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Tricks of the Trade:
After five years of playing convention games, and having been involved in writing and running several successful events for conventions, the thought occurred to me that I might have something of worth to say regarding the ins and outs of the process. The article below contains as many of my Ancient Secrets on both writing and running as I am willing to freely divulge; as always, a lot more could be said. My advice should also be taken with a grain of salt: a portion of the following pointers are naturally tailored to my style of play. Ask anyone how to write a good event, and chances are they'll describe the kind of event they would enjoy playing in. Still, I think everyone will find something of use here, regardless of whether you are an old-hand or a newbie at the art of convention GMing.
The logical starting point for talking about writing a convention event is the blurb. The blurb which appears in the convention booklet is the first point of contact with players, and is what will get you your player base. There are two things that a blurb should definitely do: describe your event and excite your players.
The blurb should describe your event faithfully, giving an idea of the plot and tone, so that players know what they're getting. There is nothing more frustrating than entering an event based on the blurb in the convention booklet, and finding out that the actual game is vastly different to what was described (Been there, done that).
And, logically, the blurb should excite people about the game. If you don't sell the game, then you don't get players. And if you're writing an event so that people will enjoy playing it, then the more players you get, the more people enjoy the game. It may sound strange to be focussing on something other than the module, but that first point of contact is absolutely critical... not much point in writing a brilliant module if no-one gets to play it. Here's the blurb from "Seeds of Darkness", an AD&D event which I ran at Brisbane convention ConJure last year. I was pretty happy with this blurb and it certainly proved to be most successful - 8 teams of registrants, keeping me booked solid for every session.
This blurb describes the starting scene of the event, the basic nature of the plot and has some teasing hints regarding the characters, and of things to come within the game. It gives all the necessary information, and also gives good insight into the styles and themes which will be used by the GM. It also does one other thing that I always like to see in an event blurb: it sketches out the characters. It's a matter of personal preference, but I like to get some idea of who I can play from the blurb. That way, even if I don't like the plot of a module, the concept of one or two of the characters might sound cool enough for me to want to try it out. This ensures you can attract the maximum number of players.
Writing the Game
Something I cannot emphasise strongly enough is that the most important part of the module is the characters. As a player, I wouldn't care about the most superficial or hackneyed plot in the world if I've got good inter-character dynamics to play with. Again, it this a matter of taste, but this again works like a safety measure. Good characters can save a poor story, but not vice versa. So, in writing the module, it is vital to get the characters right.
There are several things I believe no character should be without. The first is a detailed background and personality. I've often found when writing characters that either one or the other tends to dominate, depending on the character's foundation. This is fine; characters tend either to be definied chiefly by either who they are, or what they've done. Just so long as they have some of both. There has to be plenty there for the player to work with.
Characters in a module should also have perceptions of the other characters in the group noted. This can be anywhere from a brief sketch to a more intricate relationship, but there should always be something for players to work off. Having everyone guessing at inter-character relationships, especially with a poorly detailed background, is just too frustrating. Players can only interact from their impressions of each other, and often draw contradictory conclusions, which ruins everything.
One of the biggest banes of character creation is the inevitable "third wheel" character, the character who exists outside of the main character interaction and character-related plot lines. While I haven't mastered avoiding this dilemma, I do have a few ideas on the matter: each character should be linked to at least one, preferably two other characters. These links between characters can be anything - a plot-related connection (master/student, factional competitors for prestige) to a strong dynamic between the characters (lovers, enemies, blood-brothers). Generally, it's best to have two character relationships per character, as often a central "leader" character will be linked to the majority of the party. With these inter-character links, even if a character has a relatively minor role in the plot of the module, they at least have the opportunity for some good roleplaying.
Another gimmick I like to use with characters is to try and find some succinct way of summarising the character on the character sheet. My preferred method is to provide quotes from the character themselves. Novice roleplayers can then say these at the right moment, and thus ease into portraying their character. I've seen other ways that work just as well: quotes from songs or quotes from authors are two that spring to mind. I've just started playing in Nephilim, which uses a "Chinese portrait" to further define each character, which strikes me as impressive. The character is listed as an example of something in a number of categories: natural disasters, colours, songs, etc. Sometimes people will click on somthing pithy like that much more easily than they will on pages of background and extrapolation on their personality.
Which brings up another important point: characters should always leave room for personal interpretation, otherwise they're no fun for players. Too much detail is impossible to take in or use effectively, and feels restrictive. So make sure to provide some scope for people to bring something of their own to the character. Sometimes they will approach a character in a way you could never have predicted, which is one of the joys of GMing.
The Rest of the Module
And once the characters are hashed out, the remainder of the piece must be written: the plot. Being a big fan of the "storytelling" aspect of roleplaying, I like to break a module down into successive scenes. I use big, grandiose set pieces that players walk into, and then run the gauntlet of a piece of narrative before getting a chance to act. It's a simple recipe: describe what's going on, and then turn to each player (or the group as a whole) and ask them what they wish to do. So the flow of the module is broken down into that particular rhythm: a piece of narration, and then the characters doing whatever is necessary at that point, or making whatever choices they will, before progressing to the next point.
If you're writing for a convention, the most important thing to remember is the length of time that your players will have to play. Generally this is quite short, and even shorter when you account for all the usual scheduling snafus that can occur (room allocation problems, late players, late GM, time loss from spill-overs into the next session, etc.).
I write for Brisbane conventions, and that usually means a one-session event, as the conventions in my area are generally no longer than seven sessions. That means two and a half to three hours for an event, which is a lot less than you think. Convention games have a bad habit of going long, so be prepared for this. You may have to speed some things up to ensure it all fits - better to have the slow investigation bit in the middle skimmed then the climactic combat scene at the end. And remember that people would usually rather finish early than run out of time.
Generally, I've found that three hours means four or five scenes, with some combat included. I've played in events with just three scenes that ran to time. Consider the kind of players you'll have when writing the module: some players may enjoy the thrill of racing against the clock, while others may feel cheated or unsatisfied if they don't reach the climax of the module. Consider also the rules and plot for potential points where you could get slowed up, and find ways to minimise them. On the other hand, never rush people, particularly if they are doing a lot of roleplaying. They are there to have fun, at their own pace, and should never feel too shephered down the plotline by the GM.
When writing, there are two constants I've developed as a universal formula. These are the nature of the first two scenes. I make the first scene a "walk-in" scene, where players have a chance to do a little roleplaying to get comfortable with their characters and inter-character relationships. This tends to work best if you have an NPC in the scene to start (and keep) the ball rolling. For example, in Seeds of Darkness, the first scene was a briefing by Lord Batraem's seneschal, in the cellar mentioned earlier in the blurb. The seneschal, an acerbic little man, ran through the general details of the players' mission and allowed the characters to purchase any extra items required, all the while firing sly insults at them. Reacting to this gave everyone a chance to ease into the roleplaying.
Another thing that worked well with this scene was that the opening narration was a longer version of the blurb written in the convention booklet, which helped to tie the players' first contact with the event into actual play. Plus the NPC was able to answer any questions the PCs had, clearing up any confusion with the setting.
As for the second scene, I've always been partial to a little bit of combat. Fights get the blood pumping, the players excited, and establish the party's dynamics on another level. Those not so good at roleplaying can feel more involved, and the course of action is simple and direct. Plus it really helps break in the system, especially if you have new players. And finally, they're just plain fun for everyone involved.
As for the rest of the module, I can't really help you. The only remaining advice is to ensure that characters get a roughly equal amount of screen time. Make sure that each character has something significant to do, without making the situation contrived. And, of course, provide alternate paths and backup plans, in case of player error, character death, or serious diversion from your plotline.
One closing note regarding writing convention games is that they cannot be playtested thoroughly enough. The module might have a premise that has real depth and resonance on paper, but is still no fun to actually play through for the players. Or, the mechanics will be not as robust as you thought. Or, once people start playing, one of the characters might turn out to be too much of a wallflower or the dynamics break down. Playtesting is mainly used however, for getting the timing right, because such things cannot be judged from paper.
Events must always be playtested before they reach a convention, as there are always a multitude of things that can be picked up on to improve the event. Even the best module can be given nips and tucks through further playtesting to make it even better.
Ideally, a module should be playtested at least two times, more if it can be arranged. And it's a good idea to playtest your events with different people, too. If you playtest your events only with the group of people you regularly game with, you won't be able to handle the unexpected. Because either subconsciously or consciously you've worked out how they think and they've worked out the way you think. Thus you tailor to their expectations, and they can always manage to circumvent most of the puzzles and tricks you throw their way.
It's also a good idea to get your playtesters to proofread your character sheets too: sometimes even the most innocent of spelling, grammar or punctuation errors can slip through, and steal some of the polish off your end product. It may sound like a small thing, but a messy character sheet tells your players you haven't put in the hard yards and they will approach your game with the same attitude.
And once the beast is written, it must be run. I believe that the art of running a game at a convention is far more important than actually writing it, and here's why: a GM can take the most average plot, the most oatmeal-and-cardboard scenario, and turn it into an unforgettable experience, through the alchemy of storytelling ability and improvisational skill. There are a few GMs in the Brisbane convention circuit who run this type of game consistently, and really make it work. It's not my style, however: I usually like things (especially the characters) to be fairly detailed if I'm writing an event.
But while a good GM can make an average game really hum, conversely it's a lot more difficult for an average GM to make the most out of an exceptional module. And both improvisational skill and game-mastering ability are things that can only be honed over time, rather than me simply being able to tell you the Ancient Secrets to either (Hey, they're not particularly my strengths, either).
What I can tell you, however, are a few simple tricks that I've either engineered over the years, or picked up from playing in other people's games. Little things that really do help sustain the mood of the game.
What's in a name?
As identity is one of the core concepts of most roleplaying games, reinforce each player's identity (as their character) during the game by referring to them only by their character's name. Do this when talking to them, asking them a question, or referring to them when talking to other players. If you use a gender-based pronoun, ensure you refer to them by their character's gender and not their own, if the two are different. This should really give the feeling that the characters are real and present, and strengthens immersion significantly. Even if this doesn't help the players, it will fix their identity in your own mind, which helps when roleplaying an NPC talking to them.
One of the best ways to remember who's who is to draw a little mud-map of the table, and note each character's name at their place on the table. (including your own) It's something that I always do whether I'm running a game or playing it, and it always helps. As a GM, you might want to note down your players' names as well, as you won't be able to remember them when it comes time to award prizes or such, and those who register are not always those who turn up.
See No Evil, Speak No Evil
These two tricks fall more under general GMing tips, but they are things that can always be used to greater effect. Firstly, eye contact. Eye contact is a powerful tool that can be used in a variety of ways: one of the most important is to establish firm eye contact with your players in the first few minutes of the game. It shows that you're paying attention to them and are interested in what they have to say. It also establishes a healthy level of dominance over the situation. (note that: healthy level of dominance. You want to be in control, but not controlling)
Eye contact can also be used for a variety of other things: when talking Of Things Too Horrible To Mention, avert your eyes, or flit your gaze around the room, as if your mind is elsewhere, and whereever it is is not a happy place. If you want to make someone feel put on the spot, then fix them with a dread gaze as you speak to them.
One of the best uses for eye contact is to make players feel as if they are important, too. Whenever a situation arises where you need to find out what players are doing, you'll find that the group splits fairly quickly into dominant and submissive personalities. There will, quite frequently, be one person who tries to speak for at least one other player, and people who are a little confused about the situation. So, go around the table in turn, and ask each player, maintaining full eye contact with them. If someone else butts in, calmly tell them to wait their turn and ask the player again. The principle is to make the person feel important, as they are... they're one of your players!
Voice is also a gimmick that I feel is often under-used at conventions, and it's one of my favourites. I love accents and silly voices for characters, and done well, they really can help to create a stronger image of the character. Give the rough dwarf a subtle Scottish accent, and let him rumble off a few Duke Nukem quotes... the slight French accent for the swashbuckler makes him seem all the more debonaire. I'm a drama queen by nature, so this sort of thing works well for me. Varying the tone and volume of your voice while narrating works well too: don't lapse into a dead monotone while reading anything to the players. Your voice is your only tool for presenting the story, so you should make sure you use it well.
In summary, in running the game, be grandiose. Be the biggest and best you can be, because, while you're not turning a profit from what's going on, the players have spend hard-earned cash to be there, and have a level of expectation. Make sure they are having fun - and have fun yourself!
And that is important: you should have fun writing and running, it should never be a chore. Do it because you love it, and help spread convention joy! Remember: no-one plays when no-one runs.
When Kevin says "I", he means we, and the people he co-authors with can be found at his home page. When not gaming, he listens to Nine Inch Nails and plays far too much of the Legends of the Five Rings CCG.
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