Friday, 24 June 2011

How I write a con game

Gaming theory is all very well, but is a little dry without examples. Therefore, here’s my actual process. No saying that this is the only way (if you ask Jacinta and I about our processes, we are almost polar opposites), but it’s a good starting point.

The Thinking Bit

There are three things that I need to have in place in my head before I know I have a game. The first is a concept - the central conceit of the game, the thread upon which all the other elements are strung. At the initial stage, this is the simple game pitch:

  • "Victorian lady adventurers on the trail of a stolen alchemical tapestry!"
  • "An evildoer is posing as a masked folk hero - the original, now retired, must clear the hero's name!"

  • "A PG Wodehouse game - very low stakes, essentially idle bachelors trying to remain both."

...but the concept will grow and develop until it's sufficiently mature to be called a blurb. (In truth, I don't think you should write the blurb until you've written the game. In practice, that never happens.)

The second is a set of characters. I need five (standard for a Pheno game) or six (for an Arcanacon game) characters who will mesh together. I might start from one or two characters, but it's not a viable game in my head until there's a whole set.

The third thing is an idea of how the characters will interact with each other and the game world - what they'll be doing for the two and a half hours of game time that we have in a con session. This will include a sense of how I'll start the game, the game's major set pieces, and the denoument. I’ll write the outline of the game based on this.

Once these things are assembled within my head, I'll workshop the ideas with friends, discuss the characters, talk about what I'm trying to do and how I'll do it. I've been known to get a bunch of friends together and freestyle through a game session with just this information, to get a feel for what needs to be where, and what doesn't fit within the game.

The Actual Writing

I always write the character sheets first. This is because the character sheets are the core of my games. They don't just convey the character - they're also the players' first impression of the setting, the style, and the genre expectations, plus they contain the initial plot hooks.

So the advantage of writing five of them first up is that you've established, five times in slightly different ways, the setting, the style, the genre expectations and the initial plot hooks.

After that, I'll write out the main points I want the plot to hit. I tend to use a three act structure. I start with an initial situation which allows the players to showcase their interpretation of the character, and in so doing demonstrate each character to the other players. Every character has an immediate goal and something they can do to achieve it. When I come to run the game, the first thing I will do is give each player a dedicated bit of spotlight time for them to show off.

The second act is the "main plot", which is the bulk of the game, and the third the climax and resolution.

My aim in writing these parts of the game is to have a solid skeleton in imagery, plot points, character moments, potential relationships and interactions, with many ideas on how to bring these about, but a deliberately open space for the players to operate in. If I've done it right, the players stay within the (often rather tight) box I've designed, and build their own fun in the spaces I've outlined. I believe the fun doesn't spring solely from the GM - it comes about from the players' interactions with each other and the GM.

I try not to include plot points that rely on a specific action of a single character - each plot point should have several potential triggers, and should have some level of buy-in for all of the characters. And if they're not there, I'll go back and put them in.

I'm not terribly formal at this stage of the writing process - all I need is to have a coherent set of ideas about how I will approach the game. A large part of a con game is player-generated, and being too strict about how I want the game to run turns the skeleton into a stinky zombie corpse.

Last I write or compile the "anything else" - player handouts, setting documents, silly hats, and so on. The world-building material comes last because, although I've got a clear idea in my head, I need to be able to communicate any remaining essential bits to the players.

Testing, Testing

Everyone tells you to playtest, as if it's something you might overlook. It's an important part of the writing process for me. Playtesting tells me whether I've got everything I need, whether the subtle bits in the character sheets are too subtle, whether the world building is sufficiently consistent, whether the game is actually fun.

A playtest tells me that the game can work - it doesn't mean it's foolproof. Two playtests is sufficient, three is an abundance - each con session will run sufficiently differently that there are diminishing returns from playtesting. I take it seriously - what I get out of playtesting feedback is a demonstration of where I have made potentially gamebreaking shortcuts or assumptions.

Then at some point I decide that I need to trust my game, and take it to the con.

And, you know, I invariably learn something new about it every session it runs.

Bringing it together

As I said, this is how I write games - it's a process that works for me, and I've no investment in "how things should be done”. Comparing it back to the criteria for a good game that Jacinta proposed:

1. Game in preferred style

Honestly, I can't control that. Certainly, I write games in my own preferred style – light hearted, systemless, hopefully fun - and I try to make it clear what that is with my blurb.

2. Well structured premise


3. Interesting characters

I don't start writing a game until I have both premise and characters solidly in place. For my money, these are absolutely critical - if I've done a good enough job on my premise and characters, the players will run away with the game until there's no need for me to be there. That's my mark for a job well done.

4. A good GM

Ah, well. That's not my place to say.

5. Well paced game

This is where the playtesting really matters. It's my best tool for working out the basic pace of the game - where players will want to spend their time. I'm in the habit of drafting prologues which take ten minutes in my head and forty-five minutes in practice. You need to be ready with added plot if the players rocket through it, and you need to be able to jettison plot if time is running out. Playtesting shows where it's needed, and where it might be needed.

6. Props and multimedia

I'm not really a props-and-multimedia GM - but I do try and make everything the players see high quality. I have my character sheets and handouts proofread, I pay attention to layout and structure, I polish the language. Even if all the players see is an A4 sheet of Times New Roman text, I'll try and make it good, readable text. Alas, players won't often notice a well-crafted piece of writing - but they'll sure notice a poor one.

7. Players felt in control

I don't overplan my con games - there's no point in trying to account for all possibile eventualities. My aim is to give the players a springboard to bounce from - once I've handed out the character sheets, any interpretation is as valid as another. Players aren't going to enjoy a game they don't feel ownership of - so my writing and GMing role has to include a surrender of ownership. I visualise this as taking place while the players are reading the character sheets - I watch for the subtle shifts in expression and body language that say, "I have assumed this character."

(Also, I like it when they laugh at the funny bits.)

So, that's my process. Happy to discuss.


  1. Just a small correction - there is no standard for Melbourne cons. 5 player is the Sydney/Canberra standard - but there is no right way to do it in Melbourne. I write to 5 player - because then I can take my game interstate if I want.
    I rather dislike the idea of optional extra characters in a game - very few people do it well and I want all my characters to be equally important to the plot - that is a person opinion tho.

  2. Yeah, sorry, Kitling, was taking shortcuts there. I'd write five or six characters for Arc (I've done both), and I have edited and redesigned five character modules to have six.

    I agree and I don't about "optional" characters - one of the trickier things about writing for cons is dealing with the vagaries of player numbers. I need to have a plan so that I can run with one or two players fewer and still give good game.

    I've also had some success with having an "extra" character available if I'm one player up - basically, the same rules apply, in that all characters need reasons to interact with the others and with the game. I don't do this for all games, just the ones where it'll fit.


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