I got back from GenCon Indy 2006 on Sunday, and as always it was an absolute blast. This year, two GMing-related things really jumped out at me, although I wasn’t really looking for them.
The first was some truly appalling GMing, and the second was lots of cool products for GMs. I’d also like to touch briefly on Mastering Your GM-Fu, the GMing seminar I took part in.
Out of the six events my friends and I signed up for, two were so bad that we walked out mid-game. A third was bad enough that we were tempted to walk out, but it was over so fast we didn’t need to.
Of the other three, one was above average (“Freak Show,” an 1890s Call of Cthulhu game about circus freaks), one was quite good (“D&D for Cash,” a competitive team-on-team tourney) and one was superb (a session of Hollow Earth Expedition run by the game’s designer, Jeff Combos).
In past years, we’ve nearly always played in at least one mediocre event. We’ve usually had at least one terrible event — including a demo of Game of Thrones in 2004 that was the worst game any of us had ever played.
But three shit-tacular games in one year? That’s pretty bad.
In one case, (“Undeath Before Dishonor,” an Asian-themed d20 game), the group was part of the problem — although the GM was still the biggest factor. In the other two games (“SG99 — Redshirt Rampage, The Sequel,” a Stargate game, and “Escape!,” an old-school d6 Star Wars game), the GM was the primary factor.
Apart from bad GMs, other common threads included: railroading, PCs with zero depth or background, lame or non-existant NPCs and inept plotting.
Why do GMs like this, who run games like these, come to GenCon? And why isn’t there a way to rate them after the con, so that other people can avoid registering for their events in the future? I’m all for encouraging first-time convention GMs to give it a shot, but when the games are this terrible it really drives me nuts.
Products for GMs
Perhaps it’s because I’ve been writing TT for the past year, but I noticed a lot of GMing products at GenCon — including plenty of products from first-time exhibitors. (I have to apologize in advance for the lack of pictures — for some reason, covering these didn’t occur to me until after the con…)
The Combat Pad: This nifty initiative tracker consisted of a magnetic wet-erase board, several small magnetic nameplates (also eraseable), an arrow for the round and a “round done” magnet. With two columns, you could shift characters from “hasn’t acted yet” to “has acted,” and it was quite nicely put together. At $17, though, it was a bit too pricy.
Laser-etched wooden tiles from Dragonfire Laser Crafts: These were some of my favorite GM aids at the con. In a nutshell, they were light wooden tiles etched with useful words or images — monsters, conditions (stunned, flying), and so forth. Their coolest products were flat wooden ship decks, etched with 1″ squares for use with minis. The largest ship had masts, including gridded spars for fighting amongst the rigging. The ships got expensive quick, but overall their prices seemed quite good — and they even did a custom wooden GM screen.
Steel Sqwire templates: The friendly folks from Steel Sqwire were back, and they had two products I hadn’t seen before: color-coded versions of their wire area of effect templates and Flip-Mats with landscapes on them. If I played D&D with minis (as opposed to counters) more often, I’d definitely own a set of their templates.
ZÜCA rolling bag/stool: Man, these things were hot. Picture a rolling suitcase with an anodized metal frame, only instead of a suitcase you have a multipurpose bag full of pockets, slots and other storage options. The hook was that the bag doubled as a seat, and they looked quite strong. I really wanted to pick one up — they looked ideal for cons — but they were ferociously expensive (around $120 for the full size version).
Monster Tiles: Ocho Games made their first appearance at GenCon, and they brought new tiles (including NPCs and furniture) — as well as bundled sets (big monsters, common monsters, etc.), which were an excellent idea. They also lowered their prices, which is always a good thing. (I reviewed Monster Tiles here on TT.)
Hobby Cube’s custom wooden organizers: Hobby Cube makes wooden boxes (in various sizes) with slots for shelves and drawers, and you could customize their components to suit your needs. So if you wanted a deep drawer for oversize minis, two small drawers for regular minis and some flat shelves for rule books, you could get exactly that. Very cool.
Alea Tools stackable markers: Designed for minis games, these magnetic markers are color-coded for character status — invisible, flying, etc. I’d heard about Alea’s products, but I’d never seen their sets before. The Ultimate Game Master Pack is pretty saucy, if you’re into the tactical aspect of RPGs.
I’m sure I’ve forgotten something awesome — the dealers’ room was just so packed this year! If I missed any great GM aids, let me know in the comments!
Mastering Your GM-Fu
Zachary Houghton, Vicki Potter, Phil Vecchione and I ran a seminar called Mastering Your GM-Fu, and we had a great time. More importantly, it seemed like everyone who attended and participated had fun and took away some useful advice.
TT forum member Carolina, who attended the seminar, has posted a couple of good threads about his favorite aspects of it: GM’s attention deficit disorder and Cycling players in a game store setting.
We’re also hoping to have audio and/or video of the seminar available for the many folks who couldn’t attend. If we’re able to sort that out, I’ll post about it here.
And who knows, perhaps next year TT will have grown to the point that we can have some sort of Treasure Tables meetup.
(For the curious, my GenCon 2006 photo gallery is also up. It’s not GMing-related, but there’s some fun stuff in there.)
The wooden counters were made by Dragonfire Laser Crafts Inc.
The shelf thingie were made by a company called hobby cube or game cube or something like that. Hope that helps
Thanks, cadia! I’ve updated the post with links to both companies. 🙂
I attended the GM-FU session, Well done ole chap, well done. Thanks for putting the time and effort in the planning and so forth. I hope I am able to take the things I learned and make my game better.
Better check the link for the wooden counters I may have put an extra g in the web address.
I’m so sorry to hear you had bad sessions – multiple bad sessions at that! I think I must just be very lucky. I realize you probably can’t specifically id the perpetrators, but I too wish there was a way that players could rate their GMs.
I had multiple outstanding sessions – I’d love to be able to give those folks all 5 stars!
Thanks for the tool tips. I came home with a number of the tiles myself, and a button from DragonFire. Carrie and Lucas are old friends of mine, and I plan to get a custom screen from them, and probably boxes as well. I got a custom button bearing the pet name my players use for me: The Evil, Evil B***h (masked to be family friendly).
I co-created RPGA’s original GM training and have trained many a GM – I wish I could have attended your GM-Fu session. Will you be making notes available? (And I’d love to chat with you some time on the topic…)
50% bad, walk out bad. Was it just luck, or do you think registration delays bumped you to the worst DMs?
Are your standards just getting higher? (I suspect that this isn’t the case, given your urgings to learn something from convention gaming. Maybe what’s a waste of time is more clear after talking about it for over a year?
Man, a bad Stargate game? I guess I can close the book on ever bringing back SG-4, eh? 🙁
Sounds like the good outweighed the bad, but still, the bad sounded pretty darn bad.
“Are your standards just getting higher? (I suspect that this isnâ€™t the case, given your urgings to learn something from convention gaming. Maybe whatâ€™s a waste of time is more clear after talking about it for over a year?”
Martin has the patience of a saint, I’ve found. So if he walked out on another GM’s game, it was probably really bad.
I made my own combat pad from a small metal dry erase board and a roll of magnetic strip material (though I could have easily dispensed with spending money on the magnets by using all those free magnets you get, but the strip I got is a lot thicker, which leads to easier maneuvering of the magnets). Total cost was under 10 bucks I think (and I’ve got a ton of magnetic strip left over).
I do like some of their layout ideas which make it easy to remember where a held or readied person is in the order, though it perhaps makes it harder for a new entrant to the combat to be placed in order (since there isn’t enough room for a full numeric sequence – to keep track of the orser), also the lack of a numeric sequence means you have to do some mind juggling as people call out their initiative rolls (as opposed to my board with numbers on it that allows me to place each character as they call out their roll).
On the laser etched tiles – what was the cost per tile? Their web site doesn’t have these products up yet. They sound better than the Monster Tiles. I would have no durability concerns about this product (the etching isn’t going to simply rub off like printing could).
cadia: You’re welcome! Thank Phil for getting us organized and keeping us going — we were like a herd of cats. 😉
GamerChick: With a bit of work, I could dig up who the GMs of Terror were, but without some sort of database to dump that into it’d just be a fart in a hurricane. 😉
Phil is working on notes for the seminar, although I don’t know exactly what he has in mind. I would be more than happy to chat with you about GMing anytime, feel free to drop me a line.
Scott: I think it was just bad luck. Getting random events produced some great results too, so it’s hard to pin it on that.
My standards have certainly changed, and that’s part of it. These would have been bad events no matter when they’d soiled my personal gaming timeline, but unlike my early years at GenCon I put up with a lot less shit these days.
More years of gaming has also meant more amazing gaming experiences to weight the crap against. 😉
Abulia: Nah, it was only nominally a Stargate game. It really could have been anything. SG-4 may yet ride again. 😉
Frank: I was in “Ooooh, shiny!” mode when I found the Dragon Fire booth with the tiles. Apart from getting the vague impression that their prices were good, I didn’t do anything useful. Hopefully their website will get fleshed out before too long.
Bento: Sweet — thanks!
Sorry to hear about the crummy con games, Martin.
Thanks for the info on new GMing aids, they look interesting.
Nice con report. The bad games suck. I’d like to hear why they were Bad GMs or what made the games bad.
The Dragonfire wood tile booth made me drool like no other at origins. I was thinking of hauling my laptop down and having them etch something on the cover of it. Lord would I love to have a laser etcher.
The Zuca was pretty hot too. I was talking to the daughter of the lady who created it at origins. It was built for one of her children whohad walking problems due to a disease. It was supposed to be a way to carry his books and still be able to sit down when he needed. They built it strong and tough too. That thing could withstand some serious beatings.
I’m always conflicted when I hear about players walking out of a con game. On one hand I understand and have even done the same if something is really terrible. On the other hand I have to wonder how good of a player they were in the first place. Did they try to contribute to the game in a positive way or did they help make it a disaster then walk out after accomplishing their mission. Who knows, but I’m sorry you weren’t able to turn those sessions into a positive experience for yourself.
Thank for saying so many nice things about Hollow Earth Expedition. When you’re a new game company with a new game, it can be hard to get the word out about it. I really appreciate you plugging it here.
Also, it was a real pleasure having you and the rest of the gang play in my game. You guys were great! Let’s stay in touch and hopefully hook up again next year (if not sooner).
Johnn: You’re welcome! I haven’t seen you around here in the comments for awhile — I’m glad you got some mileage out of this post.
John: Sure, I can pony up some details on the three sucktacular games. (There’s a bit more background along with the photos, too, if you haven’t checked those out.)
I’m going to try and answer Streamweaver’s question in the process (good question, BTW).
Railroading was a common theme for all three. The GM for SG-99 was okay, and we had some choices in where to go — but they really didn’t matter. One of us was going to get killed and reanimated no matter what. That’s not necessarily a poor choice for a con event — time is limited, after all — but when the adventure is boring, it stands out.
My favorite part was that he offered that player two choices about how to handle it, and complained repeatedly afterwards that the player had chosen the “wrong one.” So…why was there a choice at all?
Add in the hackneyed plot — we were all inside a VR simulation gone bad — and it turned out very poorly. On the plus side, it only took two hours. 😉
“Undeath Before Dishonor” had so many lowlights that it’s hard to know where to start. We had to tweak our characters without knowing what was coming up, which is always a bad idea at con games. We got zero character background (zero!) and minimal instruction on what to do.
Blundering around, we found out that the GM could only do two NPCs: 1) growling, over-the-top evil guy, and 2) flamboyant gay guy. The latter reached the point of actually being offensive — it was not a loving characterization in any way.
He also brought one die to the game: a d6 with a little face on each side (frowny, neutral, happy, etc.). That was what he rolled for most things, and this was d20.
Speaking to Streamweaver’s point, we all got bad vibes when we sat down. But we didn’t want to jump to comclusions, so we gave it a chance. After an hour, it was clearly an unsalvageable game. We did what we could with what we had, and when we realized it was pointless, I tried to derail the game.
“Escape!” was a lot like “Undeath,” in that we also had to tweak characters with no knowledge of what to expect. I was playing a pilot, and WEG Star Wars has 5 or 6 piloting skills. I asked which ones I might want to focus on, and the GM didn’t want to give me any details.
So I picked four of them, but forget that in SW repulsorlifts are more common than hovers — and wouldn’t you know, all the piloting we needed to do was with repulsorlift craft? 😉
For an hour, literally every roll — including near-max rolls for our skill levels — had the same results: Imperials damage our vehicles, we get herded towards more Imperials. It was clear that we were supposed to get captured — so why not just start us out captured, and give us an extra hour to do something fun?
We always sit down with a pretty neutral slate, but with games like these it’s not hard to see that you’re in for a trainwreck. Flaws are fine, but when they outnumber the positives there’s no point in sticking around. I’ll play my ass off if it’s worthwhile, but it would have been a waste of time in all three of these games.
Jeff: All four of us loved playing HEX, and I wound up picking up a copy. You guys really nailed how to start fresh: It’s a solid game, it’s got several unique elements, the book is beautiful and competitively priced, it’s an underused genre, the event was excellent, your booth was fun, everyone pitching it was friendly — seriously, good stuff across the board. 🙂 My only suggestion would be to sell some cheaper style point chips — they rocked, but they cost too much. 😉
I’d love to stay in touch, and if you need a dependable freelancer I hope you’ll drop me a line.
Sean: And I missed you at the AEG booth! It sounds like you had a great con, and we’ll definitely have to try and catch up with each other next year.
Hello, I was the GM for the dreadful Stargate game.
Yes, it was dreadful, even from my standpoint. I was ashamed. I was overly ambitious with the idea I had and then completely lost control of the game.
So, I want to apologize for your bad experience. My only defenses are a) I am a relatively inexperienced GM (who’d a thunk?) and b)this game could not be play tested as my other two Stargate games were. I can tell you that immediately after your session on Thursday, I went back and, with my two other friends (far more experienced GMs), completely re-wrote the adventure. I hope for the better.
Again, I apologize for the bad experience.
Thank you for allowing me to post this apology.
The Bundy: I’m glad you stopped by, and thank you for stepping up to the plate to talk about your event.
I got the impression you were an experienced GM (a vibe mainly based on your having run SG-99 events before, and seeming to be an old GURPS hand), but knowing that you’re relatively new to the craft definitely gives me a different perspective.
Ironically enough, if you’re interested in getting tips and advice about GMing — specific to con games, as well as more general — you’ve come to a great place to find them. 🙂
Off the cuff, my one (unsolicited) suggestion would be to mention up front that you’re new to GMing, and that you didn’t get time to playtest the adventure. With that kind of lead-in, while people might initially be thrown off (“If he didn’t playtest it, why am I here?”), they might also be more inclined to cut you some slack and take things in stride. It certainly would have helped me.
Again, thank you for posting here, and thank you for the apology. It was a bad game, not the end of the world — and I hope it won’t discourage you from taking stock, regrouping and coming back to the table.
Thanks. I appreciate that. You see, because my job has me on the road for 49 weeks out of the year, I don’t get much of a chance to role play or run. Gen Con is the only real chance I get.
As you could obviously tell, I am not a combat oriented GM. I prefer to let the players decide the action.
Any tips you could give would be greatly appreciated, either from you or any of the others who post here. I only found your site by accident, and lo and behold, a critique of the worst game I have ever been involved with.
Thanks again for the advice. I look forward to any other.