|PARANOIA 2nd Edition|
Now that I've been to a dozen or so cons over the past decade, I've experienced my share of good and bad GM issues. This year I decided to throw my own hat into the ring to help out my local con by running my first ever con game... and I ran into my own issues.
I've been a game master for various systems over the years, but running a con game adds elements that you just don't get with a home game.
1) Players generally don't know one another, so their comfort level is much lower.
2) As GM, you also are not aware of how comfortable the players are getting into character or immersing themselves into the setting.
3) Players may not be familiar with the mechanics of the system if they are testing out a new game.
4) Time is the enemy. There is a lot to get accomplished in a 2 to 4 hour time slot, so there is literally no time to waste.
I made a few rookie mistakes for my first con game.
My first issue was that I attempted to run a game system that I hadn't run in 25 years. Even though the mechanics of PARANOIA 2nd Edition are fairly simple, the somewhat longish skill list was not fresh enough in my mind. In addition, the prep for the adventure competed with the system prep. I probably should have run a more familiar system or left more time for study.
Second, I tried to adapt a more complicated adventure for shorter time slot. PARANOIA has a formulaic adventure pattern, but some parts of the format can take longer than others if you don't rein it in. This happened to me (which I will get to in a moment). With an adventure from D&D Adventurers League or Pathfinder Society, that issue is minimized since the adventure is specifically written for a shorter time slot. However, you still have to monitor your party's progress.
Lastly, I did the wrong kind of prep. I should have focused on what I needed to accomplish each hour. I did not summarize the milestones I wanted to hit. This forced me to rush through thing when I saw how far behind I had fallen.
How To Improve
If I were to run this adventure again, I know I could do a much better job by cutting out the chaff. As I noted, PARANOIA has a kind of mission formula.
1) Mission Alert - shenanigans begin with the Troubleshooters just trying to get to their briefing.
2) Mission Briefing - They know very little of what's going on and begin to realize they are hosed.
3) Mission Equipment - The PCs are assigned tons of useless junk and several highly dangerous explosives.
4) R&D - They get assigned questionably useful "cutting edge" technology which are really just more highly volatile, unreliable explosives in disguise.
5) The Mission - which is usually a red herring and had little to do with what is actually going on.
6) Debriefing - If anyone survives, the inevitable finger pointing and executions for mission sabotage and failure.
If you look at this formula, there is a lot of things that happen before anything really happens. I mean, the mission alert, briefing and, outfitting steps have the potential to take up a lot of time before the PCs even get to the meat of the mission.
This is exactly what occurred in my game. The mission alert was set up as a screw job and since I had relatively new players, it ate up a lot of time at the beginning of the game. This was both good and bad. The players learned that full breadth of futility that is PARANOIA, but that also left no time for the fun parts near the end. In hindsight, I should have hand waved most of the mission alert baloney and pushed them to the mission briefing before the first hour was up. I also did not properly account for the amount of time that I'd use up setting up the premise for new players.
Lesson 1: Editing
By the time we go through the briefing, the equipment, and R&D, we had only about an hour left. Mind you, there is lots going on in those first few chapters. It's not like it's all explanatory text. That's one of the key elements of PARANOIA -- multiple people can die multiple times before you even get to the actual missions. Their escapades were off to a fairly decent start. Even so, I felt disappointment (in me, not them) that we did not get very far into the actual mission itself. In retrospect, I should have edited the opening chapters heavily in order to get the PCs to the actiony-explodey portions of the game quicker.
If you are not running a game written specifically for a con, make sure to edit the adventure liberally to get the players to the best bits in a timely fashion.
Lesson 2: Emphasis on Improv (and a bit more railroading)
If the players seem truly well stuck and out of ideas, the GM should occasionally Deus Ex Machina them to the next fun bits. This is more true for PARANOIA than a D&D-like game, but really no matter what system you are playing, a con game needs giant, neon clue billboards pointing to the next scene or hook.
Lesson 3: Time is the Enemy
This is essentially the major driving component the advice in #1 and #2 above. In a 4 hour time slot, you need to push the players hard from one milestone to the next if you expect them to get through a complete story. You will be surprised how quickly it slips by if you are not paying attention.
During your prep, make an outline of where you think the players should be at the end of each hour. Set a timer for each hour. Jump to the interesting encounters or boss fights when needed.
And finally, don't try to eat a messy burrito while you are GMing. It just won't go well.
Perhaps I'm being harder on myself than I should. The players appeared to have a fun time and that should be enough, but I can't help but be disappointed that we did not get to the major encounters of the mission scenario. We just plain ran out of time, and that was entirely on me not managing the clock well enough. Next time, I will certainly pick a simple mission with straightforward goals that are hidden from the players so they still have no idea what's going on... but at least they'll be executed during the best parts of the adventure.
That's PARANOIA for ya.