Dragonmeet Retrospective 4: The Wrap Up

This is my fourth and final retrospective on attending Dragonmeet as a trader for the first time. If you’ve missed the earlier posts you can find part one here, part two here and part three here. In this post I want to try and provide a summary of how it went. Really though I’m here to ask the question of would I do it again?

The answer to that is a strong, but not definite, yes. Running the stall was an experience that I greatly enjoyed and based on the small but noticeable sales bump I’ve experienced over the following couple of weeks it has boosted my profile. It definitely boosted my ego and energy levels significantly, something that is always helpful during these dark months.

You might be wondering why my answer to the question isn’t 100% yes. There are a number of reasons.

The first is money. I didn’t make a profit from this event, though I wasn’t too far from it. This year I could afford that and I think the cost was worth it. I’ve no idea what sort of situation I’ll be in when trader registration opens in 2023 and if inflation continues as it has done the past few months then the costs may simply be too high for me.

The second reason is location, and relates back to the first. There is a strong possibility that the event will move to the Excel next year. It’s a bigger venue and provides the space needed the convention to grow but change also means prices may rise. It’s also just that little bit more awkward to get to compared to Hammersmith.

The final factor is novelty. I had six products on offer and most of them had never been sold at a convention before (and those that had weren’t necessarily prominent items). I can’t bank on those games selling well again next year which means I need new products. Realistically I probably need 2-3 new products. Minimum. That’s not an unrealistic goal for the year given my past output and there’s always a second option – sharing the stall space. This is something I’ve discussed with a couple of people and would allow for a wider selection of games. Alongside the various one off setup costs I had this year sharing the stall would significantly reduce my costs and make it easier to break even.

The downside is, of course, that more games doesn’t automatically mean more sales. By sharing the stall I could end up losing money simply by dividing the same amount of income across more people. It’s something I’ll need to consider carefully before coming to any decision and thankfully it’s one that I’m ok with leaving to future me to deal with.

In terms of what would I do different the list is surprisingly short. The main one is more obvious this is who I am / contact details which will be especially important if I share a stand. Second is less stock as I could have taken half of what I did and gone home with a nearly empty, rather than half empty, case. Finally, adding a vertical stand or two would have made better use of the space and have brought more items up to eye level.

All in all though I think that for my first time it went really well. Part of that was planning and part of it was observation. In the months running up to the convention I was checking the hashtags for major events to get a feel for how others presented their stalls. Combined with my own experience as a visitor to conventions I had a clear idea of how I wanted the stall to look. I also looked into what others had written about running stalls. The Technical Grimoire blog has a great series of posts looking at how they have redesigned their stall over multiple conventions which was really useful in identifying the areas I wanted to focus my attention on. I was a little surprised by how few of these posts there are, which is partially why I’ve written this little series.

So what’s next? Honestly, I don’t know. Dragonmeet is rather unique in the UK in terms of the audience it attracts and I will hopefully apply to be a trader there again next year. As for other conventions it would be nice to attend one in the summer but I’m not sure what the best fit would be for me right now. I would ideally like something focused on RPGs and with a good trade hall to make it worth attending. The exception would be anything local where I could just travel to it on the day. Now that I have built up some stock and without the cost of accomodation attending a smaller event as a trader becomes much more appealing and offers the opportunity to get my games in front of a different audience.

I hope that these posts have been useful to those of you that have read through them. They’ve been very off the cuff and a way to just record my thoughts about the convention. It’s been good to get back to regular blog posts, even if I have rambled on a little.

Dragonmeet Retrospective Part 3: The Day

This is a multi-part retrospective and you can find the full series via these links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

I’ve already spent many words talking about my stand and how much money I made but what about the important question, what was the convention itself like?

Fucking amazing. Exhausting, but amazing.

I’m not going to give an hour-by-hour run down here but want to focus on a few things. First up, it felt busy almost all day but never overwhelmingly so. This is one of the things I’ve always loved about Dragonmeet, the space always feels appropriate for the number of visitors. As I noted in my Tabletop Gaming Live convention report there’s a fine line at which an event feels alive and vibrant. Tabletop Gaming Live never quite got over that line while Expo, despite the massive amount of space, typically goes too far past it into crowded and unwelcoming. Dragonmeet gets it right so it will be interesting to see what happens if, as rumours suggest, it moves to the Excel next year.

It was busy enough that, with two exceptions, there was a constant flow of people wandering the trade hall and while many of those people stopped at the stand it was never overwhelming. Those two exceptions were around 2:30-3:30pm and after 5pm. I think the first was due to a mixture of people attending afternoon games and having already done loops of the halls by then. This was the longest period in the day where I went without a sale, ~70 minutes in all. The second quiet period can be easily explained by it being the final hour of trading and people heading off. Despite it being quiet I still made 4 sales as those that were still around were generally there for last-minute shopping.

If you want to take a look at how sales broke down across the day then tada!

Cumulative sales income over time
Sales income per hour

So what’s the takeaway from these? Primarily, that excel makes some ugly graphs and I couldn’t be bothered to create nice ones in R. I mean, look at the x-axis on the first one where I just could not get it to just list things on a 1 hour time scale.

More seriously the takehome is that while I had a fairly regular sales pattern throughout the day (with the exception of that 70 minute gap) over half of my sales (and total income) were during the first 3 hours of the 8 hour trading window. Are the differences statistically significant? Who knows, I can’t be bothered to check. But it tally’s with my perception of the morning being busier and then tailing off as the afternoon progressed.

Those numbers are all useful but really I want to talk about the experience. As I’ve said, it was amazing and exhausting. First up, a big thank you to everyone that came by specifically and said hello. Lots of faces I knew and far more that I didn’t but have interacted with on Twitter or discord. I even had people whose only prior interaction was playing in my games previously make a point of stopping by. As a designer with limited online reach, these interactions make it worth it. Knowing that people have been playing and enjoying my games was a massive ego boost that kept me going throughout the day.

I also had a stream of people who had heard about Numb3r Stations and were there to pick up a print copy. The game was by far my best seller of the day (27 copies) which I think can be attributed to a trio of factors. One, it’s a brand new game so even people who had supported earlier projects didn’t own it in print. Two, it was cheap at £5 (as it’s an alpha) which puts it into the impulse buy category. Three, Albi and I had both been promoting it fairly heavily online. Taken together it highlights the importance of having a new product available at the booth, even if it’s just a small one and of talking about it in the run-up to the convention. This year I’d focused on promoting Numb3r Stations and just the fact that I’d be attending as a trader, next time I’ll do more to highlight individual products and build some interest in them.

One thing I hadn’t expected (but should have) was how polarising Signal to Noise would be. Many people, on hearing the premise, declared that the game was too emotional or touched on things they weren’t quite ready to think about after the last few years. As an outlet the game really was my “lockdown baby” and I poured a lot of my own emotions into it concerning isolation, distance and losing contact with people. It was cathartic but it seems some people just aren’t far enough from those early days of the pandemic to want to revisit that yet.

Of course, it goes both ways. Dragonmeet attracts many gamers who do want to explore those sorts of feelings and it sold well throughout the day (plus has done well on the IPR booth at Big Bad Con and PaxU). I really hope that the people who bought it enjoy it and want to continue exploring the Dyson Eclipse with me.

I’ve said that the convention was exhausting and it was. I made the decision that I was going to avoid sitting down as much as possible and energised by the event took that a little too literally. From 10am to 6pm I didn’t sit down at all, something I’m not used to in my day job. Surprisingly, my legs weren’t too bad the next day. 

Why did I make this ridiculous decision? Because, in my opinion, a stand with a trader who is sitting isn’t as engaging. I wanted to be in a position where I was actively encouraging people to check out my games rather than relying on passive traffic approaching me. That meant being at eye level, handing out flyers and talking to people as they passed by. I appreciate not everyone can physically manage that but it’s a decision that I believe helped bring more trade to the stall.

Running the stall by myself proved to be easier than I had expected. It meant things like my approach and sales pitch were consistent throughout the day and as all but one of the games were mine I know them inside out and can talk about all of them in depth. That said, there were definitely a number of times when having two people would have been useful, primarily when someone approached the stall while I was already talking to someone. I’m hoping that next year I’ll be able to share my stand with someone else so we can split the work a little. A second person will mean a wider range of games on offer, which should draw more people in but will also mean needing to rethink the layout of the stall. Another bonus is that it will allow me to get away from the stand for a little and actually experience the halls.

Not being able to take a walk around the halls is perhaps my biggest regret of attending as a trader. I bought only a couple of items (the One Ring starter set and core book, Coiled Spaece) plus did some zine trades (Lichcraft and Stories to Astonish the World) but that was it. Sure, it saved me a lot of money but getting to talk to people is one of the things I love about Dragonmeet. Now that I’m attending as a trader it becomes even more important as it’s an opportunity to network and try to build connections for the future.

I did get a chance to catch up with a number of friends on both the Friday and Saturday nights which I greatly enjoyed and is another reason I make a point of attending Dragonmeet over other conventions. Gaming is, at the heart of it, about friends and having previously lived in the South East there are many people that I now only see if we cross paths at the event. That, in and of itself, makes the travel and hotel costs worth it.

Dragonmeet Retrospective Part 2: The Stand

This is a multi-part retrospective and you can find the full series via these links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

For this second post looking back at my first time attending Dragonmeet as a trader, I want to focus on my stand (part 1, focusing on sales is here). What went right, what went wrong and what I would do differently. So let’s start with a picture. This was my stand as I set it up on the Friday evening. With the exception of the banner, which I moved about a little, it’s also how it looked during the rest of the convention.

You can see immediately that it’s quite utilitarian. Six sets of zines, flanked by signs and leaflets on either end. Each zine has a little blurb that also states its price and number of players. While there is a copy of everything standing vertically the majority are lying flat on the table. Behind all that are copies of each product prepackaged in a card back envelope while my remaining stock was stashed behind the table.

So let’s start with the good and I’m going to immediately shift away from the table to this beauty: my roller banner. 

Seriously, I loved how well this came out and it really sells my brand. The images stand out, my company name is clear and it’s got useful information at the bottom. The only things missing are my name and email address, issues that are apparently blind spots of mine as they came up more than once.

With regards to the actual stand, I felt like the limited number of games worked in my favour – I had enough of a range to grab people’s attention but not so many that you couldn’t look at them all. It was also a small enough number of products that I could give a customer a quick rundown of everything without losing their attention, a fact that I believe contributed to a number of sales.

The blurbs turned out to be a star asset, especially when I had multiple people at the stall so definitely something to repeat. They’ll also be invaluable when I have a larger range on offer and have to focus my pitch on a subset of games.

The other factor that helped was that I had two clear themes. I repeated the phrase “can I interest you in sci-fi or spies?” so many times during the course of the day that it almost lost meaning by the end. But it’s a concise and clear pitch that worked. While my personal interests are wider than just these two genres I expect they will always be a primary focus so it’s useful to know that people can be drawn in with a focused sales pitch like this.

So what, in retrospect, didn’t work or would I do differently?

First up are the envelopes. I’d prepackaged a number of zines in the card-backed envelopes that I use for postage and added download codes directly to them. While customers seemed to appreciate this it did cause a little confusion, as people would pick things up to buy and then I’d put them back down and hand them an envelope. Once I’d explained they appreciated it but it was a little hitch that I could easily smooth out. The bigger issue is weight and space. Using the envelopes made my bag heavier than it needed to be, something I could have done without (and more about that in a bit).

As for the download codes again, a great idea but as they were just small slips of paper they’re easily lost. Next time I think I will print them on small stickers and just add them directly to the inside cover of each zine. Again, it’s an easy solution that just speeds things along.

Stock wise I brought far too much. I’d received advice from someone with experience that around 25 copies per product was a good number and with the exception of Numb3r Stations this would have been sufficient. How many copies did I bring? 40-50. Of everything. My case weighed a lot. Why did I do that? Honestly, a mix of “what if it’s super busy” panicking and because I had space in my case to do so. While I did manage it next year I’ll aim for fewer copies of each product and hopefully make life a little easier for myself.

What I could have used that space in my case for was some vertical stands. Compared to others my table was quite flat and below eye level. A vertical stand would have allowed me to put multiple items on display, at eye level, while also only using a small portion of the table space. I could have also used it to make the price lists more visible, as people seemed not to notice them.

One thing that surprised me was how difficult it was to get people to take a freebie. I had produced mini A6 leaflets containing the Home Amongst the Stars micro games and a sign-up to my next Kickstarter. People were really reluctant to take them and even when they were at the stall didn’t seem to realise they were free. If I print a solar leaflet next time then I’ll put some really big ‘FREE GAMES!’ signs next to them. I was also a little disappointed that while I did hand out 100-150 of these leaflets that’s translated to only ~5 signups on the Kickstarter page. Not a great conversion rate. I knew it would be hard but had hoped to get 10-20 new signups to the landing page.

The biggest issue with my setup though was the lack of contact details/indication of who I am. Of the six products, I had for sale on the stand the only one with a name on the cover wasn’t mine! To top this off I forgot to order extra business cards and quickly ran out of them and for some stupid reason didn’t add my contact details to the flyers. Not great given I was hoping to build awareness of who I am so it’s definitely something to go to the top of the planning checklist for next time.

Overall though I was very pleased with my stand setup, especially given it was my first time. I’ve attended a lot of conventions so I think I’ve subconsciously built up a picture of what I do and don’t like on a stand, which reflects where I focused my own attention on. For part 3 I want to reflect on the day itself then do a final roundup in part 4. I’ve had a lot of encouraging comments about part 1 so I hope that this is also useful to people considering running a convention stand.

Dragonmeet Retrospective Part 1: The Money

This is a multi-part retrospective and you can find the full series via these links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

This weekend (3rd of December, 2022) I made my yearly trip down to Dragonmeet. It is by far my favourite convention but this year was different. Why? Because it was my first as a trader. I’m planning to write a series of posts about the experience as I think it’s important to have this information freely available. For post number one I want to talk about money, so here’s the raw numbers.

Sales

Project Cassandra (£12) – 5
Numb3r Stations (£5) – 17
Espionnage bundle (Project Cassandra, Numb3r Stations, £15) – 10
Signal to Noise (£12) – 10
Rock Hoppers (£10) – 7
Kandhara Contraband (£5) – 8
Dyson bundle (Signal to Noise, Rock Hoppers, Kandhara Contraband, £25) – 5
Stealing the Throne (£12) – 14
Home Amongst the Stars (£0) – Many!

Total sales before any fees: £818
Banked after card processing fees: £805

Costs

Stand £150
Accomodation £274
Travel £100
Printing £262
Stealing the Throne stock £126
Acrylic stands £20
Envelopes £24
Banner £40
Card reader £23
Table cloth £6

Total costs: £1025

Profit: -£220

So attending the convention as a trader cost me money and there may be a couple of costs I’ve forgotten to add to that list. The biggest single factor was accommodation – two nights in central London is expensive, especially over a December weekend. I could, if I wanted, make arguments about why certain costs don’t really count. For example, I’d have spent that money on accommodation and travel if I’d gone as a visitor while the printing and envelopes included enough stock that I probably won’t need to order reprints until at least next summer.

Was it worth it though? That’s a topic for future posts but the short answer is yes. Some of those costs such as the banner were one offs that I wouldn’t have to pay for again while I already have thoughts on how to reduce other expenditure. The big reason it was worth it though is the exposure. So many people have now looked at or bought my games that, over time, it will start to add up and boost future sales. But as I said, that’s for a future post.

Prepping for Dragonmeet

Test setup of a convention stall fill of RPG zines. To the left is a toll roller banner and the stand is in front of a bookcase

With Dragonmeet rapidly approaching it seemed wise to put together a test of my stand setup earlier this week to see if there was anything missing or obvious issues with it. I’ve been fretting over how to arrange my stand since making the decision to exhibit at the convention but honestly, I’m really happy with how it looks.

The biggest surprise while putting everything together was that I’ve got a decent range of products to promote. Unlike some creators I’m not the most prolific so to get to ordering my print run and finally feeling like yeah, this is a good selection, was really heartening. While I’d obviously love to sell out and make loads of money my aim for the weekend is to showcase what I do and build some awareness.

It’s honestly a weird position to be in as I’ve moved squarely from the hobby to keep me engaged with gaming to taking the business side of things seriously. Am I ever going to do this full time? Almost certainly not. Would I like to be recognised as a designer and build a modest audience? Yes, and this is a big step forward in doing that.

So what will be on the stall?

Well I’ll have 2 distinct themes of games – sci-fi and spies. The sci-fi releases include Signal to Noise, Rock Hoppers and The Kandhara Contraband. Supporting those I’ll also have the excellent Stealing the Throne by Nick Bate, who unfortunately can’t make it this year.

On the espionage half I’ll obviously have Project Cassandra which will be backed up by Numb3r Stations, my recent collaboration with Albi.

To top it off, a freebie in the form of Home Amongst the Stars as an A6 leaflet. Suffice to say getting through the next week of work is going to be a challenge when I’ve got the convention to loon forward to.

Con report: Dragonmeet 2019

After attending a number of excellent events earlier this year I knew that my final convention of the year had to be something special. That really meant I had only one option, Dragonmeet this past Saturday (November 30th) in London. As I’m no longer based in the South East I went with the there and back again stupidly long day option, taking a 06:45 train down from Liverpool and then rushing off to catch a 18:07 train home again. Was the 16 hour round trip worth it? Absolutely.

The Convention

The last time I was at Dragonmeet (2015 I think) it had just relocated to its current venue, the Novotel West hotel near Hammersmith. In that time it has grown substantially, with the trade hall now spread over two floors and they have finally (!) replaced the game sign-up process with online booking that limits the sign-up scrum that the convention had become infamous for.

I spent the morning in the trade hall, saying hello to people and browsing the stalls and even conducting an impromptu interview for the Rolistes podcast. After working on the Crystal Heart kickstarter I also finally got the chance to say hello in person to Eran and Aviv from Up to Four Players and I can’t wait to see how that world progresses over the next year. I handed out business cards with free download links to a few people, so hopefully that will help with getting my work seen by a wider audience. (This is something that I find excruciatingly difficult so sorry to anybody that thought I was avoiding a conversation!)

Overall I was really impressed by the range of products on offer and thanks to expanding onto the second floor it never felt too busy (unlike the chaos of Expo). Dragonmeet is built around RPGs and it was good to see that while it has grown there were still dozens of independents mixed in with established small studios and some of the larger publishers such as Modiphius, Cubicle 7 and Pelgrane Press.

I’ve posted a separate loot post but suffice to say I had no problem in spending more than I’d initially planned to and was happily over budget by half eleven. There were a few further products I did consider picking up – Carbon 2185, which looks really nice but from my perspective is a difficult ask given my apprehension towards 5E derivatives. There was also Broken Shield 2.0, a brand new iteration of an interesting dark future-noir setting. Unfortunately I’d bought the original game many years ago and got burned by the clunky, old-school system so was reluctant to jump straight in. I have, however, downloaded the quick-start so will give that a good look through.

Indie Games on the Hour

After playing in Games on Demand at UK Games Expo back in June I volunteered my services to run games in two slots at indie Games on the Hour (iGOTH), organised (primarily) by Josh Fox from Black Armada. I offered two games – Project Cassandra and Demon Hunters, which are probably the only systems I know well enough to comfortably run in under two hours for strangers.

During my first slot I had three players for Project Cassandra and we played the Ich bin ein Berliner scenario that is included in the minimal playtest packet (which will be receiving an update soon). The players seemed to really enjoy themselves and dived in to the game, with one player liberally spending premonitions to the point that they had run out with half an hour still remaining.

From a playtest perspective this session was extremely valuable. On the positive front it demonstrated that with a proper use of difficulties the switch back to using premonitions to re-roll dice that didn’t already add a success wasn’t game breaking. The players still failed an appropriate number of times and didn’t rely on the same small set of skills. It also reinforced my belief that the game is best with three players – that provides both a wide range of skills while ensuring that they are sufficient gaps to allow for challenges to arise naturally.

The session also picked up on two trends that I’ve spotted previously and that I’d now say form a pattern of potential issues. Those centre around powers and pacing. On the powers front they are generally underused and players tend to save them for big scenes. Not an issue but definitely something to take note of, especially during one shots. The pacing is a bigger issue – after reaching Berlin the first thing the players did was head to the site of the coming assassination attempt. Which is a perfectly logical approach but somewhat breaks the tension. I’ve got some ideas on how to go forward and will incorporate them into the next playtest.

By the time of the second slot the interest in iGOTH had seemingly exploded and all of a sudden we were swamped with players. Thankfully an additional GM was able to step up, ensuring that almost everybody got a game (I think a few late comers may have been unable to). At first count I had 11 people express an interest in Demon Hunters! While I’d have loved to accommodate them all that’s just not feasible and in the end I ran for a table of 6, which included two younger players (aged 10 and 7) and their dad plus 3 other adults who all stepped up to help make it a silly, family friendly game. To say it was chaotic would be an understatement and I found myself making numerous on the fly additions to the Missionary Opposition scenario, including a magically reanimated, vampire rabbit (inspired by a memorable scene from Dorkness Rising). I played fast and loose with the rules, knowing it was necessary to keep the kids interested and I hope that didn’t impact too much on the rest of the table. In the end the day was saved, pets were rescued and Albrecht even got to walk away with a big stick. I’m considering the possibility of simplifying the system as a way to offer it in a dedicated child friendly way without losing the flavour but that’s something for future me to think about.

Closing thoughts

It’s been a few years since I last attended Dragonmeet so it was great to see that in that time it has continued to grow but without sacrificing the welcoming feel it has always had. This isn’t a giant impersonal event like Expo – it still feels like a friendly, small convention despite being perhaps the biggest UK event focused primarily on RPGs. I don’t know the final numbers and didn’t explore the spaces dedicated to organised play or pre-booked games, I would guess in the 2-3000 over the course of the day, but it shows that the hobby is vibrant and alive. It was great to see an improved gender balance and increased visibility of queer creators but there are definitely still gains to be made, especially in drawing in non-white gamers but I also think that is (unfortunately) reflective of the UK RPG scene as a whole.

I’ve already answered the question of whether the excessively long day was worth it, which is a resounding yes. Dragonmeet remains a friendly convention that I will try and attend again next year. As I progress into this little adventure that is publishing I can see it becoming increasingly important for me as an opportunity to catch up with other indie developers. Even if that wasn’t the case the combination of gaming opportunities and chance to interact directly with traders in a relaxed space would make it worth it. In an ideal world I’d be able to make a full day of it rather than rushing off in the early evening but those sort of logistics are an issue for future me, right now I have loot to enjoy.

#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.

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?

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.