In my last post, I mentioned that I think I need to find a system for running a convention game. I still really like Savage Worlds, but after actually running encounters in the system, I think there are just to many little ‘gotchas’ that will make the game harder to teach to a set of near strangers. I’m still toying with the idea of using Savage Worlds – it could be possible to strip down the rules to bare essentials and ignore some of the really detailed rules; but overall, I don’t want to have to stop the game every 5 minutes to explain something – especially for a game with a limited amount of time.
I also have been listening to the Wizards of the Coast podcast – specifically, I’ve been catching up on the Robot Chicken writers/editors/people playing a D&D 4th ed. game. There are about 25 video episodes, with 4 extra DM commentary episodes. Having listened to the PvP and Penny Arcade sessions, I greatly appreciated that were videos so I could actually see the encounters. I found the adventure to be interesting and the players and DM were funny. However, watching these episodes (and listening to the others) made me realize that 4th ed. is a pretty good convention game. This realization, along with my experience with Savage Worlds, lead me to think about what I would require from a system if I were to use it in a convention game. It’s different than what I might normally like in a system, so I thought it would be a good topic to discuss here.
Simple and Clear Rules: This one seems obvious, but I think it’s important to point out. For me, convention games should be about playing the game, not learning a new system. In order for this to be true, the system then either needs to be known by all of the players or needs to be very easy to learn fast. Since the first condition is rarely going to be met (except maybe for systems with a large user-base, like D&D), the latter needs to be kept in mind.
For example, in the DM commentary I mentioned above, Chris (the DM) says that only one of the players had actually played 4th ed. and only one other had D&D experience at all (I believe he said the other player had 3.5 experience). He also points out that he just started the adventure – he didn’t go over any rules about encounters or skills. He only told the players about using a d20 for skill roles once a skill would be useful, and he didn’t even explain the concept of Standard/Move/Minor actions until the players were actually in an encounter. Did this cause a slow down in game play? – maybe a bit, especially in the first encounter. And in some instances, it was clear that the players were missing rules information that affected their actions (I noticed a lot of basic attacks were made instead of at-wills). However, the game was still functional and the players seemed to have fun.
The power and action structure of 4th ed. are very simple: you can perform one of each action type in a round and your powers state what kind of action they are. This makes the system very easy to just pickup and play – there is not much explanation needed beyond that. Also, more complicated actions were never introduced unless the players asked. Running, cover, and even charging were not explained. They didn’t need to be, because the players didn’t use them.
So, for a convention game, I think the same principle should be able to be applied to the system that is used. Players will want to know how to attack and how to move – the system should be able to describe how to do those actions (plus maybe the top two or three other actions in encounters) in about a sentence or two – Perhaps they could be printed at the top of the players’ character sheets for reference. The GM should then just provide rules for specific instances when his players ask about it, or if those rules are too complicated, eliminate them.
Yes, I said eliminate some rules – change the system itself. I know that RG is not found of house ruling a system to make it work, and I’m not either. However, I am not advocating hacking up the main rules of the system – I mean eliminate the complicated details that make the game more ‘realistic’. Having a flat penalty for all cover or obstacles is not going to make game play less fun, but it will decrease the amount of book keeping needed – which is always a plus in a convention game.
Few, or No House Rules: This goes with the above and is probably self-explanatory, but I think it’s important to point out. In general, adding house rules to a system complicate the game. They change the basic understanding that each player has about the game; house rules are not in the game’s published books and they have to rely on the GM to keep them consistent. For your group of regular players – friends that hang out every week and know each other outside of the game table – this is not a problem. However, convention games are usually played among a group of strangers – they’re only shared language is the system’s vanilla rules.
Perhaps this is more of a problem with systems that are more popular and more likely to be known by all of the players (if no one knows the system, how will they be able to tell if it’s a house rule or not). I have declined to play in games of 4th ed. where the GM has decided to house rule how encounters are played, like changes to how action points work and how monster levels work. It’s quite possible that these changes would have been agreeable and fun to play – however, I did not want to spend time learning the ‘new’ system. Especially in short run games (like convention games or one shots), [most] players want to get to the action – not have to navigate the balance between the default system rules and the GM’s house rules.
GM controlled: This one is probably more a personal preference than anything else, but I do think it’s important for the control of a convention game to be mostly in the hands of the GM. I mean this in multiple ways: the mechanics of the game should be GM controlled; the plot should be mainly GM controlled; and, all final decisions should be GM controlled.
Convention games by their very nature are limiting – you have a limited amount of time to play, limited game play and story options, and limited choice about who are the players in the game. So, it seems strange to want even more control enforced on something that is already so limiting. However, because of all of the limits already on your game, as the GM, you have very little wiggle room when the unexpected happens. If the players go to a town that the GM was not expecting, he does not have time to create a new town, NPC’s, encounters, etc. like he might if it was a normal campaign. If something runs long (discussion on rules, character in-fighting, whatever), the GM can’t push anything back to the next session – there is no next session. The story has to have a beginning, middle, and end – there no time (and most likely little interest) in a ‘To Be Continued’ game.
Because of the limits put upon the GM, the GM in turn needs to have the most control over the game. That means story-wise, the GM might need to railroad, enforce time limits, or go light on the roleplaying. And mechanically, it means the GM needs to pick out a system that will not be slowed down due to players taking over the flow of game play. It also means the GM needs to have the final say on any rules discussion – he needs to decide the outcome quickly, be correct (or at least consistent), and move on.
For me, I think those would be the major things I would be looking for in a system. Other things like, do I actually enjoy the system and does the system work for the kind of game I’m running would also be important. Any other suggestions on what I should look out for? Any system suggestions? Have any convention horror stories?