Over the weekend, the Anime North convention in Toronto played host to an overnight Dungeons & Dragons campaign run by Dungeon Master Jason Anarchy, the designer of Drinking Quest and Haiku Warrior. From 10pm to 7am, Anarchy guided a band of seven adventurers through the Fellowship of the Lemon Cart, the tale of a ragtag group of strangers that set out to sell a cart of lemons to a resort town only to discover that they would have to slay the evil cockatrice Bleak Beak before anyone would buy said lemons.
Needless to say, things got weird long before Lemthulu the Lemon God walked through a portal from the lemon dimension and started misting sentient metal bed frames with lemon spray to deal ongoing lemon damage. The rest of the evening is kind of a haze, but it’s still one of the coolest and most unexpected gaming events I’ve ever had the opportunity to cover.
I’ll be putting together some video of the event once I manage to scrounge together some free time, including interviews with the DM and all of the participants. Until then, these are seven tips (or six, plus one for sleep deprivation) for running an overnight Dungeons & Dragons campaign at an Anime convention in a room full of excited spectators.
You know. Just in case you ever find yourself in an emergency situation.
This part is crucial. Nobody wants to sit around while other people fill out tax forms, and the same is largely true of D&D character sheets. Have the party and the campaign selected beforehand so that everybody shows up ready to play.
If all goes well, you’ll captivate the room with you killer opening monologue that sets the stage for the even more epic adventure you have planned. Accomplish that, and the next nine hours are just a rollercoaster of lemons and initiative.
Encourage Audience Participation
The Fellowship of the Lemon Cart was originally supposed to feature seven party members and nobody expected to draw much of an audience. But it turns out that afterhours Anime conventions are giant slumber parties for the kinds of people who do things like play Dungeons & Dragons until sunrise. There were a lot of spectators, and they all came ready to banter.
Instead of fighting it, Jason Anarchy worked with the peanut gallery and decreed that the audience would get to speak for the lemons. It proved to be the most important decision of the evening. Though the position was largely ceremonial (at least at first), people will stay if they feel like they’re invested in the game, and it immediately created a back and forth between the party and the crowd. The group’s half-fish rogue ate so many lemons that he basically turned himself into ceviche, while the cleric disavowed his first god to pledge fealty to the citrus.
The lemons eventually gained so much influence that they were permitted to make a character sheet and sit down at the table (that would be Lemthulu). It was the most hilariously epic moment of the evening, and it happened because the DM and the players were willing to let other people into the game.
Everyone is there to have fun. The audience will help you if you let them.
Don’t Take it Too Seriously
While some home games can be rather solemn affairs, that doesn’t work as well in a public setting. The more people there are, the more difficult it is to get everyone to the same page, and nobody wants to keep those great one-liners to themselves when one of the characters is a wizard named Norbert Scienceface who doesn’t believe in magic.
Every home game is different, and that customization is part of what makes D&D great. But if you’re playing to an audience, you’ll have an easier time if you’re the type of player that uses the game as an excuse to make fun of friends while eating pizza. That’s doubly true once fatigue starts setting in. Playing D&D for nine straight hours is exhausting. The jokes are crucial for morale.
Any seasoned gamer knows that coffee, energy drinks, and snacks are necessary fuel when embarking on an all-night gaming binge, and it’s always best to come with your own supply of comestibles.
However, it’s impossible to account for every contingency and midnight craving. That’s one of the advantages of a public game. If you’ve provided the entertainment, there might be a volunteer willing to make that coffee run that no one else has time for.
Just be sure to thank them appropriately. They’re doing everyone a favor.
Stick to Your Deadline
A good DM needs to be flexible. That’s good advice for D&D more generally – you never know what those pesky players will do to ruin your well-laid plans – but it’s doubly true when the game is taking place in a borrowed hotel conference room during an event. The game ends at sunrise, whether or not you make it to the final showdown. Since that’s more or less the point of a campaign, you can’t be afraid to trim some stuff in the middle to make sure you get there.
On a related note, while audience participation is good, it does need to be corralled before it devolves into chaos. You need to keep everyone focused and moving forward, so if one of the players wants to use your magic book to turn himself into an ancient red dragon, you should probably have a way to turn him back into a human, preferably while sixty feet above the ground.
Death is Not the Enemy
Finally, remember that an event game played for an audience should not feel like a weekly home game played with your friends. Win or lose, nobody is coming back to play again next week, so you can take risks that you’d never consider in an ordinary setting.
More specifically, that means that you’ll want to kill at least one character, preferably in the most spectacular way possible. Because while everyone will forget the well-balanced encounter with a slew of random minions, they’ll remember the cleric’s bold leap off an eleven-story tower to grapple a cockatrice before plummeting 110 feet to the ground (while still attached to the cockatrice). Those are the moments that make D&D memorable. You’ll want to deliver a few of them.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go get some sleep. All-night gaming binges are great, but it takes a lot longer to recover than it used to.