This is the first in a series of probably 4 posts where I’m going to discuss my experience running Spirit of the Century at KapCon this year. I’ve already made and circulated for comments the middle two parts. Once I’ve written this introduction and cleaned up those two, I’ll write the third. We’ll see how it goes.
Anyone interested enough in roleplaying to be reading this blog probably has some experience running and playing games at roleplaying conventions. It can be a very rewarding experience, or it can be fraught with difficulties. Usually it will be a mix of both depending on the group and the day. I have run only a few, half dozen or so, adventures at multiple conventions, or in multiple convention-like settings, and I’m perpetually amazed at the gulf that exists between each run through.
No game has been more different in successive runs for me than a TORG-inspired scenario where the characters wake up from their holiday and find themselves in a medieval kingdom instead of Scotland. The first convention group explored the details of their characters, had fun trying to explore the world, and had a moving mass death, trying to return to reality. The second group fished around a bit for an obvious story, and eventually just drifted into some kind of ending. Totally unsatisfying.
The key lesson I took from this was that any old game can be great if the group really pushes themselves to find entertainment, but that unless there is an obvious “way forward” of some kind, other groups will stall. The “way forward” is often characterized as the “tunnel of fun” but I think that multiple-divergent routes work too, provided that there is some or other clear set of options at every stage.
Providing a “way forward” is usually easy in adventure-style games. It’s a lot harder in other kinds of games. In The Storm Breaks, my desire for a character-exploration adventure meant that I wanted all of the available “ways forward” to be: talk to one of the other characters. Which is difficult for the GM to prompt, and so I realized that it was naturally a difficult approach unless you can clearly signpost your desire in the game pitch, so people arrive at the game looking for that kind of entertainment.
The other thing you need, I’ve discovered, is a tolerance for “silliest way forward.” I’ve noticed that, more-or-less irrespective of the game, people like playing characters that are “cool”. They want to be better than the average person, more likeable, more powerful. When put into situations where it isn’t obvious that they will be “cooler”, people will usually resort to the backup of “funny.” People can, and will, joke about anything at all, under the grimmest of circumstances. I’ve posted about this before. As a convention GM, you need to build your scenario so that it’s humour-proof: that the scenario still works at some basic level if the PCs aren’t taking it too seriously.
I think perhaps these two forces combine in a weird way to ensure that Horror remains popular, yet frustrating. The monsters powering your Horror story aren’t affected by humour, and nor will they be de-railed by PC apathy. The discordance between a happy-go-lucky PC and their inevitable doom reduces the enjoyment of the purists, but isn’t harmful to story completion.
Given the discussion above, Pulps seem like they should be a sure-fire genre to offer at a convention. They are inherently non-serious, eschewing the moral angst that is the hallmark of their younger brothers: the super heroes, while utilizing their numerous traits of over achievement and pith.
But, I’ve come to realize, the “way forward” in Pulps is often a little random. I always interpreted this as meaning that whatever you try eventually works: you just have to try. But I think that many first-time pulpers don’t know what to try and so do nothing.
Adventure! tried to get around this by using “dramatic editing”, undoubtedly my first brush with “shared narration.” In practical terms, when I was running it, I don’t think it was ever used. And Adventure! leads me on to the basic problem which plagues both pulps and supers: the Super System. Almost universally clunky, detailed, and mechanic heavy… these behemoths really suck the free-flowing and insane action out of the game.
Of course, Supers have been saved by wonderful games like Truth and Justice and With Great Power, and when I finally got around to reading it, after months of Luke raving about it, I hoped Spirit of the Century was that game for pulps.
And for more, I’m afraid, you’ll need to tune in again next time.