June 29, 2015

The Bay Method - 4 Things to Keep in Mind for a Successful Con Game

Today I have a guest post from one of the designers of the Asylum RPG, an indie RPG currently in playtest.  I'm not on the con circuit, but he is, especially since starting playtesting.  Here's his advice for GMs running short con games or demos.

His advice reminds me of Chris Perkins' style of GMing, so if you're interested in coming across like Perkins, read on!

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Before we cut to the chase, I just want to congratulate Jon for running a damn successful blog and giving me the opportunity to write a special guest post.

My name's Carlos.  I've been running games since middle school and plunged into all kinds of systems and philosophies.  Since my 20's I've been running games at cons, universities, and even public park games that weren't elaborate boffer affairs.  In that time I've discovered there is a distinct difference between running a game with some friends at your home and running a game for complete strangers in a place you've never even set foot in.

It takes extra planning, determination and all that organizational stuff, sure, but it also takes a healthy appreciation for showmanship and what people like.  Have those down and you barely need to have your scenario written!  Because this skill set is equal parts zen simplicity and con artist bluffing, I've named it The (Michael) Bay Method.

The four pillars of The Bay Method are a combination of game design, social engineering and self affirmation.  Don't worry, there are still explosions.

1. You are now in show business

This is the most important pillar of all and one that a surprising number of con GMs don't fully grasp.  You are in a public venue providing entertainment.  You're the talent!  Just as much so as if you were a band playing a festival gig.  And just like that band, you're there to have fun and experience the thrill of playing to an audience AND you're also on the hook for showing that audience a good time.

Accept and embrace this before anything else: you and your awesome game are up on a stage playing a crowd at a gig.  Once that sinks in and you accept it, running con/event games goes from scary/awkward to addictive.

Embrace the stagecraft.  You are on stage every bit as much as your game is. That means little visual and tactile details can give you a huge leg up. Even little flourishes like wearing a sweet t-shirt, providing really nifty themed dice, or custom cards can start you off with the table already on your side.

2. Make everything as clear as possible

Everything from the title of your game to its blurb in the con schedule to how you lay your materials out on the table needs to convey important information to your players.  This is not the time for subtlety and it's absolutely not the time to lie to your audience.  WWMBD?  Tip your hand.  Tell them what to expect and where this game is going.  And repeat your message.

This goes beyond showmanship.  This goes into making sure you get the right players and that those players are going to play your game right.  Let's get an example:

"The Ninth Man is a game of intrigue for five players. Someone will know more than the rest, others will have to fight for the truth.  This game uses mature subject matters."

It's. . . okay, but I don't know too much about it.  Let's Bay this up a little bit. . .

"The Ninth Man pits players against a cruel blackmailer, a global conspiracy and each other.  This intrigue and social heavy game delves into betrayal, sex, lies and redemption."

Great!  Now I know your game is somewhat PvP but not really a combat game.  I know it involves some kind of espionage and that I probably shouldn't bring my 13 year old younger sibling who just started going to cons to it.

And if you're worried you're giving away too much in your blurbs, tweets or posts, I can guarantee you from a decade and a half of doing this that barely anyone ever remembers what they read.

3. It's all in the timing

Con/Event games live and die by their timing.  Know how much time you have and plan like you have at least a half hour less than that.  For any length of time longer than three hours, plan like you have a full hour less.  Your game needs to feel comfortable in its time block, it needs to finish and it needs time for everybody to talk about it afterwards. This is something that's really easy to miss or steal time budget from but it makes a massive difference in whether or not you're invited back next year.

Most cons use a 3 - 4 hour time blocks.  Plan for 2 - 3 hours of actual gameplay.  That's a crazy small amount of time for most RPG sessions.  Most gamers are used to 3 - 4 hours.

This means that you need to hit your marks fast and loud.  This is where Mr. Bay will help you out.  Bay doesn't dawdle in his movies and you shouldn't in your con game. And don't do anything small: critical successes should cleave obstacles in twain in the most vivid way possible, botches should screw over players in beautiful, hilarious ways that people will talk about for hours afterward.

And always, always introduce the hell out of your plot points.

Think of it this way, you've got maybe 5 minutes of runtime before that NPC, event or object gets lost in the criss-cross of die rolls and player actions. Whatever information or feeling you convey in those 5 minutes gets set in stone.  Make those 5 minutes count!  Make 'em loud and memorable.

4. If it's not happening during game, it doesn't exist

Now I hear what you're saying.  "But, but. . . the Kyrilian Dragon War is the catalyst for why the royal houses of Fisk and Artaugh are in conflict!  It's why the Mysterious Keeper that helps the PCs is secretly an Artaugh prince and why he can't tell them!  It's why he doesn't just open the door but doesn't say why!"

Unless the players are explicitly dealing with all that in this game, none of that matters.  To them Prince Artaugh is just a GM fiat jerk that won't open the goddam door.

I can't tell you how often I run into con/event game scenarios where the final scene is a puzzle piece in an epic backstory the GM wrote but doesn't tell the players about.  Or how many times the antagonist (or even pregen PC) is secretly an all-powerful demi-god and is so secret and marvelous that their identity and plans can never, ever be discovered!  Most times I've seen this, the NPC version is barely noticed ("That guy in the bar was a demon lord?  Huh.  Okay.") and the PC version is explicitly told to never reveal how awesome and secretly the villain they are.

DO NOT LET THIS HAPPEN.  There is no reason for it.  You wrote all this stuff!  You did all this work!  Let your players see it experience it.

You don't have to be a charlatan or a rock star to practice The Bay Method.  It just takes an acknowledgement that you're heading into a con as part of the entertainment.  You're on the con's set list!  There's mad props and great pride to take in that.

Like him or not, Bay takes the two or three hours we give him and makes sure we remember and talk about what he shows us.  At a con/event game that's your job too!  Learn it well and the con circuit becomes your oyster