Lessons from AusCon II

Until AusCon II (October 2011), it had been about five to six years since I last presented a roleplaying scenario. Before then, I’d been running con games regularly since 1990. I found that the design principles I used to use (waaaaay back then) don’t seem to cut it any more. Here’s the way I’ll be approaching future convention scenarios.

Think Inside the Box

Linear plots just plain don’t work. A linear plot is one that relies on scene A leading to scene B leading to scene C, etc. In an environment in which you have limited time to finish the story, this approach just plain doesn’t work. Either the GM must hurry the players through the scenario or you must accept that the buzzer will sound before you’re finished. Both outcomes are unsatisfactory.

The box plot is a better approach – and pretty similar to how I used to write Call of Cthulhu con scenarios in the early days. The GM presents the player with an environment: the crime scene, the haunted house, the derelict spaceship, etc. Within these (relatively) fixed boundaries, incidents occur either on a schedule or when certain conditions are met, ie: the characters enter a particular room or make a particular action. This model requires a deadline or goal which all the characters understand and the players can see approaching.

People are the Puzzle

Player are no longer happy to puzzle out a puzzle. They want to puzzle out a non-player character: his or her motives, goals, quirks, personality, etc. How do they convince the friendly NPC to help them? Why is the NPC villain out to destroy the player-characters? Is the NPC justified in this? Everything else is a cut scene.

I guess this has always been the case but it’s just hitting home now. Gone are the days of planning how the player-characters travel from location to location. It’s assumed. Just wave your hand and cut to the new location to pick up the action again.

Give the Players a Monkey

All convention scenarios need to give the players something to geek over. This is the toy that keeps on giving. As long as you keep poking it, it keeps squealing. You have to find your own examples of this as I’m not sure I can properly articulate the concept. It includes such things as:

  • the chance to put on upper-class British accents and act atrociously superior in Space 1889;
  • guessing how you’re going to go insane in Call of Cthulhu;
  • seeing what happens when you start pressing buttons on the mysterious gadget from the future.

I used to phrase this as “something to do; something be; something to feel.” I like the new formulation better. The old rule about ensuring each character has his, her or its own story arc still applies.

So, in short, these are the three principles which will make an RPG conventions scenario work. They wouldn’t necessarily make it good or even worth playing but they’ll ensure that the game runs to time and provides a sound structure. I can’t help you with the creative or entertaining aspects of the scenario. That’s still up to you.