Gaming conventions are ultimate meccas of nerdery, replete with so many wonderful distractions and remarkable pastimes. Previously, I wrote about making a memorable con-game and one of the nuggets of wisdom included theming your game. How can you do that? Here are some ideas:
1) Determine what your source material will be.
I've skinned both Avatar: The Last Airbender and Mass Effect themes over the Savage Worlds system. Both times, I chose the themes because those worlds are ones that I love. Avatar is, in my opinion, one of the greatest animated shows to exist to date. I could think of no better way to honor it than by allowing my fellow gamers to roam around in its world. When you pick your source material, pick something you are knowledgeable and passionate about. I rewatched the entire series before working on my game because I wanted to make sure that I knew my s*** and could make the experience as immersive as possible.
2) Determine where and when your game will take place in the world.
Timelines are important for the sake of games like this, because they effect things like character power level. Stating a fledgling Aang, fresh from the iceberg, is much different than stating Aang after he's learned to bend all of the elements. I wanted my characters to feel heroic, so I chose to set my adventure after the series ended. That gave me (and my players) a lot more to work with.
As for picking a location, it comes easily if you already have a plot in mind. If you don't, scouting locations just might inform your idea of what your adventure's plot might be.
3) Pick a system that compliments the feel of your theme.
Savage Worlds' tagline is "Fast, Furious, Fun!" It seemed like the perfect fit for a show like Avatar, which at its core was light-hearted and fun, while still dealing with some serious subject matter. I felt it would benefit from being paired with a fairly rules-lite system.
When in doubt, run it in Savage Worlds.
Once I decided on it, I immediately began thinking of the characters in terms of hindrances and edges, which made the character creation process flow nicely. Not all themes would be well-suited in a single system though, so think about which one would work well with your theme. A Sword of Truth game might work well in the D&D world, for instance. I've also been pondering running a Locke & Key game using the Dread system. Find the perfect match for what you plan on running, and it will have an authentic feel.
4) Add your home-brewed setting rules.
I did this before character creation, because I knew it would affect how the character stats played out. I streamlined bending, causing it to function like a Blessed's Faith skill in Deadlands: Reloaded instead of muddling around with Power Points. I felt it much more in the spirit of the show, as bending was seldom limited. I also had to think about natural stat boosts based on what nation my characters came from. Water Tribe characters, for example, were provided with either a swimming or boating skill point for free at creation. This part requires a bit of legwork, but take some time, think about it, and maybe even have a discussion with friends who are also interested in your source material about rules that would make sense in the world.
5) Choose & Stat Your Characters.
Determine which characters you want to include in your game. Given the chance, most players would prefer to play main characters, the ones that they already know and love. It's not always necessary, or possible, but I think you can tell that being a member of Team Avatar is far more exciting than playing as generic characters the DM created. As I mentioned, I chose to set my game after the series which meant I had to make Heroic level Savage Worlds characters, not Novice ones. This is where knowledge of your material comes in because you need to think about things like how many skill points you need to allocate to, let's say, Sokka's climbing skill.
He is a self-proclaimed "Great climber!" after all.
Take your time. Think it through logically. Make the stats true to the characters and your players will be amazed by your forethought.
6) Write your adventure.
For some, DMing without a pre-written adventure is uncharted territory they'd rather not traverse. It's easy to grab something ready-made and go, but if you want to wow your players with a themed game you will have to flex your writing muscle. If it helps, think of it like an episode and start mapping it out with varying bits of combat, dialogue, and read-aloud text. I can't tell you what to write, but I can tell you that you should write the game that you would want to be in as a player.
No snark from me here. Just ponies playing D&D.
Playtest your game so that you get out all of your performance anxiety and your jitters. I ran my game twice before taking it to con because I wanted to make sure I got the timing and pacing right, and worked out all of the bugs. Plus, I got to show my friends the cool thing I made, which is always a nice feeling. Playtest. Get feedback (remember to disconnect your ego from the project) and make the changes necessary for an amazing con debut. Good luck, fellow DMs. Hopefully this helps you make something awesome.
Justin Rhodes DMs frequently.