GMing at PAX Unplugged

I have returned from PAX Unplugged with many stories to share. Rather than the traditional day-by-day recap of my experience, I’m going to focus my posts on specific activities and how they fared at the convention. There are so many different things to do at PAX Unplugged, and from what I’ve seen a lot of attendees focus on one or maybe two of these things, to the point of barely even being aware of the other stuff going on. As is typical for my first year at a new convention I tried to experience a little of everything, and as as a result had a very mixed experience, but have come away with a lot of knowledge on how to make the most of future years. So today, let’s focus on GMing free form RPGs at PAXU.

I should have done my homework. Recently I stumbled on this report of PAX 2017, the inaugural event, by graphic artist Thomas Deeny. He said:

PAX Unplugged didn’t have any preregistration for events, which seems to be part of the culture of PAX. Rather than having people register in advance and possibly not show up, they embrace the line where people wait and they make sure that seats are filled. While this works at the other PAX shows where they are seating scores of people in theaters, it doesn’t really work for a show where people are sit at tables of four or five.

Two years later I found this to be still very accurate. When packing for the convention I randomly picked some games I’d like to run and threw them in a bag, with no idea of what might actually happen. Running my recently published DMs Guild game Vile Crypt of the Reawakened Sisterhood seemed like an obvious choice for self-promotion. I also brought a couple Bossfight for Breakfast games at Delta’s request, and because a 2 hour game offers a nice bit of flexibility for scheduling. Finally I brought Bryson Springs because I wanted something that showed off my Insanity Cards and also something that was more character driven rather than a combat slug-fest.

On Friday morning I arrived with what was required to run Vile Crypt and few expectations. I went to the RPG HQ and there was a massive crowd, but fortunately also a very friendly enforcer outside that I was able to chat with. I did not yet have a plan of attack, I was just asking for general advice and information on how things worked, and he recommended I come back between 10-11 at which time he predicted the crowd would die down and the enforcers inside would have more time to talk to me.

So I came back later and discovered that the process is this — as a GM you come up to the desk and tell them you want to run a game. They take info from you including the title, system, time, and number of players for your game. You dictate all this info to an enforcer that is furiously typing away at a keyboard, so it’s important to be concise (more on this later). They then assign you a table, print out a sign up sheet, and put it on the table there at HQ. Players can wander in at any time, peruse the games on offer, and sign up for what they will. As GM, they ask you to come by HQ 10 minutes before your game, pick up your sheet, and proceed to your table to run the game.

So there at around 10:30 AM on Friday while there was still a bit of a line for players I signed up to run Vile Crypt at 7 PM. I had a color promotional post-card about the game on me which I looked for every opportunity to hand out. They were happy to put one next to my sign-up sheet, which between being full color and having R.A. Salvatore’s name on it I’m sure was attention grabbing and helped me get players. I also then signed up to run a Bossfight game in their earliest slot the next morning at 10:30 AM, which they said they’d hold onto and put out on the table the next morning. At 6:50 I showed up and my Vile Crypt game was completely full, and so off I went to my table. It ran very well and I was surprised to start to believe this unusual system might actually work. Then the next morning when I arrived 10 minutes in advance to pick up my sheet for the Bossfight game, I discovered they had forgotten to put it out.

As my wife, an academic librarian noted, the enforcers would all make very good librarians. They are very friendly and approachable, eager to help, and usually have no idea what the answer to your question is, but do know where to look for it. In this case there was a little shuffling around — looking for the sheet in different places, a trip to the table to see if a player had grabbed it and gone there, and then finally printing out a new one. As 10:30 came and went I was told “well, don’t worry, many of the 10:30 games are starting late anyway.” Finally another enforcer stepped in to help me recruit by addressing the crowd. “I’ve got a 2 hour Original D&D game starting right now – who wants to get out of line and play this?” We immediately had 5 takers, and off we went to play. Honestly, I suspect several of them were just happy to get out of waiting in line any longer, though they were a fantastic group and we had a really good time, even if it didn’t wrap up until 1 PM.

My other two attempts were complete failures. I wanted to run my horror game Saturday night, which uses Savage Worlds as the core system, and I had discovered that there was an official event called “Savage Saturday” happening from 6-10. I thought maybe if I glommed onto that event I might attract more players. I asked the enforcers about this Saturday morning, and they really wanted to help, but had little idea on how. They took my email and phone number, and advised that I wait to hear from someone before listing my game.

By 3:30 I was getting nervous that the game might not run at all, so I went to RPG HQ and just listed it as normal. At 4 PM I sat down to watch a panel and suddenly my phone started to buzz. I found myself on a 3-way text conversation with PAX’s head of RPGs and the guy organizing Savage Saturday. They were happy to have me join in, and so my sheet was whisked off the table at RPG HQ and I was instructed to show up at the room for Savage Saturday at 5:30 to set up. I had one sign-up on my sheet, and they asked I hold a spot for that person. I said sure thing.

At Savage Saturday, they had a ballroom with maybe a dozen tables, and one at the door with sign-up sheets. They put mine in with the rest, and players started to trickle in to play. To play the other games that is – mine failed to attract any players. By 6:30 I gave up and found something else to do. Perhaps horror is a tough sell to the Savage Worlds fans who seem to want more action-oriented games? If my sheet had been at RPG HQ first thing in the morning when the big line is there, would it have filled up? I started to suspect that having your sheet on the table when the biggest crowd is present (10-11 AM) is the best chance for success.

So Sunday morning I arrived early to get another Bossfight game on the table before 10 AM. Only, Sunday at PAX Unplugged is dramatically less crowded as it turns out. There was no huge line, and by 10:30 when the game was supposed to run I had no sign-ups. Several other games were in a similar boat, the RPG HQ seemed to have more GMs trying to recruit players than actual players. So once again I found myself filling my time with other PAX activities.

What did I learn? For anyone that wants to RPGs at PAX Unplugged next year (including future me that is likely reading this, Hi Paul!), here are some tactics I’d suggest:

  1. Plan out what games you want to run each day. Show up before 10 at RPG HQ with all the games you want to run for that day only and get them on the table before the crowd gets access to them.
  2. Target Friday and Saturday first. Look at the official schedule and identify what big things you want to attend (panels or tournaments or whatnot), and then fill the gaps with your games.
  3. Keep your description to just the facts. Players don’t have a lot of time to read them, so the most important thing is to describe the system and tone of your game first. Skip the flowery backstory and tell the players as concisely as possible what it is they are signing up to play.
  4. Consider printing out and bringing your own sign-up sheet — download example here. Add an eye-catching logo or some color and your sign-up sheet will really stand out. If nothing else this will speed up your registration time as the enforcer can just copy what’s written into their system.
  5. Look for online stuff ahead of time. This year one enforcer tried to pre-reg a bunch of games via a thread on RPGGeek. If this happens again next year, I would totally try this first for all the games I want to run.

UPDATE: I’ve linked above to the example RPG sign-up sheet. A couple notes — 8 is the max number of players they support. The additional notes included stuff like what the players should bring (dice, characters, etc), age restrictions, and any potential content warning. For example my Vile Crypt sheet says “Bring dice, age 13+, CW: torture”.

15 thoughts on “GMing at PAX Unplugged

  1. Great write up Paul, interesting system, the points you make would definitely help a first timer heading to Paxx! Thanks!

    1. Thanks, at least if you’re interested in RPGs I think the above is valuable info. I also have a reasonably good review of the panels, and a downright glowing one for the networking aspect of this convention. I’ll post those in the near future. Board games and the exhibit hall I have very little opinion on — I barely spent any time in those areas, though they are definitely the largest part of PAXU.

  2. You can also sign up to run games for orgs like Games on Demand, which lets you know your schedule a few weeks in advance. I’ve been doing it a few years now and it’s a blast.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts Paul we certainly appreciate the insight as we continue to refine the system. I apologize that you had issues with the Savage Worlds experience, but I am glad your other events went fairly well and we got you seated.
    I will add a few points of clarification since its come up in other places:

    -We looked into Using Warhorn but it adds a whole different layer of complications in how encounters and events have to be approved and loaded that would have been leaps and bounds more complicated than what we were having to do (Warhorn is good when your loading everything before, the show, but is not really good for a show where your constantly adding more events on the fly).

    -Our singup sheets defaulted to 8 mostly because we had 8 foot rounds and only sat 8 people. You could easily make your own custom sheets that had more, and next year the sheets after printing will be more editable as a google doc for the enforcer at the desk.

    But again thank you for your insights, it helps us to continue to refine the model and improve the resources.

    1. Hi Riley, thanks so much for popping in here to comment! I know that organizing this kind of stuff is no small feat, and you guys deserve a lot of praise, both for all the hard work you do and for being open to finding new ways to improve your process. Above all else you and your team were always immediately available, very friendly, and eager to find a way to help which was greatly appreciated.

      If I could offer one small suggestion for something you might look at on your end – simply having something in the PAX app or similar where GMs could pre-enter their details would be a big improvement. I can remember two times at least where I was standing in line behind a couple other GMs waiting for my turn to dictate the details of my game to the enforcer seated at the sole computer. If instead I was able to tap this stuff out on my own device, whether that’s a day in advance or right there in the room, I imagine it would really speed things up if I could just say “Game ID 1234” to the enforcer and then they could review it on the spot, make any required corrections, and then print out the sheet.

      Best of luck to you guys, and thanks again for all the help last weekend. I’m looking forward to some more great gaming in the years to come!

      1. We actually made access to the signup templates more public last year, and things became a total storm, so we brought it back in house and made people come up front because we didn’t want to get totally messed up and incomplete entries that didn’t really clearly identify anything.

        But bringing it back inside totally added other complications.

        We will continue to look at new ways to improve things though, and definitely want to make something that’s more accessible.

        1. Yeah, I feel like you still want an enforcer to verify the data before it goes to the table. Though maybe that still makes it easier for errors to slip through if the enforcer isn’t paying as close attention as they must when manually typing in the data.

          Any insights you can share on how the RPGGeek forum method worked? That seemed very promising to me, and while I intentionally turned a blind eye to it this year, I’d be very tempted to try using it next year.

          1. It worked remarkably well. It allowed us to collect peoples interest and get people to sign up to games early, and we laid the templates for the RPGGeek Forum to be the same of the onsite signup so we could easily transfer it over.

            I personally was somewhat unsure about it because I know RPG people don’t use RPGGeek as much as boardgame people use BGG, but people were quite willing to give it a shot.

            I think by the time of the show the forum had almost 70 entries, and 30 of those games filled before the show even started, so when we got to the start of the show we already had 40-45 attendee run games seeding the tables which helped remind GMs that they could show up and run their own game.

  4. That’s great! I was especially curious about that case of “half full” games and how it transferred over. Sounds like you just printed the sheet with the remaining empty seats on it at the show?

    Another thought just struck me on another thread – as much as it’s easy for me to pick on the GM flow, but I suspect it’s the player flow that’s more painful. Waiting in that long line to sign up for who knows what seems pretty rough to me. It may be cost prohibitive, but I wonder if you could put up a big screen TV on the wall showing a slow scroll of the stuff that’s still open so players can think about what they want to sign up for before they reach the table. Though maybe keeping that in sync with the actual sheets on the table would also be a PITA. I don’t know, I wish I had better ideas for that side of the coin, but standing in that line not even knowing what you’re standing in line for feels like something that could be improved.

    1. The half full transfers over were easy, we as you noted just copied and pasted the files, and saved the notes with the names of those pre-reged, and then just hand filled their names in on the lower parts of the sheet. And it went great, those GMs had no issues getting their games filled.

      We actually were discussing your thoughts about doing something electronic with a giant monitor and a running feed that we could quickly update as games filled. We couldn’t bring it all together this year (but it was something we were discussing), but we might be able to pull something like that together for next year.

      I am hopeful. We have an internal software team that does a lot of development for us, and PAX rents out a lot of the electronics at very reasonable rates, so we could quite feasibly do something like that for the next coming year.

        1. You’ve got a lot of strong ideas and motivation. If you want to get into the show for free and help us make another Unplugged even better when things come around next year you might want to consider Enforcing! 🙂

          1. So glad you guys are discussing this. I’ll point out (b/c he may too modest to say it) that Paul is at least a top-10-in-the-world expert on scheduling for game conventions, as he’s developed a software application for that for over 10 years and recently rolled it out publicly as HouseCon.net (https://housecon.net/). His advice is invaluable!

          2. Hey, thanks! As Delta points out, I have a pretty strongly vested interest in this stuff. On top of writing software for it, I’m also the Director of Registration for a new game convention in MA (https://risingphoenixgamecon.com/). I’d love to give you guys whatever advice and help I can, but when it comes time for the convention, I think I’d rather just be a selfish attendee. 🙂

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