Tuesday 28 February 2012

Certain points of view

Or: you should never count on being able to run a fully successful game in a setting you love, because people may see it differently than you do.

A game I have always wanted to run is Star Trek, set in either the current Next Generation era ,post-Dominion War, or the classic movie era around the time of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - I like the atmosphere of the Next Generation setting and the adventure-come-combat of Trek II, and even Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. I like me some Star Trek and I love the idea of adventuring in the setting. I’m playing the recently turned free-to-play ‘Star Trek: Online’ at the moment and I’m really enjoying it. I’ve even taken the character sheet and some of the rules of Task Force Games ‘Prime Directive’ and converted them to West End Games D6 System, utilising the rules of the first edition of ‘Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game’. It’s a great game and plays really well. My problem is that I like Star Trek but know little about the larger setting and how it fully operates and only take my cues from the films and TV shows. Gaming with players who know more about it than I do – true Trek aficionados – proved difficult as the slightest detail I got wrong was corrected and ideas were formed using words an terminology I didn’t have the slightest clue about. In these cases I let the dice decide but on a failed roll there was a long conversation, almost an argument, as to how they as Federation characters and members of Star Fleet would know how to do that or would have access to certain kinds of equipment. A basic case of Player knowledge versus Character Knowledge with not much chance of an amicable settlement because the player knew so much more about Star Trek than I did.

I had the same problem as a player in a Middle-Earth Role Playing game. It was set during the War of the Ring and we were Gondorian soldiers scouting the north and I knew the GM was wrong about the location of The Lonely Mountain. I can’t remember why it made so much difference to the game, maybe it didn’t, but the GM did not want to hear my corrections. He even had me roll to see what my PC did know, and when I failed the roll he told me that as far as my character was concerned it was where he said it was. I remember being incredibly annoyed and a bit flustered about it and my argument at the time was, ‘But I’ve been reading Tolkien for more than a decade!’

Certain popular settings are easier than others. Playing in the Star Wars universe is easy. Everyone knows where they stand. Good guys are heroes, bad guys are villains, and nobody cares how things work or where things are – they’re just there and they do what you need them to do and with no defined ‘this is how it all hangs together’ you can pretty much wing because, hey – everyone loves Star Wars. It’s all about adventure on a pulp scale. But a richer setting, such as Star Trek or Middle-Earth, has so much more detail and history that parts of that can affect gameplay, or at least people’s perceptions of it. These settings can be several things at once – adventure, combat, exploration, character driven, emotional, intriguing, mysterious, lots of things – and in some cases a player’s view of the setting will be vastly different to how someone else views it. Attitudes to how the game should be played will differ, and the amount that a single person knows about the setting will differ from the amount another knows, and these levels of knowledge might bring about disagreements. How do I know that a PC can get out of trouble with the Andorians on the planet Flexagarble VII by using an inverted tri-phase resonator on the transponders they use for the transporter room? What does that even mean? How do I know that the player isn’t simply making it up – like I did just then - knowing that I know far less than he does about the setting?

These days I leave it to the dice. Unless there’s something specific in the rules that addresses this particular problem, a ruling that’ll give me something to make a decision about how to handle the situation no matter what the player has to say about it, then I’ll just match what they want to do to with the closest skill on their sheet and ask them to roll, maybe modify it depending on how plausible their argument sounds. That has to be the fairest way so that everyone comes away without feeling cheated. In these possible situations I’ll make sure this kind of ruling is going to be implemented before the game starts so that everyone knows where they stand. I realise they know more than me but I have to make rulings based on what sounds plausible and not based on what some random character in Season 5 Episode 4 did or said, or what it says in Book 3 on Page 244 Paragraph 2 of The Epic series. I don’t know these things and the players should have respect for that, the same way I’ll have respect for their breadth of knowledge by making modifiers to rolls depending on how they make their case.

It’s certainly better than simply saying or hearing, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about, you can’t do that’.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Learning from mistakes

One of my biggest failings as a GM when I first started out running games was the fact that I felt, as the controller of the game, I not only had control over the direction the game took but I also had control over the fate and the even the decisions of the players.

I think this was borne out of two things; Firstly, I felt that as I was in charge and I had designed the story of the game then the game should progress as I saw fit. Secondly, I felt that the players were there to be entertained by me and so it was up to me to talk them through something that I thought they would find entertaining. It was both a misconception and a conceit, and my first games suffered terribly for it.

This approach to GMing stripped away any control the players may have had, or even wanted. I didn’t simply railroad them, I forced them onto the train and strapped them to the seats. I was literally narrating a story, telling them what was happening and in some cases what they were doing, and I only stopped and asked for their input at certain points, such as when a fight was about to take place or a situation/puzzle needed to be solved. Looking back on it now nearly thirty years later I can’t even fathom why it is I never noticed the looks of sheer boredom on the faces of the players. It’s actually embarrassing to remember it. I was so wrapped up in the powers that I had been given - or that I had granted to myself – I didn’t even realise that players were the other 50% of the game. I was the GM and I had The Power! I can simply put this down to inexperience but it amazed me, years later, when I took part in games where the apparently experienced GM was running the games in exactly the same vein. I played in groups where this way of gaming was the norm for the GM and the players sat back and let the GM go on and on and on. It was incredibly strange to experience, especially since I already knew these people and didn’t expect it from them.

GMs do not have The Power in the literal sense. They have the reins but they don’t have full control of the bolting horse. In fact, if anyone has The Power it’s the players, as it’s their decisions and actions that drive the game forward and result in an enjoyable fulfilling experience for everyone. It took me a while to realise that – and I realised it on my own, it wasn’t pointed out to me – and now I feel my games are better for it.

Friday 24 February 2012


I had my first ever Total Party Kill as a GM last night, and it was during the very last fight with the bad guy at the end of a short Dragon Warriors campaign I’ve been running since the beginning of the year.

I feel bad that the PCs were killed, but I don’t feel guilty about it. The thing is, during the last few weeks I dropped plenty of hints, clues and even showed them the effect of certain things against demonic creations, and they never caught on. I think they were distracted by trying to outdo each other in the jokes department, talked about other stuff whilst I was explaining or describing things and basically didn’t pay attention. At the very end of the adventure, just before the TPK, they let one of their party die while they all fought a single opponent – they could have quite easily saved him with a healing tonic that they all had, the very same healing tonics they didn’t use during the final fight - and didn’t work together as a team. I didn’t set out to kill them, it was just a case of very bad forward planning on their part and some incredibly unlucky dice rolls.

After the event, I asked the question, ‘Where do you think you went wrong?’ The answers they gave me told me that they knew what they should have done and how they should have done it – they just didn’t do it.

I’m honestly baffled.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

The Skin You Play In

I had a player once who took the game quite seriously. He took it incredibly seriously. In fact, he took it so seriously he actually scared me a little.

I’m into my roleplaying games, that much is obvious, enjoy getting under the skin of a PC, figuring out what makes them tick and using that knowledge to determine what the character would do. I’m playing as intended, I’m playing a role. I find it fun, rewarding and fulfilling, which is no doubt what the majority of players get out of it.

This particular player – I’ll call this guy Bill – was a nice bloke and a good friend. We spent a lot of time together and I knew he had certain emotional issues which he never really talked about but seemed to regard with a very ‘that’s all over and done with’ positive attitude. He joined the gaming group very early on and attended games regularly for a couple of years. We started to do some one-on-one gaming in several different genres and, slowly at first but with gaining momentum, his attitude towards the game started to change.

Bill enjoyed the game as a bit of fun and had a great laugh at the table when we were in a group, but when the one-on-one games began he began to change. The characters he started to play were becoming much more intense, much more defined and a lot more emotionally unstable. Out went his fun-loving carefree adventurers and in came some very dark, detailed PCs with incredibly twisted pasts. They all began to share the same trait; they had all had a traumatic incident in their younger years that involved the death of someone very close – I have no idea if anything like this had happened to Bill in real life - and this made the PC angry at the world and he would take gruesome, meticulous revenge on anyone who crossed them. The PCs, in many respects, were the exact opposite of what the game setting required. Be it Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer or MERP they were always the same dark, brooding, emotionally disturbed characters. And when Vampire: The Masquerade was released… well, it was as if someone had written the game to satiate every one of Bill’s roleplaying requirements.

Now, let me make something clear here – Bill was only this way in the games. Outside the game he was the same old Bill, funny and friendly, but in the game he stopped being himself. I could have put this down to him playing the character he had designed but every character he created was the same. I felt he was using the game as some kind of emotional release and, as I simply didn’t understand what he was trying to get out of the game or why, he would get highly frustrated and angry when things didn’t go the way he wanted, probably because events hadn’t transpired the way he had pictured them in his head. He demanded total control and if things slipped away from him he would react quite badly. More often than not I found myself fudging the game to let him ‘win’ to avoid the barrage of anger and vitriol that sometimes came out should things work against him. I was constantly bombarded by detailed, five thousand word character backgrounds and illustrations, some of which were somewhat confusing and even disturbing, and in the game he would go off on long speeches about how haunted he was, how these events had affected him, how deeply scarred he was. These speeches usually preceded him being particularly brutal or vicious to particular NPCs he perceived as deserving his retribution.

It was obvious that Bill was using the game to either express his darker side or he was trying to excise personal demons or feelings through his PCs. The deeper he got into the game the darker it got and I found myself disliking the sessions and then I blatantly stopped running them. It was getting too much and I was becoming scared about how he was living out certain parts of his emotional state in the game. Once I cut down and then finally stopped running these games for him I saw less of him. I didn’t know if he was still playing, I do know he had approached another group in a neighbouring city, but he moved away soon after and we lost contact completely. I’ve not spoken to him in more than twenty years, now. I hope he found what he was looking for.

Using roleplaying games to vent emotional problems, or any problems at all, is never a good idea. It’s not fair on you (as you’ll just taint the game for yourself), the GM (he can’t mindread and therefore can’t cater for what it is you want from the game) or the other players at the table (they’re attending to have fun, not take part in a psycho-analysing session). The nature of roleplaying games is that they are not real, and you are living in a fictitious world through the eyes of a fictitious character so any emotional experience is not grounded in reality. In my experience – I am guilty of taking out some of my stress and darker feelings in the game, I’m sure a lot of players are – any emotional payoff is short lived and never addresses the real reason why you channelled those feelings in the first place. The very fact that the game and what occurs in it isn’t real means that any experiences you have in the game are also just as false. You’ll never take away any sense of closure the way you would should you address the problem directly and outside the game.

I think this was Bill’s problem. He kept looking for that moment of closure but never truly found it and the harder he looked the worse it got. He was a great roleplayer, that much is sure, and I can say with certainty that if he hadn’t been so emotionally invested the games would have been up there with some of my best memories and experiences of the hobby. What I should have done is realised the problem, realised why it was he playing the game in such a way, and stopped the games straight away, or at least changed the focus. Maybe Bill would be in my group today and he’d be the happy Bill, the fun game-loving Bill he was when he first started roleplaying.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Experience points

As in, moments in my gaming history where I learned something that I found enlightening and changed the way I game. Points of experience. Get it? Get it? I'm wasted here.

This year marks the 29th year of my involvement in the hobby, from innocent bright-eyed Fighting Fantasy Gamebook reader to cynical grizzled veteran of many campaigns and dice rolls. I like to think I've learned a lot over the years and decades and I've written some small articles detailing the occasions and incidents where I felt I truly discovered something about how to make my gaming experience better. My last few blog entries have reflected this and I've enjoyed writing them.

So, over the next few weeks I'm going to share little anecdotes from my gaming history and what I learned from it. I'll be changing names and most likely changing or interpreting the event to make my point, both by mistake and on purpose, primarily so that I don't embaress anyone or myself.

It may help you, it may not. You may agree with my conclusions, you may be highly offended and pray for my soul to be saved by the Great Die In The Sky. Either way, I hope you find it interesting.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Eh? What?

I have to wonder why some people turn up to play roleplaying games . Over the years I have met plenty of people through the hobby, some I met briefly and some I’m still friends with years later, but there was one kind of game attendee that always confused me and this was the player that didn’t seem to have any interest in either the game or the hobby.

I have been part of and ran plenty of games in which there has been at least one person at the table who sits and takes virtually no part at all in the adventure. This is way before such distractions as mobile telephones, laptops and pads, and the player would sit, peruse books and say very little until prompted. This prompt usually shook them out of their thoughts and before declaring an action they’d ask what had been happening. It was frustrating sometimes, having to go over old ground (or, at least, old-but-incredibly-recent ground) the rest of the group had already absorbed and were armed with. It slowed the game down, particularly if it was an action scene.

The first conclusion you’d reach is that the person wasn’t that interested in the game, the genre or the adventure. Maybe they had no interest in gaming, or maybe they’d had enough of the hobby. But they’d attend, week after week after week, and add nothing if very little to the game, keep themselves to themselves and come awake when finally asked to declare an action or pressed for an opinion. They never paid any attention to the game and more than once the question would rise, ‘Where’s he gone?’ and we’d find out he’d either gone to the bathroom, gone to get a drink or simply left and nobody had noticed. When asked if everything is okay, the person in question is fine, has no problem and asks for the game to continue, pays attention for a few minutes and then slowly drifts away again.

My question was always, ‘Why?’ Why turn up to the game every week for weeks, even months, on end only to sit there and do nothing? Not even get involved in any level? At first I used to stress and worry whether they were having a good time or not, but soon came to realise it’s not up to me to try to instil any kind of enthusiasm into the player – there is only so much of that I can do - but it was up to them to at least attempt to get involved. It’s always been a mystery to me and I never truly got an answer.

Saying that, there was one guy in a group of mine from long ago who would be very quiet throughout the entire session, and when pressed for an opinion he’d come out with such great ideas, thoughts and concepts it sometimes astounded us. We’d just ignore him, sometimes, and leave it to the end of the evening before addressing him just to hear what he had to say about the game and what was happening. One of his best lines came after a three hour session and made so much sense the players slapped their foreheads in realisation, like he’d kept it to himself the whole game just to piss them off. ‘Honestly? I’d have shot his brother in the face the moment I met him, he had the keys,’ he said. Profound. He was like Vinnie Jones at the end of ‘Gone In Sixty Seconds’.

Thursday 16 February 2012

Pick me! Pick me!

Having eager players at the table is great. Players that get right into their character and drive the story forward is brilliant. But is there such a thing as too much of a driving force?

I had this player once – let’s call him Brian – and he loved to get right into the game. He planned, he roleplayed, he played the setting to the hilt and he delved both into the characters he created as well as the adventure he was playing in. In most respects he was the perfect player, a GM’s dream. He made you feel like all the hard work you’d put into creating the adventure was more than worth it as he was excited to experience what you had created. The one-on-one games we used to have were intense and very exciting.

But not all players, or GMs, appreciated this level of involvement. Because he was so driven he always wanted to be sure that the game was progressing, so that his PC could experience what was going to happen next, to keep the game moving forward. It could be exhausting at times; I’d take a breather for five minutes and next thing I know I’m being pushed for narrative and descriptions of the next location and encounter. He’d also be the self-appointed ‘voice of the group’ and take actions that would pretty much help decide what direction the game would go in.

I could handle this. I knew the guy well, I knew his intentions and the way he did things and I could react to it with little to no detriment to the gaming group. There were, however, GMs who couldn’t handle it and I fully understand why. When Brian was on form he’d push the game in all kinds of different directions and as long as you were a seat-of-the-pants GM, fully adept at winging it, you were okay. In fact, he’d make sure that you as a GM would have a great time and keep you on your toes. But, if you were the kind of GM who had carefully structured a game and you knew where it was going and the order in which things were going to happen – railroading, some people call it - you were going to be in deep trouble. Brian didn’t want a selection of options, he wanted the world. If he could think of a sensible way to get around or through something that made sense in the gameworld he would give it a go and woe betide the GM who wasn’t prepared for his out-of-the-box thinking. Double woe betide if the GM was a rules lawyer and the things that Brian wanted to do weren’t really covered in the rulebook. This created all kinds of problems at the table, and Brian, being Brian, wasn’t the most patient of players when there was, as he put it, ‘An unrealistic action-stopping pause’ while the GM tried to work out how to adjudicate the actions he’d declared. More often than not, just to keep the game going, he’d drop the action and do the obvious because his impatience got the better of him.

Other players would sometimes get a little stressed with him, too. He was loud - not annoyingly loud but loud enough to be sure that his was the dominant voice at the table – and they felt that he was overriding their decisions by simply drowning them out. Sometimes, if the group was taking too long to decide on the next course of action, he’d declare an action that would force the other players to react immediately and therefore keep the game flowing. He’d make meticulous plans, sure, but at the first sign of failure he’d just jump in feet first and push on as best he could, dragging the other players with him even though they were calling for a retreat and regroup to try another plan. Some players felt marginalised by his way of gaming and, as one gamer indelicately put it after one session, ‘Honestly, it’s the fucking Brian Show’. They had a good point, it’s true. To be fair, Brian’s way of gaming sometimes forced other players to raise their game and the sessions where they were all energetic and driving the game were simply incredible. Still, if you think you’re gaming in somebody else’s shadow it can be frustrating.

The gaming group broke up after a couple of years – I can categorically say that it wasn’t Brian’s fault that it did – and we went on to one-on-one gaming for a while in which he positively revelled. We had some great games and as he was the focus of attention and he could fully indulge in what he wanted out of gaming we had some of the best games I’ve ever run in my long gaming history. He was most definitely suited to these kinds of games, or maybe with one or two other players who understood the way he gamed, and it was a massive shame when real life took him away from it all. I still hope that we can bring him back into the gaming fold at some point as he was definitely one of the best gamers I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing with.

These kind of players are a dream for the right kind of GM and group. They’re a nightmare (throws cloak open) for others! (disappears)*.

*Bonus points if you get the reference.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Distracted by Sparkly Wonders

This is more of a ramble than it is a serious point.

I’ve got a bit of a problem when it comes to running games and that’s keeping myself focused on the game that I’m actually playing; not while running the actual game, but all that downtime between games when I’m in danger of being distracted by something shiny and attractive. It’s not Gamer ADD or anything like that. I wouldn’t even put it down to boredom with the game that I’m playing at the time. I put it down to an overactive imagination.

If I ran nothing but fantasy games then there would be no doubt that any new sparkly fantasy thing that caught my attention, like a setting or a campaign idea, would be easily adaptable and useable in the game I’m currently running. So, basically, I find an idea that I like, I take the idea and I incorporate it into my ongoing game. This is probably why many campaigns last so long, because the gaming group don’t need to switch systems or genres. The GM would slip the idea into the campaign and the game would be constantly invigorated by new ideas and situations the GM is excited about, by the sparkly thing he found. As the GM runs games in that single genre using that single system then anything that gets his attention doesn’t disrupt the group and he can run his continuing game with the same players and PCs.

My problem is that my experience falls across multiple genres and usually the sparkly thing that grabs my attention is of a completely different milieu to the one I’m currently playing in. I could be running a deep, emotionally charged fantasy game and half way through the campaign I see a setting for a science fiction game that gets me excited; what to do? Drop the fantasy game and tell my players ‘This is what we’re playing now, people!’ Sacrifice any momentum or involvement the game has created and just drop it in favour of what I consider to be the Next Great Event?

I don’t see this as gamer ADD as I don’t abandon my current game in favour of the new shiny. I can quite gladly continue with my fantasy game even if my heart and imagination is screaming out for some galaxy-spanning sci-fi adventure. I just need a few moments to get into the zone before the game starts, get some inspiration and get into the mood for the game I’m about to run. If I’m given long enough I can run any kind of game no matter what I’m in the mood for.

So, how is this a problem? Well, the problem occurs when I decide that I want to run a game and spend the time creating the adventures and the campaign leading up to it. It becomes a problem when I spend ages designing a game around this Holy Shiny Thing and it takes so long to actually begin the game - either because I’m still running a different campaign or I’m playing in somebody else’s – that I lose the initial spark and the excitement I felt as to why I wanted to run the game in the first place, and it’s replaced by despondency. I’ve got reams and reams of material and characters and locations and plots and images, and I look at it and I find it difficult to remember why it was that I wanted to run this in the first place, and I can’t capture that initial excitement because it’s been so long since I first thought of it. This lack of zeal then translates onto the game, and I know that if I do run it it’ll be a lacklustre half-arsed attempt, a pale facsimile of the incredible firework display of a game that I wanted to run in the first place. I’ll sit and stare and my shoulders will slump down and then I’ll feel guilty, because no doubt I’ve bigged this game up to my players, they’ve got themselves in the zone and the mood to play in it and I’m either going to bail on it or the adventure will be bland. Then I’ll lose a bit of trust from them as they’ll wonder if the next campaign will be like this, all dull and uninspiring.

I know that there’s a long list of things I should do to make sure this doesn’t happen; remain focused, don’t get distracted, don’t make promises, don’t spend so long concentrating on a game I’m not even running yet. But I’ve been like this for the better part of twenty years and I can’t help myself. Perhaps I should embrace it, realise that it’s a good thing to be so excited about the games I want to run, but I know that this pure excitement I feel about new games is going to be to the detriment of my games and my players. If I can capture this excitement and then run the game straight away I know it’ll be good.

Reading back on this blog entry, I can’t tell if all this is a good thing or a bad thing.

Friday 10 February 2012

Anarchy at the gaming table

I remember a Warhammer FRP game, long ago, when I totally lost control of the gaming group. I don’t want to write out the whole story as it’s not the reason for this post and I don’t want to go off on a rant.

The loss of control was mainly because the players didn’t seem to be interested in the game but more in making as many silly comments as possible. A lot happened in the game, such as combat and puzzle solving, but there was no roleplaying at all. I’m all for having a laugh at the table and in fact some of the best sessions I remember were made even better by the humour and fun we had, but the horsing around in this game had no bearing on why we had gathered to play and was so continuous and overbearing that I simply didn’t want to run the game, that night or ever again. It got so bad that I found myself having to talk over other people, or I was having my descriptions interrupted as players talked to each other over me. There was a string of jokes towards the end of the session about a subject that I’m incredibly touchy about and that didn’t help either. By the end of the game I’d gone from enjoying the session to be quite angry about it all.

I remember that at first I blamed myself – I was in charge of the game and I was running it so surely it was my responsibility to make sure that the players were on track and having fun. It was also my responsibility that the game didn’t get hijacked by jokes and atmosphere-breaking comments. If that’s the case then surely I’ve failed as a GM? I lost control of the game and that’s my own lookout, surely?

Well, no, not really. I’ve seen this happen with other GMs and I don’t see this as a total failure on their part, I see it as a failure on the part of the players. They were having a good time and enjoying themselves, I can’t fault or disapprove of that, but I was there to participate in a roleplaying game, a game I happen to take quite seriously, that I’d spent a lot of time designing and, in this case, that I had spent money on at the request of the players (I have always wondered if they would have acted that way had they contributed to the cost of the game). I was looking for a fun, enjoyable time but I ended up sitting back and watching as the game deteriorated into farce. There was one particular player who seemed to take great pleasure in disrupting the game. Suffice to say that I don’t game with these people anymore.

It all comes down to respecting why everyone is there at the table. If someone is there to have fun and mess around then they won’t fit in well with serious gamers, and vice versa, but with a bit of respect and leeway there’s no reason why every kind of gamer can’t sit at the same table and play the same game. I respect the fact that my players want to have a good time and at the same time they should respect the fact that I, as GM and the person who did a heck of a lot of preparation for the game, really want to get stuck into the adventure and delve right into the roleplaying.

Of course, it’d be easier to find a like-minded, tightly focused group but there’s room for all kinds of gaming attitude at a gaming table and there’s a time and a place for jokes, fooling around and serious gaming. One of these attitudes shouldn’t dominate the table at the expense of any one player or GM.

Thursday 9 February 2012

Ball-busting RPG trailer!

If I was to run a World War Three RPG, I'd use this as the trailer to get my players all geared up for it. The tactical wargaming/roleplaying possibilities here are immense.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

On January 28th 2012 I ran my own convention, Gamma Con.

It was a really good day and went a whole lot better than I expected. I expected about 40 people through the door and got near 70, and I had local games designers and a gaming store set up and sell and demo games. I even had a little support from Cubicle 7 and we helped raise money for Help for Heroes. Everyone seemed to have fun and the day went by pretty quickly for me..

I learned quite a lot from the experience. First and foremost, organising a convention is a difficult exercise but when things fall into place it can be very rewarding. There are all kinds of levels of stress, don’t get me wrong; when a GM calls you up to let you know that he’s not coming to run his sci-fi game five minutes after the doors have opened to the public, that’s stressful. When you get to the venue and realise that your table plan has been scuppered due to incorrect measurements, that’s stressful. But these moments are fleeting and you’ll be glad when supportive fellow gamers help out. People aren’t going to stand there and let you run around like a headless chicken whilst shaking their heads with disgust as you try and sort out the problem. They’re going to muck in and help shift tables, make suggestions. It all works out and, even though there was some last minute jumping around, the room was ready and the doors opened on time. Everyone was understanding and helpful. It was my first convention, there were bound to be some teething problems.

It was the build-up to the convention that was the hard work. My wife Lisa and I started in earnest last August and kicked the whole thing off by viewing the local venues and comparing costs. This was a bit of a tricky moment; the closer the venue was to the city centre and areas of public transport the more expensive it was, and the places we found further out were indeed cheaper but much more difficult to get to. As a first convention it’s a difficult choice to make as we could spend hundreds of pounds on a top-notch location and find that hardly anyone attends. We weren’t in this to make profit, but then I didn’t fancy paying for this out of my own pocket.
In the end we were very lucky. We found a church hall two minutes’ walk from the city centre and one minute’s walk from both the train station and the bus station, and there was ample car parks right on the doorstep. It was almost perfect. It was a great location and at a decent price, but a little smaller than I wanted.

There was also the problem with clashing with other conventions. I had made sure that I wasn’t clashing with any other small conventions or events in the area but, due to the fact that I could only get the hall on one particular weekend, I couldn’t help but clash with a big convention that was being held in the south of England. What was on my side was the fact that I was catering not only to RPGs but also to wargames, cardgames and boardgames. The convention in the south was primarily RPGs, so as far as I was concerned I was okay.

Then I began to send out the first notifications that I was putting on a convention. Local gaming groups, clubs and stores were informed and I invited gaming stores to come and show their wares. I never expected the stores to be too keen as it was a first convention and it may not have been worth their while. This initial notification was to start a buzz, send the word around the local gaming community. It was at this point that I realised that the gaming community was a hell of a lot larger than I realised! There were plenty of people interested and, even though some of them never turned up on the day, they were very keen and that no doubt helped put the word around.

The intention here was word of mouth, the news that there was a gaming convention on spreading from group to group, club to club. I posted on their message boards, sent messages to the webmasters, made sure they had links to the websites I needed them to look at, primarily the Gamma Con website that Lisa had built and the Facebook event page where they could get updates on the convention. After contacting Dave McAlister at UK Roleplayers I got my own message forum and entry onto the convention calendar. Then, I contacted Andy Hopwood and Kyle Daniel, two guys I had met in my shop days, and invited them to demo their games, which they accepted. Then I contacted the local gaming stores and, surprisingly, was turned down by one (after a long time of indecision), ignored by three others and had my invitation accepted by only one, Spirit Games of Burton-on-Trent. I was a little surprised at this as, with the economy as it is, the first thing I thought shops would need is exposure. For anyone demoing and selling their wares there was a small table hire fee.

Next, I needed to make sure that attendees would have something to play on the day. I managed to secure four GMs to run games (one of which cancelled before the event, the other cancelled on the day) and two local wargaming groups agreed to come on the day and set up tables. Anyone bringing these huge fold-out terrain tables was granted free admission on the proviso that they allowed other gamers and members of the public to game on their table. In this regard my thanks go out to Ed for his huge Warhammer 40K tables, Dragon Art Models for their table and Chase Wargamers for their Flames of War table. I also made sure there were a couple of smaller tables available for spur-of-the-moment games, and that was the hall pretty much set up.

Now that I had an idea of what was going to be there I then decided on a price of entry. I settled on £3.00 as it was low enough to be small change as any higher may have made the attendees feel that they weren’t getting their money’s worth. I just needed enough to cover the hall and event insurance costs, and with the trader’s table hire covering a third of that cost already I just needed a decent turnout to cover the rest. Regardless, I made sure I had enough personal money to cover the costs in the event that something went wrong or the day failed miserably. It would have pained me to pay out of my own pocket, but that’s the risk you take.

With three months to go I began the advertising. A4 posters, A5 flyers, all very cheaply done; I formatted it all on my home PC and printed them out at work and my local library, so paid virtually nothing for it. I posted the flyers and a couple of copies of the posters to local stores, schools, colleges and the library. Then I canvassed the local shops and my poster appeared in the windows of cafes, newsagents, supermarkets and even my local hairdressers. With permission I left small piles of flyers in pubs and coffee shops. I then got in touch with the local paper and, as the event was helping to raise money for the charity Help for Heroes, I got a free write-up. I hassled the primary RPG publishers in the country and got some support from Cubicle 7 in the form of a free adventure for me to run for Starblazer Adventures (which, sadly, the sci-fi GM was going to have a look at but never turned up), and I got a copy of Starblazer Adventures to raffle off for the charity. Jedi News were also on hand to rent a table and push their website and some RPG and collectible goodies and gave us some publicity, and Mark took care of the Help for Heroes requirements.

For all their efforts, everyone trading or contributing had free exposure on our website, Facebook event page and were included on message board updates. This meant that their table hire fee also paid for roughly three months of free advertising across the internet. That was a pretty good deal for them.

Over the weeks and months leading up to the convention Lisa and I simply made sure that Gamma Con’s profile was kept up. Message board and Facebook updates, messages to potential attendees, answering queries and concerns quickly and efficiently. Throughout all of this I was still only expecting around 40 attendees.

It was great to see our Gamma Con posters up in shop windows, and see our name crop up on websites. There was some concern about us clashing with the convention in the South, and this was pointed out to me on our UK Roleplayers message board which, to be honest, I felt was a little unfair. The other convention was an established multi-day event that catered for roleplayers and our event was for all kinds of gamers and as a very small and very new convention there was no way we were going to compete or even affect a show on the other side of the country. I didn’t choose the date on purpose, it wasn’t a choice but a lack of options. Regardless, this is something for me to bear in mind in the future when I arrange the next one.
On top of all this we bought extras and supplies; an 8 foot by 2 foot GAMMA CON banner to go up outside the building, some sticky paper wristbands for attendees to get in and out, paper, pens and pencils, and bumbags for the money taken on the door.

The closer I got to the date the more I pushed the event, conscious of the fact that I only had a few weeks left to get the advertising in. In the last week I had a lot of messages from potential attendees and people wanting to bring their games and represent their clubs. During this last week I secured another gaming table from another local wargaming club and a GM offered his services to playtest his own game. I also received a couple of cancellations, which was a worry, and then a few messages of apology and regret for not being able to attend. It was at this point, the last week before the event, that I started to get worried. With a few days to go I made sure the traders were aware of arrival times, setting up and everything else they might need to get them through the day.

The day before Gamma Con I got the keys to the hall from the church, made sure I was fully aware of fire exits, light switches and alarms, and tried to get an early night.

We were up very early the next day. My mate Andy picked me up at 8:30 so that we could transport the gear and we got to the venue nice and early. The first traders turned up at 09:00 and we began to set up and it was then the first problem reared its head. I had measured the tables for the traders and decided on how the tables were to be set up in the hall. Unfortunately, the measurements supplied to me were incorrect so the venue wasn’t as long as it appeared on paper. With some quick changes, some help from the traders and some creative positioning we were set to go.

The doors opened at 10:00 and, five minutes later, the second problem manifested. I received a phone call from the GM who had agreed to run a sci-fi game telling me he couldn’t make it as something had come up. There was no other explanation other than that and there was nothing I could do so instead of dwelling on it I just let it go and declared the table I had earmarked for him as free to use. This turned out to be a good call and quite a few gamers used the table for a multitude of games.

The attendees arrived. In fact, a lot of attendees. It was a mixture of ages and as the day went on they would casually come and go. Going by takings at the door there were at least 65 people who attended on the day and one of the GMs said that he was sure there were more. In the end we made enough money to cover all our expenses and had some left over to sink into the next convention.

The games went well. The arranged RPGs were enjoyed and then any straggling players set up their own games. The demos were popular, the wargaming tables were always attended. There were a couple of people whose table was sometimes empty but I had to remember that I could point newly arriving attendees to certain tables – I spent most of my time on the door - but couldn’t make them take part in anything. I just had to realise that there were certain things that were out of my control.

Other than that the day went really well. The atmosphere was good, people had fun, the games flowed and the community came together just as I had wanted it to. I chatted with plenty of people and got to know new gamers, I met up with people I’d not seen in a long time, and helped introduce new blood to the hobby. The winner of the Starblazer Adventures book was very pleased with his prize, and on every table there were games, both organised and improvised, and people having fun. It was somewhat sad when the day ended at 17:00, but everyone went away happy and some went to the pub to carry on gaming. By 20:00 I was in the pub myself for an after-show celebratory drink.

What did I take away from all this? What did I learn?

- Organising a convention location and date is pretty easy but the hard work is convincing people that they want to be there.
- You can’t plan for everything and constant improvisation is the norm.
- Working on a convention for the better part of four months takes a lot of time and sometimes you may feel that your life is being dominated by it, but it is worth it.
- No matter what people tell you, organising this kind of thing is a lot of hard work.
- Only plan for what you can foresee.
- Checklists rule!
- There’s no such thing as too much advertising.
- Don’t do it all alone, have someone alongside you to help and advise. In my case I had my wonderful wife Lisa to help me through it all.
- That given enough attention and work, organising and hosting a successful convention can be the most rewarding and fulfilling thing you can do for the gaming community.

I’ve had plenty of messages thanking us, praising the day and hoping for another one, alongside messages from people regretting they couldn’t make it now that they’ve read the feedback, and hoping we’ll do another one.

And do you know what?

I think we will.

Thanks to: Lisa, Andy, Andy, Daniel, Ed, Mark, Jason, Phil, and everyone who took part and enjoyed the day.

Monday 6 February 2012

(Worldbuilding) So many questions…

How to design a world that is, you know… different? I started to build a campaign world a long time ago for an aborted fantasy game, and I realised (about two weeks into it) that the world was simply boring. Boring, as in I had seen it all before. Reclusive forest-dwelling elves, grumpy mountain-dwelling dwarves, the usual stereotypes and clich├ęs.

So I decided to mix it up – angry, dangerous elves, friendly outgoing dwarves, a greenskin race that’s not evil, just misunderstood. That’s original, right? Right?

Not, it’s not! It’s rubbish! I’ve simply flipped the standard views of the primary races on their heads and slapped them onto a geographically improbable land, based on a western temperate zone! And gave it a silly name! ‘Esumanara’, or some such crap. That’s what I called it. What does that even mean? It doesn’t mean anything! It’s a made-up word that’s supposed to be slightly mysterious and has been created to sound a bit like a fantasy word, or a snippet of a long-dead language I have no idea about. It’s a complete waste of time and doesn’t offer anything new other than some mountains might get in the way at some point; instead of serving vanilla in a cone I’ve served it in a bowl, and threw on some chocolate sauce in the vain hope that people wouldn’t notice that IT’S STILL VANILLA!

So where to begin? How do I make my world new and original? Can I even do that? Has every possible fantasy combination been covered by every game old and new? What races do I want to use? Do I even want to use established races? Why don’t I create my own? But won’t my own creations just be the same as established races but with different skins? What about cultures? Do I take the easy way out and base them on historical cultures, or try to create my own? But will my own have the sense of depth and realism as one based on an existing culture? What about the land? Temperate? Desert? Arctic? Do I want one kind of climate or a mixture? But then that’d be a huge place, right? The size of a planet? So how big do I want to make it? A country, a continent or a world? How big do I need to make it? How big do I want to make it? What age is it in? Antiquity? Middle-Ages? Renaissance? How about a magical steampunk era? How about all of them, all on a huge planet? Or a big country, maybe? How about magic? Is it Gods-sent, psychic, earth-power? Is there a lot or a little? Is it hated or trusted? What races can use magic? How many monsters? Locations? Cities? Towns? Islands? Mountains? Lakes? Rivers? Hidden locations that only one of the races that I haven’t created yet with a history I have no idea about can find with magic I have no idea even works?

What the hell am I doing?

Wednesday 1 February 2012

More players, smaller character sheets

I mentioned something in my last post about using a simpler system for larger groups of players. This is something I'm very conscious of as a GM as I'm of the mind that the story should flow, that the game should progress at a steady rate, or at least a rate that is comfortable to both GM and players, and that the game shouldn't stall.

The more players in a group, the simpler I want the system to be. I use Dragon Warriors as it's fast and loose and suits the requirements of a large group; I've noticed that with more complicated system, the larger the group the more agitated they get when dealing with an encounter or combat. If there is too much time spent on determining an outcome with a single player the others may get a little impatient, even bored, and there's nothing worse than waiting for your turn only to roll your dice, be told you failed and then be left alone again for another ten minutes. It can be frustrating and more than a little annoying.

So, I favour simpler rules systems for larger groups, and more complicated system for smaller, more focused groups. Here's my rough system guide to group sizes (at least, systems that I've played):

7 + players: Fighting Fantasy, RISUS, *ahem* SKETCH.

5 - 6 Players: Dragon Warriors, D6 System (mainly Star Wars 1st Edition), Basic D&D.

2 - 4 Players: D&D 3.x/Pathfinder, Warhammer FRP (1st Edition), Call of Cthulhu, MERP (at a push).

1 Player: MERP/Rolemaster.