Notes on the Seven Layer Convention Burrito

A bit ago, I wrote about the Seven Layers of a Convention Game, or what I’ve come to call the Seven Layer Convention Burrito[1]:

  1. Pre-game Preparation
  2. Introductions & Initial Rapport
  3. During-game Preparation & Context Setting
  4. Early Game
  5. Mid Game
  6. Late Game
  7. Exit

I’ve been asked by some folks to expound on this, and normally I’m shy about my ideas, but I thought I would take some time today to talk about them.[2]

In specific, I have had people question why parts two through four are broken down like that, and why parts six and seven are separate.

Pre-game Preparation

Parts of this are obvious: have character sheets, have dice and stuff for everyone (because people will forget), all that jazz. Part is this is about having a comfort level with your mastery of the game. And part of this is about getting your mind set for the sort of game you’re playing — watching pulp movies before running a bunch of pulp games, things like that.

There’s a lot to talk about here, and with every part, but I want to make this a short “intro to these steps” post.

Introductions & Initial Rapport

When people get to the table, here’s what I do:

  • Say “Hi, I’m Ryan! I’m your GM today. How you guys doing? Mind if we go around the table and introduce each other? It’ll help me remember names.”
  • Point to the person to your left and ask them their name. Ask them if they’re familiar with the system or the setting you’re about to play in. Write down their names on a piece of paper that serves as my GM sheet.
  • For every answer they give about their expert/novice level, I respond enthusiastically. Welcoming all comers means that: welcoming.
  • I finish with “Cool. So, here’s the game we’re going to do.”

There are other methods to this, some equally valid and create interesting results, and some that suck. You know what sucks? Never stopping to do this. (I know some people like to do interesting things like actually play in media res for a few minutes and then at the right moment stopping and asking for introductions — a trick I learned from talking with Will Hindmarch.)

During-game Preparation & Context Setting

This is about what we’re doing together before play. Picking characters, talking about what this adventure is about, filling in anything on the character sheet that’s meant to be filled in now, even making characters. (Everything before the first scene in Fiasco — rolling up the Relationships and Objects — is Preparation/Context.) This is what I did my GM Conference keynote on, entitled “Creating Context Quickly and Collaboratively”, at RinCon — about using this phase of a convention game to create buy-in that you’ll then use in Early Game to cement interest.

For some people, this is just about handing out characters and getting people into the right frame of mind for a game. Whatever it is needs to happen in between “hey, let’s acknowledge each other as human beings” and “now let’s play in imagination land” happens here.

Early Game

Hey, let’s play in imagination land!

Early Game is about the first beat or two of play, where contact with the rules and the context/adventure are starting to happen. Early contact means a bit of the kid gloves with rules as they’re being introduced while laying it on heavy with the context/adventure contact to push the play to where you need to be at Mid Game. Your first set piece is here, one that — if your priority is about teaching the game — is easy so you can guide people into comfort with the rules and you as a GM.

Even for me, who no longer plans the specifics of games, I know what sort of beats I want to hit on at this point and what I want to set up.

Early Game is different if you’re doing a game intentionally for seasoned players. In that case, the expectations are different, and you want to hit hard with the game’s theme and engage their mastery of the rules — partly because that’s what they’re asking for and that establishes that they’re getting what they’re expected, partly to gauge if they actually do have mastery of the rules or setting, so you know where to backfill in Mid Game

Mid Game

Mid Game is your connective tissue, the same where most exploration happens. Early Game tends to be a little constrained to stay — the GM announces something in media res (“You’re in a plane, it’s being shot at!”) and you react. By contract, Mid Game is where you pause and look back at the reaction, and then act in turn.

Or, you know, get bogged down with planning scenes (sometimes out of character) or decision paralysis (sometimes out of character), but it’s where decisions tend to get made. Preparation/Context and Early Game create the information you need to making meaningful actions.

Late Game

Late Game is your climatic set piece or your emotional payoff, the thing that you’ve been building toward — whether by design (because you’ve planned an adventure) or by feel (because you’ve been improving the game). It’s where you’ve injected by now a certain comfort level with the rules, ideally, felt out the social dynamic at the game (which man is like several posts worth of discussion…or maybe a book). That’s followed by your denouement, where you wrap up and bring the high point to a close.

One Model of Early-Middle-Late:

I call this the Two Set Piece Model. It revolves around an initial set piece (typically a combat — something the entire table will be involved in for at least 30 minutes) that’s dictated by the GM, then actions initiated by players as individuals or a group (with encouragement from the GM), ending with a finale set piece involving everyone.

You see this mostly in adventure games, like pulp games or dungeon crawl games. Some longer forms of these take on three set pieces, but that’s dicey in a four-hour slot until you have a table where everyone is comfortable with the rules, quick about decisions, and your set pieces are slightly smaller.

This isn’t the only model, not by far, but I’m sure many of you recognize this. There’s also something to be said for how the power dynamic changes depending on where you are in the model. But that’s yet another separate topic.[3]


Exit is about saying “hey, guys, hope you had a good time” and generally being a personable human being rather than leaving the game. It doesn’t need to be talked about much, but it’s not Late Game. It’s the little social rituals, or, rather, the place for those social rituals, we do when we’ve finishing this activity.

Off the top of my head, there really isn’t much I have to say here in the way of advice beyond Wheaton’s Law, but it is a place that is worth mentioning. Well, that, and don’t actually ask people if they liked the game here. But maybe why that’s actually a bad question at this moment deserves more conversation.

So, that’s the seven layers, separated out so that advice can focus in on specific parts of the experience rather than broader generalizations. What do you think?

(Note: I’m taking off most of the rest of this year from the Internet, so I probably won’t get to approving comments & responding right away. But if not, I will come after the 1st! You all have a safe and happy end of 2010, gang.)

– Ryan

[1] I grew up on Taco Bell, man. What can I say? (Plus, that’s more memorable than the generic title.[1a])

[1a] And it’s also better than calling it the OSI Model of Convention Games. Because, like, ten of you will get that.

[2] It’s not like it isn’t related to some secret project or anything….

[3] I have a huge Google doc list of topics for this blog


4 Responses to Notes on the Seven Layer Convention Burrito

  1. Noam says:

    Can you expand on why “Did you like it?” is a bad question during the Exit portion? I figure honest feedback is probably hard to get during that time, but I’d like to hear your thoughts. When is the best time to ask opinions?

  2. Wayne West says:

    Programmers Do Not Throw Sausage Pizza Away.

    See, getting my CCNA wasn’t a total waste of time!

  3. JJ says:

    Ryan, I’m really enjoying this series on Con GMing. I’m making 2011 the year I run some con games. I find your posts very helpful.