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

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.

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.

DEXCON 13 – Much Merriment in Morristown

Going to a Double Exposure convention is always a little bit like going home. You see friends you haven’t seen in far too long, you talk until your voice goes raw, and you smile until your face aches. Or at least I do.

Thursday
We were doing convention prep until the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, so getting up early for the drive to Morristown was a bit of a challenge. Luckily it was a challenge well worth it. Kat was running Everway in the morning timeslot. She hasn’t run the game in over a year, and it’s always a treat. This time she experimented with leaving her Fortune Deck at home and running with straight karma. Her setup was the same as the “Dragon-napped” scenario she ran for With Great Power… earlier this year. It has an evil king, an innocent princess in peril, and a dragon in disguise as a knight. I (playing the dragon) got to put forward the dubious legal theory that everyone in the kingdom belonged to me, because I could eat them at any time. Since they were still alive, I must be sparing them for later and thus, they were still “mine.”

A quick lunch with Kat and Joanna, and then it was time to take to the skies! Bill White ran a playtest of his structured freeform game “Romance in the Air,” a pleasure jaunt aboard a floating airship hotel in a Europe that never was. Bill explained that it was partially designed as a rebuttal to the assertion that “you cannot make a Jane Austen roleplaying game” and that this was the very first time it saw play. It was rather rough going in places, but there is definitely potential there, and Bill is absolutely fearless in digging through the results of his experiment to get the good stuff at its heart.

Kat and I had a quiet dinner at the italian place across the street, and then I returned for a wild and crazy experiment of my own. I ran the Marvel Super Heroes RPG published by TSR in 1986! I hadn’t pulled the books off my shelf to play for about 20 years. And all the players said something similar. The power of nostalgia was strong at the table!

My initial idea for the game was to run in it with the superheroes Kat and I had come up with for the With Great Power… scenario “A League of Their Own.” We’ve been running it at cons for several years now, and I wanted to see how my nostalgic memories of MSH would apply to these great characters. An interesting experiment, right?

Interesting, yes, but an experiment quickly completed. In explaining the rules, I went through a sort of Danger Room-esque capture the flag setup. It quickly became apparent that the system was going to support more bus-throwing than these characters were capable of, while leaving their various angsts unacknowledged. Luckily, we were barely an hour into the timeslot, and I already knew what I wanted to know.

So, I looked at the guys at the table, and said “The experiment is a success, these characters in this system absolutely DOES NOT work. But, we’ve got three hours, let’s have some fun!” And I broke out the character cards for classic Marvel heroes, circa 1986. And thus we had Captain America, Spiderman, Storm, Box, and The Thing defend New York from the Hulk on a rampage, a Doombot, and a couple robotic minions. There was much laughter and die-rolling and villain-bashing and reminiscing over ancient comic book geekery.

I don’t think I need to play MSH again for another couple decades, but it did give me food for thought. Just creating the characters for the game reminded me that thinking through a character’s superpowers and how they work (which WGP currently lacks) can provide grounding to the story and worthwhile play material. Also, I refreshing myself on the rules showed me the roots of some very cool mechanics in more recent games. I’m looking at you: SotC’s zones, and BW’s Resources and Circles.

Friday
Friday morning found me running “A League of Their Own” the way it was meant to be run: using With Great Power… We had a great session, highlighted by Gerald’s portrayal of Debris struggling with the difficulties of being an ex-cop while being a woman made of living granite. Also a great scene featuring The Stalwart. Our hero, known also as the Defender of Truth, is actually living a lie: he is the Stalwart’s sidekick who has put on the Armor of Truth and claimed to be The Stalwart returned from the dead. Tim had a great scene where he’s looking at himself in the mirror, saying over and over “I am The Stalwart. The armor makes the hero. I am The Stalwart!” trying to convince himself. All the while, he’s checking his armor’s built-in Lie Alarm to see if he’s telling the truth. Good solid angst!

Friday was also Kat’s birthday. (Which reminds me: Happy belated birthday, Rob!) To mark the occasion, she ran an Everway-themed LARP called “Queen for a Day.” In it, it was the Queen’s birthday, and to celebrate, she was throwing a party for her subjects. She would even name one of them “Queen for a Day” and allow them to make a single proclamation. We got a fair turnout, and much rivalry, scheming, and mixed up birthday presents ensued. I played the merchant, with the magical ability to enchant anything imaginable, but it would only function for 10 minutes. Coming up with all the birthday presents was a blast! Plus, I got to call in a web of favors to ensure the “proper” candidate became Queen for a day! After the scheming was done, there was even cake. Remember, everyone: if you play in Kat’s birthday LARP, you get free cake!

Between cleaning up the birthday LARP and the latness of the hour, getting everyone to dinner at the Famished Frog was a bit confused, hurried, and stressful. But the dinner itself was great, as Bill Segulin was able to stop down to join us.

I had nothing planned for the 8pm slot, and that was the first of three Shock: games that had needed to be reassigned. Connie was brave enough to step up and facilitate the game, and I figured I’d help her out. Neither of us knew much of anything about the Human Contact setting, and one of the players was particularly interested in it. As it turned out, Jason Godesky was a life-saver, stepping up to explain the setting and steer the group through the rules. Thanks so much, Jason!

Stepping away from the table, I found myself with time to play a board game with Kat and Bill, and sketch some ideas about the WGP revision. The Whites had to leave the con early, so I stayed up late in an effort to fill in for Mel’s Ganakagok game, but I ended up having too few player (note the singular) to actually play.

Saturday
The only negative thing about DEXCON moving to Morristown from New Brunswick was that the weekend changed. Now the con always falls at the same time as my family reunion. I skipped the reunion last year, but cleared my schedule this year so I could do the hour’s drive to the reunion and see some family members I hadn’t seen in years. Not sure if I’ll do it next year, but it was nice.

Saturday evening found us dining at the Famished Frog once more (we should really buy stock). Then, I was all set for some crowd control, as my 8PM Mouse Guard game had 5 players and 2 alternates signed up. 4 people showed up at the table, and 2 of them hadn’t realized that it was the same scenario they had played at Dreamation. This left me with 2 players in a scenario meant for 5. But, these two brave mice faced down a ravenous fox, losing a tail and an ear in the struggle, but never giving up!

After the game, I got a chance to catch up with Judd and chat about a great many things. He described his awesome plans for the eventual format of 1st Quest, which focused on bringin his strength at setting, character, and situation creation directly to the table. I heard myself saying something in reply that’s been turning over in my brain ever since: “Not every game needs to teach people how to fish in a whole new way. Sometimes people just want a fish that’s prepared in a way only you can do.”

Talking with people is awesome that way, and I need to do more of it. Even if I need to force myself to do so.

Sunday
I usually leave Sundays for unscheduled car-packing, room checkout, and the like. But I’m really glad that I ran Mouse Guard again on Sunday morning. I had a full complement of 5 players, all of them awake and eager to learn the game. Only one had read the comics, and a different one had read the game. I was kinda teaching these folks the details of how to fish, and we had a great time doing it. They really sunk their teeth into their characters and chewed the scenery with little mousy teeth. Perhaps my most low-down, underhanded GM trick was to invoke the emnity clause on a Resources roll. They needed to buy medicine for an ailing governor, and they flubbed the role badly. So, I had them be sold a very reasonably priced vial of medicine from a very sleazy-looking mouse. Loads of fun.

Then there was just the good-byes. Thanks to the awesome-as-always Double Exposure staff for facilitating this great event. And thanks to everyone who came out and made it such a good time!

Origins 2010 – Chaos Incarnate!

Maybe so many years of really, really great years at Origins set the bar too high. Maybe the staff and software changes at GAMA came too late to be truly integrated into convention management. Maybe the stars were just wrong. Whatever the reason, Origins 2010 was plagued with numerous drawbacks and pitfalls. On the whole, the people made for a positive experience, but I was left wondering if we’ll return next year.

Tuesday

Tuesday was a mad, hectic rush for last-minute preparation. Bill came out and we stayed up too late, but somehow everything got done. Not much different than any other convention.

Wednesday

Wednesday is the day to drive, and drive we did. Bruce, Michele, Bill, Kat and I all piled into Bruce’s minivan and set out away from the rising sun. We made good time, reached Columbus by 4:00pm, and soon learned of the chaos that awaited us.

In the events book, none of Kat’s events listed a GM name or a location. None of the seminars listed a location. None of the events listed a game system. Evidently, this lack of location had been caught shortly before the convention started, but the revised information was not disseminated to anyone we were able to speak to. We spoke to people at GM/event HQ, at RPG HQ, at Customer Service, and we continually got variations of “I don’t know. The person who would know is around here somewhere, but I don’t know where.” This was the beginning of frustration incarnate.

Because of these scheduling issues, ALL of Kat’s games had no players. With no game system listed, people who wanted to try out With Great Power… or Serial Homicide Unit couldn’t know that the events were in those game systems. With no GM name listed, players who had played in Kat’s games previously could not know that she was running them, and that they’d be fun no matter the game system. It was very, very rough on her to sit at empty table after empty table.

A note to myself for future big cons (like Origins and GenCon) that have a long a storied history of screwing up event registration. It consists mostly of breaking their registration rules, because they don’t follow the rules themselves.

  • Include the name of the game system in the event title. Even if the instructions say not to.
  • Include the name of the game system in the event description. Even if the instructions say not to.
  • Include the GM’s name in the event description. Even if … etc., etc.
  • Publicize your events yourself as much as possible. Include a fallback location where interested players who follow you online can meet up with you if the convention staff screws up. I’ll need to set up Twitter for this.

Okay. Vented about that enough, I think.

Even though Kat’s Wednesday night event folded with no players, I had five great players for Mouse Guard. I ran “The Pirates of Rustleaf” which is a cool introductory adventure where the players get to fight red-furred mouse pirates. The players had various levels of familiarity with the comic and the game, but they all knew what they were doing by the end, and we had a great time. I believe I got asked “Are you the same Michael Miller that wrote With Great Power…” which is always surprising and gratifying.

Thursday

Thursday morning I ran the classic With Great Power… scenario “A League of Their Own,” where the heroes have no hero licence, and need to earn one. I had five enthusiastic players, and we had a great time. I haven’t actually GMed WGP in close to two years, and it was enlightening to see it from such a distance. I can see what really works and makes the game sing, and what simply pushes my buttons, but confuses and distracts most people. All that stuff will go into the revision.

Thursday afternoon was supposed to be Kat’s LARP, but after that disappointing lack of turnout (we had one player), I spent the rest of the time trying to find out where Luke and Jared’s seminars were supposed to be. Again, the same worthless wall of ignorance, with only one volunteer taking any initiative to say “I don’t know where it’s supposed to be, but I know that this room isn’t used, so I’ll do everything I can to direct people in here.” Thanks to Luke & Jared’s mastery of Twitter, the seminars were fairly well attended, and went well. Afterward, I chatted w/ Luke, Thor, and Dro, then Kat and I retired early.

Friday

Eight o’clock Friday morning found me running Mouse Guard again. This time, the scenario was “The Spring Thaw,” which is essentially “Deliver the Mail” from the rulebook with a few Miller-ian twists. Again, a varied group of experience with the rules and setting material. It’s always fun when I’m explaining things and someone says “can I FoRK in my wise?” because I know exactly where their experience comes from. A great experience.

Friday afternoon was (finally) lunch at the North Market! Then some shopping, which was curtailed because I had run out of people to buy gifts for (had trouble finding anything I wanted for myself), and mostly because my foot hurt like the Dickens. (Did I mention that my first gout flareup in over 2 years started on the Monday before Origins? Fun.) I rested for a few hours, and then went to dinner w/ my roommates.

After dinner, Michele, Bill, Joanna, Philip and I played in a pickup session of the With Great Power game Kat was scheduled to run that morning. It’s a fantasy comic book scenario called “Dragon-napped” where no one is quite who they seem to be. We had a lot of fun, but with an 8:00AM game on the schedule, I had to hit the hay before the game was over. Good, juicy, melodramatic stuff, though.

Saturday

My last Mouse Guard game was another rousing rendition of “The Pirates of Rustleaf.” Another fun time, but I think I’ve made the scenario too morally ambiguous, as the session descended into discussion of “what should we do about this.” I wasn’t on the ball enough to force them into a duel of wits at the table, which would have solved it, but that felt more like a BW solution rather than a MG one.

Got to do some shopping with Kat that afternoon, and then sat in for Luke and Jared’s “Game Design is Mind Control” seminar, which was good and thought provoking (and well attended! 35 people). I got to watch the group play Action Castle! and observed the interesting social dynamics that develop. Luke and I then did our “Self Publishing Crash Course” seminar where we barrage the audience with nearly two decades of game publishing experience in less than two hours.

After that, a quiet dinner with Kat, and then we got to observe a Luke, Dro, Thor, and Kira playing Danger Patrol. It’s a fairly loose game with lots of cool-stuff-generation baked right in. Still some rough spots, though. It was fun to watch the guys plays and taunt each other. Dro is exceeding dangerous with his love beam.

Sunday

Packing, shopping, chatting, and driving. And driving. But we made it home and on the whole, it was a good con. There were just a whole lot of bumps along the way. Will we return next year? Only time will tell.

Thoughts on Old and New Styles in Comics

I’ve been unhappy with superhero comics for a number of years. Part of it is due to a lack of a browse-able comic book store in the area. As titles I liked came to an end, I wasn’t able to find new things to like. Every now and then, I’d pick up the odd issue of something or other, and feel disappointed when I was done reading it. Surely the “good stuff” in superheroes couldn’t have been all used up before the mid-90s?

So, I subscribed to Marvel’s online digital comics site. For $10/month, you can read as many comics as you want. They don’t have everything they ever published online, but they do have hundreds (maybe thousands) of issues. It’s only a few days, and the little poking around I’ve done has shed some light on why I’ve been disappointed all this time.

I read Uncanny X-men #136-137 (climax of the Dark Phoenix Saga) from 1980 and Captain America #1-14 from 2005. Wow, what a difference!

Pacing

Modern comics are really written with the graphic novel in mind. They take a slow, cinematic style to build up mood, and put in a mystery that isn’t addressed for a half-dozen issues. A mystery at the heart of the plot, mind you! I mean, I’d say that 6 issues of a modern comic equal the plot of 2 or 3 of the comics I grew up with. It’s strange. There are fewer costumed goons knocking over banks and jewelery stores, but somehow there’s more meaningless fights.

Thought Balloons

And the thought balloons are almost entirely missing. I know that they’re usually rendered as captions these days, and I don’t mind that. But there are so very few of them! They’re almost entirely contained in quiet, introspective scenes where the hero is reflecting on the battle to come, or the villain is plotting.

I suppose the idea of more modern style is that the pictures are supposed to give context of what’s happening in the fight scene, and we’re supposed to understand the hero’s predicament from that. In the older comics, the thought balloons and word balloons would often reiterate what was going on in the panel. They often illustrate that inner self-talk that everyone does everyday.

A modern comic might show a villain punching the hero through a wall. It might take several panels, possibly an entire page for the attempted dodge, punch catching the gut, hero flying through air, going through wall, wall collapsing, hero pulling himself from rubble. The older style might show the same thing in a single panel, with a thought balloon like: “He’s so quick! Caught me nappin’ and this wall’s paid the price! Gotta keep on my toes.”

Coloring

Modern coloring techniques have completely redefined the look of comic pages. The strong, clear black lines of the flat-color era are gone. Since computerized coloring allows so many shades and textures, it seems like the colorist does much of the job that the penciller and inker used to do. The colors are so muted, but uses a lot more single-color saturation, where a dozen different shades and tints of one color are used, often to convey mood. The older style had a more limited pallette of colors, and had to use contrast to make things stand out from their background.

Detail

The new coloring techniques have opened up the way for greater “realism” in illustration styles, as well. Captain America has pretty much always worn an armored shirt as part of his costume. In the older comics, this would be show by a few half-circles scattered here and there on his torso. The actual outline of his chest and arms remained that of a naked human body, colored red, white, and blue to differentiate it from all the other characters with the same sillouette. Now, Cap’s scale mail shirt is illustrated in each and every panel, with every single scale deliniated. The outline of his upper body shows the ridges that the scales make. His cowl has two seams that run down the back, where it used to be illustrated as smooth. Seams on a superhero costume!

And the facial expressions! With the subtleties of modern coloring and the larger panels, newer comics can show greater subtlety of facial expression then the older line drawings. I guess this is also a reason for the demise of the thought balloon.

There are fewer panels per page, but each panel is rendered in greater detail. Part of it is probably due to a greater availability of reference images to artists via the Internet. Part of the Captain America storyline was set in Philadelphia, a city I’m familiar with. I was expecting that the only thing that would let us know it was Philly was a caption, some dialog, and maybe a sketch of Independence Hall in the background. Boy, was I wrong! The sequence starts out with a jet coming in low over the Philly skyline, and it’s actually the Philly skyline! The buildings whose names I don’t know, but whose outline I’ve seen every time I head into the city are right there, drawn in every detail.

Conclusions

It’s kind of strange that as most other types of media are speeding up (compare a fight scene in an action movie from 1980 to 2010), comics are slowing down. I can see how the change in technology has made this possible. At this point it’s primarily an interesting observation, and a warning to myself. Don’t expect as much from a single issue. The trade paperback is the unit of story these days, not the issue. I wonder if telling the same story within a larger page count is a symptom of the influence of manga upon American mainstream comics?

Of course, my sample size is extremely limited. I’m going to be reading more. Are there other comics I’m missing that buck this trend?