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.

Camp Nerdly 4: A Wonderful Weekend in the Woods

Camp Nerdly was a wonderful, awesome time this year. So very, very glad we went. Much thanks to all I played with, chatted with, or just smiled at. All of you reminded me why we do this thing called “play.”

It’s been a while since I played. Nearly none since Dreamation three months ago. So my pre-convention jitters were in full swing this week, building up to Friday. We overpacked the car, set off two hours later than planned, and were on our way south of the Mason-Dixon for gamer-geek fun. With fuel stops and traffic and some directional snafus, we didn’t check in until 8PM. Which was far better than our 10:30 check-in at Camp Nerdly 1.

After unloading our stuff, I joined a game of Shadow Hunters with a bunch of folks I barely knew and enjoyed the social level of the game. It was a nice way to ease into the weekend. I had never played before, and Shadow Hunters is one of those BANG!-like bluffing games where you need to sniff out other players’ factions. I’m not a big fan of that genre of game, and some of the nitty-gritty didn’t seem to add much. But I enjoyed the experience greatly.

Tired from our drive, Kat and I turned in early. Tossed and turned a bit, but finally managed to get to sleep by 2:30 AM, which is when Bill White came a’knockin’ at the cabin door. Seems he just got in, and needed to get to his room, and I had thoughtlessly latched all the doors from the inside! It was kinda like the reverse rapture, with gamers appearing out of nowhere!

Saturday morning started with a nice leisurely breakfast (BTW, thanks so much to everyone who cooked! Everything was wonderful!). Rob Bohl had mentioned that he was really looking forward to playing My Life with Master with me. The best time slot was right that morning, so we gathered a great group of players (Rob, Sam Z., Buddha, Tim and Zack) and got started. Most had played before, but some had not. We changed the setting to 60s counter-culture drug cult. The town was a remote logging village in Washington state. The Master was a charismatic genius who was testing proto-LSD, and far stranger pharmaceuticals on the townspeople. He needed to keep the approval of his paymasters in the Pentagon, or else they’d send him back to ‘Nam. We had very cool minions like the brutal drug smuggler who could convince anyone of anything, as long as he was in his van. And the chemistry graduate student who couldn’t say anything unless he could provide a proper citation.

Due to the late start, car moving, and the like, we didn’t get to finish before lunchtime. It was a good experience, but the game itself would have gotten so very much better if we’d had another 90 minutes to play!

One delectable lunch and a bit of chore-time later, I could have wedged myself into Kat’s awesome-looking Everway game, but didn’t want to dilute the fun. Two folks were running a game I read over a decade ago, but never got to play: Puppetland. I was seriously tempted to play, but I also wanted to try out the game of Microscope that Andy K was going to be demoing an hour later, so I just watched. It looked like a heap of fun.

Instead, I played Microscope. We knew we were breaking the game before we started, as bringing seven players (Andy K., JACN, Rob, Seth, me, Julia, Giulianna, and Will) to a game intended for three or four is not the best choice for awesome play. But as the purpose was demo, more than play, we all accepted that and worked on the story of how the refugees from a religious war eventually rebuilt a high-tech hunter-gatherer society on their own world and reconnected with interstellar society at large. It was an interesting story. Perhaps a bit too cerebral, but we were all thinking hard about learning the rules.

On the whole, I was a bit underwhelmed by Microscope. Not by the fiction we created, that was cool. I was hoping for something more robust in the rules beyond structured brainstorming. While the strict guidelines on when you can collaborate and when you can’t are interesting, I’m not sure that they really serve to enable the group to explore material they wouldn’t have, simply by sitting down at a table and talking. Still, I might buy the PDF and look it over.

After a tasty ziti dinner, I managed to take a seat in one of my new favorite convention games: A Taste For Murder. We had a fantastic group: Joanna, Connie, Sarah, Rachel and Dave Cleaver. We portrayed the backstabbing, incestuous Bridgewater house. I was the droll butler Wilberforce. Sadly, not enough players hated me enough to kill me, and as I somehow rolled very well when Inspector Chapel looked into my past, I’m sorry to say that this time the butler did not do it. Instead, the busybody family friend was done in by her own daughter, who didn’t know she was her daughter. As often happens, the game slid toward silly territory as the night wore on. But I didn’t mind. I was too busy laughing.

After a better night’s sleep, a fine breakfast, and some delectable chatting with friends, we headed back north. But Camp Nerdly 5 can’t come too soon for me!

Ten Favorite Game Mechanics #10 – Endgames and Epilogues

I’m going to be blogging about ten game mechanics that I think are cool and why they enhance the game they’re in. The list is my personal preference, and I’m restricting it to games I’ve actually played in and seen the mechanic in action. The “countdown” structure is not meant to show preference for #1 above all others, and the order (and even how many entries) would surely change if I started this next week or last year. Plus, it’s also based on what I feel like writing about next.

Let’s start at the end–endgame, that is:

#10 – Endgame & Epilogues from My Life with Master

In 2003, the idea that a role-playing game could have an ending–that the rules of the game and the numbers on your sheet could tell you when and how to stop playing–was revolutionary. It flew in the face of conventional wisdom. Lots of people considered the lack of a definite endpoint to be a defining feature of RPGs. They were different than all other types of games because they didn’t end.

And yet, My Life with Master came along and said that when Love minus Weariness was greater than Fear plus Self-Loathing, and a minion successfully resisted one of the Master’s orders, the gameplay shifted to a new phase–the last phase of the game. There was no doubt it was a role-playing game. No board game could have such rich, tragic characters. And yet it ended!

We can look back now and wonder why this innovation was not more obvious. In application, all RPGs have ended. I may have never run the ultimate campaign-ending scenario I had planned for the D&D game I was running in 11th grade, but there’s no question that the game is over. MLwM’s endgame took this real world constraint and made it a feature, rather than a bug.

Not only that, but the game itself shaped how your story would end. The decisions you made, and the outcome of those decisions, limit the possible endings for your character’s story. The minion who never succeeded at making their ham-handed overtures of affection understood by the townsfolk, who reveled in the violence and villiany that the Master demanded, is going to have a huge Self-Loathing by the endgame, and likely not going to qualify for a peaceful “integrates into the village” epilogue.

This showed other designers how they could use the game’s rules to reach into the fiction the players were making and shape it into a statement on the game’s subject.

And role-playing games have never been the same.

Up next: Who goes first? Not who you think!

Very, very busy week last week. Started off with recovering from Southern Exposure, only to find that Carl had reviewed WGP on RPG.net He’s was very complimentary, and there was no real fire in the discussion thread, which I kinda screwed up anyway. But there was a small spike in orders, so it’s all good.

Later, Chris Weeks posted about some typos and questions he had with the text. And he prefaced his comments with some very kind words. If you’ve met Chris, he doesn’t say things that he doesn’t mean, so I’m again caught unawares. I’m not good with the compliments. I almost preferred it when they were calling me a mugger.

Friday night was finishing up Character Burning for the Burning Wheel pirates game. I’m prepping a big long post on that for either the Forge or the BW forums. We also played The Sword, although it only went “okay.”

Kat and I are finding our way back into our freeform role-play groove. We haven’t been there in a long while–primarily my fault. I can only stay there for a short while, but I’m working on it.

Oh, and I just posted why I don’t consider MLwM a “horror RPG.”

And I’ve gotta go to work tomorrow, although the kids have off. Youth is wasted on the wrong people…

Southern Exposure 2005, Part II

Picking up Saturday afternoon. My mood was much improved after the morning’s WGP game. I was keen to play in Scott’s Sorcerer scenario, as I had run Sorcerer for him two years ago. I believe he had a full four players signed up, so I hung out with Luke waiting to see if there would be an empty seat for me. There were four empty seats, so the game folded.

This was about twenty minutes after the start of the timeslot. Up until now, Luke had nobody for his scheduled run of “The Gift.” Suddenly, a number of stragglers from folded games (including me, Scott, and Continuum’s Chris Adam) descended en mass. We played The Gift with a full complement of eight.

I was the Dwarven chancellor-type character. The Dwarven prince had never played BW before. He and the player of the Elven prince were buddies and both very entertaining, acting-wise. The elven prince gave a performance like Alan Rickman as a foppish elven lordling. It was fun to watch … for the first hour. I guess because both of them were buddies, they only wanted to posture and circle and never bring anything to a head.

I probably should have driven things harder, but I didn’t want to steamroll the guy (my prince) in his first BW game. That’s a bad habit I need to work on. Particularly in BW, you *can’t* steamroll another player without opening yourself to the possibility of being steamrolled as well.

Anyway, The Gift went alright. I got in a Duel of Wits against Scott as the elven Loremaster. I won with 1 point left in my body of argument because I scripted a perfectly-timed Rebuttal, but allocated too many dice to attack and not enough to defense.

We hung out and ate some of my wife’s amazing pumpkin pie. Then, at 8pm it was time for Master.

I had 2 players who had never played MLwM, plus Kat, who’s bothed minioned for me and Mastered in her own right. We started late. We moved our table. There were some interruptions. The energy just wasn’t there. The two players (Jeff and Jillian. IIRC) had a bit of a flair for the absurd and silly. Always dangerous in a MLwM game. And I didn’t ward it off nearly enough. It was still a pretty good session, which is much more of a testament to Paul than to me. I think I might step away from MLwM for a little while. There’s a potential LJ entry in my head entitled “My Life with ‘My Life with Master.'”

Sunday brought two canceled games, and leisurely packing of the car, heading home, eating at a Turkish place for lunch (not really my thing), goin’ to the orchard, fevered retrieval of K. from her grandparents, and general resting.

All in all, the con was a good time and I’m glad I went. Andrew Morris got people for one of his Capes games, and Tony seemed happy minding the “booth” all day. Of course, i’ve yet to see Tony unhappy, so I may have misinterpreted. Nate P. didn’t make it due to car trouble.

Got to see some old acquaintances, like Scott Lesher, Don Concoran, & Joe Poli. Met some new folks, like Jeff whose-last-name-I-can’t-recall, Michael Hahn, and Luke’s buddy John (whose-last-name-I-also-cannot-recall).

After GenCon, I fully intended to miss all the fall conventions this year. I’m glad I made an exception for Southern Exposure.