The more conventions I attend the harder it is to decide how to allocate my limited time among the many amazing people that I want to play with and exciting games I want to try. I typically sign up for convention games months in advance, and I tend to forget what I signed up for until I pick up my tickets. However, each one had something special in the description that put it on the top of my list.
At its core, the art of writing a convention game description is all about establishing expectations. They say brevity is the soul of wit, but it is also a necessity when it comes to writing convention descriptions where the word (or even character) count is extremely limited.
Why it Matters
For example; I love the Warhammer 40,000 setting, but there are lots of games one can play in 40k. I gravitate towards intense political intrigue games filled with treachery and social manipulation. Other people may gravitate towards playing a game rooted in tactical combat. Those and other options are available in a Warhammer 40,000 game, hence a convention game description focusing simply on the setting or rules system is not inherently descriptive of the style of play. That’s why writing a convention description is so important.
One of the easiest and quickest ways to convey the expectation and tone of the game is through keywords, key phrases, or tags in the description. While I typically begin the convention description with 1-2 sentences that are descriptive of the goal or mission the characters will undertake, the keywords are the meat of the convention description.
I use keywords to convey not only the type of game I want to run, but also the style of players I think will thrive in a session I am running. The trick to an exceptional convention game is not about having the best plot, it is about having players that will respond to and embrace the experience the session provides. In short, the purpose of the convention description it to attract people who will have the most enjoyment, satisfaction, and fun during the game session.
Here are some examples of keywords and phrases that I have used.
- The core experience: Roleplay heavy, rules light. Tactical combat. Puzzle game. Learn to play.
- Tone of the game: Dark Fantasy, Horror, Pulp Adventure, Sci Fi, Four Color Superheroes, Space Opera.
- System and Setting: Warhammer 40,000 RPG Wrath & Glory/Dark Imperium, Savage Worlds Deluxe/Deadlands Noir, AD&D 2nd Edition/Dragonlance, Gumshoe/Harlem Unbound etc.
- Player familiarity: Rules taught/characters provided, beginners welcome. System experience preferred. System expertise required.
- Maturity of the players: All ages welcome, teen 13+, mature players 18+
- Important callouts: Play with the designer! Role Playing or creative writing experience preferred. Organized play/bring a character level 4-6. Emotionally intense/heavy subject matter.
It is most important to relay the core experience, but after that prioritize the keyword categories that are most descriptive of what you are trying to communicate. Skip any categories that aren’t useful to you or your specific game event.
For example, if your game is like Whose Line Is It Anyway where everything is made up and the points don’t matter, it may not be meaningful to spend your valuable word count on describing the rules system or setting. Ask yourself what kind of signals your are sending when you highlight certain features of your game and who will focus on those signals. If the game session uses a popular rules system like Pathfinder but your game won’t be the typical Pathfinder experience I don’t think it is helpful to call out the system. There are people who are going to see that system and sign up immediately regardless of what else the description might say, and that does not set the player or the GM up for success.
Establishing Appropriate Expectations
For me, the mark of a good convention game is much like an end of year review; did the game meet or exceed my expectations? Perhaps it’s my analytical nature, but a significant amount of my “fun” relates to whether or not the game facilitator clearly defined what the game’s core experience will be and whether or not they deliver on that promise.
I think this is true of nearly every form of entertainment and media. When a movie trailer sets my expectations, they have set the bar they must overcome for me to fully enjoy it. When advertisements or word of mouth recommendations oversell or misalign my expectations to what the core experience is, I often feel dissatisfied. When a facilitator sets expectations and delivers on them the players are more likely to feel the “payoff” when the story arc is completed. (Give the people what they want!)
The Bait and Switch
Don’t do this.
A convention description is a promise to the players about the experience they are buying (reminder: conventions aren’t free). Players have allocated their very limited time to play in a game as advertised. Especially when referencing a specific intellectual property setting or world, know that you will likely attract fans of that setting and they expect you to deliver. If a player starts out disappointed the GM is going to have a much harder time keeping engaged and having fun. If the game you intend to “switch” to is so good, then use that as the advertised game! Simple.
Introduction at the Event
This is your opportunity to remind players exactly what they signed up for. When the event starts, give an introduction that re-establishes the goal for the session. There are only a few hours to play, so aligning the group’s expectations up front will make the event run more smoothly.
First, I give a brief description wherein I may even read the convention description blurb to the players verbatim. I’ll include the system, the tone, content warnings, and review the safety tools we’ll use in the session.
Additionally, I set the players expectations about the purpose of the game. When I run a Protocol RPG I tell my players that we’re here to have fun and collaboratively tell a story. I specifically call out that there are no dice, no stats, and that “Winning is telling a great story.” In these games I facilitate the rules, but the system is there to support the core experience: the story.
This is in contrast to my purpose while running Wrath & Glory at conventions this summer. I want everyone to have a fun and satisfying roleplaying experience, but as a game designer and GM the story is there to support the core experience: learning the system. Since Wrath & Glory is brand new, my goal is to showcase the game system and teach the players the rules. Hence, my introduction focuses on setting a time expectation for learning the rules before we get into roleplaying.
These are two very different goals. By reiterating the core experience to the players up front I’m setting myself up for success. Since these goals tie back to the convention description this should seem familiar to the players and should help them to remember that this is the experience they signed up for.
When certain features are important to the game experience prioritize and highlight those in the convention description. Make it clear what the core experience of the game is and it will help to attract the players who will enjoy your game the most. Finally, follow it up during the introduction to the session to ensure you are setting the players expectations about the experience they signed up for.
What features are most important to you when writing or reading convention game descriptions? Do you have any other helpful tools for creating convention descriptions? What are other pitfalls you have encountered?