An article I wrote for Game Geek 4:
I attended a couple of gaming conventions at the beginning of this year. Despite Houston, Texas, being a rather large city, we’re sort of a gaming convention desert. Driven by two motivations, I ventured out into this wasteland for the first time in years.
My son Christopher turned 13 at the end of December. For one of his birthday presents, he was officially made a Probationary Junior Man and invited to game as a member of Man Day Adventures, my twice-monthly gaming group. Christopher, a.k.a. Giant Boy (owing to his 75 inches of height), had participated here and there in a few one-shot games when not all Man Day Adventurers were available for our regular campaign.
His enthusiasm is refreshing, but it can be a bit overwhelming at times. A 200-pound 13-year-old inspires mild trepidation when he gets overstimulated and starts trying to do too much at once: talk, laugh, roll dice, figure out which curse words he can get away with, move miniatures (including those he shouldn’t move), et cetera. When ConJour 2010 and OwlCon 2010 rolled around, I decided that Christopher needed to go. I figured he’d have fun, it’d be a chance for us do some father-son bonding, and so forth.
My motives weren’t entirely focused on my son, however. I also needed to playtest some Spes Magna Games material, and the conventions seemed like a great place to experiment. So, I signed up to run events at both conventions.
ConJour turned out to be sort of a bust, but we did get some card game playing done. OwlCon proved more active in terms of gaming. Christopher and I played a Truth & Justice session together. I ran my event with him as one of the players. The next day’s schedule presented a challenge. I had my event to run, and Christopher couldn’t play in it again. So, while I ran my game, he set out on his own to play in a Draw! event. Before I placed by firstborn in the hands of total strangers in a different part of the convention from where I’d be, I sat Christopher down and went over some of the rules of the road for convention gaming.
Rule 1: Be On Time
If an event starts at 3:00 p.m., be there by 2:50 p.m. This applies whether you’re a player or the GM.
Players: Your GM is almost certainly an unpaid volunteer who’s taken time out of his or her busy life to provide some entertainment for tables of strangers in four-hour blocks. Be considerate. If you signed up for the event, get there on time.
GMs: Your players have almost certainly paid hard-earned money in addition to taking time out of their busy schedules to be entertained at table full of strangers in four-hour blocks. If you volunteered to run an event, be on-time and run the event. Barring illness or an emergency, it’s the least anyone could do. If for some reason, you can’t make your event, let the convention staff know as soon as you can. If the staff is on top of things, they might be able to make other arrangements.
For example, several years ago, I attended a convention at one of Houston’s airports. I got to meet Gary Gygax in the hotel bar. I had a hoot of a time playing an elven rogue in one event. The second part of the event, however, got cancelled. Fortunately, the GM let the convention staff know. This gave me time to volunteer to run the event and do a quick read through the adventure. Sure, I didn’t get to reprise my role as that elven rogue, but at least everyone still got to play.
Rule 2: Use Prep Time Wisely
One of the advantages of everyone being on-time is you get time to prep before the game officially starts. Most convention games provide characters, background handouts, et cetera. Use your time wisely and study these. If things don’t make sense, ask questions and accept the answers. During a convention event is not the time to get into a power struggle over rules interpretations. Highlight or underline important stats, abilities, and information. Look up details about class features, powers, spells, and feats before the game starts. Also, make notes. Write down a catch phrase or two. Preplan how your character is going to act if such-and-such happens.
For example, Christopher had never played Draw! or any other Wild West RPG before. He also lacks my breadth of experience with the works of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. To help him get into character, I jotted down some Wild West-isms for him: vittles instead of food, varmints and critters to refer to animals, slapping leather instead of pulling a pistol. Simple things like “Let’s ride!” and “Smile when you say that!” can go a long way toward creating the right mood for the right sort of game.
The preceding paragraphs are aimed mainly at the players, but GMs aren’t exempt from prepping. If you’re GMing a convention event, you should show up ready to run. A four-hour event shouldn’t require more than 30 minutes of at-table prep time, and most of that should involve making sure your players are good to go.
Rule 3: Don’t Hog the Ball
You’re not the only person at the table. Roleplaying is a collaborative affair, and you don’t get to monopolize the action or the GM’s attention. This is great advice for a thirteen-year old lad who’s relatively new to RPGs. It’s also something that some older, more experienced gamers have yet to learn. Here’s where basic good manners come in handy. These are the sorts of things you find posted on classroom walls in elementary schools. Don’t interrupt. Wait your turn. Stay on task.
The great thing about these basic good manners rules is that they apply to everyone at the table, including the GM. Be proactive with them. Cue people when it’s their turn. If you’re not sure whose turn it is, defer to the other person. It’s like sitting at a four-way stop. Sure, you might have right-of-way, but if the other drivers are confused, the result could be a fender bender. The give-and-take of spotlight time during a game session works much the same way, but instead of bent fenders, you can end up with hurt feelings and ill will.
This one can be sort of tough for Christopher. He’s a talker, especially when he gets excited about what he’s doing. Those three short rules two paragraphs up did wonders for helping him succeed at the game table.
Rule 4: Don’t Be a Wallflower
You’re a person at the table. Roleplaying is a collaborative affair, and you don’t get to just sit there, doing and saying the bare minimum when your turn comes around. If you’re not sure what your character can do, ask. Prepare your turn by paying attention to the action, and then seize the day when you get the chance. The other players and the GM at your table should help you get into the game by being the opposite of a ball hog. When someone tosses you the opportunity to do something, do something. Often, anything is better than nothing at all.
This can also be tough for Christopher. His comfort level in social situations, especially around strangers, can run rather low. This is where using his time wisely came in handy. He got to familiarize himself with his characters, ask questions, and make notes. During the Truth & Justice game, I sat close by his elbow so that I could whisper advice or pass notes to him with ideas he could use or reject as he saw fit while roleplaying the Scarlet Spider.
Rule 5: Roleplay First; Roll Dice Second
“I hit AC 18 for 9 points of damage.”
Dull, huh? Where’s the roleplaying? Where’s the narration? Everyone at the gaming table needs to lift some of the event’s narrative weight. One of the best ways to do this is to describe what your character wants to do, toss in some in-character banter, and then roll the dice. Succeed or fail, you should then briefly react as appropriate.
“Grondo grips his greatsword tightly and whirls it in a deadly arc at the orc. ‘Die, pig-nosed scumdog!'” Dice clatter on the table. “I hit AC 18 for 9 points of damage.”
See the difference? It seems such a simple thing, but it can be difficult to do consistently unless you’ve already developed the habit. During the Truth & Justice game, I frequently reminded Christopher to picture what his character wanted to do and then describe that action to everyone at the table. If the GM had any questions or comments, he listened to them. Then, and only then, did he roll the dice and do the math. The result was a more enjoyable game session for everyone at the table
Christopher took these rules with him when he went to play Draw! without familiar adult supervision. The rules paid off. For a few hours my giant son got to be a bounty hunter on the trail of desperados, and he had fun doing it.
And, ultimately, that’s what gaming is all about: having fun with fellow gamers, whether they be family, friends, or strangers at a convention gaming table.