Free Advice to Game Publishers: How to Demo a Role-Playing Game at a Convention

I specifically went to Gen Con 2009 seeking new games. Almost every slot I played was a “no experience required” event and everyone at the table was totally new to the game world and system. After four days of demos and intro games run by game publishers I noticed some serious deficiencies with how the slots progressed. It was so bad at times I felt the need to post about the major issues and hope that game publishers take note. My personal enjoyment of a demo aside, there are some serious business issues associated with running intro/demo events at a convention. A poor experience costs sales and no business survives long with bad word of mouth. This is especially true at Gen Con, which is the launch point of many a new game. Bad buzz from Gen Con is like Ebola for a newly released game, incurable and usually fatal.

Here are a few items I thought needed improvement at the various company game demonstrations I attended.

Free GMs Can Be Expensive

I fully understand that companies often use volunteer GMs for convention events to save money.  Many of them are quite good, some are…not as good. While free is a very tempting price point for some help running games,  one must look at the true meaning of “free” when using volunteer GMs. Releasing a new game into the hands of a free, but sub-standard GM will cost far more long-term than recruiting  better GMs with swag, free hotel rooms or cash. Vetting your judges is time consuming and costly, but worth it to give your players ( and prospective customers) a great gaming experience. An idea is to recruit good GMs from games at Gen Con that plan on attending next year. Yes, this means you have to plan a year in a advance, but at least you can see the GMs skill before approaching them. As an extra bonus, it is my experience the best GMs tend to be leaders in their local gaming community and can really excite their groups about the new game.

Finally, get your GM army together for a couple of hours of training on the convention’s first day. Verify they have all the supplies needed and understand how you want the game run.

Plan Every Event to the Minute

Give all of your GMs a guide with instructions how to introduce the game world and rules. Do not give them a script, but some bullet points of critical information that players need is fine. Assign time limits to each section (world, rules, combat, etc) to maximize play time and keep the game moving. Explanations are not fun, so try to keep them to a minimum. Before the convention let a GM unfamiliar with the system run your demo event and observe how it runs. Tweak times, explanations or encounters as necessary.

Simplify the Rules

Demo games do not require the entire rules set. If you can do a couple of role-playing encounters and two combats with 50% of the rules, then only use 50%. Tell the players this is a simplified version and if they want more rules to consult your rule book. Never mention rules that are not used in the demo adventure. All they do is add unnecessary complexity and I promise some player will try to use them. At Gen Con this year, a demo GM stated “we are not using the magic rules for this adventure”…then spent ten minutes talking about the “cool” magic rules. Argh!

Bring Amazing Character Sheets

Demo players often appear with only a pen and some dice. Be sure that you bring everything to play the game. Primarily, bring character sheets THAT THE PLAYERS MAY KEEP. I hate going to a demo and leaving with nothing but a fond memory. After the convention is over and the players unpack that character sheet your game bubbles to the top of their fuzzy, post-convention memory. Character sheets are business cards, so include contact information. As regular readers  know, I am not a fan of “Wizards of the Coast.” That said, they do a very good job with convention marketing. Here is a shot of their pre-generated characters at Gen Con 2009.

WOTC Pre-Generated Characters
WOTC Pre-Generated Characters

WOTC did not give out these character sheets, so they only got it half right, but they are very well done. For the low-budget publisher a clean black and white printout is also acceptable. Print brief rule descriptions and key ideas on the back of the pre-gen.

Simplifying character sheets is a good idea as well. This is especially true with complex games that use esoteric acronyms and long skill lists. Clarity over complexity is the only goal here.

I understand that some of these suggestions are burdensome to small publishers, but implementing one or two of these ideas will increase the fun factor for your demo players and that will directly translate into more sales. It is worth the effort.

Update: Great minds think alike, Nitessine over at “Worlds in a Handful of Dice” has a related post.

Trask, The Last Tyromancer



Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

2 thoughts on “Free Advice to Game Publishers: How to Demo a Role-Playing Game at a Convention

  • August 25, 2009 at 5:54 am

    I don’t do many (err, any) events these days for many reasons – some of which you hit.

    Booth demos are another animal that publishers need to consider. A good booth demo is an art form. IMO, it should take no longer than 5-15 minutes otherwise you are limiting the exposure of your product. If you want to play the entire game, have events or on-demand demos in another location.

    While I’m here, thanks for your GenCon coverage!

  • August 25, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    I have to agree with Bruce about booth demos, I usually end up buying a game when a creator/contributor walks me through the game. The guys from Shard even managed to convince me to purchase a game that I didn’t find interesting until I saw the sheer passion they had for the game during the booth demo, leading me to believe the game will have the same amount of detail.

    I also have seen bad demos, one of which we bought anyway. The guy that ran Alpha Omega was part of the company, but it felt like he was just burned out by the time we got into the demo at GenCon this year (Sat Night). The setting however was too good to give up, and we’ve had fun since, but if the game was even slightly less interesting we would have passed and possibly missed out on a very different game based off a lackluster demo.

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