Characters and Con Games

by Thomas J. Howell

One of the things I think I do particularly well as a convention Game Master is have well designed pregenerated Player Characters (pregens). I mostly run Shadowrun games at Total Con and Carnage, and for every Shadowrun con game I run I use one set of pregens. I do this because it means that I am intimately familiar with the skills, the gear, the motivations and the relationships of the pregens. I know, for example, that one character suffers from a drug addiction, so it’s not hard to remember to tempt her when things get tough. Another character was a famous actor once, so lots of NPCs are eager to talk and reminisce. Using these same pregens repeatedly also means that I spend more of my time planning time other elements of the game.

Another benefit to me as GM is that all my convention games can exist in a single timeline. It can be fun for repeat players (who may remember what happened in a previous game and like how the world reacted to that), of course. Even beyond that, though, it allows me to add in details from previous games that layer texture onto the characters and world. Maybe in one game the face will finally pay off his debts, but that doesn’t mean people won’t continue to talk about it or that it won’t be relevant in some way to the current game. Perhaps a character began a new romantic relationship and details of how that happened come up as flavor or even become integral to the adventure’s plot.

This technique is easier to use if the GM takes a few moments immediately after the game ends to jot down important events and interactions that took place (ex: the team’s local bar was sold to a new owner; the hacker made a new enemy; they now owe favors to a corp exec, etc.). These notes then become a goldmine of ideas for planning future con games!

One often overlooked aspect of creating pregens is the character sheet itself. How does one present the pregen in a useful manner? It is important, particularly in a game like Shadowrun, to avoid overwhelming players with information. The minimalist approach is best: show only what is necessary to make informed decisions and die rolls, or information important to characterization of the pregen by the player. Combat information is all in one spot and things are alphabetized. Game mechanics such as advantages, equipment and special abilities get a brief explanation about their function. In my convention games, each pregen also gets a one paragraph backstory, some notes on personality and motivation, and a short piece on how that character relates to the other characters on the team. If this handout goes longer than the front and back of a single sheet of paper, it is too long and time to seriously consider whether everything on the sheet is really necessary.

It is ideal if at least one item from each player’s sheet is important to the actual game session or adventure you are running. It could be an important contact, an ability that will be critical to the group’s success, or something that plays to the main or side plot of the story.

Regarding the physical presentation of the pregens: I suggest a tri-fold with the character’s name, a picture of the character, and a defining statement (similar to a Fate RPG style Aspect). For example: Morry Dash (name), a pic of Morry’s mug, and “Former child star in debt to the Triads”. On the player facing side I include a few quick adjectives and phrases for playing the character (ex: hangdog, jaded, bleeding heart, etc...) and a short list of factions, locations, or other elements likely to appear in the adventure whether the character is positive or negative on those elements. The pregen itself is ideally laminated or put into a vinyl protector. Players can then use wet erase markers or wax pencils to write on the sheet.

Whether you are running at a convention, a pub game night, or a school game club, well designed and accessible pregens will make your job as GM easier and get the players, even completely new ones, into the game more easily and with more enthusiasm.

Leaving the Nest

by Eric Loren

I am a curmudgeon. To wit: After reading a recent Bloomberg piece about the side gig of professional GMing, I have a crotchety philippic to deliver, and my thesis is as follows: You are not a baby bird.

Before I proceed farther, Caveat #1: As long as your effect on other people’s fun is at worst null, you can play however you want. There is no BadWrongFun. The intent of this piece is to recommend strategies to enhance your and others’ table’s experiences. If they don’t work for you, that’s fine: fun is an ineffable, mercurial beast.

Caveat #2: It is assumed that you can be a basically civil person. When I harangue you about all the ways you should play differently, take it as implied that you should listen to others, respect their comfort, etc etc. In this way perhaps we can avoid the truism “all you need for a good game is a good group.” It is correct but if you don’t know what constitutes good play it is useless.

 So: to the birds.

Baby birds, as science class and sunny afternoons by the window birdfeeder have taught us, spend most of their time peeping and holding their mouths open in the hopes that someone will puke a worm into them. Charming. By analogy, I think too many players, even experienced ones, approach tabletop RPGs like baby birds. Including me. I can be a very loud, squawky little bastard when I’m really into the game.

 By this I mean that those players:

●     Expect to be fed fun by an essentially superior creature

●     Make as much noise as possible in order to maximize allotted fun

●     Ignore other birds in favor of clamoring for space

Even if we don’t do so rudely, or don’t manage to utterly dominate table play, many of us still essentially operate in this mode, even if with a modicum of restraint. We cheep more quietly, or less often, or use our phones when not being fed, but our basic attitude is that we are there to share a zero-sum amount of spotlight with other players, awaiting a chance to do something. All the more so, I fear, when we have paid a GM to “entertain” us. What purer expression of baby-birdness could there be?

Caveat #3: Not all games encourage or even allow this style of play. I’ll leave classifying various games as an exercise for the reader, but obviously [your pet game] may be exempt from this model.

For the rest, I implore you, or at least lightly exhort you: Share ownership of the table. Acknowledge and observe other players. Are their actions signaling that they have a certain kind of story in mind? Listen and push that ball forward. Do their narrations imply interest in a particular subplot, mystery, or peril? Help them cultivate it. Has a slow-starting player been excluded because they can’t or won’t jump into any quiet moment in order to act? Draw them out.

I hypothesize that you are giving up nothing by doing so. It is not merely arithmetic; I am not merely lending you X of my Y table time out of pure beneficence. This is not a redistributionist ethic. Quite the contrary: by creating a play culture of ownership, of symmetry, buy-in, proactivity, and responsibility, I believe we will increase the total amount of (unit-agnostic) fun had.

Your attempts to contribute to the game will be more fruitful, as other hear and accept your “offers”, in the parlance of improv. You will have fewer game moments undermined, ignored, stymied, or needlessly drawn out. The GM will no longer be a benevolent deity, but just the person who’s chosen an interstitial or organization role in the story. When GMing isn’t a part-time job as a stage actor and novelist, it will be less terrifying. You will be able to get someone to run games for you without pizza bribes (or wages).

Caveat #4: There is of course a definitional vulnerability here: You may define “sit back and engage in a hybrid of dinner theater and board game” as an activity, which is perfectly embodied by baby-bird play. Again, if that’s what you aspire to, enjoy yourself. You have my blessing.

If not, if games sometimes seem to fall flat and you’re not quite sure why, ask yourself: Could I be puking worms into other players’ mouths? Could we be willy-nilly swapping mashed-up worm spit in a welter of glistening annelid flesh and damp feathers? I think you could. I believe in you.

A Dark Phoenix Summer!

Dark Phoenix Events has had an amazing summer with multiple private events booked but still some slots left to book some fun events before summer is over! Contact Us at, take a look at our website and drop us a line.. sign up for our mailing list to keep up to date on what is happening!

Our monthly Gamer Cafe at Askew ( in Providence RI has been going great with our largest turn out last month so come out on July 28, show up at 11a with games staring at 12p lasting until 4-5p. Brunch/lunch is available as well as a full bar. Come try out some new games, old favorites and have a great time!

Remember “We Take the Work Out of Your Fun!”

Lighting Basics for Role-Playing

By Andre Kruppa

Lighting is one of the most important elements that can be controlled to influence the experience of the participants in scenarios and adventures. The reason for this is that it has a substantial conscious and subconscious effect on the players as they perceive the environment. Game lighting works the same way as the lighting for a play. A dim blue light often signals night or dark spaces, a bright white or yellowish light can signal a bright day or a brilliantly lit room, the absence of light can feel very claustrophobic, and so forth. Compelling lighting techniques can be achieved with anything from a few basic pieces of equipment to an elaborate setup.

A good example of how effective lighting can be in influencing mood is the arrangement of a romantic dinner for that special someone. Typically, lights are turned down or off, and a few candles are placed upon the table to create an intimate atmosphere. Anyone who has done this can immediately feel the difference in mood as the environment changes from brightly lit to gently illuminated with warm and intimate candlelight.

There are a number of atmospheric effects that can be achieved with simple lighting techniques. A simple dimmable light, like that over many dining-room tables, can be very effective by allowing some control of the brightness of the room. It can be left at the brightest setting for a daylight scene and bright interiors, and reduced accordingly for darker scenes. A few flashlights can be placed on the table, and some parts of the scenario can be played in the dark. Scenes played in the dark can strongly signal feelings of mystery, fear, and claustrophobia. Most people have some latent fear of the dark, and this plays to that, helping to set the mood.

The Game Master can benefit highly from a book light and a book stand to create a screened space for keeping notes, dice, and hidden reference materials in the form of a book or tablet. Laptops and similar self-illuminating devices are, unfortunately, a poor choice for this, as they throw a lot of light and can distract from the look that is being created. A book light ensures that needed information can be seen and is easily turned off when unneeded. It even can be turned to light the face of the Game Master for a scene or effect.

To allow full control of the light in a room, curtains and blackout shades are very helpful. For those who prefer not to take this step, games can be played at night. Alternatively, windows can be temporarily blacked out with black trash bags taped with painters’ tape (which usually won’t pull paint off of walls) or can be covered with blankets. Preparing the room or choosing a time to run that allows control of light in the space is important. For those who black out spaces often, like myself, a roll of black plastic tablecloth material, available at most event and party stores, can be very helpful, along with rolls of narrow and wide painter’s tape and a pair of decent scissors. This material can then be cut to fit and taped in place.

One way to add a blue wash of light for night scenes, which still allows players to see, is to clip a blue floodlight over the table onto an existing fixture. The bulb can be mounted in a clamp light of the kind with a simple rubber-covered clamp and removable shield; these can be found at most hardware stores and are commonly used for work lights. The blue floodlight can be left on; it is unlikely to be noticeable when the rest of the lights are on, but it becomes increasingly apparent as the lights are dimmed.

If the space does not have dimmable lights, a number of fixtures can simply be turned on and off as needed. Playing with flashlights and changing the light for different scenes has a profound physiological and psychological effect. Even the most basic lighting goes a long way to frame the scene, setting the mood and creating atmosphere.

This is an excerpt from the Lighting Basics chapter of Bringing Theater to the Mind: A Guide to Using Theatrical Elements in Role-Playing available on both Amazon and RPGNow!