I have to say that my sophomore Gen Con experience was not only better than my first but also far exceeded my expectations, both as a gamer and as an RPG freelancer. It’s always great to put faces with the names in the industry, as well as the opportunity to meet them. I also got a chance to meet a few fellow gnomies (I apologize for Saturday, guys, time got away from me and then my cell wouldn’t work in Union Station…but hey, wasn’t that penthouse suite, well, sweet?).
Anyway, the final leg of my Con to Con journey was actually running my first Gen Con adventure four times (one a day). First of all, I have to say that each of my games ran extremely well and I got a lot of good feedback, both directly and indirectly. I was able to complete the game in the time alotted without the session feeling rushed (handwaving a few minion deaths notwithstanding).
Still, I learned quite a few things running games at Gen Con 2008. In no particular order:
1. Ask the players up front if any of them scheduled an event immediately following yours (hint: many of them will). This lets you know immediately that, should you run into the last 20 minutes of your allotted time, you are going to have defections. It also allows would-be defectors to know that you are aware of their needs and will try to wrap things up in time (they may even allow you a few more minutes than they otherwise would have). It should go without saying that you keep a reasonable schedule as well. Don’t schedule events back to back.
2. Always have a short break every two hours. In a game that runs against the clock, a player leaving the table can disrupt the flow or even bring the game to a halt. While I did build a break into the game, I failed to make that known at the beginning, which caused minor issues in my last session.
3. Be prepared to play with less players than you thought. I designed my Victoriana game for six players and all slots were filled during preregistration. While only my first game had open seats (4 players showed), none of my events had the six players that preregistered (in one case, one player had purchased two tickets and his friend didn’t come). This can especially be a problem for early morning sessions.
I was, however, scheduled to play in an event where only 3 players showed up. After wandering in 15 minutes late, the GM announced that there weren’t enough players and cancelled the game. As a paying customer, I should hope that the GM would run with whoever showed up and modify the adventure accordingly. I have to say this gnome was pretty perturbed.
Build back-up plans for running your game with less (or, if you’re feeling ambitious, more) players. There are many ways to do this, from adjusting encounters to having different character sheets for different amounts of players. For my four-person game, I simply NPCed a character for a couple of scenes.
4. Set goals and time markers. My game was split into three acts; I had allotted the first half of the session to introduce the setting, basic mechanics, and getting through Act I, with the rest of the section covering the shorter Acts II and III. Having goals and keeping an eye on the clock enabled me to keep things moving and adjusting where necessary. It also allowed me to think of on-the-spot ways to accomplish those goals without railroading the players if they wandered off the track.
5. Don’t shut down your players if they think of alternative ways of doing things; they will. Remember, your players spent time and money on Gen Con because they’re dedicated gamers and they paid to play your event because they were interested. That’s a recipe for a creative bunch of players. In most cases, it’s more fun to roll with what they’re doing and subtly guide them toward the climax than to stifle them into rigidly following the track you scripted.
6. In spite of point five, don’t let one or two players throw the game into chaos either. I only encountered this problem once (which was on Sunday morning; go figure…), and I was able to reign them in by reminding them that this was a con game and we had to keep things moving. Trust me, the other players at the table will thank you for it.
7. In most cases, players in introductory games are not going to digest a bunch of rules just because you spat them out at the beginning. Stick to key concepts at the start and educate the players as you play. Reinforcing what I said in my last Con to Con post, strip the game rules to the basics and skip the exceptions or condition modifiers; let the mooks (and even villains) fall quickly rather than bog everyone down in a long combat scene.
8. If you split the group, keep things moving back and forth. In Act III, I had the group split into three. I took inspiration from the Star Wars trilogy (there was only one, right?) and kept moving back and forth, from round to round. This added to the intensity of the final Act, which involved dire consequences for failure. I got a lot of good feedback on this technique.
9. Make sure the PCs shine. The players only have a few hours with their characters and they shouldn’t have to spend it frustrated because the dice weren’t working for them. Don’t roll unless necessary (many rolls can be dispensed with a simple “okay, your character has a high Investigation skill so she’d know to check the desk drawers…aha, she finds an unmarked envelope filled with cash!”), and covertly fudge for their benefit.
10. If you’re looking for feedback or otherwise want to give out contact info; put it on the character sheets. Business cards and scrawled emails tend to get lost, but if your players enjoyed the experience they’re likely to hold onto the character sheets.
11. Running four sessions of the same game can be draining. While I did get more comfortable and familiar with the adventure each time I ran it, I also got some “adventure fatigue.” Next time around I may vary things a bit.
12. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! I had a splitting headache through most of Friday due to dehydration. I’m not the most physically fit gnome and I wasn’t used to moving around so much. Next time I’ll definitely drink a lot more water (I should note that every room I gamed at was well-stocked with water, but you’ll still want a bottle to keep from leaving the table during an event).
13. Understand that these guidelines are based on my experience running an introductory game with a strong plotline in an unfamiliar system. I was witness to (and heard about) other games in which my guidelines would not only have been inappropriate but considered bad form. When possible, educate potential players in your event description (“tactical game with miniatures and battlemat,” “must be able to put on funny accent,” “please show up in costume,” etc) so they know what to expect.
Well, there you have it. I have a lot more to say about my Gen Con experience, but those are subjects for other posts and the Great Gnome Gathering. I had a lot of fun on this journey and I learned a lot of valuable lessons from it. One thing’s for sure; I’ll do my best to get my butt to Gen Con 2009!