Dreamation 2014: Best con for the tenth year running!

Back from yet another another amazing Dreamation. Massive thanks to Vinny, Avie and the whole Double Exposure crew, as always, for making such a fantastic environment to play in. And thanks to all the GMs, volunteers, and players who brought their staggeringly awesome creative might to bear on the snowy expanses of New Jersey.

Thursday night I revived a game I haven’t run in a number of years: My Life with Master. The game delivered, as it always does. The four players crafted me a master who sought to bring his beautiful bride back from the dead. I dispatched them to harvest the dreams of children, kidnap a new host body, and burgle the home of a gravedigger, among other unsavory errands. Nikolai–who could pass undetected through shadows, except when traveling alone, and could not speak unless spoken to–rose up against the Master and brought an end to the reign of terror. It was good to stretch those muscles again.

Friday morning I ran InSpectres. (Yes, that’s right. Both games I ran are more than a decade old. What of it?) We had a full table of six, with players bringing such characters as an ex-exterminator, a priest with ninja training, a shovel-wielding mortician, and an ex-possessee devoted to getting revenge on anything remotely supernatural. They faced down a pack of leprechaun drug dealers, and got embroiled in a magical turf war between a Beef and Borscht restaurant and the aggressive, eldritch Pizza Go Go. Much laughter ensued.

Friday afternoon saw me in a playtest of Brie Sheldon’s game Clash. It’s a game about people caught up in a conflict larger than themselves. The details of that conflict are very open to the creation of the group, but then the meat of play is about character scenes. I liked it very much and enjoyed that character goals and faction goals don’t need to related at all. The game has not yet figured out how it wants to address the eternal problem of “you can play any setting” games. Namely, how best to help the players create that sort of setting. But it’s definitely on a good trajectory and I look forward to seeing the next version and playing again.

Friday evening was my highlight of the convention: Laura Simpson’s The Companions’ Tale. This game was so fun, and it both taught me new things about game design and reminded me of old lessons I’d forgotten. We are all telling the tale of a great hero doing great things upon the world, but we are telling that tale from the point of view of those who witnessed the hero’s great deeds. The companions can be mentors, sidekicks, lovers, rivals, or a host of other types. It does a great job in assigning specific, fruitful story-telling tasks to different players at different times. My absolute favorite role was the Lorekeeper, where you describe how some piece of culture (a painting, a poem, a sport, a type of food, a children’s rhyme, etc.) was formed to reflect the events of the story just recounted. I can’t wait to get my hands on this game and play it again!

Saturday morning, I played In A Wicked Age. I had played once before, with less than stellar results. I wanted to see it from another point of view. This was certainly a better table, with lots of creativity producing a juicy setup with a group of mischievous djinn having been released from centuries-long binding, the wizard seeking rebirth into a new body so he could rebind them, and simple servant girl driven to write her own grand destiny, the scheming conjurer, and the princess who could divine, and re-speak the future. The initial setup of play, with the oracles and the brianstorming and the character building, went utterly smoothly and was lots of fun. And once the dice came out, they felt more like an obstacle to creativity than a spur. Maybe our initial setup was too cut-throat, leaving us too little room to negotiate. I’m not sure. I liked the fiction we created, I just didn’t enjoy half the process we used to create it.

I had a terribly frustrating lunch break on the _lovely_ thruways of the Garden State in my quest for cake. But returned just in time to play a session of Monsterhearts. I had never been in a game with a Selkie before, so I chose that skin. We had several experienced players who understood that in a convention game, you need to go for the throat right out of the gate. I ended up convincing the werewolf to help me get my “swimsuit” back from the infernal who had stolen it. But she had already worn it and stretched it all out. I wept to mother ocean, who obliterated the entire high school in a tsunami. The other PCs survived the devastation because, monsters. It was a fun, raucous session.

Saturday evening we held the Indie Game eXplosion 10th anniversary party. Lots of people stopped down for snacks, cake, and conversation. Exactly as we planned. Thanks, everybody for a decade of great times!

Sunday night I ran InSpectres again. This time, I had five players. Whenever Joann sits down at the same table as me, I know I’m going to have a good time. The others were new faces, who had had InSpectres on their shelves for years but not played. I always love being able to shake the dust off people’s gaming shelves. This franchise started out so down on its luck that they rented a room in the YMCA and used the payphone as their business line. They confronted a building haunted by unsavory Muzak, only to make contact with the ghost of Liberace and sign him to a record deal. Later, they found the town reservoir infested with dragon turtles. We laughed until our sides ached.

Saturday late night was for great conversations with great people. And I realized how much the physical location of the conversation acts as a social constraint of group size, and therefore, topic.

Sunday morning I book-ended the convention with another session of My Life With Master. This time, the players crafted a power-hungry Countess who sought to enslave Lucifer himself. Lots of creepiness in this one, with wedding dresses of human skin and demons unleashed to drive widows from their home. I was so relieved when they finally flung me out the window to be impaled on the cast iron fence outside. Two of the minions died as well, and the other two sought out other vile masters to serve. A melancholy ending to a great weekend of gaming.

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!