Since it’s con season, this week I’m going to talk about running convention games. For the most part, the tricks to running a good convention game are the same as for any other game: make sure everyone has fun, give each character a chance to shine, and give the characters a stake in what’s going on and the players the illusion of free will. There are, however, a few special considerations to take into account when you’re running a convention game.
What’s The Purpose of the Game?
Before you start thinking about the details, take a minute to decide what you want the players to get out of the game. This is especially important if you’re running a game in some official or semi-official capacity (for example, as a representative of the publisher or a member of an organized demo team). The ultimate goal is usually to convince people to buy the publisher’s products, but some demos may are more tightly focused than others. Are you trying to show off a particular strength of the system? Introduce players to a new setting? Showcase a particular adventure or supplement? Knowing what you’re trying to do with the game can be helpful when you design your adventure.
Should You Use Pre-Gens?
Most players prefer making their own characters if they have a choice, but for convention games that’s not always practical. Pre-gens are a good choice if character creation is time-consuming (I’ve honestly seen a few convention games where players spent the entire session creating characters and never got to play); the adventure you’re running requires a specific mix of character types, skill sets, or pre-existing relationships; you’re running a game with pre-existing characters (for example, a Firefly game starring the Serenity crew); or the basic character archetypes for the game aren’t immediately obvious from either the setting or the rules system. If none of those restrictions apply to your game, it’s a matter of personal preference and GMing style. If character creation is simple and quick and you’re skilled enough at improvisation to adapt to whatever characters you end up with, let the players make their own characters.
Don’t Assume Familiarity
Players often use conventions as a chance to try out new games, so it’s best to assume that most of the people who sign up for your game will be first-time players. When preparing for your game, be sure to allow time for explaining the basic game premise and rules system. When plotting your adventure, assume that everything will take longer than it does with your normal group. Even if all your players have experience with the game and the setting, the fact that the players probably don’t know one another will make things take a little longer than they do with a group that’s been playing together for a while.
The assumption of unfamiliarity extends to the game setting as well. If the plot hinges on the PCs knowing that Doom Corn only grows in Zarakech, make sure they can get that information during the course of the adventure. Don't assume that someone will have read The Complete Book of Dark Agriculture. Remember this is a one-shot, so concentrate more on presenting the flavor of the setting than getting all the details accurate. If you can't remember something, make it up. Since there's no continuity to worry about, it doesn't matter if the PCs meet Bob the Thief in Swampville or Rob the Thief in Marshtown. Along the same lines, if the players do something that's not entirely in keeping with the spirit of the game but still fun, go with fun--you can always point out afterwards that their actions probably wouldn't fly in a typical campaign.
Go With The Flow
Unless you’re trying to show off a game setting where mood and atmosphere are vital (some horror games, for example), it’s usually best to follow the players’ lead when it comes to the tone of the game. Since convention games are one-shots, players often prefer them to have a lighter, more comedic tone than campaign play. Hobomancer is a great example: the setting described in the rulebook is kind of dark, but our convention demos always feature lots of humor and slapstick. That’s fine with us, because players are much more likely to remember a demo (and buy the game) if they enjoyed themselves, and it’s hard not to enjoy yourself when you can’t stop laughing. If players decide to run their own Hobomancer game, they can decide whether they want to play the more serious game described in the book or something more in line with the convention demos.
Other Helpful Hints
- Prepare cheat sheets with basic rules, bullet lists with important world information, and other things the players might need to reference.
- If you use pre-gens, include all the rules the players will need on the character sheet (or on additional sheets if the character sheet doesn’t have room for things like special ability rules or spell descriptions). That way the players don’t have to flip through rulebooks to find out what their character can do.
- Bring extra dice, pencils, and other accessories in case the players don't have their own. Extra rulebooks are also good if you've got them.
- At the beginning of the session, let the players know that there will be scheduled breaks and ask them to stay at the table until a break is called unless there’s an emergency. Having players constantly leaving and coming back can slow down the game.
- The players paid to be at the convention (and may have paid an additional fee to play the game) and the con is expecting you to entertain these people for at least most of the scheduled time slot. They might have even given you a free or discounted badge based on that expectation. That being the case, it's generally bad form to kill characters off early in the game without giving the player a chance to continue playing (either a new character or a resurrected/cloned version of the original character).
- There are exceptions to the "no kill” rule: (1) For some tournament games, the event rules supercede player enjoyment and good storytelling; (2) If a player needs to leave before the game is set to end, it doesn’t hurt to give him a meaningful or heroic death; (3) If a player is ruining everyone else's enjoyment of the game, it’s completely acceptable to get rid of him, though it’s best to give the problem player at least one warning before you declare that his character just dropped dead from a brain aneurysm .
I've been wanting to submit something to Game Chef for a while, but always end up missing it. This year's event kicked off on June 12th, the day I left for OMGCon, but I found the announcement yesterday as I was trying to make my way through my once-again out-of-control newsfeed. The deadline for this year is the 21st, which is the last day of DieCon, which gives me until Friday morning if I want to get something submitting. Despite only having something like 3 of the 9 days allotted for the competition, I decided to give it a try and started writing last night. I'm already up to about 1500 words and there's a 4K word limit, so I think I should be able to pull it off.
Since this year's theme is "a different audience," I'm writing a game for players who don't put in consideration into the lives of their characters beyond the central activity or "mission" of the game, which is a major departure from the more sandbox-ready kinds of games I tend to write. While I did include a paragraph about how a group might go about running a game that contextualizes the PCs' actions within a larger setting (I'm not a monster, after all), the game itself deals only with what happens when the characters are adventuring.
The game is called "Law & Otherworld" and is based on a blurb I wrote up for one of the weekly challenges on the reddit /rpg sub a few years ago (though I can't use the blurb as written since it would violate the rules of the competition):
"In the Criminal Justice System the people are represented by three separate, yet equally important groups. The police who investigate crime, the District Attorneys who prosecute the offenders, and the psychopomps who travel into the Land of the Dead to retrieve the souls of deceased witnesses and victims. These are their stories."
The ingredients for this year's event are abandon, dragonfly, stillness, and dream and you're supposed to use 2-3 of them. The "dream" ingredient is easy enough, since I can just make the Otherwold where the dead people are the same place where dreams happen (which means in this world Inception and What Dreams May Come are even closer to being the exact same movie). "Dragonfly" is the name of the group assigned to act as bail bondsmen for the dead, and one of the symbolic associations of the insect provides me with a justification for the name as well as an in-game way to use dragonflies. "Stillness" and "abandon" are less central, but do make an appearance in the form of "The In-Between," the Otherworld wasteland between the individual dream realms of the dead and sleeping. The different (for me personally) audience theme is met by making the game take place entirely in the Otherworld except for perhaps framing sequences at the beginning and end of adventures (and even those can happen in dreams if the GM prefers). Except for a couple of paragraphs to provide the set-up, the waking world is left completely unexplored.
If you've pledged at least $3 to my Patreon campaign, you can read the game as I'm working on it (and $5 patrons can comment). If not, you'll have to wait until I release the game into the wild either Friday morning or when I get back from DieCon.
It's a busy week, so I'm steeling the You Are Dumb Dot Net "manic topic" thing for this week's blog.
New HubPages Article
The HubPages article that I mentioned last week where I used Goblin Holler as a running example is now live. The topic of the article is campaign brainstorming. You can read it here.
Cons, Cons, Cons
Con season has officially begun. Ian just got back from Origins. Carter and I are leaving for OMGCon in Owensboro later tonight, where we'll be running Hobomancer, M-Force, an homage to Mad Max: Fury Road, and my Sin City/Disney Princesses mash-up (for full descriptions check the QAGS Facebook page). Next weekend Ian and I will be at DieCon in Collinsville, IL. The schedule should be on their site somewhere, but I'll post it to the Facebook page when I get back from non-quite-Indiana.
FuQit Games Presents: Miniature Adventurers
So, I've finally accepted that I'm never going to use a lot of the old junk (including a lot of gaming stuff) in my attic and started listing it on ebay. As I was going through boxes, I found a bunch of lose miniatures that I'm never going to paint. I tried to sort them into some sort of logical lots, but then decided it would be more fun to sort them into adventuring parties, and Miniature Adventures was born. Basically, buy some random miniatures and you get a one-of-a-kind micro-supplement that describes who they are and what they're doing together. Because just selling random minis would be boring. I just listed the first set and will put more up next week. (I've also got some other random gaming stuff and a few comics listed if you want to buy them).
“The novel is a challenge to vulgarization: write something that looks new to you: someone will point out that the thrice-accursed Greeks said it long ago.”--Charles Fort
As Fort observes, there really aren’t any new ideas. The best you can really hope for is to mix old story elements in a new and interesting way that people will like. Most people are reluctant to admit that when they first start doing creative stuff, often to the point of denying obvious and unavoidable influences. “Oh, it’s nothing like Lord of the Rings,” they’ll say. “That was all about a magical ring. My trilogy is all about a magical necklace.” I’m sure I’ve been guilty of that kind of nonsense before myself, but the more I’ve done the more I’ve begun to wear my influences on my sleeve. In fact, I’ve found that understanding how all the different influences fit together can be an incredibly useful, at least when it comes to designing games.
You’ve probably stumbled across an Influence Map on an artist’s or writer’s blog (you can see mine here) at some point. Basically, it’s a grid of images of different sizes showing what people and things influence the creative process of the person who made the graphic. The bigger the image, the bigger the influence. While I’m sure the idea’s been around since long before the internet, as far as I can tell the meme template most people use is from DeviantArt user fox-orian. You can get a copy of it here. For some reason I woke up a couple of days ago with an idea in my head about using an Influence Map when designing a new campaign or game setting.
Actually, the mental image floating in my head as I woke up was of an image map for a specific game. It’s a game about Appalachian moonshiners in the 1920s world of Hobomancer that’s been floating around in my head for a few years now. The working title at the moment is “Outlaws of Goblin Horror.” I used it as the basis for some examples in my latest Hubpages article (which I’ll be posting early next week). I’d just finished writing the article before I went to bed the night before, which is probably why it was scratching at my brain. I’ve got several projects I need to finish before I can even start to work on Goblin Holler, but I decided to try making an Influence Map anyway, partly to see if the idea works and partly to kickstart my brain again whenever I do get around to writing the game. Here’s what I came up with:
- Hobomancer and American Artifacts get a big chunk of space because Goblin Holler is set in the same world a few years before and slightly overlapping the default time period of Hobomancer and these two books set the tone I’m going for.
- This is a collection of Manly Wade Wellman’s Silver John stories called Who Fears the Devil?. Leighton discovered it while we were working on Hobomancer and sent copies to several of us for Christmas. When we read them, the general reaction was “that’s almost exactly what we’re going for.” The only major difference is that Silver John (sometimes called John the Balladeer) is more of a drifter than a hobo. Since the Silver John stories are set in Appalachia and draw on a lot of real folklore from the region, they’re likely to be an even bigger influence on Goblin Holler.
- Nick Cave and John Hillcoat's movie Lawless is what mainly inspired the Goblin Holler Idea in the first place. I was particularly intrigued by the almost legendary qualities attributed to the family, and Tom Hardy’s character in particular (even to the point where he bought into his own legend). For the game, I’m thinking that the default assumption is that the PCs are all part of the same family and have to come up with a family myth that almost works like a magical power. Sort of a group Hobo Power.
- One of the early roadblocks I hit was the old “so what do the players actually do during a game?” question. Car chases and shootouts need context and moonshine wars are a long-term story arc, so the mid-level “adventure” story set-ups weren’t immediately obvious. As I talked it out with Richard (Smith, author of IMP) one day, we came up with the idea of individual adventures being mostly about helping out neighbors who were in some kind of trouble. We almost immediately realized that, sure as a one-legged duck swims in a circle (actual Waylon Jennings line from the show), “moonshiners helping neighbors in trouble” is exactly the plot of The Dukes of Hazzard.
- Thunder Road’s mainly here for the car chases. This game might actually give me a chance to do something with the “car magic” idea that’s been floating around in my head for a long time.
- This is the J.D. Wilkes block. It was originally just going to be Seven Signs, a documentary by Wilkes about fascinating but disappearing pieces of southern culture and folklore. Since the pic didn’t quite fill the grid, I threw in his Grim Hymns comic as a reminder of the supernatural element of the game and a Shack Shakers album for soundtrack purposes. The Shack Shakers album stands proxy for several other current bands that have the right vibe for Goblin Holler, including Wilkes’ other band, The Dirt Daubers, Split Lip Rayfield, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, The Hooten’ Hallers, Uncle Skunkle and the Scarecrow Family Band, and Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three.
- This block, which includes a stack of Foxfire books, Botkin's Treasury of American Folklore, a random album of Appalachian music, and a Hatfield-McCoy historical marker is a reminder that there’s a lot of great stuff in real history and folklore that I need to steal.
- Despite the writers’ terribly flawed understanding of Kentucky geography, the Appalachian setting is a big part of Justified and there’s definitely some stuff in the three or four seasons I’ve seen that might serve as inspiration for Goblin Holler. I specifically chose an image where Boyd is in the foreground since Goblin Holler isn’t about the lawmen.
- If you’ve read any game I’ve ever done, it shouldn’t surprise you that I’m a big fan of quirkiness, and there’s no better example of Appalachian quirkiness than the White Family of Boone County, West Virginia. I chose the Dancing Outlaw over The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia out of personal preference for the more Jesco-centric version and because the original is a real documentary. The Johnny Knoxville update feels a little too much like a reality show pilot for my tastes.
- Joe R. Lansdale is probably best known as the author of Bubba Ho-Tep, which was made into a movie starring Bruce Campbell. He also wrote (and Tim Truman drew) three great Jonah Hex mini-series that were published by DC’s Vertigo line in the 90s. A lot of his fiction is set in Texas, not Appalachia, but it has a tone that’s sort of like To Kill A Mockingbird if To Kill A Mockingbird was spooky as hell, so he definitely fits here.
After doing the Influence Map, I don’t really know much more about the Goblin Holler game than I did when I started, but I feel like I have a better grasp of what I want the game to be. I’ve also got a handy reminder of things to (re-)read and (re-)watch between now and whenever I sit down to start writing. The Influence Map (and this article, if I draw any blanks when I look at the graphic) also gives me a handy reference tool to get my head back into the right space when I start working. The images are much more evocative and inspiring than a list would be and the different sizes remind me how important I think (at least right now) each influence is to the core concept. All in all, I think it was definitely worth the time and effort and encourage you to give it a try. If you do, feel free to share a link to your Influence Map either in the comments here or through the Hex social networking page of your choice. I’d love to see how easy it is to “read” one I didn’t make myself.
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A year or so ago, a game I was playing in had to go on a temporary hiatus because of the GM’s work schedule, so we started talking about what to play in its place. At some point, the idea of a Grindhouse-style game about Disney Princess came up, and after a while that evolved into the idea of doing a Sin City style game set in The Magic Kingdom. We came up with some general details and made plans to play, but more scheduling problems got in the way and the game never happened.
Fortunately, the players at the conventions I regularly attend are used to odd game premises from the Hex team. They’ve played League of Kick Ass Dudes (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but with 80s TV action heroes) and Lock, Stock, and Two Ruby Slippers (The Wizard of Oz as a Guy Ritchie modern crime movie), not to mention Waxman’s Warriors (The Dirty Dozen in Jack Chick’s Hell) and Fratboys Vs. (exactly what it sounds like) and several other dumb ideas we’ve managed to turn into actual products. So this year at DieCon (along with a game where all the characters are the lame versions of Rob Lowe from those Direct TV commercials), I’m running this:
Sin Kingdom: Powderkeg
Walk down the right back alley in The Magic Kingdom, and you can find anything. It’s a place where life is nasty, brutish, and short at the best of times, but even worse times are coming. The Princesses have ruled Old Town as their own personal fiefdom for years, but it’s no secret that every major faction in the city wants a piece of the action. Rumor has it that Prince Charming has brokered a truce between the Mouse and Duck crime syndicates and they’re getting ready to make their play. When that happens, it’ll be blood for blood and by the gallons. Miller meets Mickey in this Disney Noir adventure.
What happens in this game is going to depend entirely on what characters the players choose to play and what kind of mix between Disney and Sin City they choose. The only preparation you can really do is to come up with some ideas about the setting and have a vague conflict that you can use to keep the action moving if the players aren’t proactive. That’s why the blurb I wrote leans a lot more toward flavor than details. It gets across that the game is a mashup of Sin City and Disney, that Prince Charming and the gangs are about to make a move on Old Town, and that presumably the conflict will impact the PCs’ lives in some way.
It’s a good thing I kept the description vague, because it just occurred to me that I might want to rethink the premise a bit. So far, I’ve been thinking of Old Town as the red light district just like in Sin City, in part because that fits best with the original premise. In that game, Charming was in charge of the Kingdom and the princesses had been exiled to the bad neighborhoods (or maybe even the underground tunnels). The basic idea was that we’d be playing the Princesses as they plotted their coup attempt. The characters were Disney characters with Sin City attitude, in part because the whole idea started with the premise of “wouldn’t it be cool if Disney Princesses were shotgun-wielding badasses who kicked in teeth?”
Anyway, earlier this week it occurred to me that the game might also work if instead of a merging of Disney and Sin City, it was more of war for dominance between the two styles. In this version, Old Town is Main Street USA, the only place in The Magic Kingdom that still retains some sense of magic and wonder. The rest of the park has become a corrupt, crime-ridden noir hell just like Basin City. I really wish I hadn’t mentioned Mickey and Donald being gangsters in the blurb, because the perfect set-up would be for the Mouse to be the real ruler of the town and the Princesses to be figureheads with no real power. That would allow for a blatant “childhood imagination vs. corporate cynicism” theme. It could probably still work with Charming as the corporate stooge, but it’s not quite as perfect.
So, which version of Sin Kingdom will I go with when it comes time for the game? Good question. I might end up doing one version at DieCon and another at OMGCon (where it’s also on the schedule). It depends partially on what kind of mood I’m in, but mainly on which version feels best for the characters that the players come up with. Until game time, I’ll just have to keep thinking of ways to use both versions and hope I don’t get them too mixed up when I run the game.