Con Prep and the Unexamined Life

I’ve been asked several times about how I prep to run con games. I’ve avoided writing this piece because a) I’ve never really thought that much about it and b) maybe I’m a little afraid of letting my magic fizz out of the bottle.

I don’t attend a ton of conventions: three or four each year. I prefer to run than play, because I’m a control freak with trust issues, and I feel like I can only guarantee my own good time/ROI if I’m in charge. These are terrible reasons! Don’t fall into that trap. Play is always useful even if it’s not fun. But since I’m motivated by my own good time, I’ve developed ways to make sure that happens.

This is my best attempt to deconstruct my convention prep, based on actual prep I’m doing for next year’s events.

The List

I start out reviewing my entire game library with dry-erase notebook in hand. At this point, I jot down every game that piques my interest right now. It’s blue sky this early! Lots of games end up on the list. In all cases, the existence of a PDF is a huge mark in favor of bringing it to a con. Hauling big books is a bummer.

Here’s my blue-sky list for 2020, in alphabetical order, along with my surface thoughts about why they’re on my list:

  • After the War: fresh and hot out of the Kickstarter ovens.
  • Bite Marks: Super new PbtA about werewolves, probably easy to figure out.
  • Dialect: New to me but I have this beautiful book and these beautiful cards.
  • Imp of the Perverse: As frilly and fancy as the language around the game, I think it’s probably not terribly difficult to figure out the procedures.
  • Impulse Drive: Never run it but it looks like conventional PbtA. I’d like to compare/contrast to Scum and Villainy.
  • InSpectres: One of my favorite old-timey Forge-era storygames, and I’m feeling nostalgic.
  • Ironsworn: Looks interesting, lots of new ideas, always looking for tasty fantasy beyond Dungeon World.
  • Kult: I’ve been sitting on this for more than a year now. Brought it to several cons. Never quite had the guts to pitch it because it’s hecking dark. Unconventional, weird PbtA, might need too much setup.
  • Mechatron or Elysium: I adore the Year Zero Engine games, and I’ve never gotten to run either of these in the Mutant series. Mechatron looks more mechanically interesting, since you assemble your robot’s stats from cards. Elysium is maybe a little fascist-y, can’t tell, weird art vibe.
  • Noirlandia: Super interesting looking, not PbtA, might be a nice change of pace. Curious about Questlandia as well.
  • Perseverant: I heard secondhand hype that the Baker family (Vincent and Meg) was into this, and I picked it up as part of a recent bundle. Yes, I’m sensitive to rumors and chitchat.
  • Psi-Run: Another nostalgia game. I’ve met folks at cons the past couple years who couldn’t even read when these old games came out!
  • Sagas of the Icelanders: it’s been a year since I ran it. That’s a good break. It’s easy for me to run. Maybe I can get the author to share his 2nd edition ideas!
  • Sig: Manual of the Primes: Got to play this with Jason Pitre at Dreamation 2016 and it was so charming! It’s been sitting on my (terribly overcrowded) shelf, overlooked, for too long.
  • The Sword, the Crown and the Unspeakable Power: someday I will play this. I will. I don’t know why it doesn’t quite ever make the cut but I feel like this is the year.
  • Zombie World: Always a fun time, I’ve never run it, it’s also widely available and very popular. This will be 2020’s Apocalypse World, no shortage of folks to run it.

Demo or All-Stars? Old Favorite or New Hotness?

This step is about figuring out my agenda at the convention. I think of it as a four-square grid. When I say “demo” I mean I’m prepared to show off the game for an entirely random table. By contrast, “all stars” means experienced players, and players with whom I have personal experience.

Demo an Old Favorite Demo the New Hotness
Present an Old Favorite to All-StarsPresent the New Hotness to All-Stars

If I know I’ll have control over who’s at my table – whether I’m pitching to a live audience, or writing a brief pitch, or organizing an after-hours private event – I almost always go for an all-star table (see above re guaranteeing my own good time). But truth be told, I generally do not have that kind of control.

The real question becomes: do I want to demo an old favorite of mine, or do I want to demo something new and hot?

Demo play of an old favorite is comfortable but it can be boring. I already know what the game feels like, and I know what its mains strengths are. That’s good! It means I already know how to route around weirdness (which every game has, don’t @ me) and play up the best parts of the game. It also means I’m probably not presenting an entirely accurate picture of the game. I can only hope my best practices get conveyed should my table decide they want to take a swing.

Demo play of new hotness is riskier. It’s less risky if I want to try out a game built on familiar ground. Like, I’ll demo nearly any PbtA-based game even without prior experience. I get what the platform is good at, I know how to spot the novelties. But something really new? I’ll run it at home first.

Thinking about my next big commitment, New Mexicon in April, that’s an event that’s well suited to running new hotness demos. Most attendees are already experienced with not-D&D, which is a huge advantage.

Narrow the List

Okay, now that I’ve got my list and I know my agenda, time to start fine-tuning my New Mexicon list. Stuff I think about:

Can I run this at home?: If I think it’ll happen this year, I’ll take it off the list.

Creative load: How much on the spot, unsupported creativity does the game demand? Newer games tend to have better GM prompts, moves, tables, pick lists, and other support tools. The GMless games I like tend to be well structured and easy to run. Older games with GMs tend to be harder to run, so I try and keep those to one slot.

Novelty: given the choice of new versus old, if I must decide, I go with new. Mostly that’s because I need to write things for this blog. Be grateful you (probably) don’t have this consideration.

Setup time: Many newer games work best if everyone participated in setup. I can speed up some setup-is-play games (Apocalypse World is a major example) if I bring a solid premise and maybe some fronts worked out, Mostly they work best with maximum player investment.

Taking this into account, I’m went back to my original list. Here’s my final list for New Mexicon, and why each game made it:

  • Imp of the Perverse: because I think folks there will be intrigued. Concerned about setup time. Might bring pregens.
  • InSpectres: because it’s very easy to run and I haven’t seen it offered in years. Good for a Sunday morning slot.
  • Noirlandia: Because it isn’t PbtA or FitD, and it’s been a couple years since release. Designed as a one-shot gam, I think.
  • Sagas of the Icelanders: because I’ve been asked/begged to spin it back up. I miss playing!
  • The Sword, the Crown and the Unspeakable Power: because I’ve wanted to play this longer than Ironsworn.

I’m also a spotlight GM at this event, and I’ve already committed to running a long con of Free From the Yoke there. I may not have many slots left. I’ll decide when I get there which ones I’m feeling, but I’ll get my head and materials ready for these five.

Know Your Loops

IGRC lesson #1 about gameplay and game design: play boils down to pattern completion and intermittent rewards. These are what we key into when we play games, so these are the things I emphasize at con tables. Both involve completing loops of play.

Loops I look for:

  • The transaction: when it’s time to resolve uncertainty at the table, how does it start? Who asks for what? What steps must you pass through? What decisions are reserved, and how are those decisions distributed?
  • Advancement: Some games are designed so characters can mechanically change in a single sitting. If you’re looking at a game where advancement/change only happens at the end of a session, consider what the game would look like if, say, you checked in at the halfway point. For example, I always added an artha reward phase at the 2 hour mark of any Burning Wheel game I ran at conventions. In a demo setting, this lets players feel the actual advancement cycle. At an all-star table, it lets experienced players (usually) pick more interesting mechanical options.
  • Incentive economies: what does the game pay the players to do? How often? What are the triggers? What does the payoff lead to? Is it a simple bonus or do new procedures start? Besides baked-in mechanical incentives, also consider other incentives like spotlight time and agency.
  • Conflicting incentives: If you know the game, is there any incoherency created by multiple incentives? Do you have a plan if this is part of the game? Because it’s a demo, can you help guide players through deciding which of several incentives to chase? Can you explain the implications of their choices?

This is all a long way of saying: know how the game works. If you’ve never played it, try and jam in a quick round of it with friends before your event. If you have, freshen up. Write a cheat sheet of the most important rules.  I aim for getting the loops right because that, for me, lets me run the game more intentionally. I’m less concerned about running the game precisely, especially in a demo environment.

Cut The Cruft

If I’m presenting an old favorite, I’ll think through whether I can leave out parts of the game that won’t come up in a one-shot. For example, the advancement of seasons in a game like Sagas of the Icelanders or Mouse Guard. It’s no big deal to not even mention them in play, but I might – because it’s a demo – talk about that a little afterward.

Minigames that zoom in on the action – Fight! in Burning Wheel, for example – I think are usually not worth the effort at a one-shot con table. If you’re running a game with a simple resolution system you can fall back on, consider just doing that for the game.

This is also when you curate your players’ options. If you have deep knowledge of your game, you’ll know which playbooks trip up new players, or which combinations of character types or options tend to step on each other’s shticks. Or other procedures that won’t matter in the next four hours.

How far back can you cut the game and still be playing something that’s recognizably that game?

Physical Prep

I run copies of all the sheets needed to run the games I’ve chosen. I do it two-sided when possible and printed as big as I can.

Pro tip: color code your playsheets! Put your common moves or general references on something bright, like canary or whatever, and player-facing references on white. Makes it that much faster to organize everything at the table. You probably only have 4 hours. Every minute counts.

If a game needs unusual props – cards, poker chips, a spinner – I make sure they get packed.

Sadly, I usually put off packing until the day before. This means I almost always forget something vital. Make friends at cons, it’s virtually guaranteed you’ll be able to borrow anything you forgot.

If you’ve made a rules reference, think about whether players need that in front of them. How short can you make it? Can they take it with them after?

Pitching a Game

I practice my pitch a bit before the event. Most cons I attend are built around live pitches: you show up at the start of a slot, and you pitch your game to anyone who showed up. I’ve got a good instinct for this, but I try to undersell and overdeliver. Overselling repels me, personally. I’ve had a lot of luck with an underselling approach.

I wish I had more or better advice. Pitching gets better with practice.

The Explainer

How will you explain the game once your players are at the table?

If we’re making characters, I’ll explain a little about the system and only if anyone at the table needs it. I’ll describe the transaction (especially if it’s unconventional) and the other loops.

What does the game feel like? This is like…overall mouth-feel, if you know that phrase. Is it fighty? Big melodrama? Hard feels? Lightweight and frivolous? I don’t go too far, but it’s useful to prime my players’ expectations.

What does good play look like? As a followup to the previous point, I’ll advise players on what to drive toward. For example, in The King is Dead, there’s a card game you play that determines who will actually ascend to the throne. But ascension hardly matters at all, it’s all kind of fake tension (still fun, don’t misread me here!), and the real point of the game is to set up the juiciest, most melodramatic scenes possible. So that’s how I say it: go for the melodrama, and don’t be so worried about this card game thing.

I’ll also talk about sensitive content and explain the X card (a staple at the indie cons I attend). If the game itself comes with its own safety tools, I’ll explain that as well. Back to my The King is Dead example: there’s a minigame designed to egg on the characters toward hooking up. But there’s a ton of consent built into the game itself, and nothing weird or gross ever happens in those scenes without both parties checking allowing it. That’s something I learned to explain based on previous runs. What potentially sensitive topics might come up, and how does the game manage that? Also explain any gaps where the game, if you know it well, does not manage those topics.

If there’s baked-in setting or premise, what is the absolute shortest version you can deliver? This might take some practice. When I was thinking about running Coriolis a couple years back, I stripped the game’s super-elaborate background down to the four or five most relevant facts to reflect the setting in a way I thought the players needed to care about. Can you explain your setting/premise/holding environment in four or five sentences? Good to go. It’s also worth working on because it helps you sharpen your own understanding of the game.

Teaching, after all, is the most effective way to learn.

My Con Go-Bag

I’ve been asked more than once to divulge what supplies I bring to every con. Y’all are weird! But here you go:

  • Index cards, on which to write sad things (or more likely, to fold in half as a name tent).
  • Pencils.
  • Fat markers in various colors, for name tents and s-maps.
  • Glass beads, surprisingly handy for tracking stuff or improvising maps.
  • Post-its
  • My beloved dry-erase notebook. So useful.
  • I don’t bother with dice. For real! Literally everyone else at a con has dice, so I just rely on folks to use their own favorite randomizers.
  • And of course a few sheets of easel-sized or butcher paper, in case I want a situation map.

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