Dreamation 2017

Dreamation 2017 was a great time! Thanks so much to Vinny, Avie, and the entire Double Exposure crew for putting on such a fantastic convention. Thanks also to each and every person who ran a game for the Indie Games eXplosion. You brought tons of fun to wintry Morristown. And thanks to everyone who played games, hung out, and just generally made for a great time.

Personally, my convention was defined by still recovering from a nasty illness earlier in the week. My energy level was very low, and I was grateful I was only running two games.

Thursday 8pm was the first of those games. I ran With Great Power for four great players. Matt played Sketch, whose enchanted paintbrush could animate things it drew. Sean played Figment, a long-limbed alien with light powers. John played Keystone, who could change his body into other elements. Max played Ironworks, who built himself power armor out of stuff from a junkyard. Together, they faced the Gun of Damocles, an alien cyborg cowboy who wanted to decrease chaos in the world by purging it of technology. He ended up getting pounded by a hero hitting him with his own robotic horse.

Friday 9am I got to play Kat’s game of temporal hijinks, Time Capers. I played Frank Hyperion, two-fisted scientist who traveled through time by falling from great heights and achieving not terminal velocity, but temporal velocity. Adrian’s time traveler wanted to kill his ancestors so he would never be born. Bruce’s traveler wanted to stop his grandfather’s business from failing. Kirk’s traveler wanted to save his father’s life. Amy’s traveler wanted to recover the second volume of Aristotle’s Poetics. Kat’s traveler wanted to save womankind from men, and thereby save all mankind. We ended up creating ripples like a scientific revolution in ancient Greece and aliens escaping Area 51 and living among Cold War-era America. A very fun time.

Friday 4pm I played Dev’s game Love Commander. It’s a fun game inspired by Mass Effect, where a human commander with an alien crew needs to spend their time wisely to learn more about their crew, which unlocks bonuses for the game. It is quick and clever and a lot of fun.

Friday 8pm I ran With Great Power again. Phredd played Godslayer, an ancient Sumerian hero unwilling brought back to life by a post-modern wizard. Neil played Amok, a sort of living cartoon character. Howard played the Hand of God, a teleporter torn between becoming a superhero and continuing to live in his parents’ basement. Kat played Corona, a young woman who had been chosen as a host for intergalactic space wasps. I played Singularity, who came from the cold darkness of space in a cybernetic containment suit to hunt the space wasps. His hunting technique was to make the Earth a less hospitable environment for the wasps, by killing as many humans upon it as possible.

Saturday 9am I got to have a far more gentle and heart-warming time, as Tony ran Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine for us. I played Trinket, a toy come to life. Richard played a wacky inventor. Albert played a hard-working aspiring restauranteur with a sentient ginger spirit sidekick. John played an old woman whose house was slowly sliding off the side of the city. Kirk played a ninja librarian. It was a delightful session. We hung lanterns, found lost library books, chased runaway carts, wrote advertising jingles, and went to a festival. Lovely game.

Saturday 2pm, despite being at my lowest energy of the con, I played The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze with Joshua, Aaron and Christo. It was a fast and bloody game, with two heroes facing each other, becoming fast friends, then dying. Joshua’s name-dealer was much at the center of it, and came out in a similar place to where she went it. I didn’t contribute as much as I might have liked, but enjoyed the game thoroughly.

I got a bit of rest Saturday afternoon. Then, at Saturday 8pm, I played Infinite Galaxies. Bill White ran the game, which is essentially Star Wars run through Dungeon World. I played a surly robot. Rich played a battle-hardened veteran. Greg played a literal pirate. Eric played a cryptic psychic. The game itself was okay, Dungeon World often leaves me cold. But the table was a hoot. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard.

I got to chat with a handful of people Saturday night and Sunday morning at the booth, which was great. I have stepped away from designing games before. It always leaves me a bit at-ends in these sorts of conversations. But last time I stepped away, I didn’t have something to fill that space in my life, the way that writing is doing currently.

It was great to see everyone! Thanks for a great Dreamation!

Pilot for The Tick

We watched the pilot of The Tick on Amazon yesterday. Boy, was it dark. Funny, but very dark.

That darkness is there in the original Ben Edlund comics. The very first issue shows the Tick in a straightjacket in a padded room. It is entirely possible the entire comic series is a delusion in his brain. The comic was quickly taken over by the brilliant, skewering superhero parody that perhaps found its fullest expression in the animated series. After all these years, it feels a bit strange to see something that goes back to the source material and focuses on an aspect that was downplayed previously. If they make more, I’ll watch it, because it looks like it’s going to go in interesting new directions.

One of the things that struck me, is that some of the Tick’s lines of dialogue are the exact same lines that Ben Edlund has be repackaging and reselling for nearly 30 years! That’s kind of crazy, and kind of brilliant, if you can pull it off.

Dreamation 2016

Wow. What a #Dreamation.

As always, Vinny, Avie, and the entire Double Exposure crew made great things happen flawlessly and invisibly. They are amazing and I thank them deeply.

Jason Morningstar compared Dreamtion to a family reunion and he’s absolutely right. Except that there’s more people I’m excited to see at Dreamation.

Thursday, 8PM
For me, I started off the con with a game of Swords Without Master: Starward on Thurday night. It’s a supplement for SWoM that draws inspiration from Leigh Brackett, Flash Gordan, Akira Kurosawa, and WWII aviation films (just like a somewhat popular 1977 film you may have heard of). Andrew and Brian, neither of whom had played any SWoM before, both created fallen space knights. Patty played a translator/scientist from “not the United Federation of Planets”. They delved into a planet-sized ancient starship to find the lost panacea that would end a galaxy-wide plague. Despite the space skeletons and pirates, they got the cure and delivered it, but were cheated out of glory by the scheming space senate. How will they possibly clear their names? Find out in the next exciting episode of Starward!

Friday, 9AM
Friday morning, Bill White was running With Great Power. To keep myself from being a neurotic mother hen, I intentionally scheduled myself something else to do. I facilitated one of my favorite games: Serial Homicide Unit. Adam, Michael, Joann, Ephraim, Ian, and I told the stories of the workers and patients of the Helping Hands clinic, who just so happened to be hunted by a serial killer. The best and brightest of our characters were cut down just as their life turned around, while the worst thrived. It was sad and touching, just as SHU always is. I love this game.

Friday, 2PM
Friday afternoon, I got to play Bill White’s The New World. I played it several time over its many years of gestation, and this was the best version yet. So quick! So evocative! So fun! I think 2016 is finally the year for The New World. Just a few rough edges to polish and this one is ready to publish. We wove a tale of the last great city of learning in a fallen land, forcing the survivors of fallen cities into servitude, and the ambitious sand pirates that plagued them.

Friday, 6:55PM
Matt, Chris, and Chris had asked if I could run a demo of With Great Power for them. Asking me to run my game is my own personal Kryptonite, so run we did. In a quick 45 minutes, they made heroes and we played a couple of exciting phases.

Friday, 8PM
Finally, after years of trying, I got to play Sorcerer with Judd. It was a colonized solar system setting, with Adam portraying the secretly half-alien president of Mars, MadJay playing a xenoarcheologist, and me playing a horrible, Captain Bligh-type starship captain with xenotech fused into his head. If you’ve ever played a video game and took a while to understand the controls, you’ll know what I mean when I say that I often have trouble steering my character in Sorcerer. This game was no exception. I’d go into a scene thinking “I’ll show a bit of humanity, a bit of compassion” and then proceed to do the most evil stuff imaginable, like murdering a conscientious traitor, and trying to murder the president of Mars. I’m really, really glad I played. I’m uneasy with how the game went. And that’s exactly what Sorcerer is about.

Saturday, 9AM
I ran With Great Power for a group of three players: Jen played Noir, who could speak to ghosts; Nick played Mantis, who had instectoid alien power armor; and Adam played Blindspot, who could not be noticed, except on camera. Together, they faced down the flame-bodied Crucible who wanted to give superpowers to everyone in the entire world so that her husband could accept her as “normal”. It was a quick, fun session with green mutagenic gas at an MMA fight, quiet discussions on a park bench, a burning building, and punching a woman made of living flame in the face.

Saturday, 2PM
Joshua A.C. Newman’s The Name of Bronze is a work in progress. I like where it’s going and will be excited when it gets there. In our short session with Frank, Keith, and Matthew, I played Unlu, champion of Mard—tallest mountain and roof of the world. In Mard’s service, I crushed a rival mountain with my bare hands. It was interesting, and I could see where it will be fun once the whole game is communicated properly.

Saturday, 8PM
I finally played Torchbearer. Tony, Stephen, Carly and I did pretty well in Bret’s weird old school dungeon. Nobody died. We scored some loot. We rescued a guy from being eaten by a giant spider. I have my doubts about the “if you suggest an idea you have to be the one to roll for it” rule. I can see that the game is engineered to produce a particular type of experience and does it very, very well. It’s just not an experience I particularly enjoy. That’s an important thing to know.

Sunday, 10AM
A second game of With Great Power, this one with five players: Kat played the Scales of Justice/Dragon Princess who was rebelling against her dragon-tyrant father; Blair played the Winter Knight, born of Fey and fighting to hold onto his humanity; Karin played The Shade, who could speak the ghost of Andrew Carnegie; Ami played Feeback, an alien made of music who could take on the form of Jimi Hendrix; Kay played Refraction, a woman who lost most of her memories in the accident that turned her into a living hologram. Together they faced Upload, a robot from the future who was trying to force human society up to where future history said it ought to be, using things like nanobots to install mandatory upgrades in people. We had some great images like a dragon melting the snow off a blizzard-choked roadway to clear a path for ambulances, medical equipment exploding due to supernatural interference, living hologram destroying the evil nanotech disguised inside of charity blankets, and a fey knight cutting the tongue off a building-sized dragon.

Oh, and I also sold some actual, physical copies of With Great Power. Which made me very happy, and I hope will make all who bought it happy, too. Anyone who bought the game at Dreamation can contact my Gmail account (stalwartip) to get the electronic edition at no additional charge. The game and the origin cards will be available for order by the end of the month.

There is never enough time to see everyone I want to at Dreamation. I’m very glad for everyone I got to chat with, or game with, or even smile at in the hall. Thank you for a wonderful weekend.

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 2014 – I’m still standin’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Sidekicks these days!

I recently watched the DC animated movie Batman: Under the Red Hood. It’s a six year story, but still a warning is warranted: Spoilers throughout this piece, so consider yourself warned.

I was particularly struck by the parallels between this and the Captain America: Return of the Winter Soldier story. Both Cap and Batman are human-power-level characters. Both date from the Golden Age. Both have a long, mixed history with sidekicks. And they both stayed dead for longer than any superhero character has any right to.

Both Jason Todd’s return as the Red Hood, and Bucky Barnes’ comeback as the Winter Soldier parallel their respective mentors in interesting ways. They become the dark mirror of the men in whose shadow they were raised.

Bruce Wayne suffers the trauma of watching his parents murdered in front of him, and builds himself into a terrifying persona that strikes fear into the underworld. Jason Todd suffers the trauma of being beaten to death by the Joker, and when brought back, builds himself a terrifying persona that cuts a swath of fear, death and destruction through the underworld.

Steve Rogers undergoes a secret government procedure to enhance his physical abilities. Frozen in ice for decades, he survives into the present day, still fighting the enemies of his government. Bucky Barnes, rescued from the ice by a Soviet submarine, is subjected to a secret government procedure to enhance his physical abilities. Frozen in hibernation, he survives to the present day, activated only to serve the lethal needs of the government that has brainwashed him.

Both revamped sidekicks use lots of guns, weapons that their bosses refuse to touch. Both take their mission to extremes where their mentor will not tread. Batman will not voluntarily kill his enemies. The Red Hood murders dozens of criminals when it suits his needs. Captain America serves the American dream first, the American government second. He will question orders and refuse those he finds immoral. The Winter Soldier is an unquestioning, unthinking assassin.

If Batman and Captain America are legacies of comics’ Golden Age, the Red Hood and the Winter Soldier show what those same concepts would have been, had they been created with a 1990s sensibility. Guns, leather, murder. What does it say about the way comic readers perceive the world?

Or am I reading too much into this? Were they simply brought back as anti-heroes for the dramatic purpose of allowing their mentors to fight them, and then the added horror of discovering their true identities? Or as dramatic illustrations of the road not taken?