Running a Con Game pt. 3: Blurbs

Time for more advice on GMing a RPG at a convention! In previous installments I talked about figuring out what you want to get out of it and coming up with titles for your events. This post will cover writing the blurbs that will describe your games in the convention’s program book.  I’ll use the ones I did for Anonycon as examples, and then try to extract some general guidelines for good blurb-writing – which will also start to cover advice about the content of the adventures you’ll run, since that’s what the blurbs describe.

First up is the blurb for Hidden Secrets of Tamoachan:

Your band of adventurers accidentally destroyed the world. So far, only you know that in a few days everyone on the planet will die horribly. Your hasty research into ancient lore suggests that an escape route may be found in the depths of the legendary pyramid of Tamoachan. Can you fight your way through a dungeon full of poison gas and the relics of ancient civilizations, or will you die a little ahead of everyone else?

NOTE: The story of this adventure is loosely connected to “Swords and Star-Tribes,” “Battlefield Oerth”, and “War for the Starship Warden.” Players are welcome to sign up for all of these events, or just enjoy this one on its own.

6 players, AD&D 1e. Characters will be provided. No rules knowledge necessary.

Start with a bang. A good blurb will catch the reader’s attention within the first sentence. It doesn’t have to be as literal a bang as the destruction of the world, but it should be surprising, exciting, and quickly get across the essence of  the game – in this case, high-powered, light-hearted wahoo adventure.

Offer a unique experience. A long-form RPG campaign allows for lots of things like character development and sandbox world-building that you can’t do in a convention game where you’ll only see the players for a handful of hours.  Your adventure should take advantage of the things you wouldn’t do in a regular campaign, like destroying the game world! Some of my favorite unique possibilities of a con game, like designing the pregen characters’ Vancian magic to exactly dovetail with the challenges of the adventure, or making their individual goals into a shaped charge set to self-destruct at the end of the session, can’t be advertised in a blurb without giving it away. But you can and should say right up front that the PCs are going to be rulers of warring magocracies , or waking up naked in prison, or whatever other scenario that would be awesome to play once but too difficult to manuever campaign PCs into or unwieldy to sustain in regular play.

Is this game part of a series? Most convention games are one-shot affairs.  If that’s not true and you’re running a multiple-round tournament or a series of tightly-linked games where it’s important that players who were in one session come back for another, be sure to let people know so they can schedule accordingly! Many cons will have a pull-down menu or something you can use to say “this is a tournament,” but it’s still a good idea to explain the details of what you expect in your blurb. The loosely linked series I describe in this note is something I haven’t tried before. The idea is to let people who like one event come back for more, without turning away people who can’t schedule them all (a problem that often keeps me from playing in tournaments). We’ll see how it works!

What do players need to play? Most cons will ask you to specify whether all levels of experience with the game system are welcome and if players need to bring anything, and some will ask whether it’s suitable for all ages. It’s a good idea to provide that info even if the con doesn’t ask for it, because players want to know if they qualify for an event and you want to have people show up who are ready to enjoy the game the way you want to play it. You generally don’t need to specify that players need dice, pencils, and paper (although you should bring extra of each just in case). Even if your blurb says that players should bring their own characters, it’s a good idea to have some pre-generated ones available. Personally I’d say that unless you’re playing a game where group interaction is necessary to the character-making process, your limited time at the convention is better spent on playing than making the PCs you’ll need to play. I have already self-administered the censure necessary for disagreeing with Gygax on this point. I also think that it’s better to run events that are open to newbies, because it’s fun and worthy, but you should be sure that you actually are ready to help people who don’t know what they’re doing & aren’t trying to achieve something like playing a mechanically complex system or a conceptually sophisticated scenario where inexpertise would be disruptive.

Next blurb, for Swords and Star-tribes:

You are the Captains of the Crossed Swords, and your might, mutations, and wits have conquered all the lands you know. But the hawkoids from the vent in the sky-vault tell of new conquests. You have long suspected that there are many other lands layered above and below. And you’ve heard heretics whisper that your world is truly a vast ship traveling from one ball of gas to another. But what does it mean that “the Warden has landed”?

Playing this game will let you be a... Part of the appeal of RPGs is trying out new and exciting roles, and one reason to go to conventions is to experience characters and situations you wouldn’t normally. A good blurb quickly gets across to the reader who they’d be if they played this game, and hopefully makes it sound appealing. For traditional party-based games, I like to get across the idea that the PCs will be part of a cohesive unit; it saves time at the table explaining “your guys have  already been on many adventures together.”  Company of the Crossed Swords isn’t all that attractive (I was stuck thinking of a party name and so stole one from the Glantri campaign ) but who doesn’t want to be a conqueror possessed of might, mutations, and wits? I like to flatter the players with blurbs of the “your awesomeness will crush stars under your heel” variety. However, James’ famous line “This is the story of a gang of insanely greedy, stupid, merciless cowards trying to bullshit their way to a wholly undeserved victory” would also be a great blurb because it tells you right there who you’re going to be, and if it doesn’t sound like fun you’re probably not the player for that event!

End with a challenge!? The idea here is that the last sentence of the blurb is a personal call to action. Will your superior playing skills prevail, or will this infamous dungeon TPK another lot of pathetic losers? I dare you to preregister for this game and find out! Using all that dramatic punctuation is kind of a cheap trick, but I do it all the time anyway. Subtle refinement and RPGs don’t mix.

Next blurb,  Battlefield Oerth:

Your fellowship of heroes were the only ones to escape the hideous fate that befell your world. But do you have what it takes to survive an environment where metal walls talk and pigs can fly? In the spirit of D&D classics like Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, in this adventure you’ll pit your swords and spells against robots and ray-guns. The future of more species than your own is yours to decide!

“It’s like Jaws, in space”. A blurb is like a high-concept movie pitch. You’re trying to sell someone on an unknown quantity. Pointing out how it’s like something they already know and love (e.g. Barrier Peaks) can help get your idea across. I think I used this technique for this blurb because I was insecure about how the fantasy/science fiction hybrid and wanted to point out its Gygaxian pedigree.

Highlight the cool. If your game has swords, spells, rockets, and rayguns, put that in the blurb! (Contrariwise, if the title of your event seems to promise something you won’t really deliver, this is your place to set people straight.) I’ve talked a lot about attracting players to your event, but ultimately you don’t want just any players. Getting the ones who’ll dig the kind of game you want to play also means repelling the ones who won’t. One accepted way to do this by specifying that players are required to have experience with the game system, because that way you can filter out the ones who don’t know yet that they won’t like the kinds of thing that system aims to deliver. Other than that, though, I think that if you try to use your blurb to describe the kinds of people who shouldn’t sign up for your event you’ll just look like an asshole. Highlighting the cool helps get the right players in both directions. The more I express my enthusiasm for mixing swords and rockets, the more people who think that’s lame will know not to sign up. If I don’t mention this central awesomeness, I’ll both fail to attract people who like that kind of thing and run the risk that some of the people who do show up will be dismayed when I spring it on them.

Last blurb, War for the Starship Warden:

Defend your home against invaders from Oerth! As long as you have charges left in your disruptor pistols, robots at your command, and the mental ability to drain energy from living organisms, the outsiders don’t stand a chance. This free-wheeling adventure uses the framework of the 4E rules to create a high energy mashup of the world’s first fantasy and science-fiction RPGs. Will it be you or your enemy who sets the next destination for the Warden?

Set the stakes. Even if they’ll only actually play in your world once, players want to feel that their actions will have lasting consequences. Unless you’re  in an organized play league like the RPGA, a one-shot convention game can’t provide the usual markers of change over time in a campaign like the steady accumulation of experience points (although I’m always surprised how often players nevertheless ask “How many XP did we get?” at the end of a con session). What it can offer is the freedom to set up a scenario where every outcome will involve dramatic sweeping changes that would totally screw up an ongoing campaign. One year at Princecon we were dealing with entire branches falling off the Tree of Life – although that’s maybe not the best example because the events of each Princecon do build on each other in a unique AFAIK kind of ongoing campaign stretching back to 1976, and I think next year the races that we failed to graft back on were no longer available as PCs.

Know what the action of your event will be. You’ll often write your blurbs before you actually put together the adventure they describe. This is Not Recommended! I didn’t really have it clear in my mind what would happen in this event when I wrote the blurb. I’d like to say that’s because I was avoiding having a foregone conclusion and letting the events of this one be shaped by player actions in the previous games in the series. In fact, I’m much more enthusiastic about having the GM lay rails to the action when it comes to convention games (although Zak provides good advice on how to do this in a sandbox style in this post at Playing D&D with Porn Stars). Really, I was just counting on procrastination to make me figure out what I was going to do right before the con, which may or may not yet happen in the four days remaining, and it kind of shows in this blurb.

Planning to run a convention game and want ideas for your blurb or feedback on the one you’ve drafted? Post in the comments and the Mule mass-mind will provide. It’d also be cool to have folks write blurbs for games they want to play in, instead of run; perhaps someone will take up that gauntlet!

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