With GenCon 2006 on the horizon, it’s time for TT to start covering convention GMing — and what better way to do that than with this guest post by Dr. Nik (who goes by the same name on the TT forums)?
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Howdy, everybody! I’m Dr. Nik. This is the first of a short series of articles with some points to keep in mind when designing or prepping for a conventon game. In this case, which format to use: linear, forked or open ended.

I write and run a variety of convention games in the New England area. I am President for the 2006 Carnage Gaming Convention held Nov. 10-12 in Fairlee, VT. In addition, I serve as the Field Marshall for LARP and RPG games at the con.

A convention game has a limited timeframe, typically 4 hours. This means that the GM only has a little bit of time to introduce the game mechanics and characters, run the scenario and offer a satisfying conclusion and endgame to the players.

Keep in mind that you will have 6-8 players who may have never played with each other before. They may be new to the system, or they might have 18 years of experience.

When running games at a convention, one should keep in mind the format of the encounters that the PCs must face. There are three basic ways that I break down my formats for con games. Various genres require using different encounter formats in order to provide greater mystery, directness or tactical opportunities.

A linear structure has plot points that follow immediately after one another. A forked structure resembles a Choose Your Own Adventure book in terms of options. The open ended structure has various encounters or areas that the characters can explore as they choose. A brief explanation of these follows, with examples after the main text.

Linear Structure

Although railroading is generally frowned upon, it can be a vital tool for a convention game. In four hours, moving the group through a fun adventure sometimes requires a linear structure.

I tend to find that linear structures are best for simple plot lines. Most dungeon crawls, rescue operations and “straightforward” concepts benefit from having a linear structure: Event A, then Event B, then Event C. This allows the GM to help pace the game and move things along.

Forked Structure (or Flowchart)

This structure uses a Choose Your Own Adventure-style flowchart to dictate the course of actions. I find this forked structure works well for some intrigue/mystery style scenarios. Investigations and modern military recon are two of the best examples for this type of format.

Forked structure gives a greater level of decision to the players, but limits the options they can execute. A common way to work on this is to begin with the desired endgame and then work backwards to fill in the possible encounters. (Thanks to StillFoxx from the TT forums for providing this tip.)

Open Ended Format

The open ended format allows for the greatest freedom of PC choice. It also requires the most preparation and flexibility on the part of the GM in terms of understanding the scenario and the possible actions of the PCs. This style works best in modern, mystery, horror and foreign environments where a sense of the unknown is required.

I suggest a closed environment for these types of adventures. For example: a remote wilderness, an undersea lab, a space station, an isolated cove or a mountain town. By having a closed environment, you can have greater control over what the players might choose to do.

Each area of the location must be detailed and prepared. I like to include a list of possible clues and items in each area, and have handouts for these clues and items.

In addition to detailing each area, I suggest you have a short list of random occurrences that will help keep things moving along, and that will further the plot (see example below). This way if the PCs get stuck in an area, you can have another quick encounter to keep them from getting bogged down.

In Conclusion

There’s no secret formula here — no format will make your convention game an automatic success. But picking the right format to go with the style and pace of your adventure can greatly enhance its chances of success.

I would encourage you to review and think about how different adventure structures might work in your own plans for gamemastering. Examples of all three structures discussed above follow.

Linear Example

  • Hour 1 — Character selection, game introduction, Event A: Assassin/scout shows up (minor event to introduce the players to their PCs’ abilities).
  • Hour 2 — Event B: Basic recon of the bad guy’s hideout. At 1:45 into the game, Event C: A patrol encounters the group! (minor plot twist).
  • Hour 3-4 — Event D: “Storm the Castle.”

Forked/Flowchart Example

  • Recon Remote Enemy Outpost: Approach from the North, South or West.
    • North: Find secret entrance, enter or encounter patrol.
    • South: Learn more about outpost, great cover for ranged attack (patrol leaves).
    • West: Can ambush patrol when they leave, learn a bit about outpost.
  • Patrol Encounter: Attack outpost, try another direction.
  • Secret Door: Back door guard encounter (alert base/no alert).
    • If passed, then go to main room via a tunnel with CLUES.
  • Main Cavern Entry: Guards! Left or right passage.
  • Left Passage: Encounter with NPC, guards show up.
    • Leads to main room.
  • Right Passage: Encounter with strange facts/objects/clues, guards show up.
    • Leads to main room.
  • Main Cavern Room: Boss and strange revelation. Climax.
    • Leads to secret door tunnel.

    Open Ended Example: Haunted Amusement Park

    1. New onsite work trailer office
      • Each area detailed with description, possible clues and false leads, maybe items.
      • Each area should also be detailed with how/which NPCs/Monsters use or interact with the environment. The GM must decide what to do when the PCs move into each area.
    2. Old restaurant
    3. Boardwalk
    4. Roller coaster
    5. Ferris wheel
    6. Fun house
    7. Hedge maze

    Random Occurences:

  • A. A bump in the night (something quickly runs away afterwards).
  • B. Footprint/scratching/evidence of something else there.
  • C. Physical object clue (false or true lead?).
  • D. Trap or dangerous environmental encounter (bad construction, broken machine).

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Thanks, Dr. Nik!

Have you GMed a convention game before? How do Nik’s tips resonate with your own experience? Whether or not you have convention GMing experience, what would you like to see covered in future posts?