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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