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From Con to Con: The Monthly Game

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On May 22, 2008 @ 9:49 pm In Gaming Conventions,GMing Advice | 4 Comments

In my first post in this series I spoke a little about my experiences at GenCon 2007, concentrating on rookie considerations. Obviously, I’d learned much more than that and my experiences in actually playing con games also remained with me.

Last December, I’d decided that my weekly game, which took place on Fridays ostensibly from 8-11 (although we were usually lucky to get in 2 hours of play), had run its course. I was feeling burnt out and wanted to try something different. I also wanted to step away from a weekly schedule.

While at GenCon, I’d taken the opportunity to play a game of Victoriana 2e that was run by its line developer. As a fan of pseudo-historical gaming, I’d run a yearlong campaign of Victoriana 1e and was eager to try the new edition. I’d also been recently contracted to write supplements for the new edition. As I’d spent most of the fall drafting material for this game, I definitely had it on the brain. I decided that the new game would be Victoriana.

I also decided to move to a monthly schedule. This allowed me to recruit a couple of fans of the first edition of the game that couldn’t commit to more than once a month (and usually only one of them could make it). I realized that a monthly schedule would have its own challenges, so I set my ground rules.

Treating the Monthly Game Like a Con Game

Essentially, my ground rules just acknowledged the obvious. Players could not be expected to remember things from month to month and player absences could become a real problem (imagine trying to educate a player on what happened a month ago while she tries to mesh that with her memories from two months ago!). Recalling my experiences at GenCon, I decided to treat my monthly game like a monthly con.

First, I had the characters designed ahead of time according to my needs. Out of five players in the group, I only had one that insists on designing his own character, so I set up a special time with him and allowed him to do so. I then designed the rest of the group myself (since I’ve known all of my players for years, it’s easy for me to design something that I know they’d enjoy playing).

Second, I decided that each game would be self-contained. We would set aside 6 hours a month and I would run the adventure from start to finish.  This would allow a player to be absent without disrupting play; he would simply join the next adventure.

Third, the players were expected to accept the “amazing coincidences” that brought their characters together. Since I was using published adventures, I had to do what I could to get the group together.

Fourth, I would have to monitor the pacing and clip tangents in order to ensure that we would finish in time.


Overall, this model has worked fairly well. I’ll be getting into the challenges of this type of campaign more in-depth as this series progresses, but I’ll share some general observations here.

Players have to hit the ground running. There’s little time to establish a character in a self-contained session. Completing the adventure is the primary goal, and there probably isn’t enough time to get sidetracked. The player needs to showcase her character’s personality and motivations while participating in the group goal.

Pacing is everything. I was used to pacing organically. After all, there’s always next session if things move slowly, right? Now, I had to get through an entire adventure in one sitting. While we’d set aside 6 hours and the players were willing to go overtime to do it, I still felt the pressure to finish. Thankfully, many of my short session tricks helped.

You control advancement. And I mean “control” in every sense of the word. Unless you are playing a game that all the players know well, it will be tough for them to make decisions about how to spend XP. If you regularly advance the characters every session (easy to do in games where XP is spent on individual goodies), then the players are going to have to trust you to upgrade their sheets and learn about their new abilities in play.

There is less emotional investment. Sure your players enjoy the campaign. They show up every month in spite of their busy schedule, right? Still, it’s tough to get emotionally invested in the game when you’re only playing once a month. This is especially hard with “roleplayers” (and I use the term affectionately; I’m married to one!) when you’re constantly interrupting their moments to push the adventure along. The best advice I can give is know your players and attempt to give them some spotlight time doing what they enjoy.

I apologize if I rambled a bit on this one. Just before starting this campaign, my group became a playtest group, so I’ll go into more detail into how our focus shifted next post! 

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "From Con to Con: The Monthly Game"

#1 Comment By age On May 22, 2008 @ 11:07 pm

We too game monthly. I like the idea of starting and finishing an adventure in one session, as we do have problems with players not being able to attend every month, and this can mess things up. I’ll have to check out your short session tricks.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On May 23, 2008 @ 10:22 am

The last point is the hardest for me to deal with. It manifests in ways both big and small– as you mentioned, they won’t remember the stuff that happened a month ago, and they often won’t really master the system. It feels like the burden falls very heavily on the GM’s shoulders– much more an “entertain them” style than getting to “create together”. Did you find it was a heavier burden as a GM?

#3 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On May 23, 2008 @ 10:48 am

Age: Thanks for reading! I would caution you that attempting to run a complete adventure in one sitting adds a lot of pressure to the game. The flipside is that everyone tends to be more focused.

Scott: Your question cuts to the heart of this series of posts. The pressures and responsibilities of having to “entertain” the players really got me to reflect on my convention experiences. I find that it helps if you walk into each monthly game with a “Con GM” attitude. The more I accepted that and got into the Con mindset, I found my game easier to run.

After a couple of sessions, you will find that the players will “find their voice” and become more active. It’s just that this will take longer. Also, your players will be less likely to get bored with a character that they rarely have a chance to play.

#4 Comment By Omnus On May 24, 2008 @ 8:28 am

Damn I was spoiled. I live in Wisconsin, just an hour north of Milwaukee. I went to every GenCon since 1990 until they moved to Indy. It may not seem so far away, but it’s not an easy trip. You’re lucky!

I’ve both played and run games at conventions. The biggest problem that I had in both cases was not knowing who you were playing with. Pacing, suspension of disbelief for group building, advancement were not so much issues. But even if you tag your game “advanced” you’ll still get wet-behind-the-ears kids and first-time gamers bellying up to your table. There’s not much you can do about it, but I always found that to be the biggest impediment. With a group that meets regularly (albeit sparsely) that familiarity with the rules comes far easier. It actually makes some things easier, like allowing a DM/GM to tinker with the formula of player makeup for the group, as weeding out an ill-fitting player gets much easier.

One thing I find, though, Walt, is that while a player won’t get bored with a character they only play once a month, they seldom get the same attachment to their character as someone who plays them more often. As I am a low-mortality-rate kind of DM, this is a pretty good thing; when a character buys the farm, there’s usually a moment of shock and awe (or awwwwwwww…..). In one of my latest games, the elven ranger split off from the party, though wounded badly, to fire off a few arrows at a fleeing monster. He was not aware that he had walked right into the sights of the evil priest who was enjoying the benefits of an invisibility potion. One Flame Strike (and a botched saving throw) later, and the party was bereft of their ranger. The players blinked a few times in shock, then their expressions turned ugly. As their characters felt, so did they: that priest HAD TO DIE! Especially poignant was the fact that one of the other characters was the brother of the ranger. Much carnage ensued, but it does illuminate my point. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also builds attachment, which aids drama and engagement in your story. To me, that level of attachment is nearly impossible to recreate in a convention environment, in which encounters read like wargames.

One thing I find that helps build some kind of rapport in short-term scenarios is to try to link the characters to something the player can obviously grip. For instance, if a character is playing a member of a priesthood, giving them the core info about the faith they follow can help to color their characterizations even with a pre-made game. This may sound obvious, but it’s often overlooked. I remember one con where I was playing a cleric in 2nd Edition. All I knew was that his god’s nickname was “The Lady of the Bloody Hand”. The alignment was neutral good, so I assumed the character was some sort of avenging type, and the first combat I joyously had him move forward at the bugbears, mace swinging, chanting “Blood for the Blood God!” The other players were amused (as were the people at the surrounding tables, but hey, I’m a loud guy), but the DM was scandalized. He then berated me, telling me that “The Lady of the Bloody Hand” was a healing goddess, who put her healing hands over the wounds of others. This was a fact that was never explained to me. The other players liked my version better, incidentally, and I got in some great games after-hours from then on at that GenCon (’94 I believe).

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