I've been to KapCon 5 or 6 times over a 13 year period, and in that time it's grown significantly. Without wanting to reminisce too much, when I started attending in 1995 there were about 4-6 games at any given time, we were in a single room in the upper storey of the Museum Hotel on the waterfront, now we consume the bulk of a High School with 14 games offered at once. Woah.
The biggest difference that I've seen as a convention goer though is not so much the overall size. After all, in 1996 I played 6 games, and in 2008 I played 7 (due to the addition of a late-night game.) The difference that I'm seeing is coming from the games: what's available, what's popular, what works.
In 1996 the games were predominantly from the major games companies- Shadowrun, V:TM, and, of course, D&D. Over half the games run at KapCon '96 were D&D. Now, there are none; and while Shadowrun has made a bit of a comeback this year, CoC is almost entirely absent and there's similarly little World of Darkness/White Wolf (just the one game of Scion that I noticed). It's tempting to speculate on the fragmentation of the RPG market, but I'll leave that for your own time.
Looking at the bare changes from those traditional convention games, there's a temptation to characterize this as a trend away from the old Adventure staples - what you might call "Old School Games". But I think that's not really true: The face of the Adventure has changed - it's all new sexy Hot War instead of Call of Cthulhu, but the intent is still the same: mission based games within the close confines of a Tunnel of Fun. Is Hot War a better game than Call of Cthulhu? Yes. Is post-apocalyptic London more interesting as a setting than, say, New Englang? Yes, very much so. Is it a different game? Not in the fundamentals of investigative horror.
I think that in general, the ethos of game writers is much the same now as it was in '96, but the language of game writing has improved and diversified in its set-dressings. Which may be a good thing if you like those kinds of games.
The exceptions really come from the ascendancy of Humour as a gaming tool. Almost half the KapCon games on offer this year have a comic or quasi-comic premise; undoubtedly based on the success of those games in previous years. My experience is that it's not too hard to get silly in a convention game, so there's a strong call to get some easy fun out of a light hearted game of silly buggers in whatever shape. I am perhaps a bit jaded from too many gaming cons, but even a lot of the "serious" outings this year strike me as being mere pastiches of their subject: the familiarity of the subject matter makes it hard to take seriously. Both of the CoC scenarios I've played in the last couple of KapCons have rapidly segued into OTT comic endeavours no less amusing than the games of InSpectres I played.
The question in my mind is: is that all that's available these days? And obviously, as the organizer of Fright Night, I'm bound to say that no: there's a lot more available in the gaming experience than tactical/problem-solving exercises (however well disguised) and laugh riots. But how? Where? In what way?
I think the answer necessarily begins by reviewing our classic notion of the convention game as a story. Some of the various Indie games on offer do this inherently, some can do it with a bit of tinkering, some are just as, or more, story-bound than mainstraim/traditional games. There's a lot of variety there.
The reason story must go is because we know what they all are. They add a predictable element to the game that militates against immersion and against suspension of disbelief. Convention plots are generally either too obscure to care about or painfully transparent. I mean, honestly, how often can you play the CoC schtick of investigate-weird-mad before it becomes a bit passée?
But then what are you left with? Potentially characters existing in an inertial state, idly feeling around for something to do. So you need some initial pushes (bangs and/or GM-authored kickers)- which will tend, I think, to prompt players to gravitate back towards plot modes they're familiar with.
I am reasonably comfortable with that - some of my best one-off gaming experiences over the last few years have been inconclusive. The key thing is to make the journey interesting and engaging. I've come to the conclusion that I would rather play a serious and challenging game that can't wrap in 3 hours than shoehorn characters into the boiler-plate existence typical of the convention game.
Of course, I stand to be corrected on all counts. My fondest hope this year is that games will surprise me with originality of plot and depth of characterization; but I'm not hoping too hard. More realistically, I hope that my groups this year all see eye-to-eye on the games and bring energy to them: any game can be a good experience under those circumstances.
My two offerings are one of each type of game: a closed-form Tunnel (actually, Trail) of fun, and >an open-ended character-focused outing with bangs and kickers of the sort I describe. I'll report back in 10 days and let you know how that turned out.
Bonus: Text Based Roleplaying Actual Play by queneva
And did you read about Luke's CthulhuTech Demo Series?