Thoughts on How Not to Run D&D 5E at a Convention

I've been wanting to get a bit more exposure to D&D 5E - I have the Player's Handbook and DM's Guide, but I haven't been able to read all the way through them yet. The bits I have read, and also comments online, have intrigued me. One of my friends keeps threatening to run a campaign using 5E, but so far we've only played one session about 8 months or so ago.

Over Labor Day Weekend, my friend Cal and I were able to get some time to hit up Strategicon here in Los Angeles and the first thing we did after we arrived shortly after 8am was to sign up for a D&D 5E game. The last time we tried this, all of the games were full by the time we got there and we ended up playing Dungeon World instead (which as it turns out, was a whole lot of fun).

This time, there were a couple of 5E games still open, so we signed up for the next one that was coming up and headed over to the room where the game was to take place. The short description mentioned it was a high level game which was one of the main reasons we signed up for it - we really wanted to see how the game played at higher levels.

Cal and I were the first two people in the room, but it shortly started to fill up with various players. I'm using the phrase "fill up" here literally because more and more players kept coming into the room. By the time we started, there were about 12 players total (all men except for one woman who was married to one of the players). The DM was a convivial sort and actually had created t-shirts for everyone which he began tossing over to us as we all called out our shirt sizes. This guy knew his audience pretty well, as he'd printed extra shirts at various sizes that, let's just say, aren't your regular shirt sizes you'd find at a store. It was obvious he had a lot of enthusiasm for this game, which we learned quickly was based in his homebrew campaign world that he's clearly been using for quite a while. (I'm not going to mention the name here because I had some issues with this particular game - not with the setting but with the actual game play).

It's possible that my issues are more based on expectations, but given that this is a convention and people paid to get in and signed-up for a game that was to last for four hours, I would expect that people should get to actually play the game for four hours. This wasn't a tournament style game that was being judged on points, so I really don't think it makes sense to have players set aside their time at the convention to sign up for a game that basically takes them away from any other game they could be playing, only to come across a "Save or Die" type of situation, have their character auto-killed with no chance, and then told that there are no "replacement" characters for him to play.

"Thanks for signing up for my game. Sorry you got killed in the first 45 minutes, and every other game you could play already started. Have fun sitting around for the next 3 hours and 15 minutes."

I have nothing against old-school game play and I'm not opposed to Save-or-Die situations. But in this case, I think there should be some kind of concession for a convention player. Just throw the guy a bone and let him play someone's henchman or something.

I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, as that particular scenario above happened a bit later during the game.

Firstly, after we had all sat down, the DM scattered a bunch of index cards on the table that listed all of the available characters. The descriptions were pretty evocative - I chose one that read something like "Assassin - Wraith." My friend Cal chose "Heavy Armor Thug." For myself, I was thinking I had picked an Assassin character whose name was Wraith. Cal figured he'd picked a Thug type character who liked to wear heavy armor.

As it turns out, my character was a Wraith Burglar Assassin who was totally incorporeal, could turn the dead into Spectres, and had no actual physical possessions (again, because he was incorporeal and couldn't carry anything) but he kept his most prized possession in a secret cache buried somewhere. But then oddly, in his character sheet, right after he said he carried no possession, there was a note that he had a deck of cards.

Cal's character turned out to be a Helmed Horror Thief/Thug.

We were actually pretty excited to play some non-standard characters and see how the rules system matched them up power-wise against other more "mundane" characters in the group (there was, oddly, a human, Paladin, even though it was clear that my character was an evil undead wraith, an elf wizard, some other assorted humans/demi-humans, but also a mummy priest-king, a dragon in human form, and a purple worm ranger). It was quite an eclectic group.

The DM's next step was to pull me outside the room, tell me that I'd picked the "most important character" and that my guy was essentially the "leader." Then he want on to tell me that the planet everybody thought they were on was not the "real" version of the planet. It was like some sort of shadow-version, but only my character and one other character knew this. Everyone else thought they were on the "real" planet. Then he told me to make sure not to tell everybody else about this. He then told me that I'd been asked to recover some item or body or something - I can't actually remember. But it was a standard "go recover something" type of quest and I was given vague information about where to start looking and then told that I needed to get the other players to agree to go with me.

Now, normally, I think that would be fine, but again, given the time constraints of a convention type scenario, I think it would have made a lot more sense to just fall-back on the old standard scenario of him telling us "you've been hired by King What's-His-Name to recover the Whatever-It-Is and you've accepted the offer and are on the way..." That way, we could have gotten right into playing.

Instead, I had to try to herd 12 people, who were split across two different tables because there wasn't a table big enough for all of us, and try to get them to agree to go on this quest, when I wasn't actually sure why my character wanted to do it in the first place.

Then the DM stopped, and had us all switch tables where we were sitting - he shifted some of us around. At first, Cal and I thought that he'd divided the players into "Good" and "Evil" tables, but it turns out that he actually just divided us based on which chariot we chose to support at some big chariot race that was happening. Then he announced that we could bet on the outcome of the race and players started to say that they were going to place bets. Then the DM rolled some dice, told one table that their chariot lost, and then announced, "That's why you shouldn't bet on chariot races." He then let people go back to sit wherever they wanted.


We were, too. This had nothing to do with our quest, and given that we were using pre-generated characters that we were never going to use again past this convention, there was little reason for us to be attached to money for our characters. This is when I began to have a bad feeling about this particular game. At this point, we'd been "playing" for about 45 minutes or so, and hadn't done anything to experience the actual rules of 5E.

There's a lot of stuff that happened that got us to our next point in the adventure, but it mainly involved me and two other people asking a series of questions to the DM to figure out "where to start" so we could actually find the entrance to the place where the thing-we-were-supposed-to-recover was hidden. Again, given that this was a convention game and not a long-term campaign, I'm not sure that this was a good use of time.

We eventually found the entrance and through a combination of my character incorporeally flying into various doors to find the correct one, and the purple worm character tunneling through, we eventually got started. After the first few room descriptions, Cal and I immediately turned to each other because we realized that we were playing through the Tomb of Horrors.

Again, I have nothing against old school adventures at all, and I would have been very happy to "play" through the original Tomb of Horrors. I was a little bit surprised that the DM didn't foressee that his audience of players, most of whom were in the age range of 40+, had probably played through this adventure before. But, we soldiered on until it became obvious that the DM's planned strategy for our group to handle the notoriously trap-laden tomb was for my character to fly while incorporeal through the dungeon, find all the traps, tell the others where the traps were so they could be avoided, and then find the "thing we were supposed to find" and the get the Hell out. It seemed like he really didn't want or expect us to go through the dungeon as it was intended, so the next 90+ minutes of the game consisted of me saying, "Okay, I'll fly over here..." and then him telling me what I saw, and the rest of the players just sitting there watching and listening (or actually playing on their phones because they were bored... who wouldn't be?). I started to get very annoyed because I kept putting myself in the shoes of the other players who were just sitting there and I kept gently urging the DM "If we're just going to have me fly everywhere and find all the traps, can you just hand-wave this and skip to the part where everyone can be involved so they're all not just sitting here?" He would nod and say, "Yes" but then he just kept continuing to do what he was doing. He didn't catch on and despite my best efforts, he made me go through every single room by myself even though nothing ever happened to my character. Eventually some of the other players tried to do something, which resulted in the purple worm player eating through a section of the floor and ending up being transported to "someplace we didn't know" and having him removed from the game.

This was the "Save-or-Die" situation I referred to above. I then spent the better part of the next 20 minutes or so, again very politely, trying to suggest to the DM that perhaps it would make sense to let this player have a chance at playing another character since he'd sat there patiently for the past hour or so while my character did everything, and that it probably wouldn't be a good experience for him to just end up sitting there with nothing to do for the rest of the game. The DM's automatic answer was essentially "that's what the rules say - your character is gone" but eventually he relented and let my wraith fly into a room and find the body of the purple worm character so that I could go back and find the party cleric to have him raised. This process eventually worked but the DM had the wormed raised with no intelligence so he was basically just like a big dog at that point.

Eventually the "Tomb" part of the game ended, we found the thing we were looking for (I recall now it was an actual person that had somehow been turned into a painting by some bad guys or something, but we fixed him). Then the DM pulled me outside again and told me that this guy asked me for "the-prize-you-treasure-over-all-others" (I don't remember what it was) - the thing I had buried in my secret treasure cache. I asked the DM for some context - "Do I already know this guy? Do I have reason to trust him?" etc. It turns out that this guy had apparently given my character the item at some point in the past, so I gave it back to him. The DM was shocked and said, "I can't believe you gave him that!" and I was a little surprised by his reaction. I simply told him, "This is a one-shot convention game and I have no information I could use to make an informed decision, so in the spirit of moving the game along this seemed like the best course of action." 

I should point out that during this whole time, there was no dice rolling or actions taken by any of the characters other than my wraith, who had to role sometimes to avoid demons that were attracted to his incorporeal status. This all took about three hours of our allotted four hours for the game.

Later, there was a big party to celebrate us returning home to the "shadow-world-that-is-not-real" and there was a big discussion over where the money was going to come from to throw the party, which again I'm not sure was relevant, but it took awhile to figure out the logistics of the source of funding for the party.

During the party, where all of our characters were present, a group of wizards teleported over the party and used Time Stop in order to attack the guy we had just saved from the Tomb of Horrors. It turns out that all of our characters were susceptible to Time Stop except for Cal's Helmed Horror (it specifically said on his sheet that he was immune to Time Stop). So, for the next 45 or so minutes, the rest of us sat around with nothing to do while enemy wizards, one after the other, cast Time Stop, tried to attack the NPC guy we rescued, and in turn were attacked by Cal's Helmed Horror. This lasted until Cal's character had killed all of the enemy wizards, and then the session was over.

That was it - I never really did get to see how 5E worked in action, and I felt very awkward that my character had the majority of "screen time" (not by my choice, but by the way the DM had set up the adventure) and that no one else other than Cal and me really got to do anything at all.

I haven't played a ton of role-playing games at conventions - I tend to mostly play board games; so, I'm not sure if these types of experiences are common. The last time before this that I played an RPG at a convention was using Dungeon World, as I mentioned, and it was a much smaller group and everyone was contributing and talking and had things to do. I'd love to hear all of your thoughts, especially if you think I was being disrespectful to the DM by suggesting that he try to alter things to give other players a chance to do things.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Tap water
Listening: "Walkin' Shoes" by the Gerry Mulligan Quartet and Chet Baker


  1. I don't think it's ever a bad idea to try and include other players!

    It looks like this GM had a specific idea of what he wanted from the game, but did a bad job of conveying that; it seems more confusing than anything, and I don't think you can be blamed for your reactions.

  2. I haven't played a RPG at a convention in years, but many times, the experience was quirky in similar ways to what you describe. I played in one game where my character was paralyzed for half the game and I had to just sit there and watch everyone else play. I do think there should be more guidelines about expectations for DMs before running a game at a convention. And a more thorough explanation of what sort of game is being run for the players to read, before signing up.

  3. Thank you, Gentlemen! Good to get some validation that I wasn't out-of-line. I felt slightly guilty afterward but it just didn't seem like a great way to run the game.

    Kelvin, I think this DM's goal was to do a long-running "campaign" at these conventions, ideally getting a lot of same players each time, playing the same pre-generated characters that he created. However, he didn't announce this ahead of time. As you said, it would have helped for him to conveyed his expectations and goals before we began.

  4. I know that I'm doing a little thread necromancy here, but as a 5E player since the end of playtest and now a newbie DM for Adventurers League, let me say that this is TERRIBLE! Granted, living in small town in a fairly low-density area, I've not been to any conventions, but I do have hundreds of hours of Organized Play experience, and not one of the many DMs I've had has ever made so many mistakes. It really takes an expert storyteller and DM to manage that many people and keep it interesting, for one thing. Most organized play programs have fixed player # ranges, and would have tried to get one or two other DMs to take over the overflow. AL for instance has a range of 3-7 players, although I've had one excellent DM manage the first two sessions of an Encounters campaign with 10 players (although it could still get a bit boring waiting for your turn to come around again, no matter how efficiently run). And while I've made the mistake of focusing too much on a couple of players on a game, it's never been by design, nor for that long - I'm usually responding to enthusiasm, creativity, and engagement of those players themselves.
    While the DM had some interesting ideas, I don't think that a bunch of random people should have been the audience - at least not for the combination of unconventional, monsters-as-PCs as a way to circumvent the horrors of the Tomb.
    And third point - I don't know that you experienced ANY part of 5E. The module's not been converted for the new edition, although much of it could be done fairly easily by an experienced DM with the MM; and monsters-as-PCs isn't yet a thing for the edition (well, there is a little of that, but more as the darker subraces of the traditional ones).
    I'm so very sorry that not only you, but another 11 people had to go through that. I really hope that those others don't blame the game or the edition for the miserable experience, but put it rightly on the DM. You clearly gave him every clue - and every opportunity - to make it right, but he couldn't or wouldn't. I really hope that you have communicated your concerns to the convention organizers, so that they won't allow the same mistake to happen again. Having gone through a long, dark gaming-less period before getting into the newly revamped organized play, I can well appreciate how frustrating it can be to have limited gaming opportunities go sour...

  5. Fantastic story for all DMs hoping to run a con game. I hope they (translation, we) read it and reflect. Thanks.

    1. Great to hear from you! Thanks very much. Hope all is well with you.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts