How I Won the Olympic GMing – Prep
A bit of background: Olympic GMing, by Itamar Weisberg, is a yearly event in Israeli sci-fi and gaming conventions, in which up to 8 GMs compete for the yummy honor, and for some cool prizes contributed by various gaming companies. It’s inspired by Iron GM (and we talked about it a bit here).
Here’s how it goes:
You get one hour to create a game. That game must use the event’s chosen theme – this time it was Mystery and Investigation – and it must include three ingredients, which are revealed to the GMs only at the start of the hour. Then you have to run the game twice, to two groups of five players, 2 hours each. The players and judges rate the GMs based on various points and questions. Then someone wins! This year I won, 2nd place. Here’s how:
On to Adventure
I was a few minutes late, because I was teaching some new people PACG, and I thought the event was starting at 14:00, but it actually started at 13:00, and that wasn’t my first Olympic GMing and I was supposed to know that the GMs need to gather one hour before, because it takes an hour to write the adventure, that’s the whole point, so Itamar grabbed me by the hand and dragged me to the prep room.
“Here are the three ingredients.” Weisberg growled in my ear. “A piece of jewellery, a place of worship, employer-employee conflict.”
“You had me at These.”
“I don’t see how that’s relevant, you committed yourself to this event a few months ago, now sit here with the other GMs and start working.” Weisberg growled, and this time it had less than erotic tones.
How to Prepare to Improvise
The main thing I’ve learned about con games, even more important than the most important thing (pacing correctly), is about the importance of characters. I only learned that from past mistakes, of course – when I came to a game without pre-gen characters, because I was focusing on the adventure too much (although it’s quite likely the adventure wasn’t ready as well).
In con games in general, but in Olympic GMing in particular, I prefer improvising the scenes based on some main points; the mainest points are the characters, but in order to know what kind of characters will be evocative enough to interest the players and move the story forward, I need to know something about the story first. Okay, so let’s go back to the ingredients.
The jewellery must be a mcguffin, because I have no better idea for it, for now. But it should at least be an interesting mcguffin. So let’s put it on one of the characters, and make it seem like simple descriptive flair – I got “cufflinks shaped like gears”, specifically, so one of the characters will have those. It’s important to describe them early, but as part of a larger description, as if they’re just one detail out of many. In the first round of play, the players don’t yet know what the ingredients are, so they’ll see it as just simple descriptive flair; in the 2nd round they already know, so they’ll think I’ve just added the jewel because there must be some jewellery in the game. In both cases, the players will be surprised when the cufflinks become relevant further on – so toward the end of the game, something must make them important. Because they’re magical or something. We’re playing Esoterrorists, I’ve read it before the contest in preparation for it, and although I mostly wanted it for the mechanics, I think the world it describes works for me as well. It has magic, in dangerous and unpredictable ways. Later on I’ll have to find a reason for the PC to have those cufflinks, but the important thing is that I have a role for them. And I have a basis for a character – someone who is confident enough to hold something dangerous so closely.
Place of worship – Hmm. Well, let’s use it as a scenery for something. A part of the Esoterrorist thing is the importance of symbolism for magical processes, so let’s make the game end with a dramatic action scene in a big and impressive place of worship, because there’s a ritual going on or something.
Employer-employee relationship – What a great ingredient. Okay, so the game world has this big and secretive Order that’s trying to stop the Esoterrorists, because they’re ripping reality apart (an unfortunate side effect of using magic). The player characters are agents of this Order. So lets have them get into an argument with the bosses for some reason. That means I need to put the bosses directly into the game – so one of the characters should be a boss! And the villain they’re after – let’s make her a villainess – is an ex-employee who betrays the Order. Nice, we have a basis for the story, and for one character at least.
So what’s the mystery?
Dunno. That’s still a mystery.
Let’s create characters, it’s more important.
Cast of Characters
One of the interesting things about the system I’m using is your character sheet – it’s simply a list of skills in which you automatically succeed perfectly whenever you use them. Each skill has a rating, which is the number of times you can use it during the adventure. You’ve got Archeology 3? So three times throughout the adventure you’ll be able to use your knowledge of archeology to find a clue that leads to the next scene (that’s how the system works), for sure, 100%, and it’ll be useful and correct. As a GM, I can say that a specific skill is unusable in a specific instance, but most of the time both the player and the GM are encouraged to find ways in which the skill can be applicable – mostly by having the GM come up with a kind of clue that fits the skill. It’s great, because it suits my style of improvising: the player tells me what they want to use, and I invent something that creates a new possible twist in the story (until the moment I feel like there’s enough complexity, and then further clues will help consolidate What Actually Happened Here, while I come to understand it myself). So I don’t really need a plot, but I should at least have vectors. The characters’ skills can help me make some.
Okay, so we’ve got the boss. He’s the one who called the other PCs to action, to chase the betrayer. And he keeps it as a secret from the other bosses: this whole operation is a secret, because the betrayer was his pupil, and it’ll be horrible if others learn that such a traitor came from under his tutelage. So he’s excellent at subterfuge, and he’ll actually be in disguise, using a fake name.
I ripped a page into four pieces and started writing down skills, then ripped some more pages to write down “secret player info”. In actuality, only one was secret – the boss – and the others just got what I wanted them to know about their characters, things I was going to say in the beginning of the game anyway. But by handing out these pages, I was able to cover the fact one of them was actually getting an important secret. It also helped me formulate the characters.
I wrote every character in one paragraph, ending with a punch line that was meant to push the player forward in case they’re not sure how to play the character. The characters were created by combining skills that I thought were still missing in the party, using the list of Esoterrorists skills I had open on my mobile.
The 2nd character was Yanos, an elderly professor who knows about history and stuff like that, because someone needs to be the “knowledge” character. He’s still not interesting, I need to come back to him.
The next character was Sandra, excellent with people skills, but something in her needs to be broken in order for her to be interesting, so let’s say she’s poor and in dire need of money. She’s scarred, both physically and emotionally, because she does a lot of missions for the order – they pay well.
Then came Kelly. Someone needs to understand computers, and let’s also make her a Forensic Autopsy Technician in a morgue. How to connect these things? Okay, she was a hacker, rides a bicycle, into extreme things. The kind of person that, when she becomes wanted by the authorities, chooses to hide in the morgue, the cellar of the police building. None the players saw iZombie, I asked.
Last was Rafi, with the skills I had left – anything relating to being a cop, but, let’s also give him Art History. From this conflict came his personality – a likable cop, good at his job, but inside there’s the soul of a poet, that he just isn’t able to express. If I already went with frustrated, let’s go all the way – he’s Kelly’s ex-husband. And Yanos’s son! Let’s get them connected.
Oh, and Yanos? Frustrated as well, because although he knows so much forbidden mystical things, he can’t use any of it or teach it – that’s the point of the Order, after all. So he’s really into the missions that he gets, since those the only chances he gets to put his amazing knowledge to use.
It’s time to get back to Moosa – the boss’s alias – and decide what to do with the cufflinks. I have no idea. So let’s say they’re magical, but Moosa himself doesn’t know how or why. And he keeps them on his person in order to guard them, secretly of course, the same way he’s keeping this whole mission a secret.
Cool, but what’s the mystery.
Time ran out, gotta start the game!
Next time I’ll cover the game itself, and how things all worked out.
Comment and criticize below! Based on the original Hebrew post, from my Hebrew blog.