So I wrapped up my last entry in this series saying that I was gong to look at success and failure in convention games.
On reflection, I’m finding it hard to get a handle on this topic. To begin with, how do we define success and failure? Is it a success if the characters fail at their assigned task, but the players have a good time? What about the reverse, where the characters achieve their goal but the players ended up with a mediocre experience?
Clearly this is a subject where we need to define our terms and narrow our focus.
I think, first and foremost, the enjoyment of the players needs to be a high priority. This is true with RPGs in general, but I think it is especially true at a convention game. You have a limited time, and it isn’t unusual to be an ambassador for the game you’re running; many people use conventions as an opportunity to play new games. A bad experience at the table can turn somebody off a game for a long time.
With that goal in mind, how do you ensure the players enjoy themselves? This is a murky area, since everybody enjoys different things when it comes to RPGs. At your home table, you generally have the luxury of knowing your players and knowing what scratches their itch (so to speak). At a convention, not so much. Your scenario should, in general, have elements that appeal to a broad spectrum of play styles. There have been thousands of words dedicated to different play styles, and I’m not going to rehash them here, but generally speaking you want to have a mix of combat, role-playing, and exploration scenes. You should also be prepared and flexible enough to expand and improvise scenes based on what the players are responding to.
Personally, I view tabletop RPGs more as interactive fiction, with the player characters as the protagonists and heroes of the story. Given the type of fiction I prefer, I want the PCs to succeed. That doesn’t mean it will be easy, or that there won’t be setbacks, or that they won’t need to pay some price for success. But ultimately I would much rather see the heroes succeed than feel.
No doubt there is some amount of transference going on because success is one of the largest factors that determine my enjoyment when I am playing.
I find, however, that I approach convention games a little bit differently. Failure — overall, actual failure is an option I am willing to have on the table. Two of the three scenarios I ran at GenCon — Pilgrimage and Into the Deeps — end with a climactic fight that could, if things go badly, result in the death of all the player characters. In fact, one of the sessions of Pilgrimage all but one of the PCs did end up dead. The last retreated so that he could let others know what was going on and, perhaps, bring back reinforcements. So… success, but at a pretty high cost, and failure was a real possibility.
But this kind of ending can work and result in an enjoyable experience for the players — as long as it doesn’t feel cheap. In a one-shot there is not the same level of investment in the character as a player avatar. It is a more… singular experience, and much more traditional narrative forms like movies or books can have a kind of catharsis.
So that’s the large scale. What about the smaller scale — success or failure of an individual scene or encounter? I talked about this a little bit in my earlier posts, where each scene should have different ways to resolve the primary conflict. Personally, I hate having an early encounter short circuits a scenario. It isn’t fun for me as a player, and isn’t much fun for me as a gamemaster. Multiple exit routes from an encounter can help keep this from happening. But just as the large scale can have degrees of success, so can the individual encounters.
I think, perhaps, the best way to approach the notion of success or failure is to adopt an idea I have come across in relation to writing more traditional fiction (and improv theatre). Don’t set things up so that failure shuts down your scenario. Instead, failure should introduce complications that make it more difficult to complete the mission, increase the stakes, or make things more complicated in interesting ways. If the characters fail but the players feel that they could have succeeded if things had fallen a bit more in their favor — accumulated failure instead of instant failure — then I think you’ve hit the mark.
In my prior post I talked quite a bit about scenario and character design when it comes to convention games. This time around, I want to talk about time management. There are two aspects of time management. This first is pre-game preparation, the second is in-game pacing.
While I think the variety of the scenarios I came up with was a good idea for a couple of different reasons, it resulted in extra work to get ready for the con. I was smart enough to have two of the adventures use the same set of pre-generated characters, which saved some prep time, but three different four-hour scenarios is a lot of work.
I also outsourced some of the character creation. This didn’t save me as much time as I expected for a couple of reasons. First, I had to go over the characters and make sure they were all built the same way on the same number of points. Second, I had to take the Second Circle characters and boost them up to Fourth Circle.
All of that stuff falls under your standard time management umbrella, though, and not really the main thing I want to focus on. You obviously want to give yourself enough time to getting everything prepared in advance. I was making notes and finishing things up the Tuesday before we left for the convention. If I had to do it over again I would procrastinate less.
What I want to really talk about is pacing. At a convention game, you have a fixed amount of time (traditionally four hours) and unless you are intentionally running a multi-stage campaign you need to fit the entire scenario into that window while also allowing time for introductions, selecting or assigning characters, and any other special stuff you need to cover before the adventure proper gets under way. It’s also not a bad idea to shoot for an early wrap-up, giving players a bit of time to pick up their stuff, chat, or head on to their next scheduled event. Conventions can be very busy, and people often appreciate being given a little bit of breathing room.
This means you are better off shooting for a three (maybe three and a half) hour adventure with a clearly defined goal (or set of goals). The path to that goal may not itself be clear-cut, but the players should have a good idea of what they need to accomplish. When I was preparing my scenarios I came up with four scenes that defined the arc of the story, trying to go for a mix of combat, role-playing, and investigation/exploration.
I was… moderately successful when it came to pacing. Two Houses, Alike in Dignity suffered the most when it came to pacing, because it was a very much a role-playing scenario, and for the most part I find it a bit harder to… play with time (for lack of a better term) in a role-playing scene. Let me give an example by way of contrast.
The opening scene to Two Houses is a straight-up fight, not connected to the main plot at all. It serves mainly as a way to bring the PCs to the attention of the NPC hiring them for the job, and a way to toss some combat into what is otherwise a pretty non-violent scenario. Some fool has brought a pregnant genhis into the marketplace, and the animal gives birth.
(For those who don’t know, the genhis is a placid herd animal in Earthdawn that gives birth to a brood of dozens of voracious little beasties that try to devour anything and everything nearby.)
Because of the number of potential enemies, and the location, I found it easy to pace the scene. If the fight is going easily, I can bring in more genhis. If it’s not going so well, I can have an NPC adept come in to help out, have the genhis turn against each other (vicious little things that they are), or have an injured one flee. In short, there are different variables that I can tweak in the moment to adjust the level of challenge and how long it is taking to resolve the scene. It’s also relatively easy to determine when the scene is done because the combat is over.
Role-playing scenes, on the other hand, tend to have fewer variables to play with. There are fewer things that can easily and seamlessly extend a scene that is resolving quickly, or resolve a scene that is not going well. This is where some of that pre-game preparation can really come into play. For any given scene (whether role-playing, combat, or exploration) you need to have a goal in mind, and you want to come up with multiple ways the scene could play out, including different ways you can resolve the scene. This should play in to the abilities your player characters have, so that there is a good chance of having multiple “outs” for any given scene in your scenario.
(See, it’s all fundamentally interrelated!)
That will do it for now. I think my next post on this topic will address the role of success and failure in a convention game, both on a scene and scenario level.
This is going to be a multi-part post. At GenCon 2013, I ran three different games two times each. It was my first time running games at a con that I wrote myself, and only the second time I had run games at a con. I ran three sessions of Journey to Lang at Origins in 2005, which was a pre-made demo adventure from around the time of the original FASA release of Earthdawn.
In general, the games went well. They were all sold out, but I had several no-shows so I didn’t actually have full tables the whole weekend. Despite this, I had positive feedback and I learned quite a bit about designing and running effective con games. One of the more surprising lessons resulted from the stylistic spread of the games that I ran. I had an introductory scenario (Pilgrimage), a more traditional kaer dive (Into the Deeps) and a role-play heavy, more light hearted romp (Two Houses, Alike in Dignity).
There are a lot of pieces that go into setting the framework for a good con game, especially one where you are going to be providing pre-generated characters. You want to make sure you have a variety of character types to choose from, and more choices is better than fewer. You don’t want to have too many choices, though, because then you can run into choice paralysis when it comes time for the players to choose what role they will play in the story. I think a good number is half again as many character choices as slots you intend to have available (for example, 9 choices for a 6-player game).
Before you make your pre-generated characters, you should have a good idea of what your adventure is going to be about, and what kind of challenges the characters are going to face. Each character should have something that can contribute to the progress of the story in one manner or another. Each encounter should potentially have more than one path to resolution, and the possible resolutions should be spread across your characters (preferably with some overlap). This isn’t as critical with straight-up combat encounters, because most traditional RPGs (Earthdawn included) have a pretty strong emphasis on combat mechanics, and almost all characters have a way to contribute to combat.
Puzzle and role-playing encounters, on the other hand, require a bit more flexibility when it comes to adventure design. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, you can’t guarantee that a specific skill or ability will be available to the player character group. Second, you can’t guarantee that the players will take a specific action or direction to solve the problem. Thus, you should have in mind two or three different possible solutions to a puzzle, and have helpful skills available to multiple characters. This makes it more likely that the group will be able to find some way to progress without getting roadblocked.
That will just about do it for now. I’ll provide some more specific examples later on, when I break down the individual scenarios. Next up, though, a few words on time management. Stay tuned!
I am sitting back at the house, relaxing after the first day of Gencon. I started by getting up at the crack of dawn so that I could get my stuff together and get over to the ICC for the early admission. Since I’m officially working the con under an exhibitor’s badge, this gave me a chance to do a quick visit to a couple of the booths before I had to head over to run my games for the day.
I scored the one thing I wanted to grab at the convention — a copy of Shadowrun, Fifth Edition. I did not drop the extra cash to get the special ($100) or deluxe ($200) editions. I’m a fan of the game, but can’t justify spending that kind of money on a game that isn’t going to do more than sit on my shelf.
Then it was over to the RPG room in the ICC where I had two sessions to run. First up was Into the Deeps, where I had 5 players, a couple of which had never played Earthdawn before. I think it was a successful session, though I think it is a little exposition heavy at one point. If I had done a bit more prep, I would probably look at having handouts or something a bit more tangible.
The other session was Two Houses, Alike In Dignity. Only two registered players showed up (despite the game being sold out). My wife happened to stop by very early on, and sat in to provide a third. I think the game was successful, though it ran short (it was scheduled until 6, and we wrapped up around 4).
I think I will do a bit more in-depth after-action report of the different scenarios after the con is over. This will give me a chance to see if tweaks I make for the second time I run the game makes a difference, and give a little bit of analysis on what makes a good con game (at least from my point of view and experience).
There was a thread on the Redbrick LLC forums a few weeks back talking about “cooperative actions” and how they should be handled in Earthdawn — using an airship captain as one of the examples. Rather than have each individual sailor roll, the poster wanted to know how to apply the crew as a bonus to the captain’s roll. Earthdawn doesn’t really have any kind of default method of handling things like this — something the original poster felt was a shortcoming.
As I was exploring the idea and how I would handle it, I kept coming back to the question of why you need to come up with a general rule for a situation that varies depending on the circumstances. Personally, the way I would handle it would depend on what was going on at the time, and what the roll is trying to accomplish.
Which brings me to a more fundamental question. When do you roll?
If you’ve spent any time in the role-playing game community, you will probably have come across a couple of different schools of thought on this question. Personally, I think that rolling should generally be reserved for times when the outcome of a particular action is in doubt and the results have potential that affect or be affected by the player characters.
This second part, I think, is the most important. The player characters are the most important characters in the game, and the only part of the game world the gamemaster does not have control of. One of the main purposes of an RPG rules system is to define (and limit) the interactions of the shared play-space. The amount of influence the rules have can (and frequently does) vary from group to group, session to session, and even within the session — combat, for example, generally has a much larger rules influence than any other part of the game.
When the outcome is not in doubt, there is no need for a roll. When the outcome has no effect on the PCs, or cannot be affected by the PCs, there is no need for a roll. These are pretty straightforward, and I don’t think anybody would argue with them. Combat typically has a large degree of uncertainty, and the outcome can have a significant — potentially fatal — effect on the player characters, so rolls make a lot of sense.
It’s the edge cases that are interesting, and where you are likely to find the most range of opinions (exactly where the edge falls is another point of debate). Let’s take a look at an example from an old Earthdawn adventure — Terror in the Skies. At one point during the adventure, the player characters are riding an airship to Talon Kaer, and there are strong winds and nasty weather to contend with.
When do you roll?
Do you make rolls for the large airship approach? The smaller airboat heading toward the cave entrance? Setting aside what the adventure itself presents, the decisions of when to roll say a lot about the individual play style of the person (and group) making the call.
I don’t have a solid answer — and that’s the whole point. But it is a question that any GM worth the title needs to keep in mind when planning their game — and during the game itself.
It’s funny — last week, before I set this whole thing up, I had a whole bunch of ideas about things that I wanted to write about. Now that I have an easier way to update my site (particularly with small bits of news)… all the ideas seem to have vanished.
We played Earthdawn tonight. In our group of five, we have three players who are new to the setting and the system. It’s fascinating — I’m getting a new perspective on the game through their eyes. Concepts and ideas that I take for granted are being met with wonder and amazement. It kind of reminds me of my early days with the game, when all was fresh and new.
They’re on to their third adventure now. The first one was created as an introductory adventure, and it went pretty well. My original plans for the second adventure were aborted as they chased off after phantoms. After a quick web search, I found a nice little side trek in the archives of the Earthdawn Journal, which they wrapped up tonight.
After some downtime (where some of the PCs advanced to second circle), I sent them off to Parlainth, and the beginnings of Mists of Betrayal. I haven’t run the adventure for many years, and I’m looking forward to their first real encounter with a Horror.
In other news, Mary (my lovely wife) got a letter yesterday letting her know that she’s been accepted into college. It’s a tremendous boost for her — she’s been feeling rather frustrated with her career in retail management. She’s going to study Biology Education, and plans to become a high school teacher. I’m proud of her.
That does it for now. Hopefully my brain will kick back into action, and you’ll get more from me than just the latest news items from my life.