(This article originally appeared in slightly different form in The Last Province issue #1.)
Having attended GamesFair regularly for some years, I was often impressed by the quality of the adventures run by attendees. However, many of the GMs seem unaware of the crucial differences between a campaign and a convention adventure. Making use of these may seem hard, and occasion a change in one's GMing style, but the results can be well worth the trouble.
In a typical campaign, all the players know each other and the GM. At a convention, usually no player knows anyone else in the game. One can take advantage of this; I once slipped in a friend who was taken by the others to be just another player.
In fact, he was working for the villains - but the players didn't believe it at first, because I "clearly" hadn't briefed him. In any case, telling the players that their characters "all know each other" is not at all helpful. At the very least, each player should give his character name and a brief description. Better is the scenario in which the characters are as much strangers to each other as are the players. Such a scenario is easier for the players, as well as (usually) being less trouble for the GM.
Pacing is another important difference. Campaigns can have periods of slack time; a convention game cannot afford this. Often there is a strict time limit... and unfinished adventures are unsatisfying. Keep things moving!
Personally, I don't use random encounters at all in convention games. Most of them are just gratuitous combat - if the players wanted that, they'd play hack-and- slash boardgames.
In a campaign game, long-term characters are often self- motivating; they generate their own adventures without the need for the GM to throw opportunities their way. Even when this does not happen, characters usually have a choice about whether or not to accept a task.
At a convention, this is not possible. The characters must be sent forcefully on their way in the minimum time. Even so, an obvious forced start is clumsy and ugly. So... make a virtue out of a necessity, and start in media res.
Give the characters an immediate problem: an imminent shipwreck, an attack by bandits or whatever. This serves several purposes:
- It enables the players to get a feeling for their characters.
- It introduces the players to the game mechanics in a simple, dynamic fashion.
- It can force a lead-in to the adventure proper. "Why did they attack us?" "I don't know, but they had this parchment..."
The best example of this is possibly the homecoming. The characters return home after a long absence, only to find that Something Is Wrong. This provides immediate motivation, far stronger than that of the old man in the tavern who talks about gold under the hill.
The adventure itself must be coherent, with a self-contained goal and without loose ends. This is not to say that it should be simple; interweaving plot threads form the tapestry that is the world! But all the plots should be resolved by the end of the session. If the King and his court are at odds at the start, and still at odds at the end, the players' actions will seem futile.
In convention games, even more than in campaigns, the characters and adventure must form parts of a coherent whole.
For example, there is little point in putting in a stealthy martial artist if other PCs can always use their guns. So if you want a character like this, put in a covert mission of some sort.
Perhaps the most important difference is that, in a campaign game, the players can be sidetracked and waste part of a session in irrelevancy, because the main game can always continue during the next session. Needless to say, this should not be allowed in a convention game - but all too often, it is. The GM must be prepared to sacrifice potentially interesting role-playing on the altar of plot development.
This may go against the grain, but an adventure is always far more satisfying if it can be brought to a solid conclusion at the end of the allotted time. Campaigns can go on for ever; a convention game needs a finale.
And that finale should be a big one. You aren't on a restricted budget for special effects, so make the most of it. Be dramatic; describe the sizzle of spells (or lasers), the shouting of the horde of orcs (or bikers). Pull out all the stops. Wind up the tension to a peak, then drop it off.
And don't forget the coda! "OK, you've won, that's it" is not particularly satisfying. Give them rewards, and possibly a sting in the tail. Remember, you don't have to worry about the long-term effects on a campaign of all the magical (or high-tech) goodies. Non- financial rewards, especially designed for the character, are the most satisfying. A character is trying to regain his inheritance... let him find the parchment that proves his claim. And so on. Even though the players will probably never meet these characters again, just as at the end of a good film, they should feel that the characters will have lives after the game.
There are, of course, many similarities between good convention and good campaign adventures. One of these is the need for discipline. At a convention, especially when people have paid to play your game, it's often hard to throw out a disruptive player. Remember that the other players have paid too. If the miscreant is spoiling the game for them, it is worth the extra trouble of throwing him out. However, a few quiet words can help, especially if they are said before any trouble begins.
When you introduce the setting for the game, make it clear what style of role-playing you wish to run. Melodramatic? Overdone and humorous? Deadly serious?
Perhaps the most important similarity between the two types of game is the vital need for good NPCs. The days of dungeon bashes are mostly behind us, thank heavens, but this means that there is a vital need for real characters with whom the PCs can interact. The NPCs will make or break the adventure. The mistake of having weak or stereotyped NPCs is so often made that I cannot over-emphasize this point. It is an advantage if the GM is the author of the adventure, as even competent writers often cannot sum up a personality in a few sentences.
However, do not be discouraged; good NPCs can make an average adventure into a great one. They are also a chance to show off one's own role-playing ability. As a regular GM, I find I have many ideas for characters which never get used - so now they go into the "NPC in waiting" file.
Another point important to both types of adventure, if perhaps more so to the convention game, is that power levels of characters must be at least roughly equal. There is nothing that will annoy players as quickly as feeling left out or superfluous.
In a convention game, it is worth organising the adventure so that every character has at least one area in which he excels; this should, of course, be an area which will be used in the adventure.
Also, if there's going to be combat, give everyone something to do. Non-combat characters who have to cower all the time can get very frustrating.
Organisation, useful in a campaign, is critical at a convention. Players should have any tables they need, photocopied and attached to their character sheets. As GM, pick the most-used tables from each book and have them open in front of you. Screens are sometimes helpful, but instill a sense of distance between GM and players that can be a bar to useful interaction.
It almost goes without saying that you should know the adventure, but again this is more critical to a convention game. Ideally, you should be able to handle most of the game without using notes. (But have them there anyway.)
In summary, writing and running adventures for conventions is a different, and in some ways more demanding, task than writing for a campaign. You must grab and hold the attentions of the players, teach the system (there will always be one who doesn't know it, even if your event description said "inexperienced players will be gutted and eaten"), play a range of NPCs and maintain impartiality.
As if that weren't enough, you still have to get back to your room afterwards. Or at least to the bar. Best of luck!
Roger Burton West