Game conventions and team building

Running Dungeons & Dragons in a corporate environment isn’t something we nerds usually do.

Roleplaying games are traditionally something we play with our friends, and doing it with strangers for team building and wellness purposes is a bit of a leap. Fortunately for my self confidence, it turns out I’ve done this many times before. I spent the Easter weekend at a convention – the always amazing Trolls & Légendes in Belgium were I was invited to run my latest release, Macchiato Monsters. I’ve done this sort of thing maybe a hundred times in the last 20 years and I always love it, but this was the first time I ran at a con since I started Desks and Dragons. And interestingly, I noticed more than a few similarities between the ‘demo’ games you typically run at such nerdy gatherings and the ones I host in offices. 

Players deciphering a players map at Trolls & Légendes
“Do you think they wrote gnomes here, or gnolls?

Playing with strangers

Only rarely will you know anyone among the players. So make sure everyone knows what this is all about — from RPG principles to fantasy tropes to social contract to old school gameplay – before you even start explaining the rules of the game. You need to ask questions and adapt you brief to your audience. Be wary of neglecting the shy player who doesn’t know as much as the others. During the game, you’ll have to pay attention to everyone and make sure no one gets bored. This is probably the main responsibilities of a game master.

Playing under time constraints

Furthermore, the players don’t know each other either – some of them will have come together, but it will almost never be a table-full of friends. These teams within the teams may create interesting dynamics during the game, but they may also become a problem. Your job as the GM is to create a group purpose, at least until the magic of imaginary team building happens. Very soon, the players will realise that they need to rely on each other if they want their characters to survive and their party to achieve its goals. This is where team building happens!

Let’s be honest: tabletop roleplaying games are always too short. Handling time is another skill of a good GM. You try to keep things fun, balancing player choice and narrative pace. In a convention, you have three or four hours for people to experience as much of your game as feasible. A demo session cannot afford to be slow or unfocused; there won’t be a next time to find out who killed the Duchess or to escape the wizard’s tower. The session must have a satisfying ending, an interesting middle, and a compelling start.

This is doubly true in office games. Even if most of my clients opt for a four-part game (the recurrence is key to team engagement), it isn’t a lot of time for a full adventure. Like other veteran conventions GMs, I use all the tools and tips I know to make every lunchtime session engaging and fun – the rules and the adventure framework I have designed help me a lot, but I keep learning from other referees and coming up with new techniques.

Playing with the format

Short games, new audiences, these are both opportunities to get creative. Have guests, have props, or simply play around with the story structure. Keeping a stack of index cards with tricks like in medias res starts or flashbacks is a good thing. Or you can let players come up with small parts of the game world, pertaining to their character or not. The list is endless, but I’ll have to try and post about it sometime.

To give you an example, at Trolls & Légendes I ran the same dungeon delve on both the Saturday and the Sunday. As the first group made it out with some treasure and a decent bit explored, I asked them if they would sell the map they drew to the innkeeper at the village nearby before leaving the region. The next day, I gave the next group of players the opportunity to buy this map. Here’s some of them, puzzling on some hand written notes.

This made the dungeon come alive for the second group of players and gave them a sense of persistence.  Little ideas like this will make a game memorable — make sure you always have some in your pocket!

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