Running at Conventions, Part 1: Beating the Nerves

I’m just back from UK Games Expo, the UK’s biggest games convention, one of the highlights of which was hearing The Smart Party (plus Grognard Files and Jackson Elias representatives) talk about Running Games at Conventions. My most recent post about pregen prep even got a shout out, and you can just about hear my mumbling across the floor talking about 13th Age, and Con games being a lot about demoing/teaching the game.

One comment in particular stood out for me – Paul Fricker talked about getting nervous before convention games. It’s reassuring to hear someone who runs all the time talk about it! A quick twitter survey revealed a big diversity of reactions from those of us who regularly GM at conventions, from those who didn’t really get it any more, to those who find it a major issue.

And it is. To run a game in front of strangers, in a fixed time slot, in a strange place, is challenging. Myself, I still get a frisson of edginess before I run a game – much less than I used to, and I’m trying to explain how I minimise it in these posts. I used to worry terribly about con games, but I’ve got it down now to a positive shot of adrenaline, like Paul has, and I think this is how….

1. Accept That It’s Not Easy – and Do The Human Stuff

Running a con game is not going to be easy. Leaving all the nonsense about the GM being responsible for everyone’s fun aside (they aren’t), you still have responsibility for the social contract, for making sure everyone is comfortable, and for bringing the character sheets. I know some very, very experienced GMs who flat out don’t run at conventions – for them the pay-off isn’t worth the stress. Just by pitching up to do it, you’re taking the first step – and it’s impossible that any of your players could do a better job, or they’d be doing it instead.

Indeed, everyone at the table should want you to succeed, and if they don’t, then you shouldn’t care what they think. For me, it’s not so much the social balancing of running for strangers, as it’s the balancing of running for a mixture of friends and strangers – I can’t recall a time I’ve run a con game where there weren’t people who were already familiar with each other at the table.

So do the human stuff. Get everyone to introduce themselves, even if some of them know each other – especially if some of them know each other. I have what is almost a script at the start of each game that covers practical stuff – we will finish to time (I usually finish early, especially in a 4 hour slot), we’ll have 1 or 2 breaks, if you need a break just shout out, if you need a comfort break just go (we’re not in school, are we?), that sort of thing. I used to write bullet points with these things on, so if you think you might forget, do that. Let everyone get drinks or snacks or go to the bathroom before you start, and check everyone is ready to go before you start.

2. Know Your Stuff

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Always plastic poppers

The one thing that still gives me nerves is the practical stuff. At Games Expo, I hadn’t run games there before, and there were a few things to navigate – a booking system via the app to book player tickets in, running times for the slots, where the rooms were – that were my primary sources of stress before the game. 13th Age Glorantha is a crunchy, narratively open system, but I’ve run it plenty of times before. Finding the Windsor room, or booking tickets in on the Expo app, were new to me.

So before most cons I have a cheat sheet about practical stuff. It has slot timings for games, things written down like “find the room” before the slot I need to be in it, and notes on anything I need to do like book players in or order food. This is an A4 sheet that gets folded up and put in the same pocket every time, and it’s there so I can check it if I need to (I usually don’t, like so many things the process of making it is the end product).

All my game prep goes into a plastic popper wallet, pregens, any maps I’m using, index cards if I need them, the rulebook if it’s small. Just like the photo. It’s always a plastic popper wallet so I can glance in my bag and be sure that it’s a game in there. Routines, rituals. I get to the game space early – ridiculously early in the case of Expo, because I wasn’t running anything in the slot previous – and unpack. I scan my notes and highlight anything I need to remember, and sometimes even pick out extra bullet points – all to internalise it as much as possible immediately before running.

3. Know Your Rules

Rules one-sheets are your friend! For many systems you can find them on the internet, but making them is a process that is worthwhile in itself. In condensing the rules I need to know onto a side of A4, I internalise rules and exceptions and build confidence for the game. The aim is to not have to open a book at the table (I have the book in my bag – I’m not infallible!) in ‘normal’ play.

Things that often need to be on this – rules for healing (usually a completely different system to the rest of the game), what happens at 0 hp (your health tracker may vary), the rules for PCs assisting other PCs (again, an exception rule that comes up an awful lot in play). There are others depending on the game; so for 13th Age, I have a list of the conditions so I don’t need to remember what Dazed or Vulnerable actually means.

4. Have Contingencies

I try to make sure I can handle, if needed, from 3 up to n+1 players, where n is the number I advertised for. At Expo I’d heard rumours of drop-outs, so promoted my games for 6 players hoping I’d get 4 or 5, and had one game of 3 and one game of 6, so this didn’t exactly work how I’d planned, but I’d prepped for every option.

In a crunchy game like 13th Age or D&D, I have encounters scaled for each option of number of players – in other, simpler, games, it’s easier to wing it. I try to have some ‘collapsible’ scenes as well that can be easily cut (or rooms, if it’s a location-based adventure like a dungeon – in case I need to cut to the end of the adventure, or the players are having fun just roleplaying instead of advancing the plot). Some idea of where additional clues can be put in case the players get stymied. I’m a big fan of lots of clues, and lots of opportunities to find them.

That’s the first selection of tips for running at conventions. In Part 2, I’ll talk about the least/most important part of prep, and another way to beat the nerves – bringing the bling!

Star Wars One-Shots: The “Way” is Strong in These Ones

star wars rpgsTo celebrate Star Wars day, here’s a review of the options you currently have if you want to run a one-shot in the worlds of Ewoks and Gungans. Why would you want to do that, apart from the aforementioned furry/aquatic aliens? Well, firstly, Star Wars has really clear tropes and expectations of its heroes – redemption, fighting the good fight, and starting from humble beginnings – which make it easy to motivate a group of adventurers to carry out a specific mission. It’s also got an unknowably huge canon, with cartoons, comics, and fiction alongside the films – and lots of sources of inspiration. And finally, there’s  lots of space opera tropes in it – human-like but diverse aliens, survivable and fun space combat, big beasts and monsters… it could already be a D&D campaign, just with blasters and laser swords.

But what system to run it with? I’m going to attempt a quick tour of them …. although I think I’ll probably only scratch the surface of the options…

Edge of the Empire / Age of Rebellion / Force and Destiny 

Fantasy Flight’s big RPG offering with the license, these are high-production value RPGs (and they are three separate games, although sharing almost exactly the same system) with a pile of supplements and adventures to go with them. Personally, I’d skip the player-facing sourcebooks that focus on specific character classes, leave the adventures alone (apart from the starter sets) and look at their ‘proper’ sourcebooks, where there are some absolutely brilliant sources of hooks and adventures – Strongholds of Resistance, for example, details rebel bases and is full of mini-adventures – I ran a really fun one-shot on Hoth based on the details in this. Lords of Nal Hutta does a similar job with criminal enterprises – you could plot about a dozen great one-shot games from each of these books.

It can be a bit of a rabbit-hole to fall down, particularly as, yes, it uses weird funky dice, and no, you can’t use regular polyhedrals. The dice are, for me, just about worth it – they give a range of successes and complications that add depth to task resolution. This means that, although the game is still towards the trad end of the trindie continuum, there’s always exciting consequences of actions. Decent and quickish space combat, and although it’s been criticised as a money-grab, I actually like how the 3 separate core books can focus on different kinds of games. When I want to run Star Wars, I need a solid reason to stray from using this system. Sooner or later I’ll write up my Hoth one-shot and put it on here.

West End Games’ D6 Star Wars

One of the original RPGs that gamers of a certain age wax lyrical about, there’s no doubt that the original Star Wars game has aged better than most of its contemporaries – a straightforward d6 dice pool system and a neat archetype character creation system – which you could almost complete at the table, if you really wanted to – yes the PCs aren’t always balanced, and yes the Force rules are awkwardly funky to the point of being broken, but the core mechanic is great fun, and works well enough to still be inspiring games.

There’s now an anniversary edition out from FFG, but there’s also the entire original game line available from Womp Rat Press here – really useful if, say, you wanted to run one of the classic Star Wars adventures with a different system. Some of the old adventures even start with a ‘script’ for the players to read out – playing the roles of NPCs before the start of the game – which is a weird and funky way to start a one-shot today, let alone in the 1980s when these modules were written.

Star Wars d20 / SAGA Edition

Remember the d20 bubble? In the explosion of mediocrity that it brought to RPG publishing (including, to be fair, the odd gem) – Wizards of the Coast brought out a whole line of d20 Star Wars built around the 3rd Edition D&D system. This early-2000s line produced loads of supplements, and to be fair if you are a big fan of d20 and it’s associated quirks it’s an obvious choice. SAGA edition saw lots of rule changes that for me improved the game a lot.

With both of these game lines, though, if you’ve got them you’ll run them, and if you haven’t they’re really tricky to get hold of, and probably not your best choice unless you’ve been invited to run for a group of D&D gamers from 2001 and want to meet their sensibilities. Wizards lost the license in 2010, so the link above is to the wikipedia page – be prepared for a longer search of ebay etc if you want to get hold of the game, since it also dates from when Wizards didn’t do .pdfs.

Scum & Villainy

The first of the big Forged in the Dark games based on the Blades in the Dark engine (for more about Blades, see here) is space opera that is very Star Wars. For Blades-style play it works really well – ideally for a double slot, or a tightly-run training mission like this one – in play it feels so Star Wars that it’s easy to forget. I played a Mystic once and really struggled calling my powers “the Way” and not the Force. Great fun for a lower-prep player-driven one-shot, and the “heist” system works well for smugglers and low-lifes if you want the Han Solo end of the genre.

PBTA: Star Wars World / Streets of Mos Eisley

I’ll highlight two Powered By The Apocalypse (PBTA) options for your Star Wars one-shot – Star Wars World, by Andrew Medeiros (I’m not entirely sure the link above is to the latest version – I got it via another blog – please correct me if I have it wrong), is a full-blooded hack of Apocalypse World with a moves and playbooks. I haven’t played it but from a read through it looks great and Andrew really knows his PBTA stuff (having co-designed the brilliant Urban Shadows).

Streets of Mos Eisley is a simpler game, a hack of World of Dungeons which is a hack of Dungeon World, on of the first PBTA games (are you keeping up?) – it’s a tighter playset, with a much looser system. I think if I was running, I would favour Star Wars World, but for a more relaxed, system-lite game, SoME looks great.

Cypher System

This final entry is probably a little leftfield, but Star Wars has influenced a lot of RPGs, and hidden in the Worlds Numberless and Strange sourcebook for The Strange, are details for playing in the Rebel Galaxy recursion – which is, like Scum and Villany above, very Star Wars. Because Cypher is so easy to adapt (or even to busk), it would be easy to run a game using this, either with The Strange of the core Cypher rules, and it gives a significantly different playstyle to any of the games above.

At it’s heart Cypher is, like Gumshoe, a game that’s led by resource management to affect probabilities, and so I’m not convinced it fits the kind of action heroics I want in a Star Wars game, but if I was running a murder mystery, or a one-shot focused more on exploration than conflict, I would certainly be looking at Rebel Galaxy. Cypher is also a really good system for newcomers to RPGs, in my experience, so it might be a good starting place for them.

So there are your options. As I’ve said, for me it’s FFG (Age of Rebellion is my go-to style of play for one-shots) all the way – with an exception for D6 Star Wars and maybe for PBTA if I want that sort of game. It’s far from an exhaustive list, either – I’m sure there are people out there running Star Wars games with D100 (shout out to River of Heaven, D101 games science fiction game, which is pretty straightforward to hack into Star Wars), Traveller, or even The Code of the Space Lanes. I’m sure I’ve missed some, and it’s not like Star Wars to divide opinions – what are your go-to Star Wars games for one-shot play?