Choosing a System: Convention Games

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?


6 responses

  1. Well, for a system that people can learn the basis of in no time, I recommend Warhammer Fantasy Role Play (2nd Ed, or maybe 1st if you can find it. Dear god, not 3rd.)

    The characters are not hard to understand. If you use 2nd Ed’s default character sheets, there’s even a list of every type of action you can take on the sheet (as an aside, I recommend having such a list for convention games). The system is percentile, so you only need d10s to play, and people instantly know what they need to roll to do things (To hit that zombie, roll d100 and get =or< your Weapon Skill.).

    2nd Ed is out of print now, but I think Morrison has all the relevant books. If he doesn't, I have just about every non-setting book and you're welcome to borrow them.

    In a similar vein, Dark Heresy is built off of the same system as WFRP 2nd Ed and has a lot of the same mechanics, but refined a bit. If you decide to use DH, don't give any PCs flamers, for your sanity. Other than that, it's a decent and uncomplicated system.

  2. Good points all, and I know that my wife never liked D&D3.x because the rules were (and still are) such a pig. She really jumped into 4ed though, and as you point out, the rules are very simple and quick to explain.

    I think D&D has long been the “Lingua Franca” of gaming – it may not be the best game out there, but it is one everyone knows at least the basics of, and so, for a pick up game, or a convention game, there will always be an audience.

  3. I’ve had luck with running a Hunter: The Vigil game at cons. nWoD Storyteller is a really simple base system and Hunter doesn’t add any supernatural stuff you need know about so there’s not much you need to teach. If you want to run a more modern game instead of fantasy, that’s my game suggestion. I also offer my Hunter and WoD books as reading material, if you want.

    Still, you should run what you think would be fun. If you want to run Savage Worlds, you should do so and just say that knowledge of the system is required to play. Savage Worlds is not D&D, but it’s also not some obscure storygame from a guy in a basement. There will be people who know it at Madicon, what with it being a gaming convention and all. Convention games should be fun for all involved, gamemaster included. You should not run them out of obligation nor run something you don’t like because it is simpler to do so, you should run them because you want to.

    If you are still worried that the game will be too complex, my final suggestion is to print out a cheat sheet. From my reading of it, Savage Worlds is a pretty traditional game system with a few tweaks. If you write out what the tweaks are, the players should be able to catch on relatively quickly and it won’t interrupt play.

  4. @Paul

    I love the 2nd edition of Warhammer Fantasy. It is, mechanically, one of my favorite games to run. I also think it’s simple enough to use with anyone, anytime.


    Gotta agree with you here too. Savage Worlds can have a lot of complexity, but with con-players who are interested in what they are doing and already committed to gaming for a fun time, I don’t think it will be too complex/difficult for the average player to pick up…

    Heh, “some obscure storygame from a guy in a basement.” This got a chuckle when I read it.

  5. @Paul – I love the Warhammer Fantasy 2nd Ed. system. That was the first system I learned to play on – and I think it was pretty easy. My only concern would be that the system is very tied to its fluff – that’s not a bad thing, but you couldn’t, for example, run a high fantasy, magic-filled game with Warhammer Fantasy because of how punishing magic is. However, I still think it’s something I might consider, if I decide to run a fantasy-based campaign (I’m still totally in love with a Space Pirate Catgirl game 🙂 ).

    @Dominic – I’ve started a 3rd ed. game once, but it unfortunately never got off the ground past character creation. I’ve been a party to major rules discussions (like grappling) and it does seem overwhelming. However, I do like the look of Pathfinder – not for a con game, but it does seem to streamline 3rd ed.

    D&D does seem to be the game that everyone has at least dabbled in. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a non-fantasy equivalent – that’s why I was looking into simple-ruled games since if I ran something other than D&D it would almost be guaranteed that no one would have experience and I was looking into running a sci-fi based game.

    @Callyn – Huh, I hadn’t really considered any WoD systems – I was under the impression that most of the ‘action’ took place off-screen, as it were, and then everyone gathered to discuss it. However, I will be the first to admit that my WoD knowledge is severely lacking (my experience is mostly from the Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines video game – which is excellent, BTW). Madicon might have a lot of people there who have knowledge of the WoD system (since there will be a Cam event and all), so it’s definitely something I’ll have to keep in mind.

    However, I think Savage Worlds is still looking like my most likely candidate. I guess I just need to get to a point with the rules where a player can say “I want to do X” and I can say, “Ok, roll dX” or whatever. But, I guess that’s what most mechanics come down to in the end 🙂 And you’re right, if I’m not having fun, my players probably won’t either.

  6. For non a fantasy rpg, I have always loved Traveller (now available in a pretty good edition from Mongoose).

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