Over the years I have learned, and in some cases relearned, several lessons that I will now bore you with. You'd better go get a coffee as the caffeine jolt may be needed to get through this meandering discourse.
First a word on scale - when I say big, I mean BIG - this year's game, To Catch a King, was played on a 6 foot by 19 foot table and had 2,417 figures in play. The game was designed for 8 players but I mostly played with 10.
1) KNOW The Rules (and when you don't, fake it)
Nothing detracts from a good game like a rules dispute. All of us have a hidden rules lawyer just waiting to get off the chain and it's your role as Game Master to ensure it doesn't happen. I put a lot of effort in knowing the rules but state clearly at the start of the game that I will make mistakes but my decisions are final. After running a few games, you'll also be able to develop the skills to spot budding table top Clarence Darrows and a quiet word prior to the game start goes a long way in heading things off. The worst thing a GM can do is loose control of a rules debate. Even if you're unsure. make a call quickly and move on. It's OK to be wrong but be wrong decisively. At least I hope being wrong is OK, because I'm wrong a lot.
2) Get Players into the Action Fast
I try to design scenarios where all the players are into the fight no later than turn 2 - a bored player either becomes disengaged or contemplates rules questions. An engaged player has fun. In other words, the devil does find work for idle hands. All of my players have units the are on the tabletop. Where there are off table reinforcements - they are additions to existing player rosters not a player waiting in the wings.
3) Limit Upfront Rules Lectures
Don't spend 30 minutes explaining all the rules in detail and then start playing - no-one will remember your rambling and likely boring diatribe. Just hit the high points and use the first turn or two to walk through the rules. For To Catch a King, one end of the table (the Austrians and French I Corps) whas set up close to one another so there was some contact on turn one, while the rest of the table required at least a turn of movement before contact. Having actual on table top examples while blathering on about the rules is very helpful.
4) Allow some do overs (at the start)
No one likes to like dumb and players can hold back out of fear from appearing so. One way to alleviate that is be generous allowing for do-overs if players make a really dumb move. One just needs to be even handed for each side. I typically have a count of three per side and always mention something dumb I've done in a past game when the player needs a break
5) Speed is your friend
Find ways to speed up play, especially if there are lots of miniatures to move. A few easily learned tips
- Bellow out the turn order and essentially act like a carnival barker - gotta keep the game moving. One really can not be shy and be a good GM.
- Every player should have there own QRF (Quick Reference Sheet) for the rules. Don't go cheap on the printing. I give each player a clipboard to organize all of the player aids. Gamers LOVE clipboards.
- If a players wanders away from the table, (it happens) step in, as the GM, and play for them until they get back. DO NOT hold up play for absent players. The one caveat, if a player has some medical issue or disability you do need to accommodate them and I will hold up play for that type of issue. That's just common courtesy. Make sure you announce that you will step in for absent players at the start of the game.
- Have 3x the number of dice you need. Dice love to hide on the table top BUT dice hide and seek shouldn't be a recurring feature of your game. Dice are cheap, go buy a lot more.
This is a bit of an alteration of my past rule that Kids Win, Always. I've learned that forcing a game outcome to favor the side that a child plays on can be off-putting and doesn't really teach sportsmanship. So I no longer overly tilt gameplay in favor of a kid (see item 4 above). I still try to make the experience memorable and positive by awarding a medal of valor to any child players at the conclusion. I found a source of inexpensive replica WW2 British medals and now always have some on hand. I gave out two this year and it seemed to go over really well, as young master Andy demonstrates. Andy's side lost the game and he had to put up a stiff defense with his one British division against THREE French ones but it still looks like he enjoyed the game.
Napoleon was right about medals.
7) Stuff Breaks - Don't Whine About it.
If you choose to go down the path of participation games, you must bear in mind that your toys will get used and some will be broken. It happens. Don't get mad, don't look hurt, don't act like a diva. Just laugh it off and fix it. I always bring a hobby emergency kit - paints, brushes, hobby knife and super glue with accelerant and can repair just about any mishap. I also bring a terrain repair kit with loose flock, matte medium for glue, terrain paint and the all important hot glue gun w/ lots of glue sticks. Also an extension cord. I probably could pay for my convention travel expenses by just renting out the hot glue gun to other GM's. I'll repeat the main point again STUFF WILL GET BROKEN - not a lot but don't act like an ass when it does. If this point rubs you the wrong way then maybe being a convention GM isn't the right path for you.
8) Don't Go Solo
Putting on convention games is really a lot of work - find some friends or a club to help. I've joined Army Group York (yes the guys who put out the LittleWarsTV channel) and being part of a club at a convention makes doing all this stuff both easier and a lot more fun. I'm still surprised the club lowered it's standards to let me in.
9) Have Fun
Being a GM is a combination of two roles I've always aspired to be - a Big Top Circus Ringmaster and a Carnival Barker. You can't be shy and you need to be able to read people to gauge their personality types. These are good life skills and ones that pay double as a convention GM. You do have to be comfortable being the center of attention and getting the odd quizzical / judgmental look from passer by's. Ignore them, they're just jealous they can't get into you game or they think you're an idiot. I can live with either as I'm having a blast and they look like they're not. As the great philosopher and social commentator C Sheen once said, "WINNING".