(From Game Geek 15, which is free this issue.)
Way back in Game Geek 4, I mused about my experiences at OwlCon XXIX with my son Giant Boy. It was his first gaming convention, and it gave me an opportunity to look at the experience with fresh eyes. My Game Geek 4 musings focused mostly on this advice for players: Be on time, use prep time wisely, don’t hog the ball or be a wallflower, and roleplay before you roll dice.
This time I want to focus more on the other side of the GM screen. Giant Boy and I arrived about an hour before our first event was due to start. This gave us plenty of time to get our registration packets, don our spiffy OwlCon XXX shirts, hang official badges around our necks, and engage in some people watching.
Our first event was “Scooby Scooby Doo, What ARE You???” run in one of the latest iterations of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu. I got to play Fred. Giant Boy was six of the Harlem Globetrotters, including Curly, Sweet Clyde, and Bubblegum Tate (those last two being ‘ported in from Futurama). The other three Globetrotters were unnamed, which struck more as lazy than funny. Four other players filled the roles of Daphne, Velma, Scoob, and Shaggy; the latter two were played with impressive vocal imitations by their players. The final player did a great job as Sheriff Don Knotts. The event started more or less on time at 3:00 p.m. Although it was generally enjoyable, two convention GM no-nos reared their ugly heads.
Start on Time; Finish on Time
If an event is schedule to start at 3:00 p.m., then the GM needs to start at 3:00 p.m. If an event is scheduled for four hours, it needs to run for at least very close to four hours. The people sitting at the table almost all paid to be there, and if a GM short changes paying convention-goers on their time, that’s a lot like stealing.
“Scooby Scooby Doo, What ARE You???” started on time, but it finished nearly 90 minutes early. There we were, all having a reasonably good time roleplaying our respective cartoon characters. Five of the six Globetrotters had been mind-controlled by fungi from Yuggoth. We had rescued Snidley Moneybags from bloodthirsty cultists on an alien planet. We had finally cornered the spawn of Shub-Niggurath. More or less without warning, the event ended. Daphne unmasked the spawn, revealing first Old Man Winters and then Nyarlathotep.
It wasn’t even 6:00 p.m. Giant Boy and I had been cheated out of more than an hour of gaming fun. I cannot help but think that the Keeper could’ve kept the game going for its full time had he managed to follow this next bit of advice.
Prepare and Playtest
Our Keeper’s prep for “Scooby Scooby Doo, What ARE You???” was noticeably lacking. The character sheets had incomplete information (such as missing stats) and appeared hastily scrawled, but perhaps that was just bad penmanship.
The entire Call of Cthulhu mystery was minimally outlined in the same hasty scrawl on a single page of notebook paper. Torn scraps of paper marked several places in the rulebook, which was frequently referred to without giving the sense that the Keeper knew what he was looking for. It was obvious the Keeper was making up a lot of it as he went along, and the ingenuity of his improv skills was quickly exhausted. Several incidents turned into hard core railroads where we players had minimal to no chance to influence events. More than once, the Keeper was just flat out dismissive and ignored or countermanded player intentions.
To provide one example, when a fungus from Yuggoth abducted some of the Globetrotters, the only dice rolled were Spot Hidden checks, as if it made any sense at all that a monster could enter a brightly lit room and snatch three six-foot-plus basketball players from under the noses of five other people without being extremely obvious. When Giant Boy had his remaining Globetrotters give chase, it quickly became apparent that no action could possibly affect any sort of rescue.
All of these — the way too early ending, the incomplete character sheets, the overuse of GM fiat, the insufficient notes for the adventure and relevant rules — indicate a lack of preparation on the Keeper’s part.
Since Giant Boy and I now had about two hours before our next event started, we settled into comfy chairs, ate dinner, and engaged in more people watching. While doing this, I noticed what might have been another convention GM no-no.
Keep Your Players in the Game
During “Scooby Scooby Doo, What ARE You???” I once got up to get a couple of drinks for Giant Boy and me. On the way to the cafe, I passed by a table full of people playing Pathfinder. One of the players was a tall, dark-haired fellow with a poor attempt at a goatee. When our event ended way too early, Giant Boy and I settled into our comfy chairs and ate and watched people.
One person I watched was Poor Goatee Fellow. He packed up his stuff, shouldered his backpack, and left the Pathfinder game table, not to return even though that particular event was still going strong. This made me wonder: Why had Poor Goatee Fellow left the game? Perhaps he just got bored. Perhaps he had to leave the convention. Or, perhaps, his character was killed during gameplay and with nothing left to do he had left the table about an hour before his game actually ended.
Since I didn’t see Poor Goatee Fellow rush out of the convention, it doesn’t seem likely some emergency had called him away from the table. Other folks at the table looked like they were having fun. So, via process of elimination in my limited options scenario, Poor Goatee Fellow’s character had died during gameplay. Thus, with no way left to participate, he abandoned the table. If this is so, all I can say is, “Bad GM!”
As already pointed out, most people pay to game at a convention. My payment creates certain reasonable expectations, such as the expectation that I get to play the entire round for which I’ve registered. If a player’s character dies with more than just a few minutes left to play, a good GM will have a back-up plan. A good GM gives that player another character, let’s the player help run the monsters during fights, et cetera. What a good GM doesn’t do is say, “Sorry about that. Better luck next time.”
Once Giant Boy and I finished dinner and people watching, we strolled over to our second convention game: “Crisis of Infinite Batmen” using Green Ronin’s DC Adventures. This event started on time. It ended on time. Everyone got to participate for the entire period. The GM was obviously prepared, understood the genre, and gave us players opportunities to shine. I was Dick Grayson acting as Batman. Giant Boy was Batman Beyond. Other players were Kal-El Batman, Wolverine Batman, Batwoman, and Cyber Batman. Owlman had absorbed Bite-Mite’s cosmic powers in an attempt to rid the multiverse of all the Bruce Waynes. We had to stop him during a climatic battle in Arkham Asylum verus oodles of Jokers (including Lego Joker!).
“Crisis of Infinite Batmen” was a well-run event with only one identifiable flaw:
The GM often broke the suspension of disbelief by explaining the game mechanics and inspiration behind his various villains. While I understand that he was justifiably proud of way-cool villains such as King Solomon Grundy and the Twenty-Eyed Man, the metagame explanations about the villains’ capabilities weren’t always tied to things our various Batmen would’ve known. As a result, the GM robbed us of some of the surprise and mystery.
This is a minor complaint with “Crisis of Infinite Batmen” since the overall quality of the game made up for the mild let downs. I’ve certainly seen GMs (including myself) do much worse.
The rest of OwlCon XXX the next day went swimmingly. Giant Boy and I played one last event, namely Eric Seagren’s top-notch “Scavenger Hunt of Dooooom!” wherein my son was the jedi Obi-Gyn and I was the Hulk, a half-ogre/half-clay golem. Other players included the likes of the Amazing Driderman, Snake Plissken, and Holy Cow. We romped through an Outer Planes city looking for pun-related items in order to win fame and fortune. Out of the several groups that had played this event during the convention, we placed second.
Throughout the event, it was obvious the GM was well-prepared and had playtested the adventure. The players were kept involved, and, best of all, the GM didn’t go out of his way to over-explain what was going on. Seagren respected our skills and smarts enough to let us figure out (or not) the various clues on our own.