Saturday, July 22, 2017

Musings on running con games

I've been running convention games since 2011 at HMGS conventions.  The total game sessions is close to 60 and most have gone well.  Except Fall-In in 2012 when I ran a Lundy's Lane game that was really just wasn't that good.

The learnings from these games are probably somewhat subjective but there are a few trends

1) The Gamers are the Most Important Part: Managing the player group and keeping them both interested and having fun is the single most important part of having a successful game.  It sounds really basic, but it really is the key to a fun / successful event.  This aspect requires the GM to be a bit of a showman and a bit of a consular.

2) Scenario Design is really important
The structure of the scenario is the next most important aspect of a good con game.  Incorporate hidden goals / unknown reinforcements.  They're fun when "revealed" and can be used to keep a game balanced and flowing properly.  I really like the canard of the "somethings coming over the horizon" to keep my players guessing - it can be the smoke from a distant ironclad, French reinforcements or a Giant Red Dragon, which was used in my historically accurate DAK & Dragon games this year.

I also prefer a three-way fight vs a standard 2 way contest - Having the players need to fight both each other and a GM controlled force creates a very dynamic game and allows for player faction negotiations.  It's also a lot easier to keep the game balanced.  If you have too many players if also give you the option of letting then control the "bad guys".  Again this worked really well this year in DAK and Dragons as I had player controlled axis and allied factions (4 players each) and a GM controlled "monsters" faction.

3) Playtesting is Overrated But KNOWING the Rules isn't
Some my find this an odd statement but I find deep play testing to be counter-productive.  Why?  The personality profile of the gamers has a bigger impact on game dynamics and since players choose my game, I can't really control that variable.  I do find that when I've play tested too much I've got an almost pre-wired set of assumptions of how the game should play out and can try to direct to achieve that outcome.  When I've done this my players have picked it up and become a little frustrated.

While play testing may be overrated, knowing the rules cold isn't and some play testing is required just to make sure you know the rules.  If you have to refer to a rule book you've failed.  It's really important to be consistent in your application of the rules (except for kids, see below) and some playlets is need to get a handle on the mechanics.  It's also useful to help you figure out how to strip down the rules for a con game.  Simple is a.ways better.

My infamous (to me) Lundy's Lane game at Fall In in 2012 didn't go that well because I didn't know the rules well enough

4) Set the rules of conduct early and enforce them
Wargamers are an interesting lot.  By and large they are a genial group of people but in certain circumstances some individuals can become a pain in the ass (rules lawyers, hyper competitive, whiners).  Set out the rules of conduct at the start of the game and enforce them in a genial manner.  I do so using self deprecating humor but always make the following points:

- we're all here to have fun
- it's just toy soldiers
- No vile language / aggressive behavior

In the approximate 500+ gamers I've had at my convention tables I've only had to ask two to leave - one for being so intoxicated he couldn't really speak clearly and the other for wearing a SS-themed T-Shirt that was like a rock band concert tour T-shirt except the concert dates/locales where battles where that SS division fought (and committed atrocities.  Free Speech allows that individual to wear the sad shirt, just not at my table.

5) Kids win, always
If you get a young person at your game (under 18) they win - ALWAYS.  Sometimes you don't have to intercede as kid luck dice rolling can take over.  Other times you may have to -another reason why it's good to have a flexible scenario design).  I'm clear to all my players that all of us are playing for second place.  The vast majority of players get this and agree. A few don't and I remind them that there are a lot of other games at the con they may enjoy more.

6) Visual Appeal is your best marketing tool:
Having great terrain and mini's is critical to generating interest in your game.  If you want players put the effort in to make the game "pop".  It's also fun to talk to people in-between games - it's kind of like a grown-ups version of "show and tell" from grade school.

My Games though the years:

2011 Historicon
"Rome on the March"
Rules Hail Caesar

2012 Historicon
"A Dacian a Day Keeps the Romans Away"
Rules: Hail Caesar

2012 Fall In 
Lundy's Lane
Rules: Ernies home grown rules
War of 1812

2013 Historicon
"Sink the Tennessee"
Rules: Uncivil Wars
2013 Historicon
"Prelude to Vicksburg"
Rules: Black Powder
2014 Historicon
"Sink the Tennessee II"
Rules: Uncivil Wars

2014 Historicon
"Battle Along the Mississippi"
Rules: Black Powder

2015 Historicon
"British Intervention in the ACW/Naval "Decision in Delmarva I"
Rules: Sail and Steam Navies

2015 Historicon
"British Intervention in the ACW/Land Decision in Delmarva 2"
Rules: Longstreet

2016 Historicon
British Intervention in the War of 1812
"Grapeshot on the Chesapeake"
Rules: Longstreet
War of 1812

2016 Historicon
"A Madmans Steeple Chase"
Rules: Musket & Tomahawks

2017 Historicon
"DAK & Dragons"
"SOCOM & Sorcery"
Rules: Homegrown


john de terre neuve said...

That was a real interesting read. I would find it quite daunting to run a game at a con. I have done it twice once with CoC which went well aside from the "being firm about the rules interpretation". The 2nd was a Napoleonic game with BP. I was asked by my club president set up a Napoleonic game. He promised to run the game as I do not know BP. Of course I set up a beautiful game (Hougomont) and had nice figures with a good scenario. He disappeared leaving me to run the game!

DeanM said...

Nice looking games, Miles. And I agree with your assessment of GMing games at conventions, I've run games at are smaller historical con, Enfilade!, for a few where near as many as you have though. I've been able to reduce my game rules to a one-page QRS - in readable font too, Lol! Players usually show up a few minutes before the period starts so I hand the QRS an ask if they'd like to skim over them before the game starts. I also always ask who've played the rules before (usually only one or two out the 6 players). I do whole-heartedly agree about play-testing too - different players will do completely different things from the play-test and that's not even factoring in dice rolling. A couple of the locals here attended Historicon, with great reports also.

BaronVonJ said...

Great advice and as someone who runs alot of Con games, agree whole-heartedly.

Michael Mills said...

A great read mate! It shows you clearly put a lot of effort in on the people side as well as the table/figures/scenario which is key. I've seen loads of games where the people running them have put loads of effort into look of it and then don't concern themselves with the interpersonal side.

Ivor Evans said...

Great stuff Miles! Fun to look back through those photos of all the past games and see Jakob and I in several :)

jmilesr said...

Thanks for the nice comments. In the end running a convention game is all about the players - let them have fun and things just sorta work out!

Peter Douglas said...

Excellent rules to GM by Miles. Not likel to run a bug convention fame anytime soon, but useful for smaller games as well.

How do you get the SS troll to move to another area?

IMHO all of your games look excellent!

TamsinP said...

Some great looking games and useful insights into what makes a good participation game.

As for the under-18 players, to adapt a quote from Star Wars "I suggest you let the kid win" :)

jmilesr said...

Peter - getting trolls to move on isn't that hard, you just have to be direct but not confrontational and never loose eye contact.
The real trick is dumbing down your choice of words as trolls tend to have, shall we say, limited vocabularies.

Joe Procopio said...

Thanks for sharing these reflections from your experiences. Being new to the wargaming scene myself, this is all helpful to keep in mind when putting together my own games.

Quick question to anybody inclined to answer: Has anybody either played in or organized a game using more than one referee? Seems like with these larger groups (10 players!) that could be a helpful approach.

Curt C said...

Terrific post, Miles, with many very thoughtful insights to running a successful convention game. All of your games look magnificent - really top drawer stuff, sir.

To be honest I'm not a big fan of convention gaming. I'm a bit of a misanthrope and I prefer a controlled sandbox (i.e. my toys, my venue, my rules and my choice of people). This all being said, I think your approach is excellent, especially 'Kids win, always' and 'knowing the rules'.

Itinerant said...

Awesome. Thank you for sharing.

Jay White said...

Wise words Miles. I've found myself running lots of convention games as well ... and follow essentially the same rules :-)