UK Games Expo 2017: Overview

Expo blog number two! Whilst last year I ran a stall, and got in three demos on the last day. This year, I just went as a GM and booked in for all eight four-hour game slots (which seemed to be rather hardcore by most standards), and had enough pre-bookings to run each and every one.

This is about my experience at the Expo overall, both as a convention and promotion opportunity,  and what I learned from it. I’ll do another blog for specific in-game highlights, though I will mention games in a more general sense here from the promotional/GM angle. I’m going to start with the downsides and finish with the upsides. Nowadays, I prefer to always end with positives.

Downsides

  • The Hilton, where all the RPGs were going on, was a little cut-off from the NEC halls where the main Expo was occurring.
  • I only had an hour in-between games (out of choice, bear in mind), and it was even tighter than I thought. An hour is not a lot of time to pack up a game, chill out, go to the loo, have food, check in the next game and then have the next game ready for the next group of players, I discovered. It doesn’t mean I won’t do it again though. I was just very flustered in-between games on Friday as a result. I had a much better chill-out/prep process on Saturday and Sunday, once I had gotten used to what it was like.
  • I knew I got food vouchers as a GM. My mistake was not researching this. The voucher was £5 off a meal from certain locations, which wasn’t enough for a full meal, as the NEC food is so expensive. (£5 for a very basic, if tasty, hot dog, for example.) I was on a very low budget, so had brought sandwiches and fruit with me to eat for one meal, thinking the voucher would do for the other. This meant I didn’t have a properly filling meal all weekend until I turned up at my parents late Sunday eve on the way home. Lesson learned, although I am not sure how I would have got better food anyway without a bigger spending budget. Though I did spend under the budget, so I really only have myself to blame on that front.
  • I got there nice and early on Friday, but there was a large queue for GM packs, as the electronic system was somewhat inundated. I am very patient, so this in itself was not a problem for me. However, it meant I got to my table later than planned. I was still twenty minutes early, but my player group were already there and waiting. This made me *feel* late even though I wasn’t, so got me in a bit of a fluster to start with (which is not a criticism of anyone, just how my brain works). I got into my swing as soon as the GMing began, but I was a bit all over the place in-between games as a result.
  • I did have three younger players across different games who I didn’t really think were that into the game. These games were appropriate for them, but I just felt like they would have been happier elsewhere. (And I have run it happily with kids and teens before, and some are even return players.) The adults were enjoying it, so I don’t think it was the scenario. (I could be wrong though. I sometimes translate quiet and shy incorrectly as ‘not enjoying’ which is not usually the case.) However, with the younger kids, the parents did fabulously in involving them and helping explains rules as necessary, so this is not that much of a downside.
  • I also did have a player who insisted on dicing for everything as a first choice (even basic stuff which passive totals are there for) and was getting other players to agree that dice rolls were ‘best’. Fair enough, if that’s what you think, but if you have sat down for a minimal and single die system, you have to accept how it works and make your criticisms when appropriate (in my opinion) at the end and at least try and go with the flow. The problem was that it wasn’t causing a problem for me, but simply limiting the success of this player’s character, and making the game less fun for the player (not having a dice roll for the *actually* risky stuff). They role played well and hilariously, there was just initial refusal to accept that dice systems can have a structure where you don’t dice roll for every action. However, they did seem to turn around and were eventually using passive totals for things, but they left very quickly, so I’m not convinced they’ll be ever playing again. Really, this is also an upside, because it’s handy to get used to this reaction, as it will always be the case with some people. You can’t please everyone, and I have to be ready for that.
  • Though I survived 32 hours of GMing in three days, it did lead to some extreme exhaustion which led to a slower start of my Saturday evening/night game (also got one players’s sheets confused, which didn’t help) in the pre-game rules/setting/character explanation bit, I had some spatial awareness issues in describing in ridiculous distances (I am quite, quite dyspraxic, exhaustion tends to make it more noticeable) and I did get somewhat tongue-tied at the start of my very last game. This was to be expected, however, and all the players seemed very accommodating in these instances.
  • The players of my second Saturday game seemed largely shattered, which is unavoidable but did affect play quite a bit. Fortunately, a player asked for a coffee break, which helped refresh everybody and the game had a decent finish.
  • There were far too many people playing in one room for most of the weekend. This meant the noise was immense; it was hard to hear the quieter players and really bust my throat, having to project a lot more than I already do (and I am not quiet). Then again, my throat gets bust once I GM more than 6 hours anyway, so I guess this is an accepted hazard and rather unavoidable with the amount of guests the Expo now has.

Upsides

  • Despite the initial queuing as we waited for the electronic system to get up and running (which was not a great surprise), I found (at least what I saw of) the Expo to be very well organised. The volunteers were very friendly, helpful and communicative.
  • Though the food was expensive enough that £5 off wasn’t as great as it sounded, it was still a positive surprise for me to be given ANY food vouchers (as I was self-promoting) and that was highly welcome. Free food is still free food, however you look at it.
  • I was put in the same room all weekend, which meant I got to camp at a table all weekend, which was incredibly helpful.
  • The NEC is a handy location. Despite not getting a free hotel room like most GMs, I stayed at my parents, only ten minutes away on the bus. This was particularly handy as the X1 bus runs very late indeed, allowing me to GM till midnight without forking out for a taxi.
  • Between bus travel, getting some food supplies from my parents, getting cheap packs of water bottles for hydration and food vouchers, I kept way below my already low budget and only spent £15.
  • Four of my eight games were fully prebooked (with six players) before I arrived at the Expo. I then also had a four, five and three player game, more than enough to run with. Only two bookings didn’t turn up, and I also gained three extra players across the weekend.
  • I had 40 players in total; 36 were completely unknown to me, and 38 had never played the game. This is a phenomenal amount of outreach for me.
  • Out of the 40 players, I’d say maybe only about 5 players (from what I could tell) were not really into it in a noticeable manner (generally through just being very quiet and doing very little despite constant encouragement), which is a decent success rate.
  • I have had some nightmares before (when running games for new players), not necessarily with misunderstanding the rules, but more in the use of the sheets. I have not only separate columns for passive ability totals to be written on so players don’t have to work them out, but it also says in brackets how those scores are created (adding the score to either 3 or 1, dependant on the scene type, which is noted as well in separate columns). Now, this means the Score is added only to active abilities (dice rolls), as the Score is factored into a Passive already.  I only had two players who were noticeably and continually getting confused on how passive and actives worked (though there were perhaps a few more examples, but helpful players were just quietly pointing it out in the case of some of my younger players). I did have another player who said at the end of a game that she didn’t really get scenes and beats, but she still enjoyed it, and said it was likely due to how obviously tired she was. She also didn’t have a problem giving me the totals, it was more just a case of understanding the point of them, I think. Either way, this is likely the best success rate I have had for understanding the rules/sheets. People largely just needed one rules explanation and were satisfied.
  • I had a lot of players stop after the game to give praise and generally chat excitedly about it. Quite a few people in particular showed interest in the beats and scene system and really liked it. I also had some specific praise of Thresholds (such as Compromised) and Glory Points. I didn’t get a huge amount of rules feedback (not surprising, people only played the game for 4 hours and often had to rush off), but most players stuck by at least a little to show their enjoyment of the game, which is the most important thing.
  • A majority of people unknown to me took business cards, and a fair amount took character sheets too. Always a good sign of making a good impression.
  • I did have a two player Friday game (one player dropped out), but I was exhausted, it was a comedy horror, and the two players were friends of mine. It was also the comedy horror game, 28 Trains Later, so this allowed use to be incredibly silly. It’s the most sandbox game, so a LOT happened with just the two, so it was actually a really decent, relaxed way to finish the first game.
  • After the first game, one of the players said something approximating ‘you are the most enthusiastic GM I have ever had.’
  • A few players did say they’d be buying the player book. A lot of players had only just sat down and were telling other players about the books being ready to buy in October (hopefully), so it was clear that a few had done their research before sitting to play. Others were simply intrigued by the game write-up, or had come to play/test out a new system, so this was all good for me. I did also have three of my backers come to play, and a few who had been encouraged to play by backers.
  • At the end of my Saturday game (despite the slow start), three of the players (who came in a group) and asked for a sequel (and I think 2 of the other 3 who were still there were not opposed to that). I then mentioned this to the players in the morning, who also seem intrigued by the idea; considering how differently the games ended, I am now thinking of doing just that, and having several alternate sequels.
  • At the end of my first game, the player who organised the slot took his character sheet and said ‘We’ll see you at Gen-Con.’
  • I didn’t leave the room I was GMing in very much at all, but, in-between games, quite a few of the GMs and other players in the room came over to talk to me and the atmosphere was generally very welcoming. If they hadn’t heard of the game, it seemed they were interested in ILTC after me giving a spiel. However, most of the people I spoke to either remembered me from last year or had seen the game on the RP game bookings lists and were intrigued. It seemed that there were a lot more people who wanted to play but were not able to book in for a slot where they were free. I have quite a few takers in particular for more 28 Trains Later next year.
  • Spoke to a lovely fellow GM who hadn’t heard of the game, but because I was so well booked with players all weekend, said he was surprised to know that I wasn’t already a published game designer.
  • Though I didn’t really see the rest of the Expo, I did manage to escape to the trade hall for about half an hour on the Saturday. This gave me a chance to go and see James Hayball, my cover artist, and Paul ‘Wiggy’ Williams (of Triple Ace Games, and backer) for the first time. They were both lovely gents and it was great chatting to them, and hearing them both tell me how they had been talking about the game and I before I came to find them myself.
  • James was also there as an Expo guest, doing seminars as well as being on a stall all weekend: that moment when you realise that the guy doing your covers, the first thing someone will see of the game when the books are out, is a bigger industry name than you realised. That was very cool indeed.
  • Despite a slightly slower start on the Saturday game to the others, I actually got to the end point far quicker than other games and basically riffed the game for another hour (so clearly made up for my earlier flibble).
  • Otherwise, each of the games had a decent and similar pacing, and all ended about ten to fifteen minutes before the slot was due to end, so it was less of a rush for everyone. I didn’t have to rush any of the games to achieve this either; I feel they all ended at the ‘right’ juncture.
  • Pandora’s Box was my psychological thriller scenario and the most twisty. I am glad to say that nobody in any of the groups saw the twist coming, from what I was told (whereas some players had an inkling, in playtests). These were very high drama games with some impressive and brutal combat in them, as intended. And all ended COMPLETELY differently.
  • 28 Trains Later was intended as a comedy horror, and fortunately, each player group really dove into that. We pretty much covered every trope across the weekend and there was equal amounts of laughter and disgust. And there was a lot of love for the ‘Thomas the Tank Engine meets 28 Trains Later’ setting I created especially for it.
  • Navigation was not so much about horror, it was a flight based space mystery. Again, this worked really well, as I had two children and a teenager, and the adults playing had a really good time dissecting certain parts of the plot and very much getting into the aerospace flight and combat strategies.

Most importantly, every game was a blast, and though doing multiple runs of each scenario, they all went in different yet appropriate directions that made each distinct and memorable. A majority of people seemed to have great fun, and that is more important than anything else. I also made a few new friends and acquaintances outside of the games and did manage to chill out and socialise in between the role-play.

Already looking forward to next year.

 

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ILTC 2016-2017: The Experience So Far

So, last night I got back from my second time bringing I Love the Corps to the UK Games Expo. It was overwhelmingly positive and leaves me with great hope for both I Love the Corps’s future and my own.

Before I talk about this year’s Expo directly (in another blog), I wanted to reflect on how much has changed for the positive in the last year, to show how far I, and I Love the Corps, have come in so little time and how that clearly had a big effect on my 2017 Expo experience. But, before the positive, I think its interesting to think of all the negatives I saw last year (that have almost entirely turned around into positives, bear in mind).

Reflecting on the Last Year; The Seemingly Negative Side (on the promotional front)

Last year I ran a stall at the UK Game Expo. The intention was to canvas, create awareness of the game, and run some demos if I could. It was very hard to get RPers that actually had the time to play the demos, as you can’t just do it in five minutes like some card and board games (and there are lots of official RPG slots people have booked in to play.) It was great to reach a lot of people though, and to see how easy it was to find people that were interested by the game’s concept. Many seemed interested, but because there was nothing to buy, it was difficult to gauge the success of the venture, though I did get at least 2 backer pledges for the Kickstarter that were clearly from people who had played the game at the Expo in one case, and an old Nationals player who I spoke to in the other. Still, I was unsure if the money I had paid for the stall had been worth spending at the time. I didn’t exactly get much in the way of e-mails, Facebook likes or anything to really tell me I had expanded the fanbase.

My other 2016 cons didn’t exactly go in the most positive direction either (again, strictly in the promotional sense), though I made the best of them. Had 2 decent ConPulsion games, but I was supposed to have 4. This left me with a lot of time with little to do, feeling quite alone. Strategy was largely a bust; though I did at least get some great ILTC players and some stall interest, the money didn’t seem to be worth it. (At the time.)

This year was a difficult start too, convention-wise which didn’t indicate to me that I was going to have an easy time when it came to selling the game, as though the large amount of backers was fantastic, that money pays for the game itself, not for my continued existence. My first con was the small Spaghetti ConJunction in Birmingham, where I was able to run one of two games. it had four players, two of which who could play any time and knew me well. One of the new players goes to the same club as me too, so there wasn’t really much in outreach there. (Though the game itself was EXCELLENT and all four players had a blast. )

However, ever since then, my expectations and assumptions have been constantly blown, and 2016 also had an unreasonable amount of positive too.

2016-17: the Positive Stuff

ConPulsion: okay, I only had two games, but of those games, I got three return players this year, and some friends of some of those players. I also was NOT lonely this year. Made some friends and contacts last year who all came to find me and chat with me this year and other friends of mine came. I was never bored. Still had a small game booking problem (3 out of 4 bookings got through this time)… but found that if I did a last minute sign up sheet, I would have had players. (I did this last year and got nobody, so didn’t bother this year, signed up to play a game instead, and then found out I’d have had at least three players in that slot who would’ve played ILTC. Ah well!)

Also, if I hadn’t have gone to ConPulsion last year, I would never have met Scott Neil, the first of my artists, who showed me the ropes of art direction, as well as providing some brilliant pieces. I never would have become friends with several industry professionals and bloggers and would have never attended a seminar that gave me utterly vital advice for both my Kickstarter and production.

Strategy: Yes, the con itself floundered quite horribly. But, I got to introduce an entire group to RP and had some other great players who may end up supporting me later. It continued to show me that the game has a decent market. Also, I would never have met a nice lady called Kat, who got me to contact James Hayball. Without her, I would not have a big industry name for art doing my covers. Hindsight, eh? I also met some ace GMs, including my fellow game designer Simon Burley (we had encountered each other before, but the this was the first proper time we actually had a chat, though he did unknowingly give me some decent advice at the aforementioned ConPulsion seminar). Simon has become something of a mentor in many ways, being an old hand at convention GMing and game design, and has given me company at cons since, as well as setting me up at Geek Retreat where I now run monthly games.

The Expos: Yes, the 2016 Expo didn’t immediately give me obvious payoff immediately… until this year, when EVERY con since SpaghettiCon I have had at least a few people come up to me to talk to me, saying they recognised me from the Expo last year. Also, before this years’ Expo, quite a lot of people I saw at ConPulsion and the Nationals said they recognised me cos of all my Expo bookings. Then, when I got to the Expo itself… most people I spoke to who weren’t in a game and I didn’t otherwise know either recognised me from a previous con or had noticed me on the Expo game listings. And most of those people wanted to play my games, but hadn’t the time. There were a lot of requests from both my players and others I spoke to, not only for games next year, but reruns and sequels of this years’s stories.

Kickstarter: And let’s not forget the biggest positive of 2016. Some of my friends saw firsthand on the opening weekend how utterly stunned I was, overwhelmed by the support shown. With that, I have been able to make the books that have consumed much of my life. I can live a dream.

And yet, that support alone will not allow me to continue to do this once I Love the Corps is released. For that, I need the sufficient sales in October. I need the support to spread a lot further. I worry about this constantly. But after this weekend, and reflecting on the last year, those fears are nearly wiped out.

A hell of a lot more people are aware and interested in I Love the Corps than I thought. And in August I have Gen-Con. 7 games, and only two tickets left… and I am practically unknown there. It was a risk to go… not anymore. After the 2017 Expo, I know Gen-Con will be a blast. Despite the people that know me in the UK, 36 of my 40 Expo players were completely new to me and the game, and the feedback was phenomenally positive.

I’m coming, America. Prepare to Enlist.