The Alphastream Game Design Blog

12 RPG Lessons from GameHole Con

Enjoying Alex Kammer’s legendary RPG collection

It only took one year for GameHole Con to become one of my favorite conventions. Three years later, I am an even bigger fan. You can read about GameHole’s history here. This year I had a fantastic time running games, attending and speaking on panels, and trying new RPGs. Here are the top lessons I learned from each event.

Top-Down vs Bottom-Up World Design

Seminar: One World, Many Games. One game, Many Worlds

My convention began with this seminar run by Shawn Merwin and Joe Raso of Ghostfire Gaming. They discussed the challenges of running a world that spans many products, or a game that spans many worlds.

There were many excellent points in this seminar, but the one that will stick with me is the idea that in creating a world or setting, we want to consider both a bottom-up and top-down approach. We may start design at the bottom, thinking about the PCs beginning in a village, defending it from bandits, learning who hired the bandits, and so on as we slowly work our way up. Or, we may start at the top, thinking about the multiverse and the pantheons of the gods, or the relationships between nations, slowly working our way down. Which approach we use can create different results and work better for some projects over others. Either way, we ideally consider both approaches. When we think of pantheons, we want them to fit the kinds of adventures we will run. When we plan the village, it’s useful to know what kind of nation this is. An excellent concept to keep in your design toolbox.

When Creating a Setting, Consider Homebrew DMs

Seminar: Mastering Dungeons Live

You can listen to our seminar here. Shawn and I asked our audience what they wanted in a setting. It was interesting to hear that most of the DMs in the audience ran primarily homebrew games. However, they do from time to time purchase settings. These settings are most useful when they provide many pieces they can port into their home campaigns. For example, they want adventures because the adventures illustrate how the setting can be run. They may never run that adventure, but see it as important that it be a good adventure and true to the setting. RPG companies should keep this in mind.

Symbaroum pregen

Clear Themes Drive Deep Play

Symbaroum Intro Adventure, Just Vengeance

I tried several Free League adventures at GameHole. For the purpose of the intro, Symbaroum’s setting was presented as a simple choice between two sides: religious Roman soldier types vs pagan barbarians and witches. The pregens made it clear we were a mixed bunch and our abilities were steeped in the side to which we belonged. Every player immediately dug into the concepts of being either a religious justice-loving soldier or a weird keeper of the old ways. This led to great play, the clear themes creating lanes for players to drive on and build upon. It’s worth keeping in mind as you design. Does your setting have clear themes? Can players figure out in minutes to which theme they belong? Are the themes easy to pick up, so players can naturally add depth during play? And, of course, the adventure should reinforce these themes and force choices around them.

Free League is Excelling at Enabling Narrative

Seminar: narrative design in tabletop games. Monica Valentinelli with Teos Abadia, Mattias Johnsson Haake, Crystal Mazur, Bryan Steele. Listen to the panel here!

There is no question that Free League is one of the rising leaders in the RPG space. Free League designer Mattias Johnsson Haake was very happy to hear his fellow panelists mention Free League games over and over. For good reason, as the games tend to use rules that focus less on combat minutiae and more on enabling a great narrative. We shared many tips during this panel, recognizing how games today lean more heavily into ways players can create a narrative with the raw materials provided by rules and adventures. One of my favorite design lenses: great games often have open play prompts. When we design scenes and even rules, we can ask whether we are creating defined and expected results or whether we are empowering players to decide how to engage with the narrative.

Tales from the Loop character sheet front

Great Pregens Make a One-Shot Sing

Tales from the Loop – The Haunted House

It’s no surprise that the game where the entire table had the most fun were the ones with the best pregens. These pregens were simple and easy to use, so we didn’t get bogged down in details. All the information we needed was there. But also, they provided hooks to evoke fun play. In Tales from the Loop, I played the little sister who looked up to my big sister (another PC) because she was so cool. I had other hooks for other players, none too overwhelming. And the adventure provided opportunities for these relationships to shine.

The other side of the character sheet

When I ran my own adventure, The Clockwork Tower, I did not have the best pregens. But, I am working on a set that will play off of the adventure’s elements. One thing I also believe in strongly is handing out name tents to every player. A simple index card folded in half, bearing the character’s name and role, is all you need for every player to know who all the PCs are and what they do. If you run conventions and have pregens, printing these ahead of time is great. But, as the panel on Where’s My Male Protagonist discussed, make sure to have either gender neutral names or at least male/female options for each character.

One of my incredible tables for Clockwork Tower!

Design for Creative Play

The Clockwork Tower

I ran two playtests of the adventure my son and I have written. The playtest helped us gauge several scenes encouraging creative play. Our design places different elements in each scene the players may (or may not) use to resolve the challenges. We also scatter clues to the underlying mystery in various places, such that no one clue is critical. The important part is players being creative and analyzing the situation. Running these tables was tremendous fun. I left with many playtest notes for our final round of tweaks.

Shadowdark with Kelsey and Alex!

GM Enthusiasm is Infectious / Cheer on Players

Into the Shadowdark: The Hideous Halls of Mugdulblub!

I was so excited to try Shadowdark for the first time. My GM? The designer of Shadowdark herself, Kelsey Dionne! Though Shadowdark can be lethal enough to churn through characters, Kelsey was not a dark and grim GM out to kill us. Instead, she was an enthusiastic GM who cheered on the players. Kelsey facilitated our ideas, which meant the world was dangerous but the game was not adversarial. Fantastic DM approach, fantastic game.

Blade Runner comes with incredible handouts. Enhance!

The Best Moral Quandary Has No Answer

Blade Runner: Electric Dreams

This Free League RPG is all about moral quandaries. What does it mean to be human? What rights are reserved for humans? What does it mean to feel, and when does someone with feelings deserve compassion? The Blade Runner RPG and the adventure included in the Starter Set, Electric Dreams, cleverly presents challenging situations where the resolution is up to the players. The adventure doesn’t presuppose correct answers, providing instead the pressure to make imperfect choices. The pregens helped, with excellent backgrounds and goals that helped orient players without forcing their hand. To really appreciate this design, you will have to play the adventure. Just reading it (after I played) did not suitably capture how well the open design works.

To Break In, Don’t Just Look Up

Seminar: Breaking into TTRPG Design – How to break into the gaming business as an artist, designer, or writer.  Matt Forbeck with Teos Abadia, Andrew Gaska, Thomas Gofton, Amanda Hamon, Crystal Mazur. Listen to the panel here!

There were many great lessons shared by the panelists, and I drew heavily from the lessons I’ve shared in the Success in RPGs videos. An audience question really resonated with me. The question was how to reach out to well-known designers. And that is a good question that received good answers. My reply was to not just look up. Look to people like you who are also trying to make it in the RPG industry. Create a network of like-minded folk at your level who can share tips as they learn them, offer advice, and rise together.

Monte signed my copy of Dead Gods!

A Single Picture is Enough

Who the Devil – Who the Devil Are You, Monte Cook.

It won’t surprise you that Monte Cook runs a great game. He absolutely does! And in this game, it begins with a single picture and an empty character sheet. To this, the GM adds a theme, such as horror or sci-fi, to set the tone of the game.

Art prompts from Who the Devil Are You

Players take turns proposing what is taking place, identifying who they are as a group and what is taking place. Then they add to their character sheet something they do really well, fairly well, and poorly.

The combination of a single visual element and player ideas means everyone has a solid concept before play begins. When it does, the players practically run the game itself. A set of cards help players have some measure of control when failure would ruin the narrative. The GM has another set of cards to help push the narrative towards a conclusion or apply pressure at the right times.

In a convention one-shot context, you can put characters in situations where they will die horribly and still have fun. When I think back on great games, I have fond memories of crashing my landspeeder into a power generator to kill the villain (and my brother and me) in a Star Wars game, or any number of fantastic deaths. One-shots enable narratives that don’t work as well in home games, where the characters are more precious.

This was a great convention game. But we did have Monte Cook as GM. Which brings us to…

A Great GM Makes Any Game Great

Death Doth Die, Mork Borg.

I wasn’t sure if I would like Mork Borg, or even Shadowdark (though I was sure of Shadowdark’s great design). While I played Basic and AD&D for many years, I wasn’t a fan of meaningless deaths (see, Why Classic Adventures Offer Characters Meaningless Death).

And the truth is, I still don’t know how good these games are, because my GMs were so amazing! In Mork Borg, my character had 3 hit points. I don’t think any of us had more than 6. Three characters, yet we survived a bunch of encounters. Often we used guile and wit. Other times we were lucky. And sometimes the GM seemed to pull a punch… perhaps for the sake of a playtest.

The adventure and the encounters were fun, even if the stakes seemed absurd for who we were… an eccentric group of losers with questionable ethics. In one encounter we survived hordes of zombies… because they simply won’t chase you past where you need to go. Run and live. In another we tricked two gate wardens, though either would kill us with just one blow. These situations do work well when our characters can easily die. Death is essentially an on-off switch, meaning we know we can’t stand and fight. But also, these situations can hang on the GM’s adjudication to have death feel fair, our choices clear and our death enjoyable.

I had a great time, but in this case I suspect Mork Borg may not be as good as my GM. It was a great run that seemed to exceed the material. But I can’t be sure.

Our Hobby Is Its People

Attending GameHole is an incredible pleasure. Speaking and playing with so many incredible players, GMs, designers, and organizers… it is true joy. I feel fortunate to be part of this hobby and to share the space with so many incredible people. Alex Kammer and the GameHole crew constantly give to the hobby and its community, working to see it grow and improve. It’s an honor to be at the convention. If you can attend GameHole, you should. See you next year?

Click to order the Forge of Foes!

2 comments on “12 RPG Lessons from GameHole Con

  1. Rick
    November 7, 2023

    Nice write up! You were able to check out some of the stuff I was interested in, but didn’t have time to check out (Mork Borg, seminars, etc).

    I played at one of the Clockwork Tower tables and had a great time—it was a good group of people. As you mentioned, I really appreciated the positivity you brought to players’ ideas. There are some great ideas I want to steal for my own game, too!

    • Alphastream
      November 7, 2023

      Fantastic to hear. Thanks so much for playing Clockwork Tower! I had so much fun running that game!

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This entry was posted on November 3, 2023 by and tagged .


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