99 Problems and a Pitch Ain’t One

Random observations, a week out from NewMexicon and pitching games.

1) Players who respond to the game system being offered. Doesn’t matter who’s running or what it’ll be about, it’s the game itself. Oooh I want to know more about Velvet Glove! or whatever.

2) Players who respond to who’s doing the offering. I’m probably mostly either in this category or the first one. There are folks I know will bring the goods, no matter what they’re running and what they’ve prepped.

3) Players who respond to the pitcher’s particular creation. I saw this quite a bit out of the NMCon GoHs and it strikes me as a particularly trad thing that the indie world has kind of left behind.

I mean this without any aspersions cast! Like…okay. The first game I went for was Tomer Gurantz’s Lego Fallout Shelter. I didn’t respond at all to the creation aspect of his pitch, and in fact I was a tiny bit turned off. It was super fun, loved his creation, but it’s the fact that we’d chatted and he seemed sane and fair and, you know, a decent human being. I’m all in for tables with decent human beings!

But then later, Matt McFarland (one of the GoH) offered up very specific Chill scenarios. Here’s the dude who wrote that edition! Here are scenarios you can be sure are excellent examples of the system! I had a very hard time getting excited for those, and not because Chill isn’t indie hotness. I noticed the same reaction in my head to other specific “I made this, come play it with me” pitches.

When I look through big catalogs of events at cons like Dreamation, I usually don’t know who’s pitching. I don’t get a read on them and I have to rely on name recognition. So I’ve gone looking for that, right? Like, whatever she’s running, I’m going to have a good time at Rachel E.S. Walton’s table. And if I can’t find that, hey, I’ve always wanted to know more about Sig, let’s go check it out (never connecting in my head that creator Jason Pitre would be running it).

And yet I have a nearly allergic reaction to the hand-made scenario, the elaborate setup that someone’s put real sweat into. At some point I just stopped getting excited about them.

I wonder when I lost that. I know I used to go looking for it.

I mean, yeah, there are some obvious facts on the ground here.

For one, lots of the current generation of indie hotness is built with a strong “setup is play” aesthetic. It literally does not matter what the GM is bringing, we’re all gonna bring it together and then play. Pitching a scenario makes that impossible of course, and then I get frowny. Where’s my investment? Waah.

For another. these small cons are pretty intimate. I didn’t know everyone of the 70-ish people, but I probably knew half of them well enough to know which of them I’d have a good time with at a table. You strange people I don’t know, ugh, I don’t make friends any more. (Not true. (But it feels that way sometimes.))

I’m not offering up any special insights here. I’m day 3 into a burly head cold and just kind of killing time waiting to get well. It’s just some thoughts and a little bit of sadness in me that I kind of don’t care about all the artistry and craft that folks continue to put into scenario design. There’s probably a lot of great stuff out there.

0 thoughts on “99 Problems and a Pitch Ain’t One”

  1. For my part, I’ve honestly mostly had worse experiences with things that come with a lot of scenario design. They’ve tended to be “play my story”, which I just never have enjoyed. Have you had good experiences there, but your priorities have changed?

  2. I think so, yeah. I mean, Burning Wheel is impossible to play without a scenario. Jonathan White​’s Mountain of Monks scenario is one of my favorite convention events ever.

    Then again, it was at BurningCon, and everyone knows the score. There’s a whole culture of scenario design attached to the BW scene.

  3. I’m also perfectly willing to blame #1 on an unhealthy cocktail of a publishing model that require the rubes’ constantly stoked appetite for novelty. And #2 on personality cults that arise in the vacuum created in the hearts of gamers everywhere who have been fed a steady drip of novelty and now can’t live without it, and now need to be told what to like and why they should like it.

    But that’s probably just the cold talking.

    #latestagecapitalism #shotsfired #nyquilshotsactually

  4. As a guy who really likes to bring elaborately overprepared scenarios to conventions When I Can ™, probably the reason you’re not into them is that there’s often no goal to the preparation. Like, “I wrote a module that seemed cool to me” always seems to be the motivation, over “I wrote a module that will help teach this game to noobs” or “I wrote a module that shines a spotlight on this really cool thing about this game” or “I wrote a module to really impress you with my great acting skills”. Before we even get to the possibility of a failed or C+ execution of an idea, we have to get past the possibility that there is no idea to execute past just “it seemed neat”.

    Missing Velvet Glove and Chill were my two big (game playin) disappointments of the convention.

  5. That’s on-target! I think there’s definitely something to that.

    The last thing I did up because it seemed cool to me turned to uh…not be cool to anyone else. I might just suck at it.

  6. That’s always a strong possibility in a convention full of strangers. It gets worse if your tastes are slightly off center for gaming nerds (Firefly is a semi-okay television show and it is a much worse injustice that Terriers got cancelled.)

    That’s why (for example) our Requiem game was primarily about teaching Requiem; how the characters interact, basic die pool manipulation, a typical Vampire Problem, how characters get situated in the setting. Like, it didn’t involve a real deep dive into Requiem, because how would that even be feasible with two people who never played it before?

  7. “For one, lots of the current generation of indie hotness is built with a strong ‘setup is play’ aesthetic. It literally does not matter what the GM is bringing, we’re all gonna bring it together and then play. Pitching a scenario makes that impossible of course, and then I get frowny. Where’s my investment? Waah.”

    My earliest gaming as a tweenager was one-on-one–me as the player, playing a primary PC and his series of sidekicks, and their hirelings, dealing with homemade modules run by my best friend. My friend would get into elves, and then I’d be dealing with trying to rescue my captured wizard sidekick from a giant hollow tree woodelf community. Or he’d watch Captain Blood and get into pirates and I’d be trying to pay back a trumped up debt by hiring on to a crew of buccaneers. It was fun, and super formative to me. But when he lost interest in gaming and I ended up the regular DM for a group of guys in high school, the paradigm didn’t hold up. The group didn’t give a shit about my worldbuilding. They’d slaughter town guards for fun, burglarize townspeople, create cornball characters, pull multiple times from a Deck of Many Things until their character was wrecked, and then just make up a new character.
    Looking back on it, I think game systems sometimes defeat player investment–when your rolls in play undermine your concept and vision for your character, that pretty much does it. But if the system doesn’t defeat player investment, then I think investment is a choice. I chose to submit myself to my friend’s world as a tweenager. I’m certain he fudged to keep my primary character from dying, and I’m certain he fudged to kill and capture my various sidekicks. So in that regard the “system” didn’t defeat my investment. And the goofballs I gamed with in high school chose not to be invested.
    My designing lately–The Clay That Woke, and Traverser too–are inspired by my tweenage and teenage gaming. They eschew the ‘setup is play’ paradigm. Their systems are designed to not defeat investment. They give the worldbuilding over to the gamemaster. I hope under those circumstances that players can choose to invest.

  8. If I may humble brag for a moment, when I am running a con game I get very annoyed at players in category number two. I have many people show up to the table never having read the system description or the scenario blurb, and sometimes they aren’t excited when they realize what’s happening. Why did they play the game? Because I was running it. Flattering, I suppose, but doesn’t make for a group that’s on the same page and ready to enjoy what’s on offer.

  9. I usually respond to #1 as a player and usually get disappointed when it turns into #3.

    #2 feels like I’ll have the best chance of getting what I expect.

  10. Where does, e.g., Rachel pitching her Long Orbit hack of MH fit in here? Is it #3, or just a subset of the first two?

    I find that I am still enticed by #3, but more as a subset. If neither #1 or #2 are in play, then it probably ain’t happening.

  11. Lots of players never read a convention blurb OR notice who’s running it. They just see an open slot and figure “let’s try it!” You have to meet your audience where they are.

  12. Paul Czege That’s a great and very interesting story! I’ve heard John Harper tell one that’s very similar but with a different lesson at the end. I’m paraphrasing but it goes kinda like: if you create a binder of pre-planned stuff that your players don’t want to engage with, toss that binder and then build something together that you can all get excited about. Investment is partially a choice, sure, but it’s easier if you’ve chosen a premise that everybody’s willing to get behind. I think you can either do that by selectively playing with folks who are excited about the same things or by building consensus around the kind of gaming experiences you want to have, yeah?

  13. “Investment is partially a choice, sure, but it’s easier if you’ve chosen a premise that everybody’s willing to get behind.”

    Well, J. Walton, I was pretty early out the gate on player investment through shared creation of an antagonist with My Life with Master. So I get it. And I’ve played it in a zillion permutations (Microscope and Kingdom, Primetime Adventures, Monsterhearts, Ganakagok, Chronicles of Skin, Dirty Secrets, Serial Homicide Unit, The Dreaming Crucible, etc.), but in my experience, “setup is play” (as Beakley calls it) isn’t the only functional play paradigm. “Setup is play” isn’t some definitive fix to the problems of the gamemaster created scenario paradigm. There are functional ways to play gamemaster created scenarios. They have their own different creative and emotional rewards, their own social rewards, and require a different kind of engagement and trust.

  14. So let’s talk a little about the difference between campaign sessions and one shot convention sessions. In the case of Clay, I’m not sure it’s a productive exercise. Although, depending on who was offering it, I’d probably be in for it at a con.

  15. Paul Czege I wasn’t meaning to imply that group setting creation had to be involved, necessarily, just that people need to be willing to get on board with what the game is about (even if it’s Great Pendragon Campaign) or the organizer has to tailor their pitch/planning to meet existing players’ interests. Maybe we just disagree here, but it seems weird to me to ask any group of players to be up for any game you want to play with them, at any time, even in high-trust high-familiarity groups.

  16. Caveat though: I will say that some games that I wasn’t that excited about at the time have become really significant games/memories for me. Is that what you’re getting at, Paul Czege? Games that aren’t necessarily what players want but are ultimately “good for them” in other ways?

  17. J. Walton I think you underestimate the cultural significance of the GM. This is the one area where I think the Forge critique of “GM as mystery cult leader” actually lands. I can’t count the number of times a game group I’ve been a part of or just joined would say, almost frantically, “We’ll play whatever you want to run!” And these are groups where I have no particular cachet except willingness to take on the GM role.

    I think this is the equivalent of rolling in to a convention and just going to whatever game has an open slot.

  18. Fantasy larp at PaulCon 2018:

    “Okay! Who are the GMs in the crowd? Hands up! Okay, you guys don’t get to run. Shut up and I’ll assign you to a table.”

  19. Nathan Roberts none, and that’s a problem. I know con organizer Nicholas Hopkins has a mission of spreading exposure to indiegames via NMCon, but I didn’t sign up for anything I didn’t already have a good sense of. Probably Morgan Ellis’ Star Wars Fate game was as close as I got to new exposure and it wasn’t really new at all, other than to Morgan’s facilitation and his Star Wars setup.

    Well… Tomer Gurantz’s Fallout Shelter hack, certainly, was totally original and fun. But like…my understanding is that he has no further ambitions for it at all. And that somehow puts his game into a different bucket for me. Probably for #latestagecapitalism and group 1 reasons. I might actually have a dark little thing in me that says “if I can’t buy it does it matter?”

    Shoot me now.

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