Ireland, for those of you that are unaware, runs a very different system of scenario running to most other countries. Here one person writes a scenario then it is run by multiple GMs across a number of tables. There are many benefits to this system. It allows a large number of people to play a popular game with a requirement for only one scenario. It allows people to run games without having to write them and it allows a shared experience amongst players that has fed many a post-con conversation. There are a bunch of fringe benefits as well and I have been a staunch defender of the system (primarily against sign-up sheets and single table games) for many years.
However I now feel that the system has broken down to the point where it is hampering enjoyment for all concerned, the con organisers, the GMs and the players. There are also considerations relating to reduced tabletop RPG player numbers. My feeling at this point is that we either need to change the system, or simply change system, to reflect modern realities.
I suspect this discussion is easiest to consider under a few headings, so that's what I'll do:
1) Scenarios and Deadlines
Way back when (there'll be a lot of this), scenario deadlines were something that most people adhered to, roughly, anyway. Yes, there were always last minute people, but more stuff came in on time than didn't. This meant that scenarios could be reviewed, possibly even suggestions made, photocopied and distributed weeks before the con. The Irish system relies on this and recently this has been happening less and less, even with the more organised events such as Gaelcon. The assumption now is that later is fine. This is, of course, grand if you're guaranteed to be the only one running your event, but if there's the possibility that it might need to get to other people, this falls down.
2) GMs and Preparedness
Of course the above flows directly into the matter of prepared GMs. In order to prepare your GMs you need to find out what they're willing to run and then get them the scenarios in plenty of time. For this you need to have a list of GMs and all the scenarios. More and more the system is devolving into giving people two minutes to read the pages and then pointing them at a table. I'm not saying this didn't used to happen, but in previous times there was a pre-slot briefing session with the writer which could make up for a lot of not reading. So the GMs had a coordinated view of the scenario and any questions that weren't answered in the written document could be answered live. This, to my mind, greatly improved the experience. I haven't heard of a briefing session happening at an Irish con in years. Equally there used to be a proper debrief, which gave an opportunity for discussion and criticism, which would lead to improved scenarios next time. Again, this doesn't really happen any more.
3) Player Numbers
When I started going to cons in 1990 you could expect fifteen or more tables of the big games at Gaelcon. By the mid-90s the numbers were still high at Gaelcon and Warpcon for Vampire, Cthulhu and AD&D with the smaller events still pulling in decent table numbers. Even smaller systems had multiple tables running. Today those numbers have shot down. The latest figures I have to hand are for Gaelcon 2005 when there were three tables of Cthulhu. It's not impossible that only two of those tables ran. So there goes your massive shared experience right there. And of course with fewer tables running, organisers are putting less effort into getting lots of GMs organised and so forth, it all feeds into itself.
So, we're left with scenarios arriving late, two or three tables running, with all bar the writer likely being an ill-prepared GM. This isn't a way to encourage people to play scenarios and it's putting a huge organisational burden on some people that doesn't pay off.
So, what should be done about it?
I feel we've passed the point of no return on the old system. While there are ways of bringing con numbers back up, I don't think that will translate, ever, into returning tabletop RPG numbers to their previous high level, there's just too much else going on. So we can continue our current system of trying to get an extra couple of tables going, with all the additional organisational effort, or we can go a different way. It is, perhaps, the time to move in the direction of our neighbours, to encourage more people to write a scenario they'll run themselves and either sell tickets to a single table (as tends to be the situation in the US I believe) or offer UK-style sign-up sheets. At that point it doesn't really make much difference, it's the writer/GM shift that's the bigger piece. We do it for LARPs, we do it for smaller, non-system, RPGs, why not take that final shift and hopefully make everyone's con experience better?
Scenario quality control is still possible, should it be required, as is selling tickets. However it gives the writer a more relaxed writing experience as they know they'll only be writing for themselves (or a designated GM perhaps) and the players know that the person at the table hasn't had a wodge of paper thrust at them five minutes ago by a desperate RPG co-ordinator.
The system, when it was organised and it worked, worked really well. I firmly believe that it's a better system than single table (although that has its place) and I'd love to go back to those days, however reality has dictated otherwise and the system we have right now is the worst of both worlds. Time to change.