Behind the Gear-spun Curtain: A Purely Steampunk Look at Game Design

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Pure-Steam-logo-300x90Gamemastering at GenCon can be a blast. It’s a way to introduce people to a game you love, or even a game you’re trying to publish. It can also be a way to play obscure games that just don’t have a big following in your hometown. It’s a lot of work, though, and can be taxing. Here are some tips we’ve learned the hard way after a few years at GenCon.


  • Set a goal. Are you simply going to run a couple games for fun? Are you trying to build support for your indie project? How much time do you want to spend just “enjoying” the convention and playing games GMed by others? GenCon will comp a 4-Day badge if you GM a minimum number of player-hours (citation needed – GenCon Exhibitors Guidelines). They’ll discount your hotel room if you hit a higher number of player-hours, and if you can get a group to run enough hours of games, you can get your hotel room paid for!
  • Prep like a pro. Depending on how much time you set aside for your session, you may not have a lot of time to play. Players sometimes show up late. Others may not know every rule or character option. Reduce the amount of time it takes you and the players to get up to speed, and maximize play time. For our Pure Steam sessions this year, we printed all our encounter maps in full color, and laminated them. When it was time to roll initiative, we just pulled out the map, slapped it on the table, and had the players arrange themselves. This saved a a few hours of drawing on battle mats over our 20 sessions of play. If you’re providing pre-generated characters, consider printing the explanatory text for all the feats, class features, and traits you’re giving the pre-gens. At the very least, provide the sourcebook and page reference. Bottom line: anything you can do to streamline.
  • Broaden your horizons. Consider running an event that stretches your comfort zone or allows for people with no experience, of any age, to play. My favorite moment of GenCon 2014 was a session of Pure Steam which a family of three attended. I had it set up for all ages, no experience required. The mom, dad, and six-year-old son jumped right in. I quickly realized the parents were entrusting their youngster’s first roleplaying game experience to me—a sobering thought. That boy rolled his first natural 20, resulting in a critical hit and a kill on a bandit, and raucous cheers for the boy’s heroism. He beamed with pride, as did his parents. A stranger at the table—who had loaned the kid some dice—told the kid to keep the d20 he used on his first crit. It was awesome.


  • Let your devotion to GMing wreak havoc on your mind and body. You may feel like a rock star for a day or two, but by the end of the convention you could find yourself sick (“Con Crud,” Fort DC 16, 1d6 Cha damage), exhausted, and emaciated. Hydrate, eat healthier than you would normally, and take some sort of vitamin supplement. Expect to lose your voice, especially if you’re GMing next to seven other tables competing with you on decibels. Force yourself to eat on some sort of schedule, even if you aren’t hungry. One day during the con, it was mid-afternoon when I realized I hadn’t taken in any calories that day. As a result of this and the general intensity of my GMing schedule, I lost six pounds during this year’s con. Those were pounds I was happy to lose, but it wasn’t a healthy way to do it. Just take care of yourself out there behind the screen.
  • Run the game like you would at home. Homebrew rules tend to be a no-no at GenCon, as there isn’t time for people to get acclimated to them. Folks come from all over the globe to rock their favorite games, and imposing new restrictions on them can spoil the table relationship. If you are going to change/augment the published rules of a game, share those changes as early as you can, preferably in the event registration info.
  • Forget to turn in your event tickets, if you want your badge/hotel room to be compensated.

These rules can be applied to any convention, with some tweaking, but your average local convention just doesn’t have the size, options, or challenges as “The Best Four Days in Gaming.”™

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