At its core, the art of writing convention game descriptions for the preregistration website or booklet is all about setting 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.
The more conventions I attend the harder it is to decide how to allocate my limited time among the many wonderful options. I typically sign up for convention games months in advance, so I tend to forget what I signed up for until I pick up my tickets. However, each event I registered to attend had something special in the convention game description that put it on the top of my list.
Why it Matters
Convention descriptions are less about the setting or story that will be told and more about getting the right players to your table. If you have players show up who are a good stylistic fit to the kind of game you run, everyone is more likely have a fun experience.
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. There are many options available in the Warhammer 40,000 setting, hence a convention game description focusing simply on the setting or rules system is not inherently descriptive of the style of play.
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.
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 the game. 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.
Here are the types of keywords and phrases that I focus on from most important to least important:
- The core experience: Role play heavy/rules light. Tactical combat. Puzzle game. Learn to play.
- Setting tone: Dark Fantasy. Horror. Pulp Adventure. Sci Fi. Four Color Superheroes. Space Opera.
- System/setting: Savage Worlds Deluxe/Deadlands Noir. AD&D 2nd Edition/Dragonlance. Gumshoe/Harlem Unbound. Powered by the Apocalypse/Monsterhearts 2.
- Player familiarity: Rules taught/beginners welcome. System experience preferred. System expertise required.
- Maturity of the players: All ages welcome. Teen 13+. Mature players 18+.
- Special callouts: Play with the designer! Role Playing or creative writing experience preferred. Bring a character level 4-6. Emotionally intense/heavy subject matter.
Setting 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? So if you have to pick one message to convey, ensure you know what the core experience will be and put that in the convention description. 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
Here’s a story; years ago a friend signed up for a convention game based on a description because they were a huge fan of the specific pop culture setting that was referenced. That description generated interest and excitement from people in that fandom who registered for the game. However, just minutes into the game the GM revealed an unexpected twist: they cleverly plucked the game from the advertised setting and dropped it into a completely unrelated setting. Even the overarching tone was different, jumping from Exploration Sci Fi to Epic High Fantasy.
Don’t do this.
A convention description is a promise to the players about the experience they are buying (remember: 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, know that you will 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 them engaged and having fun. And one unhappy player can bring down the enthusiasm of the whole table. If the game you intend to “switch” to is that good, advertise that as the game! Simple.
Introduction at the Event
When the event starts, give an introduction that reminds players of the goal for the event. There are only a few hours to play, so aligning the group’s expectations will make the game will run more smoothly.
First, I remind the players the basics of what they signed up for. This is a brief description wherein I may even read the few sentences of the convention description blurb to the players verbatim. I’m sure to include the system, the tone, content warnings, and safety tools at that time as well.
Second, 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 this case 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 the brand new Wrath & Glory system at conventions this summer. I want everyone to have a fun and satisfying roleplaying experience, but the story is there to support the core experience: learning the system. 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 the goal ties back to the convention description this should feel familiar to the players and remind them that this is the experience they signed up for.
By writing convention descriptions that effectively summarize the spirit of the game, I attract the players who are the best fit for the given game session. This has proven true time and again with players who stay engaged and leave with smiles on their faces, even when running diceless story games at conventions based around old school style RPGs.
Do you have any other helpful tools for creating convention descriptions? What are other pitfalls you have encountered?