Taking 5e to the Con circuit

Just back from a weekends gaming at the Seven Hills Convention in Sheffield. A top Con in its second year now, that attracts the old guard of UK Con-goers (with a smattering of new blood too) who are all about the games with a side order of shopping thrown in.
My choice this year was to offer up a trilogy of 5e sessions, with recurring characters pitched at levels 3, 7 and 11, in a setting based on this years Con theme; Steel.
I’d prepped the games a good couple of months ago, yet still felt a bit underprepared on the way up. I know my way round 5e pretty well, but still felt the need to haul up the PHB and the MM just in case. The DMG didn’t make the cut, needed to watch the sheer weight of what I’d have to carry round all weekend.

Over the three sessions, with 16 different characters, and 11 different players I really learned a great deal about the game, and more importantly, how to best present it at a Con. The players were uniformly excellent, and up for the game. They did have a few minor struggles along the way, but I think I now know how to avoid those speed bumps in the future.
Lesson One: Better Character Sheets
The default WotC sheet is ok, and I’d grappled a lot of the rules onto the PDFs to hopefully make things easier for fresh players to grok. But they’re still very black and white with no real effort to teach the game from them. They’re fine for weekly play, but not for a demo. And even for players with some knowledge, it’s is a demo at a con because they didn’t hand rear that character up from level one. Back in the 4e days there were some beautiful one shot sheets released (I remember some amazing Dark Sun ones) and I wish I’d done something similar. Especially for the fighter manoeuvres, the rogues sneak attack rules, and everything to do with spell casting.
Lesson Two: More Effective Characters
I’d generated 18 characters based off little more than my own preferences and an eye on ease of use. I still put too much on there. The characters had more special abilities than were ever going to see table time in a three to four hour slot. Some of this is purely down to 5e; it’s still not that basic a game. I don’t really want to go right back to OSR rules sets, as I too often experience players looking lost as there are few solid options presented on the sheets. Yet, too many, or too fiddly, and they don’t see play either. Cantrips saw most use, and none of the magic items really got any spotlight.
Lesson Three: Polish the Scenario
I used the 4e adventure Reavers of Harkenwold as the spine of my adventure, heavily re skinned. I was pleased with how it went overall, but I wish I’d put more decision points in for the party, and more local connections so that the players had a chance to riff on there Bonds, Ideals, Flaws and Traits. I should have made more obvious connections to those in my setting.
Lesson Four: Detail the Encounters
I went for Theatre of the Mind, with the occasional sketch map for combats. Big mistake. I lost count of how often I was asked about ranges, and positions. The spells required a bit more focus on the map than my sketches allowed for too. I did need to travel light but I really wish I had dropped my tokens and dry wipes into the bag. 
Also, the encounter building guidelines in the DMG are ok, but no more than that, and the stat blocks in the MM are ok, but no more than that. I really should have planned out a few more encounters in more detail than I did. I got by with the MM on my lap, but prep would have been better.

Lesson Five: Manage the Spells Better
I knew it would happen, but wrangling the spells in 5e is hard work for me and the newbie players. You really need a PHB open, and referring to books in Con play is quite wasteful. If you’re a Divine caster, your options are so broad at higher levels that you wouldn’t know where to start. And the arcane classes are not much better off with their little sub systems and rider effects. My job as DM is no easier with monster abilities often keying off those spells too. So I need a cheat sheet, and frankly, a tactical list to be remotely effective. All this would come in time and practice, but that’s not for Cons.
Now don’t get me wrong, it was overall a really great experience, and I’m reliably informed the players dug it too. I just found it a bit more challenging than I would have liked, so am trying to get down a few ideas while they’re fresh.
So for next time, I think I won’t generate so many different characters. I’d rather recycle the first batch, or maybe allow for the players to level them up themselves. I’m also going to make for a broader fantasy experience with more time devoted to exploration and interaction, and characters who can enjoy those activities. I’m also going with better local maps, and with prepped up monster challenges.
Which makes my choice of rules really difficult and interesting! The OSR is too basic for my preferences I’m afraid (because I don’t think I’d get enough players sign up either; 5e was a draw based on its novelty as much as anything). 4e is too labour intensive with the physical demands of the sheer kit I’d have to carry. So, my current thinking is to use 13th Age as a nice blend of narrative and crunch. I’d still want to draw on all the lessons outlined above, but it might be the ‘just right’ Con Fantasy game for my needs.

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