Gen Con, pt 2

The first game of Thurs was Starblazer Adventures: Return of the Star Kings, pt 1. Starblazer Adventures is a massive tome, an extension of the Fate system based on an obscure 80s British comic. The comic itself was, as near as I can suss out, a pastiche of all the space opera that had come before. As such, it seems to have a lot of unique names and details, but the broad strokes look a lot like all the other space opera, both before and since, and thus rings very familiar. In both good and bad ways.

I’m not entirely sold on the setting of the game. It’s distinct enough that, to play in it, you would need to learn the setting. But, after all that effort (it’s a big book), you wouldn’t be using a particularly distinctive setting. It seems to me that a better way to do it would be to create your own pastiche, based on whatever settings the people you were playing with were already familiar with. You’d end up with roughly the same thing—a not-terribly-distinctive setting, evocative of larger-than-life space opera—but with much less effort, and probably greater familiarity. And, for that matter, it wouldn’t be at all hard to just take Spirit of the Century and adapt it to space opera.

Someone else I talked to, after the game, was commenting that what’s cool about Starblazer Adventures isn’t the setting, it’s the rules. It apparently expands greatly on Fate, particularly on the macro end: tweaking and applying the rules for large objects—starships, planets?, armies?, societies?—I’m not entirely sure.

Keep in mind that the previous two paragraphs are only semi-informed mumblings. I’ve flipped through the book, and played a short demo game, and talked with other people more familiar with it than I, but I haven’t given it a close—or even cursory—read.

Anyway, back to the game. We had it explained to us that “terran” (i.e., human) society had expanded across a chunk of space, conquering or wiping out a couple of other races in the process. But humans had since butted up against Taurian society—and they look just like the name implies: 3m-tall brutish bipedal bull-men. Further, there’s an intergalactic society of more advanced aliens, who want to see the Taurians and Terrans grow up before they’re let into polite society—or, at worst, wipe each other out in their own little corner of space, without messing up anywhere else. They patrol in immensely powerful ships, and mete out “justice” on any Terrans or Taurians that stray outside of their box. Our characters were to be the senior officers of an exploratory/scientific/military starship. Very much in the mold of the original Star Trek.

The GM had us randomly grab the characters, and I ended up with Captain Dirk Solar. His character sheet could’ve been for James Tiberius Kirk—or Peter Quincy Taggart—and featured Aspects like “a girl in every starport” and “always manages to get his shirt off”. There were more along those lines, but I forget them at the moment. He also had fairly low skills in diplomacy-type things, and fairly high ratings in, IIRC, seduction and fisticuffs (or whatever they’re called in the game). I decided to take the hint, and do my best to channel Shatner for the hour or two of the game, much to the amusement of the rest of the table. I guess I didn’t do it too badly.

The other characters were similar pastiches of mostly-Star Trek sources, though less blatantly so. And unlike the captain, they were a little mixed-up (in a good way): the doctor was an alien, but the science officer was human, etc.

The game was fun, and the scenario/situation appropriate to the time alotted—not railroad-straight, but not particularly complex, either. One interesting change to Fate was using d6-d6, rather than 4dF. It gives wilder results, and I’m not sold on that part. Sure, getting extraordinary results—good, in particular, but bad can be fun, too—can make the game larger than life. But it also runs the risk of making the game wacky. Your Star Trek pastiche can easily slide right past Galaxy Quest and into Futurama territory (or, in RPG terms, Star Frontiers, Farscape, and Teenagers from Outer Space, respectively). Which is fine, unless you wanted serious or merely light-hearted, rather than satyr or outright farce. The flipside of the more-centered curve of the Fudge dice is competency: your character is highly likely to perform within one step of her rated capability, so you can be reasonably assured of how something will turn out. Sure, extraordinary successes are considerably rarer, but so are shocking failures. Ramp up the skill levels, and with the greater consistency of results, and you’ve got your larger-than-life heroic characters.

I do have one outright criticism of the game we played: use of time. A 2-hour allotment really means you have 1:45, or so. At that point, anything over 15min of introduction before play can begin is too much (unless your game can’t sustain more than an hour of play without playing again, such as some card/board games). Our GM spent more than a half hour telling us about the game and the setting (and a few other sundry tidbits, not all of them strictly on topic). And we ended a bit early, due to having overcome the primary obstacle. I’ll get back to that part in a bit. Too much introduction is an easy mistake to make—you’ve got all this cool setting to show off, and a new set of rules to explain, and you feel like you need to tell the players everything that their characters would know, as well as everything the players should know. You don’t.

When we first started running convention games, we made the same mistake. In particular, we had games of Advanced Dimensional Green Ninja-Educational Preparatory Super-Elementary Fortress 555 slotted for 2hrs, and the intro was taking over 30min. Plus at least 5-10min for people to choose characters. Plus 5min or so in case someone is running late for the game. etc. I watched games being run, and realized that we were losing people—they’re here to game, not listen to storytime. We talked about it, and trimmed the entirety of the introduction down to 15min, tops. Even for our 4-hour games, we’ve considerably tightened up the introduction, aiming to start play, proper, within 30min of the start time of the game. And that’s despite Four Colors al Fresco requiring a relatively unusual set of rules to be explained, and Dread requiring people to fill out their character questionnaires.

The secret is to figure out the bare minimum to get started and then be more aggressive than you would be with your home game group about interjecting additional pertinent information as it comes up. You don’t need to tell us about the intergalactic society that keeps the Terrans and Taurians boxed in, if there is no chance of them showing up in our game. You’re going to have to remind people to use their fate points in the game anyway, so you can wait until a situation where they would be useful/important comes up, and then explain the details—as is, the GM basically told us all the rules for fate points at the beginning of the game, but then had to explain them all over the first time or two that someone tried to use them. And I know it’s hard to skip over all that—you feel like you’re leaving players in the dark about important mechanical options they have, or about cool setting details you’ve created. Get over it. It’ll make your game more enjoyable, and people will come away with a more-favorable memory, and be more likely to check the game out in the future. Whether you’re trying to sell a product, or just get people to come back for more, that’s to your advantage.

And I really mean the bare minimum. Four Colors al Fresco‘s setting can be summarized as “Renaissance Italy, but where da Vinci has actually built all the things he imagined, there are superheroes, and megalomaniacs regularly try to take over the world”. And some variation on that is about all i usually say about the setting for a convention game. I’ll generally add a sentence or so introducing the specific characters being played (“you are the senior class of Professor Omega’s School for Gifted Omegas, in Venicia”, “the Daring daVincis are artist friends of da Vinci that he gave superpowers in order to create a crime-fighting team”). In both cases, that is glossing over huge details that might even be relevant to the game. Frex, the fact that Italia is the “inverse” of Italy, with the Sea of Italia where Italy is, and land where portions of the Aegean and Mediterranean seas are in the real world. And that the Pope is the head of government, as well as of the church. And how various places and groups of people see Omegas (the superheroes of the setting). And that there is no France[-equivalent]. And the way that social mores differ significantly from not only modern mores, but from typical movie portrayals of Renaissance mores. If anything like that comes up, and would matter, that’s when I explain it. And if it doesn’t—well, either they’ll discover it when they buy a copy to read, or they’ll never know what they missed. But, either way, it won’t have bogged down the game. Similar strategies make sense for mechanics issues, with the caveat that, yeah, you may need to explain a little bit more to give players a comfortable handle on what they can do. But, even there, you can often wait until it comes up in the game. And then, the extra context will probably make explaining it easier, too. Or, you can give the cursory overview of the mechanics prior to play, but only really explain them once someone wants to actually use them.

Unfortunately, the Starblazer Adventures game committed another cardinal sin of convention games: not everyone got their chance to shine. Now, sometimes, it just doesn’t happen. I nearly screwed that one up in one of my Four Colors al Fresco games this convention when, due to the particular 4 characters chosen (of the 7 available), how the players went about tracking down and confronting the villains, and the specific capabilities of the villains, all garnished with some lousy dice luck, meant that one character totally stole the show in the big climactic confrontation, and one of the players in particular felt pretty left out, until the very last moment. But the GM should be specifically working to try and make it happen. In your 2-hour game, you’ve got, at best, 1.5hrs of play time (assuming you’ve trimmed your intro down to 15mins). Given that, you either need to keep the characters together, or you need to have something significant for all of the characters to do. And if the scenario really only has one real challenge/mystery/opponent, you better either keep the group all involved with it, or invent something more if they separate. In our game, I immediately declared shore leave in rotating shifts, assigned the job of figuring that out to the 1st officer, grabbed the head of security, and headed for the spaceport. The doctor also headed down to the planet to look for medical supplies. As it turned out, the communications officer got to discover some interesting info [presumably important in pt.2, or later] that never really led to anything within our game, the doc stumbled into the primary villain, and I and the head of security solved it. And I and the doc were the only ones who got any real spotlight time. Additionally, by seizing the initiative, I inadvertently ended up with the majority of the screen time, too, in the form of a couple inconsequential encounters before that. Which, Shatner-channelling or no, certainly wasn’t my intention.

What should have happened was that each of the players got at least one, however-brief, bit of [shared] spotlight time, perhaps in groups, in different scenes. Preferably contributing to solving the central challenge. But, failing that, any sort of side scene that focuses on an otherwise-left-out character would suffice. The lack of this was particularly galling given that we ended early. Given such a short game, and the way it had run (mostly focusing on just a couple characters), wrapping up the main plot should’ve been a cue to have an extended denouement, inventing a minor scene or two that focused on the left-out characters, rather than to wrap up the game.

Also, another trick to trim your intro: save the parts that aren’t necessary for playing the game for after the game. Tell the players about things like the game company or other games you’re running or where to buy the game as part of your wrap-up, rather than your intro. That’s also an excellent excuse to keep people lurking for a few minutes so you can talk to them and get feedback—and it’s the least-important info to the game experience, so if it runs over time and someone has to bolt to get to their next game, they haven’t missed as much. Most of the “meta-info” about the game they can easily find later, so long as they remember the name of the game. And assuming they had a good enough time to desire to track it down.

BTW, I do want to emphasize that I’m not upset with the GM, just disappointed. And he was a good GM in every other way, so he probably runs great games at home, or given a little more time. But he needs to tighten up his game a bit if he’s going to continue to run short demo/intro games. And, honestly, I had a great time. But I’m not sure how much fun the other players had, particularly the 3 who didn’t really have any chance to shine (or the one whose only bit of spotlight turned out to be inconsequential within the scope of the game session). So, if the GM in question sees this essay, I hope he takes this as constructive criticism. And for anyone who is planning on running games at a convention, if any of this is news to you, I hope it helps.

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