Possibly the most difficult thing about running a game at a convention is pacing the adventure. When you’re running an ongoing campaign you have the luxury of “next session”. You can let the players mull over their options, argue about why things went so horribly wrong for them so far (if you’re doing your job as GM properly things have gone horribly wrong for the PCs at as many points as possible), blaming each other for things that you did to them (another sign of proper GMing), using Post Cognition on the player who can’t remember what he decided his PCs True Name is (which is written on the character sheet), or causing each other public embarrassment like that time my Guardian of the Veil made a Mid-Town NYC Starbucks crowd think he was in the bathroom getting busy with the Acanthus Mage. Good times!
At a convention you don’t have the option of just sitting back and enjoying the fact that you already have enough material planned for the next session since they didn’t do anything but bicker with each other this session. At a convention you have to make the entire story fit into just that one meeting. Complicating this is not wanting to ruin a good “Role Playing” moment. If the players are having fun you want to let them run with it a bit, but at the same time you need to be aware of time constraints so that they don’t wind up disappointed by not finishing out the story. There are, of course, multiple different ways to approach this problem.
Typically, I am not a fan of this type of game. When done very, very well the players don’t even realize they are ‘on or close to schedule’. When done not so well, the players feel like they have no impact on the game. When the players are faced with a series of hallways that only have one door, or their character has some strange disease that can only be cured if they quest to location X (which is to say, they have no choice but to go to location X), or their research rolls always yield the same results the game just doesn’t seem very challenging. It’s way too easy to do this poorly, and overall I’m not a fan. Of course that doesn’t mean I won’t lay some tracks if I need to, but I try to avoid it whenever possible. Naturally, in a convention session there is some railroading going on. The PCs have to go on the mission. If they don’t there is no game!
The sandbox is my favorite way to run a game. I have a location with an assortment of triggered events all laid out, and the players can wander about the setting in any order they choose. Yes, they need to go to the location, but beyond that I let them pick up the story threads however they want to, and piece together the information as best they can. This is the way I wrote “Asylum”. The PCs are a TV film crew making a 2 hour pilot episode of the paranormal history show “Truly Terrifying Tales”. They get to decide what locations to film in, what they will do in each location, what they will say about the location, and they will find different clues as to the asylum’s past depending upon which site areas they visit. There is a definite end game, but there is no specific action needed by the characters to make it happen. That scene is being set by something other than the PCs, and it’s on a time table. That time table happens to be the end of the convention time slot, but it doesn’t feel that way when it’s happening. So far I’ve had completely different sessions each time I’ve run the game.
The sectional module is a great convention tool! It combines the structure of a railroad, with the flexibility of a sandbox. Tomb raiding missions (dungeons, ruins, and things of that sort) are wonderful candidates to become sectional adventures. The key to a sectional adventure is to have an assortment of challenges (traps, encounters, puzzles, etc) that the players can face, but that the GM can skip if time is running short. Just because I know that I prepared 15 rooms for the ruin doesn’t mean that the players have to get through all 15 before they reach the toy surprise in the final chamber. If they get through a few and it takes longer than I thought it would, I have the freedom to just skip a couple in the middle. As long as I didn’t set up any crucial item that they need to obtain in one challenge to complete the next challenge it’s all good. The Mage adventure that I debuted at RetCon this year, “The Naos of Serapis”, was designed as a sectional. As the GM I have the freedom to decide which challenges I will run at the table for a given group of players. Think of it like the original Diablo game, in which the monastery at Tristram had many more rooms and challenges than you would see in one play. The game would randomly generate that maze of corridors for each run, giving you a great deal of re-playability. That dungeon was a sectional!
I’m sure there are many more ways to structure the pace of your one-shot adventure, but these are three great ways to get you started.
If all of these fail just whip out the dragon mini. You can always count on an elder dragon to end your session with a satisfying crunch!