'Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,' the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. 'Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.'

-Robert E. Howard
Beyond The Black River

Corrupt Cliffs

Corrupt Cliffs
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Monday, November 4, 2019

What I Learned in a Year: RPG Conventions & PDF Rules


One year ago I sat down at a table with 5 strangers, a place way outside of my comfort zone and GMed a game of "Robert E Howard's Conan". I was unsure of what this was going to be or if I would be any good at it. It turned out to be a pretty positive experience and since that time I have gotten to know a few of the people who played in my game. Some because we have continued to GM together at RPG Alliance events, and some because we have talked about game ideas and mechanics a lot since then. That was 2018, I dipped my toes into running a game at a convention.

Since that time we decided we should run RPG Alliance Con again in 2019. It was decided it should be bigger and better but remain a one-day event. It moved to a two-game day on Sunday and remained at Dickens Pub. Some of the GMs involved ran a series of RPG games over the summer at various locations such as Eastridge Sports Cards & Games, Zero Issue Brewing and the now-defunct Titan's Vault. We also ran a few games at the Calgary Expo early in the year and had a definitive presence at FallCon 2019 as the Rpg Alliance.

The convention this year was split into a morning and afternoon program, which was really more of an afternoon and evening program, running 11:30am-3:30pm and 4pm-8pm. We had sold tickets through tabletop.events, and ticket sales at the door as well. My game had seen good pre-sales with 3 of 5 seats being taken up, and the remaining 2 being filling by day of sales. The end result was a solid table of 5 people who had never played Conan before, including one gentleman who had never played an RPG before. If there was a single daunting aspect to my game, that was it. Being someone's first foray into RPGs and wanting to be a fun and positive experience for them.

At many of my previous games, I attempted to bring in a pretty small kit, looking to only bring what was necessary; using tokens and tiles rather than minis and terrain. By FallCon I had given up on this idea, bought a big tote, switched to UDT(Ultimate Dungeon Terrain) by Professor Dungeon Master on Youtube, and started running pretty much a full kit. These displays of terrain and paper-minis are always a big hit with the players who love seeing all the work and attention that has gone into building the world they are playing in.

Teaching the Rules

Maybe I take a while to come to a conclusion, or maybe I am just stubborn. Either way over the last year I have attempted to highlight Conan 2d20s rules before play in a 20 minute overview. Some of these have gone better than others, but at the end of the day talking at people about rules and mechanics in a lecture setting is boring a dull. This last group didn't even get through them all before we started playing. Either way, this is lesson 1 for this post. Don't spend more than a few minutes going over mechanics. It will be far more fun to have a quick scene where the players can learn the majority of the system. So for Conan we might include a scene where the players do some fighting and other skill checks.

Take Home Message

Keep your rules intro light and engaging with your players.

Finshing on Time

Although I got through an adventure with the same format at Fall-Con, I was a little short on time for this adventure, and we failed to complete the final encounter. There were certain places where we could have cut time down, but for about 90% of the time at the table, I thought we were going to run WAY short. So here is my advice for you, especially if you are teaching the rules: If you have 4 hours, plan for a 3-hour game, or at most 4 encounters. This will give you an hour buffer that will most assuredly be filled with starting a little late, introductions and chat, rule instructions and intro encounters, and hopefully, it will leave you a little time at the end of the game to get some feedback from the players. My biggest issue with my deadlines is I haven't gotten a huge amount of feedback from players, just because we were generally playing right up till the end.

Take Home Message

A four-hour time slot really only allows for about three hours of actual gameplay.

Rules & Adventure Materials

The sheer amount of paper a game uses is mind-boggling. Between rulebooks, adventure materials, character sheets, monster information, etc, you can get swamped in paperwork. At RPG Alliance 2018, my first convention I tried to go lightweight and small with components, but still brought all the actual rulebooks I needed. As you can imagine this ended up making my bag not exactly lightweight. Over the next year, I sought to remove the weight and the rulebooks from my kit. I thought a tablet might be a useful addition, but after looking at them and talking to a friend who tried to use them, I determined they might not be for me, although the idea stayed in the back of my mind.

Game Changer

If we FFWD a little, I was still considering a tablet. Part of my issue was certainly the issue of how LARGE .pdfs loaded, anytime I tried using the CONAN book in-game to find something and to do a search I would have to wait for it to catch up with the load, and it ended up being faster to simply use the hardcopy. This was not really a hardware form factor issue or an old-school connection to physical books, it was simply a functionality issue.

Still switching out all the books for a tablet? Pretty appealing. The solution came through a conversation with Chris, a fellow GM and player in my first convention game. Chris told me about a piece of software called "XODO".

This free PDF reader was everything Adobe Reader wasn't. Documents didn't load in a linear fashion; if I went to page 300, it loaded page 300. It allowed me to set up bookmarks to places in the document and it created a useable table of contents in most circumstances. Without a doubt finding, this application solidified me into getting a tablet for my rulebooks, and so the research began.

Most people I watched and articles I read suggested we need at least a 10" tablet for books, anything smaller wasn't worth it. So I went to look into 10" tablets. These machines range anywhere from ~$100 to over $1000 depending on what you get, and although I would love one of those higher-end tablets, I just couldn't afford it.

The Rules Tablet

In the end, I ended up picking up the Amazon Fire HD 10 for $159CAD (on sale) in Canada or if you are in the US Amazon Fire HD 10 for $149USD, and I couldn't be happier with it after 6 months of using it as my go-to rules library.

  • Price
  • Aspect Ratio
  • Screen
  • Speed
  • Memory

Price: Coming in at $199CAD, and often dropping to $159, it is easily on the lower end price point for a 10" tablet.
Aspect Ratio: The Fire HD 10 is a 16:10 tablet, which isn't ideal for the standard rule book. The slightly smaller display on the 16:10, hasn't been an issue for me though and having that ability to display widescreen if I need it is awesome. A second note, I find it be a little narrower than a standard 4:3 tablet due to the aspect ratio. I find this easier to hold, but I am a big guy, so you may not have the same experience. You can check out this video to see the aspect ratio differences and decide if it is a pro, con or neutral feature for you.
Screen: Although the screen is a little shiny, I haven't had an issue with it when playing. Beyond that the resolution is 1920x1200, most are 1280x800 in this price range. Color wise I have been happy with it as well.
FIRE OS: This is probably the biggest single CON the Fire has. the FIRE OS is an Amazon centric android OS. It doesn't natively have access to GOOGLE PLAY, and all apps have to come through the Amazon store. This could well be the nail in the coffin since XODO isn't on the Amazon store. Fortunately, with a little reading and following some simple instructions you can add Google Play to your Fire and run XODO no problem.
Speed: Like many low-end tablets the Fire isn't the fastest machine on the block but using XODO as the app I have no issues with the FIRE being fast enough for the purpose I picked it up for.
Memory: I sound like a broken record here, but as a low-end tablet, it only comes with 32gb of space. You can get the higher-end version of the FIRE with 64gb, but it will cost you a little more, if all you use it for is storing PDFs, 32gb is going to allow you to store 700+ 40MB PDFs. For me 32gb is plenty.

Overall this tablet has been an excellent and inexpensive addition to my arsenal of tools for the convention. It is of note that I use this at home as well for rules. It is just better.

The Reference Tablet

Beyond using the Fire for rules I generally have 3 tabs open in XODO: Rules, Adventure, and Monsters. I don't always use the tablet for the adventure, as I do sometimes write them out in a notebook, but when space is at a premium having everything in a single small tablet is quite handy. It also means you aren't sorting through a bunch of loose pages trying to find your adventure or the stats for the monster they are attacking.

Take Home Message

Tablets are incredibly useful, but you don't need the latest and greatest for it to be an effective tool.


I recommend trying to GM at a convention if you get the chance. It has been a very positive experience and I have met some great people and had some cool opportunities. Jump outside your comfort zone and be a positive part of this hobby!

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