Inside the Mind of a Convention GM with Matt McCloud

Matt McCloud in his happy place, behind the screen with a full table.

On the eve of Chaosium Con II, we sat down with veteran Keeper Matthew McCloud, the chief organizer, hype-man, and dark heart of Lurking Fears, a collective of dedicated gamemasters offering “the very best in horror and grimdark roleplaying.” In addition to offering some of the finest Call of Cthulhu events available at conventions across the United States, they have grown an impressive assortment of relationships with companies like Free League, Mongoose Publishing, and Bloat Games to name a few. Players can expect a wide and constantly growing variety of incredible games in a Lurking Fears room with an equally impressive array of GMs. Lurking Fears will be running games at Gen Con for Chaosium later this summer. Here Matt provides a bit of insight into the genesis of the group, its personnel, and his own gaming inclinations. True to Lurking Fears’ mission to provide an open resource for GMs interested in organizing and running games at conventions, we round things out with Matt’s Top Ten Convention GM Tips. These are great for new and seasoned hands, alike. We hope to see you at a Lurking Fears table in the near future!

How long has Lurking Fears been around, and what cons can players expect to find the group’s ominous presence?

This will be our 3rd year at Conventions, and our 4th year as a group.  We are at a LOT of cons this year- Chaosium Con, Lexicon, Origins Game Fair, Gen Con, NerdLouvia, GameHole Con, Cincitycon, and PAX East, among others as we continue through the year! 

You’ve accomplished a lot in the few years. Most impressive considering how the pandemic put a damper on in-person convention gaming. Can you share a few of your proudest moments? 

Fond memories of many great games with Rogue Cthulhu at Origins.

It’s no secret that Lurking Fears is standing on the shoulders of all the amazing work Byron Wingate and family at Rogue Cthulhu have done at conventions like Origins.  Actually, the pandemic helped me as it gave me a whole year to plan without any conventions going on.  It helped me to realize that many publishers don’t have a gaming group to help them get their games on the table at conventions.  That’s where we come in.  My hands-down proudest moment was when Eric Bloat of Bloat Games hired me to be his official GM at conventions for his games, and sparked the idea that I could help other GMs do the same!

What does Lurking Fears look for in prospective GMs, and how can someone new to convention GMing get involved?

In GMs, we look for storytellers first, gamers second.  We want GMs who want the players to help them weave an incredible story.  The game rules are important, but not as important as everyone having fun.  We are always open to trying new GMs out and helping them get organized for convention-style games, find us on Facebook and join the group!

Since we’re heading into Chaosium Con, what are your top three Call of Cthulhu scenarios to run at conventions? And why? 

Hand’s down “A Mother’s Love” by Seth Skorkowsky.  He is a fantastic writer, and the adventure hits all the beats you want in a convention CoC scenario—gangsters, Deep ones, isolation, and dread.

A close second is “The Lightless Beacon” by Leigh Carr for mostly the same reasons. (Editor Note: This is a classic con scenario and free, for more check out discussion here.)

My absolute no-holds-barred scenario used to be “The Vault,” but I have retired running it for now.  My go-to now for absolute ‘I’m coming for you is “Forget Me Not” from Brian M. Sammons.  Terrifically brutal scenario.

Do you ever get to play any games yourself? If so, what have you been up to most recently?

It’s hard but I do find the time!  I have realized that if I forever DM, I risk being stale and not up on what the new kids are doing, so I force myself to sit on the other side of the screen and enjoy a great game!  Mostly when I am not helping other GMs playtest their material, I’m playing Traveller, begging someone to run Pendragon, and most recently loving the new DragonBane game.  It rocks!

Matt’s Top Ten Convention GM Tips

    1. Prep, prep, prep. Have everything you need done for the scenario(s) you plan to run DONE at least a week ahead of time, the bare minimum. This includes initial and second reads, playtest, prop and handout prep—all that. Don’t be trying to get that stuff printed the week leading up to the con…something will always come up and put you behind.
    2. Prep some more. Did you do a playtest? Sometimes it’s not necessary, but definitely give it a trial if you’re running a new system, incorporating something different, or using unfamiliar mechanics (Call of Cthulhu Chase Rules, ahem). I strongly urge a playtest with some friends, even if it’s just a round or two of combat to know how the math rocks are supposed to fall and when.
    3. Initial and second read. The initial read is almost a deep skim, just a quick read-through to get the plot of the thing, how it is supposed to flow, and where the setup, climax, and aftermath hit. The second read is a more thorough read. You should be preparing ‘one-page’ notes from this read.
    4. The One Page Note. A single sheet of paper with all your NPCs, key locations, and critical thingies on it—one side only. This will keep you from thumbing through the book trying to remember the librarian’s name. These are not thorough descriptions but enough to help jog the memory, like “Frau Blukah—librarian or ‘Slaughtered Lamb— local pub’.
    5. It’s OK to be anxious. Everyone’s excited. If you got the butterflies rumbling while you are greeting everyone at the table, start going over the character sheets as players arrive. Encourage them to peruse and pick. If want to catch a breath or get some encouragement from a friend, give everyone five minutes to read them over while you duck away and catch your breath. Then go around the table and have the players introduce their characters. I GUARANTEE this will set the mood as the players start to assume their character’s identity and ease into a bit of roleplay.
    6. Present Confidence. After you’ve done your work, don’t apologize to players that you aren’t as prepared as you WANT to be. First, you’ve got this. Second, it plants the seed that the game may suck, and players will act accordingly. Refer back to #5, and give it your best shot. 
    7. Pre-Game Check-in. Be sure to ask everyone “Have you played this game before? Do you know how to play this game?” without fail you will get one or two people meekly admit they don’t know the game (or haven’t played in a while). No problem! the best way to help introduce the game is to explain the character sheet and what the things do. Don’t go into hyper details, but show them key character attributes, skills, hit points, and how you interact/attack. Aim for a concise, five-minute convo. 
    8. Take a break! About halfway through the game, be sure to call a 15-minute break for everyone. This includes you! GET AWAY from the table, stretch your legs, go to the bathroom, get a smoke, whatever. Come back refreshed and ready for a TPK!!
    9. Thank the Players. You couldn’t have done it without them, so thank them for the experience. Be sure they know where to get the game and/or scenario you just ran. Don’t forget any formal surveys, and check for feedback (especially if you plan on running again). Make sure everyone picks up their trash (and swag).
    10. HAVE FUN!