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Thoughts on Convention Game Blurbs

I recently submitted a few game blurbs to Celestion & Big Bad Con, and I thought that how I come up with blurbs might be useful. Especially because, for some reason, I always stall on this until the last possibly minute. So, codifying my thoughts will help me out, and I hope it helps you, too.

Here are the blurbs for my Celesticon games:

Name: Operation Atomic Wichita
Game: Leverage/Cortex+
GM Provides Characters: Yes, with quick character creation
Power Level: Competent Commandos
Rules Knowledge: Beginners Welcome

World War II is heating up! The Axis powers recently capturing Paris and, with it, France. And it looks like the war’s about to get worse, if what’s rumored is true. A motley crew of Allied commandos are tasked with making their way to an ruined castle where the Nazi occultists known as the Thule Society are working on some sinister project. Maybe they’re deluded, but Command is taking no chances. Get it, deal with the problem, and get out. Salute!

This Leverage game will be drifted to fit WWII commando characters, and with a touch of occult horror added to the mix!

Name: Emerging Threats Unit
Game: Fate 3.0 Horror
GM Provides Characters: Yes, with quick character creation
Power Level: Competent Agents
Rules Knowledge: Beginners Welcome

You’re the elite, secret unit in the Centers for Disease Control known as the Emerging Threats Unit. You’re Earth’s second line of defense against supernatural incursions. You’re who get called in when the local authorities die of mysterious, monstrous entities. And now such an outbreak has happened in the tunnels and alleys of San Francisco. Get to the bottom of this and exterminate the hostiles, before FEMA’s team comes in to trigger an earthquake the “pacifies” the city.

This highly customed Fate game streamlines skill & stunt choices, and adds a layer of investigation & horror to the mix!

And for Big Bad Con:

System: Mythender
Power Level: You’re going to kill a god
Experience Required: no
Maturity Rating: R-18
Number of Players: 4
Game Length: 4 hours
Characters Provided: Will be quickly created

Do you want to stab Thor in the face? Do you want to be a living, breathing incarnation of wrath that will bring the gods of Mythic Scandinavia to their knees? Do you want to remake the world in your image, and burn all those who stand in your way? Then you are a Mythender, destroyer of gods, unmaker of ideas. Come and END THOR with us.

GM: Ryan Macklin
System: Unknown Armies
Power Level: Street
Experience Required: No
Maturity Rating: R-18
Number of Players: 4
Game Length: 4 hours
Characters Provided: Yes

You know Rhianna? That gal that works over at the diner, busting her as for seven-five and crap tips? Yeah, her. So, last night she starts speaking in tongues and the diner bursts into flames. Plenty of bodies…but not hers. Now gents & lasses, we have ourselves a serious situation. A normal got herself immense power & blew up a building. That needs to be dealt with, so I hired you freelancers. You know the Weird, you’ve seen things that crack minds. Go fix this, or you might be next.

First of all, know that I’m writing all this advice after having made those blurbs above. So in writing this, I’m already seeing where I could have done far better.

The basics are pretty easy. You need a name of a game & a description, and to communicate your initial expectations — things like maturity rating, power level, experience needed, game length, character pre-gens/expectations, etc. The latter’s pretty easy, but making that blurb is a real pain.

First of all, the truth: Your blurbs rarely mean shit.

Really. People don’t always read them. They don’t remember them when they get to the table. Next time you run a convention game, ask how many chose your game based on the blurbs. I’ve had people in my games that just showed up “because it was open,” others because the game system seemed neat, or the GM is known to be good. And in indieland, we’ve more or less eschewed blurbs entirely, instead just saying “I’m running Danger Patrol.” So, your blurb isn’t as important as you might think. Part of this is because the skill of blurb writing and of GMing are totally different, thus there’s no guarnatee that the blurb has any meaning. Long-time convention gamers know this.

Still, having one is good, because most convention organizers expect one. And because while a blurb isn’t something to base a game on, there are ways that casual glances at it can trigger sign-ups (even if they have forgotten what the blurb is between sign-up and play).

How long should a blurb be?

65 to 100 words. Usually, just one paragraph. I violated that second bit above, but I also imagine that’ll get edited down. But don’t go over 100 — that’s a waste of your time and of that one person who will actually read your blurb. Don’t go under 65, because that looks anemic, and while people don’t seem to care much about blurbs to pick a game from, they will see and over- or under-written one at a quick glance.

What is the point of a blurb?

Blurbs aren’t about information. They’re about emotion. You need to convey the feeling your game is going to give. Horror? Let’s see some horror in your blurb. Fantasy? Let’s see that. Action? Mystery? Intrigue? Bring it the fuck on. There’s an idea in journalism and fiction writing called “show, don’t tell.” Show us what you plan on the game being about. But that’s “be” advice. Let’s see some things you can do to make that happen.

Start with an exclamation or question

Exclamations get us excited. Questions engage us. While not perfect, they tend to be far better than simple statements. That might turn a simple glance into an actual read.

Start with “you”

If you aren’t going to start with an exclamation or question (because that doesn’t necessarily fit the vibe you’re going for), at least start with “You.” Make the reader feel like they’re the center of that blurb’s universe. Because, frankly, they are. And again, that might turn a simple glance into an actual read.

Tell the Important Three

There are three things that make up the start of a convention game:

  • Who the characters are
  • What situation they’re about to step into
  • What the mood of the game will be

These are the Important Three: the things that matter most to your description and the game. Who the characters are is important because people want to know what they’re going to play. A Call of Cthulhu game where we’re civilian passengers on the Oriental Express isn’t the same as the one where we’re a commando squad on that same train.

The situation in brief that the players can expect is important. It tells us the intersection between character and plan. That Call of Cthulhu game will be different taking place on a train in the 20s than in the sewers of modern-day Chicago. Situation sets up expectations as much, if not more than, characters do.

The mood is also key. That Call of Cthulhu game in the Chicago sewers could be a high-action game, or a high-horror game, or something else. Mood will make or break a game, either when you get a mix of people who don’t want the mood you’re trying to sell or the players actively want different moods. Now, here you might not want to be explicit about the mood; instead, make sure the text reads like it’s soaked in it. That will also help keep your text from being boring.

End with Purpose

If someone reads your blurb in full, the last thing will stick in their mind. So make sure you end with purpose — call back to the emotions & mood you’re working to convey. That will keep your game in someone’s mind as they skim other blurbs.

Finally: It’s Okay To Lie About The Little Things

Yes. Lie. Again, people don’t remember your blurb, and don’t expect your game to hold up 100% to what’s in the program. The first time I ran the Unknown Armies game above, I didn’t have the speaking in tongues part. And asking the initial question didn’t make sense in the game. But what I did have was a group of people, who were part of a secret organization, dealing with some weird shit in a small town. And there was a gal that blew up.

The little details don’t matter. The Important Three and the emotion you’re trying to convey do. So when you’re making up the little details, don’t feel bound to them. It’s better to run a good game that doesn’t happen to involve a minor detail you mentioned in a blurb than to shoehorn one in.

 

There you have it. And you can apply these ideas to the blurbs I made above, and see how they’re weak. But let’s turn this around: What are some good blurbs you’ve seen? Have any drawn you to a game? Tell us what’s worked — and what hasn’t — for you.

– Ryan

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10 Responses to Thoughts on Convention Game Blurbs

  1. Mike Olson says:

    Used to be I’d have a distinct gimmick for my convention games well in advance of registering them. But these days, I tend to think of a title, come up with a few vague sentences that sound like they follow from that title, and trust myself to invent the rest later. It’s been working out fine, but man, one of these days I know my luck and/or last-minute inspiration is going to run out.

    Anyway, this prompted me to have a second look at my blurbs for Gateway. Reading them now, I realize that two of them are written with certain assumptions in mind, the first of which is that most of my players will be people I know. So they’re written pretty tongue-in-cheek, almost to the point of being inside jokes.

    The third is for the first playtest of a game I’m still working on (as we speak, actually), and as a consequence it’s written much more… I dunno, professionally, I guess. Formally, maybe. It sets a tone, gives the players an idea of what roles they’ll take, establishes a sense of urgency, and makes it clear that the game’s a playtest (an important point to make, IMO). This one sounds like I’m trying to get the attention of attendees I DON’T know; I think I instinctively did this BECAUSE it’s a playtest, and I want unvarnished opinions and experiences from people who don’t necessarily know how I usually operate. So… we’ll see how that goes.

    As for me as a player, reading blurbs, I honestly look at three things: the system (and/or the system hack), the GM, and the time slot. I’m pre-regged for four games at Gateway, run by three people I commonly game with at conventions (Hamish Cameron, Colin Jessup, and Andy Blanchard). To be honest, their games — Dungeon World, Hollow Point, a Lady Blackbird hack, and Bulldogs! — just appealed to me more than any others in the time slots I had available. But the fact that it’s them running those games definitely figured into the process.

    Their blurbs, though? I read them mostly to see if they’d be funny. System, GM, and time slot took precedence over blurb.

  2. Mike says:

    I’ve found that the system is most important for people, and it’s important for me, too. For example, the games I ran for Pathfinder at Gen Con were all full, and the players were looking for anything Pathfinder to play (with perhaps a few exceptions looking for games from bySwarm). When I look for an RPG game to play, I look for a system I want to play and then browse the blurb to make sure the GM doesn’t sound like (s)he’ll suck.

  3. Sewicked says:

    One thing that draws me, and I may be alone in this, is an element of humor in the blurb. If the game is suitable for young gamers (aka 2nd gen or gamer offspring), specifically mention that in the blurb. Many gamers are bringing their kids to cons and want their kids to have a good time, too.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That is assuming, of course, that you want those gamers with kids. It’s also good to state upfront if your game isn’t suited for that. I like places that’ll let me fill in an age or maturity rating, because I swear. A lot.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Yeah, that’s interesting. Humor in the blurb will drive me away. It tells me that the GM will try to be funny, rather than just let it happen naturally or let the players be funnier.

      – Ryan

    • Mike Olson says:

      If the GM is someone I know and the blurb is funny, or at least trying to be funny, I appreciate it. If it’s someone I don’t know, it’s almost never funny to begin with, regardless of the author’s effort.

  4. Sophie Lagacé says:

    Ryan Fucking Macklin swears??? ^_^

  5. Arashi says:

    And it is times like these that I realize I am not the target audience/I am an outlier when it comes to choosing voice and tone. Three criteria:

    1. DM – usually a null factor, but not always.
    2. System – There are a few I won’t play; but these are far and few between, and even ones I won’t play in a traditional campaign are fun for a one shot.
    3. Blurb – If nothing else this is what makes or break me choosing a game.

  6. Sean Nittner says:

    I want to re-iterate Ryan’s first point: Your blurbs rarely mean shit.

    That’s important to know because it puts you in the mindset of the player reading your blurb. They aren’t going to give it much attention unless something really grabs them. Yet, you want to grab them… so hit them hard and fast.

    Some bits I’ve encountered relating to specifics:

    GM: Sometimes you’ll get people going to a game just for a GM. If you’re in that category of GMs, good on you. Keep up the good work.

    System: This is the big one I’ve seen. Most of the time I ask people why they picked my game (or any other game) it is because they wanted to try out Burning Apocalypse Dogs in the 7 Flying Temples, er whatever. This can be kind of disappointing because as Ryan said, not every Cthulhu game runs the same.

    Experience: When at all possible don’t require this. Many gamers go to cons to try out new games and how are you going to learn a game if you need experience to play? Want to turn off people? Tell them they need to know *this* much about your game.

    Character creation: This comes only from my personal experience (rather than from talking to other gamers) but if I see a “Bring your own character” game I run. I run fast and I don’t stop. Every time I’ve played in game like that the players were solely invested in showing off to other players that didn’t care how awesome their characters were. Characters should ALWAYS be provided or created in play, or some combination of the two.

    Blurb: I don’t have much to say. I think Ryan hit it very well. Be concise and engaging. Give them the bits they need to know before the game starts and don’t worry about anything else. If you promised them space vampires, you might want to make sure the game is set in space or that there is a vampire, but most likely nobody will care if you don’t have both.

    I just saw these little GM Merit badges someone made. This is a cool idea: http://strangemagic.robertsongames.com/2011/08/gm-merit-badges.html%5D

    If I didn’t already have most of my games for Big Bad Con submitted, I’d totally look at adding an option for GMs to select these.

  7. JDCorley says:

    I write the best blurbs and EVERYONE LOVES THEM I don’t care WHAT YOU SAY DAD I mean Ryan.

    “Have you ever heard about or glanced at a TV? Then you’re qualified to play Primetime Adventures, and produce, direct, and star in a TV show created on the spot with your fellow players. Will it be a broody character drama or a wacky action comedy – a dismal flop or the next ratings hit? Come and find out in this fast-paced, rules-light story game!”

    “In England they send ’em to mysterious hidden boarding schools, but in America, budding witches and wizards go to Camp Chargoggabojee for the summer! Will you and your cabin win the prank wars? Will you score more points in the camp competitions? Will you be eaten by the mysterious monster in the woods, or maybe Dracula? If you like Harry Potter or Psychonauts, this game will be for you. Using the award-winning True20 system, pregenerated characters and helpful cheat sheets will be provided, a perfect introductory experience. Everyone that comes gets a copy of the True20 quickstart rules!”

    Unfortunately, with the collapse of the rincongames.com site, most of my brilliant blurbs have been lost to history.