The Gray Zone: Convention Games

Let's consider three different contexts for playing D&D:

  1. Home campaigns. Here you'll be playing with the same players & characters over an extended period of time. Characters will almost certainly be generated individually to player taste; they will advance and explore the world over time. Old-school “sandbox” style play basically requires this context.

  2. Convention games. This is a one-shot adventure, possibly limited to a 4-hour time slot or something similar. Characters may be pre-generated or custom-made (consider RPGA point-buy rules or the old DMG Appendix P, which I still use). The characters won't advance in any mechanical way.

  3. Tournament play. This is also a one-shot adventure, but in a competitive context. There will be multiple (possibly very many) playgroups run through the same scenario, with an eye towards scoring the best and picking a “champion”. Characters are almost certainly pre-generated (so as to give a level playing field to the competition).
Notice that I distinguish here between “convention games” in general and “tournament play” in particular (even though they have many coarse similarities, and tournaments are generally run within a convention gathering). Convention & tournament games are similar in that they both feature short one-off adventures, and they avoid any usage of the character-advancement rules. But they differ in that one is competitive and the other is not. Simple convention games, perhaps, have more of an incentive to let the players “win” (sometimes they are run as product-release promotions or trials, and have good reason to want the players to leave the table feeling like they “had fun” with the experience and the product).

Tournament games, meanwhile, have an excellent reason to be tough meat-grinders where the majority of the players “lose” (by acting as a strict filter, they make it easier to identify the one “champion” in the event that made the most progress; whereas if many people uniformly “win” it will be difficult to make that distinction). Compare to an interesting quote from recent cyberware games at West Point: the attacks designed by the NSA were made "a little too hard for the strongest undergraduate team to deal with, so that we could distinguish the strongest teams from the weaker ones." And this also explains why the earliest D&D published adventures all had a "killer DM" feel to them: they were all originally developed for competitive tournament situations.

Okay, so getting closer to my point -- Having considered the different kinds of play contexts I've seen for D&D, two of them have seemed the most compelling, and one is rather more frail for me. We might ask the question, "Why are we playing; what do we gain at the end?" Two of these situations have a meta-reward, outside the game itself, that makes the experience deeper and more compelling. In case (1) Home campaigns, the meta-reward is largely character advancement; levelling up, accessing new powers and magic items. There's also exploration of a larger campaign world over time, but let's face it -- The #1 revolutionary, addictive development that D&D brought us was the idea of persistent, advancing characters over many game sessions, and this is almost solely accessible in terms of a home campaign. In case (3) Tournament play, the meta-reward is the competition with other teams playing in parallel to yours, and seeing one team at the end awarded with honor and a trophy (or somesuch). Personally, I love playing in a tournament, and love the heads-down, high-proficiency play that I see in that context.

So that leaves case (2) Convention games, and frankly, I can't figure out what the meta-game "point" is to them anymore. When I run one, I'm left a little bit bewildered at the end about what the payoff is. It seems very awkward if there's a TPK at the end, and it seems almost equally awkward if time simply runs out after a certain number of rooms are successfully looted.

One suggestion is that there needs to be a specific "quest" in a convention game -- The players are given an explicit (or obvious) assignment at the start, and if they can succeed in the time alloted, they are declared to have "won". A few problems here: (1) It's difficult to estimate in advance a perfect set of encounters that lead to a "win" at exactly the 4-hour mark. (2) The setup manages to frustrate the classic D&D architecture of open-ended exploration, multiple paths, resource management, wandering monsters, treasure and XP rewards, etc. (3) There's still no meta-game reward from this in-game "victory".

Now, I have a good friend Paul who recently ran an exceptional convention game a few weeks back. Philosophically, we tend to disagree about many of the high-level "whys and wherefores" of D&D, but I think we almost always agree about whether a given game we just experienced was good or not (sort of an "I know it when I see it" experience). In the past we simultaneously co-DM'd a campaign, and at least once our differing styles stomped ugly all over each other (Ettin-style?). He may run a better convention game than I do; the one he ran the other weekend was one of the most fun D&D sessions I've had in a long time -- hilarious characters, great encounters, well-paced, filthy humor (which I like), great ending. I was mulling over my troubles with convention games on the ride over, and lo, my friend snaps off one of the best such games in my memory.

Anyway, Paul wrote up his notes on that adventure on his blog over here. The thing I was surprised and a bit unsettled by was that the quest, locations, and NPCs were all being invented and moved around backstage on the fly, which is how our investigations managed to lead us to saving the girl at almost exactly the 4-hour mark. Made for a great, nigh-perfect gaming session -- and it's not something I think I'd ever be able to bring myself to do, as it goes against every grain I've been trained in as a game designer, thinking more in terms of published tournament-style adventures that we'd prefer to keep fixed, replicable, and fair if multiple groups are run through the same adventure over time.

So, what to do? Should I just give up on running one-off convention games (granted that they frustrate all the meta-game rewards that are the hallmark of D&D), and leave them to better narrative DMs? Is there any way to interface the classic rewards of D&D in an isolated, one-shot experience? Troubling questions, since at this point in my life the only opportunities I have for play are the infrequent one-off convention games: the "gray zone" in the middle, if you will.


  1. Yeah that's tough.
    Swag? Promotional material given regardless of success or failure?
    I know as a player at conventions I tend to be more interested in observing how others run familiar games when I play such (I usually register for games I'd otherwise not have a chance to play, napoleonics and such)

    By the sound of it though, DH's approach is a pretty great idea - to treat it as an episode and keep time and pacing more malleable, to make it more 'story-ish' I guess - which I too think I'd have a hard time feeling confident about accomplishing.

    I suppose that one-offs in a 'living' campaign might carry more intangible satisfactions for the participants...

  2. For me, I think you ordered the games pretty much in the order I think about them. Home campaign play is as far as I'm concerned the way it's meant to be. Convention play is all about how to give the home campaign feel in single self-contained dose. While I find the concept of tournament play intriguing, I must admit that I don't think I've ever really played one. You might argue that some of the old RPGA games we played were such (MacGoohens!), but honestly to get the pay-off you mention would require that I actually find out how we did compared to other groups that ran the same module, which is something I never did.

    What's the goal of a convention game? Wow, what a question. I suppose just using the word "fun" isn't much of an answer. On the other hand, claiming that home campaign play is strictly about leveling (and possibly that tournament play is all about being the champion) may be trivializing them too much. As you mentioned in your own post about 'fun', this hobby has a lot of facets, and I think that it's one of those cases where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

    I have been thinking a lot recently about what makes a convention game good, and perhaps knowing the goal would improve my attempts at finding a formula for a good game. In either case though, I suspect it's a shifting target. I'm constantly learning new ideas about how people play the game, and my own opinions change constantly. Every game for me is an experiment, and I'm not sure anymore that there'll ever be a point where I can look back at the data from these experiments and come up with any kind of conclusion. I'll be happy if I can just up the ratio of successes in the games I run.

    - Paul (aka DH)

  3. To me, RPG tournaments are a non-starter. When you figure out a way to score them, you’ve effectively changed the experience in a way that makes me not interested. (e.g. Expand the rules to try to minimize the differences between GMs. Have the players vote on the “best role-player”. etc.)

    The “living” campaigns seem like an interesting middle ground between 1 and 2, but I haven’t had the chance to try them.

    Also, a “sandbox” campaign can be run at conventions. You take your sandbox to conventions and game days. Anyone can roll up a PC and participate. Anyone who has played in your sandbox before can bring back the PC they used before. Such PCs can gain levels and much of the other advantages of campaign play.

    Anyway... Yes, one-off convention games do frustrate some of the “rewards” of D&D campaign play. But...

    1. There are other rewards that they don’t frustrate. (And some systems are perhaps geared better towards one-off convention sessions than D&D is.)

    2. There are external reasons. e.g. Simply exposing people to or trying a different system or style.

    I will say this: I don’t know that convention play is pointless, but I think it is in some sense artificial. Home campaigns are the ideal form. At least to me.

    I don’t know if any of that helps, but those are my thoughts.

  4. It might help to think of con games less as analogous to written fiction and more analogous to the tradition of oral stories.

    Written work is fixed and replicable. The "performance" of a written work (for example: a reading, a movie adaptation) can be judged by how true to the recorded material it stays.

    On the other hand, the old Greek oral stories were always improvised. There was a core story, but the details, the order, the time and place and minor characters, were all improvised on the fly. The key is that they were improvised to suit the current audience, place, mood, and the desired moral of the story.

    Con games are more like those oral tales. They have a solid core, and that is what you have to be true to. The details are improvised in order to make it work for the current players, the vagaries of scheduling, and other transient things.

    Another analogy might be comparing a funny movie to a stand-up comedy routine. Sure, the comic has jokes lined up, but if (s)he's not reading the audience well and playing off them, the routine isn't going to be a success.

  5. I think the payoff of Convention style games is simply the novelty, both for GM and for Player.

    I tend to view them as opportunities to take a game system, genre, or style for a spin, that I would never be able to sustain for an entire campaign. (And if you're the type of gamer who has more game books on his/her shelf than you will ever use in a game, this is as close as you can get to justifying your collection.)

    I've also used them kind of like "pilot" episodes, if you use TV parlance. My "Mutant Bastards" and "Science Patrol" campaigns each started out as a one shot or featurette, and kept rolling once I got the players hooked.

  6. I recently ran my first convention game. These are the reasons that I plan to run many more at conventions to come:

    1. It's fun. I simply enjoy playing D&D (and many other games), and I try to attract that type of person to my convention games. Sure, they'll never use those characters again, but I hope everyone just gets enjoyment out of simply playing.

    2. Convention games let me experiment with things that could potentially unbalance or damage a campaign. It also gives me a chance to run something with a different flavor than my game.

    3. As others have mentioned, it is a chance to get players to try a new system or edition that they aren't familiar with.

  7. In-game competition. The characters are... knights from various lands competing in a tournament... various bumpkins coming to a village fair all striving to win the prize pig... the latest batch of thief/wizard/assassin guild candidates undergoing their final test...

  8. OK, mulled over your post a bit more and have some hopefully less rambling comments. Specifically, in regards to the following quote:

    it goes against every grain I've been trained in as a game designer, thinking more in terms of published tournament-style adventures that we'd prefer to keep fixed, replicable, and fair if multiple groups are run through the same adventure over time.

    I don't think our desires here are totally at odds. At least the replicable part I completely agree with. I do plan on coming back to my notes for this game, cleaning them up, maybe making a few changes, and then running the game again for another group. My goal is produce some written material that is just enough to replicate the general experience while not necessarily replicating the exact details. Basically everything d7 said above.

    On the other hand, I couldn't care less if two instances of the game are "fair" when compared to each other. They will have different players who are unlikely to compare notes. What does it matter if one group earns more treasure/xp/whatever than the other? It's not like they're going to continue the characters beyond this session anyway.

    If players from differing groups do compare notes, all I care is that both report of having "an awesome time", and perhaps then get a chuckle over sharing "your group did what?!" stories. In fact, I myself am eagerly looking forward to seeing where the next group takes it. I suppose that's the ultimate thing here. For me as GM, a lot of the enjoyment is the creation process. Why should I experience most of what's enjoyable prior to play rather than at the table like the players? I want to play the game as much as them.