Gaming and BS 197, Convention Engagement, and Sustainability
So, this was originally going to just be a reply in the awesome Gaming and BS community on Google Plus, but I word too much for that. So, for context, Brett posited a question in Gaming and BS episode 197: “why don’t we play every game like we play a convention game?”
The discussion is great, it is entertaining. and Sean and Brett are always fun to listen too. Both Sean and Brett makes some great points, but in the end, I’m not sure I agree with how Brett framed the original premise, and thus I have recruited this army of words to march towards my point.
The Needs of The Many (Or The One)
Different storytelling mediums use different conventions, symbolism, and pacing. Movies are different that television series. Ongoing television series are different than mini-series. Half-hour shows are different than hour long shows.
One-shots, where convention games usually fall, are different than contained story arcs, and both of those are different than long term campaigns. A convention game is trying to tell a big, satisfying story that more or less resolves by the end of the session. There may be loose ends, but none of those loose ends have as much weight as what was presented in the session.
When I was regularly reading Batman comics in the mid 80s to early 90s, there were plenty of stories where Batman would track down a serial killer, or get the last bit of evidence he needed to put away a mob boss, or just be clever solving a simple crime. Movie versions of Batman don’t do those things, at least not by themselves. Ra’s al Ghul tries to destroy Gotham City as a whole. Batman gets evidence on ALL of the mob bosses at once, but then Joker blows up a hospital and tries to take over ALL of the crime in one fell swoop. Bane holds the entire city hostage with an oddly short range, limited radiation nuke after blowing up all of the bridges into the city.
One of my favorite Batman the Animated Series episodes of all time was “It’s Never Too Late.” Batman essentially gets a mob boss to retire so that gang wars in the city deescalate, and he does so by showing that mob boss the effects of his actions, and reintroducing him to family members. It’s a powerful episode, but it’s also not the kind of over the top story you would tell in a two hour movie. It was super effective as a 30 minute show.
Emotional Investment and Slow Burn
When you know you are playing a campaign, short or long, you don’t want to put everything into every episode at 100%. You can’t maintain that intensity. But what you lose in concentrated intensity, you gain in long term world building and nuance. People that have more subtle personality traits, like being a gentle giant that’s artistic as well as an accomplished warrior, or characters that have estranged family members that they can reconnect with, have a harder time showing those traits in a “full speed ahead, let’s do something big” convention game. It’s going to mean more if you have a session where everyone thinks the big bruiser is only good for breaking things and people, or that the quite badass is a loner with no ties to everyone, before your add the extra depth to them.
I don’t want to put words into Brett’s mouth, but maybe where the disconnect is isn’t in convention version campaign, but in communicating the need for forward momentum, for proactivity and plot engagement versus stagnation.
You can compare a campaign to a television series when you compare a convention game to a movie (hey, I just did that above), but you can have television series where they are so episodic that almost nothing of consequence happens in any given episode, and the status quo is reset at the end of each one. You can have 10 episode BBC or streaming service shows that have a focused, energetic progression towards a season finale, but you can also have a 26 episode season where at least half the episodes feel like they were just there to make sure there was an episode that week, and you slog through it to get to the next “plot relevant” episode (see also, at least half the episodes of the Marvel Netflix series as well–I love some of them, but we don’t always need 13 episodes, really).
Playing the Long Game
I’d also say that the MM motto of “play better games” is always relevant, but it’s more relevant for repeated game play than single session games at conventions. If you are playing a Powered by the Apocalypse game, you probably don’t engage the mechanics for fronts in a convention game. If you are playing Edge of the Empire at a convention, Obligation is less of an active mechanic than it is backstory. There are tons of long term mechanics that become much more important as you play a campaign.
I’m not nearly as enamored of Pathfinder as I was when I was running it on a regular basis. Part of that is because I don’t like strictly balancing encounters or the fact that level appropriate gear is an assumption of the game. But if I sit down for a one shot of Pathfinder, I’m less worried if I’m going to get killed because something was a little too powerful for my level, and I’ve got the gear that I’ve got, and I’m not worried about getting the right gear when I level up.
It is a less satisfying answer to the overall problem, but I think the real issue is less a matter of “why don’t we play like we play in a convention game,” and more “how do we get everyone on the same page to be invested in this game, and how do we all agree on what feels like the right pace for the game.”