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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Monday, February 27, 2006

Open Gaming vs. Scheduled Events

A good reference point for this post is this article by Valerie Putnam (whose "Pros & Cons" tag is so clever that I had to drop my own series moniker which was quite lame in comparison). In it, she discusses the merits of open gaming with respect to tournaments. The one format her article overlooks is the scheduled event format. This format is most common in local conventions (e.g., Portland's Game Storm). Volunteer Game Masters sign up to run events of their choosing, and a schedule is created from these events (here is the current Game Storm schedule under development). Con-goers then select events from the schedule to attend; perhaps there is a sign-up sheet posted during the con so that attendees can ensure a reserved seat.

As Game Storm has grown over the years, I have observed more open gaming occurring. At the same time, I have seen more scheduled events cancelled due to lack of interest. Here are ten tips on how a Game Master can make his event more attractive and ultimately more successful; good events are an important factor in getting folks to attend future events by the same GM.

  1. When creating an event, look for a spin to make your event more attractive. I once ran a Lord of the Rings event using the "Corrupt Hobbit" variant (similar to the traitor mechanism in Shadows Over Camelot). Another time, I copied the historical information behind the spaces of Merchant of Amsterdam and had the players take turns reading the information as we progressed. You don't have to do something as outrageous as Celebrity Deathmatch Candamir to give your event extra appeal; at a minimum, make the game description a bit more sexy than Jay Tummelson's attempt.
  2. Aggressively work with the Board Game coordinator weeks in advance to ensure the schedule is balanced and fair. Do not assume that the coordinator will actively adjust the schedule. If someone is running a three-hour game in a two-hour slot right before your own event, have it fixed. If there is a glut of events being run at the same time, find a sparser slot and have your event moved. The reason you want to do this as early as possible is because con-goers often like to plan their itinerary before they arrive, and they may be disappointed by surprise schedule adjustments.
  3. Know the game. Reread the rules before the event and master them. There is one GM whose events I will not attend because of one event where he did no prep work and I had to assist with the instruction.
  4. Go to the Geek. Research player aids, FAQs, and so forth. Do whatever it takes to make the playing experience more enjoyable. For example, I created a chart for La Citta to track population and food totals for each player, making it easier to assess the board situation at a glance.

  5. Prepare how you plan to teach the game. Consider putting an outline on paper and going through a dry run. Realize that the learning styles of folks at the cons may be different than those with which you are most comfortable; likewise, your teaching style may be unfamiliar to some of the participants. Be patient and flexible when teaching it.
  6. If possible, do not play in the game. This should be your preference. Only play if you feel that the extra person will make the experience that much better; for example, if I were running El Grande, I would play if exactly four others showed up, as it truly shines with the full complement of five. Stay by the table to answer questions early on, but aim to become invisible by the end of the match. Avoid excessive commentary, and only consider giving strategy tips when asked.
  7. Make sure the previous table is cleared off a few minutes before the start time of your event. If it looks like it isn't wrapping up, identify the GM and work politely with him. If necessary, find the appropriate con official to resolve the situation.
  8. Keep the pace of the game moving. Get a sense of whether the game is on track to complete on time. Hold the group to moving at the appropriate pace; I once ran a 6-player game of Liberté (with all new players) in a 2-hour slot, and contend that it is possible with a disciplined GM. When appropriate, announce progress against schedule. For example, if I were running El Grande (which is structured into thirds) in a 2-hour slot, I would report at the end of the first scoring round how ahead/behind we are of our 0:40 target.
  9. Keep the mood friendly. The most talking I will do at an event I am GM'ing is when trouble stirs. I have had to deal with frustration, impatience, grumbling, and interpersonal conflicts. Not being an actual participant in the game makes this moderation all the more effective. In a con setting, "it's a learning game" has been the star phrase in my toolbox.
  10. Make sure your own table is cleared off a few minutes before the start time of the next event. Remove all trash. Straighten the chairs and smooth out the tablecloth.

Last October, I talked about potential problems introduced by the presence of scheduled events at an open gaming con. There are other problems created when open gaming occurs at a con centered on scheduling events:

  • It discourages mingling, and encourages cliquing.
  • It can lead to events getting cancelled. One evening, you may decide to play Caylus instead of Event X after some waffling, but what if others made the same decision about an Event Y you were interested in?
  • If events are cancelled, GMs will be discouraged from running as many (if any) events in future years. The worst part is that a GM for a cancelled event not only spent all his prep time for naught, he is also at high risk of not participating in an event (open or scheduled) himself. This is a pretty bitter pill to swallow.

In summary, GMs owe it to others to put a little extra work into their events, and attendees owe it to others to participate heavily in the scheduled events. On the other hand, if the majority's preference is for open gaming, I would hope that the con officials are working to collect this feedback and morph the con accordingly.


  • At 8:29 AM, Blogger Jon said…

    Great advice! What will you be running at Game Storm this year? I just submitted events for Cosmic Encounter, Condottierre, and Bohnanza.

  • At 9:24 AM, Blogger dave said…

    Given how full the schedule is, I only plan on running one event: Celebrity Deathmatch Candamir. Nowadays, I usually wait to see the initial schedule prior to signing up for events, as there are so many GMs now that I want to be careful not to have supply exceed demand.


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