Dreamation 2016

Wow. What a #Dreamation.

As always, Vinny, Avie, and the entire Double Exposure crew made great things happen flawlessly and invisibly. They are amazing and I thank them deeply.

Jason Morningstar compared Dreamtion to a family reunion and he’s absolutely right. Except that there’s more people I’m excited to see at Dreamation.

Thursday, 8PM
For me, I started off the con with a game of Swords Without Master: Starward on Thurday night. It’s a supplement for SWoM that draws inspiration from Leigh Brackett, Flash Gordan, Akira Kurosawa, and WWII aviation films (just like a somewhat popular 1977 film you may have heard of). Andrew and Brian, neither of whom had played any SWoM before, both created fallen space knights. Patty played a translator/scientist from “not the United Federation of Planets”. They delved into a planet-sized ancient starship to find the lost panacea that would end a galaxy-wide plague. Despite the space skeletons and pirates, they got the cure and delivered it, but were cheated out of glory by the scheming space senate. How will they possibly clear their names? Find out in the next exciting episode of Starward!

Friday, 9AM
Friday morning, Bill White was running With Great Power. To keep myself from being a neurotic mother hen, I intentionally scheduled myself something else to do. I facilitated one of my favorite games: Serial Homicide Unit. Adam, Michael, Joann, Ephraim, Ian, and I told the stories of the workers and patients of the Helping Hands clinic, who just so happened to be hunted by a serial killer. The best and brightest of our characters were cut down just as their life turned around, while the worst thrived. It was sad and touching, just as SHU always is. I love this game.

Friday, 2PM
Friday afternoon, I got to play Bill White’s The New World. I played it several time over its many years of gestation, and this was the best version yet. So quick! So evocative! So fun! I think 2016 is finally the year for The New World. Just a few rough edges to polish and this one is ready to publish. We wove a tale of the last great city of learning in a fallen land, forcing the survivors of fallen cities into servitude, and the ambitious sand pirates that plagued them.

Friday, 6:55PM
Matt, Chris, and Chris had asked if I could run a demo of With Great Power for them. Asking me to run my game is my own personal Kryptonite, so run we did. In a quick 45 minutes, they made heroes and we played a couple of exciting phases.

Friday, 8PM
Finally, after years of trying, I got to play Sorcerer with Judd. It was a colonized solar system setting, with Adam portraying the secretly half-alien president of Mars, MadJay playing a xenoarcheologist, and me playing a horrible, Captain Bligh-type starship captain with xenotech fused into his head. If you’ve ever played a video game and took a while to understand the controls, you’ll know what I mean when I say that I often have trouble steering my character in Sorcerer. This game was no exception. I’d go into a scene thinking “I’ll show a bit of humanity, a bit of compassion” and then proceed to do the most evil stuff imaginable, like murdering a conscientious traitor, and trying to murder the president of Mars. I’m really, really glad I played. I’m uneasy with how the game went. And that’s exactly what Sorcerer is about.

Saturday, 9AM
I ran With Great Power for a group of three players: Jen played Noir, who could speak to ghosts; Nick played Mantis, who had instectoid alien power armor; and Adam played Blindspot, who could not be noticed, except on camera. Together, they faced down the flame-bodied Crucible who wanted to give superpowers to everyone in the entire world so that her husband could accept her as “normal”. It was a quick, fun session with green mutagenic gas at an MMA fight, quiet discussions on a park bench, a burning building, and punching a woman made of living flame in the face.

Saturday, 2PM
Joshua A.C. Newman’s The Name of Bronze is a work in progress. I like where it’s going and will be excited when it gets there. In our short session with Frank, Keith, and Matthew, I played Unlu, champion of Mard—tallest mountain and roof of the world. In Mard’s service, I crushed a rival mountain with my bare hands. It was interesting, and I could see where it will be fun once the whole game is communicated properly.

Saturday, 8PM
I finally played Torchbearer. Tony, Stephen, Carly and I did pretty well in Bret’s weird old school dungeon. Nobody died. We scored some loot. We rescued a guy from being eaten by a giant spider. I have my doubts about the “if you suggest an idea you have to be the one to roll for it” rule. I can see that the game is engineered to produce a particular type of experience and does it very, very well. It’s just not an experience I particularly enjoy. That’s an important thing to know.

Sunday, 10AM
A second game of With Great Power, this one with five players: Kat played the Scales of Justice/Dragon Princess who was rebelling against her dragon-tyrant father; Blair played the Winter Knight, born of Fey and fighting to hold onto his humanity; Karin played The Shade, who could speak the ghost of Andrew Carnegie; Ami played Feeback, an alien made of music who could take on the form of Jimi Hendrix; Kay played Refraction, a woman who lost most of her memories in the accident that turned her into a living hologram. Together they faced Upload, a robot from the future who was trying to force human society up to where future history said it ought to be, using things like nanobots to install mandatory upgrades in people. We had some great images like a dragon melting the snow off a blizzard-choked roadway to clear a path for ambulances, medical equipment exploding due to supernatural interference, living hologram destroying the evil nanotech disguised inside of charity blankets, and a fey knight cutting the tongue off a building-sized dragon.

Oh, and I also sold some actual, physical copies of With Great Power. Which made me very happy, and I hope will make all who bought it happy, too. Anyone who bought the game at Dreamation can contact my Gmail account (stalwartip) to get the electronic edition at no additional charge. The game and the origin cards will be available for order by the end of the month.

There is never enough time to see everyone I want to at Dreamation. I’m very glad for everyone I got to chat with, or game with, or even smile at in the hall. Thank you for a wonderful weekend.

DEXCON 16: No such thing as “too much fun”

Just got back from a tremendously, awesomely fun weekend at DEXCON! Many thanks to the wonderful Double Exposure staff who put on such a great show, as always.

Due to holiday obligations, our convention started on Friday morning. During event signup, I had wanted to run an extra game to expand the schedule, but knew I wouldn’t have time to prep. One of my favorite zero prep games is InSpectres, so I dusted that off. Many of the folks at the table were relatively new to these strange little games we play, and had only heard of InSpectres as a game from years past. Well, we were able to breathe some life back into its aged bones!

My wonderfully creative players (Marcus, Sarah, Irven, Mitch, and Tim) populated the franchise with colorful employees, ranging from interns, failed librarians, and serial tech-start-up guy to a failed voice actor and a former garbage man who now wanted to take out the paranormal trash! They finished and billed two cases. The first was a case of a sudden, sustained downpour of blood at the food court at the zoo. Turns out that one of the zoo’s acquisitions was cursed. It required a exorcism with a song in multiple voices. Luckily, the voice artist came to the rescue. In their second mission, our working stiffs faced a series of disappearances in a condominium complex. When investigating, they heard voices from the upstairs bedroom. They approached and heard more clearly the words “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in a crazy, mixed-up world like this.” Opening the door to the bedroom, on they other side, in glorious black and white, was the entire airport set from Casablanca, with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman performing the last scene. Of course, the intern was rounded up as one of the usual suspects and pulled into the film just before the end. They managed to rescue him, banish the haunting, return all those disappeared, and face down an entire black and white cavalry regiment. All in a day’s work for the InSpectres.

During the second session, I ran a playtest of the newest revision of With Great Power. I had six players (Amy, Tim, Nick?, Patrick, Jenny, and Dave?), but only five characters. Pat volunteered to sit out, but I was able to use him as the minions of my super villains. It was a fun game, and revealed many of the very rough edges of the latest rules draft. Our heroes were all superhuman mutants who attended a secret school, learning to use their powers to help humans and mutants coexist in peace. Of course, both the would-be Empress of Mutantkind and a group of human supremacists attacked the school simultaneously. We had to cut the session short due to a scheduling mishap, but in comic book terms, that means that we’d leave the reader hungry for issue #2.

After dealing with an inept waiter at the Famished Frog, we returned for the evening time slot. It was my first time running Monsterhearts as a convention game. Of my four players (Karin, Ami, Kathy, and Christian), all were familiar with the genre, but only one had played the game before. I like teaching games, so that was no trouble at all. We had a Queen, an Infernal, a Witch, and a Ghost. At the start of the game, it looked like the rivalry between the Witch, who knew real magick, and the Queen, whose popularity was based on everyone thinking she knew real magic, would be the driving force of the game. As it ended up, the engine of conflict was more and more about the Infernal doing worse and worse things to appease his dark master. It was a fun session, accompanied with the comment, “This is what high school was like. Why do we want to relive this?”

Saturday morning, I ran Monsterhearts again. This time, my four players (John, Andi, Sarah, and Neil?) chose the Werewolf, the Fae, the Ghost, and the Ghoul. All of the players had played or MCed Monsterhearts before, so setup was a breeze. I’m not as skilled at asking provocative questions as I ought to be, but after just a little stumbling, we launched into a tale filled with: one of the school teachers blaming himself for the Ghost’s death and planning to sacrifice a student to bring her back; the Fae having sex and extracting promises from an NPC Chosen and druggie; the Werewolf eviscerating several members of the rival football team; and the Ghoul being immolated in a burning house, but getting up and being just dandy later. Which is just what you want from a session of this game.

Saturday afternoon was my first slot as a player, and I was able to get into a game of Dog Eat Dog, which I’ve been hearing good things about. Keith Stetson facilitated, and my fellow players were Irven, Natalie, and Jim. This game of colonialism and its effects on both the occupier and the natives was interesting in its simplicity. It is very smart and elegant and I could see it becoming very, very brutal. One of our constraints was that the occupying culture did not use spoken language. They used sign language and semaphore. I think that working within this constraint probably prevented the occupation player from developing any distinct characters on his side. It was a very interesting experience and I’m interested in getting a copy.

After dealing with a different, surly waiter at the Famished Frog, I came back to run my second session of With Great Power. My four players (Markus, Jonathan, Kat, and Blair) were all excellent role-players. They brought out the delicious, delectable angst inherent in the Mutant Academy characters. Due to some rules revisions, the fight scene went more smoothly this time. By “more smoothly” I meant as far as the players using the rules and the dice. Not “more smoothly” for the characters, who saw the villains burn the Mutant Academy to the ground, and make off with the data core that held all the mutant research and their secret identities! More rough edges were revealed, and I’ve got my work cut out for me. It was a very fun session and the game’s moving in the right direction.

Sunday morning, I got to playtest Bill White’s new game The New World with Clark and Amanda Valentine. It is also a game about colonization, but much crunchier than Dog Eat Dog. The game uses playing cards as a sort of oracle for creating the setting, culture, and characters. One of the most interesting wrinkles is that the game requires a native culture, a newcomer culture, and an outsider culture, that is somehow distinctive from both. We created a powerful native society that was obsessed with building golden temples to their dead kings. The outsiders were the hungry, overworked miners that brought them gold and built the temples. The newcomers were a commercial fleet arriving with tons of their own gold to undersell the outsiders, which would have left them to starve. Due to impending long drives, we only played a single round, but my dowager queen was ahead in Legacy points. We gave Bill what I think were a lot of helpful suggestions, and I look forward to this game as it continues to evolve.

As always, DEXCON was great. Thanks to all!

METATOPIA 2011: Playtester’s Paradise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And wanting that feeling again.