METATOPIA 2011: Playtester’s Paradise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And wanting that feeling again.