METATOPIA 2011: Playtester’s Paradise

METATOPIA was this weekend. I was skeptical before we went. By the time we left, I was a convert. This was a great convention, and I had a lot of fun!

For us, the convention started on Saturday morning, running late as usual. Bill White’s “The New World” was also running a bit late, so Kat, Michele, Brendan, and I were all able to play out the saga of a history that never was. A group of “piney Aztecs” had built a sophisticated, urban civilization in the sub Arctic forests. They worshipped the animals around them as pure manifestations of divinity, but were also divorced from nature in their cities. Huge ceremonial hunts would wipe out every living thing in giant swaths of forest, exporting the skulls back to the city as status trophies and displays of religious piety. A group of Templar-analogs that worshipped the the Radiant Queen of the sun had found its ways to our shores and were attempting to found a colony there. The third society was the outsiders. They were a separate species of human that had evolved to live in underground tunnels, with huge eyes, pale skin, and clawed hands. They used gold for its reflective abilities, to bring light to the darkness. Of course, the Templar-analogs wanted gold for its religious significance as a sign of their Queen’s divine favor.

We played a single turn of the game, and then critiqued. The Templar leader was captured by the young matriarch of the piney Aztecs. However, while she was gone from the city, her cousin had staged a coup and placed herself as matriarch. It was going to be a fun second turn. I thought the game had a good base, and there were some procedural edges that still needed to be filed off. I look forward to seeing more of it.

Later, I played Joshua A. C. Newman’s alternate rules for Mechaton called “Mobile Frame Zero.” I lost badly, but even in Mechaton, losing badly is pretty much fun. The new rules focus on making the Spot ability much more powerful, and it certainly made the game more deadly and move more quickly. I liked it a lot. We played with four teams, and it eventually devolved into a pair of one-on-one battles, which is what I don’t think that Joshua wants. It’s possible that Mobile Frame Zero is and should be listed as a three-player wargame, and just leave it at that. I’ve got a few more ideas to throw Joshua’s way.

After a tasty dinner at the Famished Frog, I came back to the hotel to play a dice-mechanics-only playtest of Kenneth Hite’s “Casey Jones is Dead.” When the full game is done, it will be a stew of the occult secret history stuff that is Ken’s forte, and nineteenth century life on the rails. Sort of Deadlands on rails. Sounds cool.

But this playtest was just about one of the dice minigames. It was more fun than it sounded. There’s a nice mathematical tension between driving the train so fast that you can make up lots of time, and risking a derailment. As the dice minigame was designed by James Ernest, it was like getting to play a new Cheapass game, which is always a fun thing.

After that, I did a focus group on Matt Gandy’s game in development “Heartbreaker.” It’s still very nebulous at this stage, but was full of intriguing ideas about the ways that story and game mechanics mix with one another, the game design values of a deck of cards, and the priority of things to consider when designing a game. I know we dumped a lot of stuff to think about on Matt, and I’m excited to see what he makes of it.

Sunday morning, I was finally able to playtest Kat’s newest incarnation of “Tangled Fates.” It’s a great toolkit for making stories at the table. My ambitious bastard knight failed at every attempt he made to seize the throne. He ended up as a wandering caste knight that wandered the world seeking and stealing treasure for the further enrichment and glory of his religious order. I really enjoyed the tarot-derived cards. They gave just enough push to incorporate a new piece of inspiration.

All in all, even though I did not come back from METATOPIA inspired to playtest my own designs, I came back remembering the joys and tears of the playtesting process. And being reminded of how good it feels to be inspired.

And wanting that feeling again.

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.