While I missed it this year due to a confluence of events – new ownership at work, my wife suffering near-fatal illness, and the resulting financial issues of both – for several years I’ve attended Paizocon in Seattle and run games at it each year. I learned some useful lessons from those games that have some serious merit with home games, and I encourage everyone who goes to conventions with tabletop games to try their hand at it – either as a player or a GM, because both sides have lessons to teach. I’ll be speaking solely to the GM side here.
Make sure you’re rested.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s surprising how often we GMs will try to run games when we’re in no state to do so. At Paizocon, I had one year where I tried running an adventure for Kobold Press with something of a hangover because I’d been incautious and not gotten enough rest or water. The players still had a good time, but it wasn’t anywhere near my best, and I knew it the whole way through; I was lucky that I had a couple players who were on the ball and kept things going when I stumbled.
Likewise, you need your rest if you’re going to run a home game. If you’re not rested and healthy, your ability to run the game will suffer and your regular players will feel it. If it’s a regular game, missing a session won’t kill it; if it isn’t, ask if anyone else has something in their pocket to run instead so that you won’t feel the night was wasted.
Keep an eye on the attention level of the players.
At the 2014 Paizocon, I ran the Eclipse Phase adventure Continuity and wound up with a table of around ten people; this is pretty near my maximum limit, but it did a wonderful job of underscoring exactly how important it is to keep the players engaged with the story. The ten of them naturally split up into pairs and trios as they investigated the mystery of their environment and why things were so wrong from what they last remembered, and I had to keep jumping from group to group – sometimes even as the groups shifted in size and composition.
I got each group moving along until they hit a spot where they needed to do something among themselves, and then jumped to the group that had been idle the longest, who were almost always ready to act on what they’d worked out. At my home game, this lessons applies to each individual player – don’t let anyone go too long without throwing them a line to draw them back into the action. Some players take to this more readily than others – the oratory-happy near-thespian is going to delight in the chance to give a speech and show off, while the somewhat shy person may take some regular hooking to keep active.
Don’t overdo it, and don’t do it if it interrupts the flow of a particular section. Use notes, text messages, and the like if you need to; letting the quiet person spot something while the others are discussing something intensely lets you keep them in the action and interested without disrupting the scene with the hand of GM Fiat.
Let the players tell part of the story.
This ties back to the last entry, on how your plot won’t survive contact with the players. When a player is particularly interested in some side-line of the scenery or bit of stage-dressing fluff, run with it. A con game where the players were simply supposed to enjoy the sights of a gnomish city and then save their employer from a devil-worshiping chocolate-maker took a lengthy side route when they decided to go rescue some other people from the city’s diabolists; I could easily have told them that it just wasn’t covered in the plot and glossed over it, but I had a warehouse map handy and they all seemed keen on the idea, so off they went to be heroes.
In my home game, the entire story is wrapped around their characters outside of the rough original framework. One character started off with no one but another PC as a friend; over the last couple years he’s discovered he has an actual family, that his memory of his childhood wasn’t quite accurate, and that people aren’t always either fearful or hateful of him, but respectful. Another has rejected the course fated for him, setting aside his role as a god-touched champion to fight for the people rather than the warlords. Each of them have, through their decisions, shaped the story and become woven into it. Generally, when each week rolls around, they’re eager to get going, even as menace keeps stacking higher and higher as the months of game time roll past.
Play styles differ, and they differ hugely.
At a con, you can get people with wildly different play styles lumped together at a table. A method actor, a roll-playing tactician, and a rules lawyer will end up sitting together at the table, and it becomes your job as the GM to engage all three of them – and everyone else at the table, too. You’ll get everyone if you run convention games often enough. You need to give the method actor some moments to engage in their character’s persona, provide moments for the tactician to shine in combat or during other intense situations, and engage the rules lawyer somehow (try including a situation that requires precision knowledge of something, and ask the rules lawyer to lend a hand adjudicating it, perhaps).
The take-away here is to give you an appreciation for each style of play, to learn which ones mesh and which don’t, and so help you better judge what players will work well in a given group and who you should politely ask to not come back the next time. A group that’s happy to not have a map half the time will frustrate a map-happy tactician to no end, a method actor will be bored to tears in a group of gung-ho tacticians, and the rules lawyer will tear their hair out in a group that relies on the Rule of Cool.
Making sure your group is personalities and play styles that mesh well is the most important thing you can work toward as a GM before the game even begins. They’ll work together, bounce ideas off each other, and manage the GM Nirvana where they’re busy discussing and role-playing without you needing to intervene far more often when the group is compatible.
When they do, enjoy it.
Play different things.
No, really. Conventions are your chance to give games you like the idea of a test drie to see if they’ll mesh with your gameplay style. Most players are, understandably, happy to stick with systems that they know, so that they don’t waste the time making characters when the game is going to turn out to be bogged down and die an early death because the rules don’t work to fit your style of game. When you find something new and exciting that you want to pitch to them, it helps to be able to present them with an after-action report from a con game to reassure them that you know the system won’t turn out to be a disaster.
Different systems and their mechanics are good for producing ways of thinking that are out of the box that you can then apply to your home game, adding in the exciting and fun parts while discarding the baggage that weighed it down. It has the added advantage that if a game system sucks for you, you’ll have found out without committing more than the prep time and a single slot of game time to it. Finding new favorites and discarding lemons before they get to your group outweighs almost any other benefit that con games offer.
So get out to your nearest convention and play some games. It’s worth the trouble.