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Handling the Table Personality: Gamemastering at cons requires flexibility!

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What another table personality article?

Hello, again folks,

I know it has been a bit since I have written with the electronic quill.  There are few reasons for this.  I have been back and forth at the VA (Veteran’s Hospital here in the USA) with various health issues.  I have also been very busy on the side with working on a project that may or may not ever see the light of day.  Couple that with the Genghis Con 41 Convention, and it just has not left a lot of time for writing.  For that, I truly apologize.  The only way to keep a bonfire burning is to keep throwing logs on the fire.  In my past articles I have examined table personalities the Gamemaster might encounter, but in this article, I will be addressing the other side of the shield.  The Gamemaster.

Before I get too much further into the discussion of what prompted this piece let me first say this.  ANYONE who runs a game at a con has my respect.  Conventions are loud.  Conventions are busy with lots of visual distraction.  Most Conventions do not allow for a controlled group of players.  You get what you get at the table and do your best to make the game happen.  Gamemasters are also severely limited in time and space.  When you add all these factors in, as a player you really need to be both grateful and respectful of anyone that tosses their hat into the Gamemaster pool at a Convention.

The article title makes me think you had a bad Gamemaster

Now that I have laid out why we need to be more understanding as players with convention play, let me also be clear that as players we still have rights.  We have the right to show up to a game and expect the GM did some kind of prep work leading up to the game.  Players have the right to roleplay within the boundaries set within the game’s rules.  Players also have the right to ask questions if things do not make sense to us, without the GM feeling like their judgment is being questioned.

We also should be able to sit at the game without fear of insult or prejudice in any fashion.  I feel like that should be common sense but, I also think the word common before sense these days might be a thing of the past.  Finally, of all these rights we are assumed to have, we should be able to try out a game without the Gamemaster making biased assumptions about our gameplay.  As a convention GM, you cannot assume that every player at your table has unwavering knowledge of the product you are running.  Expect to answer questions.  Expect for players to make mistakes while playing as they are both learning your style and perhaps learning the game as well.  Whew!

Enough about the rights of folks Chris, what prompted this article?

I will not be stating the name of the Gamemaster that wronged me.  They are an individual whom has worked in the industry for quite some time.  Multiple different systems, several feathers in the cap.  I do not feel it is ethical for me to come on a blog and just blast away at someone’s reputation for whatever slight they may have done to me.  I will say this person ran an excellent game storywise.  Very evocative of Poul Anderson, Lord Dunsany in flavor.  Which made their other actions all the more gut-wrenching for me, as I really did like the work they put into their session.   The system used was 5th Edition D&D.  My son and I sat down ready and rearing to plunge into this story!

The storyline of the session was very much based on a more pulp take of fiction.  Something both my son and I are very familiar with.  Howard, Lovecraft,  Smith, Burroughs to name a few have been household staples for my children’s bedtime stories since they were around 5 or 6 years old.  My son knows the Vancian rules of magic.  He knows that magic is finite and to be fair to this Gamemaster, as a GM I do not allow the endless use of cantrips at my table.  I personally feel like it flies in the face of everything Gygax established for the game.  Magic is taxing and costly to the mortal form.  If I wanted to play World of Warcraft, well I would play it.  But that is my personal take and my house rules.  I do not expect that of others.

When we make assumptions…

The Gamemaster chose to run with stock 5E rules.  My son, however, while he is familiar with the rules had just gotten done playing A Hackmaster game.  Hackmaster very much clings to the ideals of Vancian magic.  Magic use is finite each day.  Magic users are expected to do more than toss out their 3 spells and walk away to guard the horses.  They can melee, or more wisely use ranged weapons.  They can problem solve, hold light sources, bandage downed comrades, help the archer using the heavy crossbow to reload.  In other words, the “intelligent” member of the group can find convenient ways to still contribute even if they are not wielding magic.  My son has learned this from years of sitting at my table.

When my son chose to “save” some of his spells for later encounters, the Gamemaster became irritated.  I noticed this right away but took it to be convention nerves.  “Why aren’t you casting cantrips??” he called out with a clearly irritated voice.  I guess I should also explain something.  My son is on the spectrum and has moderate Aspergers.  He lives in a very logic based world, but through therapy and D&D has done a great job of learning how to cope and thrive in a world that does not cater to him.  When the Gamemaster confronted him with an irritated expression, it upset my son.  When that happens he generally will have a motor tic (His body will contort or turn in odd anatomical positions.  It is not something he has control over)  This further irritated the Gamemaster.  I am not sure why but perhaps it was not clear to this 50+-year-old man that my son was not being rude when his head looked away instantly.

If you are going to run at a convention

Gameplay proceeded, with my son looking at me for reassurance for most of his choices.  I could tell he was rattled, and the Gamemaster kept persisting in poking him for every decision he made.  The GM knew me from writing on the multiverse blog.  He had even given me his card to contact him to do review work on his products.  Because, of what happened a little later, I will not be making that contact.  I have integrity and realize it would be impossible for me to be unbiased in a review of someone who wronged myself or my family.  We ended the evening having completed the story.  Despite the GM’s obvious misinterpretation of my son’s behavior, I thought the plot, pacing, and story were excellent.

Fast forward to the next morning.  My son and I decided to break from our cereal and have a breakfast at the Aurora Borealis restaurant.  We take seats that just happen to be behind a table consisting of the previous night’s GM and two other industry notables from Savage Worlds and Hero System.  We order our food and wait patiently noting that the GM and colleagues are discussing very loudly their sessions.  The GM in question begins talking about this “13-year-old kid that would not sit still and obviously had no idea how to play a wizard.  How he just wanted to take the kid aside but did not want to do that in front of his father.  The kid could not sit still just moving all over the place and would not look him in the eye.”

How not to kill someone…

I was incensed.  How could this 50 something-year-old man not realize my son’s bodily reactions were abnormal.  When he tics it is very clearly not something even a person stretching would do.  He had a total of 4 physical tics.  I keep track because frankly since my son has trouble sometimes relating his feelings, his tics kind of tell me if he is getting anxious or upset.  More than 5 tics in an hour usually means he needs to step away for a moment.  He then begins relating my sons “poor decisions in not using cantrips endlessly”.  My son can, of course, hear all of this.  I am about to lose my cool.

However, I reminded myself of two things.   First of all, I am an adult whose actions are watched by my child.  If I step over and punch the guy that is truly setting a poor example of conflict resolution.  Secondly, this could be an opportunity for me to make this man aware of my son’s condition and the fact these folks are out there.  A lot of spectrum folks like roleplaying as it gives them a chance to socialize with a layer between themselves and reality.  I waited patiently for his breakfast to conclude.  His friends stand up and leave and I see my chance.

The best laid plans

I never took the opportunity, because the man stood up, saw I was sitting there and immediately came over.  I am not sure if he realized I had heard every word he had said.  Regardless, he immediately gives me another business card and impresses on me how he definitely wants me to write reviews of his products.  I was so flabbergasted that this guy had the nerve to do this, I was momentarily rendered speechless.  My son is tearful and ticing and all I want to do is rage at this man.  But I kept my cool.

In the end, I had to just let him walk.  I handled this personality by not handling it all.  It was wrong to do so.  I am still considering writing him a very personal and polite letter detailing all these events and saying why I will not review his work.  I probably will.  The only reason I wrote this article today was to try to get this point across.  Spectrum folks are out there.  They more than likely will sit at your table, and sure there is no clear-cut way to designate if that is the case without directly asking them.  Which means as convention GM’s we have to be more tolerant.  The same way players need to be more tolerant with Convention GM’s that the game may not run the way their home game is.

How to handle this

If you are a player or a parent of a child on the spectrum this is a very tough situation.  No one should have to wear a badge that says “Hey I have some difficulties in life”.  I do not wear one that says “Hey I have MS or hey I am diabetic”.  Conventions do not (I hope) practice exclusion criteria.  So if you are planning on Gamemastering, plan accordingly.  There are no guarantees of what kind of player will show up at your table.  They may be a writer for the game itself (this happened in a Shadowrun session for me).  Or they may have an amazing lack of respect for personal space.  (one lady took up half the table with her light source and needlepoint project while we were gaming at the con.)

Regardless, the best thing you can do as a player is if you feel you are being misunderstood is to politely pull the gamemaster aside and make them aware.  If they have any kind of common decency, they will listen and adapt.  If that fails, remember you can often times leave a written evaluation of the GM with the convention itself.  Conventions do not let folks with trouble-causing behaviors run at their Cons.  I failed to pull the GM aside like I should have when I began to suspect we had issues.  That is why I place partial blame on myself.  But the rest of it lies squarely on his shoulders.

Ending with a plea

As I end this article, I want to put a request out there.  If you are going to Gamemaster at a convention please remember you are both an ambassador for your work as well as an ambassador for the product you are running.  A lot of folks who go to conventions do so to try out products they may have a curiosity about.  This is your chance to take a niche product and shine some light on it.  Be ready and willing to answer questions and fully expect the game may come to a halt as you need to explain something in more detail.

I would also like to comment that there were many GM’s at Genghis Con 41 that did a bang up job doing just that.  Morgan Gould for Shadowrun, Joe for Savage Worlds and Star Wars D6 and Hackmaster Ted absolutely knocked it out of the park.  They were thorough, ran a great story and were perfect ambassadors for the product they were running.  I really liked the story and work that was obviously put into it by the GM that is the subject of this article, but his behavior both at the table and afterward shattered what would have been a sterling review of his upcoming module he was playtesting.

So next convention remember,  Respect your players, Respect your GM’s and Respect the game!

Until next time

Keep rolling them bones!



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  1. Avatar
    Stonie Williams

    This was a respectful and poignant piece that can really be eye-opening. Thank you for sharing, Chris! I’m not sure I’d have handled the situation any better. I know when people aren’t used to dealing with folk with any sort of behavior impairment or disability, they don’t see the signs or know how to handle them. I’d definitely be sending an email explaining “I see how it looked from your side, but here’s what happened from our end”. While he should’ve been prepared, he clearly wasn’t and this is a chance for you to help out the next group he GMs for. Best of luck, Chris!

    1. Avatar
      Christopher Bishop

      Thanks Stonie, it was a rough piece to write but I feel like it needed to be said. As someone who by some twist of fate spent quite a bit of time volunteering at the Illinois Center for Autism while I was active duty Air Force I never expected in some way I would be training for my future life. It was random, with me just trying to find something community based to do for my EPR (job rating). When I was at this con, I saw multiple incidents of folks giving clear “tics” which are the hallmark of folks with some kind of spectrum disorder. Not always mind you, but often as not. So it is certainly something prevalent. When I think back to my own formative years of gaming in the library basement of Brown County, Indiana and think about some of the guys that joined me in these random games, a good portion of them exhibited signs or hallmarks of this disorder. I think it is easy to see now that roleplaying allows an avenue of safe experimentation for these folks and should be encouraged. I know for my son it has virtually given him confidence most Asperger kids never get to do things like run for class president, play the scarecrow in a play and teach a chess club class to other kids. All because he learned how to communicate and anticipate his issues and find effective work arounds.

  2. Avatar
    Sarah Kelley

    Honestly . . . Maybe send the person a link to this post. If they’re such a big fan, they should be reading your stuff anyway.
    An adult should know better than to pick on a kid, period, or get angry because a kid doesn’t react in what the adult perceives to be the typical way. Kids see outside the boxes we build and that’s part of what makes them a delight at the table and in life. An adult should also know better than to be a loudmouth jerk regarding people at their table in a public area near a con. Seriously . . . there is a time and a place to gripe if you have to.
    Talent and hard work doesn’t make up for being a jerk . . . or even for just acting like a jerk because you’ve had a rough day, if we want to give said adult the benefit of the doubt. Um . . actually, maybe send them a link to this post too:
    Moving on . . . I just bought the Hackmaster ruleset in DriveTHRU’s GM day sale due to your reviews. Looking forward to diving in and wishing you and yours the best.

    1. Avatar
      Christopher Bishop

      Thanks Sarah, make sure to visit the Kenzer Co boards and post around for groups in your area if you have not already found some =D

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