Running the Van Helsing Letter at WashingCon

By Tom Abella

Introduction

Conventions are special. Home games with friends and the occasional new player are our bread and butter, but I’ve always considered Con games to be a time to go the extra mile for the players (people actually paid to get in, for crying out loud). In preparation for running Night’s Black Agents at a recent convention, I decided to create some extra special handouts for my players. Be warned: some mild spoilers for The Van Helsing Letter are up ahead. Fortunately, knowing the names of characters and locations won’t actually tell you whether they’re out to help, hinder, or help-then-hinder your team.

Dossiers

One thing I knew ahead of time was that my players would all be new to NBA (only one had played any GUMSHOE game before), and I wanted to make sure everyone had all the guidance they needed for the game. I made a lot of notes on how best to walk them through the rules, but I also went above and beyond in creating their character sheets–I’m sorry, their character dossiers.

dossier

Forget orange–manilla is the new black

I was able to get some tabbed folders online (I can neither condone nor police any readers who steal them from work), which offered a two-page layout. On the right side went their character sheets, followed by the one-sentence skill description from NBA (a great reference to have behind your character sheet).

player-notes

The success of GUMSHOE games can be measured by the amount of diligent note-taking by players. #hugesuccess

On the left side, I started with the two pages “Advice to Players” from the core rulebook, which helps to mentally set the stage for the players, and is short enough to read while everyone gets settled at the table. Behind those two pages went some additional reference sheets from the core rulebook – – guidance on skill modifiers and combat actions that I want everyone to have so we’re not getting bogged down during combat.

I added a few extra details for flavor. The pre-gens came with surnames, which I wrote on the folder tab and then used a black marker to “redact” their first names. I debated redacting unused skills and other text from the character sheets and advice section, but decided against it for practical reasons: if fewer players showed up, players would get extra points to add to their character. Plus, it’s good for players to know what others on the team can do. A less-menacing option would be to use a highlighter on those skills the player does have (once you open the door to the tabbed manilla folders, all kinds of office supplies start looking reasonable).

Altogether, the dossiers were a success with players, and also provided some extra scratch paper in a pinch.

Finding Faces

Most character sheets come with a blank spot for the character’s image, and I wasn’t going to leave those blank if I was making dossiers for the players. Fantasy and sci-fi settings have lots of art available online, but it can be a challenge to gather images of a group of characters who don’t look like they were cobbled together from a half-dozen sources. Modern settings don’t have that problem, particularly in games like NBA that are supposed to evoke spy thrillers (though I wouldn’t go so far as to grab Tom Cruise or Matt Damon – – look for familiar, not constraining). Between the background and skill set of each character, I was able to easily find headshots for everyone.

character-images

Three are nods to spy movies, two to TV shows, one to their character description, and two are Ciaran Hinds. His picture counts twice because my God, look how badass he is in b/w.

I went one step further and created another batch of known/potential NPCs, including a few extras not included in the scenario (no need to tip the players off that the secretary at the lab is a nameless NPC, plus it helps them remember the layout and people in a setting). I’ll admit here that I was a little tight on time, and my Google skills may have started to fail me.

npcs

Yes, a couple of these faces look familiar. Also, yes: Pierre Athanese was the best hit I could get from Googling ‘Friendly old French man’

Why stop at people? Next up were locations: a half-sheet printout for all the major locations they would possibly encounter in the game. I like how they set the mood and helped anchor the scenes, and in at least one instance they helped settle a question about the layout and design of a site.

athanor-and-heilberg

gsv-and-mine-entrance

schloss-glockenstein

Google image search was great for these, and anyone looking for more variety of creepy occult bookstores should just look up Ken Hite’s Tumblr.

There would be some traveling involved, so I thought a map of the region would be helpful. It turns out that Bing maps is much more handout-friendly than Google Maps:

map

Not pictured: garish primary-color lines and roadwork icons showing the state of central European highways.

One last batch was cars, which were also fun and helpful. It took a little agency away from the players, but they’re playing spies, and I figured the pickiest they could be would be to look for speed or maneuverability. Whichever they chose, I’d offer the cards face down and let them pick.

cars

Director’s choice of whether Top Gear references result in skill point refresh or immediate TPK

Actual Creation

All the handouts were made in Paint – – no special or expensive software. 96 pixels = 1 inch, and set it up with 0.5 inch margins all around. The font is Gill Sans, which can be found online for free (and ethically) without too much effort, and I lined up the words by eye (again, nothing fancy). Just make sure they’re a solid color against the background and you’ll be fine.

At the Table

The printouts work great for figuring out who is where (unfortunately, despite my best efforts, the players refused to split the party), and also great at trying to identify connections between conspirators. They also make for great character stand-ins to remind the players of who else is on their team (we found four large d6’s made for a solid base). Altogether, an easy way to add a little something special to your next NBA game.

You can download Tom’s handouts as a zip file here.

3 Responses to “Running the Van Helsing Letter at WashingCon”

  1. […] check out the game (the site has quick-start rules with adventures and pregens!). And, check out Tom Abella’s post on the super-cool steps he took when running an NBA game at a convention! This post on how to run NBA even when you are a new GM is very […]

  2. Brian Thomas says:

    Tom, this is wonderful! You’re right, these extra touches go a long way to boost the fun in a con game. Thanks for sharing them.

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