BurningCon 2012 – A Hot Time in the Old Town

So, yesterday I went to BurningCon: The Triadumverate. I live a few hours west of NYC, so it’s a long day’s travel to take a bus into the city, catch a subway to the convention site, and then reverse the whole process once the last game slot is finished. But I’m glad I did. I haven’t gotten to play much of anything in months, so it was a welcome reminder that I still know how to do this. And it was also a great opportunity to play with awesome players like Jay, Al, Chris, Phredd, Dustin, Dave, Topi, Ajit, Treci, Josh, Rob, and Terri. The BurningCon always attracts top-notch players who know their stuff and bring their A-game.

I started off by running Mouse Guard. With recent family events, I knew I wouldn’t be up to doing a full-blown MG hack like I did last year. I ran a straight-up MG adventure called “Drought” that I originally wrote for last Dreamation. It’s a decent scenario, with a group of weasels having taken a town hostage during a drought, by rigging the town’s dam to burst if their extortion of food and meat isn’t sated. The guys on Saturday had some of the worst dice luck I’ve seen outside of my own rolls as a player. In the very first conflict, I defeated three of the four mice on the second action! In the end, Thom, the patrol leader was captured, escaped, failed to rally the townsmice against the weasel-enabling mayor, and was defeated in combat by the weasels. They feasted on his ale-fattened corpse, but their banquet served as distraction to allow the remaining guardsmice to disable the booby trap on the dam, and lay an ambush for the returning, overfed weasels, and avenge their fallen Patrol Leader. It was a good game, if a bit gruesome. It was actually the first time I’ve had a PC death in a Mouse Guard game.

After a quick lunch, I flexed my first-priority-rank to grab a seat in Terri’s Lady Blackbird game. I had played once before, and had a lukewarm experience. I wanted to see if playing a different character would help me understand why this game is so often touted as one of the best story games. I played the disguised and on-the-run Lady Blackbird, who suited me much better than the petty thief Kale that I played last time. The other players were also very much bringing their A-game, and Terri was quick to probe our characters’ reactions to events. “Snargle, you just heard Lady Blackbird insult your captain. What do you think about that?” It was a fun game, even I ended up with relatively few xp, simply because I did a lot of helping other players, rather than doing things myself. And, in the end, I may have gone a bit too far into the tired trope of “the scorned woman.” But no one at the table seemed to mind.

After a mild dinner, I was drawn in by Luke’s line of “I don’t think I’ll be able to get nine people for my LARP. You should play.” I was then among the eight or nine people that got turned away due to the priority system. Last time I believe Luke and his modesty (not really)!

Luckily, I was able to snag a seat in an Apocalypse World MC’d by Jay. It was the third time I played the game, and certainly the most enjoyable session. I have mixed feelings about the game, as I find the color/setting material to be off-putting, but the mechanics fascinating. This was a good group who was familiar with the game, and things developed quickly. The setup was that we were all part of a new hard hold being set up in a mysterious complex, that had a big, ominous door in the center. I played a savvy-head named Spector that flubbed his first “talk with machines” roll. I was contacted by the awe-inspiring voice behind the door, and committed myself to opening that door to see what was down there. As more and more of the other characters came to view the door as the biggest threat, I sort of became the villain of the piece. This was not a bad thing, as I was able to provide a focus and drive to the game by just doing stuff to meet my characters’ desires. I think that near the end, Rob backed off from killing my character when he maybe shouldn’t have, but it was as good a convention session of Apocalypse World as I’ve seen. Everyone’s characters got to do stuff they were good at, and accomplish something in their own characters’t stories, as well as address the common situation.

On the bus back, I was thinking about how when I started going to game conventions in the mid-90s, I was often the one to play the wild, active, “gonzo” character. And these days, I am often like the “straight man” on a comedy team, providing grounding and context for the gonzo antics around me. I think that perhaps good con games need a mix of both active energy and context for that active energy. A decade and a half ago, the convention play culture emphasized risk avoidance and keeping your character alive. So, I provided spice and energy. Now, at least in Story/indie/Forge-derived/whatever games play culture, gonzo has become the default mode for convention play, so I try to provide the grounding and context. Food for thought.

Thanks to all I played with. It was a great time!

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!

Burning Apocalypse – Rebirth by Fire

This weekend I went to the Burning Apocalypse convention in New York City. Finances dictated that it could only be a one day trip, but what a great day it was! I left the house at 6:15 AM and got home at 1:10 AM. Even today, my legs feel like they’re about to fall off. But it was well, well worth it.

After geographic misadventures in the Garden State, I reached the con before the first game slot began. All around me were old friends I had not seen in months or years! Even though I had been traveling for three hours by the time I walked in the door, it was very much like coming home.

Due to a spate of last-minute cancellations, the first slot threatened to be short of player seats. I offered to run Mouse Guard if needed, but the call to duty never came. I was able to slide into a game of Apocalypse World. My deeply flawed memory for names reared its head. I can’t recall the MC’s name, but Matt Wilson played a cool-headed “Can’t we all just get along” gun-lugger. Dave played a skinner who read Tarot cards and incited trouble wherever she went, and Jamal played an operator named Jesus (NOT pronounced “Hey-zeus”) who was trying to broker peace between two rival hardholders. I was the driver. My guy looked like Paul Newman in greasy overalls. His prized Mustang had been stolen from him by a rival gang, and he was driving Jesus’s short yellow school bus until he was able to get his beloved “Betsy” back.

The game itself went okay. I could see that the MC was used to weaving a story over a number of sessions, and our four hours flew past in a flurry of bullets and double-crosses. We got into a fight at the food court of the burned out ‘all over a mysterious box. We went on a road trip through the blasted landscape. We barfed forth some apocrapha. I got to see how the game works. There are lots of fiddly bits to keep track of with all the different moves, and their interactions, but it does a good job of pushing that responsibility onto the players, leaving the MC free (and diceless) to always push the adversity.

In some ways, it feels a bit like my D&D 4th edition in that way. The DM doesn’t worry about making the players’ characters rules-legal or knowing how their powers work. The DM just throws problems, and monsters, at the party and trusts them to know how to play their characters.

After a quick run to the nearby “best Thai food in NYC” place, I ran my Mouse Guard alternate setting scenario: “Winter 1892: Gaslight and Ghouls.” I was trying a lot of experimental stuff for this scenario, as the setup was a Victorian crime-sleuthing situation. Not only had I rewritten the Mouse Guard setting several centuries into the future, but I was testing some unplaytested mechanics for doing scripted investigation scenes. My thanks to my patient, creative, and enthusiastic players for making this my best session of the convention!

I’ll be discussing how the session went over on the Mouse Guard forums. In short, our session ranged from a Victorian CSI to a Victorian The Wire. The Mouse Guard as the police force of a sprawling metropolitan Lockhaven delved into the details of grisly murders plaguing the city. They left no stone unturned in their quest for justice. And vengeance, too. Let it be know that nobody messes with the Mouse Guard, the biggest, baddest gang in the city! I love it when players sink their mousy teeth into the scenario and spend their player’s turn tying up loose ends.

In this one, the conspiracy behind the murders was dismantled and arrested (and their repulsive beast slain) during the GM’s turn. But I had earned a concession. I had the mastermind get away. Well, the players had earned enough checks to track him down to his tropical estate, infiltrate his home, and nab him from his very smoking room! They always get their mouse! Plus, Thor had failed a circles test early on, and earned the ire of a local crime boss. Thor’s character got tossed out of the boss’s pub on his ear. In the player’s turn, he returned for sweet, sweet revenge, burning the pub to the ground.

Although some of my more experimental mechanics ideas are still solidifying, it was a great, great session.

After another quick food run, I was able to slip into a game of In a Wicked Age, with Bret, Judd, Chuck and Bill(?). I was a simple guard who had been murdered simply because he might have overheard nefarious dealings. I played as a spirit who had to make my killers pay for their crimes in order to pass on. The other PCs were the assassin who had murdered me, the diplomat who had arranged a peace treaty and betrothal, and the princess who was betrothed to seal the treaty. There was an brutal and bloodthirsty general who had ordered my execution and was determined to see that there was no peace. In a tight, quick spiral of violence, the assassin murdered the princess, the diplomat killed the prince for his obstinant blindness, and then hired the assassin to kill the general, as my ghost set the bodyguards to take care of the assassin. There can be no peace where brutality reigns.

I hadn’t played In a Wicked Age before, and the rules system took some getting used to. I felt very much at the mercy of the dice, trapped sometimes. I think that’s because the first, last, and only conflict I was a party to, was about the assassin who had killed me wanting to kill the princess. With the death of another player character on the line, there was very little room for negotiation. I kept losing, which eroded my highest dice, which made the next round so much more difficult or impossible to win. In the end, it did end with a compromise that he was able to kill the princess, but left behind evidence of the general’s involvement. I think if it had been a longer session, or part of a longer story where there were multiple things that characters wanted, the dice would lead to more negotiation and a better story.

The convention was a great day. I am so glad I went, and so grateful to my wife for arranging things. And it reminded me of why I game, where the fun is, and how I’m good at this stuff. I want to keep gaming. And more than that …

I want to design!