My Top 6 Influencial RPGs

This is another quick topic that is doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment, but I wanted to elaborate a little on why I picked each of them.

1) Torg – My very first tabletop RPG with an amazing GM that quickly inspired me to run my own games. Yes, the early 90s system is clunky by modern standards (and was so even when I first played it in 2006) but it was Torg that made me fall in love with this hobby. It’s also the game that taught me how much went on unseen behind the screen or in the GMs head, the GM of that campaign made it flow so smoothly that as a newbie I naively assumed it was easy. My subsequent first forays into GMing taught me otherwise.

2) Cortex (Classic, Plus, Prime) – I could easily fill four of the 6 spots here with Cortex games (Serenity, Demon Hunters, Smallville, Firefly) thanks to the impact the line has had on me over the years. Instead, I’m going to list it once, with a separate entry for Demon Hunters for reasons that will become apparent. For this entry, I’m focusing specifically on the system. Cortex was the first game that I discovered for myself, back with the original Serenity. At that point, I’d played only a handful of systems but mostly Torg. Mechanically and thematically the two were so different it was almost overwhelming. I dove into it, roped players into a game… and then ran a disaster of a session as a rookie GM. It was an experience that somehow didn’t put me off GMing.

Since then Cortex has continued to influence me thanks to its continued iteration. Demon Hunters gave me the first glimpse of how a game could be adapted to a new setting with only a few small tweaks. Then along came Cortex Plus, which demonstrated how to take the central DNA of a system and heavily adapt it to mesh with radically different genres. Smallville introduced me to the potential for constant player vs player conflict actively supported by the mechanics while Firefly introduced me to a smooth rules set that is pretty much perfect (in my opinion) for convention play. The in-development Cortex Prime is set to take it even further, providing a full toolkit to build future games on and I can’t wait to see where the system goes next.

3) Demon Hunters (1st/2nd editions) – What can I say about Demon Hunters that I haven’t already said before? It’s a setting that I love for so many reasons, see my recent self-interview for the long list. But the biggest way that it has influenced me? By providing an open world that allows for me to publish my own material. I’ve released two adventure starters (Missionary Opposition and Lockdown) for the most recent edition inspired by the Slice of Life web series and Channel Surfing, an adventure starter drawn from one of my own campaigns and that Dead Gentlemen made available to their GenCon GMs. How cool is that.

4) Hell 4 Leather – One of my first introductions to indie games, Hell 4 Leather bills itself as a Role-Playing Game of Vengeance inspired by tales such as Hamlet and Kill Bill. It’s an inspired game with minimal yet tight mechanics that come together to tell of the repercussions of making a deal with the devil. I’ve played it across a variety of genres, Westerns, Sci-fi, Urban Fantasy and it hasn’t let me down. As influences go it opened my eyes to the possibilities afforded by non-traditional mechanics and tales, supported by the flourishing indie scene in Scotland at the time. While I still tend towards traditional games it was this game that sparked my continued interest in the wider aspects of TTRPGs.

5) Lady Blackbird – This was, in many respects, a turning point for me as it was one of the original inspirations behind Project Cassandra. While the two bear little resemblance thematically the underlying system once did. Yup, Project Cassandra started off as a hack of Lady Blackbird. The system used is, in my opinion, extremely elegant and the whole idea of being able to wield powers in the same way as any other skill (and with few limits) really spoke to me. As I worked on the concept the systems diverged but that was where my interest in game design began.

6) Legend of the Five Rings (4th Edition) – A game that has influenced me in many ways but the biggest was providing me with the chance to join a long term, online campaign. My introduction to playing in the setting came via an online campaign run by Sir Guido and organised through the Happy Jacks Podcast community. It was the first time I’d really played an online campaign and the first where I was gaming with people across the world (we had people from Alaska through to Turkey). While I no longer regularly game online the experience was great and allowed me to step outside of the relatively small bubble that I was gaming in up to that point. It’s something that I’d like to do more of, especially when I get to the point of restarting playtests of Project Cassandra.

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Forward Planning: Playtesting

It’s hard to understate the value of playtesting a game or adventure. The human brain excels at filling in the gaps and seeing what it expects to see, so when you’ve been immersed a piece of work it’s all too easy to overlook simple errors or conflicting information. You know that the map to the dungeon can be found in the secret archives of the thieves guild but then forget to mention that the thieves guild even exists. Or maybe you alter the adventure hook and now a merchant is not only the big bad antagonist but is also found dead during the opening scene. Suddenly the players are paranoid about shape-shifting doppelgangers and you’re left with either retconning everything or trying to adjust the plot on the fly.

In a home game, GMs are expected to adapt as they go but when it comes to publishing an adventure those little (and sometimes large) errors just cause headaches. Another GM reading what you have written doesn’t know all the little details that you omitted due to space limitations or that your players always break into the wizard’s tower on the first floor, hence why there is no description of the ground floor. It’s up to interpretation, which is why published material should always be playtested and read over by an editor. Trust me on this, it’s a lesson I have learned the hard way.

With that in mind last week I ran a playtest for Ghosts of Iron, the first step in identifying any potential issues that I had overlooked or details that I had omitted. As the writer I went in with a few clear questions I wanted to answer:

  1. Does the adventure work as written? Not ‘does the version floating around in the head work’ but does the one-sheet writeup provide enough detail at the correct points for the players to know what they need to do and be able to do it.
  2. Is the adventure fun? I’m serious here, as an experienced GM it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming you will always write a daring tale of thrilling heroics but that is never the case. I’ve written and run adventures that just fell flat before so I couldn’t assume that this one would automatically be enjoyable.
  3. Are the difficulties appropriate to the task at hand? It’s all too easy to write a challenge that is impossibly difficult or, conversely, absurdly easy. This is especially true when you assume a particular party composition with the associated skill sets.
  4. Can it be broken? There is truth in the statement that two heads are better than one. It’s especially true in gaming if there is a challenge that the GM has set then at least one player will think of an unexpected way around it. This is good, and isn’t something to be avoided. The issues you want to avoid are those that completely break the scenario, that turns 4 hours of fun into a 30-minute tale of there and back again.

Thankfully, the playtest worked pretty well. I was careful to keep to the details as they were written and from my perspective, it easily passed the first two hurdles. On the third, we identified a few points where the difficulties as written assumed the PCs possessed a less frequently used skill (which they didn’t) while the combat encounters were appropriately balanced given the action-orientated nature of the mission. As for the final question, can it be broken? Almost. The players did identify a possible way to bypass the first third of the mission due to a missing detail during the mission briefing. It’s an easy fix and one that I’m glad we spotted.

Beyond those core questions, the playtest also picked up on smaller, non-critical issues, such as elements that needed to be clarified or highlighted better. So while a major rewrite isn’t going to be required (this time) I have plenty to work with before passing it on for the next critical step – external editing.

Demon Hunters: An Interview… with me!

The Demon Hunters World-bible and script Kickstarter is coming to a close, with a little over 2 days left to reach its goal. The campaign is ~$1000 away from funding at the moment so I wanted to talk a little about why I think you should back it. The below is an edited transcript from a short interview that I did about my involvement with the franchise as a signatory of the shared cinematic license.

• How did you come to the Demon Hunters universe?

I came to Demon Hunters by accident through the original RPG – I was a fan of the Cortex system and when I heard there was a new setting coming out for it I asked my FLGS to order a copy in. I knew virtually nothing about the world, beyond the fact it was supernatural comedy but from the moment I opened it up I was hooked.

• What is it about Demon Hunters that you like the most? Why?

The element that has always drawn me into the world of Demon Hunters is the humour. Demon Hunters took the urban fantasy genre and applied a dry satire to it in the way that only Dead Gentlemen Productions knows how. It’s there in the original movies and by the time the RPG came out it had been honed to perfection and expanded to cover an entire world history. So many of the concepts are absurd when you look at them but the setting puts such a straight face on them that you wonder how they haven’t always been staples of the genre.

• Do you have a favourite memory related to Demon Hunters? If so what is it?

Just one? Thanks to some amazing players over the years I could go on for hours. If I did have to pick then I think it would have to be the first time I ran the adventure that would go on to become Channel Surfing – at the end of the first session one of the players, who was brand new to RPGs turned to me and told me that I had managed to properly unnerve them as they investigated an abandoned apartment – little did any of us know that by the end of the next session she would be embraced by the puppet incarnation of Count Dracula. I can’t think of anywhere else where that chain of events would make sense, let alone be a dramatic high of the campaign.

• What kinds of things do you hope to see come out of the shared cinematic license? Are there stories you might like to tell?

I’m already a signatory of the shared cinematic license and have been putting it to use releasing adventure starters. Right now I’m still working on the remainder of the Slice of Life releases that I pledged to produce as part of that Kickstarter but after that, I have a number of plans. I have multiple Warehouse adventures to adapt to the current canon but the big one I have plans for is an adventure I’m loosely calling Rocket Demons of Antiquity, spanning both the Victorian and Modern eras and utilising an off the books, historical team led by Mina Harker. It’s just a concept and it’ll be a while before it even enters playtesting.

As for what else I would like to see? More, more of everything. The world bible hints at so much that I would love to see people fill in the gaps and expand on what is really going on. Is the Cypher collective evolving into something new and terrifying? What truth lurks beneath the Bermuda Triangle? And most importantly of all why a Yak?

• If you were in the DH universe, what would you be? (hunter, creature, etc)

Well, I’m a research scientist so a member of Mwhahaha would make sense but let’s be realistic – like most of us, I’d be that normal that stumbles into something that they can’t make sense off and either runs off screaming or gets eaten just as the team show up to save the day.

• What do you want to see happen in Demon Hunters 3?

I think everybody wants to know what happened to Gabriel and Chris. Are they in Hell? Are they somewhere in between? Also just what has happened to the Brotherhood during all this time? Is there a new Alpha One? Did Ichabod’s treachery get revealed or did the events of Dead Camper Lake get quietly swept under the rug?

• Why should backers care about Demon Hunters? What is it that makes it cool or fun? In other words, what is the Demon Hunters universe at its best, or what does it do best? What stories does it tell the best?

It’s Dead Gentlemen Productions at their best. Demon Hunters was where it all started and you can see how those first two movies have influenced the approaches of everything that came later. That was 20 years ago and the team have gone from students working it out as they go along to producing professional level material that is pushing the boundaries of small, independently produced productions. Just imagine what they could do with the series if they put all that experience behind it? The Slice of Life mini-series gave us a taste but a full movie could push it so much further.

So go take a look at the Kickstarter and if you can back it. Together we can renew Demon Hunters.

Demon Hunters: Worldbible and Script Kickstarter

With the final stretch goals for the Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors RPG released the minds at Dead Gentlemen Productions have turned to the future of the franchise with their latest Kickstarter – a print edition of the settings world bible and a script for the as yet untitled Demon Hunters 3. The Kickstarter aims to bring together all the threads of a world 20 years in the making and finally tie off the story of Chris, Gabriel and Duamerthrax the Indestructible.

Anybody reading this will know that I’m a massive fan of the setting but why should somebody who doesn’t know the universe be interested? Firstly, the aim is to make it more accessible to new audiences. The original movies are bad. I love them but there is no other way to put it. They were the first productions from a group of students who barely knew what they were doing. Despite that the potential is apparent. The raw genius that would go on to define Dead Gentlemen Productions and Zombie Orpheus Entertainment is all there. Its given rise to The Gamers, JourneyQuest and Strowlers. All of which have benefitted from the professional production values that the teams have learned since those early movies. This is a chance to put all that experience towards the franchise that started it.

Second? It opens the world up. The previous Kickstarter for the Slice of Life web series resulted in Demon Hunters adopting a Shared Cinematic Universe license. At its core that license allows fans to produce and release their own material. It’s the license that I use for all of my adventure starters but it can just as easily be applied to books, web shows, comics etc. There’s even a route for having your own creations be incorporated into the canon.

Finally, Demon Hunters is Dead Gentlemen Productions at their best. It’s dry satire that walks that fine line between plausibility and absurdity. It shouldn’t work, yet it does and it deserves to be seen by more people. This Kickstarter will help make that happen.

The Kickstarter has until March 30th to reach its goal of $13,600. It is currently sitting at $6,146 with 24 days to go. Back it at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/deadgentlemen/demon-hunters-world-bible-and-film-script

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Rambling: Shifting expectations – From one-shots to campaigns

Until we started our current D&D game my recent gaming had been orientated towards one-shots or, at most, mini-campaigns. It was only following our most recent session, that it struck me how the switch to a campaign hadn’t resulted in a proper reorientation of my mindset.

The One-Shot

By their very nature, one-shot games are constrained by time. This is especially true for convention games which typically need to fit into a four-hour time slot. Typically that will include not only the actual game but picking characters, explaining the system and introducing the scenario. The format also requires the plot to take a specific shape. Scenes need to be concise and limited to only those that are directly relevant. Characters should be clearly defined, often to the point of exaggeration, to ensure that they are both easy to pick up and are able to shine during the adventure. Even if you are running a prep-lite game you need to be on the ball, responsive and focused. Anything else and you risk going over or having to trim down the game.

The Campaign

Campaigns are the polar opposite and I had thought that shifting to one would have led to a pretty instant shift in my preparations and expectations. On the surface it did. The adventures are now spread over multiple sessions, there is more time to socialise and go over rules and with a more relaxed approach to the plot, I’ve even found that sessions can comfortably run short. We typically end up with closer to three hours of gaming than four thanks to the knowledge that we’ll be picking things up again the next week.

Well of course there’s a difference…

Most people that have read the above are probably thinking that I’m pointing out the obvious and you’d be right, I am. In shifting my point of reference though I’ve been reminded how easy it is to overlook the obvious. The structure of a one-shot vs campaign starter vs mid-campaign session are all different. But with the transition from one format to another how often have I actively thought about those different structures?

How often have I paused and reminded myself of those constraints and what they force me to leave out?

The answer to that is not enough. It’s human nature to take shortcuts, which in the case of adventure prep means going with what you have become used to. When we started The Immortals I knew every session would have a followup and started thinking about multi-session arc and plots. Yet on a session to session basis, I maintained too many approaches that are better suited to a one-shot.

Most obvious – that our first few sessions all concluded with a mini-cliffhanger. On one hand that’s great, it can help maintain engagement but on the other hand, I was found myself leaning on the one-shot beat structure session after session. We’d start by resolving the cliffhanger, rest and recover, explore the new situation and then rapidly build to another point of drama. I was forcing the pace of each session to try and ensure it ended on a high because that was what I’d become used to. I did it without thinking, even though I knew I had time to spare. Even though I knew that we could end on a low or with the characters in the middle of something.

All because I had assumed I would automatically switch my habits back to approaches I’d learned when I was running regular campaigns.

Going forward its clear that I need to pause and reflect more often, not just on the big picture but on the fine details. I’m fairly confident that overall I run a good game but I don’t want to just run a good game, I want to run an amazing one. I’ve got a table full of new players and I want them to come out of the campaign wanting more. I want them to love this hobby as much as I do and that’s not going to happen if I just rely on past experience.

Note: Ok, so this post got away from me and just wouldn’t come together the way I wanted it to. Normally I’d work on it a bit more but the more I do the less I feel like it is going to go anywhere. So here it is, just some rambling thoughts that I hope make at least some sense.

Review: D&D Monster Cards 0-5 by Gale Force Nine

One of the things I’m slowly coming to appreciate with D&D is just how central monsters are to the game, more so than for any of the other systems I have run. Combat is a central thematic pillar and the majority of the time the expectation is that those combats will involve Monsters as opposed to intelligent NPCs. That one of the core books is the Monster Manual should be a massive giveaway here. As part of our Fall of the Immortals campaign, I’ve been trying to utilise a wider array of monsters than I am naturally inclined to thanks to my previous GM experience.

It quickly became apparent that keeping a copy of the Basic Rules on my tablet for reference just wasn’t going to cut it. Interesting combats should include a variety of creatures, which meant that I found myself flicking back and forth between pages every combat round to double check stats and abilities. It slowed the game down and was generally just a pain to deal with. Printing off the monster stats in advance helped quite a bit, right up until my players turned left and initiated an encounter I hadn’t planned for. Fortunately, Gale Force Nine produce a product that is ideal for this situation – Monster Cards, with sets covering CR 0-5 and CR 6-16.

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The CR 0-5 set covers 177 monsters, presented as a mix of standard and double sized cards. The front features artwork depicting the monster in question while the reverse covers the game statistics, with the double width cards employed when creatures have a number of special mechanics. Due to the size constraints of the card format there is absolutely no descriptive information, you’ll need to refer to the Monster Manual if you need that.

Overall, the Monster Cards do exactly what I need them to – provide a quick reference for in-game statistics. I’ve taken to clipping them to the top of my GM screen during play, allowing the players to see what keeping the multiple stat blocks right in front of me. The artwork is high quality and primarily lifted from the Monster Manual (from what I can tell). There are a few variant pieces featuring backgrounds, primarily used for cards representing tougher versions of a standard creature. Each card also includes a clear artist credit, an especially nice touch that many products would have omitted. The layout is just as professional and ensures that the details are clear and easily readable despite the condensed nature of the card format. Long term I will probably sleeve the cards to protect them, they only just fit the box and I’ve already seen one card pick up a small amount of damage just through the process of opening the box.

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So what’s not to like? I have one main issue, which is the contents. There are a number of creatures that are present in the Monster Manual/basic rules but absent from this set. The various beast forms that a druid might shift into are prominent examples, so if you were buying the set for that you’re out of luck. Similarly, there are no NPC type cards, no guard or bandit etc. While I can’t complain at the sheer number of cards included these seem like they should have been clear inclusions given how often most groups are likely to use them.

That these cards are missing is particularly frustrating because Gale Force Nine don’t list this fact or include the set contents anywhere on their website. Thanks to some research I knew about this going in but given these are officially licensed cards it would have been reasonable to expect either all of the relevant entries from the Monster Manual or a card listing. This problem doesn’t seem to be limited to this set, a number of comments online suggest that the CR 6-16 set omits a number of the most iconic Legendary creatures that grace the pages of the Monster Manual. Presumably, they’ll be included in a third set in the future but the omission is striking.

So would I recommend the Monster Card CR 0-6 set? For a GM seeking a quick reference tool, the answer is yes so long as you know that you will still need to refer to the Monster Manual for a number of entries. For players? No, this really is a GM orientated resource. Even if it included all of the forms a druid could shift into I still wouldn’t recommend it, there are simply too many cards that would go unused. You’d be better off checking the basic rules or SRD and getting the attributes from there.

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All reviews are rated out of 10, with Natural 20s reserved for products that go above and beyond my expectations. Unless otherwise stated all review products have been purchased through normal retail channels.

 

A tale of how not to run a con game

Back in July, I sent an email into Happy Jacks RPG podcast (read on Season 22, episode 08) concerning a convention game of pure mediocrity that I had played in a number of years ago. That game opened my eyes to how not to run a con game, so much so that I have a set of rules I try to follow each and every time I am in that position. As I still haven’t gotten around to writing up the full list I thought I would instead share the email that I sent in.

Greetings Jackers,

Craig ( whodo on the forums) from the UK here. After the recent emails about bad con games, I want to share my own pseudo-horror story, which has become my go-to example of how not to run a con game. I say pseudo-horror story only because it can’t really compare to some of the ones you’ve received in the past, the GM didn’t seem like a bad person just a bad GM and not from a lack of experience. Before I dive in some context – During my time at uni, I was a regular attendee of the Student Nationals convention, which brings together university gaming societies from across the country for a weekend of drinking, gaming, chaos and some more drinking. The format is a little unusual, rather than signing up for specific games you sign up for a category and over the weekend play 2 long form games, one per day typically lasting around 6 hours. You also play with the same group on both days but switch GMs, which was the only reason I didn’t just up and leave.

So there we were the Saturday morning of the event. I’d ended up in the sci-fi category, our group had found the room we’d be in for the next two days and we were waiting for our GM to show up. 10 minutes go by, it’s clear he’s running late, which isn’t too unusual given its mostly students. 15 minutes, 20… before he finally arrives carrying a stack of Hero books and character sheets. He sits down, introduces himself… and promptly ignores us for the next 10 minutes as he finishes off the character sheets! Going forward this would form the core of my ‘how to run a con game’ mantra:

Rule 0: Do your fucking prep

I’m going to repeat myself here. Do. Your. Fucking. Prep! I don’t believe in a no-prep game, even if you’re running the most rules light improv game there is then you can prep. Read the rules, know how to set up and explain the game. Know how the central mechanic works! That’s prep. With a game like Hero finishing the character sheets is most definitely prep and not something that should be done at the table unless you’re giving the players a chance to customise characters (which he didn’t).

So we’re 30 minutes or so in before we even get to see the characters. It’s a Traveller-esque space opera setting, there’s an uprising on some of the planets and we’re all on a giant space station somewhere near the edge of the combat zone. The characters are pretty typical for the genre and I go for the one described as an underworld smuggler, thinking I can put a Lando type spin on him.

I look down at the character sheet and find that I have around thirty individual skills. I look at the GM confused. He’s busy going over something with somebody else. I look back at the sheet. I have close to thirty skills and almost all of them are a 1 or a 2. As far as I can tell I am the definition of Jack of all trades, master of none. Already running late I didn’t quibble, I’ve never played Hero before so maybe this is ok? (Seriously, was this OK? To this day I have never worked out whether the character was actually viable in the system).

Characters picked we finally start play. We’re all on the station (yay!) but we don’t know each other (boo!) and then… EXPLOSION! Somebody set us up the bomb! Maybe this is the plot, having to escape a dying space station as it… Nope. The station is ok but we’ve all been arrested as potential suspects. Ok, maybe the plot is escaping and clearing… No again. We’re quickly cleared of suspicion by a generic NPC and then in a surprising only because it’s stupid twist… hired as security for a top-secret mission. We learn from NPC exposition the bomb was intended for a delegate on one side of the uprising who was passing through the station on the way to peace talks. Therefore, as complete outsiders who were almost killed by the explosion, we’re obviously both trustworthy and competent enough to be the new security as the original team are all dead.

What the actual fuck?

Which brings us to:

Rule 1: Unless you have a plot-relevant reason have the PCs already know one another.

Seriously, we’ve all been there. You meet at a tavern, accept a job from a mysterious stranger despite not knowing one another and go on an epic quest only to be stabbed in the back by the douche who is “just playing their alignment.” It’s a cliche that needs to die in a fire. Just have the characters know one another from the outset. Have bonds between them that explain why they trust one another and aren’t waiting for the knife in the back.

I won’t bore you with the actual plot, in part because I zoned out so much of the game that I can barely remember it. Suffice to say it made little sense, there was the inevitable attack by separatists who just happened to comprise half the crew of the ship the delegate (and thus we) were travelling on. Then there was a religious cult and finally, an emergent AI which only one character could actually interact with. My jack of all trades smuggler, well of the 30 odd skills I had I think I ended up using no more than 5 over the course of the session and most of the time that was in a supporting role, hence:

Rule 2: Give each PC opportunities to shine

Another no-brainer here but if there isn’t an opportunity for each character to be in the spotlight then why are they there? A good con game should be filled with opportunities for each character to do their thing and have an impact on the course of the plot. This game didn’t but as the hours wore on we learned that the GM loved the characters and their previous adventures. Their numerous previous adventures. It transpired that each of the characters was lifted directly from his long-term campaign, that had been running for multiple years and that the events of this game were the compressed highlights of that very campaign, which provides an instant and easy…

Rule 3: The con game is not your campaign

I don’t care how cool your campaign was or how amazing it was when character x finally got retribution on big bad y, the con game is not your campaign. Now don’t get me wrong, one can inspire the other but if you, the GM, can’t separate the two and let them take divergent paths then stop and do something original. I, the con player, have no nostalgia for something I wasn’t a part of and won’t appreciate the jumbled up mess of a plot made up of supposedly awesome moments. Go back to rule 0, do your prep and actually plan out a coherent one shot.

Now based upon all that my final rule will come as no surprise:

Rule 4: Pay attention to your players engagement

Seriously, it’s not hard to see if people are actually paying attention. Are they contributing and asking questions? Are they playing on their phone or, as I was for most of this game, building dice towers? I was so unengaged with the adventure that during our lunch break I went out and bought extra dice from the trade hall so I could build more stacks. Should I have tried to re-engage with the GM and his story? Probably, but by that point, I’d checked out and just didn’t give a fuck while the GM was either oblivious or just didn’t care.

So that’s the basis of my do’s and don’ts for con games. I’ve added a few more since then, such as all characters should have female, male, neutral and blank options for names. The few times I attended the Nationals after it was always as a GM and I hope I never ran a game that was that mediocre. So maybe something good did come from that game, just a shame it wasn’t a fun lesson to actually learn.