Philly Games Con 2015

Philly Games Con was a good con, and both well-attended and well-run. Neither are to be taken for granted at a first year event.  I was impressed and would return again. Kudos to Dave and the Philly Games Con crew for a great debut.


Friday night, I got to play in a game of Itras By with Keith, Clarissa, Yael, Howard, and Brennan. We made a suitably surreal series of events for our racehorse jockey given to over-eating, encyclopedia salesman searching for the perfect sentence, birthright mime with a habit of nervous talking, organ-grinder’s monkey longing to learn how to dance, and truthful fortune-teller looking for someone to tell his fortune. It was an enjoyable session with a lot of laughter. Beware monkeys passing out counterfeit mime money.


Saturday morning, I ran InSpectres for Brendan, Tim, Kat, Joe, and Neil. They set up their franchise in a self-storage locker. We got through two missions: a wine cellar infested by alcoholic mole man, and an apartment building that was haunted by the spirits of every animal that that had died on that spot in the last four billion years of life on earth, particularly a smart-assed 10-year-old girl murdered in the mid-80s calling herself Zaxxon4ever. It was a fun time.


Saturday afternoon, I ran With Great Power for Mike, Brian, Matt, Dan, and Fran. They came up with some incredible heroes: Warpo, who could warp matter with his mind. Nudge who could hear thoughts and nudge people into making certain decisions. Thinktank, a quadriplegic with telekinetic power armor. Meltdown, given radioactive powers in a reactor accident. And finally, Starsigil, a farm girl who—when an alien crash-landed on her farm—was imbued with a tattoo of cosmic might. They faced the heedless fury of the Rampaging Shade, an energy manifestation of an everyday man’s darkest impulses. In the end, Omnidelphia was saved once more.


Kat wasn’t feeling well Sunday evening, so I bowed out of games. But after she went to bed I got to listen to the tail end of a game of Masks with Brendan, Mike, Daniele, and Rich. The game is in a much better shape than it was when I played it at DEXCON. I’m looking forward to this tale of super teen angst.


Kat’s Serial Homicide Unit game today at 8:00AM did not have any players. Morning slots on Sunday are always a hard sell, but *really* early slots are even more difficult. We had a nice, leisurely trip home, and reflected on a con well-spent.

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.

DEXCON 16: No such thing as “too much fun”

Just got back from a tremendously, awesomely fun weekend at DEXCON! Many thanks to the wonderful Double Exposure staff who put on such a great show, as always.

Due to holiday obligations, our convention started on Friday morning. During event signup, I had wanted to run an extra game to expand the schedule, but knew I wouldn’t have time to prep. One of my favorite zero prep games is InSpectres, so I dusted that off. Many of the folks at the table were relatively new to these strange little games we play, and had only heard of InSpectres as a game from years past. Well, we were able to breathe some life back into its aged bones!

My wonderfully creative players (Marcus, Sarah, Irven, Mitch, and Tim) populated the franchise with colorful employees, ranging from interns, failed librarians, and serial tech-start-up guy to a failed voice actor and a former garbage man who now wanted to take out the paranormal trash! They finished and billed two cases. The first was a case of a sudden, sustained downpour of blood at the food court at the zoo. Turns out that one of the zoo’s acquisitions was cursed. It required a exorcism with a song in multiple voices. Luckily, the voice artist came to the rescue. In their second mission, our working stiffs faced a series of disappearances in a condominium complex. When investigating, they heard voices from the upstairs bedroom. They approached and heard more clearly the words “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in a crazy, mixed-up world like this.” Opening the door to the bedroom, on they other side, in glorious black and white, was the entire airport set from Casablanca, with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman performing the last scene. Of course, the intern was rounded up as one of the usual suspects and pulled into the film just before the end. They managed to rescue him, banish the haunting, return all those disappeared, and face down an entire black and white cavalry regiment. All in a day’s work for the InSpectres.

During the second session, I ran a playtest of the newest revision of With Great Power. I had six players (Amy, Tim, Nick?, Patrick, Jenny, and Dave?), but only five characters. Pat volunteered to sit out, but I was able to use him as the minions of my super villains. It was a fun game, and revealed many of the very rough edges of the latest rules draft. Our heroes were all superhuman mutants who attended a secret school, learning to use their powers to help humans and mutants coexist in peace. Of course, both the would-be Empress of Mutantkind and a group of human supremacists attacked the school simultaneously. We had to cut the session short due to a scheduling mishap, but in comic book terms, that means that we’d leave the reader hungry for issue #2.

After dealing with an inept waiter at the Famished Frog, we returned for the evening time slot. It was my first time running Monsterhearts as a convention game. Of my four players (Karin, Ami, Kathy, and Christian), all were familiar with the genre, but only one had played the game before. I like teaching games, so that was no trouble at all. We had a Queen, an Infernal, a Witch, and a Ghost. At the start of the game, it looked like the rivalry between the Witch, who knew real magick, and the Queen, whose popularity was based on everyone thinking she knew real magic, would be the driving force of the game. As it ended up, the engine of conflict was more and more about the Infernal doing worse and worse things to appease his dark master. It was a fun session, accompanied with the comment, “This is what high school was like. Why do we want to relive this?”

Saturday morning, I ran Monsterhearts again. This time, my four players (John, Andi, Sarah, and Neil?) chose the Werewolf, the Fae, the Ghost, and the Ghoul. All of the players had played or MCed Monsterhearts before, so setup was a breeze. I’m not as skilled at asking provocative questions as I ought to be, but after just a little stumbling, we launched into a tale filled with: one of the school teachers blaming himself for the Ghost’s death and planning to sacrifice a student to bring her back; the Fae having sex and extracting promises from an NPC Chosen and druggie; the Werewolf eviscerating several members of the rival football team; and the Ghoul being immolated in a burning house, but getting up and being just dandy later. Which is just what you want from a session of this game.

Saturday afternoon was my first slot as a player, and I was able to get into a game of Dog Eat Dog, which I’ve been hearing good things about. Keith Stetson facilitated, and my fellow players were Irven, Natalie, and Jim. This game of colonialism and its effects on both the occupier and the natives was interesting in its simplicity. It is very smart and elegant and I could see it becoming very, very brutal. One of our constraints was that the occupying culture did not use spoken language. They used sign language and semaphore. I think that working within this constraint probably prevented the occupation player from developing any distinct characters on his side. It was a very interesting experience and I’m interested in getting a copy.

After dealing with a different, surly waiter at the Famished Frog, I came back to run my second session of With Great Power. My four players (Markus, Jonathan, Kat, and Blair) were all excellent role-players. They brought out the delicious, delectable angst inherent in the Mutant Academy characters. Due to some rules revisions, the fight scene went more smoothly this time. By “more smoothly” I meant as far as the players using the rules and the dice. Not “more smoothly” for the characters, who saw the villains burn the Mutant Academy to the ground, and make off with the data core that held all the mutant research and their secret identities! More rough edges were revealed, and I’ve got my work cut out for me. It was a very fun session and the game’s moving in the right direction.

Sunday morning, I got to playtest Bill White’s new game The New World with Clark and Amanda Valentine. It is also a game about colonization, but much crunchier than Dog Eat Dog. The game uses playing cards as a sort of oracle for creating the setting, culture, and characters. One of the most interesting wrinkles is that the game requires a native culture, a newcomer culture, and an outsider culture, that is somehow distinctive from both. We created a powerful native society that was obsessed with building golden temples to their dead kings. The outsiders were the hungry, overworked miners that brought them gold and built the temples. The newcomers were a commercial fleet arriving with tons of their own gold to undersell the outsiders, which would have left them to starve. Due to impending long drives, we only played a single round, but my dowager queen was ahead in Legacy points. We gave Bill what I think were a lot of helpful suggestions, and I look forward to this game as it continues to evolve.

As always, DEXCON was great. Thanks to all!

Ten Favorite Mechanics #5 – Franchise Dice & Stress from InSpectres

#5 – Franchise Dice & Stress from InSpectres

In 2002, InSpectres made tasty hamburger from a lot of sacred cows. Along with a whole new way of creating mysteries, and encouraging player interest and investment in each others’ characters through the use of the confessional, InSpectres also threw everything we thought we knew about advancement out the window.

InSpectres characters never get better. If they’re lucky, they might score some Cool dice, but those can vanish just as easily. Instead of each player being invested in the relentless upgrade of their character’s scores, InSpectres invests the players’ hopes for greater capability in the game in exactly the same place that the characters have invested their hopes, dreams, and 401(k)s: The Franchise.

Did you score a big payoff? The franchise gets more dice and you get to describe how things around the office improve. Maybe a new coat of paint, maybe a refurbished ectoplasmic containment unit. Did the mission go south and you spent more dice than you earned? The franchise loses dice and you describe what the downward slide looks like. Maybe the cool ghost hunting van gets repossessed, maybe a pink slip for the quirky secretary.

On this level alone, it’s a brilliant way of writing teamwork directly into the system. Everyone is part of the franchise, so they all want it to succeed. And since success comes from the individual efforts of the PCs (both mechanically and fictionally), everyone needs to pitch in to make that happen. If this were the only function of the franchise, it’d be good, solid, innovative design.

But InSpectres adds a twist that puts it over the top. Franchise dice aren’t used only to buy cool stuff for the office and do well during missions. They are the only things that heal the debilitating stress the PCs accrue from their missions. Want to heal that sprained ankle or free yourself from the Curse of Nyuckhotep? All you need to do is take dice out of the franchise to do it.

This sets up a tension between group goals and individual goals that really makes the game hum. Bigger missions mean bigger payoffs for the franchise, but also more chances for characters to get hurt. Games where players both want and don’t want something can sometimes lead to analysis paralysis or creative disengagement if it becomes an internal tug-of-war. InSpectres has two further wrinkles that keeps it from these fates:

  1. Stress is fairly random, but self-reinforcing. Exactly who ends up taking stress penalties and who becomes nearly immune from them is usually determined by the first or second stress die roll. As the game progresses, those who did poorly on the early stress roll usually continue to soak up penalties. Those penalties also limit their ability to earn franchise dice for the mission. This usually sets up a dynamic where many of the players are in need of franchise dice to heal their stress, and a few are stress-free. This puts some players on one side of the tug-of-war, and other players on the other.
  2. The CEO decides. It is up to whomever plays the CEO character to hand out franchise dice to reduce stress. This short-circuits the possibility of endless arguments between players about the best way to distribute resources. Instead, that conflict is driven down to the characters, who can snipe at one another for being freeloaders, or sell-outs, or what-have-you, in a way that drives the story forward.

Up next: Worth a thousand worlds … er, words.

Ubercon 2009

We’re back from Ubercon 2009. It was a great, low-stress convention. Well, low-stress once we managed to find the place! New Jersey traffic patterns were as inscrutable as ever.

Friday night, I ran Mouse Guard for four great players. One had read the game, but it hadn’t quite clicked in his head. Two were very familiar with the comic, and had looked at the game, admired its beauty, but refrained from purchasing due to its novelty. And one just liked my event description.

I ran “The Pirates of Rustleaf” scenario that I debuted at Dreamation this year. My dice were hot, and I was scripting very well. Thus, the vicious redfurred pirates overwhelmed the Mouse Guard and stole the shipment of grain they were guarding. The guardmice had to steal it back! It was great! We even did a conflict about sneaking into the pirate cove and stealing back the grain barge as a “Chase” style of scripted conflict.

Everyone had a good time. The couple who was on the fence said they’re definitely going to pick it up. The guy who had read the game said during the game “This is a really tense game. Every decision you make matters.” Maybe I have figured out how to run MG.

Saturday morning belonged to Mechaton. Since I had to take care of flu-ridden family members most of last week, I didn’t really get far enough on my Mechaton role-playing to use it. Which was just as well. I had one player interested in blowing things up with LEGO mechs, and Kat and Michele joined us for brick-smashing fun. Plus, I handed out at least a half-dozen cards directing people to Vincent’s UnStore.

I got to chat w/ Bill White a bit before the afternoon slot, and it’s always good to catch up with distant friends. We also talked a bit about Dreamation registration, which we will begin discussing online soon.

Saturday afternoon saw me running InSpectres. I had four players, all new. Three of them had fun. The fourth left after the 2nd mission because it wasn’t enough like Toon. Admittedly, I was feeling pretty tired during the 2nd mission, and didn’t run with as much zest as I would have liked. InSpectres requires a delicate balance of Stress rolls vs. Skill rolls, as well as a willingness of players to listen to one another and build off each other’s ideas. This makes it tricky: It’s usually OK, but when it flies, it soars.

In the evening, Bill Segulin came by for dinner, so we got to catch up and eat some tasty Thai food at the Mie Thai restaurant in Woodbridge. Not sure that we’d go back there again, but it was a great dinner.

I had no players show up for my 8pm Ganakagok game. Not terribly surprising. Ubercon is very much a GAMER convention, so interests are more conventional than at a Dreamation or DEXCON. Kat had four players for her Serial Homicide Unit game, so I didn’t want to join that and make it too crowded.

All was not lost. Bill was still around, so he, Michele, and I broke out Zombie Cinema. After reading such rave reviews after last GenCon, I have been looking forward to it for a long time. We made a tale about two day traders and a social worker fleeing a zombie incursion in a Manhattan office building. Both Bill’s and my characters were killed, but Michele’s made it out by disguising herself as a zombie pushing a hot dog cart through the streets.

I was a bit disappointed by the game play. It felt as though the game set up the guard rails on the outer perimeter of “what a zombie story is” and then said “Make up a zombie story. You know what to do, so get to it!” There wasn’t much system input into play once the game started, and we found ourselves stretching for inter-player conflicts just so that we could roll the dice and proceed on the board. I was hoping for a little more oomph.

This morning saw the ladies doing a bit of shopping, us getting thwarted by TWO closed entrance ramps, and finally making it home. I’m very glad we went to Ubercon and look forward to doing it again next year.