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.

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State of the Conspiracy: Dragonmeet

Just a quick update to share the above, a near final version of the game ready for Dragonmeet tomorrow. It still needs a final round of proofing but otherwise it’s done. Finished. Next up: Getting the file ready for submission to DrivethruRPG and a bit of promotion.

Project Cassandra: Reorganisation and example of play

​November is fast approaching and along with it my target deadline of finishing Project Cassandra by the time if the US presidential elections. That’s not likely to happen now, mostly as I want to reorder a couple of sections and expand on some others. On the plus side I think I now have all the artwork that I want to use so the new aim is for the start of December, just in time for Dragonmeet in London.

One of the sections that I’ve decided to add is a small example of play, the first draft of which is included below. I’ve tried to highlight the basics without going too long or too detailed though it still needs a bit of work.

The following gives an example of play. Dahlia Sarsin (played by Kate) and Keith Tanaka (played by Richard) are just leaving a small diner off of the highway, having convinced the Russian defector Sergi that they mean him no harm. Sam, the GM frames the scene.

Sam: You know trouble is brewing the moment you step out of the diner, there’s a man in a gray suit waiting for you by your car. He motions to you, his intent clear: Step this way. What do you do?

Richard: I’m unarmed so I nod and slowly start walking forwards, trying to get a parked car between us. 

[Tanaka, whispering] “I hope you’ve got a plan Sarsin.”

Kate: This is too simple, something’s wrong. I take a proper look around the lot to get a feel for the situation.

Sam: Think that’ll need a roll, with a difficulty of 4.

Kate: Ok, I’m using my Secret Service skill group and have surveillance, security and threat assessment which gives me a skill level of 3. [Rolls] Damn, only 2 successes. I’ll spend a  premonition to reroll it. [Rolls] Not much better, 3 successes and I think I need to save my premonitions for now. Oh, I’ll tag Angry and raise it to 4, I should have seen an ambush like this coming.

Sam: Ok. You spot her at the last moment, lying on the roof of a truck with a rifle. Her first shot whips past your shoulder, next to you Sergi freezes in panic. Tanaka – you’re almost at the car when you hear the gunshot, do you keep walking forward?

Richard: No, I’m going to dive into cover then I want to spend premonitions to make Sergi intangible before he gets himself killed. Sarsin should be able to look after herself for now.

Sam: The car just in front of you will provide cover but you’re having to react pretty quickly to all this… lets make it 3 premonitions to activate your power in time.

Richard: Ok, so as the would be assassin makes her next shot Sergi turns slightly translucent and the bullets whiz through him, shattering the glass of the door to the diner. Screams erupt from inside.

Sam: I like it. In the commotion the two men by your car duck into cover, drawing pistols as they do so. What do you want to do next?

Kate, looking at her knowledges: This is a truck stop right? I know all about weapons, including that the sort of person who drives that 18 wheeler in the corner is going to have a shotgun in the cab. I make a run for it, cover be damned.

Gateway 2015: General Roundup

A few Thursdays ago (3rd September to be exact) began the journey that had resulted from one of my wackier ideas of late, I set off to Gateway 2015, one of the Strategicon gaming conventions run throughout the year at the Hilton at Los Angeles Airport. For those that don’t know me this was, all in all, a rather wacky idea for the simple reason that I live in the UK and I was basically going to the other side of the world just for the gaming convention, having set aside only a single day of the trip to be a tourist.

Why would I undertake such a trip? Because of the fine folks of the Happy Jacks RPG Podcast, and the rather amazing community that has grown up around the show. Since leaving Glasgow three and a half years ago the amount of gaming I’m doing has drastically reduced and those games I do play in are primarily run online. I miss face to face games and most of all I miss doing them with friends. So I flew five and a half thousand miles for the chance to play in games with people I only knew online and from podcasts. Sounds crazy right?

Turns out while it was crazy it was also one of the best weekends of gaming I’ve ever had and all the people I met were genuinely brilliant fun to be around and I got to have a great time in the games I played in / run. I’m aiming to do separate posts for the three games I ran (Project Cassandra, Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors and Firefly) but first a quick round up of Gateway itself.

Continue reading “Gateway 2015: General Roundup”

JackerCon – Children of the Com

Been a while since I’ve posted much, mostly due to a lack of gaming but wanted to share this blurb for an upcoming online game I’ll be running on G+ (yes it still exists). Leave a comment or find me on G+ if you’re interested in playing.

Date: 20th July Time: 20:00 BST (19:00 UTC)
Setting: Post-apocalyptic science fantasy
Maximum number of players: 4

As told by the Elder to those embarking on the Trial of Adulthood:

Long ago, a wise and mighty tribe left their dying home in search of new lands to settle. They wandered for many years with their great machines carrying then far into the darkness before tragedy befell them and a great plague decimated their numbers. Those that survived found themselves trapped in this great valley we now call home and the Com, the wisest amongst them, declared that the one great tribe should become the many that now inhabit the valley. In the many years since we may have lost the ancient knowledge but our people, the Children of the Com, remains respected for its wisdom and fair judgement.

Now, young ones, it is time for you to claim your place as adults amongst our people. You must travel to Warden Isle and the Library of Souls. There you will receive the Blessings of the Ancestors and your place in our world will be revealed. To protect and guide you the Com gifts you these wonders from the before. Use them wisely, for many in the wilderness would seek their power.