How to Run a Great Gameday Event
I've been meaning to write up some Gameday best practices documents that codify some of what I've learned over the last decade or so in running events for it. This is the first in a series that will address various aspects of Gameday GM'ing. Others will talk about prep, scenario/event design, props, etc.
I'm also hoping that this kind of documentation might encourage more people to come forward and run games for us, and help those who do run create more enjoyable experiences for everyone.
Feedback is welcome.
Running or facilitating RPGs can be as much art as science. Running an RPG in the context of Chicago Gameday can be even more so. Gameday events impose challenging constraints: limited time, unfamiliar participants, and ephemerality. You are given a brief moment in the spotlight and yet expected to leave a lasting impression — and have fun doing it! How do you accomplish this, much less do it consistently?
The following are some of the lessons I’ve learned in running events, both the good ones and the bad, for Chicago Gameday.
Make It Special
Everyone who attends Gameday — including you, the GM — has taken time away from their busy lives to be there. Some have traveled for hours. As a GM, your primary goal is to reward this effort. For some attendees, this may be the only gaming they do that month, or even that year. For others, this may be their first time attending a Gameday, or even their first time playing the kind of game you’re offering. Put your best foot forward and run the best damn game you can.
Pro Tip: Bring fun or interesting props, print your character sheets on fancy paper, make colorful handouts, or heck, wear a costume if you are so inclined. This isn’t to say that you need to spend a fortune on paraphernalia. I’ve had a model human skull sitting on my bookshelf for ages, a gag gift from a friend; it made a perfect prop for a Dresden Files RPG event I ran a few years ago. The point is that if you’re going to bring accessories, bring them, in the inspiring-cheerleading-movie sense. The sensory experience of even something as basic as a character sheet or a map can add a while new dimension to the players’ enjoyment of your event. The more senses you engage, the more invested the players are likely to become.
Know the rules for your game. Be thoroughly familiar with the scenario you are running. If you’re bringing pre-generated characters, know them well enough that you can help coach their players in their abilities or any other applicable rules of which they make use. Have your notes in order and organized in whatever way is easiest for you to use at the table. Have any dice you need ready, any miniatures or accessories you need at hand, and any handouts for the players printed and ready to distribute.
Pro Tip: Get a good night’s sleep before Gameday. Coming to Gameday fatigued from lack of sleep makes every aspect of being a GM harder. Even if you manage to run your game without a hitch, the effort will be double, and any enjoyment in the process will evaporate. Gameday is a special day for you, too, and spending it wishing you were home in bed is absolutely no fun.
Front-Load your Characters
If your event involves bringing pre-generated characters to the table, “front-load” them as much as possible. Namely, provide any and all necessary information that the player might need in order to run that character. Ideally, a player should be able to look at the character sheet you provide and almost instantly understand the basics of who that character is, what they want, and what abilities they can bring to bear to get it.
Pro Tip: If you want to have players choose equipment or spells, or make certain character build decisions, provide them with a limited set of choices, and make those choices easy to implement. For example: hand a player a set of index cards, with one spell on each (with all details), and have them choose a “hand” of spells to use for your event.
Focus on Playing, not Lecturing
It’s not uncommon for players in your event to be unfamiliar with the rules or setting of the game you’re running. Resist the urge to spend a lot of time explaining your game in detail at the start of your event. This can be a real mood-killer, as it asks players to process a lot of new information at once with no real idea how much of it may be relevant once play starts. At most, ask the table how familiar everyone may be with the game. Depending on the level of familiarity, offer just a sentence or two of high-level summary and then move on once the players have acknowledged that they understand.
For example: “This is a game about fighting for your character’s beliefs. These beliefs are written on your sheet, so please take a minute to look at them. When your character takes action, you’ll roll a number of dice equal to their skill rating; any dice that show a 4 or better count as successes. If you roll a number of successes equal to or higher than your target, you accomplish what you were trying to do. Make sense? Okay, so your group is arriving at the town when…”
As the game proceeds, bring up rules as you use them and explain as-needed. Let players describe what they want their PCs to do in plain language, and then help them translate that into game mechanics. You’ll find that the players will start to catch on to commonly used rules, and the game will keep moving forward.
Pro Tip: If one of your players is familiar with the RPG you’re running, deputize them! Ask them to help the other players with the rules, allowing you each to help different people at once, or for your deputy to handle one player’s rule question while you handle a scene with another.
Start with a Bang
Your time is limited, so get the action started as soon as possible. Instead of a mysterious job offer in tavern, start the adventurers at the mouth of the dungeon with a band of orcs hot on their heels! Instead of a mission briefing at HQ, start by throwing the agents out of plane, without parachutes, and the ground racing up at them! You don’t want to make players spend time figuring out your event’s “hook.” You all know you’re here to game, so start gaming!
Pro Tip: Start your event off by having everyone roll initiative (or your game’s equivalent) and play through some or all of an initial conflict, but don’t offer any more context than is needed. Get to a stopping point and then flash back to the “real” start of the adventure and have players figure out how the heck they got into that first fight. Once they get there, flash forward to the present and continue onward.
Keep an Eye on the Clock
Your event needs to fill at least four hours, but not go over five, so it’s crucial to keep an eye on the time as your event progresses. Put your watch or your phone on the table where you can see it during play and be mindful of it. The pacing of your event will greatly impact the players’ overall enjoyment. Rush too quickly and players will lack time to forge a strong connection with their characters or to the situation they’re in; plod too slowly and they’ll feel like nothing is happening and they’re just meandering.
Pro Tip: Set alarms on your smartphone or watch to mark various milestones. 30 minutes in: Are we done choosing characters and introducing everyone? Have we really started playing? If not, get moving. 2-2.5 hours in: Time for a 5-10 minute bathroom break and to assess how far we’ve gotten. Have we hit the “meat” of the session yet? 45-60 minutes before the slot ends: Time to start wrapping up. Are we close to a meaningful conclusion? If not, get there now.
Give Everyone a Voice
As the GM, you are both the de facto host of your event, and most likely have unique authority under the rules when it comes to directing the flow of the game: starting or ending scenes, choosing which player moves next, or deciding what contributions are “true” in the game world. Use this power to make sure that no one player or subset of players dominates the game. Move focus from player to player, making sure that everyone get to offer input. If a player is quiet, reach out to them and pull them into the game. If a player is steamrolling ahead, stop them with a quick, “Cool, hold that thought”, and then ask the rest of the table what their PCs are doing at that moment, and come back to the steamroller afterwards.
Pro Tip: Initiative systems aren’t just for combat. Feel free to use them to direct out-of-conflict play as well. Have everyone roll a die (any die) and then address them in descending order. Or, draw cards; high draw speaks first and then chooses who will go next (including you).
Bonus Pro Tip: In old-school dungeon-crawling games, it’s not uncommon to designate one player as the “caller,” i.e., the liaison with the GM. The players can deliberate all they want, but eventually they must decide on a course of action, and the caller conveys that final plan to the GM. So, make use of a caller. Choose a different player to be caller every turn, or every major scene, or even every fifteen minutes or so. And don’t just do it for dungeon-crawly games; it can work in lots of scenarios.
Go High or Go Home
Never forget that your event is a one-shot; a singular moment in time that will never come again. There’s no larger campaign, no “same time next week,” no regular group you’ll see again and again. Consequently, do not hold back! Let your event be a defining moment in the characters’ lives. Have them face their greatest enemies or their worst fears. Put them in situations that may change them forever; ones they may even be willing to die for! Dangle their most coveted treasures before them, and threaten those they hold most dear. Don’t think “monster of the week,” think “series finale”. Your imagination has an unlimited budget, so you might as well spend all of it!
I hope that this advice proves useful to you, be it at Gameday or elsewhere. Let me know what works and what doesn’t, or if you find other techniques that reliably make your events more enjoyable.