A concept that I wish had existed when I was new to gaming is the idea of a demo game; that someone will show up and show people how to play a given game system, in the store that sells it. Admittedly, I’d have liked it if there’d been such a thing as a game store when I was new to gaming, as opposed to the occasional endcap or display set of RPG materials in a bookstore or comic shop.
As it stands now, however, both of these things exist; the closest FLGS* to my house is still over an hour’s drive away, but that’s better than it used to be. Given my own experience, it seems like it would only be fair to offer to run demo games to help people find games they might enjoy; given the Why Play posts I’ve been making, it seems a natural fit to take it to the physical world as well as my blog.
So with that in mind, I’ll muse a bit today on demo games, and what makes them different from a home game or a con game.
Home games can run in sequence; con games are one-shot. Demo games, on the other hand, are neither, not if you intend to keep doing them at the same location. You can’t expect the continuity of a good home game when each session the roster of players is likely to differ, at least by a few people. At the same time, you may have people who turn up to each session, so you can’t expect the ease of excusing mistakes that con games permits.
As a demo game GM, it falls to you to have a game that can stand a rotating cast of people without disrupting whatever plot might exist, while providing enough continuity for those who turn up regularly. Some game systems and settings lend themselves to this more readily than others; dungeon crawls and organized play setups both work well with this kind of ongoing-but-fluid game sequence.
I don’t think I’ll be running either of those, however; I recently sent a request to Monte Cook Games about joining their asset team, and so I’m more like to use the Cypher System to create an ongoing tale for the demo games.
Expect a variety of personalities around the table. Unlike home games, where you can select who shows up, you’re going to be stuck with whoever turns up for a demo game. This means that if you’re someone who can’t handle a wide range of strange people and potentially conflicting personalities, you probably shouldn’t be doing this. Run some con games first; if you can handle the eclectic mixture of people who attend, you have a reasonable understanding of what demo games will likely require.
You may also need to be firmer with people at your table when it comes to keeping standards in place. Running a demo game means being the face of that game during that time, and that alone means you’ll need to be something of a PR person on top of your GMing duties. While most people tend to behave relatively well in public, there are always problems; while the game store employees will likely involve themselves to handle most offenders, you may need to be proactive, asking people to tone down or drop some of their behavior while at the table.
You’ll need to know the game system in and out. This isn’t something you should do if you’re not expert at the game, or if you don’t have someone on hand who is that you can rely on being there whenever you need to check the rules and make decisions. The Rule of Cool is all well and good, but you still want to make sure the game is being shown to the best advantage.
This is, in large part, why I’m leaning toward Cypher System games over Pathfinder, Eclipse Phase, or Fate Core; while I love the latter three systems, they’re more complex than the CSR. I can hold the entire necessary rule text of it in my head, while Pathfinder often has complex edge cases even on simple-seeming situations, and Eclipse Phase can be intimidating to people not familiar with it.
The scheduling and group size isn’t necessarily up to you. You’re going to have to work around the store’s hours and those of the customers. You may end up sitting around at the demo table with no one turning up, or you may end up with a small crowd watching as the players have every pregen you brought plus a couple more. Be prepared to handle everything from a single player to twice what you usually play with.
This is another situation where running convention games first can be a great deal of help; you’ll rarely have less than a full table, and often you may find people looking to join in if they can squeeze in at a spot. I’ve personally run for a table of twelve at the last Paizocon I attended, running the Continuity module for Eclipse Phase. You learn quickly if you can balance the needs of the players or not. Try it and learn what your maximum capacity is.
Burnout is a risk you run for this kind of game. When you may be running for people with a wildly divergent personality and play style from what you’re used to, in a public environment where you’re essentially being PR for a game company, the risk of burnout is real and significant. Be prepared to acknowledge that the time may come where you’ll need to stand down from what you’ve been doing and at least take a break to recover.
GMing is something that requires a high level of investment to begin with; turning it into a spectator sport will just make it that much more draining. Be prepared.
That’s all for now; I’ll revisit this once I’ve run some demo games, to see how the lived experience will stack up with what I expect from my current experience. Hopefully I’ll be back to talk about what a fantastic experience it is.
* – FLGS is shorthand for Friendly Local Gaming Store. If you have one near you, do appreciate your good fortune and make sure to buy things through them. They tend to have a hard time staying open without the gaming part being an incidental sideline to another business.