to the module – and probably won’t.”

    Some of the most fun I’ve had both as a GM and as a player has been when the GM has been willing to toss the module-as-written to the wind – these have been the GM’s who know the module well enough to p[lay a little loose with it, and guide players back towards it when the opportunity arises. The worst times? When I’ve not been given a module far enough ahead of time to read it thoroughly, or when I’ve had a GM who insists on sticking to the letter of the text – all of it, no matter what the characters say or do.

  19. Lugh says:

    This one is probably super-basic, but it caught me off-guard at my first couple of cons. The investment in the game is very different at a con. First, it’s pretty much guaranteed to be a one-shot, mostly with people you are unlikely to ever see again. Second, there are a dozen other awesome things going on at the con, and if the energy flags it is easy for the players (or even the GM) to start thinking about them. But, on the other hand, you have not only scheduled this time slot, but have likely paid money to be in this game.

    These factors end up creating a scenario in which you have to pull out a different bag of tricks to get the players engaged. Basically, you have to understand that you are running under a whole other kind of social contract, and can’t rely on the slack that your friends are willing to cut you at your regular Friday night game.

  20. The best way to get players to join your game. Some people have problems with only having one or two players show up to play. I have problems with having 0 players show up to a game. I realize that sometimes this is going to happen but it would be great to find a way to make my game more appealing than another game.

    Dealing with too many players as both a player and a GM. As a player I will not sign up for a game that allows more than 6 players and it pisses me off when the GM allows an extra player. Of course if I get an extra player I usually put it up to the other players but really what player is going to say no, when I should have said no.