Con season is upon us. Gamedays and big conventions like Origins and Gen Con fill the Summer calendar, including one not too far from the secret temple of the Illuminerdy. As I sat down to write this post, I was planning to address how to write and run a top-shelf one shot, a sort of companion piece to the great article last week from our own d20Blonde.
But then I remembered that the amazing Kevin Kulp (whose name might be familiar to you because he is an admin on ENworld and the author of a number of awesome RPG products) had already given the Internet better advice than I could write way back in 2006. That bastard.
So instead, I’m going to write about what happens when you or your players don’t follow Kevin’s advice: when things go irrevocably, horribly awry.
The Best Laid Plans…
Providing a good, quick description of your characters appearance and personality is an essential shortcut in most con games, particularly because your players are unlikely to have months or years of campaign play to develop an understanding of what really makes them tick. The flip side of this lack of familiarity is that you don’t necessarily need to worry about a lot of character development over the course of a 4 or 5 hour game. In fact, con games are the ideal situation for handing your players well-established characters (maybe even shamelessly stolen from popular culture), with the idea here being that they shouldn’t have to spend a lot of time figuring out what their character is really “all about.”
So a few years ago I had the brilliant idea to run a game (first in d20 Modern, and later in Mutants and Masterminds), in which all of the characters were 80’s TV characters (“The League of Extraordinary 80’s TV Stars”), including MacGyver, Michael Knight, TJ Hooker, Ben Matlock, Magnum PI, and Remington Steele. The game had been received well at a couple of local gamedays by the time I ran it at Gen Con, and so I thought I had a reasonable sense of what the major pitfalls would be. I was wrong.
As the players gathered around the table, people were mostly pretty congenial about who they were going to play, there were a few quick trades to ensure that people ended up with a character that they were familar with, but as we got close to the “start” time it became clear that we were a player short. After all the trades, no one had chosen Matlock, so I set him aside in case the absent player showed up late.
The game got off to a good start with a brief action scene, with the player who ended up with Macgyver really standing out. He narrated his own actions every turn in the style of the show’s inner-monologue voice over, setting what I still consider to be the gold standard for con game performances.
But then the late player showed up. He sat down, breathless, and complained that he had had trouble finding the table. He wanted to play Macgyver. I told him that I was sorry, but another players had already chosen Macgyver. But hey, Matlock was still available. If he wanted to grab the character sheet, I’d fit him in right away.
“Uh,” he said, “I don’t know who Matlock is.”
“So you read the description of the game, right?” I asked, starting to get concerned.
“Yeah, but I didn’t really read anything after ‘Macgyver’.”
“Well you knew that not everybody was going to play Macgyver, right?”
“I guess so,” he said, looking a little uncertain.
I gave him a quick run down of who Matlock was and what he was good at, and handed him the sheet, which also had a brief description of Matlock’s personality and a few relevant hooks into the adventure.
“Are we good?” I asked as he glanced over the sheet.
“Sure,” he said.
Matlock: Axe Murderer
We got back to the game, and quickly moved to an action scene in which the PCs sneaked (or fought) their way past ninja-esque masked thugs to get a key clue in an office building. In previous iterations of the same adventure, the more action-oriented characters had tried to handle the fighting while the more investigatively inclined characters gathered clues. This crew lept into action following a similar script…until I got to Matlock, of course.
“OK,” I said. “What are you doing?”
“I don’t know,” he complained. “I don’t even have a gun or a knife or anything!”
“Yeah, those aren’t really Matlock’s thing. He’s good at lots of other stuff, though. For example, he’s pretty good at picking up on stuff that other people miss. He might be able to help you all figure out where to go next.”
“OK….uh…so we’re in an office building. Is there a fire axe or something along the wall?”
“Sure. Looks pretty normal, though. Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“That’s alright. I go get the axe, and then scream and charge at the thugs. I want to cut that guy’s face off!”
The key take-away here is that you can’t guarantee buy in, even when you’re dealing with well-established personalities. You can craft your game description with infinite care, try to help people pick characters they’re familiar with, and even provide helpful (if railroady) suggestions along the way to try to make sure everybody has a chance to shine. But sometimes, the guy (or gal) on the other side of the screen Just. Doesn’t. Get. It. When that happens, you’ve got to be ready to manage things as the game goes off the rails, or try to manage (or eject) a problem player.
But there’s other, better places to go for advice on how to fix problems like this. What I really want to hear about are your disaster stories: please, share the horror.