That’s How We Roll – Demo Games

PATC_VOLANTINO_WEB_2-281x300I went to Modena Play and I played.
A Lot.
I was there to demo – and playtest – GreyWorld on live unwitting gamers, and that’s what I did.
I had a scenario ready, scrawled on my little steampunk-style notebook, a bunch of hastily printed character sheets, my dice, my playing cards and my well-thumbed copy of the Savage Worlds rulebook.
And bennies, of course.

I had a scenario ready, called The Steam Elephant Caper, designed to give the players a taste of the setting.
And we played it, coming to various, very different, conclusions depending on what the players decided to do.
It was generally good ripping fun, and my test subj… ehm, my gamers enjoyed the results.

Now, here’s how I plan a two-hour demo for six players1.

. First five minutes – Hi, my name is Davide Mana and I’m happy to meet you…
There is such a thing as common courtesy – these people sitting around me are investing their time in my game, might as well welcome them.

That's me in the corner... no really. In the foreground, Shane Lacy Hensley.

That’s me in the corner… no really – top right, blue cardigan.
In the foreground, Shane Lacy Hensley working his magic.
[Photo by Maner Samuel – one of the Savage Worlds stalwarts]

. Ten to fifteen minutes – this is my world, and welcome to it
GreyWorld is a huge setting with over a century of backstory. I’ve found a very concise way of presenting the key events and distinctive traits of the gaming world2.

. Ten minutes – send in the clowns
I put the pre-compiled character sheets on the table and let the players choose. I quickly explain how checks work. I distribute bennies. I answer questions. Setting and character questions get an immediate reply, game mechanics questions get the standard reply – we’ll see that as we play.

half-hourThis means I get a set-up time of thirty minutes.
Is that very long?
I don’t know.
We’ll talk about it later.

. The next ten minutes – places to be, people to see
My demo games usually start with an opening scene allowing the players (and their characters) some social interaction. This is where the low-risk checks are made for the first time (Perception rolls, some Knowledge rolls). The guys get the gist of die-rolling and they slip in the setting without bumps – they learn the lay of the land, they meet the NPCs.

. The next twenty minutes – your mission, should you decide to accept it…
Now here’s the first bump. Something happens and the characters have to react. can be a minor fight, can be a dramatic occurrence. I don’t want the players insanely rolling dice here – I want them to tell me what their characters do, I want them to take action and describe it to me. As the scene is resolved, the characters have to face a decision: now what?

half-hourWe are now at the halfway point – one hour is gone. The players have a good grasp of the setting and a clear idea of the general game mechanics. They also have a rough idea of what’s going on and what needs to be done. Also, with a little luck, a bunch of strangers has become a gaming team – they are talking, laughing, joking.
Time to turn the dials up.

The next half hour – the game’s afoot
I put a nice chunk of investigation in my demo games, because to me, mysteries are the best way to get inside a culture – to fully appreciate a mystery novel, you must get as much social and cultural context as possible, so mysteries are really a gateway into different places and societies. Also, a mystery is easy to get into as a structure – the players know what to do: we search the premises, we interrogate witnesses.
This is where dice-rolling and benny-spending becomes more intensive, but being the sort of game keeper I am, I prefer a good idea well exposed and fun than a successful die roll. So sue me.half-hour

The final half hour – violence is the last resort of idiots
… and you have to be an idiot to go against this team of characters!
The final half is where the ass-kicking takes place. I like to present the characters with what may look as impossible odds – Savage Worlds allows for huge fights against hordes of minions, and why not? It both shows one of the strengths of the system, and it’s fun for the players.
This is where the playing cards get shuffled, and we get into the dynamics of combat, initiative and wounds.

And here the two hours end, usually with the characters tired, bruised but victorious and the bad guys getting what they deserve. Normally here there’s a wrap-up session of about fifteen minutes, where a lot of questions about the game and the setting are asked and answered.
Then the players go happily to the Savage Worlds stand to spend their hard-earned money – but this is not exactly my purpose as I demo my games3; I am demonstrating the setting (my own in the case of Modena 2015, but also Deadlands, 50 Fathoms and Necessary Evil, in the past), and the system, hoping to stimulate the curiosity of the gamers.
I’m not making a sales pitch4.

This is how I handle my two hours.
A set-up and three scenes (social, investigative, combat).
Could it be done in a shorter time?
Why not a single hour?

I do not think one hour is enough.
In a convention demo game we meet all kind of players – from the veteran that knows the rules better than I do but wants to sample the setting, to the kid that heard this roleplaying game thing is cool but never played before. Normally they are sitting at the same table, members of the same team.
To the former, I have to give a fair chunk of the setting and mood, to the latter I must show all that can be done in a gaming session (not just the fighting, or the dice-rolling). And I must make sure both have fun.
One thing I’m pretty sure nobody at the table is truly interested in me talking about dice-rolling, game mechanics and player options.
They want me to make them play, not to read the handbook out loud to them.

A single hour game?
I don’t think I could make it, but also, I’m not sure I’d be interested in making it.

Now I wonder – what would the players prefer?
Any opinions?
What’s the best demo game you ever played?
The comments are open.


  1. I must thank my friend Peppe of Ultima Forsan fame for suggesting me the topic for this post. 
  2. My friend Umberto has it easy – when he demos his sword & sorcery Beasts & Barbarians game he just introduces his world with Remember Conan the Barbarian? (everybody nods) Fine!
    Fifteen seconds flat. No wonder the guy’s the top game designer among savages. 
  3. boy, the boss will love this one… 
  4. we get an aggressive, competent, engaging sales team at the stand – they do their job, I do mine. 
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8 thoughts on “That’s How We Roll – Demo Games

  1. Finally you did it!
    I enjoyed your demo, for me one hour session is too short especially if you have to introduce a new and complex world as Grey World is.
    So 2 hours is ok, also defeat the air pirates and ignite the Captain Arthur Tyrrel’s airship and make it fall required an hour and half! šŸ˜›

    Really funny find you in the picture “where’s Wolly?” style.

    Like

  2. cool demo! Seeing my veteran character jumping off a flying airship right on the back of a crazy mechanical elephant just in time to stick his kukri blade in the clockworks of the cockpit was really satisfying šŸ™‚

    Like

  3. It sounds like you had a lot of fun! Once more, I wish I could make it to Modena or any other con where you demo GreyWorld, I’d love to try it! šŸ™‚

    Like

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