Fastaval is a Danish roleplaying convention that operates a bit like a film festival–designers pitch games to a committee that selects 30 or so to run in the final juried competition.
I’ve been through the process a couple of times, and I’ve talked to a number of other North American designers about their experiences pitching and running games at the convention. I’m writing here to demystify Fastaval for others (particularly non-
Danish others) who want to know how to pitch and finish a game for this very fun convention. I’m only talking about roleplaying games here, but Fastaval also offers a track for board game design.
Pitch a Game That Fits the Format
The UR-Fastaval format involves three to five players (usually an exact number of players, rather than a range) and a game master. Typically, a Fastaval game fits in a two-hour slot, meaning that play probably should only last one and a half hours, or a longer slot of up to six hours, with four to five hours being the average. Though it’s doable on occasion, things tend to get logistically wonky and hurt your chances if they last more than five hours.
There are occasional exceptions to these standard formats — in recent years nanogame anthologies have done well, board games have been added, and a few designers have done crazy things like design games without a facilitator, or with more participants, etc. etc. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. They specialize in freeform, a style of play in which participants might be sitting down and telling a story together or standing up and acting out scenes physically.
You can break the format, of course, but it’s good to know what the baseline is.
Pitch a Game that Fits the Audience
Fastaval has a diverse player base that enjoys fantasy, humor, space, and realist crygames. It’s very open genre-wise. Games with huge numbers of rules, or that rely on what US indie gamers call “system” don’t tend to do as well. In my estimation, Fastaval players also like detailed characters and scenes to play on–scenarios that require lots of on-the-fly improv seem to be more challenging for this audience. If you want to read a prototypical scenario to get a sense of what’s in the wheelhouse of Fastaval players, check out the Alexandria archive of games from the convention–many are available in English.
The players range in age from their teens to their fifties, and are overwhelmingly Danish, though in recent years an international population of players from other places in Europe have been attending. This is important because it means that either you must design something that fits Danish play-culture, or you must include instructions that explain your play culture to the Danish players.
The organizers welcome games that move outside of their play culture–they want outside influence and inspiration too–but be aware that the players might not feel the same way, and might have more difficulty enjoying a game that is too far outside of their wheelhouse.
The Pitch Deadline and How to Pass It
In September, pitches are due for the convention, which will take place during Easter weekend the following year. This year’s pitch deadline is September 6.
For Fastaval, the pitch consists of a short bio of you, a couple paragraphs about your vision for the game, and some stats on your game. You should include:
- the number of players required
- the number of facilitators required
- the Fastaval format it fits–either it is “classic,” a slot that lasts up to six hours, or “short story,” a slot lasting up to two hours.
- working title
- run time
- mechanics–what sort of techniques you will use in the game.
- short bio of you, no longer than two lines.
- DO NOT send an entire game, even if you’ve already written it.
The main meat of the pitch is the synopsis of the game. The synopsis should describe the plot of the game and the mood you are going for, as well as the game tools you use to get there. Make sure you do more than simply listing the tools–rather, say what they will accomplish. You don’t need to list every technique used in a game either–focus on the important ones and say what you’ll do with them when you mention them. The synopsis is partially an exercise in how well you can write. So I’ve got some writerly suggestions for how to do it:
- start with a hook to catch the reader’s eye. The hook should not be a piece of fiction, but rather something like journalists use in a magazine article–an attention grabber that draws the reader in.
- then move into well-organized descriptions of themes, setting, and tools as appropriate to your idea
- practice vivid writing: avoid “to be” verbs, participles, passive voice, and sentences that are too long
- have a friend or two read it over before you submit it
- if you can’t express your game idea in less than a page and a half, you probably need to refine it before you can pitch it.
Fastaval offers sparring partners–experienced scensters who can give you design feedback–at the pitch stage. You can find them by contacting the Fastaval organizers at email@example.com.
In case it’s helpful to see a finished pitch, I include the pitch for my game The Curse (part of Fastaval 2013) here. It’s not perfect–you’ll note that it’s a little rambly because I didn’t know exactly where I was going, and that the bio is too long, but it did the trick.
Working Title: The Curse
Author: Lizzie Stark (email; phone number)
Scenario type: classic
Run Time: 4-5 hours
Number of players: A GM and four players (this may go up to five — I’m still working out one mechanic)
Mechanics: classic jeepform stuff — bird in ear, monologues, tight cutting.
Would you cut out healthy body parts if you thought it might save your life?
Two women with a strong family history of cancer will be called to make this life-changing decision with their partners, and live on to suffer the consequences.
The Curse tackles how we make impossible decisions, and live on with them, not knowing whether they were the right ones to make at all. This jeepform-style game looks at the phenomenon of the so-called breast cancer gene, BRCA, an inherited genetic mutation that makes women dramatically more susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer. The game explores how people deal with their high risk emotionally and medically, and examines the havoc that the uncertainty of risk can wreak on women and the men who love them. A scenario about fear of death, vanity, and relationships under pressure.
Women with an inherited BRCA 1 mutation enjoy a 40-86% lifetime chance of developing breast cancer and a 40-60% chance of developing ovarian cancer, dramatic increases in cancer rate over ordinary women. In addition, cancer often strikes young – as young as the late 20s in some cases. For the first time in history, women can take a blood test and discover that their risk of cancer is written into their DNA. But if the test is an apogee of modern medicine, the treatments are barbaric — surgery to remove breasts, ovaries, or both; chemotherapy with a side of temporary menopause; endless tests; or simply denying their risk.
In act I, the four players will portray a shared family history of cancer. In act II, play shifts between two couples — perhaps representing two decision paths of the same coupe — in which the woman has been diagnosed with a malicious mutation and ends when she decides what to do about it. Players will cover the twin concerns of science — the odds suggest surgery is wise — and vanity — the fear that dramatic surgery will affect self image and sex. In act III, each couple plays the aftermath. (Pending the playtest, I am considering having one person in addition to the GM portray cancer in the abstract).
I’m an American journalist and author who visited Fastaval last year. This is my first attempt at designing a game and mirrors my upcoming book project, which looks at BRCA. I wanted to know how the story might translate into this medium. In terms of this year’s theme of “breaking down borders” this game is nonfiction and breaks down the borders between author and character. I’ve faced this choice myself and am curious to see how it might have turned out otherwise.
If you fire up your Google Translate, you can read more tips and tricks for writing a synopsis–from the Danish scenesters themselves–here.
How the pitches are selected
Each year, a couple of curators are chosen to decide which 30 scenarios make it into Fastaval. Each year, they receive double or triple that number of pitches, so they have some hard choices to make, and have to turn down great pitches for great games. I’ve talked with several curators about what they look for in a pitch.
In general, they want the entire convention to have a balance. So they don’t want to accept 20 games about space zombies and 10 games about crying. This means that the spread of this year’s pitches may affect your chances. Overwhelmingly, the curators I’ve spoken to say they don’t see enough comedic scenarios. So if you want to play the odds, that’s a good bet.
They also evaluate your idea based on how doable it is–both for you and for Fastaval. If you’re pitching a game that lasts 10 hours and requires 30 people, that’s not really sustainable for the convention. It might also require an incredible amount of writing on your part. Since competition for space in the convention is tight, they also want to know that you will be able to produce what you say you can. If your idea is too rambling, they will question your ability to complete it.
They seem to take diversity of creators into account–they want to see scenarios from some established designers, as well as new kids on the block. And this year in particular, the curators have made a push for diversity in plot (i.e. games that move beyond the “five dudes and a ___” format) and creators (i.e. they are friendly to games by internationals, women, queer prople, and people of color).
Part of the fun of Fastaval is that the designers show up to the convention. This isn’t always possible for non-Danes, since plane fare gets expensive, and the convention understands this. But all things being equal, they’d prefer that there is a pretty good chance chance that you might be able to attend, and this is part of the implicit agreement you make when you pitch a game.
And of course, curators are people too, and people have preferences. Curators serve a two-year term, so if at first your pitch doesn’t succeed, then try again a couple years from now.
Watch this space in the weeks to come for info on what to expect from the rest of the Fastaval process, once pitch season is over. For now, whip those synopses into shape. And Fastaval experts, if you’re reading, toss us your personal tips in the comments!
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