Monday, 29 August 2016

Convention Games

The 2000s were a bit of a desert for me in terms of tabletop roleplaying. I wrote and ran and played loads of freeform larps, but no tabletop. And while I love freeforms, tabletop roleplaying scratches a different itch, so I’ve been trying to do a bit more.

Over the last three years I've made an effort to do more tabletop. As I don’t have a regular weekly group, this has been mostly at conventions and GoPlayLeeds every month. And I've been reflecting on the difference between the games I've enjoyed, and the games I haven't.

Here's what I've learned.

Invested in my character

It doesn't seem to matter which system I play, or who the GM is, the more invested I am in the character, the better the game is. This works best when I have some involvement in creating my character. Hillfolk is supremely good at this, because my character and his/her relationships with the other PCs is developed collaboratively during the the pre-game workshop.

It doesn't have to be as extreme as Hillfolk, but please give me a bit more than a sheet of numbers. Give me some backstory, a sense of how my character fits into the world.

And let me customize my character, even just a bit. So in FATE let me decide an aspect, or choose my last stunt (from a list). The Apocalypse World games do this well.

If you do just have a list of numbers, then please spend half an hour before we start playing to flesh out our characters. Here's some examples that have worked well:

  • During my first experience of D&D5 (about a year ago), the GM had three questions for each of the players as part of the set up. The questions were tailored for each player. I was a ranger, and mine were: What was remarkable about your tribe? What is your spirit animal? What got away from you while hunting? (That last one turned out to be the best for me, and lead to a nifty resolution at the end of the adventure.)
  • On the other hand, in a recent Masters of Umdaar FATE Accelerated game, the GM got us to create a shared background by asking each player to describe a key scene from the previous adventure - which he used to create team aspects.

(Oddly, I find this very hard as a player to do this without the GM's direction. I've no doubt that says something about me, but I've not seen other players force this either. We obviously need the GM to do this sort of thing.)

Characters that fit the scenario

This really shouldn't need saying, but if you are preparing pre-generated characters, make sure they fit the scenario. If you are giving the players a choice, what happens if they don't pick the character that has the skills to make your scenario work?

More than once I've played characters that didn't fit into the planned scenarios. Unsurprisingly, they often aren't very satisfying sessions.

During play, ask reflective questions

All tabletop roleplaying games are about answering questions (‘the troll charges towards you, what do you do?’) but I’ve particularly enjoyed games when the GM has asked reflective questions such as:

  • How do you feel about that?
  • Who do you think is the leader of this party?

I also like it when I get to describe the outcome of my actions - so when I dispatch an enemy, let me describe the outcome. When I roll a critical, let me say what happens.

Again, this is something as players we could do ourselves. But for some reason we choose not do.

Keep to time

The best GMs know how long they have got, and leave you wanting more. On the other hand, if I’m not that engaged in a session I don’t really mind if I have to leave early.

So you need to know how long you’ve got. Do any of the players have to leave early? (This is particularly important at an event like GoPlayLeeds where the sessions don’t really have a defined length. They can run on into the evening if everyone wants. So there’s not always an obvious pressure to keep the game focused.)

Similarly, it’s best to keep it focused. A con game should be a short, intense experience - it’s not the start of a lengthy campaign. So the players should be crystal clear on what they need to do. Don’t let us wander for too long without finding the scenario.

Limited mechanics

In a four hour game, I’ve noticed that there’s really not much time for more than three sets of complicated mechanics - whether that’s combat or some other part of the game system. Combat is  particularly time consuming.

The problem for me is that the best part of a tabletop roleplaying game is when I’m not rolling the dice. I play these game to make tough decisions, to talk to players and non-player characters, and to figure out the puzzles that stand in our way. I like banter and angst and creating a story.

When I’m rolling dice I’m getting none of that.

My plan for the future

So if you’re running a tabletop game, that’s the sort of thing I’m looking for.

And as I’m hoping to start running tabletop con games in the near future, that’s also the kind of thing I’m going to try to deliver...