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.

SHU, MG, IGE–Acronyms Assemble!

I’ve got the proof of Serial Homicide Unit in my hands. It needs a few tweaks, but on the whole, it looks good. We won’t be able to ship physical copies before the end of the year, but January 15 looks VERY likely. Yay! Preorders will open in the next week.

There was lots of noise and chaos in the house yesterday. None of it needed my help, so I read through my PDF of the Mouse Guard RPG. Wow! I love the way Luke and company keep their games firmly rooted in sweat and mud. In this game, mud can even kill you!

Plus, they’ve streamlined the Burning Wheel architecture down to its most essential parts. I playtested it back at Dreamation and commented that it seemed like an implementation of Burning Wheel that could actually fit into my life. Reading it, I can see that I was right. I’ll be running two sessions of it at Dreamation.

I’ll also be running two sessions of Serial Homicide Unit. And a session of Mechaton for good measure. I’m toying around with possibly running a session of Ganakagok, but I’m not sure.

Speaking of which, deadline for IGE registration is less than three weeks away and we’ve only had a handful of people sign up! C’mon, people. It’s the Indie Games Explosion at Dreamation! Run some fun!

An interesting quote

I was reading an editorial by the former publisher of the National Review endorsing Barack Obama. It was interesting. But this is not a political post.

He quoted someone I must admit I’d never previously heard of (but has an interesting Wikipedia entry):

“Every great cause,” Eric Hoffer wrote, “begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

That struck a cord with me. I don’t know if it’s true, but my gut suspects that it is. I’ve seen the “great cause” of independent role-playing games go from a movement to a business. Is there any way to fight human nature and the lessons of history and stop it from becoming a racket?

The road ahead is pre-generated

I’vebeen listening to a few episodes of The Sons of Kryos this week. One of their segments was on character creation sessions. Both on SoK and on innumerable threads & blog posts around the web, I hear about these great character creation sessions that get everyone excited to play. Everyone pitches in, gets interested in each other’s characters, and is anxious for the looming conflicts.

I’m listening and drool is leaking from my lips. That sounds good. I want that. I think. Then, I do a reality check. With the exception of a few MLwM one-shots, that’s never really worked for me. In general, character creation has always been a chore to get done before you’re allowed to play. You use skills in building a character that never get touched on again. I’m reminded of a post I made last year about “pregame prep is a bug, not a feature.” I still believe that.

The next SoK show had a segment on pre-gens! That’s what I’m going to do: throw character gen to the wind. On Mondays Kat and I will have some pre-gens ready to go for something we feel like running that week. If something goes long, we can pick it up the next week. If people are excited and want to play more, but with a different character, then they can do the whole character generation thing. Thanks, Sons of Kryos!

We’ll see how it flies in real life…

Cards over Dice

Yeah, it’s been forever and a day since I updated this thing. Life happened. A lot. I could spend lots of time going into it, and maybe I will. But not now.

I think I figured out another reason why most of my game designs do not use dice. It comes back to the social context of my gaming: How my gaming fits into my life.

Here’s my dirty little secret: I do most of my gaming at conventions these days. I’ve never been a big fan of the “campaign-length” game. I’ve only ever been in 2 campaigns that lasted more than a year. I have a regular weekly game that goes off more like bi-weekly (life happening, again). But I go to conventions and game!

In the social context of a convention, Time is king. You’ve only got one shot to make a good game for these strangers at your table, and you’ve got to make it fun and fulfilling in four hours and then they’re gone to the four winds. There is a great deal of pressure to make every moment count.

When looking at this as a system designer, that means making every application of the resolution system count. Here’s where I think cards (at least the way I use them), or point-bidding like Discernment, have an edge over dice. They are not as subject to luck.

Probability tells us that luck runs in streaks. If you have a 75% chance of success on a die roll, that means that if you make a hundred rolls, probably between 70 and 80 will be successes. Rolling several failures in a row is not unlikely, but it will even itself out with lots of successes in a row later on.

That’s all great in a campaign where, over the life of the game, you’ll make a hundred rolls. But in a convention game, you’ll make maybe 3 to 6 rolls on a given stat. With the smaller sampling size, the vagaries of luck are more harshly felt. That streak of several failures in a row may encompass ALL the rolls you’re ever going to make for that character. So a character that’s supposed to be pretty good in some way ends up coming off as a schmuck. The character sheet and the player says that the guy’s supposed to be one way, but the dice and the system-in-action say he’s another.

Before you say it, I know failure can be fun. Really, I do. I write games about failure. But consistant failure and unlikely failure can be demoralizing.

Cards, as used in With Great Power…, sidestep this by emphasizing the play of the cards you’ve already got. There are usually multiple ways to respond to your opponent, so it’s very hard to draw consistently bad cards. If you don’t have high cards in the current suit, that means you likely have enough cards of another suit to change style and play in that suit instead.

Putting the choice in the center of resolution, rather than the appeal to Dame Fortune, increases the impact of each use of the resolution system. More impact per use in a short game format leads to better game.

At least for me.

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.

Southern Exposure 2005

I went to Southern Exposure in Cherry Hill, NJ this weekend. The con went much better than expected. Fall cons have, with a few exceptions, been a bit cursed with me. Plus I woke up Friday morning with a sore throat, so I figured the weekend was gonna suck.

Glad I was wrong.

Friday we fought Philly Friday morning rush hour traffic to get there on time, and Kat’s With Great Power… game had four players. Feeling kinda grumpy, I was gonna sit out and watch. But once she had gone through the rules, I couldn’t help myself. No one chose The Stalwart. I had a chance to play my own game, while playing my own character! I jumped right in! It was a great deal of fun, even though I graciously backed out of the conflict scene to help keep things moving.

After the game we checked in to the hotel, grabbed some lunch @ the staff suite and set up for 2nd session. Kat was scheduled to run a Discernment double-shot, but that folded. I ran a session of PTA for 5 people who had never played before. Michele showed up and she and Kat went restaurant hunting.

Shamefaced confession: PTA is the simplest game that I can’t run right. Series and character creation is so collaborative and so fun, that when we start playing, we just keep on collaborating, often forgetting to write in conflict.

With Great Power… ran like that up to and including Dreamation, so it’s probably something in me. I think as Producer I haven’t been throwing enough adversity at the players. Part of that is certainly the gear-switching from total consensus (pregame) to adversarial friction (game). The other part is the friggin’ Stakes rules Matt has written. “The Producer’s Stake is always ‘no.'” So I’m supposed to bring on the big, fat, juicy adversity in all kinds of nonmechanical ways, an once the mechanics show up, I’m supposed to sit there and say, “Okay guys, *you* tell me what the conflict’s about.” It ain’t workin’ for me so far.

Anyway, the PTA game on Friday was pretty fun despite all that. They created a series called “Purgatory 9-to-5” It was an office comedy where the characters worked for a branch of hell, trying to bring in the numbers–damned souls. Sloth was the branch manager. Wrath was the receptionist. Pride was the suck-up assistant manager. Lust was the tech. support guy. Gluttony was the buyer. The NPCs were Greed as the accountant and Envy as the cool guy who used to work there, that everyone was always reminiscing about. I had a faith-based charity move in next store, which got them in hot water with the District Manager.

After a quick dinner at a nearby pizza joint, Friday night I was scheduled to run PTA again. Nobody showed. Scott Lescher’s game also folded. But it was the best folded game ever, ’cause Scott & Kat & Michele & I went to see Serenity.

About Serenity: WOW. I can’t even analyze it. It seized me by the throat and swept me away completely. It’s been a long time since I got so very, very enthralled by a movie. Probably since I went to see The Matrix, not knowing a thing of what it was about except that Kat wanted to see it.

Saturday morning was my WGP game. Again, we had 5 players at the table. Six, actually, since Kat wanted to play but gave up her seat. I ran “A League of Their Own” and it went very well. Surprisingly well, actually.

Y’see, as I said, I was battling chronic grumpiness up until now. I was even half-hoping the game would fold. But it didn’t, so I ran it. I’ve run WGP at conventions so often that I don’t really need my heart in the game to pull it off. My mouth knows what to say, when to say it, what emphasis to put where. This is a helpful skill in a sleep-deprived convention environment, but it’s gotten me into trouble before.

At one of those “cursed” fall conventions several years ago, I was running FVLMINATA. I could also run that with my eyes closed, and still pronounce Flegmaticus and Melancholicus properly. But, as I’ve said, FVLMINATA is a game I wrote, and want to love, but don’t. So, at this convention, I’m running the game, talking the talking, and my heart is *really* not in it. So far “not in it” that I enter this strange state of consciousness like I’m outside myself watching myself go through the motions of running the game. Seeing myself do something that I *really* did not want to do. It was deeply disturbing and I very nearly quit gaming entirely after that convention.

Back to Saturday morning, I’m in the same situation: A fall con in NJ, running a game I wrote, and running it on autopilot because my heart isn’t in it. I’m kinda afraid what might happen. Will I do the split-consciousness thing again?

But what happens is that as the time ticks by, and my mouth keeps talking and my arms keep holding up that ever-lovin’ Thought Balloon, my heart warms up to the game. I remember why I love With Great Power… The melodrama! The tragedy! It was a fun, fun game.

Okay, I’m only through Saturday morning, with a couple of detours, but I’ve gotta post this and get to work. More later.

Just got off the phone with Jason Roberts. I think it’s been over a year since I spoke with him. We’re both family men now with kids to provide for. But we weren’t always….

Jason is my cousin and was my first Dungeon Master. We’d see each other on Easter and Thanksgiving and I’d pull out my beat-up character sheet (a gnome named Figtoe–don’t ask) and he’d run me through Queen of the DemonWeb pits or a dungeon he scribbled on the back of a napkin. I didn’t know which dice to use when, or what “Save v. P/P/D” meant. Even so, whenever my character sheet got too worn out, I’d painstakingly copy over every saving throw and weapon stat, waiting for the next holiday.

Jason is four years older than me and when he went off to college he left me a massive box of his old modules, a Monster Manual, and notes (and notes and notes) about his high school D&D campaign. I looked through every module and at every piece of paper. I pulled out a thing or two and put the rest back in its box. It’s sitting in my closet right now. Even at the dawn of my gaming life, the act of creation was paramount. I never ran a module.

Ten years later, Jason and I were both out of college. Both married. I was still gaming as often as often as I could. He was a self-confessed “bookshelf gamer.”–buying games and reading them, but not playing. We’d get to talking at the family reunions. About this and that and scifi and gaming. He had this idea for a game about Rome (Jason majored in Classical Archeology). But not just Rome. Rome with Guns.

FVLMINATA was born. It took more than a year and a ton of work (most of it Jason’s) to make it happen. But it was published in August 2000.

A month later Jason became a dad. Five months later, so did I. Life expanded.

We put together FVLMINATA 2nd Edition. It was wildly successful for a total crash-and-burn disaster. He got a new, extremely demanding job and moved to New England. I got involved with the Forge. Time has passed.

I sent him a copy of With Great Power… and he called to say “Thanks.” We talked for nearly an hour. It was good to hear him get that excited catch in his voice when he’s talking about the cool stuff he’s working on with Jared. It was a little awkward to have no project in common.

It’s awkward to have no project at all.

“So what are you working on, now that With Great Power… is done?” he asked.

“Recuperating,” I said. Which is another way of saying “I don’t know.” Or “Nothing.” Or “I’m wasting my precious time here on Earth.”

We’ve got a lot of history, Jason and I. He spoke of feeling his way back into the gaming world. He got burned, badly, and it’s brave of him to come back. I look forward to seeing him at GenCon next year, maybe.

*****

If I were a good writer, I’d wrap this up with some kind of conclusion. It would draw on the tidbits I’d mention before. It would have a smooth, satisfying, somewhat bittersweet ending with a hint of finality. But I’m not that guy. My conclusions are simple, obvious, and crudely phrased:

It was good to talk to Jason. I’ve missed him. I’m not the dabbler I once was. I need a project.