#WithGreatProduction 19 July 2015

So, at DEXCON, I mentioned to Clark Valentine that I had been designing With Great Power in character sheets and quick-starts, and therefore had effectively no “real game text” written yet. He asked for more details, so here it goes.

More than a year ago, the always-insightful John Stavropoulos wrote about how vital character sheets and quick-start rules summaries are for RPGs. They are the user interface of your game. Most likely, only one or two people at the table is ever going to read your game’s rulebook, but every single player is going have a character sheet. That is going to be their portal into the game world—the piece of paper they will be looking at all session long, every session. John’s point was that character sheets and quick-starts should not be treated as an afterthought to game text, but should take a central role in game design.

John is absolutely right. I’ve been trying to design With Great Power to work with dice for more than three years now. I’ve gone through ten major “restart from scratch” revisions. And all of that design work was carried out on character sheets, quick-starts, and notes to myself. I play and playtest games almost entirely at conventions. Getting simple, clear, quick-to-understand information into the hands of the players is vital. I need the players to know their options, have reminders at hand, and maybe even be a tiny bit inspired by the source material. Writing rules text gives me _none_ of that.

At least in the style of role-playing games that I design, when you’re at the stage of testing when you need to know if a set of rules actually does what you hope it will, precisely how those rules are phrased is irrelevant. Put a reminder of the rule on the character sheet. Summarize it in a bullet point in a rules summary. Jot yourself a note with any clarifications. If the rule helps players say interesting things during the actual playtest, then you can take the time to write it up, seeking out the right words to teach it through text. If the rule doesn’t achieve your goals, changing it is just a bullet point away.

Status:
Finished Hero Creation section. The Villain Creation section expanded considerably while I was writing it (I was going to put section on Villain Plans later in the text, but decided they should really be with Villain Creation), so I’m not quite done with Villain Creation, but I’m happy with the progress. Wrote a few sidebars as I went. Started on the playtester survey form, which I’ll fill in as I go.

Goal for Next Week:
Finish Villain Plans. Write the introduction to Phases (what they are, how they work, general guidelines), and the description of at least one of the four types of Phase. And more sidebars. I can’t write a game about superheroes without sidebars!

See ya in seven!

#WithGreatProduction: 12 July 2015

No, it is not 1999 all over again. I am, however, doing a production blog for the next phase in creating the With Great Power, reimagined edition.

Why a production blog?
Because I have a busy life and have no project manager to nag me about getting stuff done. Also, it is months until my next game convention. Conventions always light a fire under me and I cannot afford to let this project languish that long. Being responsible to report to all of you good folks on the Internet will keep me moving forward. There are some other reasons, which we’ll get to in future weeks.

What’s the current state of the game?
The sessions I ran at DEXCON were great fun, and very productive. The process of play itself is largely working the way I want it to. The next step is external playtesting.

However, I have no text to send external playtesters. I have been designing through iterations of character sheets and rules summaries. I need to write the text of the game to get the information on how to use those character sheets and rules summaries out of my head and into other people’s heads.

What’s the projected timeline?
I am not the world’s fastest writer of game text. I’d like to have an external playtest edition of the game ready by August 31. That’s eight of these blog posts between now and then.

Won’t a production blog siphon off time you’d be using to write the game itself?
Not likely. I just put in several hours and am starting to lose focus. It’s time for a break, so I bang this entry out, as the first part of the break.

Okay, so what did you do this week?
As I said, I ran the game twice last week at DEXCON. I got lots of great feedback from players, and my own observations. However, it was scattered on character sheets, rules summaries, origin cards, and my trusty notebook. I reviewed all of that, fixed the things like typos that were quick to fix, and compiled the more involved changes into a worklog.

I also reviewed the textual outline that I had been neglecting, brought it up to speed, and started to write the text for the Hero Creation section. I also made a list of sidebars I need to write. Oh, and a list of topics for this #WithGreatProduction blog.

What are your goals for next week?
I’d like to be able to finish the text for hero creation and villain creation. Anything extra would be bonus.

See ya in seven, True Believers!

DEXCON 2015

DEXCON is one of my favorite conventions, I think it’s fair to say that this DEXCON was the best yet! Vinny, Avie, and the entire Double Exposure staff always put on a great show and go above and beyond to be welcoming.

Unfortunately, I came home with a bit of a cold, so my thoughts are a bit more scattered than usual. Also, apologies to anyone I hugged yesterday. Here’s what I played.

THURSDAY
9AM: Companions Tale with Adrian, Bruce, Kirk and Daniel.
–This is the game I’m editing for Laura. It’s at the point where we’re testing that the text actually says what it needs to say. I simply explained the premise of the game, laid out the materials, and sat back taking notes while my awesome players taught themselves the game. It was very insightful, as well as fun and entertaining. There were definite problems identified and the game will be stronger for it! Plus, we told a story of the red-haired hero who founded a new citadel and faced armies of zombies and diverted rivers of hallucinigenic joy-juice.

2PM: Lady Blackbird with Adrian, Rich, Lilith, and Candace, with Markus GMing.
–Lady Blackbird delivered fun character play, as always. I’ve GMed for Markus before, so I knew we were in good hands there. Plus, Rich, Lilith and Adrian are some of my absolute favorite people to play with! Plus, Candance hadn’t played a tabletop RPG in the better part of a decade, but really brought the fun! Adrian had never played LB before, but he is one of the funniest people I know. I handed him Snargle and said “This character was written for you.” I was not wrong.
–I pushed the boundaries of bad playerhood in that game, but I think it worked out okay. I was playing Lady Blackbird, and I tried to play her as a slightly more arrogant Princess Leia from A New Hope. I tried to make her a take-no-crap, if somewhat shrill, entitled woman throughout. Near the end, I revealed that she was running to Uriah Flint because she thought he would use his pirate fleet to fight her oppressive father, the slave-lord. Markus was playing up the angle of Uriah Flint being a terrible womanizer who didn’t even remember me. In the scene where she finally meets Flint, I turned her into a spineless, simpering, lovesick moron who offered her father’s fortune and implied sexual favors for a moment alone with Flint. The reaction of disgust on the faces of everyone at the table was extreme, and rightly so. I was nervous. I pushed on quickly to assert that in the next scene “All that lovesick mooning is just cover so I can get close enough to magically mind-control him so I can use his pirate fleets to fight to free the slaves.” Everyone was cheered, but I’m not sure if I should have tipped my hand earlier.

8PM: Dictionary of Mu with Rebecca, Ben, Jeff, Sweeney and Jim Crocker.
–I posted about this earlier, the game was as metal as anything. It had dismemberment, disembowlment, patricide, soul-sacrifice, and even the conception of a new life. I’m glad I got to run Sorcerer for so many who hadn’t played it before. Plus, Sorcerer had never quite clicked for me before. I think that I never quite understood how large a part Color and Situation played in the game, since I was overly focused on System at the time. But I’ve learned a lot more about how to “read the fiction” in the intervening decade. Perhaps there’s a role for me a revivalist of older games.
–My players were awesome! They gave me a round of applause afterward, but they really should have (and were) applauding each other. They really brought to life the characters and their grand, eloquent desires.

FRIDAY
9AM: With Great Power with Mel, Bill, and Bruce.
–A dream table, and a great session. My latest round of tweaks were fruitful and the game is singing now! It draws on the creative wells of players’ internalized superheroic narratives and helps them spew forth in four-color glory. I love it.
–They made a psychic, Doctor Id, and two magical characters: Mister Mystic who could manifest “solid thought” and worked for an other-dimensional arcane Library; and Argent who had been imbued with the powers of the Light Fantastic to battle evil. They faced off against Duke Diablo, who wanted to purge the world of its regrets, permanently. We had earthquakes, demolished buildings, tenure review boards, the battle of paired ancient amulets of power, the clearing of steam over where the heroes should have died but stood to face the villain. Gobs of fun!

2PM: Kagematsu with Blair, Kirk, Jim, Kat and Melissa GMing.
–The regency romance angle was awesome. Kat’s been working on a Jane Austen-esque game for a while, so I’m really glad she got to play this. The mix of desperation and desire seemed a perfect fit for the Kagematsu framework. And Melissa made it look so easy.
–I found myself in an authority figure role, again. Our house had no male heir, and also needed to woo a faerie lord to shore up the bloodline. I was the eldest sister, who had been married for a day before her lying husband had shipped out with the Royal Navy and been promptly killed by the French, taking my reputation and hope for the future with him to a watery grave.
–Learning from my last game, I min/maxed the stats 6/1, probably should have gone all the way to 7/1. My character, Honora, was all charm. She ended up marrying Lord Weymouth, even though it was Blair’s innocent Helena who secured the promise on my behalf.
–I managed “a roll in the hay” Even though it was explicitly set up as a regency romance—and I’ve typeset enough of them to know what that entails—I was still uncomfortable introducing sexual content, concerned that I would step across the line of good taste. The table was very supportive and I really, really enjoyed the game.

8PM: Dictionary of Mu with Daniel, Mel, Jurgen, and Neal.
–This session (also posted earlier) was just as metal, a bit more time for development of the characters, as there were only four players rather than five. This one had ritual combat, intentional disfigurement, flying ark powered by blood, and the killing of the concept of kingship itself and binding it as a new demon.
–Sorcerer works best when the Color and Situation are first and foremost, with System supporting and giving them teeth. I never fully understood that until after MCing Monsterhearts.

SATURDAY
9AM: Companions Tale folded for lack of players. There was an embarassment of riches on Saturday. Instead, I played Fiasco with Phredd, John, and Jon.
–Fiasco has always been a mediocre game for me, but this session was thoroughly fun, as I got to play “off-kilter” but not “crazy.”
–The playset was “Shovelbums,” which is slang for “archeologists” and based on Phredd’s real-life experiences as an archeologist. It was a great setup, with petty people focused on pride, greed, lust, ambition—basically everything but the preservation of the artifacts of the past.

2PM: Five Kingdoms with Bill, Nina, Xander and Dave GMing
–Dave Petroski is working on this “Kingdom versus kingdom FATE game” for a little while now. I admit that I’m stalking this game for selfish purpose, as I have an idea in a similar space.
–The version I played at Dreamation version was interesting. This version was fun, but it could be much moreso. Dave’s on a good path. The role of the fiction and the cultural character of kingdoms is a sticky point. It can very easily be overwhelmed by the currency-driven light board-wargame that the map portion teeters on the edge of. Maybe something can be done so that certain milestones are easier for different cultures to acheive, or give them extra benefits, or something? I don’t know quite how to fix it, but I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the state of this at Metatopia.

8PM: Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine with Ami, Karin, Brian and MP O’Sullivan HGing.
–Anecdote: I come to the room, and Mike has already put out tea and cookies. The character sheets are sitting friendly and welcoming on the table. Mike asks me how my Sorceror game had gone. I refused to even mention the events of Mu in the room, lest I pop the bubble of “feel-good” that Mike had crafted.
–I didn’ know what to expect other than “Jenna Moran does Studio Ghibli.” I was plesantly surprised! It was a thoroughly enjoyable, fascinating game with no conflict, just exploration. Definitely looking forward to picking it up.
–We had a pick-up soccer game with monster children; the friendly spirits of rain clouds and too-long, too-thin cat-like beings; the wish-granting engine dropping a plastic egg; an excellently-handled flashforward/flashback use of the wish itself; the perfect memory of our high-school friendship that we would treasure in our hearts forever; the one night in all the year when the stars were visible, with the lights dimming all across the city and everyone gazing up at the sky, with my character looking down, seeing the stars reflected in the puddles of spirit world; and an end-credits montage of our friendship persevering throughout our lives.

SUNDAY
10AM: With Great Power with Brian, Russell, Sarah, Rachel and Kat.
–Interesting test with having two people at the table who “didn’t really like superheroes.” The game took longer to pop, but pop it did, which was gratifying. I actually lay the blame for that more on having _five_ players (even though they were five excellent players), and the meat locker-like conditions of the gaming rooms.
–We had a much more diverse team, with the Timekeeper being able to freeze time in limited spaces, but at the cost of time from his own life; Lady Facsination who had glasses that could see the future, so she could avoid trouble; The Amazing Abra, a teenage wizard who had a dead, evil wizard trapped in his closet; Mindseye, a runaway space princess who could read and manipulate thoughts; and Purple Haze, who could absorb and expel different types of energy. They faced off against Temper, a blind efficiency expert who had been empowered by the far-future descendents of humanity to cut out the weakness from human civilization. She was trying to trigger a meltdown in a nuclear power plant so that the crisis would prompt greater safety and efficiency standards.
–We saw a burglary stopped before it started; the key that connects all doors; the most clever use of an Internet fanbase of a fictional time-travel TV show; the worst examples of over-sharing while having a round of drinks with the coworkers; twenty-something love triangles!; evacuating a speeding car in the last half-second before it crashes and explodes; power station safety hardware flipped so that every procedure produced the wrong result; the heat and radiation of a nuclear meltdown safely absorbed; the day saved!

What a great con. Thanks to everyone with whom I shared a game, a meal, or a chat!

#WithGreatPlay

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 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.

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!

With Great Power: The Relaunch

Just to make the announcement all official-like: I will be re-designing, re-writing, and re-publishing With Great Power. The entire system will be redesigned to handle superheroic melodrama better than ever. The book will be completely rewritten with new aspects, sample characters and scenarios.

My goal is to have the game ready for sale by DEXCON 2013. I have an editor and a cover artist on-board. We all have a big challenge ahead of us. But the result will be stunning. Watch this space for updates as the game takes shape.

Camp Nerdly 2012: Criminal, Villain, Tribute, Puppet

Camp Nerdly 2012 was a really great time. Thanks to all who made camp possible and run so very smoothly. I played a number of unsavory characters early in the con and then put on my white hat to finish off the convention on a positive note.

Friday night saw Kat, Remi, Georgianna, and me playing in Rachel Walton’s Burning Wheel game. It was centered on a group of young theives who had been captured, imprisoned, and sentenced to a life a slave labore in an overseas penal colony. I think that Friday night frayed nerves after hours of travelling were responsible for the tension and difficulty that reared up in the first half of the game. The inter-character conflict soared to eleven by the time we were shipwrecked on the beach. After a break, we came back and worked out how our characters fit into this new society: Could they make lives for themselves? In the end, my character’s brother, played by Kat, sacrificed himself to keep my hands clean. It was a sad, terrible thing, but I let him take the fall and felt like a worthless coward for doing it. Which is how a game about thieves should go, don’t you think?

Saturday morning enabled me to get in on a playtest of Dave Berg’s game In My Clutches. It’s a game of supervillains and their nefarious plans. It has rotating GMship, and each player portrays their villain as well as an NPC that is central to the story of another villain. My main villain was Captain Fahrenheit, who could control temperature. He had gone to the school of hard knocks and didn’t quite understand how to best use his powers for personal gain. He couldn’t even reconcile with his wife. Since his wife was a star reporter and devoted to noble causes like saving the planet and social justice, Captain Fahrenheit decided he would find a way to use his awesome powers to end global warming. However, he had to make her think that he had already had his powers surgically removed, because she would kick him out again otherwise.

It was a really fun game. I probably got more mileage out of playing my guest star: Captain Metropolis, champion of the city. She was being wooed by one of the other supervillains: King Orziman, a pseudo-Doctor Doom character. He succeeded amazingly well at his rolls and convinced her that he was walking the straight and narrow, purging the corrupt officials from his government that had led him astray. In the final endgame, it was revealed that his plan all along had been to sire a child with Captain Metropolis, and raise the child to … wait for it … TAKE OVER THE WORLD.

It’s a nice, tight little game that produces a lot of fun narrative constraint through play. I’d probably tweak the math a bit to make it easier to play a complete story in a single session, but that’s Dave’s call. Maybe an explicit “one-shot mode” and “extended play mode” or the like is called for, similar to MLwM’s “start with one Love and 2-3 points of Fear for a single session game” guideline. I’m really looking forward to seeing more of this game.

Saturday afternoon, I managed to squeeze into Arnold Cassell’s game of the Mountain Witch. I had never played before, and it was very educational. I can see now why trust mechanics were such a big thing back in the day. The giving rules weight to interaction between players was very nice. I suck at the whole “guess what other players’ secret agendas” are bit, even in board games. So, I ignored that part and just played my character. It was fun. We confronted the Mountain Witch about halfway through. He had all sorts of surreal demons and the like at his service, and lived in a palace that floated on a lake of magma. And his evil plot was … publishing books! I put an end to the Witch quickly, beheading him and revealing that I served another master. Unfortunately, one of the other ronin wanted revenge against me, and got it, blowing my head off with a blunderbuss. Highly charged testosterone-soaked action for the win!

Saturday evening, we played Kat’s new hack for Serial Homicide Unit, inspired by The Hunger Games. We we playing tributes in the first annual Hunger Games, a year after the end of the war. We did chose our tributes based on our district, and detailed what was special about us that would make the odds in our favor. I was from the livestock district. My name was Buck and the odds were in my favor because I could handle large animals. We then added why we needed to live. For Buck, it was because he had just gotten engaged. Then, we each listed one reason why the odds were not in our favor, and passed our sheet to the left where that player added another obstacle to our success, and so on. Buck had all kinds of problems: He didn’t think very quickly. He couldn’t stand lizards. We then played out little scenes where our tributes faced these challenges. To resolve the scene, we chose one of two cards. Underneath the card was either a silver parachute, to show that this experience would help us in the arena, or a firework, to show us that this experience would bring us closer to death.

Once we had played some tribute scenes, we all added a detail to the arena. This time, the arena was the urban wasteland that had formerly been the capital of district 13. It was filled with still-burning fires, flying lizards that spit poison, mutant rats that hunted in packs, unexploded mines and sinkholes. On the first round, all the tributes names were put in a fishbowl. One was drawn out, and that one would have to face one of the terrors of the arena. Just when we were about to see whether they lived or not, we would go to the cards. Remember the cards we were building up during the tribute scenes with the parachutes or fireworks on them? Well, we’d shuffle those cards, and add a random one from the deck and then choose one to see if we survived the obstacle. I died pretty quickly, diving for cover into a nest of flying lizards. It was tragic. A very good game and I look forward to Kat developing it more.

Sunday morning, I finally got to play Puppetland, after wanting to do so since I first bought the game umpteen years ago. It was a lot of fun, building on the game that the other players had done last year at Camp Nerdly. I was a lumberjack marionette named Jack Timber that could chop things with my axe, inspire others to do their work, and could not lie, not even to spare someone’s feelings. Dave’s puppet, Splotch Flaggy, had eaten several of Punch’s evil minons in the last game and was slowly being corrupted from within. I plainly stated that to anyone who asked, including an innocent little finger puppet who ran off crying (to her death!). It was sad and heartbreaking. I like the narrative constraints of speaking differently for players versus GM. I’m very glad I got to play.

And I’m very glad we went back to Camp Nerdly.

The Cold, Hard Truth [fiction]

I woke up with an idea for a story. It’s set in the Liberty League universe that I have used for my With Great Power… convention events. What do you think?

********

THE STALWART

in

“The Cold, Hard Truth”

by Michael S. Miller

The Armor of Truth was going to fail. Already a dent in the shoulder plate kept me from raising my left arm. Soon, even the enchantments of Veracity that held the mystic metal together would not be able to ward off the blows of The Crusher’s reptilian fists. The Armor was going to fail.

When the Armor failed, nothing would be able to stop The Crusher from killing Constance Carrier. His genetically enhanced muscles, razor-sharp scales, and sinuous snake-like tail would work quickly. Smart, funny, beautiful Connie would die. And it would be all my fault.

The whistling of another thrown car headed my way snapped my attention back to the problems at hand. The car was headed straight for a group of panicked bystanders. I soared over, hitting the car squarely with the my still-solid right shoulder plate. Steel screeched against mystic metal and I could feel the armor tearing against itself–tearing against my soul.

The car and I crashed into a truck near the bystanders. They fled, unharmed, as I pulled myself from the wreckage. What would Wayne do? I wondered. The Armor sharpened my memory. It was as though in that instant I could see Wayne Mason–my mentor, the closest thing to a father I ever knew–standing before me.

“Even with the Armor of Truth at full power,” Wayne had lectured, “I can’t go toe-to-toe with a behemoth like The Crusher. The Armor isn’t that type of weapon. The Truth is neither the hammer, nor the anvil, Earnest. The Truth is the fire of the forge itself.”

Wayne was always saying things like that. And I thought I understood his wisdom. I thought I could take up The Stalwart’s mantel after Wayne died. I thought I could protect people. I thought I could protect Connie. I was wrong.

I looked up and saw The Crusher rip open the side of a van, near where I had stashed Connie. It was now or never. But how could I be “the fire of the forge itself”? Fires brought heat. Heat only enhanced the reptilian DNA in The Crusher, made him faster and stronger. Unless…

I knew what to do. As The Crusher’s ten-foot-tall form loomed over the SUV that I had hidden Connie underneath, I soared over to land on its roof. “If you want the girl, Crusher, you’re going to have to go through me.”

The Crusher’s snake-like mouth twisted into something approaching a grin. “I thought you’d never ask. Yer gonna be the ‘smear of truth’ when I get done with you.” Both his arms lunged at me, wrapping around my already-battered shoulders. With no legs, The Crusher’s long tail wrapped around my legs and began to squeeze. I could feel the mystic metal squeal under the assault. The Armor would fail in a minute, at most.

With The Crusher anchored firmly to me and not the ground, I took to the skies. We weren’t far from the Central Park Reservoir. It was still early spring. I plunged into the water with The Crusher coiled around me. I felt a rib crack under the pressure.

The ice had just melted, but at the bottom of the reservoir the water was still just a few degrees above freezing. The Armor kept me insulated from the cold, but The Crusher had no such protection. I was betting that the bone-chilling cold would sap his irresistible strength, maybe even send him into some sort of hibernation. But would it work fast enough to save me?

Seconds passed. The crushing force did not let up. My left shoulder plate gave way, crumpling like paper.

My shoulder exploded with pain.

I screamed.

And then, the squeezing stopped.

The Crusher released his grip and began to swim weakly for the surface. With my good right arm, I grabbed his tail and held him until I was sure that all his strength was gone. Although every move was agony, I hauled him to the surface, and checked that he was still breathing.

The city was safe. Connie was safe. The Armor of Truth had not failed. And I swore, I would not fail the Armor. Not again.