How to run a con

The less sexy title:

“A couple of ways I like to organise roleplaying games at a tabletop convention, which might also work for you.”

But if I use that as the title the URL gets very long.

I know the feeling: you’re trying to organise a convention and you desperately want to get your games running properly. You have fifty attendees, some of whom are coming for one session, some of whom will be there all weekend, some of whom will only be attending in the mornings, none of whom want to run games. You need some blurbs so people can slot into games and make sure they’ll have something to do (especially when they know they’ll only be able to rock up five minutes before the session starts), some games ready so that when people sign up two weeks out they’ll still be able to play in interesting games, and probably a few games ready to take on the inevitable dribs and drabs of people who sign up at the door and still expect to get into that super-popular Call of Cthulhu game run by the best GM in the city.

So how do you please everyone? Well, you don’t. But with a bit of forethought you can at least please the majority of people. It takes a bit of work, sure! But with some preparation you can spread that out over several weeks, meaning less running around on the day as you realise you have twelve people without a game and who can run something with five minutes warning and oh God it’s all falling apart.

Here are two ways I like to organise games, depending on how many folks will be showing up.

First, the math

How many people are you planning on have attend? This should give you a good idea about the number of games/GMs you need available each session. In addition, it should give you an idea about how you want to organise everything. If you have twenty people attending a convention, you can probably get away with GMs writing games on a whiteboard. If you have fifty, that sort of approach might start to break down.

Small and cozy: games on demand

Perfect for the two- or three-session informal convention in someone’s house, or anything similarly low-key where you don’t care too much for preparation.

The game plan

I sign up to the event, but have no idea who’s running what when. But that’s fine because it’s a small event and I assume there’ll be games I can play in.

At the start of each session, a few GMs stand up and tell the audience what they want to run. People work out which game they want to be in via some sort of spoken consensus. Once everyone is sorted, they go and play. I may not end up in my favourite game (because it’s too popular), but I can hopefully negotiate things so I end up in something I want to play in. Everything feels chaotic and organic.

Behind the scenes

As people sign up to the event, work out how many GMs you need per session, and approach people who might be interested in GMing.1 If people are willing to run games, assign them to a session (or two, or however many games they’re happy running). They don’t have to give you a blurb or anything, they just need to bring something they can run. As people continue to sign up, continue to check you have enough GMs for each session, and bring more on board as required.

One week before the con, email all the GMs, confirming which sessions they’ll be running, and telling them to email you immediately if they need to change sessions or cancel.

At the convention, you just need to make sure that all the GMs stand up when it’s their session. That’s basically it.

Some notes

This is based on the “games on demand” stream at KapCon, as well as the stream of the same name at other less important conventions such as Origins and (I assume!) GenCon. It’s the perfect way to organise a convention while keeping it disorganised enough that everyone feels like stuff is happening spontaneously. It responds pretty well to change: if you get less people than you expected, assigned GMs can just merge into the player base and no one is the wiser. If you think you’re going to get a surge or two, you can always have a GM ready to sop up extra players in busy sessions as required.

The main work that you, the organiser, have to do is make sure you have GMs assigned to each session. This offsets the major issue I’ve spotted with other “organic” conventions of this nature: when twenty people want to play in games in session three, but no one want to run a game. By guaranteeing

There are two major issues with this system:

Large and orderly: the main con

This is my preferred plan for larger conventions (and I’d probably end up using it for smaller conventions too unless someone holds me back). It looks complex, but all you need is an excel spreadsheet, and pretty much guarantees maximum attendee satisfaction.

The game plan

Before sign-up opens, the convention starts advertising games that will be running. Each game has a blurb and tells me which session it’ll be in. It sounds cool! I start making plans.

The convention advertises when sign-up will open for players, but also says that they won’t start assigning games until one week after sign-up opens. I’m busy the night sign-up opens, but I’m fine with that: I’ll sign up the next day, and still have just as much chance to get into the games I want.

The night after sign-up opens, I sign up to the con. I am asked to sign up to games in the first two sessions of the con. Each of these sessions I can pick my first, second, and third favourite game to play. In most cases, the third-favourite is a bit of a toss-up - for a few sessions, I decide that I’d prefer not to be assigned a game if I don’t get one of my top two picks.

One week after sign-up opens, I find out which games I’ve been assigned to. I get assigned to my first pick in session one, and my second pick in session two. I chat to my friends, and a couple of them are in the same boat: generally they get into the game they picked first, but sometimes they’ve been pushed down to their second pick. One unlucky soul tried to get into the two most popular games in session one: they’re on their third pick for S1, but that’s the only one I hear about.

On the day of the convention, print-outs on the walls show me what games are running in other sessions. I already knew a few of these, because they’d been advertised on the website, or they were in the booklet I got when I entered the convention. Between sessions, I fill out a paper form saying which games I’d like to be in for the remaining sessions. I need to do it at least before the start of the previous session – so for example, I need to fill in my form for Session 4 before Session 3 starts.

When I file out of each session, the organising committee has put the player lists on the wall for the next session, so I can see which games I’m in before running off to join them. Over the course of the convention, I end up in all my first picks. Friends who got into their first picks in Sessions 1 and 2 end up in a second pick somewhere else in the convention, and a couple of unlucky folks end up in their second-pick games twice. The person who ended up in their third pick in Session 1 gets into their first picks for the rest of the convention, even though they continually pick popular games.

Behind the scenes

This is going to be more complex, but as long as you don’t mind giving a little time to your con, it should provide a better experience for your con-goers.

Well before signup opens, find all your friends who want to GM. Tell them about this cool convention you’re running, how it’s going to be great, ask if they’d be able to run a game, just one game, at the convention. Also, ask if they know other people who you could convince to run games. Give them a date to get you a game title and blurb. Put them on a list. If your convention is regular, the best time to do this is the after-party of the previous one,2 when everyone is (a) in the same place and (b) super-hyped about roleplaying. Plus people are more willing to sign up to stuff that’s a year away.

Some time before signup opens, once you have a bunch of blurbs, start assigning GMs to sessions. You definitely want some heavy-hitters in Sessions 1 and 2, because these are the Sessions that need games now. I’m assuming if you’re going this route you have enough people that you need at least 3–4 games per session, so make sure you have those for the first two sessions. Advertise! Make a Facebook event, get people interested, ask for more GMs3, get those communication channels open. If you end up with twice as many people saying they’ll attend your convention than you expected, better to panic now than in a month or two when you’ve got twenty-four hours to do anything.

(And if you do end up with more people than you expected, I guess it’s time to do another public call for GMs and also hit up friends again.)

Oh yeah and also, it’s time to make a simple sign-up form. Have you used Google Forms? Now’s the time to learn. You want to get:

Plus all the boring stuff: tiers of attendance/cost, food allergies, etc. etc. Make the form now, get a friend or two to test it and make sure it isn’t broken, and then leave it ready to unleash on people when sign-up opens.

The week of signup: make your form public, announce it to the world, give out the URL. Don’t start assigning people to games. There’s nothing worse than assigning people on a first-come, first-served basis. You’ll end up with people hammering F5 on the website so they can get into their favourite game. I know what you’re thinking: “It’s a con, people won’t take it that seriously.” Reality check: we’re gamers, we take all kinds of things way too seriously.

Instead, you can use this time to get your spreadsheet set up. Your spreadsheet is how you’re going to keep track of what everyone’s signed up to, how they’ve been assigned, and who’s running when. Setting up the spreadsheet is complex enough that I’m going to address is in its own section below.

One week after signup, you can start assigning people to their Session 1 and Session 2 games. As people are assigned, you send an email to them telling them which games they’re in. It’s also worthwhile letting GMs know how their games are filling up, and marking games off the sign-up survey as they reach capacity (no point in attendees trying to sign up for games that are full).

Every week (at least), you’ll probably want to add any new sign-ups to the convention spreadsheet, and assign them as appropriate into their favourite games. If you’re keeping the sign-up form up to date (i.e. removing games that have filled up about as soon as they fill up), you shouldn’t get too many cases where you have to push people into their second or third choices. This is also where you keep an eye on sign-ups, extrapolate how many people will be turning up to later sessions, and pulling in more GMs if needed.

A week before the con, you will probably want to gather your desk crew and show them the spreadsheet. Everyone is going to be assigning people to sessions, so everyone needs to know how the spreadsheet works. Someone will inevitably “accidentally” delete all your sign-up data, so make sure they’re not playing around with the production version of the spreadsheet. In fact, since it’s just a file, you can always email out a copy so people can play around with it in their own time.

During the convention proper, people will (hopefully!) be handing in their request slips for the next few sessions. At the start of each session, whoever is on desk takes any slips handed in over the last session, adds them to the spreadsheet, and gets rid of them (or files them, or whatever you want to do with slips). Then, they assign people for the next round on the Excel spreadsheet, either print out or write up the roster for the next session, and post it somewhere everyone can see. By laying out all the data you need (game choices, how often this attendee has got their first choice, etc.), the spreadsheet should make the actual assignment pretty easy, leaving the desk person with more time to do the hundred other things they’ll end up needing to do throughout the session.


The magical spreadsheet

By now you’re saying: “But Jan, it’s a gaming convention. I can just assign people on paper. I don’t need to mess around with spreadsheet nonesense. That’s way too extreme.” So I want to explain why you’re busting out Excel for what is basically a giant contest of who’s-in-the-game.

This spreadsheet is going to take about an evening or less to set up: in fact, I’m going to provide a sample for download, so you could probably trim that down to 30–60 minutes if you don’t mind copying-and-pasting some formulae. By running your game assignment in Excel, rather than a bunch of pieces of paper, you’re going to save a bunch of time and hassle on desk. And isn’t an hour or so of work worth it if it makes your desk staff more on-top-of-things?

The plan of the spreadsheet is this: it will track who’s been assigned to games, and when they haven’t got their first pick. In an ideal world, everyone gets into their first picks all the time. In reality, however, you’ll have fifteen people all clamouring for spots in a five-person game, and you need to somehow ensure that everyone – players and GMs – is happy.

What we do, then, is give every attendee a score. This score starts at 0, which is where we want to keep it, but every time they’re assigned their second choice, they gain a point. Every time they’re assigned their third choice, they gain 2 points. We’ll assume they’re never going to be assigned a game that’s not on their preferences list.

The goal of the event organiser is to keep everyone’s score as low as possible. Keep everyone at 0 points, and no one is ever in a game they don’t want to be in. If scores start drifting up above 2 or 3, however, you’re going to have some annoyed players who repeatedly haven’t got into their favourite games.

So, here goes our Excel creation ritual:

Make a new Excel spreadsheet. Make a tab for each session you’re going to have. Call these tabs unimaginative names like “S1”, “S2”, “S3”, etc.

Add the “game allocation” table. Go to your “S1” tab, and set up the headers like the following:

You may need to do some cell merging in some cases.

Add the “game reference” table. Leave a column (column “J”) blank, and then set up another table’s worth of headers that look like the following:

We’re going to build on this basic setup by linking these two tables together. In the first table, you’ll be writing down everyone’s game choices, and in the second, you’ll be writing down all available games. In fact, to make sure this all works, let’s create some sample games that people can be a part of4:

Some things worth noting here:

Hook up the “Game allocated” column. The plan is that you can just type one letter into the “Code allocated” cell, and Excel will automatically give you the proper name for the game itself. We’re going to do this using the VLOOKUP() function. The first cell (on row 3) will have the following contents:

1
=VLOOKUP(E3,K:M,3,0)

This means: “Find the value in cell E3, look it up in columns K through M, and pick the third cell in the row it matches”. Which (handily) get you the game name. Actually, this formula will choke if we don’t supply a game name, so let’s make it a little more complex:

1
=IF(E3="","",VLOOKUP(E3,K:M,3,0))

This means that if the Code allocated cell is blank, this will be blank too. So far, so good.

Add the point allocation formula. We have three columns for points: Prev (points accumulated throughout the convention up until this point), This (points accumulated in this session), and Total (the sum of both). For our first session, the Prev column can just filled with zeroes. This is more interesting: we’ll keep it at zero if the attendee is GMing or on desk, or if they have their first pick; if they have their second pick, we award them a point; if they have their third, we give them two points. For the first row, our formula looks like this:

1
=IF(OR(E3="z",E3="y",E3=B3),0,IF(E3=C3,1,2))

You can very rapidly test this by assigning someone some game choices in columns B through D, and then setting the value of column E.

Make a note of how many people are allocated to each game. Column P in your game reference tab looks pretty bare. You can work out how many people are going to be in a given game by using the following formula:

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=COUNTIF(E:E,K3)

Now you can immediately check how many players are in a game. As an added check, I like to set column Q up with the following formula:

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=IF(OR(N3="",P3=O3),"",IF(OR(P3<N3,P3>O3),"!","↑"))

This displays:

This means you can immediately see what games need attention, and where you can shovel excess demand if possible.

Set up the following tabs. Your session 1 tab is complete! All that’s left is every other session. No problem, though. Just copy-paste your setup to the remaining sessions, set the cells of columns A in each remaining tab to equal the equivalent cell in column A of the Session 1 tab, and then set the cells of column G of each tab to point at the appropriate cell in column I of the previous tab.

Assign some games. When it comes to processing signup forms, all you need to do is fill out peoples’ preferences for games in the appropriate tab. Assign people to games and see how their point values change! Again, your goal is to give each attendee as low a score as possible: once someone has two points to their name, you might want to start assigning them their first pick so their score doesn’t increase any more.

As the convention progresses, people will hand in preference slips for later rounds. They can be entered into the spreadsheet, and games assigned in the session beforehand (so Session 4 slots are assigned during Session 3). This way, everyone’s request slips should be handed in and you have a good three hours to jimmy the spots around to find the best allocation. Everyone is going to have to make judgement calls – is it better than two people get their second pick, or that one gets their first and one their third? If someone hasn’t been assigned their first pick all convention, is it OK to knock someone else down to their third pick just so they can get in? – but these sort of choices will pop up regardless. This system gets rid of a lot of the easy questions that would otherwise take up your time.

Some notes

This is the game allocation plan I’ve used several times for Buckets of Dice, and it is modelled heavily on what the folks who run KapCon use. The main issue with this system is that it requires a little work to set up and it means you need a computer on the main desk, but the payoff - having a robust, fair system that doesn’t break down when you suddenly need to remove a game, or when the next person on desk takes over – is well worth it.

The system is also designed to handle a couple of things that I’ve encountered in conventions:

And finally…

I know there’s a lot of numbers in this post. It’s a complex subject, and I have some pretty detailed opinions about it! So that you don’t make a mistake transcribing a formula and have the whole spreadsheet collapse around your ears, check this out: it’s a spreadsheet I’ve made for this purpose. It has everything I’ve discussed in this post, plus a couple of handy extra features in it. I’ve even put some sample data in there, so you can see how you might use it:


  1. This is the first manifestation of a recurring theme: ask people in person. Blanket calls for GMs will get some response, but you’ll get a lot more people helping if you just up and ask them one-on-one. 

  2. In New Zealand circles, I mentally label this the Idiot/Savant Technique. If you’re not New Zealand based, just label this aside as an in-joke and continue reading. 

  3. You can never have enough GMs 

  4. I’ve also added some colour here, so we can see which bits of the table are headers and which are the body. This is non-essential, but often helpful