Nashicon 2018 was the first time I was explicitly invited out to be a GM at a convention. While this isn’t the first time we at High Level Games have covered a first time experience as a con GM, I find it worth noting that my experience is different from what we’ve covered earlier. Primarily because Sean was at the longest running gaming convention in the world, while I was at a comparatively shorter lived anime convention that happened to have a tabletop gaming room.
While I believe I did a competent job as a GM at Nashicon, I’d be a fool to believe there wasn’t areas I could improve. So for your reading pleasure, I have compiled this list where I reflect on what went right and where I screwed up as a GM for an anime convention’s tabletop room.
1) Limit Yourself
Nashicon’s Tabletop Director invited me to run games for them because I’m knowledgeable about various Japanese RPGs. In my excitement to show all that I knew and was capable of, I prepared to run every such game in my repertoire and then some. This turned out to be a mistake.
I was prepared to run seven different games. By the end of the weekend, however, I had only run three of them, and each of those games was only run once. Having a wide assortment available did spark a lot of conversations, as well as attract many curious attendees. However, my broad selection worked against me when it came time to ring these attendees in; I couldn’t decide for myself what it was I wanted to run.
What was more important to limit was how much I wanted to convey in a game. The staff overseeing me at the convention suggested that I try to keep my games to just two hours if I could. While I wasn’t keen on the idea initially, as the weekend went on it became apparent to me why: it’s a lot easier to sell somebody on a game if it’s only 2 hours of their time they’ll be spending.
2) Handouts Are Your Friend
Familiarity is a boon in tabletop RPGs. Rules explanations can be kept to a minimum, or even done by other players at the table, lessening the GM’s burden to do so. By running less familiar games, I couldn’t rely on this, but I otherwise had a plan to work around this limitation.
Said plan was to prepare printouts of vital rules to use as a reminder for players. This alleviated a problem I’d often have running personal games when there was only one copy of the rulebook to go around: the players could have a quick reference to how the game worked.
To make these reminder sheets more interesting, though, I printed some images on the backside of these handouts. When I set up my table for a game of Ryuutama, I spread out two sets of my reminder sheets. One side with the artwork of the character classes displayed, and the other side with the abilities of that class. An unintended side effect of this was that it made it made my table much more identifiable, and also drew the attention of passers-by.
3) Pregen Characters Are Too
I didn’t have any pregenerated characters for any of the games I ran over the weekend; every game I ran we made characters for on the spot. By contrast, my Dungeons and Dragons playing neighbors had an entire table dedicated to displaying pre-made characters so that they could quickly jump in on a game that still had room.
From the glimpses I got of these character sheets, it seemed like many of them were the official pregenerated sheets provided by Wizards. For the uninitiated, these sheets have class feature explanations reprinted from the rulebook, as appropriate for the level. Functionally, this made them similar to handouts I created Ryuutama.
4) Assistants Are Your Best Friend
One challenge that I consistently encountered was gathering players. It wasn’t that there was a shortage of interest. That was far from the case. The difficulty was that I couldn’t get enough people gathered at one time to play a game. Towards the end of the weekend, though, the idea came to me to use my fellow staff to fill out the roster. (After they had done the same with me for another game.)
In fact, I would be inclined to say that help from the other staff was instrumental in making the game room successful. There were members of staff who were keeping tabs on which GMs were doing what, and would guide the players to the GMs they were looking for. These staff helped coordinate both D&D games, as well as independent RPG GMs such as myself.
5) In The End, It Comes Down To You
You can have the best support network and all the preparation in the world, but when push comes to shove, it’s exactly as the the title of this point says: it all comes down to you. Tabletop RPGs may be part collaborative storytelling, but getting one off the ground without a GM is more or less impossible.
As a GM for Nashicon, I was expected not only to run the games, but also to do the legwork to find players and organize these games. I didn’t expect this to be difficult, and it was the one thing I didn’t really brace myself for. (By contrast, I had literally hundreds of pages of character sheets and handouts at the ready.)
It turns out that selling somebody on a game they haven’t heard of that belongs to a genre they’ve only scratched the surface of (if they’ve even heard of it) takes more than showing up and having a sales pitch ready. I wasn’t able to get people to play anything until I or other staff insisted they sit down.
Once I got my players around the table though, it wasn’t much different than any other time I ran a game. I knew how to entice players to participate and let themselves be involved in the creative aspect of gaming. I knew how to keep things moving along and when to take short cuts: I was back in my element.
Even though it was a familiar activity in a familiar setting, being GM staff for this anime convention was a much more novel experience than I expected it to be. It made me more aware of some shortcomings of mine, and thus gave me plenty to work on should I continue down this path.
Aaron der Schaedel, despite his love of conventions and festivals, has yet to attend any dedicated specifically to tabletop gaming. He can’t be there, but thinks you should totally check out HLGCon. If you do go, you can gloat to Aaron about how much fun you’re having there and he isn’t via twitter: @Zamubei
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.