A look back at Origins 2006

It’s Sunday night and I’m beat. Origins was quite an enjoyable show. Much less busy, less pressured, less like work than GenCon. There was a bit of time to play, a bit of time to eat (the North Market rules!), a bit of time to shop, a bit of time to chat. Turn, turn, turn.

Kat and I were scheduled to run 8 sessions of With Great Power… One session only attracted one guy (I ran him through a one-hour system tour), but the other seven had enough folks to actually play. And from nearly each session somebody came to booth to pick up the game.

But, I’d left off at Friday morning….

I did the booth stuff Friday morning, then rushed off to run a noon session of With Great Power… Unfortunately only one guy showed up. His name was James and he was more than happy to sit through a one-hour system tour. I showed him all the basic ins-and-outs of the game and refunded him a generic token for his time. Kat and I managed to get in a little shopping for Dalys & Sohely. It’s nice that you can see the whole exhibit hall in a couple of hours, rather than a whole day like at GenCon.

At 8pm Kat and I each had a session of WGP scheduled. We assumed that between the two tables we’d have enough to make a single game. We joked about drawing the short straw to see who ran the game and who got to scurry off to play in Iskander’s excellently disturbing Consiracy of Shadows Blood Opera scenario. When we showed up, I had 4 players (including James) and Kat had 5. I ran my alien-invasion scenario “They Came From Beyond!” and had a blast! Everyone understood the kind of story we were going for and the game rocked! The alien turncoat and the last remaining supervillain died in order to defeat the alien menace, and the last remaining superhero managed to resurrect the superteam that had died before the story had even started. The three players besides James were New Yorkers Jessica Hammer and her friends Robert Scott (an artist) and, I think, Amy. Excellent players, all.

In a odd bit of synchronicity, both Kat and I had double-ties in enrichment stakes in each of games. What that means is the player and the GM each played the same ranked card in an enrichment scene, so the original Stakes had to go up. Then they tied again, so the Stakes went up again. A great way to drive a game hard.

We were up kinda late with that, and Saturday started off moving slowly. I couldn’t make it to a panel on superheroes and their arch-nemeses because of a scheduled event. But the game went really well, included James again. He brought a friend from home, so I’m pretty sure he liked the game. That game also went really well, with Liberty Belle being arrested for trying to assassinate her father when she had actually subdued the assassin. Good stuff.

The Saturday crowd gave me the feeling of GenCon on Thursday.

Saturday night was something I was anticipating and anxious about for a while. Running Universalis for Peter Adkinson & friends. I brought Kat with me and we ran the game for Peter, his dad Gary, Rennie Arturo, the GenCon programming head, and Rennie’s assistant Jeanette, who had never done any role-playing before. The session was good, if slow. We made this cool fantasy world where the men were dying off because magic caused sterility and the women ran the wars because men were too precious to waste on the battlefield. We probably did too many tenets. It took us three hours before anyone added something to the story that caused an “oooh” at the table. But we did get there. Both Peter and Rennie were thorough and insightful in their questioning. They both said they thought they understood it much better know and could delve into playing it at home.

Didn’t get to bed till nearly two. This morning started early. There was booth stuff in the morning, then a noon panel on “Superhumans or Supersaints.” Morality in superhero stories and RPGs. Fellow panelists were Jim Lowder, Steve Kenson and Steve Long (of Hero Games). It went really well, as we delved into the philosophical aspects of power, responsibility, truth and justice. The bit where I got to show off a little: Don Concoran and Joann were in the audience. Don asked “How do your games address the moral dimension of supers?” Steve Kenson talked about how complications get you hero points in M&M. Steve Long talked about how Disads get you build points in Hero and not using your Disads penalized you xp in Hero. I talked about Suffering and Enrichment scenes and Stakes. Don followed up with “How much of your book is devoted to that moral dimension?” Kenson: “3 pages” Long: “There’s a few sidebars, plus more stuff in the supplements” Me: “Well, if you don’t count the index and stuff, over a hundred pages.”

Ya gotta love a great setup. Thanks, Don.

After that, did some last minute shopping and then some podcasters came to the booth. They were from Fistful of Comics and Games. They played the 10-minute demo, then interviewed me. One of them even bought the game. I may have rambled on, but all this public speaking has to be good for me. Like eating your broccoli, right?

I actually kinda like the press-stuff. Maybe I’ll listen to more podcasts.

Then it was breaking down the booth, loading up the car, and watching everyone else leave. Went to dinner with the hometown crew, caught up with how they’re con experience went, packed things up, and wrote this.

I liked my first Origins. It’s a unique show. It’s got its own flavor. It’s a taste I like. I’ll be back.

Origins Report, Friday Morning

Hey, I’m at Origins in Columbus, Ohio.

This is my first time at Origins, after trying to get here for more-or-less nine years. The drive went fine on Wednesday. I arrived before any of the other IPR folks (Brennan, Alexander, Clinton) and moved all the stuff from my car to the booth. Had dinner w/ Clinton and some friends from home, got familiar with the lay of the land, and tried to rest up for the Convention proper.

Thursday started with great news: Greg Porter of BTRC won an Origins Award for Infinite Armies! The announcement ceremony was held on a tiny stage outside the exhibit hall while throngs of gamers were waiting to get in. Nobody listened to my little speech praising Greg for optimizing PDF coding to make a card game where you can make your own cards and proclaiming this a victory for indie gamers everywhere! My immortal words, lost to the ages. ::Sigh::

Oh, and I laughed maniacally.

The rest of Thursday was mostly spent at the booth. The traffic is so much lighter than GenCon. I kinda like it. Less pressure. I ran two or three With Great Power… demos. Made two sales and got several commitments that folks would be back. And met the prolific Mendel Schmedelkamp. Talked a lot.

After the Exhibit Hall closed, I spoke as part of a panel about superheroes and their secret identities. Fellow panelists were Sean Patrick Fannon (Origins events guru and author of the Fantasy RPG’s Bible), Steve Kenson (designer and line developer of Mutants and Masterminds), James Lowder (far-ranging editor and writer of superhero RPG and prose-stuff). And me. I certainly didn’t dominate the panel, but made a good show of it, especially for my first panel. My fellow panelists were extremely knowledgable, insightful and enthusiastic. I’m not dreading my next panel (on Sunday) so much.

After that, I helped out with Kat’s Everway LARP. This time, rather than the King, I played the merchant, Earnest. I had nothing but junk to sell, but I sold it with a straight face and made out like a bandit. Beautiful! Lots of fun. Particularly once Alexander, playing the king, found out I had cheated him. “You worthless, conniving camel-trader, you!”

Today is two scheduled WGP games, at noon and at eight. Plus booth stuff. Gotta go.

End of the month-from-hell

It’s the last day of May. I logged more than 200 billable hours this month (which means I was here longer than that). As far as most things I would choose to do with my life, May was pretty much a lost month. My embryonic games are just as embryonic as they were 3 weeks ago. Good thing I haven’t set publicaction dates yet.

However, today is my wedding anniversary. Nine years ago today imogena and I were married. I’m luckier to have her now than I was then.

It’s a workday with plenty of extra chores to do, so I don’t know how much celebrating we’ll get done. Even so, it’s a good day. And, hopefully, a better month is just around the corner.

PROMOTION–Threat or Menace?

I got a promotion at work yesterday. I’m now the “assistant production manager.”

I also worked more than 12 hours without a single break.

What’s the point of working if I only get to work more?

The fact that I find messes like the Games On Demand thing when I get home makes it all so much better. 😛

I have no idea when I’ll be able to work on my games-in-progress again.

A one-trick pony

Watched Sin City last night. I’d never read the comics–they didn’t look like my kind of thing. Seems I was right.

I liked the movie well enough. The visual spectacle was stunning and well-crafted. Robert Rodriguez definitely knows what he wants to see and knows how to get it.

The stories themselves were … well, I felt like I’d heard them all before. All the heroes are tough-as-nails, terse, grim killers highly skilled in the ways of violence–with some small “code” to their killing that sets them apart from the criminals they ravage. “I’m not killing you for my own gain, I’m killing you for this crummy, little ideal.” The women were pretty much the same, only a little less so. They’re all renditions of The Dark Knight. I guess Frank Miller only has one character in him, and writes about him over and over. And that character is perfectly on-target for the escapist power fantasies of boys and young men. Fully consumed by his rage, inhumanly compotent, emotionally dead–except for a single, fleeting, over-idealized spark that keeps him from “crossing the line”–this character allows all the vicarious joy of being evil and hurting other people, while still enjoying the authorial (and audience) approval of being the “good guy.”

I guess that’s why he’s so popular.

It wasn’t funny the first time

It’s 3AM.

I just got back from walking the dog.

Funny thing is, this was supposed to be my night to catch up on sleep after waking up exhausted 2 days in a row.

After putting in a 12-hour day at work yesterday (today don’t look much better), we watched Mr. Howl’s Moving Castle from Studio Ghibli. Beautiful, beautiful film–as is all their stuff. Why can the Japanese make steampunk and magic look so cool, when games make it just seem lasersharked?

In the “Rome wasn’t rebuilt in a day” department, Jason Roberts, my cousin & the genius behind FVLMINATA: Armed with Lightning, has started a LiveJournal at iuppiteroptmax. It’s his first step to bringin Thyrsus Games back from the grave, and I wish him loads of luck.

Now, do I bother trying to go back to sleep?

A funny thing happend this morning…

My normal morning routine is: Alarm rings @ 5:20 AM. I pull on sweats and sneaks and walk the dog. Get back a bit before 6, shower & start the day.

This morning I rolled out of bed, Pull on sweats and sneaks. I let the dog out of Daly’s room and take her out. I feel completely exhausted, like I barely got any sleep. What a way to start the weekend I think.

Ginger’s walking slower than normal. I don’t pay it much attention. I don’t see the paperboy like normal, but I don’t pay that much heed either. God, I’m tired.

Upon returning from our walk, I glance at the wall clock in the dining room. 1:56 AM My first thought: Damn! I’m going to have to change the battery in that clock!

My cell phone confirms that, yes, it isn’t quite 2 in the morning yet, and now I’ve got to find someway to get back to sleep now that my heart’s all pumped up for the day.

* * *

Funny thing is, even though I’m tired today, my brain is a-jumpin’ with game ideas. Does anyone else find a correlation between mild sleep deprivation and creativity?

Asserting Plausibility

Cross-posted to my RPGtalk blog

Been doing a bit of reading. There’s a trope in fantastic fiction that has deep roots. Many, many authors take great pains to assert that the fantastic events actually occured, and the papers have been entrusted to them through a definite series of exchanges as recounted in the Foreword, Introduction, or Preface. Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe begins with such a foreword, as does Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Conan Doyle’s Holmes never writes a word, but is recorded, instead, by the compulsive diarist Watson. John Carter of Mars begins with a detailed Foreward about how Burroughs, the “editor,” received Carter’s journals. Tolkein, of course, concocted an elaborate lineage for the Red Book of Westmarch, wherein Frodo & Sam recorded their adventures. In more recent years, the Blair Witch Project became a sensation by asserting the same thing.

Why? What does this gain the author? I figure this a tool to assert the plausibility of the impossible. If these amazing, unbelievable events are real, then they’re relevant, they matter to the reader, and the reader more easily becomes engaged. I could be wrong about that. Alternative interpretations are welcome.

How does this apply to RPGs? Well, the most obvious example is Castle Falkenstein, wherein Mike Pondsmith makes great use of this technique by claiming that the entire game was written by a modern-day expatriate “spell-napped” into the world of New Europa. Which was kinda cool, I thought, but also limiting. But definitely an option for conveying setting material as if it actually existed (Pondsmith scores extra points by asserting that the rules of the game were also created within the game world itself.)

But in a game that’s more about the active creation of story than the recounting of setting details, is there a purpose to be served by connecting the fictional events of the story to the real world that the players live in?

My brain says “No.” In these novels, the authors know what is true and what is fiction. The forewords are not written for their benefit, but solely for the benefit of their readers. In RPGs, everyone is the author. Everyone knows these events did not actually happen in some faraway place because everyone is making them up right now. It would just add another hoop for the fiction to jump through, without adding much in return.

And yet, although I cannot explain why, my gut, in its frustratingly inarticulate way, says “Yes.”

My game design process

Cross-posted at my RPGtalk blog.

Somebody’s always got to be late to the party. Oh well. In trying to catch up on the last few weeks in blog-land, I came across Troy Costisick posting about his design process on his Socratic Design blog. I’m thinking about my own design process a lot at the moment, since I stand at the beginning of a new project and can sense the path ahead of me.

One of the most striking things is how different my design process is from Troy’s. His looks like a true procedure. Step 1 flows into Step 2 flows into Step 3 … Very rational. My design process looks very little like that.

To begin with, for me, the process of creating a role-playing game is made up of two distinctly different activities: Designing the game (deciding what the rules & procedures will be) and writing the game (explaining those rules & procedures to other people through a game text). I find it best to keep those activities as separate as possible.

The first thing I do is start thinking in a broad way about the game’s genre. What makes it unique? What do I find engaging about it? What are some common themes? What sort of tension drives these types of stories? What shapes do the stories take? I’ll do a little bit of research, but this is mostly a mental review of the work I already know in the genre. I always carry a notebook with me. At this point, I jot things down like “The great superheroes are all trapped between two worlds” and “Origins include trauma and loss as well as power.”

As the genre thinking continues, I find myself making notes about what sort of behaviors to encourage in play and what sort of choices the players must face. Although game mechanics themselves don’t quite show up yet, the requirements for what the coming game mechanics must do appear here. These kind of notes say things like “Eventual victory must be caused by early defeat” and “Players must continually choose between saving what they love and saving the world.”

Having a pretty good idea of what I need the rules to do, I start looking for mechanics that will do it. I look at games on my shelf and study how they do what they do. I play with dice and cards. I tinker with some probabilities. I play out little skirmishes with myself, finding out the knobs and levers of a mechanic and what they do. Notes at this stage look like “Whenever a hero CHOOSES to lose, they check off one requirement that brings endgame closer” and “Putting your stats in danger gives you extra cards.”

Once I’ve learned all I can at the solo stage, I take it Kat and Michele, my devoted front-line playtesters. The rules are little more than reminders to myself at this point, and my post-game notes and corrections are often longer than the playtest document itself. Their patience and insight help hammer the game into something playable. My notes get very specific at this point, like “Nine rules changes to endgame is too many” and “Players don’t get enough cards in early conflicts–start with a base PLUS modifier??”

After going a few rounds with Kat & Michele, the game is ready for the convention circuit. I run it and run it and run it again. The convention format forces me to explain the game to new people over and over again. I jot down insightful questions I get from players. I pay attention to my own sense of fun, as well as the players’ excitement to tell me what parts of the game are working and which ones aren’t. I make notes like “Increasing suffering and drawing cards before a panel needs its own name.”

Of course, I’m still thinking about the genre and revising the design throughout all this activity, but the good stuff really starts to crystalize. Which is when the writing itself begins. By this point, I’ve explained the game verbally dozens of times. I know common points of misunderstanding and good ways of clearing them up. I do outlines of chapters, write a rough draft, sketching out sidebars as inspiration hits. It’s also time to contact artists.

I send the rough draft to Thor. It comes back better. Much better. Write-edit-rewrite continues until the deadline for layout arrives. Then the real craziness begins.