Saturday, June 5, 2010

Gamex 2010 Wrap-Up

(Cross-posted on Spirit of the Blank.)

So! Gamex was last weekend, and I'm only just now getting around to talking about it. I've had a theoretically busy week. I'll just do this in chronological order, starting with Friday afternoon and ending with Sunday afternoon.

Smallville
This was only the second time I'd played Smallville, thanks to my inability to get a playtest group together since joining the beta back in February. Oh well. Anyway, it's definitely a big improvement over the Cortex I remember from Serenity, which was rather... meh. As befits the superheroic melodrama sub-genre, traditional attributes and skills have been tossed entirely in favor of motivations, relationships, and rule-bending assets. Has there ever been an RPG this mainstream that defined characters with stats like Love, Power, Glory, and Justice? Didn't think so.

My only real issue with the system is surely only a product of having a table full of newcomers for players. Sometimes there was a lot of dithering over exactly what dice to roll. Is this a Justice situation? Would my relationship with Clark be relevant here? Etc. Sometimes a single player's turn could take five minutes with all of this -- or maybe it just seemed like it did. On the whole, though, I look forward to this one coming out (this month, I think). Kudos to Josh et al. for their work on this.

Leftovers
This was the most disturbing game of Leftovers I'd ever run, and probably the most disturbing game of anything I'd experienced in quite a while. Not that that's a bad thing, I guess -- and I guess it's actually a good thing that the game as presented encouraged some disturbing character choices during play. We had a Grafted-up private investigator, a Grafted-up former boxer, a weird little kid with an eyeball on his tongue (this rendering him mute, something he had in common with his no-voice-having player), and a pure human big game hunter. The scenario was pretty much the same as the one I ran at Hyphen-Con, with a twist near the end that led to the aforesaid disturbing behavior.

Nick's ex-boxer character confirmed a suspicion that I've had for a while: High Physical Defense and Vigor are too easy to get. I could not hurt that guy. Same thing happened with Desmond's character Denise Richards at Hyphen-Con. So I'm changing the calculations for that slightly. I'm also thinking about making the character concept -- right now just a flavor-only spot on the character sheet -- mechanically significant somehow, like maybe +2 steps to one roll per scene. Nothing huge.

Marvel SAGA
Say what you like about TSR in the '90s, but this was a fantastic game system. Seriously, I can see now what all the fuss has been about. It's quick, intuitive, and fun, without sacrificing things like tactics or character details. I don't own it, so all I know is what I saw in play, but there's a ton of potential there for a generic game built on the same mechanics but using a regular deck of playing cards. So when I got home Sunday night I wrote a bare-bones version of one that'll probably never see the light of day.

At any rate, I got to the game about an hour late, thanks to that quiet, private hotel room that made me (made me!) oversleep. We started off playing first-string Avengers, then, when they were captured, switched to third-string West-Coast Avengers. I played Captain America and US Agent, and let me tell you, I couldn't wait to rescue Cap already so I could get back to playing him. Before playing US Agent, I hadn't realized just what a bad-ass Cap was, even when shoulder-to-shoulder with Thor and the Hulk. As it should be! US Agent, in contrast, was like... I dunno... Avengers Babies.

Dresden Files RPG
Morgan Ellis -- who has suggested I call him my "hetero FATE mate," although I think "platonic FATE mate" might be more accurate -- ran a bunch of DFRPG games at Gamex, in preparation for the ton more he's running at Origins and GenCon. I'd read bits of the playtest doc, but hadn't played it yet, so it was good to finally check the box on that one. Not surprisingly, the system is very familiar; the only real bit of difference there was the magic sub-system, which, for my character, was pretty hand-wavey and loose. That was fine with me. I got to be effective but non-violent, which was cool. Really curious to see the forthcoming FATE 3.0 corebook, whenever Evil Hat gets around to it.

Icons Superpowered Roleplaying
I had a full table plus five alternates for this. Well, four alternates -- the name "John Wick" was on there, but fortunately that was just a prank of Sam's. Character creation was fun, as expected. I made some quickie little chargen cheat-sheet packets, but still had to spend one-on-one time with each player to finish 'em off. The whole process, with five players, probably took about forty minutes, which isn't bad. One thing I didn't tell them about was bonus powers; I figured that giving the players even more to read and sort through would've delayed things even further. So we got some wacky characters, maybe wackier than we would've otherwise.

My favorite was Brian's. He rolled the Gimmick Origin (so all his stuff comes from devices) and two powers: Life Support and Supersenses. The backstory he spun out of this was that he was an MIA astronaut who'd been drifting through space for decades, running into alien civilizations and modding the Hell out of his spacesuit. The Lost Astronaut! What gets me is how he went from astronaut to crime-fighter, but whatever. It's funny. We played up the astronaut angle to a ridiculous degree. He ran around in slow motion, hit badguys with a golf club, and so on. With a 6 Prowess and 6 Strength, he was no slouch in combat, even without offensive powers.

There were a couple things that stood out about the system. One, it's definitely not FATE. Everyone clear on that? Steve Kenson said it, Fred Hicks said it, but still the misconception persists that Icons is somehow "FATE-based." The only area in which it comes close is aspects, but even those work significantly differently in Icons, so much so that it threw all of us FATE vets for a loop. In brief, Determination can only be spent to tag aspects before a roll, not after -- and even then, it isn't a straight-up +2-per-point thing. Not only that, but if you're making a Determined Effort (the closest thing to the way aspects work in FATE), there's a decent chance the Determination you spent will be wasted. The Determined Effort rules feel like a lot of fiddle for not much tune, if you know what I mean, so they didn't see much use in play.

Also, the players-make-all-rolls thing sounds like a good idea, but in practice it sometimes slowed things down. I'm not going to go into all the details here -- it was just a matter of the RAW not conveniently lining up with actual play.

More problematic, though, was the adventure, Steve Kenson's own Sidereal Schemes of Doctor Zodiac. I wish that weren't true, but unfortunately it is. The scenario is very railroady and rigidly linear, with a dozen rather pushover opponents fought in three groups of four. To give you an idea of how non-challenging they were, Ability Levels in the game range from 1 to 10. Human Ability Levels are between 3 and 6. These NPCs had Ability Levels of 3 or 4 across the board. Remember the Lost Astronaut? Bereft of powers though he was, he could one-shot these guys with relative ease. Admittedly, I did manage to knock him out, along with a few of another character's duplicates, but it was via a rather limited-use attack (a charge from the only superstrong antagonist -- whose Strength, BTW, was only one point higher than the Lost Astronaut's) that couldn't reliably be replicated with any fairness. The final fight was with the titular doctor, who had about two dozen powers for me to manage all at once. Fortunately for me, he still wasn't too much of a challenge for the PCs. In stark defiance of Silver Age conventions, they literally gutted him to death.

My key takeaway: It'll be fine with some house rules. And it'd be great in another genre!

InSpectres: The Venture Brothers
I hesitate to tack a system on there. This was a mostly freeform after-hours Venture Brothers game run by Morgan and featuring whatever BarCon holdovers could stay awake. I played 21 and 24, because I do a frickin' flawless 24 and an occasionally acceptable 21. In a similar vein, Colin Jessup played Hank and Dean. Josh's wife Meghann was Brock, Dan was Rusty, James (Ritter, who bravely admitted that he didn't really know Venture Brothers) was assigned H.E.L.P.eR., Hamish (another guy who didn't know the show, but who has a uniquely suited voice) was Dr. Mrs. The Monarch, and Laura Bishop was Triana (absent Orpheus, which was... odd, but whatever -- it's a game!). People wrote down InSpectres stats under the delusion that they'd matter, and off we went.

There was only the barest shadow of a plot, and it ended up being mostly me, Morgan, Colin, and Meghann tossing around Venture Brothers in-jokes posing as dialogue, but y'know... it was also hilarious. It was about two hours of near-constant laughter around the table, so I declare it a rousing success. Next time, though, I want a system in there somewhere!

DragonStrike
Sunday morning I ran a couple hours of DragonStrike, TSR's super-sweet, super-low-rent boardgame from 1991. Not a lot to report here, other than it was fun and I may run it again at Gateway.

Cthulhu Dice
We passed the lunch hour with a six-man game of Cthulhu Dice, which was a big hit. Later that night, at Red Robin, four of us played some more, with similar results. I expect to get a lot of enjoyment out of my five-buck investment in this goofy little game.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 3rd Edition
I was totally psyched to get into this game (with only four players, pre-reg was cut off after two) and glad I finally got to try it out. The dice have fascinated me ever since I first saw them last year. And they didn't disappoint in play -- putting a dice pool together was intuitive and fun, and interpreting the results neatly added to the fiction. Everything else, though, was a super-crunchy baffling ordeal.

Well, maybe not that bad. But there's a lot of fiddliness surrounding that elegant dice mechanic that feels all the more fiddly in comparison. The mandate of the design is clear: Never write anything down. That's admirable. I get it. But WFRP's solution is to manage a glut of chits, cards, and tokens seemingly left over from a dozen other high-priced boardgames Fantasy Flight had laying around in the warehouse. For example, every wound you take is a critical card, dealt face-down from a deck. When you have more of those cards than a certain threshold number, flip the top card over, and that's your critical hit. Clever. But is it more fun or convenient than just rolling on a table? That's debatable. Every special ability and spell has a cool-down time tracked in little tokens on its card. Again, a logical and balanced solution, but keeping track of "Did I take one of these off last round?" doesn't add to the fun in play, IMO. I haven't seen that kind of micro-management in a game since Weapons of the Gods, but WFRP leaves that game in the dust in this regard.

So! As always, Strategicon was a good time. I'm already looking forward to Gateway in September.

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