Running Convention Games

Photo: Jorge Leal (Flickr/Creative Commons).

Photo: Jorge Leal (Flickr/Creative Commons).

US game designer and activist John Stavropoulos has game mastered hundreds of games at conventions over the years. In this text, he boils his experience down into 5 basic points. Originally published on G+, shared here with the author’s kind permission. For more about John’s projects, please see the end of the article. 

When I think about the games I enjoyed vs. times where I’ve had less fun, it often comes down to a few super basic obvious things that most people say «of course» and then in practice is gets muddy…

1. Set expectations
2. Time management
3. Spotlight management
4. Character vs. Player consent
5. Direct: Focus, Edit, Ask, Review, Teach as you go, Delegate

What does the above mean?

1. Set expectations

Don’t assume. Be explicit but brief. Maybe the players didn’t read the event description or they did but didn’t understand it. Why are we here? What do you want us to do? What do you want us not to do?

Is this a cooperative game? Competitive? Are we aiming for a certain tone or theme? Should we stick together? Should we split up? Should we stay serious? Make jokes? Attack each other? Wait till the last 30 minutes before PvP? Always work as a team?

It doesn’t matter. Just say what it is you want. Or be clear you are flexible and then let the group decide. Give enough info so people can opt out if they aren’t interested or buy in so you can all get on the same page and maximize the fun factor!

2. Time management

We have 4 hours to play which is actually probably 3 considering late starts and breaks. Then it is helpful to note how much time is left. When are we half way done? When do we have 30 minutes left? 5?

John is not, as far as Imagonem's editors are aware, a Revolutionary Icon from the 60's. However, he *is* an accomplished convention GM and organizer, and has graciously agreed to share some of his insights with our readers.

John is not, as far as Imagonem’s editors are aware, a Revolutionary Icon from the 60’s. However, he *is* an accomplished convention GM and organizer, and has graciously agreed to share some of his insights with our readers.

I know many great GMs like to limit new information after the halfway point to keep the game manageable. After that we reuse what we can, twist it, redefine it, combine it, destroy it, explore it but limit the amount of information.

Then once we hit that 30 minutes left point, start wrapping things up. Close loose ends. Resolve conflicts. Answer questions. Fulfill promises.

Then once we have 5 minutes left wrap up, epilogue, clean the table, and be respectful that players need to go to the next thing and new people may be playing at this same table next.

3. Spotlight management

One of the biggest convention game problems I see (depends on the game, there are exceptions). We make characters and the world for an hour. We play individual solo scenes for another hour. It can end up where players spent about 15 minutes talking and 100+ minutes being really quiet before the game feels like it really started and then you run out of time before you get any pay off for all the stuff you built up.

And if that is the point of the game… that is great! See «Set Expectations». Tell us so people can make an informed decision about opting in or out.

Maybe instead of solo scenes do scenes that start with 2 people at a time with a 3rd person coming in towards the end of the scene. Mix it up. If someone has been quiet a while, maybe they want to be quiet, maybe they are bored and anxious they haven’t done anything, not everyone wants equal participation but give everyone an equal opportunity to participate.

And make sure that spotlight is meaningful. Waiting 20 minutes to say or do anything and then stating 6 words, rolling, failing, having the GM describe how you fail, and then waiting another 20 minutes for maybe doing something engaging can kill many people’s interest real fast (or real slow so they can savor the agony). Stick with someone long enough so it feels meaningful. Context matters. Maybe that is 1 roll, maybe that is 3 rolls, maybe that is no rolls. They waited a long time, lets get some payoff!

4. Character vs. Player consent

This is a tricky topic that I should expand elsewhere. My opinion is the people playing a game are more important than the game itself. It should not matter if I win or fail at something, it is all still roleplaying. In an RPG ideally I could fail every single roll and still have a great time. Part of this is spotlight above. Part of this is that I am ok with the results of a roll. That even of it is the worst thing for my character, that I as the player am on board with it.

Part of this is simply the 3Cs. Communicate, Consent, Confirm.

Communicate the stakes of the situation, «if you fail X may happen, if you succeed Y may happen».  Get consent from those involved, «is this cool with you either way or would you like something else?» And then confirm, «to review, this is what we are doing, cool?»

It doesn’t have to be that formal. Or maybe it can be. Either way it is easier and faster than it sound above and with practice it solves many problems before they happen.

5. Direct: Focus, Edit, Ask, Review, Teach as you go, Delegate

As the facilitator (GM or GM-less), don’t be afraid to act like a director. Keep the above points in mind. Set expectations. Manage the game. Focus people when focus is useful. Get out of the way when people need time to process or slowness or uncertainty is a benefit to the game. Don’t let people talk over each other or interrupt people who haven’t had a fair chance to talk. Edit scenes by making suggestions. What if this scene happened here? What if we play the next few scenes as a montage? Lets cut the scene here or ask, «any last lines?» Ask for input, «what do we want more if in the next 2 hours? less of?» Review what we know, where we are headed, make sure the flow of information is manageable, understandable, and not full of misinformed assumptions. Don’t overwhelm people, teach rules as you go. And finally delegate!

While «directing» sounds like the GM’s job is to be a «dancing monkey» and «provide the fun» this doesn’t have to be the case. Delegate.

Have players frame scenes, play NPCs, suggest conflicts, answer questions directed at you, teach the rules. You would be amazed how much you can delegate. Hell, I’ve sometimes delegated entire games, then handed the players my phone number to text me if there were problems, got a coffee, came back, and asked, «how am I doing so far?»


It always depends. Context matters. There are many exceptions. And ultimately the needs of a specific game override some of the above. Just like the needs of specific people override the needs of specific games (in my personal opinion influenced by my own social context, cultural lens, privileges, experiences).

And while this may be 101 level material, sometimes we assume we have a solid foundation but lack the basics that help us have a great time. Take a step back and ask, «am I really doing all these things and where can I improve and practice.»


About the author: 
John Stavropoulos. 

Brief gaming bio:
– organized 26 conventions in NYC;
– co-run Gen Con’s Games On Demand;
– designed convention game scenarios including MvsM, The Yearbook, CyberNoia, Demons at the Door, Monsterhearts LARP, Monekydome, and the5;
– playtested 100s of games;
– run numerous gaming industry panels;
– designed games for the History Channel played by 100,000s of people;
– co-created games in Ethiopia for the Nike Foundation to help hundreds of adolescent girls learn teamwork, financial literacy, and to speak out against gender based violence.
John has written: 
– How to Run Convention Games,;
– How to Run Safer, Accessible, and Inclusive Conventions,;
– How to Write Game Instructions,
Find out more here:


  1. […] Running convention games By US GM extraordinaire John S. […]

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