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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RPGaDay August 13th

13th) Describe a game experience that changed how you play.

I actually have a few examples for this one but I want to focus on one, which served to codify my opinions on running convention games. The UK Student Nationals is a convention that brings together student societies from across the country for a mix of RPGs, wargames, LARP and boardgames. I went a number of times but one in particular sticks in my head for how bad one of the games was.

The convention works in that you pick categories then play two long games, one each day with the same group but different GMs. You never quite know what you’re getting, the particular year in question I’d signed up for scifi and the Saturday game was a bit of a disaster. Not horror story dickish GM disaster but a sequence of small errors that just compounded one another. The game was close to six hours long, under half way through I was building dice towers and the only reason I didn’t walk out was because I was going to be playing with the same people the very next day.

The signs were there from the start, the GM was late (not too unusual given the combo of students and drinking) and hadn’t finished the character sheets. Not one. So there went 15-20 minutes as he filled in the missing details. In the end my character turned out to be a smuggler / con-artist, with 20+ skills to his name (the game was in Hero system, I’ve no idea if this many skills was normal).

The opening to the game wasn’t much better. We were on a space station (yay) in the middle of some galactic civil war but none of us knew each other (boo). There’s bombing and we all get rounded up as suspects. Ok I think, maybe this is the central plot, that we’re all innocent and have to escape so we can prove that fact. Nope, we’re quickly cleared of the charges and then asked to work together as security for a delegation aiming to negotiate a truce.

Seriously?

So we head off on this space ship as the security team, a group of characters that don’t know one another and who were recently suspects in a major attack. Then there’s a murder, a threat from an emerging AI and an attack by a splinter group who have embedded themselves in the ships crew. A trainwreck, but a couple of things quickly become clear. The first is that both the characters and the adventure were based on a previous campaign the GM had run and the second is that only one of the characters was going to be central to the plot, the rest of us were just along for the ride.

The real kicker though? From that long list of skills I used only three or four. Total. In around 6 hours of play.

That game really changed how I looked at convention play and the extra responsibilities GMs have when running games. One of these days I might write out the mental checklist I’ve put together for convention games, the aspects that I personally think are important.

Suffice to say that was the last time I played at the Nationals. Every subsequent year I attended I did so as a GM, fully prepped and determined to run as good a game as I could.

State of the Conspiracy: Major Feedback from Dragonmeet

I posted a quick collection of thoughts regarding Dragomeet 2016 over on my G+ page but I wanted to give the Project Cassandra feedback a post to itself.

What happened

The setup for the game was the same basic questions that I used during the Stratigicon playtest, that Apollo 11 had discovered something and President Nixon was due to be assasinated prior to announcing the discovery. The discovery this time, shapeshifting aliens on the moon who had already infiltrated the USSR and were now trying to take over the US government. The assasin was non other than the vice President who had already been replaced. Thrown into the mix was a Soviet Null, immune to the powers of the party (but not, as it would turn out, regular bullets).

The adventure went by fast. Too fast, as the players blew through every challenge with ease thanks to a combination of difficulties that were too low, great teamwork and some amazingly inventive use of Powers.

Feedback

The primary feedback was pretty unambiguous, actions weren’t challenging enough, which resulted in the group not failing for the first two thirds of the game. This had a knock on effect in that it prevented other mechanics from coming into play, namely conditions and spending premonitions on re-rolls. It was only towards the end of the game that I started raising the difficulty that we started using all of the mechanics but by then it was too late to have a major impact.

The second negative was with the skills themselves and compounded my GM error with the difficulties. Essentially the players found that they either had too high a skill level for a given task or were lacking the skills entirely (and therefore didn’t attempt actions). This is something that has come up in playtests before and I had hoped that the current skill list addressed it. Unfortunately this does not appear to be the case.

It’s a blow to get this close to having the game finished before running into a major issue but on the other hand I’m glad it went badly. It’s the first major catastrophe I’ve had but it also feels like it is workable rather than an impassable issue.
Beyond this the feedback was quite positive. The players enjoyed the scenario and being able to influence it through the questions plus liked the fact that the powers weren’t mechanically constrained to prevent them being overpowered. As these are all aspects I’d put thought into I’m glad that the players picked up on my design aims. Following the game I’m also convinced that the single scenario design (of saving the President) was the right approach. Once the game is finished I may add a bonus sheet on running additional highly defined bonus scenarios (I already have ideas for one based around the Berlin Airlift).

Going forward

I’ve been pondering how to change the skills since Dragonmeet but before I dive too deeply into it I thought it important to look again at the probability tables, the results of which are plotted below. The x-axis plots the number of successes and the y-axis the percentage chance of rolling at least that many successes for a given skill level.

2016-12-06

Looking at those numbers it’s clear how off my perception of the difficulties was. With a skill level of 3, which the players were regularly achieving, there is still a 66% chance of rolling 3 or more successes. In my head 3 successes should have been difficult and definitely not in their favour so often. Those odds rises to a staggering 90% at a skill level of 4 and drops to 32% for a character with a moderate skill level of 2.

It’s clear therefore that the first thing I need to do is adjust my idea of difficulty levels and then add explicit descriptions to the game. My current working template is:

1 – Trivial – Only worth rolling if the individual is unskilled
2 – Normal
3 – Challenging (with intention of this being a typical roll for the game)
4 – Hard
5 – Heroic
6 – Impossible

The second approach is a limit on the maximum skill level of a character. The players at Dragonmeet suggested setting it at 3, which I’m thinking of implementing. At this level a skilled individual will pass a Challenging roll most of the time but still fail at a noticeable rate.

The biggest change, which I’m still working on, are the skills themselves. Under the current design players add up related specialities to get their skill level and tend to either end up with a high level or none at all. If I keep the current system the specialities need completely rewritten to provide a wider breadth skills with only a small number that overlap enough to give a high skill level.

The alternative is simply list a set it skills with a rank by each of them. That has the advantage of simplicity and also makes it easier to deal with edge cases as I can give each skill group a rank for when no specialities apply. For example using brute strength might just fall under the general umbrella of the Physical skill set at rank of 2 for the strongest and 0 for the weakest. The downsides of this approach are flavour and rigidity so more thought will have to go into it before I settle on one over the other. I may also split the skill groups further by adding Social to the existing mix of Mental, Physical and Specialist.

All in all I’ve got a lot to think about and a valuable learning experience for future projects.

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.

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