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!

RECESS January 2012

I went to RECESS yesterday in NYC. It is just about the longest trip I will make for a single day of gaming fun. And a lot of fun it was.

First, I played Lady Blackbird. I had never played before, so it was interesting to see the New Hotness of 2009 in action. It was interesting, and once I figured out how to play my character, it was good. I wound up with Kale, the sneaky mechanic, and I suck at playing sneaky characters. Plus, the dice hate me, as usual. Twice I rolled eight dice or more and got only a single success. I can see why people love this game. It’s like licking the spatula covered with cake frosting: pure confectionary sweetness. The simplicity of straight forwardness of character advancement is great. But that fact that there is really nothing else to the game besides character advancement left it feeling a bit hollow to me.

After my trivia team lost badly, I played Steal Away Jordan. I had never played before, and the setting was not the traditional pre-Civil War American south. It was late seventeenth century Brazil, a period I had known nothing about. We played rebel slaves who had set up our own strongholds in the Amazon rain forest, faced with the arrival of a Portuguese military force intent on wiping us out. It was an interesting setup.

We had King Zumbi, the warlike leader of the rebels. We had a martial artist possessed by his god. We had a young man bought and sold for his beauty, ready to throw away his life for a chance to kill one of his oppressors. We had a young girl gifted in the ways of magic. And I played a spy on the plantation, with regrets about a man he had killed to try to win a woman’s heart. Oh, and I could turn into a panther. The game ended up with a big fight scene where we routed the Portuguese and saved the day!

The game mechanics were also interesting. The way the dice work, it’s more likely that you’ll wide up with negative numbers than positive ones. So we had a number of conflicts where one side ended up with negative five and the other side had negative three. While, mathematically it doesn’t matter, it also imbues a sense of powerlessness into the game. You fight and you struggle and you make preparations and you get … a negative three! I didn’t get to chat with Julia after the game, but I imagine that was a deliberate design decision.

Also, the way that the dice combine made help interesting. In essence, you roll a bunch of d6s. Every single 1 you roll is worth -1. Every pair of “Lucky Sevens” you roll is worth +1. A “Lucky Seven” is a pair of either 5 +2 or 3+4. 6s count for nothing, and after you pull out all your scoring dice, you must take one more reroll of your non-scoring dice.

If you were really looking at succeeding, you probably didn’t want help, since every roll is more likely to come out negative rather than positive. Your helpers are more likely to drag you down. This morning, my game designer brain is chewing over the possibilities. I kinda want to explore the possibilities that you can trade individual dice with your helpers. So, if I’m left with some 4s that I don’t have any 3s to match them with, I want to be able to take a 3 from my helper and give him a 1 in exchange. If our totals don’t add, but we each suffer our own consequences, this would produce higher numbers and choosing to give someone help would have a lot more dramatic weight to it.

Of course, I’d want the whole question of who helps whom to be decided by the bargains that took place in earlier scenes. So, if I agree to be your helper in task X, in exchange for you being my helper in task Y, then I know that task X is going to be painful for me. But I also know that I have a better chance of success on task Y. I’d also have something about if you are subservient to another, you have to take their trades. To refuse to do so is an act of revolt and dangerous.

I’m not sure if it was the unfamiliar historical setting, or the action movie aesthetic that the GM was going for, or the rushed nature of a convention game, but I didn’t feel like there was much danger in the game, as much as arbitrariness. Which was likely another deliberate design choice. It’s an interesting game. I think I’ll order a copy.

Thanks to all for making RECESS a great day of fun!