Dreamation 2013

I have never had a bad convention experience at Dreamation, but this year’s was one of the best ever! Low stress, lots of excitement and enthusiasm on faces both old and new made for a very, very good time.

I kicked off the convention with my newest Mouse Guard scenario “Death Among the Drifts.” It’s set in the middle of winter, involves some very seriously potent, hungry predators, and, as the name implies, is very deadly. I had a table full of great players, but they were unable to drive off the big, bad, badger, or to repair the Scent Border. I even devoured two of the mice. Everyone said they had fun, but I was beginning to suspect that I had made a scenario that was just plain overpowered and mean.

Friday morning, I played Tenra Bansho Zero, run by Brendan Conway. It was the first time I played the game that Andy Kitkowski first showed me nearly nine years ago. I was expecting the crazy imagery of “every anime you’ve ever heard of thrown into a blender.” I wasn’t expecting the emotional turmoil, character interactions, and story development. I was really, really impressed. My expectations were low, and the game blew past them.

The scenario itself was called “The War-Bride’s Choice.” It was set in a remote retreat where many powerful lords had come to vie for possession of the latest masterpiece of a master craftsman who carved mannequins from wood who then became flesh. I got to play the masterpiece herself, Spirit Trophy. Unbeknownst to the lords, but knownst to their players, the master craftsman was going to allow Spirit Trophy make her *own* decision. We had a great game filled with speed-line filled anime action, heart-wrenching tragedy, self-sacrifice, and foul betrayals. At any other con, this would have easily been my favorite session. Not so at Dreamation.

Friday afternoon, I ran my first public playtest of the latest revision of With Great Power. I had great players around the table: Ralph Mazza, Rob Bohl, Phil Walton, and Joann Stein. I had great story material, as I was using classic With Great Power scenario I’ve run dozens of times before. The rules draft, however, was less than twenty-four hours old at that point, and had never hit the table with multiple players. There were some bumps along the way, and some stops and starts. But we had a good time, told a complete story, and I got some really invaluable feedback. The game that emerges will be so much stronger because of this uneven session.

Friday night saw me playing Dread for the first time. I haven’t played before because the horror genre is most assuredly *not* my thing. But the setting for this event was the universe of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, which I have some familiarity with, and fondness for. I expected we’d do some interesting stuff with players realizing that they were Cylons when the tower fell, and stuff like that. I thought it could be interesting.

When I first came over to the table, I was bowled over by the huge poster-sized diagram of the Battlestar Hades on the table. And the handouts were just as gorgeous, complete with customized ship’s seal and octagonal pages, just like on the show. The GM, Mark Richardson, joked that he had spent all week “cutting corners” for his event. And the careful labor really showed through.

I wasn’t as thrilled with the event itself. It took place during the initial Cylon attack on the colonies, essentially the first two hours of the BG miniseries. We took the time to fill out the extensive Dread questionnaires about our characters, their backstory and relationships. However, as we were on one of the doomed Battlestars, the game became a litany of terrifying, doomed malfunctions, explosions, firefighting, and jury-rigged escape plans. Mark said he was going to post his materials online, so perhaps I’ll run this one sometime, drawing out the timescale and allowing the characters to develop a bit before their demise.

Saturday morning, I again ran Mouse Guard. I had four players: A mom, dad, and their two sons. The kids were probably late tweens/early teens. They mentioned that this was their first time playing Mouse Guard and i didn’t want to diminish their first experience of the game by killing their characters, so I offered to run something less deadly on the fly. They chose to stick with the deadlier scenario, and made a noble effort. The dice were against them, and despite an excellent effort, at the end of the fight with the badger, I still had a few points of disposition left when they hit zero. As a major compromise, i figured eating a few of the mice, instead of the whole patrol and a dozen villagers that the badger had hungered after was a fair deal. In the true spirit of the guard, two of the players hurled themselves into the jaws of death to sate the creature’s appetite and allow the other two to escort the villagers to safety.

Saturday afternoon, I played a hack of Lady Blackbird set in a superhero setting. This session never quite soared for me, but mainly because of external factors: I was late getting to the game. The player whose character was the main target of my character’s subplots left the game about halfway in. The setting was a whole mash of superhero ideas thrown at a wall to see what stuck. We ended up saving Beacon City, and I melted a metallic bad guy with my flaming sword. What more can you ask for?

Saturday evening I ran my second session of All-New, All-Different With Great Power. I got to the table late, and when I did the players were discussing the differences between Aberrant and Wild Talents. I knew where I stood with these guys, and they did not disappoint. It was a very, very good session with loads of angst, impassioned speeches, and zap-bang action. Many of the tweaks that we’d worked out the day before got put to the test, and came through well. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me, but the game is in great shape.

Sunday morning I was able to play Monster of the Week, one of the many hacks of Apocalypse World. I hadn’t played it before. It’s pretty neat. If you distilled all of the teen angst/romance out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you’d get Monsterhearts. The remaining stuff would be Monster of the Week: All scary monster hunting, all the time.

Our group was large and diverse, and we hunted monsters in upstate New York for many and varied reasons. But the history section of the MotW character-creation process did a good job of tying the large group together in a comfortable manner. I loved the way the other players customized their character concepts, from the innocent-looking twelve-year-old Chosen in the pigtails and plaid skirt sneaking out back to smoke cigarettes, to the lithe and heavy-eyeliner look of the half-demon, to the straight-laced, utterly normal Mundane. My character was a tall, broad-shouldered man in a flannel shirt, ax thrown over his shoulder named Summerrain Czegny. It was a fun, fun session.

Thanks to everyone I played with, all the GMs and players who made the atmosphere so electric, and the amazing Double Exposure staff who once more made this grand cavalcade of gaming possible.

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!

DEXCON 2012: Fun stayin’ out of the sun

Just got back from a really, really great DEXCON. Played games, ran games, chatted with people, ate good food. Couldn’t ask for anything more.

My Thursday afternoon Mobile Frame Zero game only had one player show up. He was a Kickstarter supporter, and I mentioned that the game really sings with three players, but we weren’t able to pull in anyone else. I wanted to show off the game he had backed, but I had underestimated the effectiveness of the company I threw together and ended up beating him pretty badly. I think he enjoyed the game anyway.

Thursday night, I played in a playtest of Kat’s Serial Homicide Unit hack based on the Hunger Games. We had a full table and the game was lots of fun. Just like the Hunger Games, we created teenagers that were almost all going to die horribly in an arena of combat. Just like Serial Homicide Unit, there was no joy to be had in this combat, only the tragedy of young lives needlessly thrown away. We had some great creativity at that table, with people coming up with the details of their tributes’ reapings, their parade performance and training, and then the slaughter at the cornucopia where half the tributes die right out of the gate. Since the death is random, it was surprising that all the fittest and most able tributes died right out of the gate. One of my tributes lasted to the final round: the youngest tribute, Woody, small and doe-eyed and weak. The sponsors voted him lots of silver parachutes out of pity/sympathy. I really enjoyed the game.

Friday morning I ran Mobile Frame Zero again. This time I had two players, one of whom was a Kickstarter supporter. The game played more like I was accustomed to. I was the defender, and tried for a “they can’t attack you if they’re dead” defense. I seized a number of stations, too. At one point, I looked unstoppable and was 20 points ahead of my second place competitor. But the doomsday clock was only halfway, and when I fell, I fell hard. I ended the game with no frames. It was great fun, though.

Friday afternoon, I ran the first playtest of All-New, All-Different With Great Power. I ran our original With Great Power scenario “A League of Their Own” with the rules I had only finished the day before. I had great players at the table, and the game went well. It went differently than it ever has under the old system. I got nothing but compliments from the players. I see a number of rough patches that need to be filed down. A solid start, but lots of work yet to go.

Friday evening, I played in Andy Kitkowski’s Ryuutama game. It’s a Japanese RPG about a fantasy world where wanderlust is nigh-universal. The focus of the game is on exploration and travel, not fighting monsters. Characters were simple enough to put together, but then came 45 minutes of shopping for equipment. I really hate shopping, in games and IRL. I understand why it’s an important part of a game about wilderness travel. But for all the time we put into it, we didn’t really use it during this short playtest. The game was enjoyable, and we had some great players who really understood how to enhance the anime-flavor of their characters. I came away with a better understanding of exploration in RPGs.

Saturday morning, I had no players for my second With Great Power playtest. These things happen, particularly on crowded Saturday morning timeslots. This allowed me to try out a game I’ve been trying to get into for a very long time: Shawn de Armet’s One Night. I really enjoyed it. Shawn has faced down the “cold start” problem that’s endemic to games in the Universalis vein where you can pick up and play anything. He’s broken down popular gaming tropes, and randomly assigns groups of them to people to choose. After that, there’s a voting portion that is quick and fun to separate the wheat from the chaff. A similar process takes over once we have a specific setting in place and are developing situation and characters. We went from sitting down to having our situation and characters in hand in under an hour. I enjoyed the process and will likely steal some bits of it.

For this particular game, we came up with a sort-of steampunk story where Nazi robots had gone back in time to the Victorian age, in order to infiltrate and conquer it. As skyships flew overhead, we followed Holmes and Watson in trying to track down Jack the Ripper, and the fate of a simple German Jewish clockmaker, a man out of time. Also, I played Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, and who was currently writing a novel of the present. She would write things, and they would come true. We ended up thwarting Lord Byron’s plan to open a portal to the future inside Big Ben, and with Mary Shelley writing a happy ending for the fictional Dr. Watson. It was a very nice story.

Saturday afternoon, I played in John Stavropoulos’ Mouse Guard game. I haven’t been on the player side of Mouse Guard since the game was in playtest, so it was a nice change of pace. We had a great adventure saving a town from flooding, facing off with rampaging beavers, duplicitous guardsmice, and a charismatic bandit. One of the things I sometimes do in con games to shake things up is to look at a character, ask “What’s the most obvious thing to do with this character?” and then do something else. This time, that “something else” involved being friendly with the town’s bandits. Once I started, I didn’t know where to go with it, and left that loose plot thread flopping in the breeze. Not my best performance.

Saturday evening, I got to play in John’s Apocalypse World game. I’ve read a great deal about the game, but haven’t gotten a good taste of it. I wanted to see how John brought it into the four-hour convention format. I was impressed by the way he made a lot of choices in prepping the characters before hand, but left enough for us to customize at the table in order to make the game our own. Not surprisingly, the game yeilded a brutal, ugly story about brutal, ugly people. The setup was that our biker gang was all set to leave the collection of abandoned buildings they had been squatting at, and half the gang decided to stay. I played an adrogynous battlebabe called Absinthe, who tried to shoot the troublemakers who had incited disharmony inside the gang. We ended up facing down blood wolves and our gang leader nearly got killed by his ex-girlfriend. The whole thing was bloody and messed up, but the process of creating the story was interesting, and I have a better sense of the ways AW is unique, and the basis of its popularity and usefulness in hacking.

Sunday morning was all packing up and saying good bye. All in all, a really great weekend. Thanks to all the DEXCON staff, players, and GMs for making such a wonderful time!

Dreamation 2012: Much of interest and fun

Had a great time this weekend at Dreamation 2012. As always, the Double Exposure staff put on a great convention. The players are always top-notch and this year was no different.

Thursday

I started off the con playing Monsterhearts, MC’d by Brendan Conway. The game is built on the Apocalypse World chasis and sinks its fangs deep into the genre of teenage supernatural melodrama. We crafted a surprisingly tight story of a wish-made-flesh, and the unnatural forces the force of that wish had released upon the world. I played the brainy girl from the wrong side of the tracks who had finally figured out how to make magic work. As often happens in convention games, the events of the story escalated quickly until we had people vanishing in front of witnesses and a high school kid devouring the flesh of his enemies in the mall parking lot. However, we tied everything up by convincing the NPC whose original wish had unleashed the occult forces to “wish that today had never happened.” We woke up with complete memories of the day, but with nothing having yet happened. It felt very much like a story set two or three episodes into a TV series. It would serve to foreshadow coming events, and dramatize just how far these characters could go. It was a great game, certainly the one I enjoyed most on the player’s side of the table.

Friday

I started off the day running Time & Temp. I had neither run nor played the game before, but a few months ago I had an idea for a Shakespearean time traveling adventure, and the light tone of Time & Temp seemed a good fit. As it turned out, virtually everyone signed up strictly to play Time & Temp, and my quickly dashed off event description was all but ignored. Which was fine, because the game was a blast to play.
I had brought pre-gen characters to the table. Most of them had some sort of humorous Shakespearean connection. There was a survivor of the futuristic nuclear wastelands of Scottland named MacDyff. There was the fourth daughter of King Lear. And, since boys played the women’s parts in Shakespeare’s day, there was a female Elvis impersonator.
I was fortunate that nearly all the players were familiar with the game, and extremely energetic and creative. We laughed a lot, and they saved Shakespeare’s reputation as the world’s greatest playwright.
After a quick lunch at the cafe in the convention center, I played Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, facilitated by Connie Allison. The game was quite a surprise, and nothing at all what I expected. Admittedly, I knew very little and went into the event wanting to learn about the game. I had not realized that the game centered on crafting a written story line-by-line with no room for character play or dialogue. My pilgrim was Cunning Cord. I got into trouble by making things too complex, and helped people by tying impossible knots. We ended up ending the war between the forest and the ocean, but I really had no investment in my character, or the others.
One curious thing happened during the game. I had essentially become secretary, writing down the sentences that the group came up with. We were about half way through the game, and I think that much of the group was beginning to understand that gameplay was going to consist of yo-yoing from being in trouble to being out of trouble until we checked off all the words from the required list. Since I was writing down the sentences, I started to alliterate them. It started as an off-hand comment from another player, but soon took on a life of its own. One of my sentences was “Pilgrim Perfect Penguin pestered the people’s poor parenting procedures, properly putting himself into a positive posture.” In retrospect, I think I was rebelling against the constraints the game was making on me. Since we could have no creative input apart from writing the single, solitary sentence, I was going to pour my energy into stretching that form. Or something. I’m still not sure why I did that.
There was much laughter and I certainly enjoyed the session. The game itself was very thought-provoking, and interesting. I hesitate to say that “I had fun.”
After a disappointing meal from the burrito place (we need to remember to not go there next time), I ran my second session of Time & Temp. This time, the players were not already familiar with the game. My own unfamiliarity became a more glaring flaw, and the game did not quite gel as well as the earlier session. The players missed wiping out all of reality as if it never had been by a single die roll. The all claim to have had fun, and so did I. I guess I just felt that I had let them down.

Saturday

Saturday morning I ran my newest Mouse Guard scenario, “Drought.” It’s a great little setup where a family of weasels have taken a whole village hostage by seizing a dam during a drought. The first session had a nice mix of veteran players and newbies. About an hour and half into the session, the started interrogating one of the town mice about what was going on, and I thought I’d throw in a brief, little scripted conflict for the argument as a way to show the game off to the new players and prepare them for the big fight. Both sides rolled amazingly well on their disposition rolls and we played out this argument for over an hour! It was fun, but it would have been more fun to use a simple versus test for the argument and not be so rushed with the fight with the weasels. But all in all, certainly a good session!
After some rushed, but much-needed takeout from the pizza joint across the street, I played the new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game from Margaret Weis Productions, run by Michael O’Sullivan. The introductory scenario, a supervillain breakout from the Raft, was nothing to write home about. But Mike ran the game with energy and enthusiasm and I got to play Captain America, so how could I complain? The scenario gave a decent overview of the game system. It has fused together the best bits of many different game systems, and would have blown my mind had I encountered it in 2000. I’ll probably pick up a copy for research.
After Saturday night’s traditional dinner with our friend Bill, I ran Mouse Guard again. This time, the group was all pretty well new. And my dice were hot, and the weasels dined well on the tails and ears of several guardsmice. The game was fun, particularly due to the embellishments of my friend Philip, who portrayed the arrogant teenage tenderpaw Sloan. During the game, he wrote a series of diary entries that painted her as the sole competent member of the patrol. We laughed a lot.

Sunday

Sunday morning I playtested a game in development called Becoming. I knew nothing about it, except for the event description that indicated a thematic hero’s journey, and some sort of group GM role. It’s a strictly four person game with one player portraying the hero, and the other three portraying the hero’s fear, doubt, and pain (called “the Chorus”). The hero has a number of virtues, rated in dice. The Chorus has poker chips. In every scene, one member of the chorus lays out an obstacle and puts in chips to set the difficulty that the hero’s die roll must beat. But, the hero can bargain with the other members of the chorus to help him, in exchange for advantages over their fellow chorus members. At the end, victory points for a chips, dice, virtues, and numerous other factors are tallied to determine which single player wins.
The heart of the game is in the horse-trading. The bargains struck are binding, and they serve for a lot of hard-headed figuring of probabilities and making deals, and shifting alliances. Which is all fine and good for the type of game Becoming actually is at this point in its development. It’s just not the game I thought it was. The fiction is utterly irrelevant to game play. The group got so caught up in the horse-trading that we often had started into the next round of bargains before we remembered to go back and establish how the previous scene had ended.
Personally, I didn’t enjoy the game. But I hope that I was able to offer the designer some things to think about as he continues to develop it.
All told, the convention was an incredible time, and a strong reminder of why I do this stuff. Now, if I can only hold onto that reminder as I return to my regularly-scheduled game-fasting, I might be able to really start on designing a game.

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!

Dreamation 2011: Mice and Ice, Mystery, Lycanthropy, and Identity

My head cold is just as bad now as it was when I arrived at Dreamation, but I feel a whole lot better.

After one of the most trying months of my life, we managed to make it through the wilds of New Jersey on Friday night, with barely an hour to spare. I ran my tried-and-true Mouse Guard scenario “The Spring Thaw” with five great players, including Ralph Mazza and Andrew Morris. While it didn’t quite soar, it was a good solid run, with the mice decimating the fox and then convincing the selfish town captain to abandon his wicked ways. It likely should have been a bit more challenging, but with the stress and the cold, I didn’t have it in me.

Saturday morning was Ganakagok. When the schedule was forming up, I noticed that no one was running Ganakagok or With Great Power… Those two games had been run at every IGE at Dreamation since we started in 2005. I didn’t feel that they should both go down the same year, so I signed up to run Ganakagok. And I’m sure glad I did. The game has never failed to deliver for me. Something about the imagery of the tarot manages to effortlessly bring everyone onto the same page. As before, my adversity may have been a bit weak, but the Medicine economy more than made up for it. The hearth-fire of judgment rose, and melted all the unworthy Nitu, leaving Ralph’s urgent prophet to become the new divine leader.

Saturday afternoon afforded me the opportunity to play in a game. Luckily there was a seat in Kat’s “A Taste for Murder” game. It was my first time playing, and I really enjoyed it. Our household was a rank nest of dysfunction, debauchery, and betrayal. Jeff Collyer’s cook turned out to be the murderer, but we were terrible people, all of us.

Saturday night enabled us to have dinner with Bill Segulin at the Famished Frog, which is a grand, rejuvenating tradition. It was great to see Bill, even if only briefly.

Saturday night, I was supposed to run Mouse Guard and had a full complement signed up, but only Sam Zell actually appeared at the table. He quickly found something cooler to do, and so did I. Buddha Davis, George, Jason Morningstar and I adjourned to a quiet suite to play Love in the Time of Seið. I’m so far out of the loop these days, I hadn’t even heard of the game. But playing it I can see how it builds on older designs, with a strong game design aesthetic of its own. I played The Princess, and really enjoyed watching as, over the course of 3 hours, she matured from a naive and romantic girl, to an overreaching young woman unsure of her own power, to a powerful, decisive beast who still had the heart to mourn for what she had lost. It’s a great game.

Sunday morning we had another heaping helping of angst for breakfast, in a great game of Serial Homicide Unit. The profile was “people working on our second chances.” It’s cool to see patterns in your games when you run them enough. With six players (which we had), there’s always at least a bit of silly. This time it was the balloon animals that the serial killer left at the crime scenes. But, the game also consistently delivers at least one moment of full-fledged audience investment and sympathy for one of the civilians. This time, it was a male-to-female transgender person just trying to get a fair shake from her boss. She succeeded and everyone cheered. And the next moment we opened a small envelope to learn she had been cruelly murdered. I really, really love that game.

I barely got to chat with anyone. I didn’t get to play or shop or hang out nearly as much as I wanted to. But that’s okay. I dusted off my gamer-skin, and tugged it on, and it still fit. As life requires me to put it back in mothballs for a few more months, just the memory of its return will be a comfort.

Thanks to all who helped make such a great con.

DEXCON 13 – Much Merriment in Morristown

Going to a Double Exposure convention is always a little bit like going home. You see friends you haven’t seen in far too long, you talk until your voice goes raw, and you smile until your face aches. Or at least I do.

Thursday
We were doing convention prep until the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, so getting up early for the drive to Morristown was a bit of a challenge. Luckily it was a challenge well worth it. Kat was running Everway in the morning timeslot. She hasn’t run the game in over a year, and it’s always a treat. This time she experimented with leaving her Fortune Deck at home and running with straight karma. Her setup was the same as the “Dragon-napped” scenario she ran for With Great Power… earlier this year. It has an evil king, an innocent princess in peril, and a dragon in disguise as a knight. I (playing the dragon) got to put forward the dubious legal theory that everyone in the kingdom belonged to me, because I could eat them at any time. Since they were still alive, I must be sparing them for later and thus, they were still “mine.”

A quick lunch with Kat and Joanna, and then it was time to take to the skies! Bill White ran a playtest of his structured freeform game “Romance in the Air,” a pleasure jaunt aboard a floating airship hotel in a Europe that never was. Bill explained that it was partially designed as a rebuttal to the assertion that “you cannot make a Jane Austen roleplaying game” and that this was the very first time it saw play. It was rather rough going in places, but there is definitely potential there, and Bill is absolutely fearless in digging through the results of his experiment to get the good stuff at its heart.

Kat and I had a quiet dinner at the italian place across the street, and then I returned for a wild and crazy experiment of my own. I ran the Marvel Super Heroes RPG published by TSR in 1986! I hadn’t pulled the books off my shelf to play for about 20 years. And all the players said something similar. The power of nostalgia was strong at the table!

My initial idea for the game was to run in it with the superheroes Kat and I had come up with for the With Great Power… scenario “A League of Their Own.” We’ve been running it at cons for several years now, and I wanted to see how my nostalgic memories of MSH would apply to these great characters. An interesting experiment, right?

Interesting, yes, but an experiment quickly completed. In explaining the rules, I went through a sort of Danger Room-esque capture the flag setup. It quickly became apparent that the system was going to support more bus-throwing than these characters were capable of, while leaving their various angsts unacknowledged. Luckily, we were barely an hour into the timeslot, and I already knew what I wanted to know.

So, I looked at the guys at the table, and said “The experiment is a success, these characters in this system absolutely DOES NOT work. But, we’ve got three hours, let’s have some fun!” And I broke out the character cards for classic Marvel heroes, circa 1986. And thus we had Captain America, Spiderman, Storm, Box, and The Thing defend New York from the Hulk on a rampage, a Doombot, and a couple robotic minions. There was much laughter and die-rolling and villain-bashing and reminiscing over ancient comic book geekery.

I don’t think I need to play MSH again for another couple decades, but it did give me food for thought. Just creating the characters for the game reminded me that thinking through a character’s superpowers and how they work (which WGP currently lacks) can provide grounding to the story and worthwhile play material. Also, I refreshing myself on the rules showed me the roots of some very cool mechanics in more recent games. I’m looking at you: SotC’s zones, and BW’s Resources and Circles.

Friday
Friday morning found me running “A League of Their Own” the way it was meant to be run: using With Great Power… We had a great session, highlighted by Gerald’s portrayal of Debris struggling with the difficulties of being an ex-cop while being a woman made of living granite. Also a great scene featuring The Stalwart. Our hero, known also as the Defender of Truth, is actually living a lie: he is the Stalwart’s sidekick who has put on the Armor of Truth and claimed to be The Stalwart returned from the dead. Tim had a great scene where he’s looking at himself in the mirror, saying over and over “I am The Stalwart. The armor makes the hero. I am The Stalwart!” trying to convince himself. All the while, he’s checking his armor’s built-in Lie Alarm to see if he’s telling the truth. Good solid angst!

Friday was also Kat’s birthday. (Which reminds me: Happy belated birthday, Rob!) To mark the occasion, she ran an Everway-themed LARP called “Queen for a Day.” In it, it was the Queen’s birthday, and to celebrate, she was throwing a party for her subjects. She would even name one of them “Queen for a Day” and allow them to make a single proclamation. We got a fair turnout, and much rivalry, scheming, and mixed up birthday presents ensued. I played the merchant, with the magical ability to enchant anything imaginable, but it would only function for 10 minutes. Coming up with all the birthday presents was a blast! Plus, I got to call in a web of favors to ensure the “proper” candidate became Queen for a day! After the scheming was done, there was even cake. Remember, everyone: if you play in Kat’s birthday LARP, you get free cake!

Between cleaning up the birthday LARP and the latness of the hour, getting everyone to dinner at the Famished Frog was a bit confused, hurried, and stressful. But the dinner itself was great, as Bill Segulin was able to stop down to join us.

I had nothing planned for the 8pm slot, and that was the first of three Shock: games that had needed to be reassigned. Connie was brave enough to step up and facilitate the game, and I figured I’d help her out. Neither of us knew much of anything about the Human Contact setting, and one of the players was particularly interested in it. As it turned out, Jason Godesky was a life-saver, stepping up to explain the setting and steer the group through the rules. Thanks so much, Jason!

Stepping away from the table, I found myself with time to play a board game with Kat and Bill, and sketch some ideas about the WGP revision. The Whites had to leave the con early, so I stayed up late in an effort to fill in for Mel’s Ganakagok game, but I ended up having too few player (note the singular) to actually play.

Saturday
The only negative thing about DEXCON moving to Morristown from New Brunswick was that the weekend changed. Now the con always falls at the same time as my family reunion. I skipped the reunion last year, but cleared my schedule this year so I could do the hour’s drive to the reunion and see some family members I hadn’t seen in years. Not sure if I’ll do it next year, but it was nice.

Saturday evening found us dining at the Famished Frog once more (we should really buy stock). Then, I was all set for some crowd control, as my 8PM Mouse Guard game had 5 players and 2 alternates signed up. 4 people showed up at the table, and 2 of them hadn’t realized that it was the same scenario they had played at Dreamation. This left me with 2 players in a scenario meant for 5. But, these two brave mice faced down a ravenous fox, losing a tail and an ear in the struggle, but never giving up!

After the game, I got a chance to catch up with Judd and chat about a great many things. He described his awesome plans for the eventual format of 1st Quest, which focused on bringin his strength at setting, character, and situation creation directly to the table. I heard myself saying something in reply that’s been turning over in my brain ever since: “Not every game needs to teach people how to fish in a whole new way. Sometimes people just want a fish that’s prepared in a way only you can do.”

Talking with people is awesome that way, and I need to do more of it. Even if I need to force myself to do so.

Sunday
I usually leave Sundays for unscheduled car-packing, room checkout, and the like. But I’m really glad that I ran Mouse Guard again on Sunday morning. I had a full complement of 5 players, all of them awake and eager to learn the game. Only one had read the comics, and a different one had read the game. I was kinda teaching these folks the details of how to fish, and we had a great time doing it. They really sunk their teeth into their characters and chewed the scenery with little mousy teeth. Perhaps my most low-down, underhanded GM trick was to invoke the emnity clause on a Resources roll. They needed to buy medicine for an ailing governor, and they flubbed the role badly. So, I had them be sold a very reasonably priced vial of medicine from a very sleazy-looking mouse. Loads of fun.

Then there was just the good-byes. Thanks to the awesome-as-always Double Exposure staff for facilitating this great event. And thanks to everyone who came out and made it such a good time!

Origins 2010 – Chaos Incarnate!

Maybe so many years of really, really great years at Origins set the bar too high. Maybe the staff and software changes at GAMA came too late to be truly integrated into convention management. Maybe the stars were just wrong. Whatever the reason, Origins 2010 was plagued with numerous drawbacks and pitfalls. On the whole, the people made for a positive experience, but I was left wondering if we’ll return next year.

Tuesday

Tuesday was a mad, hectic rush for last-minute preparation. Bill came out and we stayed up too late, but somehow everything got done. Not much different than any other convention.

Wednesday

Wednesday is the day to drive, and drive we did. Bruce, Michele, Bill, Kat and I all piled into Bruce’s minivan and set out away from the rising sun. We made good time, reached Columbus by 4:00pm, and soon learned of the chaos that awaited us.

In the events book, none of Kat’s events listed a GM name or a location. None of the seminars listed a location. None of the events listed a game system. Evidently, this lack of location had been caught shortly before the convention started, but the revised information was not disseminated to anyone we were able to speak to. We spoke to people at GM/event HQ, at RPG HQ, at Customer Service, and we continually got variations of “I don’t know. The person who would know is around here somewhere, but I don’t know where.” This was the beginning of frustration incarnate.

Because of these scheduling issues, ALL of Kat’s games had no players. With no game system listed, people who wanted to try out With Great Power… or Serial Homicide Unit couldn’t know that the events were in those game systems. With no GM name listed, players who had played in Kat’s games previously could not know that she was running them, and that they’d be fun no matter the game system. It was very, very rough on her to sit at empty table after empty table.

A note to myself for future big cons (like Origins and GenCon) that have a long a storied history of screwing up event registration. It consists mostly of breaking their registration rules, because they don’t follow the rules themselves.

  • Include the name of the game system in the event title. Even if the instructions say not to.
  • Include the name of the game system in the event description. Even if the instructions say not to.
  • Include the GM’s name in the event description. Even if … etc., etc.
  • Publicize your events yourself as much as possible. Include a fallback location where interested players who follow you online can meet up with you if the convention staff screws up. I’ll need to set up Twitter for this.

Okay. Vented about that enough, I think.

Even though Kat’s Wednesday night event folded with no players, I had five great players for Mouse Guard. I ran “The Pirates of Rustleaf” which is a cool introductory adventure where the players get to fight red-furred mouse pirates. The players had various levels of familiarity with the comic and the game, but they all knew what they were doing by the end, and we had a great time. I believe I got asked “Are you the same Michael Miller that wrote With Great Power…” which is always surprising and gratifying.

Thursday

Thursday morning I ran the classic With Great Power… scenario “A League of Their Own,” where the heroes have no hero licence, and need to earn one. I had five enthusiastic players, and we had a great time. I haven’t actually GMed WGP in close to two years, and it was enlightening to see it from such a distance. I can see what really works and makes the game sing, and what simply pushes my buttons, but confuses and distracts most people. All that stuff will go into the revision.

Thursday afternoon was supposed to be Kat’s LARP, but after that disappointing lack of turnout (we had one player), I spent the rest of the time trying to find out where Luke and Jared’s seminars were supposed to be. Again, the same worthless wall of ignorance, with only one volunteer taking any initiative to say “I don’t know where it’s supposed to be, but I know that this room isn’t used, so I’ll do everything I can to direct people in here.” Thanks to Luke & Jared’s mastery of Twitter, the seminars were fairly well attended, and went well. Afterward, I chatted w/ Luke, Thor, and Dro, then Kat and I retired early.

Friday

Eight o’clock Friday morning found me running Mouse Guard again. This time, the scenario was “The Spring Thaw,” which is essentially “Deliver the Mail” from the rulebook with a few Miller-ian twists. Again, a varied group of experience with the rules and setting material. It’s always fun when I’m explaining things and someone says “can I FoRK in my wise?” because I know exactly where their experience comes from. A great experience.

Friday afternoon was (finally) lunch at the North Market! Then some shopping, which was curtailed because I had run out of people to buy gifts for (had trouble finding anything I wanted for myself), and mostly because my foot hurt like the Dickens. (Did I mention that my first gout flareup in over 2 years started on the Monday before Origins? Fun.) I rested for a few hours, and then went to dinner w/ my roommates.

After dinner, Michele, Bill, Joanna, Philip and I played in a pickup session of the With Great Power game Kat was scheduled to run that morning. It’s a fantasy comic book scenario called “Dragon-napped” where no one is quite who they seem to be. We had a lot of fun, but with an 8:00AM game on the schedule, I had to hit the hay before the game was over. Good, juicy, melodramatic stuff, though.

Saturday

My last Mouse Guard game was another rousing rendition of “The Pirates of Rustleaf.” Another fun time, but I think I’ve made the scenario too morally ambiguous, as the session descended into discussion of “what should we do about this.” I wasn’t on the ball enough to force them into a duel of wits at the table, which would have solved it, but that felt more like a BW solution rather than a MG one.

Got to do some shopping with Kat that afternoon, and then sat in for Luke and Jared’s “Game Design is Mind Control” seminar, which was good and thought provoking (and well attended! 35 people). I got to watch the group play Action Castle! and observed the interesting social dynamics that develop. Luke and I then did our “Self Publishing Crash Course” seminar where we barrage the audience with nearly two decades of game publishing experience in less than two hours.

After that, a quiet dinner with Kat, and then we got to observe a Luke, Dro, Thor, and Kira playing Danger Patrol. It’s a fairly loose game with lots of cool-stuff-generation baked right in. Still some rough spots, though. It was fun to watch the guys plays and taunt each other. Dro is exceeding dangerous with his love beam.

Sunday

Packing, shopping, chatting, and driving. And driving. But we made it home and on the whole, it was a good con. There were just a whole lot of bumps along the way. Will we return next year? Only time will tell.