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  • John Dodd

The Science of Scenarios for RPG Conventions.


When you’re running RPG’s, you need several things.


Players…

Rules…

Scenario…


The first one will come if the second two are there, the second one you have to choose for yourself, but the third…


That I can help with.


Scenarios vary a great deal, and they shouldn’t be confused with campaigns. The two are fundamentally different in their approach to things. If you look at them as if they were TV shows, a campaign is the show where there was a continuing arc, the scenario is the show that had a different villain of the week and no overall arc.


Don’t confuse an Arc with the reason why the show exists.


An Arc is something where you have a target to aim towards, and every episode has something in it that moves the target that much closer. You might get an episode where the target stays where it is, but for the most part, there’ll be something that gets the final target closer. An Arc


A reason is just something to put the characters on the table. Knight Rider has a Reason, but they wrapped up the villain that set it all in motion in the first episodes, everything after that was “One Man can make a Difference…” whether he’s taking on his evil twin (complete with bad moustache) or dealing with thugs driving 4x4’s who rip off local gas stations.


This doesn’t mean that a scenario has to be something that has no real purpose to it, indeed, all scenarios will attract more players if they’re set up with a premise that prospective players can get behind. It doesn’t matter where their characters are going to be a year, six months, six weeks, six minutes after the game ends, what matters is what they did when they were there.


When you’re building one shots, the promise of what you’ll get up to in that scenario is uppermost in what people will look for, you need to build enough information into the brief description to give them a reason to go for your game over the other games that are being offered. This is best given as a single paragraph of text, wherein you establish the base of where you are, what you’re doing, and a hint of the complication that you’re going to be encountering. This should take into account which system you’re running, particularly if the system is a licensed IP.


“This is Free Trade Beowulf, calling anyone… Mayday, Mayday… we are under attack…main drive is gone…turret number one not responding…Mayday…losing cabin pressure fast…calling anyone…please help…This is Free Trader Beowulf…Mayday.”


If you’ve been playing a while, you’ll recognise that as the signature line that introduced Traveller to the roleplaying world. It’s an investigation into a mayday signal with no idea of what’s happened and what you’re going to encounter when you get there. Works perfectly fine as a hook for any space game, but it’s going to mean completely different things depending on the system you’re playing?


Don’t believe me?


What if you’re playing Alien…?


What if you’re playing Paranoia…?


Some games carry the concept and ideals of the universe they portray, and often, players will come with their own expectations of what’s going to be going on in that scenario. Not encountering an Alien in an Alien scenario is fine, but there’s never going to be a time in that game when the players aren’t thinking that the screeching acid blooded b****** isn’t going to leap out on them at some point.


What matters most of all is that the brief for the scenario gives them something interesting to look into, something that they feel would warrant their (players) time to get into.


Location, Hook, Reason for players being there.


In the above writeup, the Location is the Beowulf itself, that’s where you’re going to go, that’s what you’re going to be investigating.


The Hook: Mayday, something bad has happened, you don’t know what, but you’re anything from a group of pirates looking to profit from the wreckage, to a rescue team looking to save them, to an enforcers team looking to stop the attacks. Nothing else matters.


Reason for players being there: anyone…please help… This works no matter which of the three groups I detailed above. For Pirates, please help…yourselves, for rescue team, please help…us, and for the Enforcers, please help…catch the bad people.


What doesn’t work is when it’s clear that the GM is winging it. It’s fine to wing it, running at conventions requires that you have the ability to adapt very quickly to situations that you didn’t think would arise, but if the entire scenario is put the characters on a ship and tell them they’re going places, they want to be reassured that you’ve at least got a plan of where they’re going to be going when they get in the ship.


If you are going to wing it, don’t put that in your description of the game, certainly don’t put down that you’ve experimented with this scenario three times and got three Total Party Kills with it. No player wants to give their time to a game that’s going to be pointless. Also, if you’re planning on setting up a battlemap and then funnelling enemies at them, be aware that’s not a roleplaying game unless you’re in a campaign and this is the war section of it.


Where am I going with this?


In the twenty plus years I’ve been running conventions, I’ve seen a lot of game submissions come across the portals, from things scribbled on sign up sheets to three page descriptions detailing everything that the players are going to be doing in minute detail. The ones that get the players are the ones that are concise, have the information in them, and provide something interesting for the players to want to play the game. Sometimes it’s clear that the GM in question doesn’t really want to be a GM, but wants to get in for free, you can see those fairly easily when you read the submissions.


The following lines are actual game submissions that I’ve received.


“It’s a dungeon crawl, the aim is to see how long you last against overwhelming odds.”

“It’s an adventure in a home brew world, you’ll learn more at the table.”

“Pick this game if you want an hour of excitement, I’ve got a game at 3pm.”


That last one was politely refused on the grounds that it sounded more like an invitation to speed dating, the other two had questions asked.


In the days we live in now, every game that’s offered gets checked to make sure there’s no content that would be unsuitable, so be aware when you put games in that the question is going to be asked by any responsible conrunner, it’s fine to have risky subjects in your games, but you need to make sure that the players are well briefed in advance and have a clear understanding of what’s going to be going on in the game. If your description is one sentence long, you may well be asked to make a better description, or just tell us what’s going to be going on in it so that we can add something to the description.


Finally, if you’re offering games for a convention, particularly ones where there’s volunteer incentives, don’t offer the same game X number of times, it’s not in the conventions interest to accept five games of homebrew dungeon crawls so you can have a full hotel and food package. The system at several American conventions means that you offer whatever game you like and put whatever price you like on it, but then it’s on you to sell that game to those who are paying for it. British conventions haven’t gone in that direction yet.


Yet…


But with the advent of professional GM’s and those who know that they run good games with sound support and props and all the other things that people want, it may well be a short hop before every convention works on those principles. Good GM’s will never have any issue in selling out their games, and they’ll be able to charge more for anything they do, but that environment doesn’t leave any recourse for those just getting into running games face to face with people that they don’t know.


Everyone is now starting to see what most GM’s have known for years, it’s not an unskilled job, it’s not something that you can just rock up to the table and run with whoever’s there and whatever game they brought. I do not count GM’s with years of experience in that statement just in case anyone’s thinking of arguing, I too have run a Coronation Street/Army of Darkness crossover for new players using Dead of Night, but it’s not something a GM just starting on the path would want to be doing.


But with it being recognised as a job that requires effort, it also requires that effort to be put in from the GM’s to show that they’re ready to do it, and that starts with the pitch…


Photo by Armando Are from Pexels

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