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I have a bad habit of overloading myself at conventions, and I know I’m far from the only one. There’s just so many games and so little time and I want to do it all. In particular, I tend to load my schedule with GMing. I can’t help it; I see the event registration open up and I say “okay I’ll run three games! Well, maybe four. And one more can’t hurt. Oh and there’s nothing being run in this slot, so I’ll add another.”
At Queen City Conquest in 2017, I ended up running games in every slot, all seven slots of the weekend. And what’s more, I ran seven different games. No repeated systems or adventures. And I’ll be honest, I had a ton of fun at that con and I thought all my games went well… but by the end of it, I felt like my brain was leaking out of my ears. I went home and fell asleep at 5 pm and slept for something like 14 straight hours.
And I know I’m not the only person who does this. Far from it, in fact. So I’m here to tell you why you shouldn’t completely overload yourself with running games at cons… and then I’m going to tell you how to make it easier on yourself if you go ahead and do it anyway, as I continue to do myself.
…the most obvious first reason not to do this is so that you can actually play games yourself. Share51Tweet3Reddit1EmailSo, to get it out of the way, the most obvious first reason not to do this is so that you can actually play games yourself. I used to think “I have more fun as a GM than as a player”, so I never signed up to play anything. Turns out, I just wasn’t playing the right games for me. By branching out and trying different games with different GMs, I found that I actually love being a player just as much as I love GMing. It’s a great way to try different games before you buy them, or to find something new that you may not have heard of before.
I also found that by running every time slot, I was missing out on some of the social element of cons. Conventions are often the only place that I see friends who live far away, no matter how much we interact online. I’ve made lots of new friends at cons just by being available to spend time with people, something I can’t do if I literally can’t be dragged away from the gaming table. Just having quality time to see people face to face is something I really treasure at cons, and so I had to start running fewer games to make sure I had that time. Game time is one thing, free social time is another.
This last bit I’m going to tell you didn’t really sink in for me until this year’s Queen City Conquest, when I ran one of the worst con games of my career as a GM. See, the reason I ran all those different systems is because I think of cons as my time to play the different games that I don’t necessarily get to play during the rest of the year. If I can’t normally find people interested in a certain system, I’m much more likely to be able to at a convention. But here’s the kicker: when you overload yourself with games, you’re much more likely to run them poorly. I ran one of the worst con games of my career as a GM. Share51Tweet3Reddit1Email
Because I was so focused on preparing two of my other games, I completely underprepared for another one. I thought that because I had run it before (albeit, not in a long time) I would be fine. Instead I went in with a half-baked concept, I was scatterbrained, I had forgotten the rules of the system, and the game ended way earlier than I intended it to. Luckily I had wonderful players, and that wasn’t everyone’s first introduction to that system, but I keep thinking about “what if it had been?” If that game had been my first introduction to that system, I don’t know that I ever would’ve sought it out again. I used to think that by bringing lesser played games to cons, by exposing new people to them, that I was doing everyone a service. But you’re not doing anyone a favor if you under-prepare for a game you love, least of all yourself.
So with all that out of the way… I’m still going to run more games at cons than there are days of the con. No matter what, I like to be busy and I’d rather be over-scheduled than under. But I’ve learned some methods to make it easier on myself, and to make it so I don’t end up with brainmelt again.
First up, I like to make at least one or two of my games a GM-less game or a no-prep game or both (most GM-less games are kind of no-prep to begin with). That inherently reduces the amount of work you need to do before the con even starts. It also means that the mental load of “running” the game is shared between you and all the other players. You will still need to be more a facilitator than the others, but that’s still a lesser load than running the whole thing. There’s a reason some people have taken to calling them “GM-full” games instead of “GM-less”.
…importantly, it gives you a second shot at running the game well. Share51Tweet3Reddit1EmailSecond, I’ve started repeating games. If I’m going to run five games at a con, I used to run five unique games. Nowadays, I might run three unique games, repeating two of them. This has a couple of benefits – it reduces your preparation needs, right off the bat. It gives other people with busy schedules a second opportunity to get in on a game they might be really into (how many times have I heard “oh I would love to play this, but it overlaps with the other thing I signed up for that day!”). And importantly, it gives you a second shot at running the game well. I’m not saying you should treat the first one as a trial run (you shouldn’t), but running it a second time gives you a chance to fix issues you noticed the first time.
Third – and this is probably really obvious to everyone who isn’t me – I’ve begun to recognize the importance of taking a break or two during the game session itself. I used to try to avoid taking breaks during the game, in a misguided effort to cram as much gaming as possible into a short amount of time. But all that was doing was burning me out faster. Turns out, it’s easier to run games all weekend if I’m not letting myself get dehydrated and hungry (and inevitably, hangry). And it’s better for your players, too. Taking a couple of 10 minute bio breaks wasn’t cutting into my gaming time; it was making me more able to focus on my gaming time because I wasn’t thinking “oh my god I would kill for a snack” every three minutes.
A lot of games even have built-in break points where stepping away from the table is natural and not disruptive. In a game where character creation is done together at the table (like most Powered by the Apocalypse games, for example), after character creation but before jumping into play is a natural time to stop and take a break. Other games may even have act breaks as part of their story structure. How many pre-written adventures and modules have you seen that break up their text into smaller objectives? Those are great pause points.
So those are my tactics – while I don’t ever intend to stop filling my schedule at cons, I have cut back some, and found ways to make it so I don’t break my brain in the process. What are your methods to keep con fatigue at bay? How do you prepare for marathon con weekends of GMing?
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While I was at Queen City Conquest two weeks ago, I ran a handful of games during the weekend as well as got to play a few games. During the weekend, I was very happy to see how quickly people at the table would start making table tents for their characters. I have been doing this for a while at home and in public games, but I don’t think I have ever talked about why table tents are such great tools for your games.
So, here we are, get an index card and a sharpie and let’s dive into table tents!What Is a Table Tent?
I don’t know where I got started on this, but a table tent is a small piece of paper folded so that it stands up in front of you. On the paper, you write your character’s name and sometimes other information about your character. You then place the table tent in front of you, so that all the other players, GM included, can see.
In the US, table tents are often made from index cards, though some dry erase table tents are showing up, making it more ecologically friendly. If you are using an index card you fold the card along one axis, often the short axis so that the tent stands taller. You then write your information on one side to face out, though I will encourage you to also write it on the other side, facing you so that people directly next to you can also see it.
I also recommend writing your table tent with a marker over a pen or pencil, so that the lines are thick and easy to read across the table.Alternate Formats
Before we get any farther, I need to acknowledge that table tents are a visual tool, and that what I described above only works for people who do not have any visual impairments. A person who is visually impaired may not be able to see a tent across the table. In that case, a possible alternative could be to have a list of all the character’s names in front of them. When in doubt, simply ask the person how they would like to help organize the other character’s names.Etiquette
If I am running a game, I will take it upon myself to have index cards and makers to pass out to my players to make their table tents. Often, I will fold them and have them ready, and then during the start of the session, have everyone make their table tent as I am explaining rules and getting things oriented.
If I am a player in a game, and the GM has not passed out table tents yet, then I will take it upon myself to get out a marker and some index cards and lead by example by making a tent and encouraging everyone else to do so.What does it do? Having easy access to character names while playing will help you stay in character as well as helping other players stay in character by addressing them by their character’s name. Share110Tweet5Reddit1Email
So what does a table tent do for the game? First, it helps greatly with immersion. Having easy access to character names while playing will help you stay in character as well as helping other players stay in character by addressing them by their character’s name.
Second, you can put other information on the card (see below) that can help facilitate the game. By including additional information you are helping the GM in running the game because they will not need to ask you for certain information during play.
Third, it can help people feel more comfortable at the table. This is especially true when it comes to pronouns (see below).Additional Information
So besides your character’s name, there is more information you can put on your table tent. Here are a few suggestions:Class/Playbook
Including what niche your character represents will help the GM and others at the table to identify who the right person is for specific parts of the game. If a player is thinking someone should pick this lock, then scanning the table and seeing that there is a table tent with Rogue on it let’s them know who to address.
Also, some classes/playbooks may have special moves or abilities that the GM may take into account during the story. Knowing who is playing that character facilitates them providing information to the right person. For instance, you may be looking for secret doors in a B/X D&D game, and the GM knowing you are an elf will make a difference in the chances of finding it.Species
If your game has multiple species then having it on your table tent allows everyone to identify which species you belong to. This is of great help for everyone to visualize your character properly. Also if you enter part of the story where being of a certain type of species is important, then having that quick visual reminder helps the flow of the game. For instance, a Dwarven magical artifact has different abilities if wielded by a Dwarf than anyone else.Pronouns
Having your character’s pronouns on your table tent is very helpful in a number of ways. First, it helps prevent everyone from misgendering your character. Having your pronouns accessible makes it quite easy for people to use the correct ones. This is helpful if your character’s gender and pronouns do not match with how you as a player present. By default, people often assume that a person will make a character who’s gender and pronouns match the player’s visual coding. For example, a character I make (cis-male) by default would be male. Since many people play characters that are not the same as their gender, having your pronouns on your table tent makes it clear what pronouns your character uses.
Second, having pronouns displayed is just good overall and something we should all be working towards. We need to normalize the act of displaying our pronouns. So including them with your table tent is one more step into making that a more commonplace activity for our characters and for ourselves.Stats and Info
In many games, there is information that the GM often needs. It could be something like Armor Class, or a passive sense rating, etc. Displaying that information on your table tent helps the GM access that information without having to ask your character outright, and keeps the flow of the game smoother.Player Name
Players can also put their names on their table tent so that everyone else at the table knows who they are. I will also say if you are putting your name on the table tent, also put your pronouns. Again, let’s normalize that.Multiple Characters
If for any reason you are playing games where someone could be playing multiple characters, then have a table tent for each character and put the one you are playing forward, or hold it in your hand when you speak.
By the way, this works for GMs too. You can totally make NPC name tents and use them this way while you are running.Covers/Secret Identities/Shapeshifters
If your character has another identity — a spy with a cover, a super with a secret identity, or a shapeshifter of some sort — you can turn your table tent inside out for your other identity, or use multiple tents for your identities. This will help everyone at the table know which persona you are in at any given time. Having a talk with your teacher in a Masks game is very different when you are The Slayer vs when you are Susan Montgomery.Take One, Fill It Out
Table tents are an inexpensive and effective tool for helping everyone at your table keep track of your character. It is something that all the characters in a game should do. It only takes a few seconds to fill one out and doing so can help deepen the immersion of your game as well as make everyone at the table more comfortable.
Do you use table tents? At home? At Cons? What do you normally put on your table tents? Also if you have some really artistically cool table tents, share them out on Twitter to @gnomestew and @dnaphil so that we can take a look.