Monday, November 9, 2020

Con Games

I don't have a lot of experience with conventions – I attended Origins once (in 1991) and GenCon once (in 2001), as well as local mini-cons – but, at the urging of a friend, I started attending Gamehole Con in 2017. I enjoyed GHC a lot. A big reason for that is its size. Unlike, say, GenCon, which even when I attended it, had 25,000 attendees (and has only gotten more ridiculously large in the years since), Gamehole Con is what I've called "human sized." By this, I mean it's small enough that you can easily find people you're looking to meet and big enough that you can avoid people you'd rather not spend time with. It's also very well run and I was looking forward to attending it again this year.

Unfortunately, events intervened and the con went virtual this year. That was disappointing, especially as I was planning to referee some Empire of the Petal Throne as part of the Tékumel Track (with events relating to the setting being run during every slot of the con). But, as someone who's refereed an EPT campaign online since March 2015, I figured I was probably well prepared to make the transition to virtual – and I was. I had no trouble whatsoever on the technical side of things. What I don't think I was prepared for were the peculiarities of convention RPG events and these peculiarities have got me thinking.

My first event was entitled "The Tower of Ruvádis." Its frame was that all the pre-generated player characters were barbarians "fresh off the boat" from the Southern Continent, seeking fame, fortune, and, most importantly, Tsolyáni citizenship in the Foreigners' Quarter of the great port city of Jakálla. The characters are approached by a noblewoman who wishes to hire them to sneak into the tower of the sorcerer Ruvádis to retrieve an item she claims he illicitly took from her clan. In exchange for their help in getting the item back – a golden statuette of the goddess of Avánthe – she would use her clan's influence with the Palace of the Realm to expedite their applications for citizenship. So far, so good.

The interior of the tower was strange, defying the laws of space. Some rooms were far larger than they should have been, given what the tower looked like from the outside. Stranger still, doors were non-contiguous and led those who passed through them all over the tower's interior, making it hard to keep track of where one was. I was very impressed with this conception, but, as it turned out, I think it contributed to some confusion among the players, who frequently seemed as if they were baffled as to where to go. Matters weren't helped, I think, when the character of the most vocal and active player was rendered unconscious and near-death, which only discombobulated the remaining players more. In the end, I think they still managed to enjoy themselves, but, looking back on it, I don't think it was as successful a session as I would have liked.

The second event was entitled "Stop! Tomb Police!" Its frame was that the characters were all members of the Open Sepulchre clan of Sokátis, as well as members of the military force that patrols and protects the city's vast necropolis. The characters were preparing for their first ever night watch of the city's tombs and mausoleums and almost immediately discovered strange happenings in the necropolis, culminating in the discovery of tomb robbery that was in fact a cover for the smuggling of the deadly drug Zu'úr. 

This session went extremely well, I think. I can think of two reasons why. Firstly, it wasn't a dungeon crawl but rather a structured mission, with clear objectives for the characters. Secondly, it was much more roleplaying heavy. As the characters patrolled the City of the Dead, they ran into all sorts of characters and saw all sorts of interesting sights. This gave the players more opportunities to interact with the setting than in "The Tower of Ruvádis." More players took an active role and this made the whole session move briskly. There were far fewer moments when I had to coax the players into action, in order to keep the session going. At one point, a player even commented that the session made him want to start up his own EPT campaign, which is exactly what I like hearing.

I enjoyed refereeing both sessions and will definitely run more events at Gamehole Con in future years (in person next time, I hope). I learned a lot from my experiences and will tailor future events in accordance with what I've learned. For instance, I now understand much better that I have to design scenarios for convention play somewhat differently than I would for my regular groups of players. Playing at a con is a different type of activity from playing at home and I need to be more cognizant of that fact. I now find myself pondering more about the history of the hobby, particularly the history of Dungeons & Dragons and the ways that convention play has affected its development. 

1 comment:

  1. It’s funny, because the first game sounds more structured from your description, which is what I want in a convention game. It’s hard to be proactive sometimes if you’re 1) new to a game, 2) new to a GM, or 3) there are too many options.