Sunday, 8 April 2018

Running a one hour adventure - (1)

I love the tabletop Role Playing Game (TTRPG) hobby and, as it comes more and more into the mainstream, I want to introduce new people to it. So I visit non-RPG venues and events with a set-up I call "Choose Your Adventure". I offer to run Introductory Adventures for people unfamiliar with the hobby.

Key to this is a range of preprepared adventures which I can run in a very short period of time - I typically aim for an hour.

An RPG mate of mine, Guy Milner, has been looking at this idea from a different angle. His thoughts can be found here.

https://burnafterrunningrpg.com

Such short games are also beginning to find their way into TTRPG Conventions, where game "slots" used to be typically 4 hours in length.  People now offer "games on demand" which passersby can just drop into and play for an hour or so. At first these were "story" games, but recently many of us more traditional RPG referees have been able to join in because of our experience of running shorter form games.

So how do you organise and run a one hour RPG adventure?


In my Choose Your Adventure setup I let people choose from:

- Fantasy/"Dungeons and Dragons"
- Space Opera
- Dr Who
- Firefly/Serenity
- Star Wars
- Steampunk
- Superheroes
- Gothic Horror

For half of these I use exactly the same adventure, just "reskinned". I thought I had different unique adventures for the D&D, Horror, Superhero and Space Opera ones but, when I came to thinking about this article, I realised - to my surprise - that even the D&D and horror adventures stick the to same basic structure as my "standard" scenario.

Since D&D is so ubiquitous, I'll use that scenario as the main example.

First of all - the adventure I use is one of three in my set up that I didn't design myself. I use "The Delian Tomb" designed by Matt Colville in the following YouTube Video.

https://youtu.be/zTD2RZz6mlo

I like the idea that if people have enjoyed the adventure, I can point them to a short video where an enthusiastic advocate for the hobby can talk them through how it was designed. The video contains a link where you can download the adventure as well as
Iinks to pregenerated characters and the free D&D 5th ed rules. It's a one-stop free starter pack for D&D.

Matt, however, didn't design the adventure to be run in one hour. But I've found it's perfect. It follows my standard structure for one hour games:

1. Choose an appropriate game system
2. Make sure you have enough kit for everyone
3. Make pregenerated characters
4. Set the scene and give the characters a compelling reason to act
5. Alllow/encourage/coax/force the players to make decisions
6. Fight with Mooks to learn the combat system
7. Some investigation leading to the final scene
8. Fight with boss and minions with real stakes
9. Closing scene

1. Before you start, choose an appropriate game system.

It has to have an easy to grasp central game mechanic and you have to be able to play out a simple combat quickly. D&D 5th Edition is fine - roll a d20, add a number, try to beat the opponent's Armour Class. Easy.

Personally, I use David Black's THE BLACK HACK, stripped down D&D rules - roll d20 under Strength to hit. I'll explain why in a bit.

2. Make sure you have enough kit for every player.

This may seem trivial but it's vital. You're not going to get through a game in an hour if the players have to share dice, pencils or erasers. You can buy a full set of D&D dice for multiple players complete with dice bags from Amazon et al for a minimal cost. I did. It's really worth the investment.

3. Pregenerated characters.

There's no way you can make characters and get through an adventure in an hour.

(I have managed this but it was  using my own game system and I'm very experienced at what I do. But even I found the tIme very tight).

So you need pregenerated characters for the players. They need to be clear standard archetypes. Each character should be clearly defined on their own character sheet. There needs to be a big colour picture of the character. The game information on the sheets should be the minimum needed to play the character.

This is where I find The Black Hack scores over 5th Ed. I have run this one hour Dungeon using 5th Ed. rules and the pregenerated characters from the excellent 5th Ed starter pack. The whole pack is excellent value for money but I find that even first level characters have a lot of bells and whistles on the character sheets, which are distracting for new players. If you decide you use 5th Ed for a one hour intro game, I'd strongly recommend you produce stripped down sheets showing only the essential rules. In big type.

Even using the minimal Black Hack character sheets I find some players fixating on the contents of their backpacks!

Characters should be first level. Choose their spells for them. Make sure you have enough characters.

I have a Fighter, an Archer (elf), Wizard (half elf), Cleric and Thief (hobbit). I have alternate versions of each character in two different genders (it just means a change of picture) which I've laminated back to back. This reversible gender idea is one is was given by the UK convention maestro John Dodd and is easy and inclusive. The lamination is so I can so I can reuse them. I give the players dry wipe pens and have spare copies. If I get more than 5 players, one can play the female fighter and one the male version etc.

Think through your adventure and be prepared to make changes if you have 6 players turn up. Or only two and they choose to play the Wizard and Thief.

4. Set the scene. Give the characters a compelling reason to act.

Give the players a short, evocative, intro to the situation. Make them feel like they're THERE. Provide a motive to drive them forward.

Matt gives a short version of this, which I favour, in his first video. (He then gives a longer intro in a later video which I don't recommend for new referees or one hour games.) The characters have been hunting goblins that have kidnapped the blacksmith's daughter. She needs to be rescued.

Personally I've adapted his intro. His driver is the classic "damsel in distress" situation which is not so de rigeur in the 21st century, I have the players come across an overturned cart, an injured farmer and his wounded wife. Having bound his wounds, she's about to heft the family broadsword and head off into the forest to rescue their son and daughter (and recover their farm goods).. She sees the characters and begs for help.

5. Allow/encourage/coax/force the players to make decisions.

Don't say "you head off into the forest to rescue the children", say "what do you do?" Because I'm often working with new players, I will sometimes point out they can do whatever try want from following the goblins' trail to murdering the couple and stealing what little they have left.

(I've never had anyone actually murder the couple but if anyone ever does, the Mook encounter will become the City Watch and the final encounter will be with the City Marshal and his deputies. They might have the same statistics as a bugbear and some goblins but the players don't need to know that.)

Don't say "you charge the goblins guarding the doorway to the dungeon" ask "what do you do?" and let the players decide how they're going to tackle the threat.

6. Gratuitous fight with Mooks to learn the combat system

Typically there are three goblins guarding the doorway. Adjust the numbers to suit  characters present.  Not much of a threat and an easy fight. But if they don't put them down quickly one will run back into the dungeon. This will require a quick decision to be made. It's never to early for them to learn they're in a real world, with thinking opponents, not just a computer game.

7. Some investigation leading to the final scene

One of the reasons I run this scenario is because it's a DUNGEON and it lets the players experience exploring and mapping a dungeon. It's got a couple of interesting rooms, a rich history, a nice puzzle and a classic trap. There are no choices in the dungeon map, so the players head straight to the final encounter in good time but still  have the chance to do some searching and discovering.

8. Fight with the boss and minions with real stakes.

In the "final" room, there's a bugbear and some more goblins. This guy is a real beast. - especially, I've found, in 5th edition. Can they defeat the bad guys and rescue the children before the monsters roast them? Characters may die here. I've had a total party kill at least once running this adventure. You generally try to avoid character deaths in these short scenarios but there has to be real jeopardy and it sometimes happens. I've never had anyone upset by it. More often I find when monsters are losing, they use the children as human shields which is interesting.

There is a hidden room with undead and a magic sword here to find  - if the characters solve the puzzle, but this takes the adventure beyond an hour. Usually players don't find this extra bonus.

9. Closing scene.

You don't really want to give experience points, though you may want to explain the concept of going up levels. So I finish the scenario with a graphic description of the parents hugging their children and thanking the characters. I then  personally thank the players and congratulate them on the way they played the game. Handshakes are not unknown. I want to leave them with positive memories of the game.

 I'll talk you through my other scenarios in my next post.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

DevaCon, Chester, 7th April 2018

I'm in the middle of an enforced hiatus from TTRPG convention attendance. I've missed several recently that I would normally go to.

This weekend (7th/8th April) I would normally have flown up to Scotland for the unique ConPulsion at Edinburgh Uni. But, like so many other events, I've had to skip it.

Then, at the last minute - 2pm on Friday 6th April - I found out I was free to go to DevaCon in Chester. This is a one day event organised by Stephanie McAlea of Stygian Fox Publishing. I'd been aware of it, of course, but had not been monitoring it closely because of my commitment to ConPulsion. It's advertised as a local convention for Chester and North Wales etc. It prides itself on being an inclusive event.

So I booked a train and entrance ticket and posted my intention to attend on Facebook and contacted Stephanie via the website and a couple of other routes. It seemed that loads of games had been organised in advance and publicised via
Facebook. So I doubted that I could slip any of mine in at the 11th hour. Apparently it was OK, though, so I dug out and emailed some old blurbs and sign up sheets from previous conventions for scenarios from my Manifold gamebooks.

Chester isn't too bad from Birmingham. I set out quite early and the journey was fine. I had a bit of a ropey moment when I arrived at Chester and found I'd left my hat on the train. I had to run back to get it. Phew! My flat cap and waistcoat are part of my convention alter ego and I wouldn't want to lose it.

The web-site said the venue - a Crown Plaza hotel - was only a mile from the station and I was early so I chose to walk. I got lost and wet in the rain. I swear Apple maps isn't as easy to use as Google Maps used to be. Still the exercise was good for me and I still arrived early.

As you'd expect, being in a proper hotel the facilities were good. Though it was early the doors to the booked conference room were open and lots people were in. Apart from gaming tables and signup desk (stuck in a corner) and the main desk, there was also a local trader selling TTRPG stuff and and area where the hotel sold drinks and food (burgers, butties, chips etc.)

Some signup sheets were out and some people were already signing up. Many of them, including mine, hadn't arrived yet and I hadn't been able to get any printed myself. When the rest of the sheets arrived it turned out that my Word files hadn't paginated correctly and my sheets were printed across several pages apiece, so I had to rip and stick them to make two very unprofessional looking things.

As I waited to see if I got any players, the room began to fill up. As always with these local conventions there'd apparently been some concern in advance that there might not be enough attendees and there were far too many games on offer. But, as usual, gamers made their minds up at the last minute. The room was full of gamers and I could barely recognise anyone. This is a big and popular hobby.

My Superhero game got no takers, so I pulled it down and looked for something to play. There were half a dozen full tables of TTRPG games, making it a busy and successful convention. The only game with slots left was The Princess Bride. I've never seen the film.

This is a Fudge-based game and is apparently part of a current Kickstarter. It was run by Paul. We chose from pregens. Aaron played Frankie - a female swashbuckler,  Andy was a Pirate, James played a French guy - wineglass always in hand and I played the lug.

The artwork and presentation of the game looks good. The interpretation of Fudge seems to work for the game - and there's certainly none of the "tagging aspects" stuff I find so distracting about Fate - but there's nothing particularly clever or inspiring about the rules. They do the job.

It was a straightforward introductory scenario but Paul is a good referee - and it turns out an old aficionado of Golden Heroes -  and all the guys were high quality Roleplayers so the session was an absolute joy.

The game finished early. So James pulled out a card game. A bit like "Cards Against Humanity" (which I dislike)  but based on you trying to say a TTRPG phrase on a card in the style of a designated NPC.  It was a pleasant way to fill the time and some of the phrases on the cards are very funny in their own right.

The morning session was 3.5 hours long with an hour's break for lunch.

My afternoon game - the SciFi scenario form the rulebook - had only one sign up, Andy from the morning game. All the other games on offer were fully signed up. There was one sign up and cross off in a Cthulhu game but not enough for me and Andy. A quick chat with Stephanie and it turned out that Stephen Turner (of Chivalry and Sorcery game) was also at a loose end. Slowly we ended up picking up more players and, before I knew it, I had a table of five.

As it was a "scratch" table I didn't stick to the SciFi scenario offered but let them pick from all four genres in the book and (because I had the pregens with me) my Dr Who and Orville scenarios. They chose Dr Who!

YES! That scenario I've run dozens of times at loads of conventions for three years now was going to get another run out!

Stephen and Pavel chose to run pregens. Stephen picked the Ice Warrior. Pavel chose the 1960's hippie con-man. (It turns out that this character is a bit of a dark horse and can be devastating in the right hands. Pavel handled him very effectively.)

All the others chose to make their own characters. Liam made a Security Guard from the near future. Callum made a Cyborg Space Pirate.

Andy made the philosopher Wittgenstein - in the middle of his military service in WW2 in full uniform with rifle. Quality stuff.

You all know how much I love this scenario and I'm not going to give the details away here. There are still probably a couple of people in the world who haven't played it yet. Let's just say that this was a great group who had great fun and who steamrollered through everything. I'm kicking myself that I forgot about a reroll I'd picked up earlier in the game which I could have used to offset the critical roll which took out the big bad at the end. But that would only have put off the inevitable.

And I got two great quotes about Manifold out of it. Apparently it's:

"High Variance Goofiness"

which I agree with (though I say it has a "cinematic range of outcomes").

But it's also:

"Like the love child of GURPS and Paranoia"

Love it!

The second session was 3.5 hours long with a half hour break at the end. There is a third session in the evening, but I couldn't stay as I had to make my way back to Birmingham.

DevaCon is a pleasant and welcoming convention in a good venue and location. It prides itself on being inclusive - apparently someone was removed right at the start for not sticking to the inclusion policy - and relies upon the niceness of TTRPGers to enable its success. And the people here today were a bloody nice group and the event was a rollicking success. I'd happily come back.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Spaghetti ConJunction 2B was everything I've always hoped for.

YES!!!!!

TLDR: Spaghetti ConJunction  2a was a great success. Roleplayers are just such NICE people!

I'll let you into a secret. There doesn't seem to be that much to do to organise a simple little games day like Spaghetti ConJunction. However, when it's you doing the organising it's amazing how the simple little things mount up.

This was our third SCJ, hosted again by the wonderful people of Geek Retreat in Birmingham. 1a (last February) was a great start, over 40 people. 1b (November 2017) was a lovely little event but may have had less than 30 people in all. There were sterling efforts from my fellow organisers - James Mullen and Matthew "Pookie" Pook - to promote 2b (especially Pookie's indefatigable work producing press release after press release) but we have a very free and easy approach to SCJ. We eschew prebooking to give everyone an equal chance on the day. But the corollary of this is that we have literally no idea who - if anyone - is turning up. So, naturally, I always panic that we might have no one turn up - or too many.

The day started damp and miserable. Pookie and I met for a quick pre convention breakfast in a local hostelry. James was delayed - as were several other attendees it turned out. I got to Geek Retreat about quarter of an hour before the advertised start time to find an handful of stalwarts had arrived early and we're waiting outside in the rain.

Note to self: for 2b promote a nearby warm place people can wait if they arrive early and Geek Retreat isn't open yet.

We got in and set up and it seemed like the floodgates opened. It was only about 50 people but I felt a bit overwhelmed on the front desk. (I don't think I've actually manned it before. It was a case of being in the right place at the wrong time.)

We have shamelessly lifted the Concrete Cow sign up system. Browse the sign up sheets but you get a numbered ticket. Numbers from 0 through 9 are drawn at random and if your ticket ends in that number you come to sign up. Saves crowds and shoving. If you're new to the convention or refereeing a game in the other slot, you get to sign up first. It's all very well thought out and works well.

Except when half the attendees are new to the convention! Bless 'em they were all very very civilised. But it was like the old days as two dozen people all descended upon the sign up sheets at once!

We had 7-8 games in the morning,  most of which filled out and ran. There was a bit of horse trading at the end, I think.

I got four players for my riff on "The Orville" TV series. I suspected that all you have to do is to run a simple Star Trek scenario and then let a bunch of Roleplayers loose on it. And I was right.

I basically had a version of the Star Trek second pilot - the one with the energy barrier at the edge of the galaxy and a crew member getting godlike psychic powers - but with added Krill. I'd prepared pregens but the players all agreed to make their own characters. By far my preference.

I had Steve, Andrew , Luca and Luca (it's a popular name in Italy). Steve was the ship's pilot - a cybernetically enhanced feline. Andrew made a Lizardman science officer. Luca was the ship's Engineer - who was far better at improvising weapons than he was at fixing engines - and Luca was the engineering robot who actually did all the repair work. The Engineer was the only human and even he was heavily cybernetically enhanced. All were GREAT characters, but my favourite twist was the engineering droid - who had appalling Social Skills - having in-built Muzak to give him a boost with those rolls.

Nobody made a Captain, so I gave them a doddery aging Hero of the Union in charge of his last command in his last year of service.

They were a great team. Not only did they investigate the dead Krill warship they discovered (they'd all mysteriously killed each other) they actually managed to take it over. But two more Krill warships were inbound and the crew had to pierce the energy barrier to download information from an ancient buoy before the Krill could get it.

So a plan was concocted involving sending a remote piloted captured Krill shuttle through the barrier, whilst using the a captured warship to lull the approaching ships into a false sense of security. Then the plan was to get in line with them and activate the Quantum drive - ramming them at superluminal speed. Trouble is, there wasn't time to rig remote controls for the ship and the shuttle, so someone had to volunteer to pilot the warship by hand. A suicide mission. The NPC Captain insisted he do it.

Guess what? He missed - disappearing into warp space - leaving his ship at the mercy of two Krill warships without its Captain.

Somehow the team managed to hold off the attack long enough to download the data and blow the ancient buoy. Then they also managed to show the Krill a clean pair of heels. Mission accomplished, and they hadn't even had to penetrate the energy barrier. (Grrrr.) With an hour still to go.

But it turned out their Captain had been captured by the Krill and they crew had to rescue him before he could crumble to interrogation. It'd already been established on the TV series how to do this (holographic projectors etc.) but this team were again amazingly efficient.

Despite this, it was a great session with some superb Roleplaying. Many laughs. Just give Roleplayers a Star Trek adventure and you have The Orville. Definitely an adventure to run out again. (I ran very little of what I'd prepared.)

An hours break. Then the raffle.

Ah, the raffle! Roleplayers are wonderful people and Roleplaying companies are as well. The prizes we'd had donated were amazing. There was a bit of a hitch when Pookie unboxed the secret prize, a copy of Zweihander, and there was a last minute rush on raffle tickets. And I LOST the book of tickets!

Once this was sorted, though, we rattled through the raffle in record time. If we're not the fastest raffle on the circuit, I want to know just who is faster - and how!

Signups for the afternoon games was also very swift and efficient. My new Dr Who scenario got no takers, so I still don't know how well it runs. (I guess bringing back a villain from the era of the 2nd Doctor after 50 years, doesn't interest many people under 60).

There were a plethora of games I could have slipped into as a player but my wife is away on business and I'd agreed to travel up to Sheffield to meet her after the convention, so I chose to leave everything in the capable hands of James and Pookie and left early.

SCJ 2B was amazing! About 50 attendees, half of whom I've never seen on the circuit before. Lots of younger (20 something) faces amongst the Grognards. The venue remains perfect (though we developed a bit of a queue for the toilets). The raffle prizes were amazing. The games and referees were stunning. But what made it were the players. Roleplayers are such bloody NICE people. There was a lovely vibe in the room. I really loved it.

Thanks everyone! See you at 2b!

(Or NOT 2b?)

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Contingency 2018

If I’m going to report on UK RPG conventions then I really ought to report all of them, even the ones I can’t get too.

Decades ago, me and my RPG mates thought the great British Holiday Camp would be a perfect venue for an RPG convention - and a great way to bring custom to those camps in the slow season.

Well it seems we weren’t the only ones with this idea. For a few years I attended two GREAT conventions at a holiday camp in Dorset - Conception and IndieCon. These were both multi-day conventions but I could only ever attend at weekends due to work commitments. In fact one of my main reasons for looking forward to retirement was so that I could do the full Wednesday to Monday at Conception.

Then a change in the business plan of the holiday camp meant that there was no longer any room for these two superb events and they folded.

Grrrr.

But a group of fans and attendees from Conception - who were nothing to do with the original committee - refused to accept the gap in their diaries and willed a replacement into existence. With little more than enthusiasm and good intentions, they’ve created CONTINGENCY.

I SO want to go to Contingency but its venue - the Sandy Balls Holiday Camp in the New Forest (English seaside humour) - is less accessible than the one for Conception if you’re travelling on public transport.  This would involve a longer journey, fewer games and greater costs - for me.

I've since found out that the organisers have organised lifts to and from local stations for a nominal charge. So they're aware of the issue and are trying to address it.

However,  if you drive or can get a lift you MUST go.

My impression is that the first year they successfully muddled through through goodwill and everyone wearing rose coloured glasses and convincing themselves they were really at Conception.

This year the feeling is that they’ve learnt from their first event and this is an excellent, well organised event in its own right.

It ran from Wed 17th Jan until Sunday 21st. But Sunday is a full day and you can sleep over until departing Monday morning. However, even though the convention OFFICIALLY starts on the Wednesday, you can actually check in from Monday (I THINK at no extra cost, but don't quote me on that.) So, apparently, loads of people went down early and made a week of it.

There are only two minor negative feedback points I picked up. Firstly the “public gaming space” is limited. This meant there were worries that games would have to be played in private in Guests’ lodges (leading to it being called a “LodgeCon”.) This makes the event seem a bit less social. Some people prefer quiet private games, others (ME!) prefer the hustle and bustle of a large open space. This was exacerbated by the public areas being closed for out of season refurbishment. However, the organisers had supplied a Marquee which seems to have worked well.

The other thing is the Pathfinder vs The World thing you get at many events. Pathfinder referees are very organised and promote and book their games well in advance of the event through the excellent “Warhorn” booking system. Referees of other RPGs prefer to offer them at the event itself. So, looking at WarHorn prior to the convention gives some people the impression that this is just a Pathfinder convention - which is far from the truth. There are loads of RPGs offered.

But all other feedback about the event is overwhelmingly positive. I’ve already mentioned how seamlessly it seems to have been organised this year. Other highlights  are the many many comments praising the friendliness of the staff and the quality of the on-site food.

And the game reports are amazing. Five days of solid high quality games. I am jealous.

So it seems that Contingency deserves to continue - and maybe needs to change its name. It seems to be becoming an essential part of the annual convention calendar - being the only five day convention on the annual circuit. Whilst it’s inconvenient for me personally at the moment, if you can make it next year, you certainly should.

I’m now looking forward to my retirement so that I can go to Contingency.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

My first game for Spaghetti ConJunction 2a

Game Title: The Wilbur (Series 1 episodes 1&2 "Fools Rush In" and "Where Angels Fear to Tread)

Game system: Manifold

Number of players (min to max): 2-6

Slot: Morning

A short descriptive pitch:The Wilbur is set on the titular U.S.S. Wilbur (ECV-196), a mid-level exploratory space vessel in the Planetary Union, a 25th-century interstellar alliance of Earth and many other planets.

You play the Captain and crew of the ship. You're not the finest that the Union has to offer, but there are over 2,000 ships in the fleet and they all need a crew.

Pregens will be available but, ideally, you'll make your own characters using my easy to understand MANIFOLD rules. Human, Alien, Artificial or any combination you want. The Union ain't that fussy, apparently.

Your first mission - a distress signal has been received from the U.S.S. Valiant (EV-27). The ship went missing almost a century ago on a mission to breach the energy barrier at the edge of the Galaxy. Looks like this is your chance to find out what happened to it. But better hurry. The signal is coming from the disputed region and the Krill may already gave dispatched a ship (or several) of their own to investigate.

But what's that knocking sound in the Quantum drive? You thought that last delivery of Dysonium smelt a bit off......

Any other information: Manifold is my own multi-genre rule set. Just 2d6, easy to learn and play. Massive fun with magic happening every time you roll a double.

(Warning: I've also been watching "Discovery")

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Winter StabCon 2018

I love StabCon. However, most of you won't need to read this report because I've posted and written about it so many times and it's always the same. (Which is why it's so flipping great!)

So:

TLDR: remains the cheapest residential convention by far. Friendly atmosphere. Mainly board games but RPGs are growing. I ran four Manifold games and played in one Savage Worlds. All games fully booked mostly with returning players who seek out my games StabCon after StabCon.

StabCon is twice per year, Winter and Summer, in Stockport. It's residential, in a low cost hotel and is very popular. The convention can host 300 attendees and was fully booked out for Saturday well in advance of the event.

Because of the way the dates fell this year, it was in the last weekend of my Christmas Holiday, so I had the luxury of travelling down quite early on Friday - instead of rushing to get there after work. In theory that meant I could arrive in time to fit in an extra game session Friday afternoon. However, there is relatively little pre-convention chatter prior to this event and I wasn't able to round up any players before the day.

What I did do, however, was to pop into Element Games in Stockport to have a meeting about the Convergence convention being held there in March. From their website I had the impression that I'd left it too late in the day to throw my hat into the ring as a GM. A face to face meeting disabused me of that notion and I could see how it suited my needs for early 2018. So it was well worth having the chat. I also got one of the guys to carry fliers for Spaghetti ConJunction and Manifold down to Contingency. Win, win!

So I got to StabCon mid afternoon. There was a queue for checking into the hotel. Apparently they'd been strict this year and not allowed anyone to check in before 2:00pm anyway, so if I'd arrived earlier the queue would probably have been even longer. The hotel is at the cheaper end, just over £100 for two nights including breakfast. But it has been recently refurbished so is good value for money. And there is a great synergy between the convention organisers and the Hotel with its friendly and accommodating staff.

After dropping my bags in the room, I went to sign in at the convention. As usual I received my personally hand made name badge. These must take ages to make and show real commitment on the part of the organisers. I booked tables for my RPG games and turned to pin up my sign up sheets. I noticed two things. Firstly, there were far more RPGs being offered than at the last StabCon - and the ones already pinned up were already booked out. Secondly, this year everyone seemed to be using the typed A5 "house" signing up forms. My fully colour A4 sign up sheets looked a bit out of place and seemed to take up rather too much space.

I ordered my usual StabCon evening meal (12" American Hot Pizza) and waited for my evening game to start. This is one of the rare games I play in and the only regular campaign in which I have a continuing character. Savage Worlds Pulp - Indiana Jones with minor Superpowers. (I basically play a WW1 cyborg.) Great GM, wonderful group of players. Always a great way to start the convention.

During a comfort break I noticed all the games on the RPG board - including mine - were fully signed up, and there were even more people scanning the board looking for games to sign up to. StabCon remains primarily a board game convention but the  RPG games seem to be getting more and more popular.

Because the beer is reasonably priced - and the convention bar is open to midnight -  I drank quite a bit and nearly got sucked into a card game. However I ducked out and got to bed just before midnight.

I got up early and ate the adequate hotel breakfast as soon as it opened at 7:00am. This gave me time to get set up for the day.

2018 is going to be the year of MANIFOLD my multi-genre RPG. I need to promote and hone it. Every RPG opportunity I get in the first half of 2018, I'll have to run Manifold. So at StabCon 2018 I offered to run three of the four example scenarios from the rulebook.

In the morning I ran the Science Fiction scenario. Pure TV space opera. Fully booked with 5 players, I think I'd run games for all of them before. Particularly pleased have a father and his two daughters at the table with me. They seem to choose to play one of my games every single StabCon. It's really gratifying.

As the pilot film of a TV series the scenario is written to bring together 5 disparate characters. This group fragmented immediately with, at one point, all 5 in different locations. In an indigenous alien native's hut, in an audience with their parliament, a prisoner of the catlike aliens in their orbiting ship, being tortured by the captain and, finally, drifting in space in an escape pod! Bringing them together for the climax took some work. But it was fun.

The afternoon was the Fantasy scenario from the rulebook. Again this was fully booked including one player who I know of old. I first came across him four decades ago. I was extremely gratified to see him signing up. Two of the other players were ones who'd played in my Dr Who scenario at a previous StabCon and were happy to regale me with stories of it. It had had a stunning climax that even I remember. A further player was one who'd played in the morning SciFi game. He told me I had refereed for him before and told me I was his favourite GM. This is all incredibly gratifying.

Another group of fun players. I'd been worried that this scenario was the weakest in the book and was considering updating or replacing it. However, it worked really well. To be honest I found myself telling the story rather than bringing it to life by fully Roleplaying every NPC, but the players seemed happy. The wise old player, however, spotted every trope and managed to cleverly short circuit the bad guy's plan (to the extent that he was probably lynched off-stage by his disgruntled followers), so the game finished a bit early after only three hours. But no-one complained.

After tea I ran the Superhero game from the rules. Most of the group were players who'd played with me in the Saturday slot at StabCon before. However, those scenarios were horror ones - including the one from the Manifold rulebook. I felt guilty about not having a new horror scenario for them but it's not a genre I have many ideas for. So of the three scenarios on offer, they'd requested the Superhero one. This is the one where you play Superheroes who have to track down their old mentors, who've come out of retirement, before they do themselves an injury. The twist worked well and we had a satisfying climax. So, effectively I've got a regular Saturday night group now. I REALLY need to sort out a horror adventure for them next time.

Sunday morning was, as always, my Star Wars campaign. I ran a refight of "The Force Awakens" two years ago at StabCon when the film came out and the players have been returning for more every convention since. Today was the 5th chapter in what was meant to be a one off game.

TBH, though the game, the characters and the players are all great I'm finding the Star Wars universe - especially the contemporary one with the "First Order" etc. a very limited setting for designing adventures. So I had a chat with them after the game. We agreed to park the campaign and start a Superhero one in the summer.

There is time for another game Sunday afternoon but as I'd got work Monday morning, I set off home early. I have stayed for afternoon games in the past, though, making it a six game weekend.

I made sure to book into StabCon Summer - as I always do - before leaving. You can't afford to leave it to chance.

Obviously I'd recommend StabCon whole heartedly. It's a family atmosphere where everyone knows everyone and I get regular players returning to my game offerings. Still the cheapest residential convention of the year by far with a bar that stays open until midnight. You have to get in early to book a place and it's a bit quirky and eclectic so you might need a guide the first time you come. (Feel free to ask if you need help.)

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Dragonmeet 2017

Dragonmeet is the big game convention in London. There has been a Dragonmeet for decades. I played games at Dragonmeet back in the 1980's. Our Superhero RPG - Golden Heroes - won the "Best new RPG" award for 1984 at Dragonmeet.

The current iteration is held at a Hotel in Hammersmith. It's a one day convention - which I think is a shame. There's certainly enough going on to fill two days for a visitor. But I'm not sure a second day would bring in a 100% increase in revenue for the organisers or traders and - given the need for hotel rooms - their costs would more than double. So a one day event it remains.

The trade hall is open during the day but closes in the evening, presumably to give traders time to strip down and travel home. The games rooms stay open until midnight and there are three game slots. In previous years I have played in all three slots and stayed in a hotel in London overnight - especially as the organisers used to hint that there was a possibility of meet ups and games on the Sunday. That never worked for me, however, so I now just travel down from Birmingham, play in the two game slots during the day and travel back up in the evening, making it a much more cost effective event for me.

I offered to run two games in the daytime slots. Dragonmeet is legendary for the lack of information on its website. Though we all submitted our games in advance, the details weren't published until the event was nearly upon us. Originally the web-site said the games were prebookable - with seats from each game being keep free for on the day allocation. Then it was decided that the games weren't going to be prebooked. "Living world/organised play" games WERE prebookable, but their organisers insist on this at every convention. We are left to draw our own conclusions as to why the RPGs weren't prebooked. There was also a bit of kerfuffle online because referees offering to run RPGs didn't receive specific instructions until the week of the event. This always happens but it made some of the newer referees feel a bit nervous.

A decision was made this year to open the doors early and start the RPGs an hour earlier. Presumably because by the time the doors opened in previous years, there was a massive queue and getting everyone in took ages. It also created a two hour gap between the morning and afternoon games, to give gamers a chance to spend money in the trade hall. However, for some of us, this meant we had to get up at stupid o'clock to travel down. I booked a 6:30am train from Birmingham New Street. I also fretted a bit about how I was going to fill two hours in the middle of the day. I find one hour more than enough to eat and mooch around.

Shortly before the day I received a message from Chris Dean, a fellow games designer and referee, checking to see if we were on the same train. We were.

On the day itself, the 6:30 train was cancelled. The next train was massively delayed. The British rail system can be awful, especially in and out of London, and this was one of those days. Both Chris and I arrived far too late to run our morning games. I tried to inform the organisers of our delay via Facebook etc. Upon arrival, like last year, I followed other gamers there and entered the hotel via a door that led to two small lifts. There was no big sign saying "Dragonmeet this way!"

We checked in and checked that we were too late to play our games. I later found out from a friend that other referees had failed to make the morning slot but, more importantly, there were insufficient gamers to fill all the games that were offered and groups were merged to fill games. I presume everyone ended up with a great game but the early start doesn't seem to have attracted loads and loads of gamers.

Chris and I could have mooched in the trade hall or attended some seminars but we chose to check out the "Games on Demand" room. In this room a small crowd were "pitched" short games by referees and said which they wanted to try. I was surprised at the games offered - many of which I'd never heard of. They were mostly "indie" and seemed - to my tastes - to be a bit vague and woffley. But that's just a "horses for courses" thing. I was also surprised that they were offering two hour slots. I was pretty certain that the pre convention blurb had said the games were starting on the hour every hour, so I'd assumed they'd be one hour games or, at least, there'd be one hour games on offer.

We signed up for a game of "Cthulhu Dark" a stripped down version of the horror game. The Referee was very clear that this was a"purist" game of existential horror rather than a "pulp" game where you can actually confront the bad guys. We started with three players but my instincts kicked in and I hooked a passersby to makeup the numbers. I noticed lots of potential players coming in and out of the room as we played, but there didn't seem anyone hooking them as they passed. I'm pretty sure some new games did start after an hour though.

As it turned out, this was a fairly traditional RPG, with a referee running us through a pre written scenario. Good scenario - a family caught in the crucible of events in 17th century Arkham. Good referee. It was one of those where events unfold and your characters are swept along. There's plenty for you to do and there was much scenery chewing from the players. But ultimately it was about experiencing the journey and the climax was pretty unavoidable. I tried to avoid it. I died.

I was surprised that the game ran for two and a half hours, rather than the two it was pitched at. It was more like a normal game slot rather than a "game on demand" but it was just what I needed after the journey down.

The passing player I'd hooked into the game turned out to be an excellent convention player.  Apart from Roleplaying the sh@t out of the family matriarch, he made a point of telling the Referee that he was a good referee and offered to buy him a drink.

Talking of which, I did buy myself a pint of Lager at the bar and an egg sandwich for lunch. £8.10!!!!!!!! Has London hit the "fiver for a pint" mark?

As it was Dragonmeet, I started bumping into gaming friend after gaming friend, saying a quick "hello" and moving on. Some people come to Dragonmeet just to meet up with old friends before Christmas. The games, trade hall, seminar etc. are incidental. It's the social side that matters. My favourite moment was chatting to three old mates from various conventions only to have one of them point out that none of them knew each other. I just meet so many people on my travels I assume everyone in the hobby knows everyone else. I was pleased to be able to make introductions.

I then chose to pitch to run a game in the Indie Games on Demand room. I wasn't really prepared for this but I had my "Code of Warriors and Wizardry" stuff from the morning and chose to use it to run a version of the intro dungeon I use for my "Choose Your Adventure" set up. I didn't have it with me, but I've memorised it. The only thing I didn't have with me was pregenerated characters.

So I pitched a one hour game. I only got one, player - an old friend - but we grabbed a table and began to make his character. I actively worked on passersby and got a very enthusiastic young man and his father. And then the table suddenly filled up. I had six players.

As often happens, the open-ended nature of the game gave the players license to create a wide range of characters. The young man made and element wielding dryad, whilst his dad was a shape-shifting snakeman. My friend made a Golem. We also had martial artist that could channel his Chi, a Dwarf with a pet Dragon and a young Prince travelling under cover.

With the late start, character generation and full table it was crush to get the story to satisfactory resolution in an hour, but I made it. It was great fun for me and the players.

I then took a tour down to the trade hall. I'm afraid the signage wasn't super clear and I had to ask directions. Yes, I could have looked in the programme but I shouldn't have need to. It was a good trade hall with everything a gamer could want and more.  But my time was spent greeting friends in passing again.

I went upstairs to drop some fliers for my new game and our games convention in the bar only to find they'd started calling the afternoon games early. Unlike the morning, these were all full. When I'd checked the sheets, I'd been disappointed at how bland they looked. Signup sheets for just about every other convention - including all the amateur ones - look far better. And they were pinned up using ordinary drawing pins. It all looked a bit unprofessional.

For reasons which are documented elsewhere, I'd actually called the games at last year's event. So I know how difficult this job is. (And you'll notice I wasn't invited to do it this year.....)

But it started early, was in an open hall and, with the early start, many referees weren't there yet. Even if a referee was present, their players weren't, so it was all a bit ramshackle - which is not the fault of the guy calling the games. And with all the games being full, there were loads of people waiting to play. There was some frustration.

My table was filled by a group travelling together. So I was met by their representative and we chatted whilst the rest of his group finished their various errands and arrived. He, it turned out, was a long time supporter of my work. We'd met before and he's started writing and printing his own games. So we had loads to chat about.

When everyone arrived we went upstairs to find the RPG rooms. Again, this was difficult due to a lack of effective signage. The room we ended up in was crammed with what seems like a dozen games each with half a dozen players around a small table. The windows were closed. It was hot and noisy and not ideal. Everyone seemed to manage though and have a good time.

This was the Science Fiction genre from my Manifold rules, the introductory scenario from the rulebook. A table of six players playing: A Science Officer (basically a Spock clone), a Red-shirt security Guy, an ex-military bounty hunter, a conman, a petty thief and a barbarian space pilot (best not to ask).

This was great fun as always. This was a clever group and succeeded in sidelining a few things that challenge other groups. The barbarian pilot was killed, but the player took over the muscle bound gang boss NPC the group had somehow co-opted to their cause. Despite the clever play, the time flew by and we had trouble completing the game in the four hour slot. Possibly because of the interactions between the players - they all knew each other and we're having great fun, giving me the opportunity to sit back from time to time.

Then it was time to leave. I bumped into another old friend and we shared the walk to the underground station and the underground journey. My train home was almost as delayed as my train down so I got home very late.

Dragonmeet, could be improved. Easy fixes are:

1. Put someone proactive and professional on the website. Make sure it is up to date and accurate. (Eg. It says that Hammersmith underground station is near to the hotel but doesn't give instructions on how to get from the station to the hotel.)
2. Decide how the RPGs are going to be organised. Advertise this early and stick to it.
3. More and better signs get at the event. (The place to look is the AireCon conventions. They use a lot of pull up banners, rather than printed signs pinned to the walls.)
4. If RPG games are going to be called as they are now, do it in one of the RPG rooms. Allocate two people to the task, one introduce, lay down the rules and control the room, the other to call the games.

However, it's easy to critcise. The organisers deliver a convention with a trade hall, excellent gaming and numerous ancillary activities. Too much to all be experienced in a single day. We shouldn't forget that.

Dragonmeet is a great event where everyone who is anyone comes to meet old friends. Because of this, despite the occasionally ramshackle organisation, it's a wonderful event well worth attending.  I enjoyed it immensely, despite the awful train journies. Thank heavens for the Games on Demand room. They really saved my day.