Dreamation 2015

Dreamation is always phenomenal, and this year was no exception. The work that Vinny and Avie and the whole Double Exposure staff do to make the convention seamless is a wonder in its effectiveness and its invisibility. Thanks to each and every one. Now, here’s the fun I had:

Thursday 8pm
Event: *Kagematsu* “The Grand Seduction”
Colleagues: Jackson, Mikael, John, Sarah, Natalie, Arnold (facilitating only)
In a Canadian rust belt setting, I played Agnes, a 55 year old school teacher and mother of Karen, Mikael’s character. I tried sweetness. I tried flattery. I tried cookies. All ended in disaster. Finally, with thirty minutes left in the session, I went for broke, pulled out all the stops. I offered the doctor a good salary, and end to the financial woes that may have driven him here, and—when that didn’t work—threatened to drown him if he tried to leave. All utter failure. And Agnes was hauled away to a padded room, never to be seen or spoken of again.

Friday 9am
Event: *With Great Power* (playtest)
Colleagues: Josh, Mel, George
We took the latest revision of With Great Power (adapted from Swords Without Master) for a test drive and the game went really, really well. I was worried that my new hero creation system wouldn’t measure up to the task, but it came through with flying colors. Within moments of handing out the cards, I heard “These cards obviously go together” when there was nothing obvious about them, which is _exactly_ what I wanted. My players came up with Eve-8—an data-manipulating android who had created a flawed “child” called “Eve-L”. Also, Chevron—a government-sanctioned super-suit-wearing leader of Super Team Six. Also, Red Shift—a speedster who had to be careful of her speed, lest she approach relativistic speeds and destroy everything in her wake. They faced off against The Monolith—a scientist who had been transformed to living rock and wanted to evict humankind from Earth so it could return to the glory of its geological past. We had nice pacing with some great character development. I’m very happy with the direction of the game.

Friday 2pm
Event: *The Long Orbit*
Colleagues: William, Amber, John, Rachel (MC)
This was the first time I played TLO and it had a nice, slow burn of creepiness. I played the Journalist and spent much of the early game turning nearly everyone on, because I could. In the later game, I clung to the resolve that my sister was alive again and did all I could to protect her. The climax was a bit muddy due to time and my roll to rob the AI of the desire to oppose us. I liked the early scenes laying groundwork for later scenes, and our freedom to make our own decisions within the somewhat structured framework. It was a good game with a great table of players.

Friday 8pm
Event: *The Clay That Woke*
Colleagues: Aaron, Matt, Dev, Paul (GM)
I played a nameless minotaur who worked for a street performer who sucked and blamed his rivals, particularly a fortune teller who made her predictions by allowing insects to crawl over her body. I came up with a better act about selling the audience leaves for them to write their sins on. I would then consume the leaves as “the Devourer of Sins”. Evidently my cleverness bypassed the Krater of Lots completely. I didn’t make a single draw. The other players’ stories were also interesting with memory stones, and proxy duels, and demigods being reborn through polluted fish. Afterward, we had a good discussion of the game’s roots. I’m not sure that it clicks in my head, but Clay is definitely an interesting game.

Saturday 9am
Event: *With Great Power* (playtest)
Colleagues: Danielle, Adam, Paul, Buddha
This time, the cards worked just as well, with the players creating the Red Avenger—given energy projecting powers through an unethical experiment, the Red Avenger had caused some damage when she didn’t know what her powers were and was trying to claim a reputation as a superhero. Also, Rapid Racer—a super-speedy bicycle messenger that needed a hard-to-come-by chemical to survive. He had robbed his parents to get a supply of the chemical and was trying to make up for it. Also, The Heir—a jewel theif who stole a cursed diamond which allowed him to manipulate energy, but also held the consciousness of its previous owners. Also, Hellfire—a fiery being who had made a deal with the devil. He was constantly burning and wore an asbestos suit, while followed by his gang of groupies called “The Hellfire Club.” They faced off against Groupthink—a blind woman who had the power to infect others with her thoughts through touch. With repeated exposure, her powers would completely overwrite the personality of her victims, and she had already unintentionally turned her husband into an unthinking yes-man.
The story we played was really, really great. I’m going to go into it in a little more depth in another post, as I want to pull apart some of the great things that this version of WGP is doing. _This was my favorite game of the convention._ It’s rare for me to say that about my own games.

After this session, I was so happy with my little superhero origins cards that I started pestering people in conversation with my “Wanna make a superhero” schtick. Thanks to all who played.

Saturday 2pm
Event: *Everway* “Saved by Zero”
Colleagues: Grant, Joshua, Sarah, Kat (GM)
Although Kat was using aspects of the Everway system, this was a cyberpunk game with some elements inspired by the RPG _Zero_ from Archangel Entertainment. Due to some elevator issues the session was short and didn’t have quite enough time to develop, but what we did was fun. Being desperate and on the run from a powerful corporation is always great. And we got to use the word “exfitrate” which was awesome. And my fellow players brought a lot to the table.

Between slots, Vinny and JR slaughtered Kat and I in Tichu. It was pitiful. Kat and I were rusty, plus I never had a hand with more than three face cards the whole game. It was 600 to nothing after two hands. We managed to get on the board, but it was a bloodbath.

Saturday 8pm
Event: *Power Play: Schemes and Skullduggery*
Colleagues: Howard, Jeff, Paul
Going in, I didn’t know what to expect from this. It was game of narrative control with some board-gamey elements. The idea is that we each are a criminal with a secret goal and we spend time doing actions and adding traits to things to achieve our goal. The game is trying to find a middle ground between the limited menu of options in a board game and the infinite possiblity of an RPG. I wouldn’t say that the game failed, but it got very legalistic very quickly. The rules weren’t as clear as they could be, and it feels very much like there is a missing piece. I imagine that when the game designers run it, they do certain things without thinking that they never wrote down. I might look at it again if someone were running it who had played it successfully, but I’m certainly not buying it myself.

Sunday 10am
Event: *Serial Homicide Unit*
Colleagues: Michele, Liz, Ephraim, Kat
SHU is just so very heartbreakingly tragic. I love it. We played civilians who were hunted because of our association with the Morristown diner. My character had been eating there every day since his wife kicked him out. He was still paying the mortgage and shoveling the snow and had no idea why she wouldn’t talk to him. When he found out that his best friend was now staying at the house to “help out”, he thanked him and even gave him some money for gas for the snow blower. And then the poor slob was killed by a serial killer. We also had a poor waitress who only wanted to go to Ireland to see her mom, but couldn’t afford it. A waitress who wanted her son to graduate high school, but he already had a shady job on the side. A cook who wanted to open her own restaurant but was blocked at every turn. And a busboy who wanted to land a scholarship and shake the dust of Morristown, NJ from his feet. And all of them but one were cruelly murdered by the serial killer before he skipped town. Man, I love that game.

Can’t wait to do it all over again!

Metatopia 2014

I think this was the best time I’ve had at Metatopia yet, and that’s saying quite a bit. Many thanks to Avie and Vinny and our hard-working hospitable hosts from Double Exposure for making this amazing gathering possible.

*With Great Power* My first moments at the convention were the first playtest of my newly-revised kappa edition of With Great Power. I had a great table, with Lisa Padol, Joshua Kronengold, Lilith Taylor-White and Julia Elingboe. I appreciated their input and their patience as I barreled down blind corners, stumbled over words, and forgot to look at my notes. Despite all of that, and the two-hour timeslot, we managed to tell a great, exciting superhero story that I really wanted to keep playing and find out what happened next. And I valued everyone’s feedback about how the game could improve.

*With Great Power* Early Friday afternoon, I ran my second playtest session, this time with Eppy, Rich Flynn, Christian, Alden, and Dev. The Swords engine stretches right to the edge of its capacity with five players, so the play itself was less developed. But we got to kick the tires a bit harder, both because I could avoid some of the pitfalls of the first session, and knowing when to fast-forward over things to get to the parts in need of testing. The great feedback I got filled two invaluable pages in my cramped scrawl. While I cannot thank everyone enough for their help, I can say that I was glad to get my own sessions done early, and spend the rest of the time being a guinea pig for other people.

*Solar Flare* was one of two different space games that Dev was testing this weekend. This was the lesser-developed of the two, and my sparce notes have things like “‘Answer questions slowly’—what does that mean?” and “What do we do?” The setting has a cool bit of future history of humankind being driven to spread throughout the galaxy due to a solar flare that makes Earth unihabitable. It struggles with several of the same issues as games in that Universalis-space that are very much “make up what you want”. I think that several things here could be fruitfully merged back into Starjump Chronicles to make one stronger game.

*By Word and Deed* was Mel White’s embryonic game of fantasy. With a single mechanical idea of how to apportion narration, and no strong driving situation, the session became more of a focus group than a playtest. Ideas were flying thick and fast about the focus the mechanics gave to play, and whether that was in line with what Mel wanted. Even if we never got past the trolls on the bridge, it was good food for thought.

Friday night I played Keith’s *Ill Counsel* again for the second year in a row. This one went wildly differently from the last one. Partially due to the condensed timeframe, the fiction didn’t really have much time to coalesce, which is very important for this type of game. I lost badly. And the changes Keith had made to patch over some holes in the previous version didn’t quite work as intended. Which is a good thing to learn. The quest for the proper endgame remains an _intriguing_ proposition.

Even though I awoke early Saturday morning, Laura’s *Dreamfall* made it feel as if I hadn’t awoken at all. It’s a Powered by the Apocalypse game where the characters do amazing things in their shared dreamworld. The setting premise is powerful, and Laura excels at asking provocative questions. I played a roofer who had lost the use of his legs in an accident. He dreamed of walking, and of building the White House brick by brick. The game has a lot of promise and I could see that it would truly blossom over a longer timeframe. There’s some work to do on the daytime portion of the game, but it’s a strong start.

Saturday lunchtime I spent like an Intellect Devourer slurping up the wisdom of Epidiah Ravichol, particularly on the topic of a certain game of his that I’m using as a springboard into something else. More pages of cramped notes about game design resulted, as well as the tragic, quintessentially American tale of Ruth Wakefield, inventor of the chocolate chip cookie.

I spent some of Saturday afternoon in panels, like the *Retailer roundtable* with Jim. Also went to the *Hacking Apocalypse World* panel, perhaps better titled as “Watch Vincent squirm while Mark, Mark, Marissa, and Misha say nice things about his game.” I finished up with *Crowdfunding* tips from Fred, Hannah, and Joshua. Lots of food for thought.

Choosing a favorite session at a con like this can be like choosing a favorite child. Emily’s *Heart of the Rose* game was unique in several ways. I rarely get to play in a game with Kat where one of us isn’t facilitating it, so that was wonderful. And I had never gotten a chance to play with Avie before. And her talent was able to imbue drama and gravitas into a time-limited playtest, which was awesome. And watching Emily’s mind work is a thing of wonder. I usually pride myself on knowing which rules are doing what things in an RPG. I’ll honestly say that because we fast-forwarded to the endgame, I really didn’t get the token system. But I could see that Emily did, and it’s always kind of thrilling watching that nigh-scientific attention in action with “try it this way and see what that does.” It was quite a session and I look forward to more about this game.

*Starjump Chronicles* was Dev’s other space game. This one was more developed, lighter and looser. It wins the “most unique mechanic” award from me, for the part of character creation where you choose a song for your character. You then play 30 seconds of each song, and all the other players write an opinion about your character based on the song. It gave rise to the best phrase of the con: “Sinatra is overpowered.” I had fun with this light game, and I think that replayability is going to be a big issue that Dev will need to overcome. When everything is rolled off of lists, those lists can run dry pretty quickly.

Saturday evening was more panels. *Lovecraft WTF?* was Julia, Bill, Ken, and Darren trying to struggle with how to embrace problematic material (Lovecraft, specifically) without also perpetuating its problems. While a few techniques were discussed, they raised issues of their own, and although no one had a surefire way to quell the evil inherent in the Mythos, sometimes struggling against that which will not yeild is the best one can do.

Rob, Cam, Clark and Stephen talked about “Least System Necessary” which prompted me to scribble a line or two in my notebook. I might have personally liked the discussion to include the Lumpley-Boss principle, and games like The Pool, and Once Upon a Time. I didn’t want to be “that guy” in the audience.

*Six Guns Without Master* is Keith’s Swords Without Master hack of the haunted West. We had a great table of Kat, Michele, and Sean. Lots of good color came forth, like a rampaging gray bull, a creepy old man, and a trapper turning into a werewolf. It’s neat to see someone else working in the same design space, and making different choices to mold the same clay into a different shape. Much brainstorming followed.

I don’t know if I can bear to wait until February to see many of you again. I was surprised by the number of people who were surprised to learn that we’re in Allentown, PA. I’m within 90 minute drive of downtown Philly, and willing to come to games! Although December is always crazy, maybe we won’t have to wait until Dreamation. Which is only 102 days away!

DEXCON 2014 – I’m still standin’.

Back from #Dexcon and had a great time. Despite any possible obstacles, +Avonelle Wing and +Vincent Salzillo and the entire Double Exposure family continue to present the most welcoming and fun filled conventions around. This year they even trumped the Fourth of July!

FRIDAY
My con started Friday morning with a rousing game of The Sundered Land. The players were mostly new faces, which is a nice change of pace at this point in my convention career. We played two games of Caravan Guards, a Night Watch, At Ends, and finally Warriors. On the road, we faced down stampeding dog-sized beetles, and a misshapen giant demanding tribute. At night, we learned of the origins of the rifles and bombs and pistols that the three of the characters bore, as well as the nameless witch’s time as a slave and my gray bearded rider’s use of the caravan to smuggle rune-covered parchments into the city. Once in the city itself, our various desires led us on different paths, which again converged when the patrons of two other characters wanted to ensure that my scrolls were never delivered and used to waken the fallen gods. We ended on a big fight where they attacked and destroyed the temple where I was defending the ritual readers of the scrolls. Enkidu, my character, lost his hand, but survived the fight.

In the afternoon, I played in +Brendan Conway ‘s game in development, Masks. It’s about teenage superheroes trying to figure out who they are and what kind of people they were going to become, would they believe the labels that the world affixed to them, or forge their own path? It’s a descendant of Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts, and full of clever ideas. Perhaps too many, but that is why it is still in development. My character was a pre-med high school student who, through an scientific accident, gained prehensile hair that could read the thoughts of whomever it touched and alter their body to heal them … or in other ways. Her superhero name was Dreads. We had some great players, like +Joe Zantek and +Michael McDowell , and a great young team, with Kid Ragnarock, Mags Donner , and Discordia. I have more thoughts on the game, but will take them to another post.

Friday night I brought out the “original” nanogame, Vast & Starlit. We had a full table, with +Melissa S Cohen , Brendan, +Kathryn Miller , +James Harold , +Neil Bennett , and Adam playing. We developed our characters pretty quickly, with some old rivalries and scores to settle both on and off the ship. Kat played the ship herself, a newly independent AI who didn’t want to be memory wiped, but also didn’t want to submit to control of a mere captain. There was a lot of craziness, as will happen with seven people, but actually developing a story was both dangerous and difficult. There was lots and lots of laughter, but I’m not sure that I will offer this one again.

SATURDAY
I started the day by playing Kat’s session of Heroine. Kat devised the session after we saw Maleficent, so the focus heroine was Aurora. She rebelled at never seeing another person besides her aunts, and ran off across the boundary-stream. With the help of an abandoned monster-under-the-bed, and an insightful crow played by +Lisa Padol , and the blind(folded) prince Philip, she lost and regained her shadow, faced That Witch Dwells Downstream, and returned home to better appreciate her lot. It was a decent story, but it took just a little too much work. This is the second time we’ve played, and there just feels like there’s something lacking. I’m not sure what.

After a fun lunch with +Rachael Storey Burke and +Robert Bohl , I had to face the fact that I am old and increasingly decrepit, so did no gaming in the afternoon. I can neither confirm nor deny the rumors of a nap-like activity.

Saturday evening was a second game of The Sundered Land. This had a full complement of Rob, Rich Flynn, Brendan, Sarah and Jenna. The characters were very metal, with rune scars and ancient six-guns and sewn-together monsters in equal measure. We played Caravan Guards twice, and it is definitely solid. Concrete threat led to concrete reaction, with the system eliciting unanticipated twists from us. Night Watch was alright, but really needs the night player to push rather forcefully with his starting questions, unafraid to impose back story on others’ characters. At Ends is still problematic. We were able to develop a single focal point around three of the characters breaking into House Alije for dissent reasons, so we played that using Restless Ambition. It went pretty well.

I actually played Enkidu, my character from the night before, and gave him a hook to replace the hand he lost in the battle. I regret not mentioning it to anyone until the game was over. It might have worked better as an open secret.

Saturday night was a great big ever-growing circle of chat with folks I missed elsewhere, like +Bill White and +Amanda Valentine and +Clark Valentine

SUNDAY
This morning I got to play some Marvel Heroic, run by Mr. McDowell. His characters were fun, with a super-luchador, a super intelligent ape, another thunder good (were they on sale?) and Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt. The fight mechanics are interesting, and this ran more smoothly than the demo I played a few years back. We did two fights and a tiny connecting scene and dénouement in four full hours. I enjoyed it and it scratched whatever itch I might have had for traditional play for a while.

Even with a smaller indie presence at DEXCON, there are still loads of people I didn’t get to see or talk to or game with! I better work on cloning myself.

It was a great con and I can’t wait for Metatopia. Only one hundred twenty four days!

DEXCON approaches!

Apologies for the late notice. I’ve been dealing with some medical issues. Regardless, time marches on and DEXCON approaches quickly.

If you would like to run a LARP or LARP-like event, that needs to be submitted directly to Vinny by *tomorrow* Tuesday, May 13. You can send it to his Email account: salvius AT dexposure DOT com

All type top indie games for DEXCON are due Memorial Day, Monday, May 26. You can email those to our Gmail account: indiegamesexplosion

Thanks and please reshare with any potential interested parties. Thanks.

Dreamation 2014: Best con for the tenth year running!

Back from yet another another amazing Dreamation. Massive thanks to Vinny, Avie and the whole Double Exposure crew, as always, for making such a fantastic environment to play in. And thanks to all the GMs, volunteers, and players who brought their staggeringly awesome creative might to bear on the snowy expanses of New Jersey.

Thursday night I revived a game I haven’t run in a number of years: My Life with Master. The game delivered, as it always does. The four players crafted me a master who sought to bring his beautiful bride back from the dead. I dispatched them to harvest the dreams of children, kidnap a new host body, and burgle the home of a gravedigger, among other unsavory errands. Nikolai–who could pass undetected through shadows, except when traveling alone, and could not speak unless spoken to–rose up against the Master and brought an end to the reign of terror. It was good to stretch those muscles again.

Friday morning I ran InSpectres. (Yes, that’s right. Both games I ran are more than a decade old. What of it?) We had a full table of six, with players bringing such characters as an ex-exterminator, a priest with ninja training, a shovel-wielding mortician, and an ex-possessee devoted to getting revenge on anything remotely supernatural. They faced down a pack of leprechaun drug dealers, and got embroiled in a magical turf war between a Beef and Borscht restaurant and the aggressive, eldritch Pizza Go Go. Much laughter ensued.

Friday afternoon saw me in a playtest of Brie Sheldon’s game Clash. It’s a game about people caught up in a conflict larger than themselves. The details of that conflict are very open to the creation of the group, but then the meat of play is about character scenes. I liked it very much and enjoyed that character goals and faction goals don’t need to related at all. The game has not yet figured out how it wants to address the eternal problem of “you can play any setting” games. Namely, how best to help the players create that sort of setting. But it’s definitely on a good trajectory and I look forward to seeing the next version and playing again.

Friday evening was my highlight of the convention: Laura Simpson’s The Companions’ Tale. This game was so fun, and it both taught me new things about game design and reminded me of old lessons I’d forgotten. We are all telling the tale of a great hero doing great things upon the world, but we are telling that tale from the point of view of those who witnessed the hero’s great deeds. The companions can be mentors, sidekicks, lovers, rivals, or a host of other types. It does a great job in assigning specific, fruitful story-telling tasks to different players at different times. My absolute favorite role was the Lorekeeper, where you describe how some piece of culture (a painting, a poem, a sport, a type of food, a children’s rhyme, etc.) was formed to reflect the events of the story just recounted. I can’t wait to get my hands on this game and play it again!

Saturday morning, I played In A Wicked Age. I had played once before, with less than stellar results. I wanted to see it from another point of view. This was certainly a better table, with lots of creativity producing a juicy setup with a group of mischievous djinn having been released from centuries-long binding, the wizard seeking rebirth into a new body so he could rebind them, and simple servant girl driven to write her own grand destiny, the scheming conjurer, and the princess who could divine, and re-speak the future. The initial setup of play, with the oracles and the brianstorming and the character building, went utterly smoothly and was lots of fun. And once the dice came out, they felt more like an obstacle to creativity than a spur. Maybe our initial setup was too cut-throat, leaving us too little room to negotiate. I’m not sure. I liked the fiction we created, I just didn’t enjoy half the process we used to create it.

I had a terribly frustrating lunch break on the _lovely_ thruways of the Garden State in my quest for cake. But returned just in time to play a session of Monsterhearts. I had never been in a game with a Selkie before, so I chose that skin. We had several experienced players who understood that in a convention game, you need to go for the throat right out of the gate. I ended up convincing the werewolf to help me get my “swimsuit” back from the infernal who had stolen it. But she had already worn it and stretched it all out. I wept to mother ocean, who obliterated the entire high school in a tsunami. The other PCs survived the devastation because, monsters. It was a fun, raucous session.

Saturday evening we held the Indie Game eXplosion 10th anniversary party. Lots of people stopped down for snacks, cake, and conversation. Exactly as we planned. Thanks, everybody for a decade of great times!

Sunday night I ran InSpectres again. This time, I had five players. Whenever Joann sits down at the same table as me, I know I’m going to have a good time. The others were new faces, who had had InSpectres on their shelves for years but not played. I always love being able to shake the dust off people’s gaming shelves. This franchise started out so down on its luck that they rented a room in the YMCA and used the payphone as their business line. They confronted a building haunted by unsavory Muzak, only to make contact with the ghost of Liberace and sign him to a record deal. Later, they found the town reservoir infested with dragon turtles. We laughed until our sides ached.

Saturday late night was for great conversations with great people. And I realized how much the physical location of the conversation acts as a social constraint of group size, and therefore, topic.

Sunday morning I book-ended the convention with another session of My Life With Master. This time, the players crafted a power-hungry Countess who sought to enslave Lucifer himself. Lots of creepiness in this one, with wedding dresses of human skin and demons unleashed to drive widows from their home. I was so relieved when they finally flung me out the window to be impaled on the cast iron fence outside. Two of the minions died as well, and the other two sought out other vile masters to serve. A melancholy ending to a great weekend of gaming.

DEXCON 16: No such thing as “too much fun”

Just got back from a tremendously, awesomely fun weekend at DEXCON! Many thanks to the wonderful Double Exposure staff who put on such a great show, as always.

Due to holiday obligations, our convention started on Friday morning. During event signup, I had wanted to run an extra game to expand the schedule, but knew I wouldn’t have time to prep. One of my favorite zero prep games is InSpectres, so I dusted that off. Many of the folks at the table were relatively new to these strange little games we play, and had only heard of InSpectres as a game from years past. Well, we were able to breathe some life back into its aged bones!

My wonderfully creative players (Marcus, Sarah, Irven, Mitch, and Tim) populated the franchise with colorful employees, ranging from interns, failed librarians, and serial tech-start-up guy to a failed voice actor and a former garbage man who now wanted to take out the paranormal trash! They finished and billed two cases. The first was a case of a sudden, sustained downpour of blood at the food court at the zoo. Turns out that one of the zoo’s acquisitions was cursed. It required a exorcism with a song in multiple voices. Luckily, the voice artist came to the rescue. In their second mission, our working stiffs faced a series of disappearances in a condominium complex. When investigating, they heard voices from the upstairs bedroom. They approached and heard more clearly the words “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in a crazy, mixed-up world like this.” Opening the door to the bedroom, on they other side, in glorious black and white, was the entire airport set from Casablanca, with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman performing the last scene. Of course, the intern was rounded up as one of the usual suspects and pulled into the film just before the end. They managed to rescue him, banish the haunting, return all those disappeared, and face down an entire black and white cavalry regiment. All in a day’s work for the InSpectres.

During the second session, I ran a playtest of the newest revision of With Great Power. I had six players (Amy, Tim, Nick?, Patrick, Jenny, and Dave?), but only five characters. Pat volunteered to sit out, but I was able to use him as the minions of my super villains. It was a fun game, and revealed many of the very rough edges of the latest rules draft. Our heroes were all superhuman mutants who attended a secret school, learning to use their powers to help humans and mutants coexist in peace. Of course, both the would-be Empress of Mutantkind and a group of human supremacists attacked the school simultaneously. We had to cut the session short due to a scheduling mishap, but in comic book terms, that means that we’d leave the reader hungry for issue #2.

After dealing with an inept waiter at the Famished Frog, we returned for the evening time slot. It was my first time running Monsterhearts as a convention game. Of my four players (Karin, Ami, Kathy, and Christian), all were familiar with the genre, but only one had played the game before. I like teaching games, so that was no trouble at all. We had a Queen, an Infernal, a Witch, and a Ghost. At the start of the game, it looked like the rivalry between the Witch, who knew real magick, and the Queen, whose popularity was based on everyone thinking she knew real magic, would be the driving force of the game. As it ended up, the engine of conflict was more and more about the Infernal doing worse and worse things to appease his dark master. It was a fun session, accompanied with the comment, “This is what high school was like. Why do we want to relive this?”

Saturday morning, I ran Monsterhearts again. This time, my four players (John, Andi, Sarah, and Neil?) chose the Werewolf, the Fae, the Ghost, and the Ghoul. All of the players had played or MCed Monsterhearts before, so setup was a breeze. I’m not as skilled at asking provocative questions as I ought to be, but after just a little stumbling, we launched into a tale filled with: one of the school teachers blaming himself for the Ghost’s death and planning to sacrifice a student to bring her back; the Fae having sex and extracting promises from an NPC Chosen and druggie; the Werewolf eviscerating several members of the rival football team; and the Ghoul being immolated in a burning house, but getting up and being just dandy later. Which is just what you want from a session of this game.

Saturday afternoon was my first slot as a player, and I was able to get into a game of Dog Eat Dog, which I’ve been hearing good things about. Keith Stetson facilitated, and my fellow players were Irven, Natalie, and Jim. This game of colonialism and its effects on both the occupier and the natives was interesting in its simplicity. It is very smart and elegant and I could see it becoming very, very brutal. One of our constraints was that the occupying culture did not use spoken language. They used sign language and semaphore. I think that working within this constraint probably prevented the occupation player from developing any distinct characters on his side. It was a very interesting experience and I’m interested in getting a copy.

After dealing with a different, surly waiter at the Famished Frog, I came back to run my second session of With Great Power. My four players (Markus, Jonathan, Kat, and Blair) were all excellent role-players. They brought out the delicious, delectable angst inherent in the Mutant Academy characters. Due to some rules revisions, the fight scene went more smoothly this time. By “more smoothly” I meant as far as the players using the rules and the dice. Not “more smoothly” for the characters, who saw the villains burn the Mutant Academy to the ground, and make off with the data core that held all the mutant research and their secret identities! More rough edges were revealed, and I’ve got my work cut out for me. It was a very fun session and the game’s moving in the right direction.

Sunday morning, I got to playtest Bill White’s new game The New World with Clark and Amanda Valentine. It is also a game about colonization, but much crunchier than Dog Eat Dog. The game uses playing cards as a sort of oracle for creating the setting, culture, and characters. One of the most interesting wrinkles is that the game requires a native culture, a newcomer culture, and an outsider culture, that is somehow distinctive from both. We created a powerful native society that was obsessed with building golden temples to their dead kings. The outsiders were the hungry, overworked miners that brought them gold and built the temples. The newcomers were a commercial fleet arriving with tons of their own gold to undersell the outsiders, which would have left them to starve. Due to impending long drives, we only played a single round, but my dowager queen was ahead in Legacy points. We gave Bill what I think were a lot of helpful suggestions, and I look forward to this game as it continues to evolve.

As always, DEXCON was great. Thanks to all!

Dreamation 2013

I have never had a bad convention experience at Dreamation, but this year’s was one of the best ever! Low stress, lots of excitement and enthusiasm on faces both old and new made for a very, very good time.

I kicked off the convention with my newest Mouse Guard scenario “Death Among the Drifts.” It’s set in the middle of winter, involves some very seriously potent, hungry predators, and, as the name implies, is very deadly. I had a table full of great players, but they were unable to drive off the big, bad, badger, or to repair the Scent Border. I even devoured two of the mice. Everyone said they had fun, but I was beginning to suspect that I had made a scenario that was just plain overpowered and mean.

Friday morning, I played Tenra Bansho Zero, run by Brendan Conway. It was the first time I played the game that Andy Kitkowski first showed me nearly nine years ago. I was expecting the crazy imagery of “every anime you’ve ever heard of thrown into a blender.” I wasn’t expecting the emotional turmoil, character interactions, and story development. I was really, really impressed. My expectations were low, and the game blew past them.

The scenario itself was called “The War-Bride’s Choice.” It was set in a remote retreat where many powerful lords had come to vie for possession of the latest masterpiece of a master craftsman who carved mannequins from wood who then became flesh. I got to play the masterpiece herself, Spirit Trophy. Unbeknownst to the lords, but knownst to their players, the master craftsman was going to allow Spirit Trophy make her *own* decision. We had a great game filled with speed-line filled anime action, heart-wrenching tragedy, self-sacrifice, and foul betrayals. At any other con, this would have easily been my favorite session. Not so at Dreamation.

Friday afternoon, I ran my first public playtest of the latest revision of With Great Power. I had great players around the table: Ralph Mazza, Rob Bohl, Phil Walton, and Joann Stein. I had great story material, as I was using classic With Great Power scenario I’ve run dozens of times before. The rules draft, however, was less than twenty-four hours old at that point, and had never hit the table with multiple players. There were some bumps along the way, and some stops and starts. But we had a good time, told a complete story, and I got some really invaluable feedback. The game that emerges will be so much stronger because of this uneven session.

Friday night saw me playing Dread for the first time. I haven’t played before because the horror genre is most assuredly *not* my thing. But the setting for this event was the universe of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, which I have some familiarity with, and fondness for. I expected we’d do some interesting stuff with players realizing that they were Cylons when the tower fell, and stuff like that. I thought it could be interesting.

When I first came over to the table, I was bowled over by the huge poster-sized diagram of the Battlestar Hades on the table. And the handouts were just as gorgeous, complete with customized ship’s seal and octagonal pages, just like on the show. The GM, Mark Richardson, joked that he had spent all week “cutting corners” for his event. And the careful labor really showed through.

I wasn’t as thrilled with the event itself. It took place during the initial Cylon attack on the colonies, essentially the first two hours of the BG miniseries. We took the time to fill out the extensive Dread questionnaires about our characters, their backstory and relationships. However, as we were on one of the doomed Battlestars, the game became a litany of terrifying, doomed malfunctions, explosions, firefighting, and jury-rigged escape plans. Mark said he was going to post his materials online, so perhaps I’ll run this one sometime, drawing out the timescale and allowing the characters to develop a bit before their demise.

Saturday morning, I again ran Mouse Guard. I had four players: A mom, dad, and their two sons. The kids were probably late tweens/early teens. They mentioned that this was their first time playing Mouse Guard and i didn’t want to diminish their first experience of the game by killing their characters, so I offered to run something less deadly on the fly. They chose to stick with the deadlier scenario, and made a noble effort. The dice were against them, and despite an excellent effort, at the end of the fight with the badger, I still had a few points of disposition left when they hit zero. As a major compromise, i figured eating a few of the mice, instead of the whole patrol and a dozen villagers that the badger had hungered after was a fair deal. In the true spirit of the guard, two of the players hurled themselves into the jaws of death to sate the creature’s appetite and allow the other two to escort the villagers to safety.

Saturday afternoon, I played a hack of Lady Blackbird set in a superhero setting. This session never quite soared for me, but mainly because of external factors: I was late getting to the game. The player whose character was the main target of my character’s subplots left the game about halfway in. The setting was a whole mash of superhero ideas thrown at a wall to see what stuck. We ended up saving Beacon City, and I melted a metallic bad guy with my flaming sword. What more can you ask for?

Saturday evening I ran my second session of All-New, All-Different With Great Power. I got to the table late, and when I did the players were discussing the differences between Aberrant and Wild Talents. I knew where I stood with these guys, and they did not disappoint. It was a very, very good session with loads of angst, impassioned speeches, and zap-bang action. Many of the tweaks that we’d worked out the day before got put to the test, and came through well. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me, but the game is in great shape.

Sunday morning I was able to play Monster of the Week, one of the many hacks of Apocalypse World. I hadn’t played it before. It’s pretty neat. If you distilled all of the teen angst/romance out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you’d get Monsterhearts. The remaining stuff would be Monster of the Week: All scary monster hunting, all the time.

Our group was large and diverse, and we hunted monsters in upstate New York for many and varied reasons. But the history section of the MotW character-creation process did a good job of tying the large group together in a comfortable manner. I loved the way the other players customized their character concepts, from the innocent-looking twelve-year-old Chosen in the pigtails and plaid skirt sneaking out back to smoke cigarettes, to the lithe and heavy-eyeliner look of the half-demon, to the straight-laced, utterly normal Mundane. My character was a tall, broad-shouldered man in a flannel shirt, ax thrown over his shoulder named Summerrain Czegny. It was a fun, fun session.

Thanks to everyone I played with, all the GMs and players who made the atmosphere so electric, and the amazing Double Exposure staff who once more made this grand cavalcade of gaming possible.

METATOPIA 2012: Test your Play

The second annual METATOPIA convention in Morristown, NJ was this past weekend, and it was a great time, as always. We had called ahead to ensure that power was on at the hotel and that food would be available in the wake of the hurricane. And indeed, the only resources in short supply were gasoline (which we filled up on before leaving PA) and time enough to playtest and talk about all the things we wanted to.

Friday night was Kat’s playtest of her game “May the Odds be in Your Favor”, a sort of remix of elements from Serial Homicide Unit with setting inspiration from The Hunger Games. This is the third iteration of the rules, and the changes provoked a much more team-centric “us vs. them” mentality than previous versions. Less tragic, more exciting. Which meant for a high energy level at the table. I kind of missed the drops of sadness at each point where the tributes died. But being caught up in the excitement of violence, even when it’s a terrible, tragic thing, is also a phenomenon to be grappled with. Kat made some further changes before her second playtest on Saturday that I was not a part of, so things might be very different now. Regardless, I enjoyed my game a great deal and can’t wait to see the next iteration.

Saturday morning, I played Russell Collins’ game “Tears of a Machine” which is Neon Genesis Evangelion with the serial numbers filed off. It’s a much more traditional design than I’ve played in a while. GM delivers situation, players react to it. Roll some dice to resolve a conflict. The imaginative work of Russell’s setting creation was impressive. We didn’t do much in the way of debriefing, but I personally would have liked more player decisions, even about what to do, where to go, how to address things other than combat. Although, just listening to Russell’s dulcet tones describe the sensations of becoming a hundred foot tall alien robot was engaging enough. Maybe he’ll need to release an audio track along with the game.

After lunch, I was supposed to playtest some new space combat rules for Mobile Frame Zero, but Joshua wasn’t able to make it to the con. I tried out a card game about Civil War infantry combat called “Ready, Aim, Fire.” It’s a quick, two-player strategy card game where you need to try to get cards into their proper order of “Load, Ready, Aim, Fire” in six piles and score points for doing so. It wasn’t quite my thing. I enjoy real time card games enough. And I enjoy strategy card games enough. But just for my own tastes, there was too much strategy for the time frame. Or maybe the strategy parts of my brain don’t like to share with the quick-thinking parts of my brain. I enjoyed it, but proabaly wouldn’t seek it out again.

Saturday night, I playtested Brendan Conway’s hack of Don’t Rest Your Head called “Titans.” It’s inspired by stories like Watchmen and The Authority where superheroes try to actually change the world to meet their utopian vision. The premise is good, and the character creation questions elicited some pretty interesting characters from us. I made The Pendragon, the once and future king, who wanted to bring the whole world under the realm of law and righteousness. Lisa properly described him as “Doctor Doom with better PR.” I was aided in my quest by M.E.R.L.I.N., a sentient computer that wanted to bring enlightened self-interest to the world, my vizier Dr. Veritas, the super genius who wanted to eliminate religion. We were opposed by the forces of Everyman, an Anonymous-like movement of anti-Titan sentiment. Rich, as the player of Everyman, decided he was just one guy, but could possess people to do his bidding. It was a neat setup, with the initial bang being my character saving London from a bomb, and harnessing its energy to raise an island of Avalon from the sea. During the course of the game, I even threatened the Sect. of State that I would personally conquer the US if they got in my way. The fiction we came up with was good. The mechanics that led us there were not quite where they could be. There was really no solid way of changing the environment, of changing the world. We gave Brendan a whole heck of a lot to think about, and I hope he ponders it thoroughly, because i’d love to play another version of this game at Dreamation.

Sunday morning, I was just going to pack and go, but Rob Bohl roped me into a test of his new game Sad and Miserable: The Secret Lives of Stand-up Comedians. It’s got a long way to go, but it’s got potential. You create your stand-ups, and a friend of theirs. And then that friend character, is also the antagonist character to a different stand-up. Which is a nice way to develop a relationship map on the fly, and give immediate depth to the supporting cast. Sometimes, the supporting characters even had more depth than the stand-ups themselves. Rob has a lot of work yet to do on the resolution mechanic (we essentially playstormed that part) but he’s on an interesting track, and I’d like to see more, as well.

And then we left and I drove smack-dab into the middle of a surprise birthday party for me! My wife is tricky when she puts her mind to it.

Thanks to Vinny, Avie, Kate, and the entire Double Exposure family for another fantastic show. Counting the days until Dreamation (109, for the curious).

BurningCon 2012 – A Hot Time in the Old Town

So, yesterday I went to BurningCon: The Triadumverate. I live a few hours west of NYC, so it’s a long day’s travel to take a bus into the city, catch a subway to the convention site, and then reverse the whole process once the last game slot is finished. But I’m glad I did. I haven’t gotten to play much of anything in months, so it was a welcome reminder that I still know how to do this. And it was also a great opportunity to play with awesome players like Jay, Al, Chris, Phredd, Dustin, Dave, Topi, Ajit, Treci, Josh, Rob, and Terri. The BurningCon always attracts top-notch players who know their stuff and bring their A-game.

I started off by running Mouse Guard. With recent family events, I knew I wouldn’t be up to doing a full-blown MG hack like I did last year. I ran a straight-up MG adventure called “Drought” that I originally wrote for last Dreamation. It’s a decent scenario, with a group of weasels having taken a town hostage during a drought, by rigging the town’s dam to burst if their extortion of food and meat isn’t sated. The guys on Saturday had some of the worst dice luck I’ve seen outside of my own rolls as a player. In the very first conflict, I defeated three of the four mice on the second action! In the end, Thom, the patrol leader was captured, escaped, failed to rally the townsmice against the weasel-enabling mayor, and was defeated in combat by the weasels. They feasted on his ale-fattened corpse, but their banquet served as distraction to allow the remaining guardsmice to disable the booby trap on the dam, and lay an ambush for the returning, overfed weasels, and avenge their fallen Patrol Leader. It was a good game, if a bit gruesome. It was actually the first time I’ve had a PC death in a Mouse Guard game.

After a quick lunch, I flexed my first-priority-rank to grab a seat in Terri’s Lady Blackbird game. I had played once before, and had a lukewarm experience. I wanted to see if playing a different character would help me understand why this game is so often touted as one of the best story games. I played the disguised and on-the-run Lady Blackbird, who suited me much better than the petty thief Kale that I played last time. The other players were also very much bringing their A-game, and Terri was quick to probe our characters’ reactions to events. “Snargle, you just heard Lady Blackbird insult your captain. What do you think about that?” It was a fun game, even I ended up with relatively few xp, simply because I did a lot of helping other players, rather than doing things myself. And, in the end, I may have gone a bit too far into the tired trope of “the scorned woman.” But no one at the table seemed to mind.

After a mild dinner, I was drawn in by Luke’s line of “I don’t think I’ll be able to get nine people for my LARP. You should play.” I was then among the eight or nine people that got turned away due to the priority system. Last time I believe Luke and his modesty (not really)!

Luckily, I was able to snag a seat in an Apocalypse World MC’d by Jay. It was the third time I played the game, and certainly the most enjoyable session. I have mixed feelings about the game, as I find the color/setting material to be off-putting, but the mechanics fascinating. This was a good group who was familiar with the game, and things developed quickly. The setup was that we were all part of a new hard hold being set up in a mysterious complex, that had a big, ominous door in the center. I played a savvy-head named Spector that flubbed his first “talk with machines” roll. I was contacted by the awe-inspiring voice behind the door, and committed myself to opening that door to see what was down there. As more and more of the other characters came to view the door as the biggest threat, I sort of became the villain of the piece. This was not a bad thing, as I was able to provide a focus and drive to the game by just doing stuff to meet my characters’ desires. I think that near the end, Rob backed off from killing my character when he maybe shouldn’t have, but it was as good a convention session of Apocalypse World as I’ve seen. Everyone’s characters got to do stuff they were good at, and accomplish something in their own characters’t stories, as well as address the common situation.

On the bus back, I was thinking about how when I started going to game conventions in the mid-90s, I was often the one to play the wild, active, “gonzo” character. And these days, I am often like the “straight man” on a comedy team, providing grounding and context for the gonzo antics around me. I think that perhaps good con games need a mix of both active energy and context for that active energy. A decade and a half ago, the convention play culture emphasized risk avoidance and keeping your character alive. So, I provided spice and energy. Now, at least in Story/indie/Forge-derived/whatever games play culture, gonzo has become the default mode for convention play, so I try to provide the grounding and context. Food for thought.

Thanks to all I played with. It was a great time!

DEXCON 2012: Fun stayin’ out of the sun

Just got back from a really, really great DEXCON. Played games, ran games, chatted with people, ate good food. Couldn’t ask for anything more.

My Thursday afternoon Mobile Frame Zero game only had one player show up. He was a Kickstarter supporter, and I mentioned that the game really sings with three players, but we weren’t able to pull in anyone else. I wanted to show off the game he had backed, but I had underestimated the effectiveness of the company I threw together and ended up beating him pretty badly. I think he enjoyed the game anyway.

Thursday night, I played in a playtest of Kat’s Serial Homicide Unit hack based on the Hunger Games. We had a full table and the game was lots of fun. Just like the Hunger Games, we created teenagers that were almost all going to die horribly in an arena of combat. Just like Serial Homicide Unit, there was no joy to be had in this combat, only the tragedy of young lives needlessly thrown away. We had some great creativity at that table, with people coming up with the details of their tributes’ reapings, their parade performance and training, and then the slaughter at the cornucopia where half the tributes die right out of the gate. Since the death is random, it was surprising that all the fittest and most able tributes died right out of the gate. One of my tributes lasted to the final round: the youngest tribute, Woody, small and doe-eyed and weak. The sponsors voted him lots of silver parachutes out of pity/sympathy. I really enjoyed the game.

Friday morning I ran Mobile Frame Zero again. This time I had two players, one of whom was a Kickstarter supporter. The game played more like I was accustomed to. I was the defender, and tried for a “they can’t attack you if they’re dead” defense. I seized a number of stations, too. At one point, I looked unstoppable and was 20 points ahead of my second place competitor. But the doomsday clock was only halfway, and when I fell, I fell hard. I ended the game with no frames. It was great fun, though.

Friday afternoon, I ran the first playtest of All-New, All-Different With Great Power. I ran our original With Great Power scenario “A League of Their Own” with the rules I had only finished the day before. I had great players at the table, and the game went well. It went differently than it ever has under the old system. I got nothing but compliments from the players. I see a number of rough patches that need to be filed down. A solid start, but lots of work yet to go.

Friday evening, I played in Andy Kitkowski’s Ryuutama game. It’s a Japanese RPG about a fantasy world where wanderlust is nigh-universal. The focus of the game is on exploration and travel, not fighting monsters. Characters were simple enough to put together, but then came 45 minutes of shopping for equipment. I really hate shopping, in games and IRL. I understand why it’s an important part of a game about wilderness travel. But for all the time we put into it, we didn’t really use it during this short playtest. The game was enjoyable, and we had some great players who really understood how to enhance the anime-flavor of their characters. I came away with a better understanding of exploration in RPGs.

Saturday morning, I had no players for my second With Great Power playtest. These things happen, particularly on crowded Saturday morning timeslots. This allowed me to try out a game I’ve been trying to get into for a very long time: Shawn de Armet’s One Night. I really enjoyed it. Shawn has faced down the “cold start” problem that’s endemic to games in the Universalis vein where you can pick up and play anything. He’s broken down popular gaming tropes, and randomly assigns groups of them to people to choose. After that, there’s a voting portion that is quick and fun to separate the wheat from the chaff. A similar process takes over once we have a specific setting in place and are developing situation and characters. We went from sitting down to having our situation and characters in hand in under an hour. I enjoyed the process and will likely steal some bits of it.

For this particular game, we came up with a sort-of steampunk story where Nazi robots had gone back in time to the Victorian age, in order to infiltrate and conquer it. As skyships flew overhead, we followed Holmes and Watson in trying to track down Jack the Ripper, and the fate of a simple German Jewish clockmaker, a man out of time. Also, I played Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, and who was currently writing a novel of the present. She would write things, and they would come true. We ended up thwarting Lord Byron’s plan to open a portal to the future inside Big Ben, and with Mary Shelley writing a happy ending for the fictional Dr. Watson. It was a very nice story.

Saturday afternoon, I played in John Stavropoulos’ Mouse Guard game. I haven’t been on the player side of Mouse Guard since the game was in playtest, so it was a nice change of pace. We had a great adventure saving a town from flooding, facing off with rampaging beavers, duplicitous guardsmice, and a charismatic bandit. One of the things I sometimes do in con games to shake things up is to look at a character, ask “What’s the most obvious thing to do with this character?” and then do something else. This time, that “something else” involved being friendly with the town’s bandits. Once I started, I didn’t know where to go with it, and left that loose plot thread flopping in the breeze. Not my best performance.

Saturday evening, I got to play in John’s Apocalypse World game. I’ve read a great deal about the game, but haven’t gotten a good taste of it. I wanted to see how John brought it into the four-hour convention format. I was impressed by the way he made a lot of choices in prepping the characters before hand, but left enough for us to customize at the table in order to make the game our own. Not surprisingly, the game yeilded a brutal, ugly story about brutal, ugly people. The setup was that our biker gang was all set to leave the collection of abandoned buildings they had been squatting at, and half the gang decided to stay. I played an adrogynous battlebabe called Absinthe, who tried to shoot the troublemakers who had incited disharmony inside the gang. We ended up facing down blood wolves and our gang leader nearly got killed by his ex-girlfriend. The whole thing was bloody and messed up, but the process of creating the story was interesting, and I have a better sense of the ways AW is unique, and the basis of its popularity and usefulness in hacking.

Sunday morning was all packing up and saying good bye. All in all, a really great weekend. Thanks to all the DEXCON staff, players, and GMs for making such a wonderful time!