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Conventional Wisdom

by Steve Dempsey


You've been running Ars Magica for your friends for 12 years. The campaign features political intrigue, demonic contracts, three generations of mages, the Inquisition and a shady eastern mystical society. The PCs, with a depth of personality to rival Shakespeare, have histories that criss-cross the stories of the major NPC families. Not to mention all the personal sacrifices they've made to conjure powerful magic items simply coruscating with kabalistic energies.

You have been there and done that, got the T-shirt, ate the pie.

You take the epitome of your GM writing craft, a sort of Hamlet crossed with the Lord of the Rings, condensed into four hours play. You then get stuck with two newbies, one of whom is 12 and pathologically shy and two Ars Magica old hands who know the system inside out. The final two players are slumming it from Living Greyhawk having turned up late and found only your game has places remaining...

Within half an hour, the Heroic Fantasy merchants have exchanged the souls of the newbie PCs with some archfiend of the 7th circle of Hell for 21/2 tons of Vim and an audience with Pope Joan in her jacuzzi. The two old hands have started to research a spell that will reduce the callousing effect of turning the pages of spell books by 1d10 per 2,300 pages and the newbies have started talking about Cleopatra 2525.

Nobody has picked up your witty reference to Pico della Mirandola nor sussed that the murders follow an inverted tarot cross pattern. The plot is in shreds as are your nerves.

What has gone wrong?

How could the players be so terrible? Why couldn't they see what a sorry mess they have made of everything? The problem, you decide, with cons is that you just have no guarantee of quality. Quite frankly you expected better and you swear never to run a game at Barbiecon again.

In fact, if there is anyone at fault here, it's you. You have forgotten that Cons and Campaigns are very different kettles of fish. They are about as close as the Brothers Karamazov is to Star Wars (remember that for later).

But fear not, here is my 7 point plan for convention games:

There are generally two kinds of convention game. There are those written as an introduction to the game system. These typically get you a free copy of the lite rules as an inducement to buy the final product as and when it comes out.

And then there are the rest. The only real difference between good games of both sorts is that one has a bribe attached.

That's right, decent Con games are introductory games for beginners.

You might think that this is an oversimplification and that you do get good players at Cons. I won't dispute the presence of experienced players but you are never guaranteed to get them in your game. This leads to the first rule:

  1. Unless you have managed to prebook the Bunnies & Shoggoths roleplaying demonstration team, write a game that beginners can play.

A beginners' game does not mean a simple game. The idea is to introduce the players to the game. This means writing something that shows up its various key aspects.

The first key aspect of the game is the background. If you are playing Pendragon, then make all the players knights. Yes, even the women. Pendragon is primarily about derring-do on horse back, romantic encounters with Ladies and undoing the foul machinations of the evil enemies of Arthur, King of the Britons. Keep the "Everyone's a Squire" or "Wart's Chipmunk Buddies" for your home game. This is rule 2.

  1. Go to the essence of the game's background.

Now you're cooking. The second key aspect is the player characters. There are several dangers with PCs. One is an overburdened character sheet, covered with acronyms, strange symbols and references to obscure rules. This is rule 3.

  1. Write the character sheet in English

Even if you think your Vampire sheet is self-explanatory put in a short paragraph on what the character actually is and how that relates to the rest of the game. I can never remember what Ventrue do anyway so a reminder is good. Keep all the blobby things, obviously, but go that extra inch in making the game easy to play.

The other PC faux pas is to overdo the design, A Verbena witch masquerading as a Black Spiral Dancer with a Wraith guardian and a Pooka familiar might seem the obvious choice for your scenario but ... I've got no idea what I'm talking about. Lower power levels are much easier to manage at a Con.

  1. Keep It Simple, Stupid! And avoid cliché like the plague.

Oh, no! Two PCs are secretly in love again. Yawn. Well, fair enough for Manga where that is a staple, an example of Rule 1, not cliché. But in 3e? There is no real place for star-crossed lovers in Conan. Have the hero's betrothed eaten by pygmy cannibals by all means but don't have romantic trysts in the arbour.

The background is set, the players have read and understood their sheets. It's now time for lights, camera and action. And I mean ACTION! Give the players something to do. There are never going to see what the game is about if they spend half the scenario debating the price of their room with the landlord.

This happened in my last Dying Earth game and really it didn't start out that well. It wasn't until things started to happen that the new players actually managed to get involved.

Remember that example way back in the introduction? At this point you should be thinking cinema not literature. We don't really care if 'reader, you married him', we want a dripping wet Darcy charging across the croquet lawn on his horse to pull fair Emma from the lake. A play on manners is hard enough to manage with you regular crew so don't expect miracles from complete, and sometimes antagonistic, strangers. Here's rule 5:

  1. ACTION! Make things happen!

With this in mind, think about rules. Allow the players to engage gradually with them. Don't start with a decking battle in Shadowrun, start with a simple street transaction or a sneak roll. Even for experienced players there are bound to be idiosyncrasies in the way you run the game. To avoid the situation where confused players are reduced to quoting rules at you, make it clear from the start how you run the game. Not only will it show who is in charge but it will settle the nerves of those who do and those who don't know the game.

  1. Start with simple rules examples and build up to the more difficult, if you must.

Finally we come to the last rule. Even if you have aced the rest, if you fail this an hour into the game tumbleweeds will start to roll across the table and vultures perch on the GM screen. The only thing left to remind you that the game was once alive is the stink.

Unfortunately this is also the hardest lesson to learn.

The two armies face each other across the plains. One is flesh and blood, the other robotic, unfeeling and deadly. A heroic sacrifice is about to be made. Then some f**kwit has the bright idea to raise the mood by having a clown prat fall around in the foreground. Thank you very much, Mr. Lucas.

Don't do that. Just don't.

By all means have comic interludes in your games, but don't let them ruin moments of high drama. Don't let them take away the sense of danger and excitement. Here is rule 7.

  1. Build the tension.

This is the hardest rule because you have to do three things at once. You need to rely on your skill as a writer to produce a moment of real danger. The best way to do this is to offer the PCs a moral dilemma. Should they save the Princess or the Kingdom? What if they do get the alien eggs for Weyland-Yutani? At least the colonists will live. Give them a hard choice, one where somebody has to get hurt.

You then have to deliver the dramatic instant in such a way that it creates the right mood. Get the NPCs to argue for both sides, convincingly. Push the players for time. The decision needs to be made now. Don't give them time to think or to consider all the consequences of their actions.

Then, if you're a real bastard, take the worst case scenario that the players thought could not possibly happen. The one they have just been dismissing as so unlikely. Quickly invent a rational, and hit them with it.

Finally you have to manage the players so that they are not allowed to spoil it.

Because they will.

They'll quote inanely from Aliens or Ghostbusters during a death scene. They'll talk numbers instead of actions: "327 HP damage, gross!" instead of "I pierce the beast's black heart with my father's rapier". They'll goof off to get drinks. They'll even start to talk about Cleopatra 2525 as if it could possibly, ever, be better than your game!

If you keep the tension high enough though, they won't worry about such things. They'll be far to busy enjoying themselves. At Cons, where the game is new to many, where the surroundings are often less than ideal, you need to keep the players focussed on the important. Dramatic Tension will do that for you.

In a previous article, J.S. Majer claimed that roleplaying was just "mastery of specific technique, plus a sense of composition". Here I hope I have covered some of the techniques and touched on the composition of a good Convention scenario.

This article is dedicated to the RPGA who, with a few rare exceptions, wouldn't know a good scenario if it bit them on the ass.

Steve Dempsey is the increasingly harried co-editor of PTGPTB.

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