GM BOOTCAMP (OR HOW TO RUN A SPIFFY CONVENTION WARGAME)12 Jul 2017 0
In a couple of days or so, I will be heading out to American tabletop wargaming Mecca, the 2017 edition of Historicon, sponsored by the Historical Miniatures Gaming Society (HMGS). As such I will be hosting two tabletop games using my own published rules, with both engagements covering the 1870 battle of Saarbrucken-Forbach, or Spicheren, from the Franco-Prussian War. From a friend I understand that both iterations are already overbooked.
This was not unexpected, due in small part to my inherent gamemaster genius (OK, very small), the sage advice of gamemasters (GMs) far more experienced than I, and mostly the fact that I made a lot of Homer Simpson “Doh!” level mistakes and somehow managed to survive to tell the tale. A recent question from a GM colleague reminded me of this, and given I’ve already done a “how to” article on convention prep, I thought it might be a good idea to share some thoughts and experiences on how one actually runs a convention game. So while remembering 98% of US convention games are “participation” games (I can already hear my British peeps gasping), here is a down and dirty, blow by blow list on what has worked for me, followed by a few concluding words of my own sage advice.
Setup. The gaming table should be set up not later than 15 minutes prior to start time. This means all miniature models deployed, and any off table for walk-ups and so on boxed, organized and segregated. Terrain such as forests, hills and towns should be aesthetically but clearly marked as to the edge of each. Any photos for posterity you would like to take should also be completed. Your gamers will usually start arriving about 15 minutes prior and a few will be fashionably late to about 15 minutes post start time. If they see you are still setting up, many will do a walk about out of the area and some may forget to come back. Also, the first 15 minutes after start time can be used for players to plan their battle while waiting for some last minute arrivals, so have a couple of good maps of the board handy.
Furniture. There are two things to remember here – tables and chairs. Your gaming table should never be more than six feet deep, for the simple reason that this distance is about as far as anyone can reach and still place their hands on toy soldiers in the center of the table. Chairs are another area of concern because of their peculiar habit of animating themselves and walking away. Other tables need chairs for their gamers, and yet other chairs often become the seats of onlookers if you are not careful. You will need a chair for yourself and one for each gamer required by your scenario, and a couple more if you can get them. They need to be claimed somehow and I find that just tilting them forward so they rest against the gaming table seems to do the trick. On the other hand, chain and padlock is a viable option.
Equipment. HMGS convention programs always emphasize that players need to bring their own dice and ruler. Trust me, they don’t. You will need to provide some sort of measuring instrument for each player expected and maybe two more for walkups. A normal 12 inch ruler won’t work because it’s too short, and tape isn’t good either. Instead you will need a normal, lockable, metal tape measure of at least 36 inches length, divided into centimeters if you use metric for your games. You will also need a die for each player plus a couple extra, with a different color for each opposing army. I would also STRONGLY recommend a small clear, plastic, closed receptacle for dice rolling, one per player. This solves the issue of dice which go flying off the table like a HEAT round when rolled, and also the player who likes to “drop” his die on the table with nary a tumble. Just slap the container on the table, see the dice bounce inside and read them when they come to rest. I would also recommend one protractor per side and for the GM (that would be you) a laser pointer for picking out units when explaining a situation or offering an interpretation. One of those nifty straight line lasers is also handy for determining line of sight questions, so is highly recommended. Harmony House Hobbies, a firm that makes it to all the big HMGS shows, has a good collection of such items, all at very reasonable prices. Finally I insure that each side has an ample supply of Cabone Ring “Death Shrouds” for marking things like disordered units and so on. All of this is placed at the seat of each player prior to arrival.
Players. If you host a game for, say, eight players, also plan for a game with either six or 10 players. Having more than 10 is cumbersome to manage. Also plan for non-registered folks looking for a game and hoping you have room. If possible turn no one away. Each player at the table should be allocated at least two feet of frontage to play on. As to how many units a player should run, NATO doctrine has a pretty good rule of thumb. NATO indicates that a commander should have direct influence over the actions of his units’ two levels of command below his own. This means corps commanders worry about divisions and brigades, nothing lower. So if playing a game where the base unit is a brigade, counting infantry and cavalry and artillery batteries, a French 1815 Corps d’Armee could have about 12 to 15 units. This is a good number of units to control for reasonably experienced players, but for those new to the rules being used, I’d go for half to two thirds of that. I also try to have at least one player on each side who is experienced with the rules in use.
Teaching the Rules. Don’t. Teach the game instead. What I mean by this is to go through each segment of the first game turn, explain it, then let the players execute before going to the next segment. For example in my own rules Detach and Attach Leaders Phase, I might say something like:
OK, everyone may now detach leaders attached to brigades. To detach place the leader centered, one inch to the rear of the unit outside base to base to contact. He will remain there until the Leader Movement Segment. You may also attach leaders to a brigade by moving them up to their full movement distance – 12 inches – and placing them into base to base contact. Doing so will give you positive die roll modifiers when trying to activate the unit for movement or in melee, but be advised there is a movement downside. If your leader uses half his movement to reach the unit, the brigade forfeits half its movement as well, and so on. Now please proceed and let me know if you have questions.
I do this again for turn two and three if necessary. Each time I go through a segment I add rules and details depending on what is happening on the table with units during that specific segment. By turn four latest, the players are running the game themselves.
Game Management. From this point on your job as GM is one of reference librarian and adjudicator. Your purpose is to maintain control of the game while letting the players run the game. You are there to answer questions, make interpretations and settle disputes. You also need to unilaterally step in if you see a negative situation arise due to something in the rules you haven’t covered, or a new rule that needs to be explained on the spot. These are rare. Above all, you need to keep the game moving towards a satisfactory conclusion before your allotted time expires. This means that if something arises you can’t easily settle nor has an answer; you need to intervene and let the Dice Gods decide the issue, setting a precedent for the rest of the game. This allows you to settle arguments by not letting them happen. It also means you can hit Starbucks knowing your game is in good hands during your absence.
Rules Lawyers. Contact me direct. I am a retired US Army Military Intelligence Colonel who worked very closely with certain three letter agencies (had my own parking place at one) whose entire multi-billion dollar budgets were listed in Congressional markups as “Miscellaneous.” They owe me favors.
Game Reinforcements. Don’t have any. Seriously. Even if you are playing a historical scenario where additional forces actually entered the table at turn 12, move their arrival up to not later than turn two and adjust your game accordingly. Remember that many of your players live in areas where opponents are few and far between, so when they come to a convention they want to play and play and play. Indeed many Europeans who make it to this side of the pond are absolutely stunned by US gamers’ stamina. Nobody wants to be given a command that arrives later in the game so all he has to do is twiddle his thumbs waiting for three hours, and likely he won’t. Instead he will eventually wander away from your table never to be seen again. Having troops for walk-up gamers who show in the middle of a contest is fine, but not scenario scheduled reinforcements.
Time and Endgame. When you determine how much time your game will take, calculate in things like Pepsi breaks or friendly joking and banter. For my rules I find that counting all that still produces a game played in real time. A 30 minute turn usually takes 30 minutes to play and joke around. With this information in hand I plan for a 10 turn game as I find that five hours of hard playing at a convention is the point where people start to get tired. I always have game parameters that hopefully insure an actual winner can be determined at the end, but if the game turns out to be a lopsided disaster for one side or the other, it’s never a bad idea to ask the players if they wish to continue. Normally they will. I usually have some simple, humorous awards at the end, but for the worst players, not the best. And I ALWAYS thank the players for their participation, requesting a round of applause for them, not me. They are the real stars of the show, so make them feel that way.
This isn’t everything and may not work for you, but it does for me, and while I don’t hit each point above every time I host a game for good reason (lazy being one), I think it’s a pretty decent guideline to consult. Just remember that while historical wargaming has a research driven paradigm that focuses on realism, accuracy and ultimately learning, in the end it is a game and by definition game equals fun. At conclusion when your players are laughing and then offer to help you pick up all your toys, you know “you done good.” This is what it’s really all about and hopefully the epistle above will guide you in that direction.