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The Douchey DM » Adventure Design, Advice » Convention Game Design

Convention Game Design

We had an entire weekend of convention games at Orccon 2011, and there were lots of lessons learned. I’d like to detail the games I ran, what worked, what didn’t and how I’m going to approach the games I’m designing for Gamex 2011.

I’ve identified four things to keep in mind when designing a good con game.

  1. Characters
  2. Goals
  3. Time
  4. Playing with Expectations

1. Characters

No need to re-invent the wheel here. Check out Christopher Paul’s excellent paper on convention game character design, where in he describes how you pre-generated characters are THE most important aspect of a good con game.

To summarize, Chris states that the most important part of a con game is the characters, and as such, they should be well-fleshed-out and fun to play.

During the two games I ran at Orccon 2011, I think I hit the mark with one of the games (Big Blue Monkeys From Outer Space — Hero System Pulp) but missed it with the other (GURPS Fantasy). The GURPS characters weren’t by any means what I would consider to be “complete” characters — I spent most of their points on skills that I felt would be applicable during the course of the adventure.

In some ways, I might have been railroading the adventure by limiting the characters’ skills.

In Big Blue Monkeys, I definitely spent more time and effort on the pre-generated characters, and it showed. In both games the characters had back stories, personality-defining disadvantages, etc. But the BBMFOS characters had built-in relationships, rivalries and conflicts.

I did build in possibilities for interactions and conflicts between the PCs in the GUPRS game, but I forgot one very important step.

I generally get few experienced GURPS players at convention games, and knowing that, I’ve meant to give them a spiel about characterization in GURPS. That is, in most cases your disadvantages define your character far more than your skills and advantages. In the future, I will make a point of giving that spiel before the game begins. If the players don’t know to look at their disads, they really don’t know the character.

2. Goals

It has been my experience that parties in con games tend to be very goal-oriented. If they can identify a plot hook or clue, they will follow it with dogged tenacity.

Perhaps as a self-fulfilling prophecy, players often expect there to be clear goals and a well-defined story path.

3. Time

Under nearly all circumstances, con games have a time limit, and GMs should be conscious of the time as they design and run their games. While it is possible to have a fun time in an RPG without final plot resolution, having the plot tied up at the end makes for a more satisfying experience.

As I’ve stated before, if you organize your scenario into “scenes,” it’s easier to have your game come under time. A scene can be anything from a combat encounter to an interview with a crime witness. As a rule of thumb, most scenes take between 45 to 60 minutes.

Real-Life Example: Big Blue Monkeys

by Michael Elliott

Big Blue Monkeys had five scenes:

Scene One: Introduction and briefing by Dr. Geistverbiegen and General Ripper. In this scene, the NPCs lay out the mission parameters, and the party is allowed to ask questions and make any preparations before they depart.

Scene Two: Captain Bartleby attacks. In this scene, the party approaches a ship in distress (it’s actually a pirate ambush). In the scene, the party can discover that the pirates have been transporting some strange technology to the Titan banana plantation. Additionally, they can discover that Dr. Geistverbiegen has given the pirates the party’s travel route.

Scene Three: Arrival at Titan and attack of the Big Blue Monkey. In this scene, the party finally sees one of the Big Blue Monkeys (and gets to fight it). After the fight, they can interview the last remaining plantation workers and piece together what’s happening.

Scene Four: At the workers’ barracks. In this scene, the party will discover that the plantation owner is likely responsible for the current troubles. Also, if necessary, another fight with the big blue monkey can occur (in the actual game, this wasn’t necessary).

Scene Five: At Big Daddy Starbucks secret base. In this scene, the party discovers that the plantation owner is indeed responsible for the current troubles. This is also the major fight in the game, and in the end they can interrogate Big Daddy and unravel the rest of the mystery.

These five scenes made up the major plot points of the scenario. In the play test, the game came in just over four hours. At the convention, it came it at 3 hours 45 minutes.

If left with no clear path, parties will usually begin discussing or arguing various options. They may start to fill in the gaps in their body of clues to figure out a path. Clearly, this is part of the game, but the GM should keep an eye on the clock to make sure one scene doesn’t eat up too much of the game.

Additionally, if you have a scene where the party can discover several clues, make sure the most obvious clues are discovered last. That is, obvious clues point the party in certain directions. as I’ve stated earlier, most convention parties tend to follow clues with dogged determination. Once they have a clue that leads somewhere, most con parties are going there. If these obvious clues are dropped too soon, the party won’t be there to look for other clues that may be of use later on.

In my next post, I’ll talk about #4 Playing With Expectations.


Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

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One Response to "Convention Game Design"

  1. John DNo Gravatar says:

    Looking forward to your post covering #4 Playing with Expectations!

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