Con Games

Imagine the scene…

It’s been a game of intrigue, politics and relentless action. First your party moved around the royal household, trying to find clues as to where the kidnapped courtiers had been taken. Then, you found out that there was an unknown traitor working within the palace, who had arranged not only for the kidnapping, but also for those taken prisoner to be spirited away to an evil sorcerer’s lair. After this, your party breathlessly took off after the kidnappers, and then proceeded to fight your way through a fortress-dungeon of evil minions. Eventually, after all of this, you arrive at a huge, obsidian portal. As you stand there, weapons and armour slick with the blood of your foes, you’re almost breathless with anticipation.

For many years, whenever I head the word “sorcerer” I thought of this guy – “The Sorcerer’s Cave” was such a great game…

Are the prisoners still alive?

Who is the traitor?

Who is the sorcerer and what is he capable of?

You steel yourself, turn to your companions, nod and draw your weapon.

“Let’s do this…” you mutter, before turning the handle of the door…

…at which point the GM looks at his watch and says “Ok, that’s it – times up.”

Ordinarily, that would be called a “cliffhanger” and you’d be waiting until next week to find out what happened. But, sadly, you’re playing at a convention. Which means you’re probably never going to find out the answer to any of those questions.

Why am I warbling on about this kind of stuff? Well, this weekend, I’ve got the privilege of GMing a game at Virtual Grogmeet 2022. This isn’t anything new to me – I’ve run games at virtual conventions before. Indeed, at the last three Grogmeets I’ve rolled out a Paranoia game for folks to join. Paranoia is actually one of those games that’s almost perfectly suited to a convention. It’s scenarios and missions are generally so loosey-goosey / impossible that it doesn’t matter if things don’t end the way they’re meant to. In fact, my formula for any Paranoia convention game usually amounts to:

  • Write a bunch of characters that have a reason to dislike and go after each other
  • Give them some difficult mission that conflicts with all of their personal agendas
  • Lock them in room for four hours
  • Have the Computer / someone high up come in and tell them what an awful job they’ve done and have the camera fade to black as the executions / demotions begin
You can do a lot with Paranoia in four hours…

Obviously, there’s a TINY bit more writing involved (and I do like to go to town with music and sound effects) but the gist is there – with Paranoia the key is that the PCs have a decent set of agendas, and that there’s a fixed ending time that isn’t incumbent on the PCs actually having accomplished anything.

However, this weekend I’m not running Paranoia, I’m running Alien which means I’ve had to give slightly more thought to structure. Going back to the example I gave at the beginning, the biggest problem with that setup there is that there is far too much crammed into the game. Yes, it’s a fictional scenario, but breaking it down we have:

  • The initial setup
  • A kidnap investigation
  • A “root out the traitor” investigation
  • A cross-country chase
  • A dungeon crawl
  • Rescuing the prisoners
  • Unmasking the villain
  • A final encounter

Also, don’t forget that the players have zero idea of who they are playing until they turn up, so there’s probably going to be time spent asking character-related questions. Trying to cram so much into a convention game – when you generally have three or four hours to complete it – results in two things happening:

  • You don’t finish the game
  • You don’t get to spend enough time on the different areas and therefore these segments feel rushed
If you’re not careful, your game can end up being like a beautiful pile of presents that people don’t have enough time to open…

In our example game, we’re seeing the blending of different styles of play. There’s investigation, there’s social play, there’s hexcrawling, there’s dungeon exploration and there’s combat. That’s a LOT, and you’re not going to do it justice in the short time you have. If doing everything else is incumbent on finding out who has been kidnapped and where they have been taken, why waste time on running what will probably be a very short investigation? Will it really add that much to the game if you have the party running around the castle questioning people on what they saw and making perception checks?

You could have a “Uh…so, guys. You’re standing around in the castle when someone rushes in and yells ‘Come quickly – the prince and princess have been kidnapped!’” and then play out the whole “…and if you do this I shall reward you all with thousands of gold pieces and land and other good things…” scene.

This poses a few problems.

Firstly, it takes time. Players like to interact, so there’s going to be conversations with people to try and get more information, haggling and sneaking about looking for clues. It might just take fifteen minutes, but that’s a chunk of your game gone already. Secondly, does trying to hire the party really add anything? These players are never going to play these characters again, so they’re not going to be massively excited if the king suddenly offers them royal titles and a castle for the safe return of his children.

Finally, you don’t actually know who your players are – in most cons you’ll be running a game for a group of complete strangers. What’s to say, if you present them with “….and will you swear to bring my family back safely?” that one of them won’t turn around and say “Nah – I don’t fancy it.” I’m lucky that I’ve never yet encountered this level of arseholery – after all, there’s a certain contract between con players and the GM that the GM is running a one-shot – but it could happen.

Instead, why not start things in media res? You open the game with your narration, setting the scene about the kidnapping and having them arriving at the entrance to the evil sorcerer’s lair after a breathless chase through the countryside that took three days and nights. Sure, you could play out that hexcrawl, but will a series of random encounters really help? Also, you’ve populated this dungeon with bad guys and the big villain, which means that unless you’re willing to actually give them a chance of catching up with the kidnappers and ending the game early, this whole sequence is fairly pointless.

Now, your game is much more focused – the players have to explore the dungeon, rescue the prisoners and dispatch the villain, and you’ve got a lot more time to make it polished.

These were the thoughts that I was having when I was putting together my Alien scenario. I won’t spell it out here – after all, some of my prospective players might read this nonsense, but I originally conceived having the crew arrive at the planet in orbit. Then, I thought we could have some introductions as they prepare the landing sequence, which then gives them some experience of the system. After they landed, they could meet the colony administrators and arrange for the transfer of their cargo, and then…

…I stopped at this point and realised that the above would probably take a good hour or so out of my game. More importantly, it wouldn’t really achieve much. My scenario is based around them being on a certain planet – why not have them already landed on the planet and then kick off from there? Would a bunch of random starship maintenance rolls, and some interaction with some administrators on fairly boring trading matters that everyone would have to ad-lib really add anything to the game? Probably not. What’s more, it would probably slow the pace down a LOT. Yes, Alien is a horror game, and horror works best when contrasted to normality, but there’s a difference between holding up the mirror to the day-to-day and holding up the mirror to banality. While the specifics of inter-stellar commerce could be quite flavoursome for a campaign, for a one off it adds nothing!

This whole train of thought got my pretty conscious of the time crunch, so I did something which I am very glad I thought of, and which I cannot recommend more highly to anyone considering running a game at a con – I got my regular group to playtest it. I was pleasantly surprised that when we ran through it the timings seemed to match up to roughly what I was expecting, but my group also offered up some brilliant bits of feedback that I’ve now incorporated into my scenario. GMs; if you have the time, you should absolutely playtest any con game you intend to run.

The final piece of advice that I have, relates to the piece I mentioned above about the player who decides they don’t want to do the scenario that is offered. Characters need a reason for going on whatever quest you’ve dreamed up. This is why the in media res approaches works so well – you open after the characters have accepted whatever the task is.

I’d suggest another approach that Alien pulls off extremely well, namely the concept of character agendas. In short, every character in a game of Alien is given an agenda – a sort of grab bag of objectives and roleplaying hints. If the stick to the letter of this, they are rewarded with character points that have mechanical benefits in the game.

Why is this so great for con games? Well, think back to other games that you have started over the years. How long does it take for people to properly get into their characters? Usually a couple of games, right? You don’t have that time in a convention. Therefore, your players will probably appreciate a hook to hang their roleplaying cloak on, and this is where agendas come in.

For some GMs, this is their ideal player…

They don’t have to be complicated. Something along the lines of “This is who you are. This is what you believe. Here’s who you like. Here’s who you dislike. Here’s what you want to achieve and why”.

Given that you won’t be awarding experience points, having some sort of mechanical bonus that you can give players to help reinforce them fulfilling their agendas goes a long way to making these stick. Paranoia does something similar with “perversity points”. You award these for when people stay in character and try to fulfil their secret objectives. In turn, they can spend these points to gain a small mechanical bonus.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that every player is some kind of coin-operated robot who will only roleplay if offered incentives – most are not. What I am saying is that you’ve got a very short space of time to let people get into character, and agendas help them with this as well as helping move your plot along.

To sum up, the tl;DR version of everything I’ve just written is, When Running a Convention Game:

  • Keep it simple
  • Start in media res
  • Don’t try and cram in too many play styles
  • Use character agendas
  • Playtest your scenario

Saying all of this, if my Alien game crashes and burns at the weekend I’ll know this advice is all nonsense…

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