Possibly the most difficult thing about running a game at a convention is pacing the adventure. When you’re running an ongoing campaign you have the luxury of “next session”. You can let the players mull over their options, argue about why things went so horribly wrong for them so far (if you’re doing your job as GM properly things have gone horribly wrong for the PCs at as many points as possible), blaming each other for things that you did to them (another sign of proper GMing), using Post Cognition on the player who can’t remember what he decided his PCs True Name is (which is written on the character sheet), or causing each other public embarrassment like that time my Guardian of the Veil made a Mid-Town NYC Starbucks crowd think he was in the bathroom getting busy with the Acanthus Mage. Good times!
At a convention you don’t have the option of just sitting back and enjoying the fact that you already have enough material planned for the next session since they didn’t do anything but bicker with each other this session. At a convention you have to make the entire story fit into just that one meeting. Complicating this is not wanting to ruin a good “Role Playing” moment. If the players are having fun you want to let them run with it a bit, but at the same time you need to be aware of time constraints so that they don’t wind up disappointed by not finishing out the story. There are, of course, multiple different ways to approach this problem.
Typically, I am not a fan of this type of game. When done very, very well the players don’t even realize they are ‘on or close to schedule’. When done not so well, the players feel like they have no impact on the game. When the players are faced with a series of hallways that only have one door, or their character has some strange disease that can only be cured if they quest to location X (which is to say, they have no choice but to go to location X), or their research rolls always yield the same results the game just doesn’t seem very challenging. It’s way too easy to do this poorly, and overall I’m not a fan. Of course that doesn’t mean I won’t lay some tracks if I need to, but I try to avoid it whenever possible. Naturally, in a convention session there is some railroading going on. The PCs have to go on the mission. If they don’t there is no game!
The sandbox is my favorite way to run a game. I have a location with an assortment of triggered events all laid out, and the players can wander about the setting in any order they choose. Yes, they need to go to the location, but beyond that I let them pick up the story threads however they want to, and piece together the information as best they can. This is the way I wrote “Asylum”. The PCs are a TV film crew making a 2 hour pilot episode of the paranormal history show “Truly Terrifying Tales”. They get to decide what locations to film in, what they will do in each location, what they will say about the location, and they will find different clues as to the asylum’s past depending upon which site areas they visit. There is a definite end game, but there is no specific action needed by the characters to make it happen. That scene is being set by something other than the PCs, and it’s on a time table. That time table happens to be the end of the convention time slot, but it doesn’t feel that way when it’s happening. So far I’ve had completely different sessions each time I’ve run the game.
The sectional module is a great convention tool! It combines the structure of a railroad, with the flexibility of a sandbox. Tomb raiding missions (dungeons, ruins, and things of that sort) are wonderful candidates to become sectional adventures. The key to a sectional adventure is to have an assortment of challenges (traps, encounters, puzzles, etc) that the players can face, but that the GM can skip if time is running short. Just because I know that I prepared 15 rooms for the ruin doesn’t mean that the players have to get through all 15 before they reach the toy surprise in the final chamber. If they get through a few and it takes longer than I thought it would, I have the freedom to just skip a couple in the middle. As long as I didn’t set up any crucial item that they need to obtain in one challenge to complete the next challenge it’s all good. The Mage adventure that I debuted at RetCon this year, “The Naos of Serapis”, was designed as a sectional. As the GM I have the freedom to decide which challenges I will run at the table for a given group of players. Think of it like the original Diablo game, in which the monastery at Tristram had many more rooms and challenges than you would see in one play. The game would randomly generate that maze of corridors for each run, giving you a great deal of re-playability. That dungeon was a sectional!
I’m sure there are many more ways to structure the pace of your one-shot adventure, but these are three great ways to get you started.
If all of these fail just whip out the dragon mini. You can always count on an elder dragon to end your session with a satisfying crunch!
Game Convention GMing is like a box of chocolates… you never know what players you’re going to get.
I’ve been playing games for a long while (longer than I’d like to admit), and GMing for the past two years. In that time I’ve grown accustomed to my Cabal of Mages. I’m even starting to get a feel for what crazy tangents they will decide to follow, and which sane and rational options they will totally ignore. (don’t tell them that!)
At a convention you have to throw that comfort zone right out the window!
I had written what I felt was a solid adventure pitting mere mortal humans against the supernatural. The setting is an abandoned asylum, very loosely based on the very real Pilgrim State (not far from where I live, appropriately enough). The characters are a film crew sent out to shoot a reality TV series: 1 Paranormal Guru with alleged post-cognitive abilities (to host the show), 1 Producer, 2 Camera People, 1 Lighting Technician, 1 Production Assistant, and 1 Sound Technician. I gave them each very brief backgrounds with “internal monologues” that would be easy to read quickly at the top of the session while giving each player (I hoped) a good feel for their character’s mindset, and lots of opportunities to do crazy stuff to each other if they felt like it. (Not that players EVER do crazy stuff to each other… NEVER!) I had all of my location triggered events worked out, some nice handouts for successful “WITS + COMPOSURE” or “WITS + INVESTIGATION” rolls, a wild and crazy “end game” that I could trigger when the session’s time slot was close to over, and all that was left to do was wait until game time.
It really is the hardest part.
Throughout the day I checked the sign in list to see who I would have at my table. I did not see even one single name that I recognized.
I was more than a little terrified by this.
You see I knew that could run the scenario with a heavy dice rolling emphasis, but I also knew that it would be SO MUCH BETTER if I had a really solid Role Player to take on the part of the Paranormal Guru. The handouts were largely for this character, and the idea was that this player could interpret what they were seeing any way they wanted to. Can the player opt to roll “PRESENCE+EXPRESSION” to say something cool into the camera? Absolutely!! But how much more fun is it to make the roll, and then either say something cool or something not-so-cool based upon how well you rolled? I knew I had to track down someone to give this character to. I practically begged one of my Mage players to do it, and he accepted.
So I faced a table of unknowns with 1 of my regular players and his fiancée who joined us as well. Having two people I trusted absolutely dropped down the terror level a bit – but it was still at least around 5. The players arrived to choose their characters, and we were all set to begin.
I totally shouldn’t have worried.
These folks were absolutely brilliant! As much as I love my Mages (once again, no fair telling!) this was absolutely the best GM experience I’ve ever had. The players were in character the entire time. They even called for their Contracted Union Breaks to go grab beers! They did the craziest stuff to each other, and to themselves, all in the name of great TV. In the end-game (no spoilers!) they settled their differences and everyone made it out alive but let me tell you it was close! I couldn’t have cast better actors for these parts if I was making a multi-million dollar feature film, and I would absolutely hire these guys to make a TV show with me. For reals.
There is absolutely great gaming happening on Long Island. You can find it at RetCon: Long Island’s Gaming Convention!
I’ve decided that this year I’m going to run 2 games at RetCon: Long Island’s Gaming Convention. I’ve also decided that this year, one of them will be a “Mage the Awakening” game.
I never tried to convince anyone here that I’m sane. This blog is called ‘A “Mage the Awakening” Game Master’s Descent into Insanity’ after all.
I’m all about truth in advertising like that.
Anyway, so I’ve decided to up the ante by running two games this year. One will be the highly successful session I ran at last year’s convention called “Asylum”. I named it that before I realized that White Wolf published a supplement with the same name. I have since considered re-branding it “Truly Terrifying Tales: The Asylum” to distinguish it from said “World of Darkness” supplement, but it’s already on the schedule and I’ve been a bit lazy about changing it, I admit. Of course, this entire paragraph is really just one more way to avoid thinking about the inevitable… that being the fact that I now have to write up a one-shot “Mage the Awakening” session.
I know what you’re thinking. “You run a regular Mage campaign, how hard could writing a one-shot be?” Silly you. That’s what I thought when I agreed to do this. Those were in fact the very words that flitted through my brain. (Are you sure you aren’t a Mastigos?)
The fact of the matter is that they are two very different animals.
In the campaign I have all the time I want to allow events unfold as they will. If my characters feel like making a stop at their favorite bar, The Hole in the Wall, then I have to do that much less planning for the next session. Win for me! I also get a bunch of new ammunition to use against them in the future. It’s Bi-Winning. I can always pick up the main storyline next session, or the session after that, or whenever the PC’s finally do make a successful sobriety roll. (RESOLVE+STAMINA)
At RetCon I won’t be able to do that. I’ll have one chance to tell the story. That’s it. There is no “next session” here. The pressure is on! I need to have enough material to fill the four hour slot, but not so much that they don’t make it to the payoff. This is a tricky thing with Mages. You just never know when they are going to whip some annoying spell (Postcognition I’m looking at you!) out of the book and completely circumvent the very cool meeting of the Mastigos Minds you had been planning on. It’s all terribly unfair.
Of course, there are also those times when you have the best, most awful, most wonderful thing that can’t be unseen all ready because you just know they’re gonna look at you all smug and say “well I cast Postcognition and see what actually happened”, and they just don’t bother to do it! Royal pains in my arse these Mages be!
And so I’ve decided to run what I like to call a Relic Romp. At the end of the romp is some rare antiquity which the local Concilium has assigned the PC’s to be the acquirers of. Between my hapless players and the Thaumium MacGuffin will be a series of challenges. In theory these challenges will test various attributes to determine whether or not the PC’s are worthy of obtaining the Thaumium MacGuffin. In reality, well I guess I’ll just have to wait until July to see how they do. In any case, the structure of a series of challenges will allow me the flexibility to fit the session to the time slot on the fly. If I have veteran Mage players at the table I’ll have a bit more time for throwing things at them. People who are new to Mage will need a little more time to find the spells they want to cast and I’ll be free to leave out a challenge or two if necessary to allow the end game to happen at a natural pace.
Unless of course they get stumped at the front door.*
Why not stop by to see how it goes for yourself! RetCon: Long Island’s Gaming Convention is in July this year, and Pre-Registration discounts are in effect until June 1st. You know you want to come!
*The Elven word for friend is Mellon.