Thursday, March 21, 2019

GM 101: Con Game Lessons Learned

Paranoia, 2nd Edition cover
PARANOIA 2nd Edition
As with many of my articles, the advice I give is not necessarily "You should do this" as much as it is "Don't do what I did wrong". This is another of those.

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.

A Troubleshooter practices his weapon skills in cooperation with an enthusiastic INFRARED volunteer.

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.

Alert Troubleshooters discover a potential flaw in Docbot programming.

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)

Given that I had mostly new players, the tropes of PARANOIA were not known by the group. I probably should have emphasized that if the players feel themselves "stuck" in a situation, their PCs should try literally anything. PARANOIA is almost entirely improv. If the PCs want to set up a situation, I, as GM, should give them a lot of narrative rope with which to hang themselves. Most of the action should come from the player's crazy ideas rather than what the GM plots.

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad I'm not the only one who made this mistake!

    My wife and I have been going to cons since shortly after we met, and the last few years she has been running games. This year I finally threw my hat into the ring... perhaps a little too far. For my first time ever as a con GM I ran three games of three different systems, Skyrealms of Jorune, Star Wars, and Hercules and Xena. Jorune and Star Wars I hadn't played since the 90s, and Herc & Xena I had never played (although it is based on the d6 system so it was pretty easy to pick up, actually).

    I started with Skyrealms of Jorune, a world and game I love, but haven't run since 1994-5. Like you, I should have spent more time re-familiarizing myself with the system. I thought the rules reference I wrote would make up for it, but nothing beats a playtest.

    Due to this mistake, the fight meant to introduce players to the system ended up eating about fifty percent of the playtime. When I ran this game back in the 90s I had one player, so never noticed that combat was long. The adorable clunkiness of the system times six players certainly ate up time.

    Like in your Paranoia game, player familiarity was also an issue. None of my players had played Jorune before, and due to a tech problem (thanks OneDrive!) I didn't get to show the intro PowerPoint I made. Consequently, my intro to the world consisted of a half-baked history lesson while I pointed at pretty pictures. It probably was not very engaging or even helpful in understanding the world.

    In the end, most of the adventure got thrown by the wayside due to time. While the younger players seemed to have fun (they got to fight sky pirates!), the older player who was really only interested in exploring a Skyrealm seemed disappointed because that was the part that got cut. I felt like a pretty lousy GM, even though most of the players seemed to have fun.

    In retrospect, I think that a game like Jorune isn't really suitable for Con play because it is super hard to get players into character, because as you alluded to, they have no frame of reference. At the same con my wife ran B5 and it went amazingly, even though neither of us had ever used the system (and it was SUPER clunky). I think this was because the players already knew the world, and could get into character a lot easier. They knew what roles they were playing. We spent 95% of the time roleplaying, so the system didn't matter, we were just living in the world. That wouldn't have been possible with random players sitting down at a table unless they were already familiar with the world.

    I think we sometimes forget how much the pervasiveness of the culture of D&D helps. Just about every roleplayer has a pretty idea what an archetypical halfling rogue is "supposed" to do, even if they've never played one before.

    This lesson was borne out when I ran Hercules & Xena and Star Wars the next day. Those games went a million times better than Jorune, I think because the players had a much easier time getting into character. Honestly, running the Herc & Xena game was the most fun I've had as a GM in years.

    This is a pretty long winded story, but mostly I wanted to say you're not the only one who made this mistake, so don't be so hard on yourself! And if you have some pop culture games/story ideas, those might work pretty good at a con to help players get into character quicker!


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