In a previous column about working in the RPG industry as a game designer, one of my suggestions was to run as many different kinds of games as you can, as often as you can, for a variety of people and in a variety of settings. In my own freelance career, one of the most valuable experiences I can point to as putting me and keeping me on the right track is running games at large conventions like GenCon, Origins, and DDXP/Winter Fantasy—as well as at countless smaller conventions and game days.
Think Locally, DM Globally
For the first 20 years of my gaming life, across a variety of RPGs and campaigns, I ran games for many people. These were usually heavily house-ruled home campaigns where I knew the players well, or the players were invited by friends who were already playing. Rarely was I running a game for a true stranger. It is a comfortable feeling running a game for friends and acquaintances, whose quirks and biases and preferences you know very well. And more importantly, running a game for familiar people puts you more at ease—because you know they know you well, and they know what to expect from your games. They are accustomed to your strengths and weaknesses, and there is a natural rhythm that gets established.
Starting in 2001, when I began to break into game design for public consumption through various organized-play campaigns like Living Forgotten Realms, Living Kingdoms of Kalamar, and others, I was hit by a realization. If I was to truly become a serious game designer, I would need to step out of that comfort zone and start engaging a variety of different gamers in new ways. One of those ways would have to be DMing for strangers. After all, if I could not connect with players face-to-face across the gaming table, there is no way I would be able to engage them through the written word in a published adventure or sourcebook.
Although I had written several adventures for different campaigns, I still hadn’t fully immersed myself in the process. I was still doing my playtesting through a group of local friends. As I designed something, the voices in my head telling me which direction to take a project were those voices that sounded much like mine—that agreed with a lot of my biases and preconceptions about how a fun game should work. So I decided to take the plunge and start running games for strangers. And if you are going to do something, you might as well do it on the grandest stage in gaming.
GenCon, or Here There Be Gamers
For gamers of all stripes, but particularly RPG players, there is nothing quite like GenCon. I never had the chance to attend when it was in Milwaukee (or even earlier than that), so the first experience I had with GenCon was at its current location in downtown Indianapolis. I still remember the first time I drove past the convention center there, staring in awe at the mass of gamer humanity pouring through the streets.
As an aside, I have been fortunate in that I never felt like an outcast for being a gamer or for liking games. I’ve dealt with the occasional puzzled look from people when I tell them I play D&D, but I’ve never felt ridiculed or belittled. However, driving past the convention center and then walking through it toward the Wizards of the Coast game area, I have never felt more like there is a place I belonged. I knew practically no one there, and no really knew me. No one knew that I had written one of the adventures running in the RPGA area. The RPGA area itself was huge, yet it was just one of many huge areas running games and offering something of interest to gamers. The largeness of the whole convention was both intimidating and reassuring at the same time. Yes, I was one person among tens of thousands of people, but I was among people who enjoyed the same things I enjoyed. I could strike up a conversation with just about anyone I passed in the convention center, and we would be connecting about a common interest—a group of hobbies that we all enjoyed and loved enough to want to share.
I’ve Only Got One Thing to Learn – Everything!
At that first GenCon I attended, I made sure I ran just a few sessions of the same adventure. I wanted to have time to play some games as well, and walk through the Exhibition Hall, and take in a little of the city and the atmosphere. Thinking back on that weekend at my first GenCon, I might have learned more about the craft of writing D&D adventures there than I had in my previous 20+ years sitting in front of a pile of books and a notebook, typewriter, word processor, or computer. (Yes, I am old.)
From that first table of players that I took through my Living Kingdoms of Kalamar adventure, where they pulled out new tricks, took the game’s narrative in totally different direction, and interacted with the awesome Kalamar setting in ways I had never imagined, I knew I was in for an education. The next table I encountered, though running the same adventure, expanded my experience in a whole new way. I thought I had seen everything in 20 years, and I had seen nothing. I still had everything to learn. I was both intrigued and humbled.
And for all that I learned while DMing that weekend, I learned twice as much playing different games. Rough patches that I had experienced over the years in my own games—tracking initiative, controlling pacing, keeping players engaged when it was not there turns, ad infinitum—I could sit back and watch other DMs do expertly. Whether it was playing D&D or other games that I had played as a youth but dropped over the years, so much gaming in so many areas with so much variety was just a few hundred yards away in any direction.
Most profound, though, was the experience of spending 4 or 5 hours sharing an experience with six other people, and then gaving those players thank you for running the game for them, or asking if there are any other games you are running because they want to play with you again. That too is an awesome feeling. Or just by being in the right place and the right time, to be able to play a game DMed by Mike Mearls, or DM a game for Chris Perkins. To find yourself standing next to your favorite game designer or author or artist, and being able to ask them about their work or express your gratitude for their contributions to your hobby. All priceless experiences.
And that doesn’t even take into consideration the Exhibition Hall, where everyone who is everyone is showing off their latest products and games. For those hoping to break into the gaming industry, GenCon is the place to go to gauge interest and learn about where opportunities await. And there is enough geekery in action to make even the most jaded gamer look like a schoolkid at Christmas.
An Offer You Can Refuse But Shouldn’t
Undertakings like GenCon run on the back of volunteers who step forward and run games. I obviously think it is a great experience, and I plan to be there again this year—running and playing games and learning more lessons about this hobby I love so much. Baldman Games manages much of the gaming content offered by Wizards of the Coast at GenCon and elsewhere, and they always do a great job of getting DMs and players sitting down and playing games hundreds or thousands of times over the course of the convention.
One of the drawbacks of these national conventions is that the costs can be prohibitive. I know that as a youngster I would have never been able to afford attending. Volunteering is also a great way to defray some or most of the cost of attending. For running 4 slots worth of games, you can get a free 4-day badge into the convention—which would otherwise set you back $68 this year. For running 7 slots, you get a shared hotel room with other volunteers, which would cost even more than the badge, and the hotel where volunteers stay is generally connected to the convention center. Even volunteering to run games in a slot or two gets you free product—often before it is even out in stores. (One year a Wizards R&D staffer asked to see some of the swag I had received, because not even the developers themselves had seen the books yet.)
If you would like more information on volunteering, check out the Baldman Games site. The Baldman himself, Dave Christ, is always looking for volunteers of all shapes, sizes, and levels of experience: from running the “D&D for Beginners” events being a part of someone’s first ever experience with D&D, to running the D&D Championship for the best tactical players at the convention, there is an event waiting for volunteers to help run. And you might even learn something!