#RPGaDay2019 19th August: ‘Scary’

August has come around once again which means it’s time for RPGaDay 2019. In a shift from the questions format of previous years this year is characterised by a series of prompts, which I’ll be attempting to answer each day with a short post, with the prompt word highlighted in bold each day.

Day 19: Scary

I’ve never found it particularly scary to run convention games, which I largely attribute to the extensive presentation training I received while studying for my PhD. I can though, understand why people get nervous when running a game for a group of strangers. There are so many components to balance and keep track of while you’re also worrying about how to ensure everybody has an amazing time. If you do get nervous here are three tips that I’ve learned through experience:

  • Prepare properly – You can spend hours prepping the wrong material. For a convention game focus on the essentials – the basic rules and the framework of the adventure. If you know those then that gives you a core foundation. If your adventure is set on a pirate ship then core rules would include drowning. Set in the middle of a desert? You can probably skip that.
  • Have handouts ready – Always have the player character sheets ready beforehand and include rules summaries for the players and for yourself. If you can include a unique summary for each character that highlights their special abilities and role within the group.
  • Have a strong opening – Avoid the meet where the Queen/Wizard/Mr Johnson tries to convince you to accept the job and dive right in with “You’ve accepted the Queens summons to slay the beast and are on the edge of the village it razed two days ago…” It provides a clear signpost of what characters need to do, avoids the boring negotiations and states for the players that this is a job their characters would buy into. A convention game isn’t a campaign, the setup allows for you to make statements about the characters motivations and drives that the players can latch onto.

#RPGaDay2019 16th August: ‘Dream’

August has come around once again which means it’s time for RPGaDay 2019. In a shift from the questions format of previous years this year is characterised by a series of prompts, which I’ll be attempting to answer each day with a short post, with the prompt word highlighted in bold each day.

Day 16: Dream

I got to make a dream convention trip back in 2015 when I flew out to attend Stratigicon’s Gateway convention in LA. The HappyJacks community has played a massive part in keeping me involved in RPGs during points where I could have easily abandoned the hobby. It was great to finally meet up with various people that I had been interacting with for years online and I honestly had the best time possible. GenCon may boast of being the best 4 days in gaming but I think the attendees of Stratigicon probably have them beaten, the event is big enough to have variety and no shortage of options without loosing the feel of being part of a community. I’d love to go back someday but flying halfway round the world for a long weekend is unlikely to be a viable option again any time soon.

Con Report: BurritoCon 3

This weekend I had the pleasure of not only attending a new convention (to me) but getting to run the first public playtest of Project: Cassandra since reworking the system.

Held at Fanboy 3 in Manchester’s city centre the con is a small event, just over 20 attendees with 4 morning games and a further 4 in the afternoon. For the morning slot my first choice of A Code of Steam and Steel (run by creator Simon Burley, @squadronuk on twitter) sadly had too much interest so I moved to the my alternative choice of Marvel FASERIP game (run by (@ConvergenceUK1). It is a legendary system but not one I’d played before. I won’t spoil the scenario but our group of Captain America, Captain Britain, Daredevil, Spiderman and Union Jack succeeded in saving the day.

The FASERIP system is interesting but definitely a product of its time with the need to cross reference the dice roll against a chart. It works well though and flowed pretty effortlessly, thanks in part to the fact that the GM clearly knew it inside and out, I am fairly certain he could run it entirely in his head if he wanted. We unfortunately ran quite considerably past the end of the 3 hour slot, in part due to a series of bad rolls during the opening combat leading to our superheroes failing struggling to fight off mere rats. A little frustrating given I then had to rush to eat lunch before the next slot.

I’ve now played three different Marvel systems and while I’ve generally enjoyed them am coming to the conclusion that comic book style superhero games aren’t for me. They tend to jump from one action scene to another too much for my liking. It’s entirely consistent with the genre so the issue is definitely with me as opposed to the games but I find it interesting just how long it has taken for me to reach this point of understanding.

For the afternoon shot I was fortunate to be able to playtest the new and improved Project: Cassandra. I had four players who took on the roles of Tanaka, Whitford, Sarsin and Brown as they attempted to save JFK from assassination. I am really happy to say that the game not only went well but provided me with plenty of data for where to focus fine tuning. The characters worked, with their diverse skill sets forcing them to come together as a team and the changes to the skill system meant that they actually failed actions at what felt like the right frequency. They also managed to bypass the entire opening challenge (being chased through the countryside by East German patrols) after an impressive use of a Knowledge provided them with a glider for a stealth insertion. That’s exactly the sort of thing that Knowledges exist for and it was encouraging to see it work in play.

New and improved Project: Cassandra character sheets

In terms of fine tuning and changes there are certainly still tweaks that need to be made. Right now my thoughts are:

  • A set of four shared central skills, for example everybody should have observation under the mental skill set.
  • Clearer guidelines for harm, both taking and causing it. The combat we had was quick, as intended, but was over a little too quickly to build tension.
  • Ensure that the opening questions include at least one location the PCs need to reach before the President to give them a signpost for where to go.
  • One of the players actually suggested making premonitions work the way they used to (only reroll dice without successes). I do prefer this option but need to do a deep dive into the probabilities in order to make it work.
  • Guidelines for tailoring the scenarios to one-shots vs mini-campaigns.

That obviously looks like a lot of negatives but doesn’t really touch on all the things that worked and how happy I was with being able to play through a full scenario in just three hours. With a few other projects moving to completion recently Project: Cassandra is back in focus and I’m looking forward to start pulling it together again. First stop, a basic playtest packet that I can release and use in the future.

As a small and relatively local event I can say that I really enjoyed BurritoCon, everybody I spoke to was friendly, it was amazingly well organised by Neil of Old Scouser Roleplaying (@oldscouserRPing) and the games on offer were diverse with no overlapping systems. Of the eight systems played over the course of the day three were being run by their creators, a rather impressive ratio. Fanboy 3 is also a great venue, with plenty of space and one of the largest board game collections I’ve seen for sale outside of the Games Expo. Perhaps the only downside of the event was most people needing to disperse home relatively quickly afterwards, but that’s not too surprising when people have travelled on the day to be there.

There’s talk of a repeat in October and I can confidently say I’ll try and attend it given how much I enjoyed this visit.

2019 Progress: Halfway there?

As ever time marches on and all too soon the first six months of the year have passed. Given my hope of this year being the one where I move a host of projects forward I thought it would be worthwhile to do an update on my goals for 2019.

Have dones

  • Written and playtested Ghosts of Iron for the Crystal Heart RPG. I’m in the process of revising the text before I submit it. Should be released to Kickstarter backers later this year.
  • Completed the draft for Trick of the Light, my next Demon Hunters adventure starter inspired by the Slice of Life web series. Currently editing and moving it to layout so should hopefully be released soon (ideally before GenCon).
  • Drafted three missions for The Sprawl and handed them over to @HyveMynd for editing / layout. Aiming for a release later this year.

Ongoing

  • Attending conventions – I made a 1 day trip to UK Games Expo 2019 and will be attending BurritoCon 3 in Manchester later this month. I’m also aiming to attend DragonMeet later in the year, if I do I’ll be running games as part of Games on Demand.
  • Progress on Project Cassandra! I posted up the current characters and a rules summary (which is now itself out of date) and am in the process of putting together a playtest packet for BurritoCon. First public playtest since the disaster of Dragonmeet.
  • I have notes for the remaining two Slice of Life adventures and have decided that the Clean-up Crew scenario will be a Fiasco playset given how well the episode meshes with that system. These will be my next focus after Ghosts of Iron and Trick of the Light.
  • The D&D Immortals campaign continues and has passed the tipping point, with the characters ensnared by Destiny and heading towards some epic showdowns with the previous generation of Immortals.

Will I evers

  • Patreon. With the change in how Patreon were going to charge creators I decided to sign up for one with the thought of actually starting it later in the year. Right now I’m sitting on it for the simple reason that it won’t work until I manage to build some interest in what I produce and the first step in that is to actually produce some material. I haven’t released anything since last year and right now I don’t have a core focus for any Patreon project. I don’t know if there is enough interest in material focusing solely on Demon Hunters while most of my other projects have been standalone. Regardless of whether I ever do use it my first goal has to be building up a catalogue of material I can point to.
  • The Kingsport Tribune one-page Cthulhu idea looks like it is going nowhere, just didn’t come together though it did give me some practice with a newspaper style layout.
  • Rocket Demons of Antiquity is on the backburner for now. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a scenario that will require an ongoing campaign to delve into as opposed to my typical one-shot playtests. Plus I’ve got at least three other adventures inspired by previous campaigns where I already know the story-beats to write up first.
  • DMs Guild material – While I have notes for a few products I’ve yet to make any move or progress towards writing them up. Although I expect they would be far bigger sellers than anything I’ve produced to date I’m fortunate enough to be in the position where that isn’t a priority so I can focus on the material that most interests me.

UK Games Expo 2019 – Links roundup

Having attended this years UK Games Expo for only a single day (see my report on it here) I ‘ve been reading over convention reports from other people to obtain a wider appreciation of the event. As I imagine others might be in the same position I wanted to share some links for everybody to enjoy.

The below selection focuses almost exclusively on blog posts and is neither an exhaustive roundup nor endorsement of the listed blogs in general. If you have a post that you would like included just leave a message in the comments, if I get enough I’ll put together an additional post to highlight them.

Attendees

Another Day in Paradise by the TableTop Games Blog
Expos and Pirates and Castles, Oh My! by First Take Some Dice
Hope’s Last Stand – UK Games Expo Preview of Alien: The Roleplaying Game by AvP Galaxy
UK Games Expo 2019: Games…  Lots of games by Geek Pride
1D6 UK Games Expo ’19 Exposed by The Grognard Files with a followup photo scrapbook
UKGE 2019 Roundup by Big Red Barrel
The Game Shelf @ The UK Games Expo 2019 Day 1 and Day 2
A full series of posts from The Giant Brain individually covering Day 0, Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3
UK Games Expo 2019 by The Crooked Staff
UK Games Expo 2019 by What Luke Did Next…and What Lottie Loves
UK Games Expo 2019 report by In 2 The Review
UK Games Expo in Pictures by The Real Jobby
Event Report: UKGE 2019 by Story Makers Games

Stall holders / publishers

Thoughts from UK Games Expo 2019 by Owen Duffy, publisher of The Board Game Book.
Fun and Book Signing on the Author Stand at the UK Games Expo 2019 by SC Skillman
UK Games Expo Report by Scott Gaeta of Renegade Game Studios
UKGE Recap! by Goodman Games (New! Added post-publication on the 7th June)

Some top games lists

Our Games of UK Games Expo 2019 by Coaching for Geeks
Top 10 Games UK Games Expo 2019 by Creaking Shelves
Top 5 Games of the UK Games Expo 2019 by Geek Pride

And last but not least, a seminar recording

How to GM – Live From UK Games Expo 2019 by What would the smart party do?

UK Games Expo 2019 – Thoughts from a one day visit

After many years of not quite making it 2019 was the year that I finally attended UK Games Expo, the largest gaming convention here in the UK. Having made the decision at the last minute I attended for only the Saturday, with a focus on surveying the trade halls and demoing games.

The scale of that task was quickly apparent, my casual stroll to get my bearings and see what was on offer took over an hour and a half! Rather than ramble on I thought I’d do a quick hots and nots but first my haul:

A rather modest one given everything that was on offer. A physical copy of The Cthulhu Hack is something that I have been wanting to pick up since acquiring the PDFs while the dry erase character sheets are a perfect idea for quick games or the innevitable character death. Villagers was a game I’d never heard of before but was able to demo and I knew pretty quickly I wanted to pick it up. We’ve played a few games since I got it home and while it is a little complicated to explain it plays quickly is a lot of fun once you know what you are doing. Finally the Legend of the Five Rings 5th Edition Starter Set. As a big fan of the 4th Edition this new, wildly different take on the samurai staple has been on my radar ever since the beta test. While I’ve not had a chance to fully read over it my intial impressions are decidedly mixed, expect a full post soon once I’ve had a chance to do a thorough read through.

Hots

So many games. To say the expo is big is an understatement, it’s massive and it was great to see the games hobby in such a vibrant state. There was a healthy mix of big and small publishers, independents and even component manufacturers present. While RPGs comprised only a small portion of this all of the stalls were doing a healthy trade and I heard a few publishers say that they’d quickly sold out of some lines.

Catching up with people. Like much of the community I find that most of my gaming interactions these days are online rather than in person so Expo offered a rare chance to catch up with people and put some faces to the various people that I have met through twitter, podcasts and other communities. There were some that I didn’t get a chance to see, hopefully next year I’ll be around for longer and able to arrange for a post game pint somewhere.

Games On Demand. Having only decided to attend at the last minute and wanting to focus on the trade hall I made the decision to pop down to Games on Demand for a quick two hour game. I should have spent more time there, as in retrospect, I enjoy the actual gaming experience far more than I do looking at games. The GMs were great, running a complete game in a 2 hour time slot is not easy and each of them appeared to have multiple systems on offer! The ultimate credit though must go to the organiser Lloyd for putting it together and running one of the most organised spaces I’ve seen at a convention.

Food options. Expecting limited options and long queues I’d brought food with me but realistically I needn’t have worried as the NEC had numerous vendors and there was even a collection of food trucks setup outside the Hilton.

Nots

Lack of water fountains. With thousands of people crammed into what is essentially a giant warehouse it was always going to be hot, compounded by the fact that outside it was a hot day building towards thunderstorm weather. That combination made the atmosphere inside rather oppressive, with little airflow and more than once I found myself having to step outside to get some fresh air. While those factors are out of the control of Expo something that they could have done with was more water fountains. As I was carrying a water bottle I was keeping an eye out for them but only found one during the course of the day (I suspect there were more, but if there were they weren’t obvious). Given the conditions and number of visitors I was both surprised and disappointed by that.

Me. If I’m honest I wasn’t 100% in the right headspace for the Expo. I was tired and found myself a little overwhelmed by the crowds. That led to me not engaging with stalls as much as I wanted to (something I find difficult at the best of times) and avoiding a few particularly busy demo areas because I couldn’t really face waiting around in a crowded area until a space became available.

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.