Epic Weekend Convention Gaming: A Tale From The Trenches
From Nik Palmer
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #263
Greetings! My name is Dr. Nik. I’m not a real doctor, but I have been a tabletop RPG gamemaster for the past 15 years. I run a few local games and different features at conventions in the USA, specifically New England. This article discusses the development and follow up for a 4 part epic game for the convention weekend. Keep these points in mind to help develop an amazing, player-full, epic adventure that entices and inspires.
The epic four sessions at the Carnage gaming convention Carnage 21 were quite a great experience for the players and for me. The game was built using the d20 Modern system. Each part of the game was unique in content while being linked to the others. The games were advertised as individually or multi-session enjoyable. An overview of the campaign is as follows:
A mysterious and changing relic from ancient makers called “The Key” is discovered and pursued through the ages. There are certain families (the PCs’) that are fated to be involved in this effort. As the games develop, the items and knowledge found by the PCs are passed down from generation to generation.
The four game sessions were set as follows:
- Friday night – 1780 African CoastAverage level of the PCs is 15. They are scientists, explorers, and guides attempting to set up trade and commerce routes through the heart of the African jungles. The group is confronted by madmen and monsters. They escape only to find themselves at the mercy and clutches of an unknown and enigmatic German named Wolfgang.
- Saturday Afternoon – 1860 Stagecoach MesaAverage level of the PCs is 12. They are travelers, gunslingers, and preachers on a coach heading through The Superstition Mountains of Arizona. They are besieged by a hostile Indian tribe and giant snakes. They are guided to a Mesa in the mountains where the key will be stored and saved by an odd Bavarian Man.
- Saturday Night – 1930 Dawn of WarAs Germany sits poised on the border of Poland and the world waits for war, the PCs, average level 9, are part of a government agency formed to research, protect against, and prevent German acquisition of occult artifacts and knowledge. The Germans steal the Relic Key from Arizona and the PCs must retrieve the key from behind the border in Europe.
- 4. Sunday AM 2003 PerseveranceThe group, average level 6, are friends and associates of the Denslow family. The family heirlooms were stolen and the PCs must find who, why, and what items were stolen. The trail leads them from San Francisco to Las Vegas to the Midwest.
Epic is in!
Gamers are looking for big, grand themes, new gaming experiences, and fresh story lines. Playing in the d20 modern genre, but still far enough back (1783) to be fantastic, allowed for a good entry of gamers that may not normally explore a non-fantasy game.
Every game was full except for Sunday morning, which was two seats short. I had wait lists for all the other sessions. Of the players who participated, the later sessions averaged 50% previous participation. One player participated in three sessions. Several folks played in two sessions. About half played in only a single session.
Good Game Blurbs
Get a good editor/reader to help make engaging blurbs for your games. All the repeat players said they were interested in multi sessions due to game blurbs and descriptions printed.
Since this was a serial linked adventure, I gave each player a small pad of paper and had them take notes. The pad and special items were passed down from game to game. Each of the characters was a descendant of someone in the previous game, so they went down family lines. This allowed for some passing of information on, and hopefully allowed for more ease among the PCs having too much game knowledge.
One player had a character who was French, so he wrote the journal in French. Some journals contained just simple pictures, some contained detailed descriptions, some just contained words. They both enhanced and revealed the mystery of the game from session to session.
Character Backgrounds And Conflict
Since the character family lines were well developed, inter- party conflicts were built into all the character backgrounds. There were some characters built to dislike/confront/challenge others. These issues ranged from religious (Catholics vs. Protestants during the African adventure) to racial (racist or not toward American Indians in the wild west) to gender (women vs. men as leaders during the 30’s Nazi Spy mission). I started out each game saying to role-play those as best and detailed as possible, but no combat action could take place against another character. We did have a few showdowns and some great character development from it.
Start with action. After a brief introduction of the characters and the scenario, BANG! Since the “role-playing” and history/mystery of horror can drag on and on, starting off each session with a major conflict threw the characters into the mix of things, set the tone of danger, and allowed for more “role-playing” through the session. It also gave the players a sense of what their character special abilities could accomplish.
One of the 2x repeat players took advantage of this quite regularly by jumping into the action in both scenarios he played in. The first time he managed to critical hit a “boss” enemy and took the leader out, saving the party massive damage and pain. The second time he ran a car into a group of Nazis. He nearly died in the crash and subsequent gunfight, but his sacrifice scattered the raiding party. Both actions set the tone for the player being a major actor that the party turned to later in those games.
Each adventure got more dangerous. While this may seem counter to having high level encounters in the first sessions, as the character levels dropped lower the stakes got higher. The opposition was always scaled to the level of the PCs, but it’s easier to make saving throws and soak damage when you’re higher level.
As the games went on and firearms became more developed, they also got more deadly. In session three, only three of eight PCs survived, with all the characters dying during final 45 minutes. In session two, several of the players died during the final conflict in last 30 minutes of the game. Those who saved action dice tended to live during the final encounters, while those who made great strides and used up their dice early to get the party to the final encounter, may not have. It provided a classic “Movie Style” feel where not everyone makes it out alive, but everyone participates in the resolution.
The BAD and the UGLY
The campaign involved “The Relic Key,” an ancient stone artifact that can open gateways to other dimensions and evil Cthulhu nastiness. Although the Relic Key changes shape whenever it is out of sight (it never looks the same twice), I did not draw any pictures of it. I should have drawn 8-16 pictures ahead of time and used those throughout the adventures. I could have also assigned more depth and significance to the different forms and had them reflect the type of horror that was being unleashed.
Generating 70 PCs and 30 NPCs was tedious. Even with editing and review, several of the characters’ bonuses and saving throws were not accurately defined. I should have had a better number editor. I only messed up 5 PCs, but 1 PC an adventure having an indecipherable stat was a distraction. I subsequently found a decent character template that breaks the numbers down better and allows for more understandable character sheets.
Pacing of the Sunday AM Game was horrible.
Never set a thinking mystery on Sunday AM.
Sunday AM should be reserved for lower intensity role- playing, basic puzzles, and combat crawls. Gamers are not too alert then. Also, I spent way too much time on the opening scenario, which bogged the rest of the game down. So, on top of the players being tired and distracted, the GM was a bit sleepy too.
Some of the PCs’ skills were not used often, and others were “keyed” too deeply into the game. Balance of abilities is important.
I screwed up feats for the first session. The characters were plenty tough, but I realized all the gun bunnies should have had Rapid Reload (cuts reload time in half–for the muskets and pistols that used horns and bags of lead shot, that feat was very important). Technically, in the “real” world, muzzle loaded muskets should take 3 rounds to reload and pistols 2 rounds. Instead, I just changed the rules so that everyone could reload as a full round action. It should have just been 2 rounds to reload and the quick reload feat for the musket happy explorers.
Some of the multi session players said they found it difficult to play “in character” knowledge effectively. While they said it was fun and challenging, it may have been too difficult to manage. With the subtlety of “Horror and Sanity,” fear, knowledge, and discovery are key to having a good story. I thought that my disparate timelines and story themes could counteract the PC/Player knowledge issue, I also built in the following:
- Game 1: Explorers discover the issue and problem with the Relic Key.
- Game 2: Several of the PCs have knowledge of the Relic Key and its danger/power.
- Game3: All PCs have knowledge of the Occult Horrors and danger of the key.
- Game 4: Sunday AM – No one knows what’s going on, but is able to get all the previous player journals.
[Scot: If you didn’t see Nik’s Three Minute Rule tip,check it out at: Roleplaying Tips #259]
I thought that putting the “clueless” groups as bookends worked ok. I also thought that having the really clueless group on Sunday AM would be an effective way to balance out the “gamer brain death inherent.” Perhaps it balanced too well or maybe three games was the limit to the PC/Player knowledge problem, but I really felt that while the Sunday AM game was my favorite story arc, the session itself worked out the worst.
Overall, I think that the potential for individually linked games is a great opportunity for GMs to tap into. I think any game writer and convention GM should entertain the idea of a 2-3 part series. I would be happy to share more about the background, writing, and related issues that I left out of this post if you have interest. You can contact me at npalmer[at]airsmail[dot]com
A Brief Word From Johnn
Player Contact Info Form
In a recent issue we chatted about tracking player contact info to help make session organization fast and efficient. Here’s another useable example created by Loz Newman for your GMing pleasure:
D&D 3.5 Campaign Questionnaire
In another, more recent issue, I requested from you questions and type of feedback you wish you could get from your players. I’m currently assembling your responses for an upcoming issue, but in the meantime, here is a Word doc submitted by Pahl to help D&D GMs discover their players’ campaign preferences:
Have a game-full weekend!
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ALSO, Message Boards, Photo Galleries and News
Readers’ Tips Of The Week:
Your article on humour referred to the following:
“There are four Elizabethan humors: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. They have no relevance whatsoever to a discussion about adding humor to RPGs. I just had to put them in because it was a pun I could not resist.”
I would humbly suggest that the above can be changed in a number of ways.
The four humours were initially suggested by Hippocrates around 400BC, and were linked with Empedocles’ four elements and even the four seasons. They also had associations with organs, disposition, Aristotle’s theory of happiness (also four, how convenient!), and the mythical beasts in Paracelsus. Although displaced as a science in 1858 by cellular pathology, it was still used all through the twentieth century by psychologists such Adicke (world views), Spranger (values), Kretchmer (character), Fromm (orientations), and so forth.
I recommend the following link, which accounts for all of the above in a comprehensive manner:
Now, what does this have to do with humour, as in comic relief? Quite a lot really. Imagine a demeanor system in a game based on the four humours (in an old game called “Swordbearer” it was part of a character’s “spirit”). A sanguine character (blood), for example would be the sort of clown that makes friendly, upbeat, amorous jokes, whereas a melancholic (black bile) character would always be providing a dead-pan, worse-case scenario assessments.
Choleric characters would love humour in all its forms and the more uproar the better, but would have definite “no-go” zones, which would anger them. The phlegmatic character could be very difficult – they tend not to understand or be interested in humour at all!
I hope this little suggestion assists those who want to brighten up their game with a touch of comic relief. The fact, however, is that it can tie into an entire personality system that dominated European thinking for over two thousand years.
Medieval Technology Resource
From Tracy Pinkelton
This recently hit my ECD (English Country Dancing) group mailing list and seemed like a great resource for GMs as well:
It has tidbits about all manner of technology from artesian wells and looms to the wine press. I found it interesting that spectacles for far-sightedness were developed long before anyone hit upon convex lenses to help the near- sighted.
10 Ways To Create A Unique And Original Campaign Setting
From Joel Fox
- PeopleWorlds are shaped by the people in them (or lack thereof). As humans are the standard primary race, having a different one could drastically change the way the setting shapes itself.
- MechanicsSometimes, changing the way something big works can shape the campaign setting as well. Wizards might require wands to cast spells, but sorcerers need no such focus. Clerics use their holy symbols, and druids use staves. The strength of a spell could be dependant on the quality of the focus.
- GovernmentsIf your campaign settings normally have no central government, try using one, or vice versa. Instead of using the stuffy old feudal system, try a bureaucracy, or something crazier.Examples: Wikipedia: Forms of Government
- GeologyEvery aspect of earth’s geology, from the tides to the seasons, from weather to geography, is dependant on many environmental factors. What if there was no moon? What if there were three moons? Or three suns? Winter might become a foreign concept.
- CosmeticsOccasionally, just changing the way things look can make a great difference. What if plants, instead of absorbing red light, absorbed green? Red foliage would certainly skew the perspective of the PCs and provide a nice cosmetic change. Or, what if instead of trees, giant mushrooms inhabited forests?
- PresenceThe presence or absence of certain elements can truly create a unique setting. What if magic didn’t exist? Or go the other way; what if the concept of physical violence was a foreign concept? Or the concept of thievery? Limiting the base of both the PCs and of the world itself can change the way everybody thinks.
- CultureWhat is acceptable in society? What do people do for fun? What if murder carried the same penalty as jaywalking? Or if instrumental music had never been? Changing not the people themselves, but the way they think and feel is a key concept.
- ReligionWhat if no one believed in the gods at all? Or what if simply believing in a god caused it to come into existence? Are the religions in the setting ecclesiastical? How about prosyletic? Even changing the nature of the gods can be a good idea; maybe there are nine dragon gods, each one representing a different alignment.
- LanguageNo, I don’t mean everyone speaks Auran. Curses and praises are an integral yet rarely observed part of society, as are greetings and farewells. Hawaiians having the same word for hello and goodbye is a good example; maybe a term can be used as an insult or a compliment based on the context.
- ToneThis is a very important thing to consider. What have the tones of previous campaign settings been? A dark and dreary world has the PCs either adding to the misery or bringing light to the darkness. A humorous, light-hearted world could have the PCs adding oregano or bringing cakes to the sentient pandas of Castle Pancake.
From Dave Andrews [In response to Tips from Da Pit Fiend in Roleplaying Tips #262]
As a chemist and someone with experience in the pharmaceuticals and safety fields, I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on the Battle Mats tip from Da Pit Fiend. While his tip about using a pencil soldering tool to carve packing materials is inspired, you really should caution your readers about safety issues–particularly with poly- urethane based packing foams (yellow and brown colors, generally smaller bubble sizes than styrofoam), it is important to work only in VERY well ventilated areas.
Personally, I would only do this outdoors. At a minimum, a garage, fume hood, or vented workshop area is necessary. Nor should fumes from melting styrofoam be considered safe. Few things are more toxic then fuming plastics, so please be careful.
A Magical Society: Beast Builder PDF Available Now
Expeditious Retreat Press has released their latest addition to the Magical Society Line, a series of books designed for the GM and worldbuilder in all of us. A Magical Society: Beast Builder breaks down the process of building monsters from conception to mechanical follow through. Available at RPGnow.com and DriveThruRPG.com, pick up your PDF today!