Preparing to Run Convention Games (1)

And now, in a break from our scheduled programming… Running games at a convention is a lot of work, but it can also be enormous fun. I’m running some TTRPG sessions at local gaming convention soon, so I wanted to share some of preparation I’m doing.

Two coffee mugs with Dragonfire logos

I plan to write something more specifically about convention games in future, but that won’t be for a while. In the meantime, this is as good an excuse as any to compare the preparation required for different systems. Of course, you may still find this useful if you ever end up running a convention game.

In about a month’s time, I will be running a few sessions at local gaming convention. Dragonfire is South Africa’s longest running roleplaying tournament. 2019 will be the fifth year in a row I run games there. It’s also the society’s 30th anniversary, so I am really looking forward to participating in the celebrations.

I still have weeks to prepare, but past experience has taught me that I prefer being over-prepared – and that I am terrible at judging how long some things take to finish. And you always need to pay attention to other life stuff that often takes precedence. For example, our cats don’t care about my GMing. I could leave the house naked and they would care only about food, water, and a clean litter tray.

Choosing the game systems

I signed myself up to run three sessions, each using a different rule system. Because – why not. In fact, that was the first bit of preparation I needed to do. I knew I wanted to run two systems that I already know well, and possibly a third one I was less familiar with.

I also needed to choose a module to run for each session. Yes, you can certainly write your own module, but that takes a lot of work. And when I’m under pressure to do a lot of different things, I feel more comfortable adapting existing modules rather than writing something from scratch. I also wanted to use some of what I’ve seen from the San Jenaro Co-Op, either a new system or a module.

In the end, I decided to run one Star Trek Adventures module, one Call of Cthulhu module, and Maschine Zeit, a system I haven’t used before.

I run regular Cthulhu games, and I have run a number of Star Trek games. I would still need to review the basic rules for each system before their games, but much less than for an unfamiliar system. For the third game, I chose Maschine Zeit, which was co-created by Liv Hill and Filamena Young.

There are a lot of reasons I wanted to run Maschine Zeit. Firstly, it’s a simple system expressly designed for one-offs, that is easy to learn quickly, and it fits into the horror genre, which I love. Also, it’s written by two amazing people, and I like to support amazing people.

Rarely enough, the system also uses a quick-fire character creation, which is a marvel. Really. Running convention games, time is your greatest obstacle. Each session is allotted four hours, so there is no time to waste. Often, four hours isn’t enough time for people to create their characters, nevermind play. Having a simple, focused system is great for that situation. I can’t wait to run it!

Choosing modules

For the Star Trek game, I decided to adapt one of the scenarios included in the preview version for The Roleplayer’s Guide to Heists (see the Kickstarter image and support us if you haven’t done so yet!) It involves a group of people stealing a ship – which seems like a great, simple setup for a game.

I will be adding details to increase the “Star Trek” feeling of the scenario,. But the heist as written already provides enough of the skeleton to run a four-hour game. It also gives the players a very defined goal for the game, which helps immensely with a short game.

Maschine Zeit doesn’t include example scenarios in the rulebook. I will be getting one or two scenarios to look at, and possibly run beforehand. Fortunately the rules themselves provide enough structure, guidance, and prompts for what is essentially an improvised storytelling game. But with ghosts, in space! (Seriously, I can’t wait.)

For Call of Cthulhu, I chose The Haunting, because it is a classic, and I had already adapted it significantly to use as part of my regular campaign. So while I am familiar with the storyline, I haven’t actually run it ‘as is’. But I know enough the module to prepare to run the module in its original form, without doing too much additional planning.

I also chose the order of the games very carefully. So that I start with the one I know least, when my brain is still fresh, and I can focus on the rules and the story with equal focus simultaneously. And I end with the system I know best, so that I can focus on setting the mood and atmosphere without needing to also remember a bunch of rules I just learned.

Preparing the modules

Photo of a cat with its tongue out
Figaro: Still not interested.

I hinted at this above, but the most important part of planning a convention game is figuring out how to deal with character creation. Usually, modules will come with pregenerated characters (“pregens”) that you can hand to players. 

You could probably use a hyper-abbreviated version of character creation for most systems, but I prefer pregens because it takes away a lot of the admin on my side. If your game needs 3-4 people, it takes a lot of mental energy to help everyone simultaneously.

Fortunately, the Star Trek rules include pregens that you can use for pretty much any game. By contrast, character creation in Maschine Zeit is super-fast, so that isn’t really a problem.

Chaosium includes pregens for most of its modules, but not for The Haunting. So part of my preparation this week was to create five investigators who might conceivably function as a group for the scenario. To help speed up the first stage of the module, I added specific details to help tie the characters more directly to the setup and to the first phase of the investigation.

You can download the character sheets below. Let me know what you think!

Next steps

I still need to do a lot of additional preparation, of course. Most of this will focus on the Maschine Zeit session. I also need to spend a lot of time studying the X-Card system and practising it with my group. Once I’ve read the Maschine Zeit rules and created a cheat sheet for players, I will need to run a trial game for some friends to see how it works.

I also need to prepare a list of possible handouts to give players in the different games, including cheat sheets for the two other systems I’ll be using, and props to make the game feel more alive. Physical props also help players come up with plans and strategies.

I will probably add at least one more post about the preparation, to share how it’s going and help me keep track of what I actually did! Wish me luck.

Mini-hype: Join my games!

Dragonfire is organised by the Cape Legion of Adventurers (CLAWs), the gaming club at the University of Cape Town (UCT). They host regular game nights that include TTRPGs, LARPs, and boardgames.

Dragonfire itself is held at UCT. Dates vary depending on where Women’s Day (August 9) falls. Each year has a vague theme, but it’s generally a place where a bunch of nerds, geeks, and gamers can hang out and do cool stuff. The organisers describe it as “a marathon weekend of card games, board games, tabletop RPGs, live action role playing, wargaming, cosplay, geek merchandise and more.” They are not over-selling this, either.

If you’re in Cape Town, you can sign up to any of 3 games I will be running. The timetable still needs to be confirmed, but here is what I sent the organisers.

Adventure name: “Space Station Zero/TBC
Rule system: Maschine Zeit 2.0

Brief description:

An abandoned space station. Rumours of ghosts in the machine.
An intrepid crew of misfits. A mission doomed to fail.
Why will you be travelling today? And how will you die?

Maschine Zeit is a game for telling ghost stories on space stations. Soft science, hard science, and strict adherence to the X-Card system by John Stavropolous.

2-6 players

Adventure name: “Steal That Shuttle!”
Rule system: Star Trek Adventures

Brief description:

The Star Trek Enterprise is sent to investigate a rogue band of Romulans, said to be testing a dangerous time travel device on an uninhabited planet. Soon the crew finds themselves struggling desperately to steal the experimental shuttle carrying the device before the Romulans can make repairs to their own ships.”

3-5 players

Adventure name: “The Haunting
Rule system: Call of Cthulhu 7.0

Brief description:

The classic scenario returns! You have been hired to investigate an old house in 1920s Boston. Rumour has it that the house may be haunted! The former tenants were involved in a tragedy and the owner wishes to understand the mysterious happenings at the house and set matters straight.

3-5 players