I ran two sessions of The Bell Tolls for Kastor at Con-Tingency, a convention situated in a holiday resort on the chill and blustery east coast of England.
I had read the adventure in the dim and distant past, but this was the first time I had run it for a group – and I made that more of a challenge by choosing to do it for random players at a convention.
When I told someone I have had many Symbaroum conversations with that I planned to run Kastor in a 4-hour game slot, they laughed. Indeed, when I asked for a suggestion online, mention of Kastor associated it with a play time of two or three sessions – about 8 to 10 hours.
Why not, I thought? How hard can it be?
Read and Take Notes
I’m going to admit that suggesting you read the adventure first makes me sound like I’m trying to teach, as the phrase goes, granny to suck eggs. I think you would all understand that if you’re running someone else’s adventure, as opposed to improvising your own, you will benefit from a read-through first.
However, I’m talking about a methodical reading; if you’ve any recollection of writing essays for school/college/university, that’s what I’m talking about. Imagine that you’re going to have to take a test and revise appropriately!
I found it useful to skim through the adventure first – taking in the high-level detail and the general structure – and then going through it a second time with a note book to hand. I used a small, grid-printed notebook for this purpose, but you’re free to use a sheet of lined or plain paper; whatever works for you.
When you read Kastor, you have sections that present locations, people, clues and events. While you can bookmark them – perhaps with some handy colour-coding – I find it works better to draw a mind map that shows the rough links between sites, people and events.
If you’ve immediately reacted with a inner sigh or snap of consternation, “But, I can’t draw”, don’t fret. I’m not suggesting something immensely complex nor artistically accomplished. Find four pens of different colours and write down – on an A4 sheet – a person, site, artefact or connection. For example, I noted down Darda, connecting her to Karstak – noting Mentor on the connecting line – and connecting both to the Sun Temple. Under Darda, I noted “Quiet, friendly, capable“, while under Karstak I noted “RIP“.
After doing that, I took the next connection – for example Belago – and connected him to both, the first noting “Bad news“, the other “Promoted to Father“. He also had a connection to the Temple and I noted “Fretful; council member, not political“.
Having all those notes to hand means you can track the adventure, quickly figure out where people might be found (Belago will never be found at the Town Hall because he has no truck with politics and the council). You also have useful tags for roleplaying if you have noted “quiet” or “serious” against a character’s name.
One group visited the Commander of the Watch, and I played Illeva as thoughtful and level-headed, hearing the characters out as they set out their evidence and theories, then asking them – succinctly – what they planned to do next.
The new members of the Watch were arrogant and brash; Kagliostro was confident and verbose. I know that this is in the stat boxes – but when you have it all set out on a page, it becomes more accessible and you can establish a sense of character without needing to refer back to the many pages of the adventure itself. Nothing slow down an adventure more than page flipping and general GM uncertainty.
It also helps if you can note the number of the location from the GM map against the note of the sites in your mind map – because you can quickly see where people might be or have been at a glance, especially if the map remains visible the whole time…
Provide a Marked Map
While most of the adventures come with two sets of maps – one for the GM to see where key locations lie and the other to present to the players, clear and unmarked – the best value for a convention comes in the form of a mid-point between the two.
If you’re running an ongoing game, a blank map means you can genuinely open up the world for exploration. A blank map means the GM has the chance to present key characters, create backdrop personalities and pepper the landscape with hooks. A GM with a 4-hour game slot cannot allow that kind of indulgence.
While you can absolutely stick with the unmarked map and move the key adventure locations into the path of the exploring characters, that feels more railroady than just marking out a dozen locations. You can present a red herring or two amongst the options, offering sites that the players might feel worthy of a visit, but stick to the genuine game sites if possible.
Any game with an investigation element should present a solid and leading clue at every location – and that means sticking to the places that add value to the adventure progress. The Bell Tolls for Kastor includes some floating clues – like those that might come from wandering the slums or spending time gossiping with locals – but most arise from the characters direct presence at a specific location.
The GM presenting a map also provides a point of focus and interest, like handing the players a menu and asking them what they’d like to try first. When you have a finite play period, you present the specific locations to keep the game tight and maintain momentum. Which leads neatly into…
In the midst of events at Kastor, you need to consider how to get the characters – and the players – invested in the situation. In an ongoing game, you have the opportunity to generate connection and hooks over the long term. Earlier adventures can feature characters that flow through into this one – like those that link Fever of the Hunt with Kastor, both found within Adventure Pack 2 – or the player character background may include, or infer, the existence of family, friends and other companions left behind.
In a convention game, that isn’t an option. You can include connectivity in character background, but then you run the risk that you get fewer players than the game might allow and face the need to force one to choose the right character. How do you guarantee investment – and that’s key here, because without investment who cares about Kastor?
I found the solution with the Queen’s Watch, the pre-generated characters I created way back in 2016. I have used these for many convention one-shots because they inherently have a commitment to law and order without being utterly lawful; they have a purpose and imperative of their own, while still retaining a desire to keep to the straight and narrow. They also have enough variety in background to make several viable friends for Darda, and a “fixed address” to receive a message – their military posting.
In many ways this gets around the issues that some reviewers and GMs have with Kastor, in that the initial message must have a connection and a target location to reach someone – and that someone needs to react.
Beyond that hook, every location must spur the party on to the next. In combination with the map and the connected network of places and characters, a GM should push for insight. While the players can roll for discovery, the clues essential to reach the next location should be offered at a cost rather than withheld. Taking a leaf from Powered by the Apocalypse games, offer success or success at a cost where the roll falls short.
The characters sneak back to the Rusty Dragon or they get back having drawn the attention of watchful guards. They realise that someone left the scene of the crime – either with a certainty of how or with the possibility of interference (which is something offered up when trail Darda in the book).
You don’t have time for dead-ends. You want movement and progress – and if that progress necessitates a quick conflict or chase with the Town Watch, all the better.
This also means being open to challenging ideas and audacious plans – while not always saying “Yes” to everything. Kastor is in a state of emergency, so assume that someone will always be watching and common townsfolk will always offer “I reckon…”-theories to people dressed in the clothes of the Watch (see, another reason to use the pre-gens).
At the gates of Kastor, for example, using the Queen’s Watch meant that the player characters always jumped the queue, with justification, and could extract useful information from the overworked local Watch. Add to that a column of smoke rising from the centre of the town and you’re rolling toward location #1 / challenge #1 with a minimum of effort or exposition.
As a GM running a short one-shot, a stopwatch or timer is another valuable tool to consider. Ubiquitous mobile phones means you will almost certainly have a timer on hand; make use of it, not only to track the session, but also to strike with a well-timed conclusion.
Kastor ends with a challenge – and that challenge will probably take 45 – 60 minutes to conclude. Set your timer to 3 hours (in a 4-hour slot) and make certain you transition to that challenge within moments of the (silent but visible) alarm firing. In both adventures I ran, the characters had made their way in the general direction of the Bell Tower to check out the legendary artefact, though each with a slightly different goal. For me, that worked very well – but even if you don’t have similar luck, make certain that you trigger the final challenge with time to spare.
I never ran that challenge in the location written in the adventure – I don’t think there’s time to do all that investigation. The second group were captured and interrogated, but then missed their opportunity to get the information that might have sent them from the city; instead, they chose to visit the Bell.
On that basis, skip to the section that deals with what happens AFTER the adventure – and use that to guide you. It isn’t hard to make the events exciting when it’s all going in favour of the bad guy without intervention. The first group tried to use the Bell; the second did that to, but also managed to persuade their enemy to join forces for the greater good of the town. While the adventure might not support the second outcome as written, it made for a rattling conclusion that fit within the 4-hour slot.
After the Adventure
I found that the players walked away having had a taste of Symbaroum and an exciting game – and a convention game should be just that. Ideally, you want every player to leave with good memories of the session and a desire to pick up a copy of the game themselves.
For my part, running The Bell Tolls for Kastor made demands of me to keep things brief, focus on movement, and run with the characters crazy ideas. To be clear, the first group collapsed into a Total Party Kill conclusion; the second handled it better, but not without casualties. Saying “Yes” a lot and being moderately generous with the clues wasn’t taking anything away from the adventure and managed to maintain the threat level; the Symbaroum game system does most of the hard work in keeping it unforgiving.