Burning Apocalypse – Rebirth by Fire

This weekend I went to the Burning Apocalypse convention in New York City. Finances dictated that it could only be a one day trip, but what a great day it was! I left the house at 6:15 AM and got home at 1:10 AM. Even today, my legs feel like they’re about to fall off. But it was well, well worth it.

After geographic misadventures in the Garden State, I reached the con before the first game slot began. All around me were old friends I had not seen in months or years! Even though I had been traveling for three hours by the time I walked in the door, it was very much like coming home.

Due to a spate of last-minute cancellations, the first slot threatened to be short of player seats. I offered to run Mouse Guard if needed, but the call to duty never came. I was able to slide into a game of Apocalypse World. My deeply flawed memory for names reared its head. I can’t recall the MC’s name, but Matt Wilson played a cool-headed “Can’t we all just get along” gun-lugger. Dave played a skinner who read Tarot cards and incited trouble wherever she went, and Jamal played an operator named Jesus (NOT pronounced “Hey-zeus”) who was trying to broker peace between two rival hardholders. I was the driver. My guy looked like Paul Newman in greasy overalls. His prized Mustang had been stolen from him by a rival gang, and he was driving Jesus’s short yellow school bus until he was able to get his beloved “Betsy” back.

The game itself went okay. I could see that the MC was used to weaving a story over a number of sessions, and our four hours flew past in a flurry of bullets and double-crosses. We got into a fight at the food court of the burned out ‘all over a mysterious box. We went on a road trip through the blasted landscape. We barfed forth some apocrapha. I got to see how the game works. There are lots of fiddly bits to keep track of with all the different moves, and their interactions, but it does a good job of pushing that responsibility onto the players, leaving the MC free (and diceless) to always push the adversity.

In some ways, it feels a bit like my D&D 4th edition in that way. The DM doesn’t worry about making the players’ characters rules-legal or knowing how their powers work. The DM just throws problems, and monsters, at the party and trusts them to know how to play their characters.

After a quick run to the nearby “best Thai food in NYC” place, I ran my Mouse Guard alternate setting scenario: “Winter 1892: Gaslight and Ghouls.” I was trying a lot of experimental stuff for this scenario, as the setup was a Victorian crime-sleuthing situation. Not only had I rewritten the Mouse Guard setting several centuries into the future, but I was testing some unplaytested mechanics for doing scripted investigation scenes. My thanks to my patient, creative, and enthusiastic players for making this my best session of the convention!

I’ll be discussing how the session went over on the Mouse Guard forums. In short, our session ranged from a Victorian CSI to a Victorian The Wire. The Mouse Guard as the police force of a sprawling metropolitan Lockhaven delved into the details of grisly murders plaguing the city. They left no stone unturned in their quest for justice. And vengeance, too. Let it be know that nobody messes with the Mouse Guard, the biggest, baddest gang in the city! I love it when players sink their mousy teeth into the scenario and spend their player’s turn tying up loose ends.

In this one, the conspiracy behind the murders was dismantled and arrested (and their repulsive beast slain) during the GM’s turn. But I had earned a concession. I had the mastermind get away. Well, the players had earned enough checks to track him down to his tropical estate, infiltrate his home, and nab him from his very smoking room! They always get their mouse! Plus, Thor had failed a circles test early on, and earned the ire of a local crime boss. Thor’s character got tossed out of the boss’s pub on his ear. In the player’s turn, he returned for sweet, sweet revenge, burning the pub to the ground.

Although some of my more experimental mechanics ideas are still solidifying, it was a great, great session.

After another quick food run, I was able to slip into a game of In a Wicked Age, with Bret, Judd, Chuck and Bill(?). I was a simple guard who had been murdered simply because he might have overheard nefarious dealings. I played as a spirit who had to make my killers pay for their crimes in order to pass on. The other PCs were the assassin who had murdered me, the diplomat who had arranged a peace treaty and betrothal, and the princess who was betrothed to seal the treaty. There was an brutal and bloodthirsty general who had ordered my execution and was determined to see that there was no peace. In a tight, quick spiral of violence, the assassin murdered the princess, the diplomat killed the prince for his obstinant blindness, and then hired the assassin to kill the general, as my ghost set the bodyguards to take care of the assassin. There can be no peace where brutality reigns.

I hadn’t played In a Wicked Age before, and the rules system took some getting used to. I felt very much at the mercy of the dice, trapped sometimes. I think that’s because the first, last, and only conflict I was a party to, was about the assassin who had killed me wanting to kill the princess. With the death of another player character on the line, there was very little room for negotiation. I kept losing, which eroded my highest dice, which made the next round so much more difficult or impossible to win. In the end, it did end with a compromise that he was able to kill the princess, but left behind evidence of the general’s involvement. I think if it had been a longer session, or part of a longer story where there were multiple things that characters wanted, the dice would lead to more negotiation and a better story.

The convention was a great day. I am so glad I went, and so grateful to my wife for arranging things. And it reminded me of why I game, where the fun is, and how I’m good at this stuff. I want to keep gaming. And more than that …

I want to design!

METATOPIA 2011: Playtester’s Paradise

METATOPIA was this weekend. I was skeptical before we went. By the time we left, I was a convert. This was a great convention, and I had a lot of fun!

For us, the convention started on Saturday morning, running late as usual. Bill White’s “The New World” was also running a bit late, so Kat, Michele, Brendan, and I were all able to play out the saga of a history that never was. A group of “piney Aztecs” had built a sophisticated, urban civilization in the sub Arctic forests. They worshipped the animals around them as pure manifestations of divinity, but were also divorced from nature in their cities. Huge ceremonial hunts would wipe out every living thing in giant swaths of forest, exporting the skulls back to the city as status trophies and displays of religious piety. A group of Templar-analogs that worshipped the the Radiant Queen of the sun had found its ways to our shores and were attempting to found a colony there. The third society was the outsiders. They were a separate species of human that had evolved to live in underground tunnels, with huge eyes, pale skin, and clawed hands. They used gold for its reflective abilities, to bring light to the darkness. Of course, the Templar-analogs wanted gold for its religious significance as a sign of their Queen’s divine favor.

We played a single turn of the game, and then critiqued. The Templar leader was captured by the young matriarch of the piney Aztecs. However, while she was gone from the city, her cousin had staged a coup and placed herself as matriarch. It was going to be a fun second turn. I thought the game had a good base, and there were some procedural edges that still needed to be filed off. I look forward to seeing more of it.

Later, I played Joshua A. C. Newman’s alternate rules for Mechaton called “Mobile Frame Zero.” I lost badly, but even in Mechaton, losing badly is pretty much fun. The new rules focus on making the Spot ability much more powerful, and it certainly made the game more deadly and move more quickly. I liked it a lot. We played with four teams, and it eventually devolved into a pair of one-on-one battles, which is what I don’t think that Joshua wants. It’s possible that Mobile Frame Zero is and should be listed as a three-player wargame, and just leave it at that. I’ve got a few more ideas to throw Joshua’s way.

After a tasty dinner at the Famished Frog, I came back to the hotel to play a dice-mechanics-only playtest of Kenneth Hite’s “Casey Jones is Dead.” When the full game is done, it will be a stew of the occult secret history stuff that is Ken’s forte, and nineteenth century life on the rails. Sort of Deadlands on rails. Sounds cool.

But this playtest was just about one of the dice minigames. It was more fun than it sounded. There’s a nice mathematical tension between driving the train so fast that you can make up lots of time, and risking a derailment. As the dice minigame was designed by James Ernest, it was like getting to play a new Cheapass game, which is always a fun thing.

After that, I did a focus group on Matt Gandy’s game in development “Heartbreaker.” It’s still very nebulous at this stage, but was full of intriguing ideas about the ways that story and game mechanics mix with one another, the game design values of a deck of cards, and the priority of things to consider when designing a game. I know we dumped a lot of stuff to think about on Matt, and I’m excited to see what he makes of it.

Sunday morning, I was finally able to playtest Kat’s newest incarnation of “Tangled Fates.” It’s a great toolkit for making stories at the table. My ambitious bastard knight failed at every attempt he made to seize the throne. He ended up as a wandering caste knight that wandered the world seeking and stealing treasure for the further enrichment and glory of his religious order. I really enjoyed the tarot-derived cards. They gave just enough push to incorporate a new piece of inspiration.

All in all, even though I did not come back from METATOPIA inspired to playtest my own designs, I came back remembering the joys and tears of the playtesting process. And being reminded of how good it feels to be inspired.

And wanting that feeling again.