Learning from Gamers

I have played in two utterly horrible games at GenCon.

I’ve played in several good ones – and both the number and quality of good far outweighs the bad. But these bad ones were both horrid and similar enough that I want to analyze them.

Both were horror games – though one was billed as straight 3.5 D&D (grrrrr). The common theme in both was that there was no hope. No matter what we did, no matter how inventive, creative, or resourceful we were… we were utterly doomed from the start.

“Oh, you felt railroaded,” said all of my friends when I told them about the game. “You always have some of that with con games. It’s because you only have four hours.”

While there is a time constraint – and it is the important job of the GM to impose a narrative structure when you’ve got a bunch of strangers playing a game – it is possible to do this without feeling hopeless.

I ran two games for the first World D&D Day. Neither one was created by WOTC, though I used their maps and minis. The first was a relatively straightforward high fantasy game (with a twist), the second was a darker, more horror-themed version. Both have relatively simple plot structures, but the PCs were able to take actions that had an effect on the plot.

It was possible – even likely – in both of my games for the PCs to fail. But it was equally likely that the PCs would succeed. The antagonists would move on a predictable timeline if the PCs did not – so there was no possibility of stagnation. But again, there was hope.

In the bad game I played this year, my character was trapped. He awoke in a stone chair, in a featureless circular room. Every move he made, he took electrical damage. No matter what he tried – insulation, moving slowly, etc – the damage was the same. So he started searching the walls for a way out. Finally he found one – the outline of a door.

“But it doesn’t open from this side,” the DM chortled. “You go unconscious, and wake up in the chair again.”

I’m not sure what emotion that torture porn was supposed to evoke. Dread? I’ve played in games where dread was a constant companion – but it was dreadful because we might not make it… but we also just might. A sense of hopelessness and futility, a sense of utter despair, is simply not horror. It’s a cheap trick.

Look, here’s my advice for running a horror (or any) game at a con:

1) Horror is hard. Avoid it if you can. The con atmosphere isn’t conducive to it, and you run the risk of getting idiots who play horror as if it’s comedy. Start with basic tropes that most people are familiar with. Horror stuff shouldn’t require you to also be familiar with Roman history, Fantasy shouldn’t require a working knowledge of your imaginary kingdom’s history, and Sci-Fi stuff should include lots of handwavium.

2) Simplify the plot. Make it to the point where you feel it’s too simple. It’s about right for a 4 hour game, then.

3) Spend about half the time setting up expectations, relationships, and generally getting the PCs to care about each other. Maybe a small prelude thing where they band together against a common (but amazingly weak) foe. Establish and reinforce the relationship between characters and their spouses, and so on.

4) Use the rule of three. Do something twice to establish a pattern, and then in the third act, twist it unexpectedly. Act 1: Spouse shows affection for PC when leaving for mini-adventure. 2: Spouse shows affection for PC when they return. 3: Spouse, infected by zombie virus, wants to eat PC’s brain.

5) Leave room to both succeed – and fail. Plan for the most probable outcomes – but have more than one. The PCs should be able to EITHER succeed OR fail – but the outcome is in thier hands.

6) Be obvious. I hate puzzle games. I played the original Alone In the Dark for hours – only to give up in frustration because I could not continue. There was some needed item I hadn’t picked up at the beginning, and couldn’t get back to it. That was pre-emptive karma for the times I was a GM. I was frequently too subtle for players, who simply had no idea what was going on. While some folks like that kind of winnowing of the red herrings in a campaign (Hi, Rob!), at a con everyone is by necessity a casual gamer. Use broad, obvious strokes. A surprise (the “honest employer” is actually using you to provoke a war) is doable, but the clues should be pretty blatant from a GM’s point of view. Rule of thumb: If you think it’s too obvious, it’s just about right.

7) Don’t be clich├ęd. And damn it, if you’re determined to run that Ravenloft game, you better advertise it as such and absolutely NOT do the damn “wall of mist” thing. Want to really spook your PC’s? Lose the wall of mist. Have it be a random doorway. Or an arch. Or crossing a stream. Or a mirage in the desert. Meanwhile, have bits of mist… well, be bits of mist. That would be fun.

8) Never, ever explain what’s going on out of character until the last 10 minutes of your time slot. I mean, really.

Follow these guidelines, and I think your con game will improve mightily. Disagree? Agree? Have your own tips and guidelines?