Tales of a Travelling Convention Dungeon Master

There’s something about running games for complete strangers at a convention that morphs a seemingly mundane tabletop RPG session into an unpredictably riveting experience worth writing stories about…

by Philippe-Antoine Ménard


There’s something electrifying about having thousands of gamers crowded in an open hall. It puts everybody’s moods in some kind of excited expectancy. Players sitting at your table have no idea how their experience will turn out and often find themselves playing with complete strangers. Convention RPG games are usually made up of a few players that know each other and one or two random people that get picked up in the line-up to round the table up.

The social dynamics are skewed from the get go. You have a core that are used to playing together with its own set of social rules. You then graft other players with vastly different backgrounds and social etiquette. In fact, merging a group of mismatched players into a functioning group around the table and within the game’s story is likely the most challenging feat a convention game master has to perform. If you fail at this, you risk finding yourself with a group of half-interested players chucking dice in between bouts of dejected texting and Facebook updates.

I recently attended the PAX East convention in Boston as a panelist and made a point of freeing a few hours to volunteer to run a session of ‘Learn to Play D&D’ because it’s one of my favourite activities offered by Wizards of the Coast’s organized play at conventions. I always get a kick teaching the game to new players and, fortunately, I had my bag of tricks.

“Hi, my name’s Phil. I’ll be your DM for the next few hours.” I read their body language and got ready to rein them all in: “I’m sure you’ve all heard of those D&D games where the Dungeon Master tells you that you meet at a tavern. Then players spend the next 25 minutes being jerks to each other until they grudgingly accept to work together.” I got a few giggles and one or two knowing nods. My first hooks were set. They were still unsure though, and that moment of hesitation was my window of opportunity to pounce. “I have to say I kinda hate those games. I’m not really that kind of DM. In fact the adventure I was supposed to run for you today sucks. That’s why I threw it away and decided you were going to help me design the adventure!” At that point, I had their attention all right, but I hadn’t quite established my credibility as a Dungeon Master.

“We’ll assume that your characters know each other but you’ve only adventured once before. That last adventure both went great and seriously wrong at the same time. Now I want YOU to tell me what went wrong and what went well in that adventure.”

As the players recovered from their surprise of being required to be active in establishing the session’s quest, I quietly observed them, trying to identify the likely leaders. More importantly, I tried to spot the tables’ instigators. There’s always at least one at all RPG tables. He’s that one guy – he’s usually a guy – that pulls levers, kicks doors and opens chests before the rest of the group can react. That person can either be the driver of the game or its worst enemy. I’ve found that getting the instigator on my side has always been the key to a game’s success. You do NOT want to have a bored or unhappy instigator at a gaming table.

One player finally pipes up: “We were sent to rescue a dragon and we got the dragon killed!” It looked like I had found my instigator. The game was played with level one characters, beginning heroes, so such a quest made little sense. But that smart-ass hadn’t played at my table yet…

This is just a small extract from the full feature in Issue Two. To read the entire article, click here to purchase the complete digital edition of Continue for just $2.99/£1.99/€2.25.


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