Posts Tagged ‘convention GMing’
Here’s a convention GM trick I learned from the inestimable Carl Rigney: the noise reset. This is useful when you’re in a crowded room with multiple games going on around you, because in those situations you have that thing happen where everyone slowly increases the volume of their voices in order to be heard. It’s a typical group dynamics thing, but it quickly turns into the reason that, at the end of a convention, we’re all hoarse as hell.
It especially happens when a game you’re next to suddenly has a loud beat, and everyone around them starts talking louder to compensate.
I don’t remember exactly how Carl does it, but here’s my approach: I’ll go to the GM or facilitator at a table, and explain like so:
Hey, you know that thing where everyone keeps raising their voices in a game room like this, and by the end of the session we’re all loud and our throats get a bit scratchy? Let’s take a moment to reset our noise levels back to what they were when we started playing.
I stay friendly about it, not being accusatory (since I’m as much a part of the problem, as I have a loud voice). With those who know what I’m talking about, I can just say “Hey, let’s do a noise reset.”
This only works in places where I have to do this up to three times. More than that, and I just accept that a noise reset isn’t possible without shouting it in the room — which, if I have the social clout to do in a given social dynamic, I might do. And naturally, there are people who will ignore you, though thankfully I haven’t encountered that in some time.
I don’t just do it so I can hear, but so that we all can keep talking after this game’s over. It’s hard to keep playing if none of us can speak without being in pain.
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
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:
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.
Hey gang! It’s time for another post about one of my favorite topics: convention GMing! And this is an audience participation post. Talk in the comments about what you bring with you to conventions.
Here’s what I try to remember to bring, related to gaming:
- Index cards (I go through A LOT of index card, for notes, name texts, small character sheets, status & aspects, etc.)
- Character sheets for games
- Sharpie (good for name tents)
- Dice for the games I’m planning to run
- Tokens of various sorts
And stuff for personal care/health, related to being active for 18 hours four straight days:
- Gum. Keeps the throat moist.
- Water bottle.
I’m going to stop there, for now. What do you try to remember? What will you try to remember in the future?
A bit ago, I wrote about the Seven Layers of a Convention Game, or what I’ve come to call the Seven Layer Convention Burrito:
- Pre-game Preparation
- Introductions & Initial Rapport
- During-game Preparation & Context Setting
- Early Game
- Mid Game
- Late Game
I’ve been asked by some folks to expound on this, and normally I’m shy about my ideas, but I thought I would take some time today to talk about them.
In specific, I have had people question why parts two through four are broken down like that, and why parts six and seven are separate.
Parts of this are obvious: have character sheets, have dice and stuff for everyone (because people will forget), all that jazz. Part is this is about having a comfort level with your mastery of the game. And part of this is about getting your mind set for the sort of game you’re playing — watching pulp movies before running a bunch of pulp games, things like that.
There’s a lot to talk about here, and with every part, but I want to make this a short “intro to these steps” post.
Introductions & Initial Rapport
When people get to the table, here’s what I do:
- Say “Hi, I’m Ryan! I’m your GM today. How you guys doing? Mind if we go around the table and introduce each other? It’ll help me remember names.”
- Point to the person to your left and ask them their name. Ask them if they’re familiar with the system or the setting you’re about to play in. Write down their names on a piece of paper that serves as my GM sheet.
- For every answer they give about their expert/novice level, I respond enthusiastically. Welcoming all comers means that: welcoming.
- I finish with “Cool. So, here’s the game we’re going to do.”
There are other methods to this, some equally valid and create interesting results, and some that suck. You know what sucks? Never stopping to do this. (I know some people like to do interesting things like actually play in media res for a few minutes and then at the right moment stopping and asking for introductions — a trick I learned from talking with Will Hindmarch.)
During-game Preparation & Context Setting
This is about what we’re doing together before play. Picking characters, talking about what this adventure is about, filling in anything on the character sheet that’s meant to be filled in now, even making characters. (Everything before the first scene in Fiasco — rolling up the Relationships and Objects — is Preparation/Context.) This is what I did my GM Conference keynote on, entitled “Creating Context Quickly and Collaboratively”, at RinCon – about using this phase of a convention game to create buy-in that you’ll then use in Early Game to cement interest.
For some people, this is just about handing out characters and getting people into the right frame of mind for a game. Whatever it is needs to happen in between “hey, let’s acknowledge each other as human beings” and “now let’s play in imagination land” happens here.
Hey, let’s play in imagination land!
Early Game is about the first beat or two of play, where contact with the rules and the context/adventure are starting to happen. Early contact means a bit of the kid gloves with rules as they’re being introduced while laying it on heavy with the context/adventure contact to push the play to where you need to be at Mid Game. Your first set piece is here, one that — if your priority is about teaching the game — is easy so you can guide people into comfort with the rules and you as a GM.
Even for me, who no longer plans the specifics of games, I know what sort of beats I want to hit on at this point and what I want to set up.
Early Game is different if you’re doing a game intentionally for seasoned players. In that case, the expectations are different, and you want to hit hard with the game’s theme and engage their mastery of the rules — partly because that’s what they’re asking for and that establishes that they’re getting what they’re expected, partly to gauge if they actually do have mastery of the rules or setting, so you know where to backfill in Mid Game
Mid Game is your connective tissue, the same where most exploration happens. Early Game tends to be a little constrained to stay — the GM announces something in media res (“You’re in a plane, it’s being shot at!”) and you react. By contract, Mid Game is where you pause and look back at the reaction, and then act in turn.
Or, you know, get bogged down with planning scenes (sometimes out of character) or decision paralysis (sometimes out of character), but it’s where decisions tend to get made. Preparation/Context and Early Game create the information you need to making meaningful actions.
Late Game is your climatic set piece or your emotional payoff, the thing that you’ve been building toward — whether by design (because you’ve planned an adventure) or by feel (because you’ve been improving the game). It’s where you’ve injected by now a certain comfort level with the rules, ideally, felt out the social dynamic at the game (which man is like several posts worth of discussion…or maybe a book). That’s followed by your denouement, where you wrap up and bring the high point to a close.
One Model of Early-Middle-Late:
I call this the Two Set Piece Model. It revolves around an initial set piece (typically a combat — something the entire table will be involved in for at least 30 minutes) that’s dictated by the GM, then actions initiated by players as individuals or a group (with encouragement from the GM), ending with a finale set piece involving everyone.
You see this mostly in adventure games, like pulp games or dungeon crawl games. Some longer forms of these take on three set pieces, but that’s dicey in a four-hour slot until you have a table where everyone is comfortable with the rules, quick about decisions, and your set pieces are slightly smaller.
This isn’t the only model, not by far, but I’m sure many of you recognize this. There’s also something to be said for how the power dynamic changes depending on where you are in the model. But that’s yet another separate topic.
Exit is about saying “hey, guys, hope you had a good time” and generally being a personable human being rather than leaving the game. It doesn’t need to be talked about much, but it’s not Late Game. It’s the little social rituals, or, rather, the place for those social rituals, we do when we’ve finishing this activity.
Off the top of my head, there really isn’t much I have to say here in the way of advice beyond Wheaton’s Law, but it is a place that is worth mentioning. Well, that, and don’t actually ask people if they liked the game here. But maybe why that’s actually a bad question at this moment deserves more conversation.
So, that’s the seven layers, separated out so that advice can focus in on specific parts of the experience rather than broader generalizations. What do you think?
(Note: I’m taking off most of the rest of this year from the Internet, so I probably won’t get to approving comments & responding right away. But if not, I will come after the 1st! You all have a safe and happy end of 2010, gang.)
 I grew up on Taco Bell, man. What can I say? (Plus, that’s more memorable than the generic title.[1a])
[1a] And it’s also better than calling it the OSI Model of Convention Games. Because, like, ten of you will get that.
 It’s not like it isn’t related to some secret project or anything….
 I have a huge Google doc list of topics for this blog
Hey! So, in a new segment I’m calling “Audience Participation,” I will ask you guys for some input! Here goes.
Let’s assume, hypothetically, that I’m working on a book with some really cool people about being a convention GM. Yes, hypothetically. And we’ll assume that you’re the target audience for this book. With all that in mind:
Please give me one or two problems you’ve encountered as a convention GM that you wish someone would have given you advice about beforehand. It doesn’t matter whose fault the problem was — yours, someone at the table, someone totally unrelated to the game, or no ones at all. And it doesn’t matter if you know now how to deal with the problem or if it still plagues you. (I’m looking a lot for the latter, but problems you’ve solved are problems that other people still have, so that works.)
Include as much detail as you’re comfortable with. If you’d rather email me than comment here, you can to so at: AudienceParticipation@RyanMacklin.com, with the subject line “Audience Participation: Con GM Problems”