Public Gaming: Rules for Engagement
Public gaming is a beast onto itself. So many people think of gaming as a private affair. You invite your friends over, you have snacks or food, or hell, even dinner together. You set up your map and minis, and you might be in a basement or a dining room, and then you play for a few hours where you share beer and some good laughs. You don't have to worry about offending people because you've probably been friends since high school. You may make lewd jokes you would otherwise never make in public, because this is a safe space for you to be you.
When you're playing with strangers, those creature comforts we're accustomed to are gone. And while your gaming style may not change, nor your jokes or sense of humour, the audience and location definitely have. Sometimes that's fine, and sometimes that means you just made an offensive joke and everyone at the table is uncomfortable now. Are you in the wrong? They're gamers! They should be similar to you! And yet, here you are, at a table full of people different from you playing a game you may not be familiar with and somehow you've managed to become that guy.
Conventions and communities can lead to the sort of strange social anxiety one gets around playing with strangers. I have been helping run a community for twelve years now, and convention running for about eight. I actually can't remember when I started GMing for the public, and I can't really recall anymore how I came to be an organizer. It all happened so organically that I really can't nail down a "this moment" for you. I can tell you I've well over a decade of experience regularly running games for random people, dealing with problem players in a public sense, and running at conventions.
These years of experience have left me with some core principles I try to bring to every game I run for the general public. Whether I'm facilitating at a community level or for a convention, I try to approach gming for the public more like a public service that a chance for me to play something I think will be fun. Partly this comes from community organizing, where the games you put out there are designed and chosen to make your community have fun and come out and game. This means if I put the heartbreaker I love out there, that no one will like, then the game won't run, or at worst, people will show up and have a bad time.
So the basic first rule is know your audience and provide a game you will enjoy but that is also interesting to people who aren't your friends. Sometimes I only run popular-ish things, and sometimes I'll still toss the game out there I want to play and hope for the best. Going in, you have to understand that if you have a set idea for the game, and you're playing with the public, there's a big chance they won't be in the same headspace as you unlike your friends, who often "get it". Put a game out there you can have fun with, even if the players you get don't fully get it and may not dig it the way you do.
If your game has heavy, problematic content, either don't run it for the general public, or provide a content warning. Go over the X-Card before play, and hell, use it yourself. Talk about an open-door policy in case the game gets heavy, and make sure everyone knows these policies are allowed so that every player feels safe. By covering your bases ahead of time, the players know what they're getting into and are there with you instead of lagging behind feeling drowned out in a game that's gone too far too fast for them.
Be ready to switch gears if the game starts heading south. It's possible that the players may want to do something else instead of what you've prepared. If this happens, follow your players. Give them an amazing experience and test your GM-fu by seeing if you can pull the game out of the story-line spiral by plugging bits back in or making up new story lines on the go. Don't treat your game as written as sacred. Collaboration lets everyone feel like they have agency. Don't push your players around or force them to do what you want. Share the spotlight, be fans of their characters, and make sure they feel awesome at the end of a game.
When you're stuck, take a break. If your players have lead you down some wacky road you're not sure what to do with, call for a breather. Go to the bathroom, get a drink, stop and chat to a friend or just let everyone decompress for a little bit. This will give people a bit of time to breathe and your head to fill up with ideas. You can also cut in the middle of a scene to jump to someone else to give your brain a few minutes to focus on something else before coming back to the person who got you stuck to begin with.
Share the spotlight and the narration, don't just tell them what happens. This is one of the easiest ways, I find, to find out where they want the game to go. When they roll something, whether it's a success or a fail, ask them what it looks like and what happens. This will give them a chance to narrate some cool stuff into the fiction, and how they build on it will let you know the direction they want to take the game. Are they succeeding and kicking ass? Or being emotional? Getting more weapons and gearing up for a fight? Then give them a fight! They are literally telling you what they want, and it's so easy to just give it to them and still make the game fun and interesting.
Don't get defensive when it isn't their jam. Sometimes, we don't like people. And even more often we don't necessarily like the game we're playing. When people don't like your game, don't take it personally. Thank them for playing and their feedback, and then move on. There's nothing you can do if the game is over, other than know that this style of game isn't for them. If it's mid-game, ask how you can help make it more fun for them. Their answer may suggest you fundamentally change what the game is about. Nowadays, I tend to tell them that the game probably isn't for them, and they are welcome to keep playing or find another game that works better for them elsewhere. Sometimes we can't help it when a person plays something that isn't their jam.
Follow the characters and give everyone time to shine. Don't let people stay wallflowers, pull them into the fiction. If they resist after multiple tries, then you can just see if they want in once in awhile and keep playing with the others. Wallflowers gonna wallflower. I try to ask them questions and give them some narrative control to make them feel invested in the story. Sometimes that works. Sometimes that's just an exercise in futility. You won't know until you try. But do try to spread out the interaction love to ensure everyone's getting pretty good screen time. It's an ensemble movie, not a one-hero and their sidekicks movie.
Shut shit down when it needs to be shut down. It can make you feel shitty and it can make other people feel awkward, but in the long run, it's much more worth it to show you won't tolerate abusive behaviour than it is to have players walk away feeling like they were abused. If you can make the space safe, then do so. Don't let things slide. Reinforce that the table is a space of respect and love and you're going to make sure everyone feels safe. If you let one thing go by, people will push limits and cause issues and it's far better to just let it feel crappy now than let yourself and others get deeper into a crappy situation.
Follow the rules of improv, in the way that you don't say "no" but say "yes, and" or "no, but" in order to incorporate their input into your game. This is a skill that takes awhile to get into, but it's a great one to make people feel heard and their ideas valid. Even if it's only little things, try to take what they put out there and incorporate them into your game as best you can. It's so rewarding for players to see what they've created woven into the fiction. If you're just starting to do public GMing, you may need practice until this becomes easy habit. But it's well worth the practice.
Be prepared for everything. If your game needs anything, bring it yourself. Provide dice, pencils, character sheets, pre-gens if needed, maps, minis, markers, index cards, tokens... anything your game could or may need, have it. Don't expect people to be prepared. I am called the gaming mom because of how many gaming supplies I have on me at any given moment. I replenish my supplies every six months or so. Have everything you need. Never, ever, believe players will come fully prepared. There's always one.
Running for the public can be thrilling, terrifying, exhausting, and awesome. Some of my best games have come from stuff I've played with and run for strangers. It's almost always worth it, and the few bad stories you'll get will give you some good laughs for later when you're hanging with friends. In my twelve years of public gaming, I've had about five or six full on bad experiences. That's dozens of conventions and hundreds of public games. Five or six. I've made so many friends and got to share such great stories, I will always be a big fan of public gaming. Totally worth it.
So jump in. Be vulnerable. And stay fierce. Roll dice in public with weirdos you've never met.