Con-struction: How I write Convention scenarios

by Nancy Schultz

For more than a dozen years, I've run games at Gen-Con and a few small conventions in the Greater Chicago area, and I tend to come away with more praise than grumbles, which does wonders for my ego. The downside is that I end up deciding to come back, even promising, and then when the time comes, I find myself wracking my brain for convention-worthy scenarios that never match up to whatever I gave to the convention booklet, usually because I have to hand over my event teasers for the convention some 3+ months before said convention. With 2005 being my last Gen-Con for a while, I thought I would talk about how I write my convention games, and why I think they tend to work better than some others.

Early Preparation

So, it's some time in mid January. Event Registration notices start to go up on the Gen Con website. At this time, I realize I need to hunt through my computer directories to figure out where I put my early notes from the end of last year's Gen Con, so that I can use them to write up my events for this year. Upon finding them, I also find that I have no clue what I was thinking of for at least two of the proposed games I noted down back in August, so those notes have to go. The next week or two are spent trying to come up with scenarios that are self-contained and simple enough to run in just three hours, and then coming up with a teaser paragraph that actually sounds interesting and like a game I'd want to play.

Why use a game I'd like to play as my criteria? Because a con game is really made or broken by the players, so I want to attract people who want to play the sort of game I want to run. Using my own opinion of the blurb usually works well to determine that.

Once the teasers are written, I figure out what sort of GMing schedule I want to do. As I tend to do costumes, I like to group my games by costuming. I also try to either have a lot of downtime between the games or, if I'm running them back to back, run all the same system to reduce the weight of books I'm carrying.

Teasers and schedule decided on, I forward the information to the appropriate person (in the case of my Gen-Con events, the Event Coordinator for Fantasy Aspirations) and don't think much about the events again (except when the inevitable problems crop up) until sometime in May.

Writing the Scenario

About now, I'm feeling guilty that I haven't done anything on my events, so I again visit my notes file to see what I sent to the Con, and then start working to expand (or even construct) an event that is in keeping with the teaser I sent in. In five months, my thoughts on what will and won't work can change a lot.

Regardless of the actual details of the scenario, the best structure I have found for a convention event is:
  • Scripted Scene
    I always script the first scene. Literally. I write up a 1-4 page script that we read at the start of the game once characters have been chosen and initial questions asked. This introduces the scenario, gives people a running start on playing their characters, and has the characters taking the initial hook. While a good 90% of convention attendees will take a "hook" as presented at a convention game, the other 10% will either be obtuse or contrary. This scripted scene at least takes care of the obtuse ones. The Contrary ones will be a problem no matter what you do.

  • Small Combat
    The next scene is a brief combat intended to further draw the characters into the scenario. It also gives everyone a chance to get used to the mechanics of the system and their particular characters. The other advantage is that it gives me a chance to see what sort of tactics each of the players is going to use.

  • The Adventure
    Now I get into the actual adventure. Depending on the nature of the game, this may be primarily role-play, or it may be a lot of investigation, or it may be a little bit of investigation and Role-play with another combat sandwiched in between. This section has no actual formula, as it has to be determined by the nature and needs of the scenario, and it also needs to be flexible enough to adjust to what the players do, because given the options of "A," "B," or "C," 75% of the time the players will choose "pi." This only goes down to 50% when dealing with a Convention Game. Whatever their choices, the Adventure should lead them to

  • The Combat Finale
    This is the big combat, where the characters confront the villain of the scenario, as many of his henchmen as have survived and can logically be there, and hoards of goons. Or whatever sort of combat is appropriate for the final scene. If the characters include a definite "Hero," and if the player has done his job, then you need other villainous characters, of the henchman and good variety, to keep the other characters occupied. If it's a clear team, then a team of villains is still the best way to go, unless they're up against a mega-opponent, such as a Dragon.

  • Post-Script
    It's a good idea to have a post-script or epilogue in mind, should the adventure end early, or even if it doesn't but you don't have anything really pressing afterwards. People frequently want to know "what happens next" and an epilogue is a good way to answer that. It doesn't have to be anything super detailed, just "and the wedding goes off as planned" or what have you. But it's a reward for a game well played.

The Characters

Probably the most time consuming part of writing a convention game, for me, is writing up the characters. The stats usually don't take too long, at least for the initial spread. But the people playing these characters need more than just numbers. They need to know who they're playing, and they need to know why their character is where they are, and why they're participating in the scenario. This includes any connections to the NPC's and other PC's. If there's time, I also like to include a one to two line opinion of each of the other characters.

My "party" make-up for convention games consists of:
  • One or two really strong characters that are usually there for the ride. They may be connected to the plot, but usually not invested in it. These characters usually have skills not covered by the other concepts, or else are combat characters.
  • Two or three with direct connections to the plot. These characters are usually not as strong as the "strong" characters, but usually are designed to be the Hero(s)
  • One or two characters (bringing my total to six) that have some sort of sub-plot, at least within the context of the main plot, and sometimes within the party as well. These are the ex-lovers of the henchmen, or an important contact, or whatever.
  • Two "Throw away" characters. These are characters that are connected to the group, but are not necessary for plot or skills. These can be alternate "strong" characters, or very poorly developed "weak" characters, but they're usually characters whose absence I don't regret.

Of course, what makes the characters really shine is based on who plays them, and I've seen weak characters steal the spotlight and rule the game, and I've seen great characters absolutely destroyed by a poor player. But an effort still needs to be made to present as much as possible to the player so that the character they play at least begins to look like the character you wrote.

Smoke and Mirrors

If, by some miracle, I'm not still trying to crack out character sheets on the weekend before Gen-Con, I like to do some maps and even figures (thanks to Pro Fantasy's Character Artist) and maybe other props that are appropriate to the scenario. Sometimes I'll work on these while I'm working on the scenarios to break things up, or to get a visual for a scene or a character. These sorts of little touches, while not needed, are remembered and remembered fondly, because it's all part of presentation.

If possible, I also try to set up little name tents, and once or twice even with the character picture on it (useful for when there's a bit of cross-gender roleplaying going on), and I always try to put each character in its own folder (color coded by game) with a copy of the script.

The last touch is a Dramatis Personae List for the game, so that people can have an informed choice of what characters are available. In some years I've also done a banner, but that's a waste of paper, and now that they don't do individual cubicles for the games, it's also not that necessary.

So, that's it. How I create games for Conventions. I'd give the formula for running games, but that's so variable, and so dependant on characters that I don't think I can really cover that, even in it's own article. Besides, you want to have your own style and flavor for running games. It's what will have people coming back for more.

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