Let’s assume that you’ve read the three previous posts in this series, and are psyched to sit down with a bunch of players you haven’t met yet and GM an adventure at a gaming convention. Let’s further assume that it’s the morning of the day when you’re scheduled to run this event. And you haven’t had nearly as much time to prepare as you would have liked. (This last part requires no assumption; it’s always that way). Coincidentally, I am in that situation myself and can give a perspective on what I think is important to get ready before showtime.
(Let’s also assume that you’ve also just read James’ post celebrating his best gaming experience in years, and mused over the rare circumstance that two of us write posts that have to be posted on the same day for their references to “last night” and “later today” to make sense!)
Player Handouts. I’ve been spending the bulk of my prep time on making the pre-generated characters for my events. If I wasn’t using pre-gens, I’d have been working on the quickstart guide to help players make their characters at the table. Whatever information you need to hand the players so that they can hit the ground running should always be your highest priority. There’s a lot of “by Issek’s jug what happens now?” unpreparedness that you can hide behind the screen. When the players first sit down and get stuff that proves you’ve put some care into getting your event off to a good start, they’re much more likely to eagerly seek out the fun they’re confident you have waiting for them – which is all it takes for winging it to become a joy instead of a desperation move.
Gimmicks. The other thing I made sure to have ready was at least one cool prop for each adventure. As I say at least once per post in this series, the nature of a convention puts lots of limitations on what you can do in a RPG session but also creates opportunities. One of them is designing the adventure to lead to whatever gimmick you have in mind that wouldn’t be feasible in a regular campaign session. That might because it’d be too much of a pain if your players started expecting that kind of thing every game, or because your regular campaign is freeform enough that you never know whether your props would get used. (If I brought my Anonycon bag of tricks to every White Sandbox game, the temptation to railroad y’all so I could bust out my gimmicks and stop lugging them around would quickly become overwhelming).
At least one reader of the Mule has said they’ll be playing in some of these events, and through the awesomeness of the Metamorphosis Alpha forums I may run them again at GaryCon for a group of players that includes MA creator Jim Ward himself. (My prep for that game will involve wearing adult Depends.) So I’m going to keep some of my gimmicks a surprise for the benefit of their future victims. Folks who played in the Forgotten Heroes tournament at Gen Con ’08 will recognize one of the ones I’m re-using; there’s no shame in getting as much mileage out of a good prop as you possibly can. And gamers familiar with Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan will recall that it’s got a booklet of art meant to be shown to the players at key points in the adventure. These make a great gimmick because they’ll give new players both a hint of old-school flavor and also an advantage over the experienced hands, for whom the warm rush of nostalgia may distract them during the crucial few seconds in which they might escape the ways I’ve changed the adventure to screw them. Another classic convention gimmick is Dwarven Forge scenery (spruce it up with dry ice fog, or lasers and mirrors, if the tiles alone are too old hat for you) or other cool miniatures setups.
Gimmicks are helpful for two reasons. First, the fact that you’ve prepped this crazy thing that’s not part of their usual game experience tends to make them forget, or at least forgive, the other times where your facade of knowing what you’re doing may have slipped. Second, planning around the scenes that justify using your gimmick gives structure to the adventure design. Thinking “what on Oerth is going to happen in the Tamoachan event” was dreadful, but became delightful once it changed to “how can I shoehorn in all my favorite Otus and Darlene illos”.
Runthrough. On the half-hour bus ride this morning, my seven-year-old wanted to tell an evolution-themed “pretend story.” (Today he’d chosen to wear the shirt I brought home from Gary Con for him. My wife is a research scientist, and sometimes we look at our offspring and think “What hath nerds wrought?”. Which is awesome.) “Okay,” I said. “Your species is trying to get off this planet and expand into another niche on another world. You learned that there’s an alien starship inside an ancient pyramid. As you approach, you see…”
The key things here were that I got to tell the story of the adventure out loud to someone, making me feel much more confident about doing it again later that afternoon. And having him describe to me what he did helped me identify the key decision points and get some ideas about what I needed to present to make those choices clear and interesting and the unexpected directions players might take. Compared to playtesting (which I recommend but haven’t done), this is fast-forwarded, boiled-down, and good for testing story elements instead of mechanical ones. Javi and I often use a d6 to randomize our pretend stories, but this time he explicitly said “I use my light-saber to defeat the bad guys, and I don’t need to roll to do it.” Which was great by me – the PCs are almost always meant to overcome the combat obstacles in a convention game, and if you have a good feel for the mechanics (or are ready to fudge on your side of the screen) you can be pretty sure it’ll work out that way. This run-through is to help figure out the truly unpredictable aspects of how you and the players will respond to one another’s input throughout the scenario.
Doing this kind of run-through is so useful that I strongly suspect that the Gygax kids were often the unwitting assistants in Gary’s preparations for his convention games. (Or maybe not so unwitting; when I busted out the Tamoachan illustrations, my son said “I knew this was a D&D adventure with a map and pictures!”). If you don’t have kids to help with your run-through, try to find a friend you can talk into it. Friends of the opposite gender with whom this pleasant activity might eventually lead to procreation are recommended. You need a captive audience for your con game dress rehearsals, and the world needs more gamers!