What I Learned This Week At DexCon

This week was DexCon, the annual summer gaming convention that happens between Origins and GenCon (the two other big summer conventions). And if you’ve been anywhere near me lately, you likely got sucked into the tornado that was John-prepping-for-a-convention.

This year I was assisting in the running of a Signature Event, a tournament of Night’s Black Agents where the winning team scored a $1,000 for surviving and discovering the conspiracy unfolding around them. I am forever grateful to the tremendous assistance and support of Ken Hite, the game’s creator as well as Bill White, the third GM for their enthusiasm and patience with me — I have no doubt I was an over-compensating buzz of frantic anxiety, and they were masterful in keeping me on track and keeping everything moving forward.

Granted, my job seemed easy – I had to create the 30 characters for participants to use, as well as develop adventures designed to both give the players clues as well as winnow down the 30 players to a final round. We were successful, and I felt a tremendous sense of relief and adrenal relaxation (I suddenly lost an invisible 60 pounds of “what if this sucks?” I had been carrying). And the whole event, which mauled my Saturday, taught me A LOT.

Combine that with likely one of my top-four workshops (which is no longer at midnight, and comes with coffee for the morning crowd) and I am deeply happy man. That also taught me a lot.

I list those things now. When I talk about “it” (whatever “it” is) just replace that word with your book/game/project/thing you’re doing).

1. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it has to be the best you can do, and you have to give a shit about it. When I said yes to the opportunity to co-run a tournament, and once I got past the excitement of “I’m going to play one of my all-time favorite games with one of my favorite people who happens to be the guy who wrote the game!” and I saw the amount of work I had to do, it was tough not to get immediately paralyzed.

Create 30 characters that were pitch-perfect, interesting and accessible to players as well as seven scenarios that would weed through players and characters all within a 6-or-so-hour block? Gulp. I have experience making characters, I’ve even thought at times I was good at it, because I’m really just filling out an excel sheet, but this….this is serious! I can’t just have “my” kind of characters, I need to have Grade-A characters (kudos if you just caught the implication that I doubt myself sometimes).

And I just can’t have decent or average plots, I have to have plots good enough for the guy who wrote the game will respect and enjoy and not scowl at me all the way through. I can’t suck at this. (Cue anxiety, nervous stomach and panic sweats)

So, I sat down, talked myself down off that ledge and got to work.

a) I know how to do this.
b) I do this for my friends all the time.
c) I’m not working in a vacuum, I have people (like the game’s creator, duh) who can help me
d) and if it all goes pear-shaped, who cares, it’s a game, not nuclear disarmament talks with the Iranians)

And I did it. It was time-consuming, and it was essentially its own clinic in game design, story development and how-John-deals-with-the-spotlight, but I did it. Likely, when I tell you that I had also dropped about $90 at Staples to get pencils, erasers and folders, you’ll tell me that I overdid it, but the fact remained that I put all these things together. I don’t say that so that people say “Oh wow that’s amazing.” I say that so that I get it in my own damn head that I took on a big project and kicked its ass.

Was it perfect? Nope. Characters were under-powered, plots had holes, and my printer is low on toner, but all those things are fixable, despite my frustration and guilt that I didn’t do a perfect job, what I got was teased, not yelled at for the errors. And the errors got fixed, and a good time was had by all.

2. There are few things as nerve wracking as watching someone else go through your work with an audience, especially when they’re the developer of the game upon which your work is based. I’m used to people critiquing my writing. I go to meetings, I share my work with a lot of people, and they give me feedback (usually it’s “keep writing this!” and “stop thinking that you’re not good at it!” etc etc), so I have no problem sharing my work when my work is prose – someone reads it, they make comments, I’m used to that.

But it is wholly a different beast when what you’ve written is something interactive. When you watch someone at the top of the field take your work and make it come alive for an audience in a way you didn’t realize possible. It wasn’t just roll a few dice and say something, it was a moving, near-theater experience. It was as gaming should be – a dive into deep waters of imagination and story-telling where everyone is equally invested and equally enraptured by the tale and their contributions to it.

So I’m sitting there in the back of the room, watching Ken lead the final table through the plot. I know where the monsters are. I know where the red flags are. But what Ken did was transform them from simple encounters and bullet-points on page 4 into a story, and he painted (I mean like Van Gogh) a picture of an adventure and enemies and tension and excitement that I had some inkling of on the page…but Ken filled in the dots in a way that I don’t think anyone else could. He made my words not suck. He made them awesome.

That is scary though. While the other people in the room are listening to the players gasp and laugh and cheer and panic and play, I’m listening to the plot, I’m waiting for “Okay, does this monster kill them?” and “What about the clue?” That tension goes far beyond I-hope-there’s-a-winner and turns into oh-god-I-hope-this-doesn’t-suck-for-people. But…we made it. Hooray!

3. The biggest interference in a plot are the characters. The plot for the tournament, I felt, was one of the cleanest and jaw-dropping-est I-can’t-believe-that’s-a-thing plots I’ve ever worked on. It was so not a “go to Place A, retrieve item B, fight enemy C” affairs, but it rather intricately wove about 2 dozen clues together so that people could follow along.

Of course that somewhat assumes they will follow along. When one character takes the lady he’s supposed to protect and seduces her, then knocks her unconscious and throws her out a window into a pool (so the badguys can’t get her), that’s both one hell of a mixed message as well as something I wouldn’t think to do.

Likewise when characters are marshaling their forces and say “We need a flamethrower”, that’s not really something you can plan for. And no, you cannot plan for everything. The characters will surprise you when you leave them open-ended and provide fertilizer for the seed beds of imagination. (No, this isn’t the time to get into that discussion about whether you or not you “let the characters dictate the story as you write it”, this isn’t the place for that.)

I’m not saying that people are going to sabotage the plot, but you just have to roll with the punches when characters decide to make a hard-left out of the story and take it in a new direction. Granted this weekend we had neither time nor energy to vamp for 3 hours to get them back on track, so there was a huge margin of flexing, but as the developer of content, much like Moff Tarkin, you can’t hold too tightly to your plans, else things slip through your fingers. And I guess your British accent will come and go. Or something.

4. You need to take care of yourself. So I worked on this tournament and then decided that a six-hour marathon game wasn’t enough, that I would pull myself to my feet and play in another game that went from midnight until about 2am or so. Because that’s the healthiest response I could make, right? So by the time I fell asleep it was around 3:30 and I had to be up at 8:30 and ready to give a workshop at 10.

Also, if you’re scoring along at home, I am not 22 with a super metabolism and incredibly springy immune system. Oh, and I’ve fractured my ankle recently, depending on which medical authority you talk to (sprain, fracture, break, microfracture, these terms are but commas in medical sentences), so I’m gimping along on one leg and doing my best to pop Advil here and there and rest whenever possible. So what’s more restful than gaming for 12 hours straight?

On Sunday I had a GREAT, SUPER AMAZING WORKSHOP with a fantastic and detailed discussion of writing – covering discipline and habits and goal-setting and related ideas. I also answered a ton of questions (there were some wonderful questions this time), but I was so tired, I wanted to be more enthusiastic and answer more questions and get more into how to individually help people….but I just ran out of gas. I was tired and worn down and needed to rest.

It should be mentioned that this whole weekend it was hot. Like crazy living-in-a-furnace hot. Like 89 degrees at 2am hot. Hydration was the order of the day, and when I was hydrated, I felt great, I was awake and my foot didn’t hurt. When I was way behind in my waterload, I was sluggish, tired and a little babbling.

Those times when I stretched out in a chair, put my leg up and drank water? Incredibly restorative. I didn’t feel like I needed to be go-go-go all the time, I was better for not pressuring myself to do more.

So, summary time:

Take good care of yourself, and it makes stressful high-energy times worth it.
You’re going to end up stressing yourself out trying to be perfect, you’ll be much better off trusting yourself to do the best job possible.
More than you realize, there are very likely a lot more people who support you and actually like you, rather than who just tolerate your presence.

Happy writing. Later this week, I’ll do a post about how my writing has changed because of this experience.

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