I went to Pacificon this past weekend, and I thought I would briefly share my experience.
- I was RPG coordinator, which was good because I got in free and had half my room comped, and bad because I had to spend most of Friday and Saturday at the RPG registration desk (which is boring and involves doing nothing for long periods of time). I enjoy being on the staff of conventions, and am always pleased when I can help the convention out by assisting con-goers. I like helping to solve problems, round up players for games that are running short, and in general making sure that the GMs have what they need and their games run smoothly.
- The food prices at the hotel are ridiculous. Nobody should ever have to pay $50.00 for two hamburgers.
- That said, the hotel itself is nice.
- Convention staff was courteous, funny, competent, and made the infrastructure of the convention both easily accessible and almost entirely unnoticeable, which is no mean feat.
I got into six games over the course of the convention, including three events run by the Pathfinder Society. All of them were D20 based. This is a rare thing for me because D20 is usually not a go-to system for me. But that was the way things shook out and those were the games that looked most interesting to me, so I took the plunge.
One of the games was really, really good.
One of the games was hot and cold.
Four of the games were horrible.
I’m going to deal with Pathfinder Society in a separate post, because I think they deserve some special treatment and it was a unique experience for me (I have never before done any sort of organized society play). But I would like to talk for just a moment about what made the good game good, and what made the bad games bad.
1) GMs need to learn to say “yes” to their players. The single biggest failing I saw in the bad games was GMs being so focused on their plots that they did not allow players any agency. We became, in essence, mere die rolling machines that were not even given leeway in what dice we rolled, when we rolled them, or why. In the best game I played in, the GM was completely comfortable letting us go where we wanted to go and do what we wanted to do. There was still some constraint from the scenario, of course, but when a player came up with a good idea that seemed completely within the rules and the spirit of the game, but which the GM had never thought of, the GM was quick to say “yes!”
2) You can have a play without the set, but not without a play. In two of the bad games I played in, the GM had gone to great lengths to bring miniatures, maps, etc. One of the GMs had BOXES full of terrain, and another had boxes full of minis. The problem was that they both spent so much time on the props that they didn’t have time to do the basic work. In one of the games I got a half-finished character with no skills and no actual place within the scenario. I had a really nice mini for the character, but nothing to do with it. In another game I got a photocopy of a character sheet originally filled out by hand and then written over almost to the point of total illegibility. Moreover, the character was clearly from a different incarnation of the game system than the one we were running, and had a different name and background, and different equipment and weapons, than what was appropriate for the scenario. In several of the games I played in, it was clear from the beginning of the game that the GMs were not familiar with the scenario and had come underprepared. One GM had not brought the pregens for the scenario at all, and one had brought a bunch of incorrect pregens. The GM of my good game had some minis (and had even picked out both male and female minis for each PC, which I thought was particularly cool) and a map, but that wasn’t the focus of the scenario, The map and the minis were there for one purpose – to give the players a better visual idea of who was where so that the action could proceed smoothly. They supported the scenario, rather than the scenario supporting them.
3) Listen at least as much as you talk – in one game the GM was charming, witty, funny… and spent way too much time talking about the background and history of the scenario – to the point where we had to cut several scenes, AND the climactic fight scene against the big bad had to be cut short after only two rounds because we ran out of time. I was left staring at a table full of beautiful minis poised for an epic battle, only to be scooped up off the table, put back in their boxes and whisked away. This was for a seven-hour game! In the best game of the weekend the GM really listened to the players, was supportive of creative ideas even when they threw a monkeywrench into things, and was totally willing to let them take center stage in the game. Which is how it should be.
4) If you are going to do pregen characters for your pregen scenario, make sure all your pregen characters have a chance to shine. As mentioned above, I had one character that the GM hadn’t even finished, and who had absolutely no part to play in the scenario up until the big fight scene at the end (which, as also mentioned above, never happened). In another game I had a character who was an expert escape artist and master of stealth – which would have been great had their actually been any opportunity to use stealth in the scenario. Instead we had a four-hour game that was largely a single straight-up firefight with nowhere to sneak or flank or infiltrate. The good GM had characters that were sufficiently different that they didn’t feel like cookie cutter cut-outs of one another, and were versatile enough that they could branch out, try things, and be successful because there was no “single way” to solve a problem.
5) If you are NOT going to have pregen characters, you had better be flexible with your scenario, In one game I played in, it turned out that fully 80% of the encounters were ones where I was completely useless (either traps that a different party member had to deal with or creatures that were entirely immune to my magic). In the best game, all the characters had something to do each scene.
To sum up, your focus as a GM should be on your players, first and foremost. Not the trappings, not the minis, not the terrain or the cool props or long and venerable history leading up to the adventure – the players. The very first, most important thing you should have is a scenario where the players have important decisions to make that actually affect the outcome, and where characters are not being dragged along like railroad cars behind the plot. This is not to say that the other stuff can’t be important or wonderful to have – I love a good game that is visually exciting with props and terrain and minis. But the props and terrain and minis com AFTER the good plot, not BEFORE the good plot, and they certainly aren’t the focus of the plot. If you have a story to tell, write it down and submit it to a fanzine. Some railroading is understandable given that you are running a game in a specific time frame, but you MUST leave at least a small sandbox for players to run around in – otherwise they aren’t playing a game, they’re watching a TV show.