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I am in the process of playtesting my RPG system, and I want to put together a scenario for convention play. But almost all my experience as a GM is with long, customized campaigns that are highly responsive to player and character contributions. So a highly constrained, pre-planned scenario with pregenerated characters is a totally new thing for me.

I have a few constraints I think are pretty self-evident and I am already working with these:

  1. Characters must be pregenerated with some customization optional
  2. The scenario must be of limited scope - I am currently working with a 4-scene budget:
    1. 1 introductory scene where the players get to meet the other characters
    2. 3 "encounter" scenes with puzzles or fights
  3. The objective must be absolutely clear at all times - there's no time for indecision

Beyond those constraints, what else is there?

Is there a good formula for the construction of convention games?

What are the primary features of convention or demo games?

What must a convention scenario absolutely avoid?

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3  
I have gotten two excellent answers in less than an hour. Thank you, rpg.SE.com, thank you, thank you thank you! –  gomad Jan 6 '11 at 18:47
    
You are welcome. I have run Tournaments and demo'd new systems on a number occasions over the last 30+ years and both small and large convention venues. They can be the absolute pits if you are not prepared or get confused during the session or the most fun you have ever had. Enjoy and tell us how is goes. –  Acedrummer_CLB Jan 6 '11 at 18:54
    
Great question! I'm going to use the tips myself to introduce some people to 4E. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Jan 6 '11 at 19:20
    
How long have you got? A one-hour tabletop slot? Three 150-minute freeform slots? I'd say the two don't share "primary features". –  Alticamelus Jan 6 '11 at 21:44
    
@ Alticamelus - Well, my first target is a 120-minute slot. I'm not sure I know what you mean by "tabletop" and "freeform". Are you asking whether the game uses miniatures? No, it doesn't, but it does need sheets, counters, dice, etc.. I would like to be able to use this scenario in future situations, too. –  gomad Jan 6 '11 at 21:49

4 Answers 4

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Conventions are tricky beasts. Ask anyone who has demonstrated a system (new or old) or run a tournament they will tell you to live by the saying "your best laid plans will never survive engagement with the enemy".

The best rule-of-thumb I use for conventions is KISS (Keep It Simple Sammy).
Remember in any presentation what your are trying to do. You have a goal for being at the convention with your stuff. Never lose sight of that. It sounds obvious but the distractions of the convention will try their best to re-direct your focus away from that. Gamers love rabbit trails and will take you down one in a heart beat without even a thank you.

Your list of constraint items is right on the money. You are setting up a very limited, controlled scenario with strictly defined characters and a tight focus on the scenario objective. Do not allow variation, AT ALL, because you are the one who has to adapt to any changes on the fly and you (and your game) will be the one who suffers if there is confusion.

There will be changes and plenty of confusion.

Here are the 'rules' (guidelines) to setting up your demonstration for your new RPG system.

  1. Have a script. Not for the scenes or for the demo but for you. Nothing elaborate or written out but something well defined in your mind. You should know pretty much want you want to say when someone approaches you and it should be short. People who are well spoken tend to draw an audience and those who stammer through a presentation soon find themselves with no one to talk to.
  2. Teach. Do not try to play the game first, teach the game first. With everything you use whether it is the pre-gens, the scenario or handouts you want people to take with them should be something that teaches a part of the system. Even if this means the scene doesn't make complete sense. You can tell the players that you are doing this to teach and they might want to do something different. They will use this a way to say I can do this.
  3. Fast. No one at convention comes to play slow, drawn out games. Your 4 scenes' should be able to be done quickly. You define what quickly means based on your system.
  4. Flash and Flair. Everyone wants to be the hero, so setup each scene to highlight a specific character or 2 and let them shine. "YOU GOT THE VICTORY CONDITION" will promote a game faster than the slickest system out there.
  5. Leave them wanting more. P.T. Barnum always left his customers with the hint of something more to come. While it sounds crass it is the number one marketing tool you have. If they like what they see (and not everyone will) then they need to feel there is something more to be gotten if they come back (purchase your system).
  6. AT ALL COSTS AVOID -- Arguing with the gamers. There will be a person who has done this already and will tell you their reasons why you are wrong. Thank them politely and repeat back to them what they said so they know you heard them. If you do this they go away quickly and leave you to run your show. Do not be afraid to say to someone 'Please wait, while I am in the middle of this.'
  7. Have something to give to the people that reminds them of your system. Do not do a cheesy quick flier, give it some thought and make it usable. Maybe a quick start rules or copies of the scenario. Nothing draws people faster than getting something that has real value or usability. Have plenty on hand.
  8. Always look like you are having FUN and you are EXCITED. Do not be crazy, just happy to be there and ready to talk or game.
  9. Do a number of test runs before the convention at your local FLGS or with your group and time your self will doing it. This will hone the scenario and your talking points.
  10. Finally - have something that you can do in 2 minutes to lets your system shine. Just the most basic bare-bones of a scene with a single character. This lets you build an audience and get a few folks interested in the long demo.
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I'd start out waaaaay before the actual content of your adventure. To whit:

Be prepared, whatever that means (for me it means a full water bottle and a good night's sleep). Show up a little early. Make sure everybody knows everybody. Shake hands. Be clean and friendly. Project excitement. Assume people will need a pencil, paper and dice Tell people what you want and ask what they want. Make sure everybody is on the same page concerning what's appropriate and what isn't, both in game and out. Start on time. Enjoy yourself. Schedule in a break. End on time. Thank everyone for playing and ask for feedback.

This stuff will ensure a happier experience all around, regardless of other factors.

With that out of the way, you need to be clear about your own intentions. You are playtesting, right? If you are, I hope your con write-up said so. In any case, be sure to say "This is a playtest. I cannot promise that it will be fun. It may crash and burn. If that's a problem, it's totally OK for you to go do something else now." A lot of people come to cons to play and will be really disappointed by wonky playtest sessions (these people are normal). Others will seek them out and be delighted (these people are your best friends).

What you can reasonably fit in a four hour convention slot is going to vary widely depending on the nature of your game. Since by definition no one will know the rules, less is more. You can benchmark based on other games with a similar level of detail and complexity, perhaps, padding your estimates a little based on a lack of familiarity by your players.

I always make pre-generated characters who are sharply pointed at each other - he's in love with her, she hates this other PC, he's that dude's brother but it's a secret - and tie that into the adventure's situation. If you do this right your work is basically done!

I like to start out in media res with some sort of action right out of the gate, then dial it back and explain more of the system as necessary.

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To your question about what to avoid, here are a few of my pet peeves as a player. They can be minor annoyances in a campaign but can sink a convention session.

"I have brought you all here today..." It can be tempting to dump a bunch of exposition on the players at the very beginning. Avoid this temptation.

The introduction is your opportunity to grab the players' attention, to set the tone for the next few hours of play, and to help them define their characters in a short time. Do it with a bang. That can involve tension, action, humor, tragedy--whatever your scenario dictates. In the initial scene, provide your players an opportunity to interact (with you and each other) and give them reasons to do so.

If you can see no way to avoid a stiff GM monologue followed by perfunctory player responses, at least do it sometime after the first scene.

"And then a bunch of stuff happens, The End." You've already identified this, but just to emphasize: players schedule convention sessions back-to-back, so if the gong strikes and you're 15 minutes from your incredibly climactic final scene: tough luck. Plot tightly, cut mercilessly. Be ready to move encounters, items, scenes, and clues wherever you need them to keep the story moving. Avoid red herrings that are not crucial to the plot. If your players are dallying over trivial matters, give 'em an in-game kick in the butt (the door bursts open, the sun sets, there's a gunshot in the hallway).

"So do you want to hear what was really going on?" Clever, intricate backstories can make for great campaigns, but rarely make an impact on a one-off. If the session ends and you have to explain a bunch of "off-camera" events that are crucial to the players' understanding and enjoyment of the game, then consider how you could've introduced those details into actual play. Show don't tell, and rely on events not stories.

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There was a very good session prep workbook from GenCon 2008, which you can view here.

This does have broader areas however, I would mainly look into utilising "The 5 Room/Scene Adventure" from here, though it is given a wider outlook (beyond a dungeon crawl) in the workbook. The basic premise is to have a formula, which can be mixed, which should hopefully hit the right buttons across a plethora of player styles and roughly is compromised of the following "rooms":

Room 1: Entrance And Guardian
Room 2: Puzzle Or Roleplaying Challenge
Room 3: Red Herring
Room 4: Climax, Big Battle Or Conflict
Room 5: Plot Twist

I've personally used this method successfully, now this may not suit all, but for instance in how I took this template and used it as a little framework. To give you an idea it is not the final version, but close, which you can check out here.

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The plot twist could also be called 'Cliffhanger' –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Jan 6 '11 at 20:08

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