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Campaigning at the Con

Getting it Organized

by Mike DeSanto
Nov 28,2002


Campaigning at the Con: Getting it Organized

Welcome to the second installment of Campaigning at the Con. This month I will discuss all the things you need to do before the first convention: Work with convention organizers, set up administration, outline the basics, develop the setting and back story, and make guidelines for players and GMs. This will take a lot of effort, but don't worry; you only have to do it once.

Work with convention organizers

The first thing to do, before you write a word, is contact the convention organizers. You are running a few events; they are running the whole con! Explain what you plan to do, and ask for their backing. If you do not have approval from the staff, you cannot run the games, period. On the other hand, if you work with the staff, they may give you perks. Maybe some playing areas dedicated to your games, or some extra space in the pre-reg book, or some other helpful item.

If the publisher of the system you plan to use gives prizes to the convention, you should contact them as well. Explain your plans to them the same way you explained to the convention organizers. Like the con organizers, a game publisher can stop your campaign in its tracks, or make things much easier for you.

When creating Davenford, we contacted the RPG staff early. They asked that we do nothing to annoy the RPGA run games (which make up a majority of the events) and that we keep in touch with them about scheduling and advertising. We did not think to contact Steve Jackson Games, which was a mistake. Steve Jackson Games provides a generous number of prizes to the Strategicon conventions. According to the local head of MIBs (volunteers who help advertise SJG games) Davenford nearly lost the convention its prize support.

Set Up Administration

Once you have permission to run your games, you need to get all the GMs together and organize yourselves. In this meeting you will make a lot of decisions and develop the campaign constitution your campaign will be built on. All the rest of this column describes writing the campaign constitution, and most will be done during this first meeting. (Some would call the campaign constitution the campaign bible, but since it is designed to be amended in the future, I call it a constitution.)

The campaign constitution should be as detailed as you need it to be to run your games. You can leave things a bit vague and make judgment calls as you go, or set things on paper and create a rulebook for future reference. The important thing is that the players and GMs know what is expected of them.

The first thing to write in the campaign constitution is the organizational structure. Do all the GMs have equal authority, or is one person in charge? Do the GMs need to vote or discuss certain topics? If so, what? If one GM makes a decision and the others object, what do you do? Getting all this figured out up front will save all sorts of problems later.

We used a democratic model for Davenford. Individual GMs had authority in their area of specialization. (I controlled the Baron and his court.) Everything else was settled by discussion and vote. This eventually presented problems, but that is a topic for a later column.

Outline the Basics

The next item for the campaign constitution is campaign basics. What system will you use? What genre will the games be (fantasy, sci-fi, horror)? What will the power level be? (Are the PCs normal folks or super heroes?) What will the tone of the campaign be, (gritty or campy)?

Davenford was a low fantasy campaign using the GURPS system. Magic items were very uncommon. The power level of PCs was fairly high, 125 points for starting characters and +3 points per event from experience. The tone was serious, with lots of action through invasions, assassins and feudal politics.

Players need basic information as well. How do the PCs fit into the game world? Are they random folks brought together by circumstances, or do they all belong to a common organization? Do they live within the law? Are they heroes, applauded by the population or rebels against the evil empire, scraping a thankless existence? If the players are confused about how their characters fit into the world, they will not be inclined to play the games.

In Davenford the Baron instituted a policy of public service wherein a person (specifically a PC) could skip paying property tax. The public service took the form of adventures. This gave a plot hook, and explained why a random group of PCs could be thrown together - their numbers came up. It also explained why people from very different social strata should work together. If they did not, their mission would fail, and the Baron himself would be asking why.

Finally, how do the different convention events relate to each other? With a willing group of GMs and flexible adventures, the outcome of one event can immediately affect the next. A simpler approach is to finish the convention, then work the outcome of each event into the campaign history. Determine how focused you will stay on the Arc. Even the best story can use a break now and then. Will the arc be 40% of the games or 90%? This is not a hard and fast rule; do not bother searching the schedule counting games.

Last but not least, decide how you will treat NPCs. If one GM creates an NPC, can another GM use that character? If so, can they kill that character? Figuring this out early will save hurt feelings later. It will also keep players from being confused when the NPC they saw killed one event confronts them in the next.

In Davenford, event outcomes were evaluated between conventions. We ran about 50%-70% on Arc. Each GM has one 'invulnerable' NPC, their voice in character. Other NPCs were shared, and had to take their chances with mortality, though we always tried to warn the creator if an important NPC might be killed.

Develop the Setting and Back Story

Once the basics are defined, you can start the more enjoyable task of defining the world. A broad background is created at the first meeting.

I recommend using a published setting as your starting point. That way you can spend time on specifics, not on general background. You are not writing an adventure, so stick with defining the people, places and things of the setting. Describe the movers and shakers in the world. A paragraph or two is enough; you do not need character sheets yet. Define a few common locations - market squares, guildhalls, bars, tourist attractions. Any important items should be noted; magic rings, laser swords or power armor require definition up front.

Once the present is defined, write down some of the past. How have the main NPCs and powerful groups gotten to the current state? Remember to include both alliances and conflicts that you can exploit in the future. This sounds like a lot of writing, but remember that you are only making an outline.

Assign each GM one of the powerful groups in the outline. The GM in control of a group is responsible to create a more detailed background between the initial meeting and the first convention.

For Davenford, we started with GURPS Fantasy and described the city of Davenford just north of the Black Woods near Quartadec. Davenford was a trading city, with its economy based on trade coming from the nearby road traveling on the river to Quartadec, and on logging the edges of the mysterious Black Woods. The Baron was born a commoner, given rank by the Earl for service in war, known for his stubborn devotion to duty. Resentment of local nobles, nearness of Northern barbarians and proximity to the mysterious and magical Black Woods gave plenty of room for adventures.

Make Guidelines for Players and GMs

Now the most enjoyable part is over, but there is still work to do. Any organized event needs bookkeeping to make sure everyone is doing what they should, and make sure nobody is cheating.

The most annoying paperwork will be controlling player characters. The players need guidelines for making characters, and you need to try to stop the few that will cheat. The two main considerations are complexity and GM involvement. Character generation may be completely open, subject only to approval by one of your GMs, or you may have pages of rules for starting PCs. You just need to decide how much of the process will be governed by rules and how much by the judgment of a GM. As a secondary option, you can start with a large pool of pre-made characters and let new players pick one. This option gives you plenty of control, but may not be popular with players.

Exactly how you manage player characters should match the flavor of your campaign and the temperament of your GMs. Whatever you decide, it needs to be written down and available to new players. They need to know exactly what to do, even if the instructions are "Talk to a GM and they will help you create a character."

Davenford had a one-page handout for new characters. It listed the available sources (GURPS Basic, 3rd edition revised, GURPS Fantasy and GURPS Magic), described available races, and gave starting point values and starting money. New characters needed to be approved by a GM, and a copy was turned over to the GMs for future comparison.

You should mention any guidelines for character conduct. Note anything a PC may be punished for. In a Robin Hood campaign, robbing the rich is expected. In a modern FBI campaign, robbing the rich (or anyone else) will be harshly punished. Include actions between player characters. This is a good place to prohibit combat and stealing between PCs. These guidelines should include the repercussions for breaking the rules.

Players need guidelines for their conduct as well. Most conventions have a procedure for dealing with disruptive players. You should make a note of it. You must make it very clear that disruptive players will not be tolerated. After all, everyone at the table paid good money to be there. You have to do your best to make sure they all have a good time. If one player leaves happy because they wrecked your game, and the rest leave angry because you let the game be wrecked, you will never see those five again.

GMs also need guidelines, particularly for their adventures. This is the least important of the guideline documents, and is not necessary if you have really great communications between the GMs. The GM guidelines should contain a reminder of the expected tone and power level of the campaign. Consistency is important to attract repeat players.

My final recommendation is an ethics statement. This is simply a statement of how sensitive issues like religion, violence and discrimination will be handled in your campaign. If you plan a historically accurate representation of medieval religious relations, you had better make sure that your players are aware of it.

Player guidelines for Davenford prohibited combat between PCs, except where mandated by the story (one PC is mind controlled by a villain, for example.) They also reiterated the convention rules for dealing with disruptive players. The GM guidelines limited the size of rewards, listed the preferred combat rules, and gave some scenario guidelines like "No PC will be forced to commit an evil act to complete an adventure, and no PC will be rewarded for evil acts committed voluntarily." The Davenford Ethics statement contained items like; No Scenario will belittle, insult or defame any EXISTING ethnic, racial or religious group. Scenarios will avoid the use of EXPLICIT sexual situations or EXCESSIVE gore. Scenarios should EMPHASIZE the struggle between good and evil and the EVENTUAL triumph of good.

Put the outline produced in the GM meeting into the campaign constitution, and make sure everyone has access to it.

After the Meeting

At the meeting, each GM was given a part of the world to be in charge of. They will now fill in the gaps in the outline. Each GM needs to create enough detail to run their first few games. What, in the area you control, can a character aspire to? What prerequisites are there to being in your group? The first few events you run should center on the group you control, both to define the group and introduce it to players.

You should also add some detail to the group history. Who are the NPCs in power? Where the outline had a single NPC, you now need the structure of the organization. What places are controlled by/important to the group? Give some history of the organization, and a few traditions or rituals - be they elaborate initiations to a secret society or the traditional toast at a local bar.

All of the detail each GM writes is added to the campaign constitution, giving a good base for your campaign to grow on.

Getting it all together

When you have finished all the steps above, you will have a big heap of paper describing your campaign. This campaign constitution will give everyone the same starting point for dealing with the campaign. It will ensure that all the GMs are clear about the setting, and know their responsibilities. The size of the pile should be right for the GMs: enough on paper to make everyone comfortable, but not enough to bog things down.

Another, smaller, pile of papers contains handouts for the players. More on player handouts and dealing with players in general in next month's column - The Balance of Power.

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