Thursday, June 3, 2010

Anatomy of a Con Game

Okay, you guys are here, this door is open but it's dark inside. Who's going first?

Hot damn, two updates in as many days! I might just make it in the high-stakes game of RPG blogging after all. What I need now is a montage of me typing, staring into space, drinking coffee, changing diapers, and doing push-ups or jumping jacks or something backed up by the A-Team theme. Anyway, I woke up this morning in a cold sweat with a terrible realization. Origins is twenty days away! Twenty! Know how much of the prep I have done for my games? None. Well, hell. This is pretty typical, for me at least. I'm a terrible procrastinator, why put off 'til tomorrow what you can do next week? So, I've got a lot of work to do. A lot. But I figured I could procrastinate just a little longer and make a post about what goes into a good con game.



Running games at cons can be a tricky business. You want to do it right. You want to leave your players, who are all a bunch of strangers, feeling like they got their money's worth when they leave the table. How, though? Is there some magic formula that you follow to ensure that a bunch of naturally nit-picky and pedantic strangers from all walks of life pass an enjoyable four hours under your fine GMing skills? Eh, not really. With the weirdo mix of people and personalities at every con, just as in real life, you're not going to make everyone happy all the time. What you can do is make sure you're ready, have a good idea where you're going and a good idea of how you're going to get the players there. Here's a few things to keep in mind when you're living life four hours at a time.

First you want to make sure you've got a strong concept. Most of my con games start from a single idea like, "demon possessed camera steals souls" or "CSAR team boards friendly derelict." The concept should be short, to the point, and attention grabbing. Once you have a good idea you think you can run with, use the old journalism tool of the Five Ws and ask yourself a series of questions.
  • Who: Who is involved? In particular, who are the player characters, and who are their allies and adversaries? Using the CSAR team in the above example, in a team of eight (your typical number of seats at a con game), you'd have some medics, some comms guys, a scout, and some marines maybe. When you make characters for your con game, make sure they fit both the story and with each other. Make sure each has specific skills and/or talents that will have a direct impact on the game. No one wants to pay a couple bucks to play a game and then sit around picking their nose for four hours because you only made one hero and seven hangers-on for the game. As for NPCs, typically a name and a few stats will do. Don't over-do the NPCs, you really don't need to. My NPC enemies are typically a few lines on a 3x5 note card. The basest combat stats including any weapons or powers, useful attributes, and a couple notes about their personality.
  • What: This is where your story goes. Continuing with the CSAR example, say that a carrier battle group was in transit through hyperspace, and one of the ships developed a problem with its FTL drive. That ship drops out of transit, and the rest of the group carries on with promises that they'll send a CSAR ship back for them. Okay, good. What happens then? What happens when the CSAR team (our players) finds their lost ship? Is she okay? Still intact? Crew alive? Since this is a con game the answer to all of those questions is probably no.
  • Where: This question deals with your setting. The where is typically dictated by your system/game of choice, and not specifically the con game itself. A good con game, one with a good enough premise, can be run in any setting. I have a con game whose premise is "Ambassador is murdered at gala opera opening" that was actually inspired by that time Chechens took a whole theater hostage and the Spetsnaz gassed the whole place to catch them. Since it doesn't say anything about specific setting, that adventure could be run with any game from a hyper-modern near future game like Shadowrun to an old-west setting like Deadlands to even a higher-tech fantasy style world. In fact, I first ran that game as an Iron Kingdoms game set in the dwarven capital city.
  • When: Honestly, the when isn't that important. The when is essentially now, with now being whenever you run the game. Check your events guide for run times.
  • Why: The why explains the story's set up. In the above "ambassador killed" scenario, the why begs the question, "Why was the ambassador murdered?" Well, there could be any number of reasons, and it's up to the players to find out. 
Once you've got those questions answered, you're pretty much ready to go. Some other things a con game GM needs to keep in mind are:
  • Pacing: Let's face it, con games are artfully designed railroad games wherein the GM leads the players around by the nose. To mitigate the players' feelings of lack of control, the GM needs to walk a fine line between railroading and allowing free play. This makes sure that the players can affect the story through their actions, and that you can finish on time so you can get to the dealer hall before it closes. The way I do it is that I have a set opening, like the opening credits of a movie (Ambassador is killed, theater is locked down) and a set ending (players uncover identity of murderer) and everything else in between is the players' responsibility. I make sure there are checkpoints along the way, goals I want them to achieve to move the game along, and players typically get to them no problem. If not, I'm there to give them a gentle push via clues or NPCs. Lead you players to the game's conclusion, don't push them, no one wants to have a GM just tell them a story for four hours and not get to do anything cool. Trust me, I paid money to be in a game like that once. 
  • Prep: Do your homework. Roll up strong characters, give each one a little bio to help introduce them to the players, have your NPCs ready, know where the story is going, and above all, be ready to think on your feet. Even though a con game is pretty linear, players can and will go off the reservation and you'll need to be ready. Hell, at the end of one of my modern horror games, the players, who were all cops mind you, turned on one another like jackals and engaged in a firefight in the basement of an old hotel that was under construction. I certainly didn't see that one coming, and neither will you when everything goes all sideways and the players start messing up your narrative. Be flexible and let them run. Encourage creativity at the table, but make sure you still get where you're going at the end of the story. 
  • Presentation: I'm a sucker for props. Character dossiers, maps, photos, charts, you name it I've probably used it in a con game. Hell, I even have a specific Iron Kingdoms GM Kit I use when running an IK game. They help set the tone and immediately get the players in the proper headspace that usually takes weeks of sessions in a regular game. If you'd like to know more about using props, check this post out.
That's about it. Honestly, while it seems daunting, prepping and running con games is a breeze. Intellectually taxing sure, and hard on the voice, but fun and rewarding too. Just think of it like directing a long movie with a lot of improvised dialog. Also, I'd recommend having a stock of con games available. I've got a big ol' binder full of pregen characters and plot notes that I can whip out at a moments notice if needs be. So, go for it. Get yourself a good idea, gin up some characters and have a blast.

4 comments:

Sr. C said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Shawn said...

I loved that IK game--it worked great at Con!

Jack Philpott said...

Great advice from a master.

PS: I loved both AEGIS vs. SPIDER games I played in. I just pimped your post to the props on www.dieselpunks.org as I thing it';; resonate there.

Levi said...

Good points Jason.

I’ll add a couple of my own tips here. I think it is really important to have pre-gen characters. I have yet to sit in on a con game that was BYOC and went well. Also, each of the characters should have notes about their feelings towards some of the other characters and the story. That will help kick start role-playing between the characters greatly.

Another thing I like to do is open the session with a puzzle situation or action. In one of my most successful con games I started all the PCs in an underground prison. Each character had only one item randomly dropped in the character packs. Once the session starts I have everyone roll a perception check. The character with the highest roll notices a possible way of escaping. If only they had item X and y and could see this part of the cave. From there the players discover that spread out amongst them is all of the tools, skills, and powers they will need to escape. All that is missing is teamwork. To this day that has been one of my most successful and memorable con games.