Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Origins 2009 - A GM's Report Card, Pt. 1

I love conventions. They just allow me to revel in a lot of the things about this hobby that I really cherish, namely: Playing new games, meeting new people, and drinking too much Mountain Dew.

The first con I attended was Tol-Con, back in Toledo, and I couldn't tell you what year that was. Tol-Con wasn't the sort of con that attracted people from all around the country. It was presented by Mind Games, my FLGS in Toledo (which I've learned has closed, balls), and took place at the Scott Park Campus of the University of Toledo. I ran Marvel Superheroes there for a group of strangers, and it was there that I first saw someone first take a character that someone else had created and really make it his own. It was also at Tol-Con (though not that year) that I saw how horrible even a game that I loved could become with a careless GM. Pay attention to that note, incidentally, we're going to come back to it.

Tol-Con declined over the years; last time I went, it was just a one-day deal and I forget where it was. I moved around, I wound up in Cleveland, and I realized, hey, I have some money saved up, I'm not living check to check anymore, maybe we could hit a con this summer? I found MarCon, a convention over Memorial Day weekend in Columbus. Bigger than Tol-Con ever was, but not as big as the "important" industry cons like GenCon or Origins. I went that first year, and I had a great time. Lots of people in a hotel room, some really awesome games, and once again, the lesson driven home that a careless GM can really mess up a good game.

That was May of 2001, and this (2009) was the first year since that I've missed MarCon. Financial issues, nothing more, I'll be back next year. But since that first year, I hit as many cons as my schedule and wallet would allow. I've done the big guys: Origins, GenCon, DragonCon, but I've also hit some smaller ones, like Arisia (which is really more medium-sized than small), Trinoc-Con (where I was a guest of honor, which was amazing) and Con on the Cob. I have my preferences; Origins remains my favorite of the big guys, gitchy registration and all, while I'm finding myself more jazzed about Con on the Cob as the summer progresses on. I've had some great experiences as cons, I've learned a lot about running and playing games, and I've met some of the most important people in my life at these weird gatherings.

It would hard to nail down exactly what aspects of GMing I've taken away from con experiences vs. the ones I've developed from the games I've hosted or run regularly, but I do know that I'm becoming more aware of careless GMing as I attend cons. You'll note that as I was discussing games earlier, I avoided saying that a "bad" GM could screw up a "good" system. Instead, I refer to a careless GM screwing up a game that I like.

As I talk about my Origins 2009 experience, I'm going to spend some time talking about the games I played in, and I'm giving those games a letter grade. I'm not grading the game itself; that's down to taste, and my taste isn't yours. I don't expect you to groove on Promethean: The Created if tales of body horror and humanism aren't your thing, and likewise, don't expect me to whoop for joy if you want me to sit down and play Dungeons and Dragons (any edition, though I might give a Monty Python-esque "yaay!" if it's 4th). But no matter what we're playing, there are some criteria that I think we should be able to agree on, especially for a con game.

For one thing, remember it's a one-shot. You don't get to follow this up. Yes, I know people run multi-part games; I don't get that, maybe it works. But if folks just show up to try a game out, or to experience an old favorite with a new GM, then make sure the plot is something that you can do in three hours of actual play (con games are often scheduled for four hours, but till you get done explaining rules and breaking for food mid-game, you're lucky to get three hours in). A lot of my con games wind up having deeper implications than what's immediately presented, but the plot itself - rescue the princess, kill the bad guy, solve the mystery, whatever - should be resolvable within the time you have.

Likewise, have a plot. Make characters for the game you're running. Don't just pull the pre-gens from the book, throw them at the players, and expect your game to work with any combination thereof (if you can do that, congrats). I typically make characters for my games, and then include six questions, Dread-style, as well as a blurb on that character to help players customize.

Anyway, with all of that in mind, let's get to the specifics! Origins, ho! And yes, there are a few pictures, but not many, because Heather had the camera and she was only there two days.


We (by which I mean Andrea, Michelle, Teagan and Cael) left Wednesday morning and arrived in Columbus that afternoon. Andrea headed to registration; she was volunteering (she pretty much spent the weekend doing that, and apparently had a grand old time with it), and Michelle and I got our badges. Well, Michelle got her badge. I stood in the Special Services line waiting for someone to give me a badge. Finally some nice lady asked if anyone waiting in line had an educator's hall pass badge, which I did (in case you don't know, I'm a speech-language pathologist for an elementary school, so I get into Origins free). I got my badge, and Michelle and the kids and I went up to our hotel room. Cael needed a nap, and the rest of us just wanted to veg after the trip.

I know, nothing too exciting so far. Hang on, I'll get to gaming momentarily here.

Heather, y'see, was on GOBA, and had to wait for her father to get her car back...it's complicated. Anyway, Michelle and I had a 10PM Dread game, which we just barely made. It turned out to be not the game we'd signed up for, but whatever, it's Dread.

Here's the deal on this game, in case you don't feel like clicking the link: It's a horror game in which Jenga is the task resolution mechanic. You make a pull when your character wants to do something, but if you knock over the tower, you're out. Dead, catatonic, arrested, on vacation, whatever. Out of the game. But you never have to make the pull, you can always refuse. Characters are created via a questionnaire, which is a method I've taken to using to help flesh out one-shot and con characters.

An aside, here: If you make pre-gens for a one-shot, you know what you're getting. You know that the characters will have the requisite traits for whatever game you're running, and you don't wind up with a bunch of characters that don't have anything to contribute. Likewise, that enables you to make the game about those characters, and can we all agree that that's really the best situation?

Anyway, the way Dread works pretty much ensures that. The GM has to consider what's on that questionnaire, to work those details into the scenario. Sure, there's a plot to consider, but the real fun of Dread comes from using those characters in that situation. And since the players don't have nifty tricks or numbers to fall back, you pretty much have to roleplay like crazy.

My character, it turns out, was an assassin. Rather than go with the stereotypical cool-as-ice hitman, I decided he was a junkie who had killed one of his dealer's rivals in exchange for free junk, and just kept going from there. He'd kicked his habits, for the most part, but was still hooked on painkillers (and mixed them in with Altoids, which he'd crunch during the game). In the game, our plane crashed and we wound up landing on an island populated by zombies. We only had one fatality - me. I knocked over the tower attempting to move our huge raft toward the water, away from the zombies. But man, by the time I did, that tower must've had 30 pulls, so I don't feel any shame at knocking it down. Anyway, my charater got eaten. Nom.

Thoughts on the game: We started late, which was no one's fault, and so we kind of ran out of time and left off with the zombies chasing the survivors - not exactly great resolution. I think the GM could have made more of an effort to either push us toward the island's interior (where there were apparently some answers) or work toward some other form of resolution. That said, the game was fun, and the GM definitely worked with the details that we gave him about the characters. My grade: B- (but that's only because I've played in some spectacular Dread games, so my bar is pretty high)

That game didn't wind up until after 2AM, so after that, we went the heck to bed.