Writing adventures is definitely an art, and like art everyone knows it when they see it, though they often don't agree on what IT is. Convention events are a special type of adventure - you need to facilitate a story, get the players to connect, all in a limited amount of time – a format that can be different from our home sessions.
For about the past 10 years I have been logging about 100 hours of convention events per year (about 25 sessions) in addition to my two weekly games. The majority of those hours are at Origins and GenCon, but I always make time for U-Con and many of the other regional cons as well. During that time I have tried many different approaches, sessions lengths, and preparation. Many worked and many didn't, and I have learned from all of them.
Consider these tips when preparing for your events at U-Con.
Your players are showing up to the table to share in the creation of a story and a gaming experience. They are not there to hear about how cool your home game usually is, or to listen to you read your 4 page intro to your world. They have shown up because they trust in the truth you put in your description and they think it sounds cool enough that they want to participate in that experience.
They have also shown up to play. You have at most 20 minutes to introduce them to the game and start playing before you lose them, and the best way to make sure you hit that mark is...
Unless your event clearly states that it is partially about character creation, don't do it. People want hit the ground running and get into the story. Assume they left their pencils at home, ate their dice, and used their notepaper to make paper airplanes.
Be sure that you have everything you need to start playing:
Assume your players have never played your game unless you have made it very clear that it is for experienced players only. Everything you bring to the game must keep them focused on the story and armed with all the necessary information. Of course, that requires masterful...
You have a limited time to play the game, and nobody is happy if you don't get to the end. Now, we all know your game is super cool and can do everything, so don't worry about proving it to us. Just focus on the essentials. Whatever clever schemes you have, be sure you have a way to unravel the scheme for the players if they don't get it.
Before you even structure the adventure, what is the point? What is the primary driver behind the adventure? This is different than the plot, which may be to recover the maguffin to enable the group to overcome BigBad(tm). Is the theme madness? Love? Betrayal? Emotions make useful themes, and simply answering how a particular act factors into the theme as well as the plot can add depth and flavor to the adventure. Other things, such as war or redemption can color a simple plot as well.
Once you have established a theme, consider a basic 3 act structure.
Wherein we are introduced to the plot and get to know the characters.
Your new players have never seen these characters before and have to get to know them and what they can do.
Give them a scene where they can learn the main aspects of the character. Show, don't tell, and while you're at it... introduce them to the plot.
Often the best way for this is with a low risk but interesting Conflict (see Act 2) of some kind where they have to use their abilities in an entertaining fashion.
One important thing: don't ask the characters if they accept the plot hook. You may think it's clever or sandboxy to make them figure it out or give them the option, but it isn't. You have limited time to move the story along, so get on with it.
Wherein the endgame is revealed and the players pay the price of admission.
The content if this act is a bit more flexible, but the main goal is to reveal the endgame and what it is the characters are really up against. Depending on your rules, you probably have time for a Challenge or two, a Contest, and one Conflict. These terms† are very useful regardless of the game system you use:
In all likelihood you have planned a big climactic Conflict in Act 3, so doing the same thing in Act 2 is just redundant and will diminish the epic nature of your ending. This definitely takes some planning, but even a Challenge to get into position, followed by a Contest with the environment, leading to a Conflict that may earn them a boon for Act 3 can be fun and exciting.
Wherein heroes are made and the villain pays the price.
If you just finished Act 2 with a Conflict, you need to ensure the timing of any Conflict in Act 3 doesn't feel repetitive or tacked-on. Some key plot-inspired Challenges and a Contest can help provide that separation.
This is the big show, and it is time for the players to shine. That means something important for everyone to do, and that something will energize the player. We already know the characters are heroes, now you need to make the players feel it.
Wherein we find that less is more.
There is no Act 4. If you have a lot of time for your event, still build it in three acts: Open, Explore, Close. Build those acts to fill the time, but stay focused on the overall pacing. There is no perfect way to do this, but you will definitely know when you have failed. Think ahead and try to align the length of each act with the time available.
How the story ends is important for a number of reasons that should not be ignored. Regardless of how you structure your ending, this is the last impression you will leave with the players. Finish strong, tie up loose ends, and enjoy the post-game chatter.
That's it. Don't drag it out, don't get bogged down in rules lawyering, and keep the game moving. If you thought it was going to take 4 hours and it only takes 3, just stop. Let the players know they were laser focused and successful - make the wrap up part of their success, don't draw it out another hour just because. Fundamentally, your job is to...
"Take them to the edge, let them dangle themselves over the abyss, and give them just enough rope to hang the villain."
You aren't there to win, nor are you there to punish the players for bad choices. You are there to enable the players to create a cool story and enjoy a fun shared experience. This isn't to advocate showering them with lollipops and glory, but to ensure that you are trying to give them interesting choices to make, fun ways to fail, and exciting moments of triumph. Make them earn their success, but make it as fun as possible. We like Die Hard because John wins despite bloody feet, no armor, and starting out weaponless. While his death might have been realistic, it would not have been nearly as cool. Part of the fun of that movie is debating the merits of the choices that were made and all of the potential "what-ifs". You too should encourage that, but that requires time to...
This an important piece of pacing and facilitation. Give your players time to ask questions and talk about what they did. If you run a good game, they are going to want to know more, or ask you when your next game is. If you run them to the edge of the slot and then shoo them off the table to make way for the next game, you haven't given them time to share and reflect on what you all just did together. 10-15 minutes is ideal, and it gives you a chance to relax as well. Most importantly, always remember to thank the players for coming to your game and if you had a good time, let them know how much you enjoyed playing with them.
If you aren't sure how it went, take this time to ask them. If you tried something tricky in Act 2, ask them whether or not it worked, and dig into the answer. Have the confidence to uncover the truth to make your game better. Find out:
You put a lot of work into getting ready for the con and if the players didn't connect somehow you owe it to yourself to find out why. Take advantage of the opportunity to grow and make even you next session better. That's how I came up with these tips.
To illustrate this approach, here is a helpful example of the structure of a 4-hour event.
This is not the "One True Way" by any means, and if you have been running successful events and are still reading then I'm glad you made it this far. As a GM, there is no greater thrill than seeing smiling faces and pumping fists as you enable the players to dangle their characters over the abyss, pulling out a win at the last second. I have had the pleasure of games where I'm not entirely sure why I was there, as the setup in Act 1 basically gave the players enough to go on that I might as well have had a bowl of popcorn to watch them tell me a story. You can be sure I let the players know that.
These tips work for me, based on the feedback I have received, and I will continue to refine them as I get more feedback. I try running different game systems, different genres, and coming up with unique Challenges, Contests, and Conflicts. Sometimes they work, and I want to repeat them, and sometimes they don't, and I don't want to make that mistake again.
I love this hobby and creating these shared moments. I want everyone to have as much fun as I do and I really hope this has been helpful. If you have any questions, grab me when you can. As my regular players know, I will do this all day at the drop of a die....
See you at the con!
† This helpful terminology comes from the Fate Core Rules