Writing Con scenarios


So, you want to write a Convention game?

I’ve a confession to make, I don’t write many of my own scenarios. There’s a couple of reasons for this. First, there are professionals who will do it for me, and second, because I can’t bring myself to do a half assed job of it. If I had my way I’d get every scenario I write fully edited, typeset, proofread and professionally illustrated as well as pubished (to huge acclaim naturally). What this means, is that when I do set my mind to writing a game I give it everything I’ve got. I usually write in preperation for an upcoming Con. I get huge pleasure out of running games at Cons. I believe it’s something everyone should have a go at. I’m fortunate enough to get good responses to my games. If you’re thinking about writing something yourself then you might find it useful to see the steps I go through to get my scenario up and running. Obvously this is not the only, or the best way to approach Con scenario writing, but it’s one way that works for me.

I’m going to work through this process stage by stage in the same order I did it myself, from start to finish. I’m using a D&D 4e game I ran at DragonMeet in 2008. 4e has many advantages, not least of which is it’s structured approach to adventure design. Nevertheless I’ll try to keep the lessons I learned system neutral as far as possible.

Step one: Select your Con

Jargon buster: Con = a convention, a meeting of gamers to talk about, play, buy and sell games. With beer.

So, I’ve made the decision to attend DragonMeet, a London one day Con that takes place in November each year. It’s a fair sized Con for the UK and has a well deserved reputation for friendliness.

I checked out the DragonMeet website and tapped into UK Roleplayers too, to see what people were talking about, and what was getting them excited. Of course you also want to see what other GMs might have planned, so you don’t cover exactly the same bases. Most Cons have web support, to one degree or another, and it’s well worth checking. Before you can even think about getting creative, or picking the perfect marriage of setting and system, you need to get the logistics sorted. For starters you need to get yourself booked in as a delegate, sort accomodation and travel. Every Con is different in this respect and you need to get organised early. The same is true of the procedures for booking in as a GM for the Con. You need to check and then decide whether you’ll be running a game that will be pre-promoted (and possibly pre-booked) or whether the Con allows, and you want to do this, turn up on the day with a game under your arm and take what players you can find. I like to have a few things straightened out in advance so I always go with booking my slots in advance with the Con organisers. If it’s your first time, I’d recommend you do the same.

Con organisers are a varied bunch of individuals but I’ve always found them to be passionate about gaming at least. Sometimes this means they can be a bit disorganised but don’t let it put you off. By and large Cons are run by volunteers (you’re about to be one yourself after all) so if necessary, cut them a break and be patient but persistent.

Step 2: How many slots?

Jargon Buster: Slot = a timeslot for gaming in. Averages about 4 hours, tend to be morning, afternoon or evening.

You need to put yourself down for a slot, or more than one. Here’s the next decision point. For DragonMeet there’s really only 2 slots, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. I wanted to be able to see a bit of the Con myself, so I opted for running a single slot in the afternoon. Previously, at longer Cons with 3 or 4 slots available per day, I’ve found my perfect balance to be run one, play one, socialise one, each day. I know of some crazy types who run games for 12 hours a day. I wouldn’t. I’d rather put my efforts into getting one good game sorted than 3 weaker ones. I’m going to write the rest of this essay on the basis that we’re just prepping one game. So there you are.

How long is your slot? Knowing this is absolutely vital, and something that’s very easy to overlook or ignore. DragonMeet slots are 4 hours long, so that’s how long my game had to last. Except it isn’t. I’ll come back to this point, but for now just remember, you need to know how long the slot is for, when it starts and when it finishes.

Step 3: Pick your game

Back to the prep. What game do you want to run, and is the same as the game you should run? The difference being that you may well want to run your decades long, homebrew space fantasy game, but will you be able to attract any players, and will they be able to understand it? Probably not. Again, do your research. If you’re going to Tentacles, then you’ll want to at least give a nod to Chaosium systems. You’ll get players, and they’ll know what they’re getting into. If you’re running at D&D Experience, it’s not going to go down well if you want to run Champions or GURPS is it? This is where the website comes back in. Ask questions on the forums and look for interest levels in your game.

I first put out feelers to see if anyone was interested in Golden Heroes and Dragon Warriors. I got only a handful of responses, and a couple of flat out refusals. This feedback was invaluable, it would have been embarassing to have turned up to an empty table, so I’d rather know in advance than be too afraid to ask. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s no point being popular if it’s a game youre not personally interested in. If there’s high demand to play Dogs in the Vineyard but it doesnt float your boat, don’t put yourself forward for it.

So I looked at the games that had me excited that year. Recent releases always seem to get attention at Cons. (Classics work too. You will always get players for Cthulhu and AD&D). This does mean your game tends towards demo rather than straight play but thats a topic for another essay, dont worry about it now. That year I’d picked up Trail of Cthulhu, Mongoose Traveller, StarSIEGE and D&D 4e. I plumped for D&D on the basis that I already had a weekly game I’d been running very successfully, there were all kinds of cool props I could use, and I thought there would be interest in it. I also knew I could write for it, and I wanted to try out that process as a Con experiment. You’re reading the results right now.

Step 4: What’s the concept?

So I’ve got my game. Just need to write it now. First things first, get a concept straight in your head. Write it down now so you can refer to it later if you start to go off track. This is important. You’ve got a limited time in which to run your game, so what do you want to showcase? Let’s say you want to run Earthdawn, which bit of it will you focus on? Therans? Horrors? Exploration? You really won’t be able to do the lot, and you need to recognise that early. It’s not enough to want to run a Cthulhu game, you need to pick a theme and nail it hard. Don’t try to do a world tour of the setting, you won’t be able to do it. Similarly, are you going to be showcasing a part of the game that actually exists or are you going off piste? What I mean is you might want to run Vampire: The Requiem. In space. Totally fine! but it will have consequences, just so you know.

My concept was, I wanted it to involve a conflict with a dragon. Simple as that. I was inspired by the Con itself, it’s called DragonMeet, so I thought it would be cool to, you know, meet a dragon.

Step 5: Get your timings sorted

Jargon buster: one shot = a single game that has no follow up
sessions, and usually has pregenerated characters to play with.

That done, now what. This is where you need to go back to the slot demands. I had 4 hours to run a game. It needed to finish witin 4 hours. This is important. It’s better to have a great game in 3 and a half hours than an ok game that overuns by half an hour. People have other commitments at Cons, and will have things to do. Don’t overrun. Just don’t. Though you will.

Given that most Con games are one shots you need to fit a beginning, a middle and an end into the slot. You also have to allow for set up, breaks and wrap up. So I sketched out the timings. It would take me about 10 minutes to find the players, the table and to get our stuff out and ready to go. That’s being conservative. I’ve had sessions that took 30 mins to set up in the past, but from prior knowledge of DragonMeet, I thought I could get it done in 10. Then theres the rules briefing. Earlier I mentioned the notion of demo gaming. Every game I’ve ever run has had at least one player at the table who didn’t know a thing about the game, or knew about the setting but not the rules or vice versa. You need to get these people up to speed, and that takes a little time. Even if your table is full of veterans, they’ll need to look over their characters and sometimes that can be a lengthy operation. Given that 4e was only a few months old, I knew I’d have a mix of players, so I allowed 20 minutes of rules stuff. That’s half an hour gone and we haven’t started yet. I also knew I wanted to take a 15 minute break in the middle to get a break and to have a drink. Finally, I wanted to aim to end 15 mins before the end of the slot, to allow for contingencies and to have a chance to chat to my group and seek feedback. (This last part is a Smart Party practice, we always ask for and act on feedback, it’s fundamental to the way we roll).

Now my 4 hour game is actually 3 hours long. This is perfectly alright, no-one is being short changed by this, because those 3 hours will be a complete gaming experience.

Step 6: Brainstorm your scenario

D&D 4e is very helpful on writing scenarios, and the advice can apply to most RPGs. The session is best broken up into parts, called encounters in D&D. This makes it easier for you to run, and in some ways easier to play. In 4e, each (combat) encounter will take 45 – 60 mins, depending on number of players. With this in mind I knew I had room for 3 encounters (happily thats a beginning, a middle and an end). I also wanted to put in a skill challenge, and I knew that wouldn’t take up much time and would help showcase the system. To help keep to time I opted for 6 players (most D&D games recommend 5). The 6 players would help to make the combat encounters a little bit shorter, and I like the idea of an even number of players. I also knew the way the tables are laid out at DragonMeet, and it’s worth checking it out for your Con. Some have circular tables that only take 6 people max. You need to take this into account.
I started at the end of the game and worked back towards the beginning. This is a great way of ensuring your game ends with a bang, and that you keep to your concept. So, for my game the final scene would be a conflict with a dragon. The rest of the game would be a way of getting to that point. Be warned, some people have an issue with this type of game design. They believe that such ‘railroading’ is bad for the players. That’s a valid viewpoint, and one I have a lot of sympathy with. However, for Con gaming I think you are better off with a strong structure to your game. You’ve already got limitations on time, players and location, so you may not have the freedom to improvise a plot around your players actions. Leave it for your weekly games at home, where you can enjoy the freedom.

Now. At this stage, before getting too wrapped up in the nitty gritty of the scenario, I wanted some inspiration and advice. So I hit the net and asked. RPGnet has a lot of traffic on it, and the guys on there are very happy to help, criticise and discuss. If you want opinions it’s the place to ask. Smaller forums are great too, as you tend to get tailored advice form people who know your game better. All feedback is good feedback, take it from where you can. I guarantee constructive feedback from Smart Party members. Ask your home players what they’d like. Ask on the Con forums. You won’t be giving away any secrets, don’t worry, at this stage you just want raw information.

I asked on a few fora and got all kinds of responses, from encounter types, to characters for the game, to offers of help with promos, to being told to not bother. Don’t take anything personally, just take what you can from it, and mix it into your scenario if it makes it better and/or easier for you. In the end, I didn’t use any of the ideas wholesale, I took little nuggets of goodness and used them as a springboard for my own ideas.

At this stage I was also thinking about presentation. I like to have good visuals at the table. One of the strengths of D&D is the ready availability of great props, but all games benefit from stuff like this. I looked through my gaming kit to see what I already had and this informed my choices for the scenario, I had dungeon tiles, some minis, some cool maps from other games, all sorts of things. As I looked through images on the net, in my books, and remembered what I’d got from the forums, things started to crystallise. I found a great picture of a dragon rising from a magic circle surrounded by cultists, as if it were being summoned. I also had a mini of a young green dragon. Thirdly, I had a poster map of a jungle with a stepped pyramid at the centre. I wanted to use these and I tried a few combinations of encounters, levels and different locations. Every time I had something sketched out, I stepped back from it and tried to look at it with new eyes, the eyes of a player at DragonMeet a couple of months down the line. Would it look good? was it too complicated? too subtle? too simple? could I handle the numbers? would the NPCs be memorable? did I have the props? did the characters form a team? could newbies enjoy it? could veterans enjoy it? and finally, did it absolutely nail my central concept? I double checked my ideas with my weekly group and on various forums. And then I could start to put it together properly.

Step 7: The cast

Games need characters, both PCs and NPCS. I’m going to set out my stall right here, you need to do pre-generated characters. With a tiny number of exceptions, this is absolutely the way to go. You simply don’t have time to generate characters with the players on the day. You can still provide a bit of flexibility, you can always leave the name and physical descriptions up to the players. With some systems there’s opportunity to let some rules stuff come out of play too, I’m thinking of aspects in Fate particularly. A key reason for doing the pregens is that you can tailor the PCs to the scenario. If you know there’s a scene that involves tracking through a jungle, then it pays to have a character with those skills. Similarly, why write up a character with total mastery of driving speedboats if your game is set in a desert. (I’ve seen both these instances before, seriously)

If writing 6 characters up seems like a bunch of work, that’s because it is. I won’t lie to you, you have to put the time in. Again, the net can help you. Lots of game sites have lists of characters, form fillable character sheets, all sorts of time saving devices. Use the fans too, I asked for help and ideas for the characters for my game on RPGnet. Within 2 hours I had 6 characters all statted up, ready for me to put my spin on them. As a thank you, I named the characters after their creators.

While you’re thinking about your characters, why not think about what ‘level’ you want them at? As a one shot you have the freedom to choose. Want to have a crack at 30th level D&D? 5000pt HERO? Legendary Savage Worlds? Now you can, just be aware that high level PCs tend to be more complex, and they take longer to make in the first place. Make your choices now, then check that they fit your concept. I went with 5th level PCs for my game. That’s heroic without being superhuman, plenty of meaty options but not overwhelming. I went with a good mix of character roles, and did my best to ensure there would be no obviously good or bad choices. For example, don’t include a pilot if there’s no piloting, and if you’re going to include lots of combat, make sure your PCs can handle it.

When it comes to character sheets we’re into the realms of ‘more art then science’. Sheets are a very personal preference kind of thing, so I’ll just offer up a couple of suggestions. Don’t have anything on the character sheet you don’t need. Usually this means doing your own sheets in a kind of on shorthand. For instance, official sheets usually have a space for experience points. Unnecessary in your Con game. same for any ‘workbook’ type elements where you can see how a number was arrived at. You only need to know the bottom line on modifiers for a one shot. Instead, use the space you’ve saved to include little rules summaries or explanations. Players new to the game will appreciate your efforts.

I used the D&D online character generator, which at the time only went to level 3. I then levelled up the characters and downloaded some friendly sheets and power cards. Most of this stuff came from ENWorld.

Step 8: Get your kit organised

I knew that for my first encounter I needed a couple of extra minis. I hit ebay and a week later I had exactly what I needed for a couple of quid. Things like this matter, I knew it would help me and my players on the day far more than tokens or scrap paper would. Essentially, I believe if you’re going to use this stuff, then go the whole hog or not at all. I also got my tiles and maps in order, and I’d made sure that everything fit in my gaming bag. This is a point I can often overlook, I need to have this stuff portable, and I need to be able to fit my new purchases in there too, as well as a drink and snacks, dice, pencils etc. Luckily I have a netbook with everything ruleswise on it, so I didn’t have to lug around 3 core rulebooks with me. Of course if your game is someting light like Savage Worlds or Don’t Rest Your Head, you won’t have a space issue at all. Don’t feel you have to bring all your books with you, you don’t. If youre prepped and ready, you won’t be looking up rules, and frankly its not a good idea at the table anyway. A decent GM screen or set of crib sheets is far better than lugging a 300+ page hardback rulebook.

I like to type up my scenarios and for this one I wanted to use technology to make it easy for me. I used the D&D online tools to get my encounters sorted out, with monster statblocks and prewritten flavour text all put onto my netbook, as well as a printout for emergencies. If you’re going with paper, make it landscape, it’s easier for you to reference at the table. Index cards are your friend here too. And don’t forget the other paraphaenalia, bennies or fate chips or cards or whatever. At the next LemurCon I’m planning to run Spirit of the Century with a Chinese theme, so for Fate points I’m using tiles from a Mah Jong set. Little touches like this help your game become memorable,

Step 9: Pulling it all together

I got to work on my promos. No-one will play your game if they don’t know it exists. I submitted my game brief to the organisers so they could get it put on the website. In hindsight I’m glad I didn’t leave it at that as the organisers were a little slack and didn’t get it posted until the very last minute. I also posted my game on multiple game sites. There’s usually a thread titled ‘Who’s going to…’, and it’s a chance to get your plans out there.

Put a little work into your sign up sheet. Most Cons have a fairly generic template for you to use on the day, but with some basic IT skills you can have a full colour flyer that really stands out from the crowd. Courtesy demands that you check this is ok with the Con oranisers, and I can say I’ve never had any issues.

On your flyer, you have a chance to set the tone of your game from the off. You might be aware of the concept of tags on blogs etc? These are one word clues to the content of your game, and they can be very useful in attracting the right players. For my game my tags were; ‘D&D 4e’, ‘5th level’, ‘demo’, ‘pregens’, ‘cinematic’, ‘action’. I included ‘cinematic’ as a tag because thats the style in which I like my games to go. This way I’ve given fair warning that the game is more like an action movie than an indepth character study. This tag system is really useful, especially if you’re running a generic game like Savage or GURPS. If you want a gritty, deadly, political intrigue game, then advertise it as such. Given that your players are likely to be strangers to you and each other, you don’t have the luxury of knowing your playstyles and personalities. Get the flyer right, it pays dividends later.

Finally, if you possibly can, playtest your game. Preferably multiple times. Some stuff looks great in theory but live gaming can show you problems you wouldn’t have seen on your own. Seek feedback and act on it. Don’t be precious about your masterpiece, it’s only there to serve one purpose, as a structure for a great game. Maybe once the Con has finished, and you’re basking in the warm glow of a happy group you can think about publishing it. For now, it’s just a means to an end, never forget that.

Step 10: Take a break

Put it all away for a few days if possible. Forget about it and do something else. Clear your mind.

That’s it!

This might look complex, it really isn’t. I’ve just tried to take it step by step and in as full a manner as I can. With practice and talent you can skip an awful lot of this. Personally, I’m always looking to improve my game, so I do take the time to analyse what I do. Hopefully my experiences can give you some help and some confidence. Have a go yourself. Let me know how it goes.
Good luck!

Baz King

In the next essay, I’ll go into what to do on the day of the Con and some ideas on how to get the best out of your game. That’s for another time. See you then.

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