Thursday, 11 May 2017

A return to convention GM-ing

This summer, at Continuum 2016, I ran my first tabletop roleplaying game for complete strangers for absolutely ages. I can't remember the last time I did that - in the late 90s, I think.

So I don’t run tabletop games often enough to be completely relaxed about it.

I have slightly higher standards when I run a con game compared to running one at home. At home I’m with friends and family, and it doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect. And while a con game doesn’t need to be perfect, I do expect to bring my A game when I’m running at a con. Players have paid to be there, I’m putting on a show. Things had better be slicker than at home.

I know, all of that is in my head. I’ve played in as many average con games as I have great, and I’ve conveniently ignored that fact that usually GMs don’t get much of a reward. (Perhaps the deeper question is why, as a player, don’t I always bring my A game to the table? That’s a thought for another day.)

So all that adds up to a whole heap of unnecessary and self-inflicted pressure, which is why I don't run many games at conventions. If I did more, I think I’d be more relaxed about it, which is why I want to do more. (So a bit like presentations then…)

(And yes, I have the same nerves with a freeform. Despite two and a half decades of experience, knowing that it will all turn out okay, and players can be trusted, I still experience pre-flight nerves.)

So I eased myself back in gently and I ran one of my favourite Call of Cthulhu scenarios: In Whom We Trust. I first wrote this as a tournament scenario in 1996 (twenty years ago!) and it concerns an expedition in the Amazon. It’s a mashup of Arachnophobia, Outbreak and The Thing - and once it gets going it pretty much runs itself. It’s also been played a whole bunch of times at other cons, so I know that it’s pretty solid.

I ran it on Sunday morning, which isn’t the best time to be running Call of Cthulhu, but was the only time I could do to fit in around everything else I wanted to do.

I had six players, which was the most I can reasonably handle. For tabletop, I prefer no more than five (and three to four ideally - but that’s a bit too high a GM:Player ratio for most cons). I don’t think six players was a big problem and I tried to ensure that everyone had enough of the spotlight.

I learned a long time ago (before Gumshoe came along) that investigators can’t solve the mystery if they don’t have the clues, so I don’t make players roll to find the handouts. Except, for some reason I’d left something in the scenario that you could only find on a successful roll. Succeeding wouldn’t have changed anything, apart from adding a bit of colour (and possibly mystery), and after they’d failed the roll I kicked myself. So I’ve now edited that out: the next group will find everything...

Apart from that minor glitch, the game appeared to go well. I don’t think anyone was actually scared, but things went from bad to worse and there was a frantic shootout in a mysterious temple. I had three survivors, which is a pretty high for In Whom We Trust.

In terms of how I ran the game, I noticed that I had to stamp on my instinct to ask the players to roll dice for trivial actions where failing the roll wouldn’t have been interesting. For example, if a door was locked I didn’t make them roll to see if they could unlock it or break it open, I just let them succeed with whatever action they were trying to do.

Do as I say or do as I do?

In a previous post I talked about what I thought made for a good convention game experience as a player. So measured against that, how do I think I did?

Invested in my character: I could probably have done better on this. I used the original characters, which were just basic Call of Cthulhu characters. Each did have a goal that ensured they kept with the scenario (rather than turning and fleeing like any sane person). The only activity I asked of the players was, after they had introduced themselves, for them to state out loud who at that point they trusted. I’m not sure if that had any impact on play, but the players gamely complied.

Characters that fit the scenario: Yes, absolutely. I wrote the characters specifically for the scenario - they all have goals driving them forward into the mystery.

During play ask reflective questions: While I like this as a player, it’s not a GM habit for me yet. Must try harder. I could have asked, part way through, who they now trusted.

Keep to time: Yes, no problem here. I had a three hour slot and we were done in just over two hours. I heard later that the players were amazed that we’d fitted so much into only two hours, and I think they were pleased to have a longer break between this and the next game.

Limited mechanics: With only one real mechanic-y section (the shootout at the end), perhaps that’s why we finished so soon.

So overall I’m pretty happy. I need to ask more reflective questions, and maybe think about other ways to get the players invested in their characters. That’s not something that “classic” Call of Cthulhu was that good at - and I’ve not seen 7th Edition.

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