Some of my thoughts on the Irish Scenario-Con question

There is an interesting discussion going on right now over on the igaming mailing list (and cross-posted to LiveJournal), but one I’ve consciously chosen not to comment on. The people involved have much bigger stakes in it than I ever have and I’ve had my share of being on the virtual battleground but I have little to add on this.

So I guess I’m doing it here. If you take the time, read the original post. It’s roughly about now in the year that some argument occurs (though the last few years have been quiet). The discussion is about how scenarios, or rather TableTop RPGs, are run at Irish Conventions. Apparently we do it differently to everyone else and one of the “old hands” in the scene has strongly suggested that cons change the way they do things.

Unlike most of the people involved in the discussion, I’ve only GMed at a few conventions, submitted only two (may be three, I can’t exactly remember) scenarios, attend conventions every few years and I’m not really part of the “scene” though I know a lot of the oldies and some of the younger ones by face or name. We’re a small enough country you know.

I’ve GMed at conventions but only in my younger teenage years (15+ years ago, maybe even more), when the offer of free entry and T-shirt were a big thing for me. I ran only systems I knew but I barely remember the experience. I do remember being called up a few days before one Gaelcon and being asked if I’d GM some game because I did it the year before, I could hardly refuse. I remember as youngster it was the systems I knew that I want to play.

As I entered collage, I wasn’t really involved at that level again. The only scenarios I submitted were because friends asked me to, no other reason. I put a lot of effort into them at time, getting them in on time, trying to layout them out to support GMs, etc. But I found as a newbie scenario writer, I was given the short stick for a lot of it. My second scenario was ran on the dreaded Sunday morning slots where one of the players arrived and promptly fell asleep, because, like everyone else, he had been out drinking at the pub quiz the night before.

The complaint in this discussion is that numbers are dwindling and the organisation behind scenario submissions and finding GMs is breaking down. Writers submit their scenarios late, GMs don’t get them until five minutes before the session starts, everything is a mess and with dwindling numbers, it’s just badness. The solution, proposed, is that the writer is the GM and there is only one table per scenario (ran by the writer). So no bad GMs to run that scenario, but then you have lack of tables, people don’t get to play the games they want, and so on.

I have to agree, at the few conventions I’ve been at, I’ve been lumbered with GMs who didn’t know the system but knew thew world (we still had a good game), with GMs who only got the scenario as we sat down (that game sucked) and games that didn’t run because there wasn’t enough players. Hell, in one case, I heard about game that was going to be scheduled and offered to be a GM, but that fell apart because of not enough players.

From my writer perspective though, it was always a one writer-table experience. Unless you’re one of the “superstars” of the scene or writing one of the stable games (like D&D or in the olden days Vampire), you only ever got one table. Most of the games I’d like to play are not the big name games (and this was before the big “indie revolution”), I play those with my regular troupe, it’s the unusual or less popular ones that I grab my interest. They regularly only have one or maybe two tables. To me it seems like we have the two systems already in place, but then I don’t have the vast amount of con-experience to validate that assessment.

So on side we have the big popular games or writers with several tables and GMs running the scenarios. This is the given impression of how cons are ran. And on the other side then, lesser popular or well known games and writers often only get one table (possible two).  So it already looks like, to me, we have a hybrid system of multiple GM to one scenario and single-table-writer-GM scenarios. The commonality is how the scenario is submitted to the con as a scenario writer must assume that other GMs may read their scenario and can’t just run with a few notes in their head.

So is the issue really with the scenario submission process? Should it be more flexible, lower the bar to get more in or raise the bar to get only the high level of quality? Or am I missing the fundamental difference in the two styles of organization?

It would seem to me that the clog in the pipe is the scenarios received by a con more than anything else. Cons need to have a better submission process that encourage new writers to contribute but keeps a high level of quality. Not easy I guess when everyone involved is volunteers. The more I think and write about it, the more it seems to me that conventions are like publishers in many ways. They need to be to maintain a high level of quality of submission. Yet unlike publishers there is very little feedback from the cons until the actual day of the convention (i.e. the public launch of the scenario in a live game), (in my experience but if yours differs, that great). If you don’t care about the quality than the model needs to change and give more flexibility to writer/GMs to just run stuff.

If we keep the old way, you need more writers to get involved. I think the first thing to do is reduce the foreseeable “barriers to entry” as much as possible, provide some sort of enticement to get new writers in and then provide good and decent feedback before the convention.

For example, one of the “barriers” people throw about is that people don’t know how to write scenarios and so there should be workshops and guides etc. These are all great but don’t necessarily encourage writers to submit their work to cons. Perhaps cons could start with a “Style Guide” that gives suggestions on format and layout, sections/chapters and notes on readability, much like you’d get from a publisher who may solicit freelance work. Of course they shouldn’t necessarily be about how to design the scenario though as there is “more than one way to skin a cat”, but guides and references are always useful, if well presented. You could use the wiki to “crowd-source” it even.

Also, why not promote the scenarios submitted last year? Make them available from the con website, with snippets of positive quotes from the players. I always find it odd that last year is forgotten, websites deleted and and the scenarios get banked and gather dust. I don’t see an issue with an old scenario being run again if there is demand for it. Also, by using last years scenarios as promotional material you’re also playing to the ego of the writers, encouraging them to come back and write more this year.

And you need to entice writers as early as possible. Awards don’t do it BTW. Not saying awards are bad, they serve their own function, but only one person can win an award, the rest are losers. You don’t want you’re new writers to be losers, you want them to write for the con next year. I know cons aren’t going to pay writers, and while it’s nice to provide them with snacks and give free entry, its not a particular enticement for someone like me. It’s nice, but really not enough. Instead it’s the little bit extra that con might do. As way of example, I write some free software. People  use it and come back to me for support. A small small minority of users will donate a few Euros my way to say thanks. That’s nice. I also provide a wish list of books and that is really really nice when I receive a surprise parcel with one of those books. It’s how I discovered Watchmen. Those little things, are what keep me developing the software and trying to help and support the users. GreyGhost who publish Fudge RPG, for example, will send you free stuff if you run a fudge game at a convention. So to get new writers and keep them, there has to be that little extra something to entice them and keep them. Perhaps a free signed RPG book, a piece of art from a local artist or even getting their scenario illustrated for example. I don’t know whats available to the budget or ingenuity of con RPG organisers, but it doesn’t have to be expensive. Con goers know what to expect from the con experience, but it’s that little bit extra that can make it memorable.

There are less physical ways too, such as proper feedback. If you have a hard deadline for scenarios and those that arrive on time should be reviewed and feedback provided back to the author. For a new writer, knowing that someone took the time to actually read the work in its entirety and make a point of providing useful feedback is great. In fact, feeding to the egos of the writers is cheap but just as effective as physical gifts. Send them a copy of the con pamphlet with their name highlight and their scenario listed.

In the end however, we’ve got to recognise that on all levels of these experiences are people who volunteer and provide their creativity and effort for very little return. So I can imagine it’s hard to change the way things are done or to take criticism from people like me who haven’t done their time. So I offer my thoughts as is.

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