So tonight (technically last night, I guess) at OrcCon I ran a Leftovers scenario called "The Battle of Wal-Mart." It was the first time I'd looked at Leftovers since last September, and it was an odd experience to explain to a new group of players... and occasionally have to remember how something worked, or actually look up something in the rules.
What's more, for the first week of event pre-reg, nobody'd signed up for it. I've been running Leftovers at every Strategicon convention for the past year, and that's never happened -- it's always filled up in pre-reg. I was all prepared to not run it at all. I mean, if no one signs up, what else can I do, right? I had so much to do with FATE Kerberos that I hadn't given any thought to it beyond the premise (the PCs find an intact Wal-Mart -- go!), so not running it was starting to seem pretty good. I started to look at other games scheduled in that slot, and there were some attractive options. Mona Lisa Overville? Sign me up.
Then, the unthinkable: A few days before the end of pre-reg, one person signed up for it. One. That meant I had to prepare something in the unlikely event that another player or two signed up. I was always facing that eventuality anyway, but now it was more certain. Yet still I held out hope that I would get out of it somehow or other, and continued to not prepare anything.
When I got to the con today, my lone player -- loyal Nicholas Butler, the first Leftovers fan who didn't know me before playing the game at OrcCon last year -- was on the sheet, but the other four spots were blank. "Awesome," said I. And took a nap.
A few hours later, at 5:00, three more players had signed up.
So I walked back to my hotel (in the rain!) and tried to figure out what "The Battle of Wal-Mart" would be, exactly. All I knew was that the players would find the Wal-Mart, then they'd have to defend it against... someone. Other people like them -- opportunist PC-types who just want what's in there? Or crazy Grafters who want the PCs first and the goods later? I settled on the latter, and then... that was it. I trusted that I and my players would be able to flesh out the rest.
But would that occupy four hours? Well... I reasoned that there'd also be an explanation of the setting, sorting out character creation (with only one copy of the rules rather than the customary four I usually bring to these things), and explaining the mechanics of the game. And what I'd forgotten is that all of that is definitely part of the game. Chargen is a mini-game all its own, and figuring out a character's Grafts, Tools, and Bonds is -- from my perspective, watching players go through the process -- fun. There's usually a lot of laughter and lateral thinking, a lot of "Would this work?" and crazy character concepts that catch me by surprise.
By the end of all that, an hour and a half had passed, but it never felt like wasted time, and nobody was bored. I think part of the reason for that is that figuring out your Bonds is a social experience. You need to introduce yourself, learn everyone else's name, and think about how you want to relate to that person. In other words, it works as intended: The players inject all kinds of interesting background and personality both into their own characters and their colleagues'. When we were done and ready to start playing, it felt like something we'd collectively built to, rather than having the "Finally!" feeling it so easily could have.
So that was very satisfying.
After that, running the game was a breeze. I think the time away did me some good, actually -- I could look at it with fresh eyes and adjudicate stuff on the fly pretty easily. I may have even been more permissive as a GM, too. My main criterion for saying yes was "Is the player enthusiastic about this?" And whaddya know, when you say "Yes!" to enthusiastic players, they get more enthusiastic. This seems obvious, but it's important. And, y'know, saying "Yes!" doesn't have to mean "You get everything you want!" -- rather, it's just "Sure, give it a shot!" Just be on their side and be enthusiastic along with them. Odds are if they think it's cool, it'll be cool.
(Now, I have a bad tendency of saying "Try anything you want!" and then following that up with "What? No! Don't be ridiculous!" And I still shoot stuff down that's just beyond reasonable, but I try not to be as harsh as all that. Half the time I find there's a disconnect between what the player's suggesting and how I'm interpreting it. Once we get on the same page, I'm usually on board.)
Anyway. It was a very player-driven game. You turn a bunch of post-apoc survivors loose in a Wal-Mart, and they'll find things to do. Hell, they spent time looking for new clothes. And when the time came for kicking ass, well, they kicked ass. Most gratifying of all, perhaps, was the fact that it was an uphill battle. One PC was killed; another came to the brink of death, pulled back thanks to a quick Graft, then ran headlong to the brink again. The whole plot came down to a single conflict -- "Keep the Grafters out of the Wal-Mart" -- but the pacing was pretty brisk and it felt like everyone was engaged the entire time.
So what's the point of all this? I came in secretly hoping not to have to run this game, and ended up glad for the opportunity to spend time with a great group of players and their infectious enthusiasm. (Thanks guys!) It was also a powerful lesson in trusting myself as a GM -- and a designer.