I went to my first RPG convention on the Easter weekend (Conquest) and I had a lot of fun! I played in three sessions in total. I generally don't care much to give blow-by-blow accounts of my gaming sessions, since I don't often enjoy reading such play reports from others. However, I was interested by David McGrogan's assertion that we can learn more about gaming from actual play reports with commentary than we can from generalised prescriptive advice. With that in mind, here's three brief play reports with discussion of what I learned from them.
1. Achtung Cthulhu - Savage Worlds
This was a pretty standard occult-WWII scenario. The PCs got their mission briefing, parachuted into Germany, and made their way to Auschwitz to prevent a team of Nazi sorcerers from sacrificing Jews to summon some kind of demon. (Yes, this was a little bit on the nose.) We spent a lot of time doing D&D-style planning ("We'll all hang off the roof, then throw grenades through the windows at the same moment, then you run down the stairs..."). The combat scene took a while to resolve, so we ran overtime and the GM had to 'cutscene' us through the last part of the scenario. Overall I had a good time.
'Fast & Simple'
I'd be suspicious of anyone who tries to tell you that Savage Worlds is a 'fast, simple system'. The exploding dice, bennies and fiddly initiative mechanics made the combat scene take a long time to play out. Then again, I've noticed that a lot of systems get touted as 'fast & simple' by people who have played them a lot. I'm not necessarily innocent of this myself - there are lots of details in LotFP that make sense to me, but could be hard to grasp for a new player.
The lesson is: if you have mastery over a system, that's great and you should make use of it, but don't fall into the trap of assuming everyone will be as fluent as you.
Pacing in Con Games
The convention timeslots were three hours each. The GM spent probably 1 hour giving us backstory and briefings before we got to the real start of the adventure (parachuting into Germany). We could have avoided going overtime if some of that cruft was cut out using hard framing. Obviously, pacing and time management are really important in a convention game. But also - most of us are adults with jobs now. Our gaming time is intermittent and limited, with an unpredictable lineup of players. In that sense, pretty much every game I run is a 'convention game', so the same principles apply.
2. Night Witches
This game was the reason I had signed up to the con, and I wasn't disappointed. After running Dungeon World for a year and never really grokking it, I felt like this game finally showed me how PbtA games are supposed to be played.
Night Witches is a game about Soviet airwomen in World War II. Most of our time was spent in the 'Day Phase', which meant we were on the ground at our airbase, struggling with obstructive bureaucracy, threatening Military Police and demeaning attitudes from male fighter pilots. The actual bombing run (the 'Night Phase') took about 15 minutes at the end of the session.
The guy who ran the game was really slick. He was good at asking leading questions that developed our characters, he had lots of interesting NPCs to draw on, and he did a good Russian accent. Unsurprisingly, he told me after the game that he had run Night Witches dozens of times before. The lesson here is simple: if you run a game over and over, you'll probably get good at it. That's easy to say but harder to implement: I tend to hop between systems, never spending enough time to get a deep mastery of them.
Dungeon World has often been derided for its forced 'character appearance' choices. For example, each Bard player must choose whether their character has 'Knowing Eyes, Fiery Eyes, or Joyous Eyes'. There are similarly bland choices for hairstyle, clothing, and so on.
Night Witches has a similar structure for character creation, but the choices are a lot more interesting. For example, I chose that my character's uniform was greasy, that her home was in Siberia, and that she wrote letters home to no one. These things actually helped to distinguish my character in play, and they also grounded me in a historical setting that I didn't know that much about.
These 'choose one' lists appear in a lot of PbtA games, and they act as a sort of funnel towards the genre or setting that the game is going for. I found this funnel really useful in Night Witches because I needed some guidance as I entered into an unfamiliar narrative space. By contrast, the Dungeon World lists just funnel you into the space of 'generic D&D', which I'm really not interested in.
I might try using these 'choose one' lists in my own games if I want to prime my players for a particular setting. For example, here's a quick draft of what the lists might look like for Carcosa characters:
You wear: Dinosaur feathers; stinking hides; silken robes; nothing.
You hail from: The purple desert; the fungal forests; the pale mountains; the dread city of Carcosa.
You are marked by: A livid scar; a warrior's tattoos; the ravages of a fungal infection; a slave tattoo; something behind your eyes.
Your connection to the tribe: A close family member; a lover; a promise to someone who is gone; a fear of being alone.
3. Game #3
I don't want to name this game because then I'd feel a bit bad about saying this: the third game I played in really sucked. It was painfully railroaded, the pre-planned storyline was boring and hyper-focused on combat, and the GM seemed intent on saying 'no' to any interesting ideas the players came up with.
The funny thing is, I enjoyed it anyway. This was largely because of the other players. I had never met any of them before and never learned their names, but within half an hour we were riffing together like a regular game group, talking in character and making fun of our lame pre-generated backstories. I noticed a similar kind of natural camaraderie spring up in the other sessions. It's pretty incredible how the shared experience of roleplaying can bring people together, even when the game itself is 'bad'.
I wonder if this fact--that even a shitty RPG session usually offers a baseline level of entertaiment--is precisely why the hobby supports so much cargo-cult design and dubious gamemastering advice. People don't always have that drive to excel because, at the end of the day, a roleplaying session is pretty hard to fuck up.
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