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Gateway 2012 Lessons Learned

The last Strategicon convention of 2012 is now history. As I often like to do, I’m now thinking about those games — what went right and what didn’t and what can I improve for the next con.

Generally Speaking

I ran two games this time around, and both were in GURPS. One was a 1920s cosmic horror game (a la Call of Cthulhu) and the other was a murder mystery in a fantasy setting (I used the same setting I’m using for my Google+ campaign).

The first thing I noticed is that a lot of game get run on Saturday (9am and 2pm) slots and much fewer on Friday nights (8pm) or on Sunday. Much of this has to do with the popularity of the Saturday time slots. You don’t have to rush to prep a Friday night game, and you get to run it in time to talk about it on the Saturday night podcast (this is only a issue for show-related GMs).

My games were in the 9am and 2pm Saturday slots, and I think for future conventions, I’m going to run one of my games in the Friday 8pm slot. I’d talked about this slot with several GMs who’ve run games then, and they said the players (even people known to be good, proactive players) tend to be pretty passive and reactive. The consensus was that this has to do with having to suffer through our infamous Friday afternoon rush hour traffic. In the words of one person I talked to a few cons ago, “After I fight my way through Friday night rush hour traffic — by the airport, no less — all I want to do is kill shit.”

So for the next con, I think I’ll run a hack-n-slash fantasy adventure that’s high on killing and low on thinking. Also, when my schedule permits, I’ll run my other game in a Sunday slot. I tried to sign up for a 2pm game, and there weren’t very many, and all the sign up sheets were full.

The Incident at Glace Bay

System: GURPS 4th Edition
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Lesson: This was a shining example of the value of play testing.
The setup: the party is a group of friends, colleagues and acquaintances of a retired Miskatonic University professor who went missing in the wilderness around Glace Bay in Nova Scotia. They were summoned there by the professor’s eldest daughter to help find her father, who the authorities have now given up on as dead. In reality, the professor was taken by a Creature who he mistakenly woke when he went digging in an abandoned archaeological dig site.

I built this adventure around the “if you try to face this thing head-on, you will all die” philosophy of adventure design. I had in my head a few ways the party could “put the Thing back” in the ground and solve the problem and live. The party even came up with their own theory that I would have allowed to work, had it come to fruition.

But about the play testing: at one point during the play test session two of the players told me (paraphrasing), “if this wasn’t a play test, there’s no way my character would stick around,” essentially telling me they were metagaming for the sake of the play test.

Well, in the actual game, the entire party (for different reasons) decided to get out of town. I thwarted their first attempt with an example of the Creature’s strength (their train had to make an emergency stop as the rail ties were twisted like pretzels). I wouldn’t have considered what to do when the party decided to rabbit without the feedback from the play test.

In the end, the party believed they had reburied the idol they believed to be the cause of all their troubles and high tailed it out of town. Unfortunately, two of the characters were actually antiquities thieves and they left town with the idol in the trunk of their “borrowed” car.

As they drove out of town, the entire citizenry was standing facing the East, watching the sunrise. This was disconcerting to the party because they found one of the main NPCs doing the same thing as they were preparing to leave. It was the professor’s daughter, and she had gouged her eyes out and was standing on a hill, watching the sunrise to the East.

I would definitely like to run a sequel to this adventure, with a different cast of characters, who come to Glace Bay to figure out why no one has heard from anyone there in months, and why the coal shipments have stopped. The game would start with interviews with the previous PCs, maybe some of their suicide letters, etc.

An Unexpected Package

System: GUPRS 4th Edition
Genre: Fantasy (low powered), murder mystery.
Lesson: GURPS combat is not always fast!
The Setup:  The party, all employees or retainers of a local lord, find themselves in the role of investigators, as their lord has been appointed High Inquisitor to solve the mystery of a murdered wealthy merchant. In reality, the merchant was shipping weapons for the city guard. The captain of the guard was skimming funds for items that weren’t showing up. The merchant discovered the discrepancy and began making a big stink (thinking someone was either stealing from the shipments) and the captain of the guard had him silenced.

The investigation for  this adventure was pretty straight forward. There were plenty of clues the party could use to figure out who was likely behind the merchant’s demise. It was a matter of connecting the dots between the cause of death and the captain of the guard.

The adventure culminated in a close-quarters combat in a closed inn, where several swordsmen were guarding the assassin who took out the merchant. It was a nightmare combat scenario for the party, narrow hallways, lots of doors, no way to get past each other and lots of skilled swordsmen. Because the skill levels were relatively high, and GURPS uses parry rolls based on those high skill levels, there was lots of trading attacks and parries without any damage being dealt. I would guess the combat took 60-90 minutes of our 4-hour slot.  This was a well-balanced encounter, and it showed. A couple members of the party got hurt pretty bad, and in the end, they resorted to fast-talking one of the remaining swordsmen to end the combat without more bloodshed.

I don’t like long combats. And a few things contributed to the length of the combat:

  • Being well balanced, it was hard for both sides to land a blow and do damage.
  • The mage (who was the BIG damage dealer) had spent most of her fatigue with a big fireball just outside the inn and several spells to shield and armor the PCs taking point, so no big damage-dealing spells once inside (not enough fatigue).
  • The BIG melee damage dealer (a two-handed swordsman with a 16 strength) wasn’t selected for the game. There were 7 characters and six slots.
  • The constrictive nature of the inn made it difficult for combatants to gang up on one another. PCs spent a lot of time getting out of each others’  way (or not getting out of each others’ way).
I think in the future I will have either a well-balanced combat OR a combat with a nightmare location. Mixing the two just took a long time to resolve. I’ll also make a few more optional characters who can deal serious damage.


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 "Gateway 2012 Lessons Learned"

  1. RobertNo Gravatar says:

    I had a lot of fun with your fantasy adventure. Even though the character I chose wasn’t exactly the best in a detective scenario I found that you had enough plot hooks that I never felt like the guy just blindly following the group.

    The fight I also felt was a great deal of fun, initially I was worried about all the choke points and PC pile up, but you as the GM allowed for some creative thinking. I did feel sorry for the mage and priestess in our group though since all of the melee classes were blocking the doorways.

    Hopefully I get the chance to play in some of your games again as I would love to see how you start to refine the adventures.


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