Ahhh convention season. It’s that glorious time of the year when I get to romp about at Conventions (the next one I’ll be at is Origins from June 22 to 25th), meet lots of new people (I’m friendly. If you see me, say Hi. Just look for the dorky guy in a kilt and flight jacket.), and run 4 hour games (chances are I’m running anything with the name Silvervine in it). Running games at conventions is always interesting because of the time limits. You’ve got 4 hours, at most, to make something fun and interesting for a group of strangers whose play styles you have no familiarity with. There are a lot of ways to speed things up in a convention or short game and still have a fully fleshed out, fun, and immersive adventure. Here are five tips i use constantly.

  1. Play The High Or Low Game – When a player presents something completely off the wall to me at a convention game and I have no idea if it should work or not, I don’t want to drag down the game by having them make skill check after skill check to try to pull off their ingenious plan. So instead, I play the high or low game. I ask the player: “High or low” as I take a d10 into my hand. As they make their choice I roll the dice. If they said high and it comes up high, it goes in their favor. If they said low though, then things don’t quite work out. It’s a really simple variation on flipping a coin. I don’t use this technique for everything, but when something comes up that I don’t want to belabor over or devote a lot of time to. Maybe the player came up with an insane plan. I’ll let the dice decide if it is viable. I might let them attempt skill checks from there, but let the High or Low decide if the story gets changed to meet the ingeniousness of their plan or not.  Sometimes I roll it in the open, sometimes I leave it behind the screen.
  2. Cut The Hit Points In Half – When I’m running games at conventions, I don’t want combats to take forever. I also don’t want them to be lame and unchallenging. The easiest way I’ve found to do this so far is by cutting the hit points in half or to a quarter of their original total. I leave the enemies as combat worthy as they were before, but they get taken out a bit more easily. For big enemies that should be tough to take down I don’t do this, but I do it for any smaller enemies or less dramatic encounters. I also sometimes us the 10 Good Hits system to pace out a combat more effectively.
  3. Front-load Your Encounters – When I read Kurt’s article Front-load Your Encounters, I went “DUH! Why the hell did I never think of it like that!”. It’s great advice that we often forget, but there is no reason for the enemies not to use their most effective things up front. Sure it is a bit of meta-gaming, but the PCs are likely going to win. To make it as challenging as possible, have the Dragon use his fire breath, the mercenaries fire their disorienting flash bangs, or the enemy ship blast away with its biggest gun. Combined with lessened hit points, the combats become quick, deadly, and exciting.
  4. Gimme Tokens For Puzzles – Nothing is more frustrating for a player than spending a gaming session not getting the solution a puzzle. Maybe they missed a vital clue, or  forgot that the flavor text spelled out the color pattern, or just aren’t the type who likes puzzles in games. Now think about that frustration compiled into a convention game. This is the one time that they get to play that game, and they got bogged down on a puzzle for most of it. But puzzles can be fun and interesting, so you don’t need to write them off entirely. Just give the group a gimme token or two if you are going to include a puzzle. They can use the gimme tokens to ask for the solution or a major clue to the puzzle if they are getting frustrated by it. The gimme token also puts the choice in their hands. They get to say when the puzzle attempt ends.
  5. Prep And Make Use of Your Index CardsIndex cards are GREAT tools, and for convention games their utility is multiplied by a hundred. You can prep so many things on index cards beforehand and use those during the game.  What all could you do with them to speed up a game?
    • Write out the stat blocks for each enemy or enemy group
    • Put every NPC name on an index card and then clip them to your GM screen. No more forgotten names.
    • Have the players write their character names on the cards and use them as name cards to increase immersion amongst strangers.
    • Sketch drawings of items or put bullet point descriptions of important things/scenes so that the players don’t miss anything. “Oh, I forgot each level had a different color.”
    • Pass secret notes quickly.
    • Use them as tokens/action points.

    There are hundreds of uses for index cards, but prepping them beforehand is the big thing. That way you’ve just got a pack of cards that you can shuffle through to introduce a new item.

So, those are a few tips for helping speed up games for conventions. What other tips do you have? What things have helped you keep games quick and fun?

3 replies
  1. BryanB
    BryanB says:

    This works for all games. Cut the dead air.

    If people are traveling from point A to point B, handle it Indiana Jones style with a red line and some dots. Cut to the chase. If something important is going to happen on the trip, then forward to that moment. There is no need to drag things out as if an attempt was being made to travel in real time.

    I once played in a game where an entire seven hours was spent making spot, listen, and search checks while hacking through jungle growth and praying for a random encounter to put us out of our misery. DO NOT do this! It is a game killer. This is absolutely out of line in a timed four to five hour game. Get to the good stuff. Cut that dead air. If people really wanted to have a “realistic” experience hacking through jungle undergrowth, they would go to the Amazon and join an expedition.

    Cutting dead air helps keep games on pace. And pacing is an important part of maintaining interest levels and keeping those timed games on schedule.

  2. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @BryanB – Lol. I didn’t expect this one to get a lot of comments anyways. There are some you write open ended to foster the discussion and some you write that are self contained. When I finished this one and looked back over it, I realized it was pretty self contained. I also didn’t see it show up in my RSS feed until about 3pm the day it went up.

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