Maelstrom 2014: A New Thing Under the Sun

Okay, so my #maelstrom2014 post is a week late. It’s been a busy week. The convention was a good time, as always. Many thanks to Avie and Vinny and the incredible Double Exposure staff for making it happen. I launched three games and played in two.

*Vast & Starlit*
Friday night I was full of nervous energy and wanted to offer something unfamiliar, challenging, that I hadn’t run before. Vast & Starlit filled those points. I pitched the game as “a setting like Farscape run with a system like Who’s Line Is It Anyway?” I got three players, two of which I had never played with before. The start up was a bit rough. We played for two hours and crafted a game that was a bit scattered, and a bit silly. No one really was willing to do _anything_ to be captain. I think the nerves of a new con and a new group made everyone a little less willing to take the lead, and Vast & Starlit definitely needs proactive players. We did get a fun result from the alien species creation rules: A species who are big and strong and intimidating on their low-gravity home planet, but pushovers relative the rest of the galaxy.

*HERO system*
Since my first game finished after only 2 hours, I had a bit of time before bed. Darren Watts was launching a Hero System game. I had never played Hero, but I had once made a character for 4 hours. This session was fun and reminded me of both the strengths and the weaknesses of traditional gaming. I won’t spoil too much of the scenario, but Darren had very cleverly culled a number of ’70s and ’80s action TV shows for characters and setup, and put an interesting spin on the whole package. One of the strengths of traditional play is that the GM’s vision can be fully realized and explored, which is a good thing when the vision is as clever, amusing, and well thought-through as this one. Pondering on how that long-term prep can be brought to bear on the types of games I like is worth thinking about.

Saturday morning I wanted to return to something more comfortable, but that I hadn’t actually played in a while. A return to the island of ice was in order. Rob Bohl, Flavio, Neil, Kat played our Nitu preparing to see the sun rise for the first time. The Ganakagok tarot, and our imaginations, worked their magic once more, and the specifics of our setting were really great. The island was an ice crust on the back of massive beluga whales. They came together to mate once a generation, and the peoples from the various islands would trade, intermarry, visit family, and the like. We only got through three scenes, but I felt it was enough to get a sense of myth and majesty. In the end, the rising of the sun drove the whales to dive deep, where the people could not follow. Luckily, the people were able to find solid land and prosper there, even though they cast out the one who led them there and forgot the ways of their ancestors. The sheets from this game were donated to Phredd & Krista’s project.

Not technically a game, but one of the best times I had. Bill White, Marissa Kelley, Brendan Conway, Kat Miller, Mark Diaz Truman, Rich Flynn and I laughed over topics ranging from hacking D&D4 to make it amenable to the tastes of story gamers, to new AW hacks being developed, to that time that Hawkeye saved the entire multiverse. Really. He did.

*Four-Color Process*
James Fry gave quite the thought-provoking panel on racism in superhero comics. I wanted to hear other perspectives on the issue–thoughts that would take me outside my own head and my own biases as I continue to ponder the revision of With Great Power. I was not disappointed. James and his fellow panelists, Kirk Etienne and Cornell Green, gave me quite a bit to think about, and I greatly appreciate their time and insight.

The Saturday evening slot was overstuffed with GMs and unattached players were rare on the ground. So Kat and I grabbed a table with our friends Adrian Stein, Joann Clarke-Stein and played some Everway. Although the “adventure” was called “One Day and Three Knights” we did not make much progress. We had too fun making characters and laughing until our sides ached.

Sunday morning Kat and I wanted to close out the con with something different. Avie had specifically requested that someone be willing to offer up Heroine, so we did. Our group consisted of Joshua Kronengold, Lisa Padol, Phredd Groves, Kat Miller. Kat played a heroine named Diane who was being forced to move from the suburbs into the city because of her father’s work. While unpacking “the Takers” came and stole her parents, and Diane had to venture into a far-off land to rescue them. Along the way, she met a cat looking for investors to help build his railroad, a perpetually indecisive planner covered in eyes, and a wyvern who painted landscapes. She also delivering a mysterious message from the Night King to the Queen of the Sun. It turns out it was a marriage proposal, and for her services in setting up the nuptials, her parents were returned to her and she was returned home. The game is interesting. I’m _really_ glad that I made the player reference cards that I did. Some of the most important rules are buried inside long paragraphs. I found it very difficult to get enough drama points as the narrator in order to do anything. But I really enjoyed the game, and I think I’ll add it to my regular bag as a pick up game.

Maelstrom was a fun time. I’ll post my thoughts on the convention structure separately, but it was a fun time and we’re looking forward to adding this to our regular convention rotation.

Dreamation 2011: Mice and Ice, Mystery, Lycanthropy, and Identity

My head cold is just as bad now as it was when I arrived at Dreamation, but I feel a whole lot better.

After one of the most trying months of my life, we managed to make it through the wilds of New Jersey on Friday night, with barely an hour to spare. I ran my tried-and-true Mouse Guard scenario “The Spring Thaw” with five great players, including Ralph Mazza and Andrew Morris. While it didn’t quite soar, it was a good solid run, with the mice decimating the fox and then convincing the selfish town captain to abandon his wicked ways. It likely should have been a bit more challenging, but with the stress and the cold, I didn’t have it in me.

Saturday morning was Ganakagok. When the schedule was forming up, I noticed that no one was running Ganakagok or With Great Power… Those two games had been run at every IGE at Dreamation since we started in 2005. I didn’t feel that they should both go down the same year, so I signed up to run Ganakagok. And I’m sure glad I did. The game has never failed to deliver for me. Something about the imagery of the tarot manages to effortlessly bring everyone onto the same page. As before, my adversity may have been a bit weak, but the Medicine economy more than made up for it. The hearth-fire of judgment rose, and melted all the unworthy Nitu, leaving Ralph’s urgent prophet to become the new divine leader.

Saturday afternoon afforded me the opportunity to play in a game. Luckily there was a seat in Kat’s “A Taste for Murder” game. It was my first time playing, and I really enjoyed it. Our household was a rank nest of dysfunction, debauchery, and betrayal. Jeff Collyer’s cook turned out to be the murderer, but we were terrible people, all of us.

Saturday night enabled us to have dinner with Bill Segulin at the Famished Frog, which is a grand, rejuvenating tradition. It was great to see Bill, even if only briefly.

Saturday night, I was supposed to run Mouse Guard and had a full complement signed up, but only Sam Zell actually appeared at the table. He quickly found something cooler to do, and so did I. Buddha Davis, George, Jason Morningstar and I adjourned to a quiet suite to play Love in the Time of Seið. I’m so far out of the loop these days, I hadn’t even heard of the game. But playing it I can see how it builds on older designs, with a strong game design aesthetic of its own. I played The Princess, and really enjoyed watching as, over the course of 3 hours, she matured from a naive and romantic girl, to an overreaching young woman unsure of her own power, to a powerful, decisive beast who still had the heart to mourn for what she had lost. It’s a great game.

Sunday morning we had another heaping helping of angst for breakfast, in a great game of Serial Homicide Unit. The profile was “people working on our second chances.” It’s cool to see patterns in your games when you run them enough. With six players (which we had), there’s always at least a bit of silly. This time it was the balloon animals that the serial killer left at the crime scenes. But, the game also consistently delivers at least one moment of full-fledged audience investment and sympathy for one of the civilians. This time, it was a male-to-female transgender person just trying to get a fair shake from her boss. She succeeded and everyone cheered. And the next moment we opened a small envelope to learn she had been cruelly murdered. I really, really love that game.

I barely got to chat with anyone. I didn’t get to play or shop or hang out nearly as much as I wanted to. But that’s okay. I dusted off my gamer-skin, and tugged it on, and it still fit. As life requires me to put it back in mothballs for a few more months, just the memory of its return will be a comfort.

Thanks to all who helped make such a great con.

Ten Favorite Game Mechanics #6 – The Nitu Tarot from Ganakagok

#6 – The Nitu Tarot from Ganakagok

A number of games over the years have attempted to make use of tarot cards: the vague allusion of Amber’s “Trumps”, the complete rewrite of Everyway’s fortune deck, the beautifully-produced Mage: the Ascension deck, to the just-plain-oddness of Psychosis. I’ve never seen any of them succeed as brilliantly as Ganakagok’s tarot.

At its root, Ganakagok is a game about making myths. Myths make use of the same tropes over and over, welded together in different combinations by the force of human imagination. Using the tarot for this purpose is ideal: Archetypal tropes are on the cards, but the cards invite interpretation. You need to add your own imagination to make a tarot card mean anything, but once you do, it doesn’t seem like you’ve made up anything at all. It feels as if you’ve discovered something hidden and profound. Something that, mysteriously, always fits.

And isn’t that what making a myth should feel like?

Furthermore, by customizing the tarot to fit the frozen world of the Nitu, the cards become the setting of the game, in a sense. The deck, just like the world, are populated with wise elders, impetuous youth, walruses, resting polar bears, fierce orcas, and ever-ravenous cannibal-ghouls. Players learn how to imagine the setting from the cards themselves. The island of ice is not a land of quantities and surveys, but becomes a realm of images, and concepts, and dreams.

Just like a myth.

Up next: I can’t let you go on vacation. The company needs you!

Dreamation 2010 – An Island of Sanity (Part One)

For months and months, I’ve been somebody else. A troubled, heartsick, disgusted, frustrated, isolated, curmudgeonly version of me. Not every day, but more often than not. And for the last four days, I had a chance to take off that heavy, confining suit, and put on a better skin–to be a better version of me. I got to be a smiling guy who helps out his friends, sees patterns in the interplay of game rules, and makes up some pretty damn cool shit. I got to go to Dreamation!

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Origins 2009–Low-key and loving it!

It’s about an hour and half since we arrived home from Origins 2009. I sit here with more caffiene than blood in my veins and try to unwind enough to go to bed. It was a great con. Attendance looked light, but the folks that were there had a good time. Here’s my high points of the show:

A rush to pack and an error made months ago with the rental car was a bit of a scare, but by the time Bill arrived, everything was A-OK. Got to bed late, but raring to go in the morning.

The Drive. Michele was battling a cold, so we took plenty of rest stops. I didn’t mind because we had no booth obligations and therefore no deadline. We left at a sane 7 AM and arrived about 4 PM, which allowed us to eat at the fabulous North Market. My pad thai was hotter than I could stomach, but that proved beneficial later on. We got checked in, taught Michele how to play Euchre, and got some sleep.

Both Kat and I wisely scheduled our Thursday games to begin at noon, so that we would avoid the early-morning lull that sometimes occurs when there’s a hiccup in the registration system. This time, there was no hiccup to worry about, but there was also a noticeable shortage of attendees. Even with a huge swath of the breezeway missing due to renovation, the place didn’t feel crowded enough. I think I got a picture of the crowd present at the opening of the exhibit hall, and it wasn’t nearly as large as it’s been in the past.

Anyway, I kicked the day off w/ dropping off 5 copies of SHU with the ever-gracious and ever-upbeat Andy Kitkowski. He and his boothmates allowed me to grab a bit of space in his booth to make SHU available for sale. It was greatly appreciated.

At noon, Kat ran a new WGP… scenario, and I ran Ganakagok. I had 2 players: Cary and Amber. Thinking that 2 characters would be too few in the reaction rounds, I also made a character myself. In the end, it added nothing to the game, and I wouldn’t do it again. The game was good (as always), and I even found a few ways to improve the text that I had overlooked while editing.

After dinner, I hung out a bit w/ Luke, Thor, Jared, and Jamey. We caught up on RL stuff. I got to see the tail end of Jamey’s satirical Nicotine Girls hack. Plus, we playtested … Yonder Knights! I never would have imagined playing that in my wildest dreams! The game doesn’t really work, but there was much discussion and diagnosis of exactly WHY it doesn’t work, which was really super helpful.

Friday started w/ both Kat and I having 10AM games. Hers was, of course, some incredible, amazing WGP… and mine was SHU. I had two great players: Todd and Lisa. We stopped a serial killer whose profile was that he was hunting down children’s entertainers. As often happens, the kinda silly profile did not impede the drama and tragedy of the inevitable deaths. I can’t think of a game that I enjoy more consistently than Serial Homicide Unit.

After the SHU game, I checked out the maiden voyage of Luke and Jared’s new seminar: Practical Game Design. It was a clear and informative roadmap to take someone from the Three Questions to being able to judge whether dice or cards will do the job their game needs done. It gave me much food for thought, particularly in light of the previous night’s unfun playtest.

One of the great disappointments of this year’s construction was the closing of the kitchen in the Krema Nut Company store. NO PEANUT BUTTER MILKSHAKES! However, Thor’s clever cell phone knew of the company’s headquarters store 2 miles away. Being New Yorkers, they were going to hoof it. But with my power of Rental Car, I got us to the peanut-flavored heaven and back again in air-conditioned comfort!

Friday evening saw a nice dinner w/ Kat, Bill, and Michele, and then chatting till midnight w/ the NYC crew.

Saturday was supposed to be my busiest day. I was scheduled to run SHU from 10AM to 2PM, and help Luke run a seminar from 1PM (fun scheduling error!) to 3PM, and then run Ganakagok from 8PM to midnight. Unfortunately, I had no players for SHU, which gave me far too much time to shop. I looked at every booth and still had time to spare before the panel.

The self publishing panel is, as Luke likes to call it, a firehose of information. We ran right up to the full 2 hour mark, barely stopping for questions and could have kept going. It’s a thrill to give that panel.

Afterwards, Luke was running a demo of Mouse Guard for a reviewer named Ben and his girlfriend Danielle. I sat in to bring the group up to three, and got to deliver the killing blow to a vicious milk snake that wanted to devour us all!

A surprising one-on-one dinner w/ Kat followed, which allowed for a nice de-stressing to occur.

After that, it was back to frozen lands of Ganakagok, where 6 players showed and we made a great myth about the splintering of the island and its fertile ground floating into the sunlit worlds.

Today started with some great news: Mouse Guard won the Origins Award for Best RPG! Congrats to Luke and the Burning Crew for another game well-designed (and one I can actually play this time!)

Then there was just last minute shopping, lunch, The Drive, and now this. An excellent weekend in an excellent city at an excellent con. You can’t ask for more than that.

PoliCon 2008

Yesterday we went to PoliCon 2008 in Philadelphia. Every year, Don and Joanna Corcoran organize a convention as a birthday gift for their buddy, Joe Poli. Some years it’s invite-only due to space, some times its part of a larger convention. But I’ve had a good time every year I’ve gone.

Kat and I made a wrong turn and ended up being late. Thankfully, the games waited for us. Bill White ran his fantastic game Ganakagok for five of us–Pattie, Liz, me, Tali, and Will. In a fit of verisimilitude, Bill invited us to play outside in the crisp April air. It helped to evoke the spirit of our Nitu characters (eskimos) who had always lived upon an island of ice, but who knew that a change was coming–the sun was going to rise for the first time ever. We created the initial situation inspired by some draws from the game’s cool tarot-like deck, and determined that the Nitu were in the midst of a famine, and some of the sacred whales had beached themselves. Rather than help them back into the water, the Nitu had feasted upon the taboo whale meat. My character was hit with a vision in the contented, drowsy trance that siezes hungry people after a feast. He knew that superstitions and the old god-ways were nonsense, and the time had come for the people to abandon them. Most of the other characters were focused on returning us to the old ways, so I had lots of opposition. We ended up with many characters having bad endings, and, although the Nitu were no longer the Nitu after the womenfolk had moved to found a new village, it was a very fulfilling game.

Lunch was provided by many tasty sandwich fixings, and then it was on to With Great Power…

I had brought both “Mutant Academy” and “Monster Squad.” My players were Kat, Phil, and Amy. They chose monster Squad, and played Debris (the living statue and leader of the Monster Squad), Mudslide (oozy former supervillian, still in debt to the evil mad scientist) and Cerebus Prime (German Shepherd with a 500 IQ). Debris started the game being haunted/inspired by visions of Gaia, the earth-mother, tellingd Debris that she was meant to be the avatar of the earth. By the end, Debris was teetering on the brink of delusional madness from these visions. Mudslide was trying despately to ooze his way out of his obligations to Dr. Grotesque. Cerebus Prime was steadily souring on the stupidity of people and joined forces with his unrepentantly-misanthropic sister to take vengeance upon The Utopian for seemingly killing the third member of their litter. A good session, but I’ve really got to retool the game to make it fit in four hours. It’s always just a little fustrating to never get that sense of closure that I tend to have when I play other convention games lately.

Dinner was a quick trip to the Melrose dinner. Phenomenal cheesesteaks, fries, and milkshakes. So bad for the body, but so good for the tongue.

In the evening, I played Shock: with Dave Cleaver and Scott Lesher. It was my first time playing “that orange game” and it went really, really well. We decided on a Shock of “first contact” with Issues of “conspiracy,” “power politics,” and “xenophobia.” We decided to keep it near-future, and took an idea from Ursula LeGuin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” and decided that exactly three aliens had landed. They would only speak to certain people about certain things, and were had never spoken about their advanced technology. Our praxis scales were Mass Media/Personal Contact and Impel/Inspire. Dave’s character was a priest trying to change the church’s “aliens have no souls” position to one of “god loves all beings.” Scott’s character was the U.S. Secretary of State, with whom the aliens liked to play poker. He was trying to form a working relationship with the aliens. My character was an aspiring science fiction writer whose book had been in-process of being published at the time of the aliens’ arrival. It had vanished, his computer was stolen, and he was on the run from a conspiracy. In the end, the priest changed the church AND kept his pulpit–his was story of reform within the church, perhaps a documentary on a civil rights leader or something. Scott’s Secretary of State had a story more like Contact or Childhood’s End, where the president was leaning on him for “results” and the aliens end up playing poker for items of advanced technology versus parts of his own soul. In the end, he wins the secrets of cold fusion, and is also “enlightened” into meaning on a higher plane. My guy ended up with a sort of Philip K. Dick ending, where it was revealed that my never-to-be published science fiction novel had actually been prophetic about the aliens and their landing, and somehow my subconscious mind had been transmitting the entire thing back to the alien homeworld. So, even though I was killed in the CEO’s office, I had just finished transmitting the last paragraph.

The game was very good, and particularly with my fellow players being so creative and invested, I had a great time. However, there were some parts of the game that seemed rough. It seemed a waste of potential that the only mechanical effect of links was to risk them for a re-roll. Plus, praxis scales were a pain. On many rolls, we felt out the scene to find the conflict, set our non-mutually-exclusive stakes, chose our assortment of d4s and d10s, rolled the dice, and said “crap, we forgot to set the praxis.” I think the game might work better if the audience decides on the praxis scale for both the protagonist and antagonist, based on the role-play they do in the scene. That notwithstanding, I was glad to finally get to play Shock:.

Thanks to all for making PoliCon such a great time.