Monday, September 6, 2010

Gateway 2010 Wrap-Up

So! As I expressed elsewhere, this year's Gateway was an unfailingly fun convention. The least-fun game I played in was still a lot of fun, so I have no complaints. Plus, I tied for the win in a game of Dominion, which was notable primarily for how unlikely it was.

I'll go in chronological order (Friday afternoon through Sunday afternoon) so I don't leave anything out.

Beyond Thunderbowl (Leftovers): I'd never run anything in the Friday 2:00 slot before, but with the 8:00 slot taken up by a game I didn't want to miss, I didn't have much of a choice. Thankfully, I had a full table -- an overfull table, actually. I advertised four slots and ended up with five players, including Leftovers fan and super-playtester Larry Harala, who's run a five-session Leftovers campaign with his group in Utah that sounds like a lot of fun and about which I'd like to hear more. Of course, since I only see him at these conventions twice a year, there isn't much hanging-out downtime, so... yeah.

Anyway, "Beyond Thunderbowl" starts with the PCs captured by Grafters and forced to fight in a series of gladiatorial games on behalf of their captors. It's sort of how the various Grafter gangs earn prestige and settle disputes. Everyone had a good time (especially me), and it ended the way I'd expected it to: with hundreds of creepers flooding the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and (most of) the PCs barely escaping with their lives. My only reservation was that I feel like I pushed them too much toward that resolution, but as I said at the beginning of the game, "Welcome to the beta test for tomorrow night's Leftovers game." Afterward, Larry (I think) wanted my autograph on one of the ashcan copies of the rules I gave out, and I obliged under protest.

A few situations came up that required some off-the-cuff rulings, including one that's likely to find its way into the published version of the rules because I've encountered it so frequently. I've been referring to it as a Circumstance die. Basically, it's a one-use die that comes about as the result of some player-created advantage. This first arose at Hyphen-Con, when a map was used to gain advantage in a negotiation with some Grafters. The ruling then was to compare the Resourceful roll to the difficulty table, with each difficulty corresponding to a die size (Tricky = d4, Challenging = d6, etc.). The more resourceful you are, the better the map.

In this session, it happened another way: Someone wanted to climb up on the side of the big metal dome in which they were fighting to get an advantage on an opponent by dropping down on them. I had him make an Athletic roll, which produced a die he was able to include in the next round when he made his attack. It worked great. It's basically the Leftovers equivalent of a Maneuver in FATE, except instead of an aspect you get a die. As soon as I figure out a succinct way of explaining it, it's going in the book.

One last development of note: I'd previously been stumped for why anyone would voluntarily take a "negative" Bond with another PC. This led to some thoughts on how I could mechanically encourage that sort of thing, but I didn't like where it was going. Finally, I realized that there's a simple solution: Make it mandatory that each PC not get along with one other PC. Ta-da. Works fine.

The Treasure of Hoth (Smallville): Smallville designer Josh Roby started in on a Star Wars hack for the game about a month ago, and I was damned if I wasn't going to experience it for myself at Gateway. The setting was Hoth in the Old Republic, with a lot of political maneuvering and intrigue (which Josh always does well, and which I never even attempt). I played EX-47, an assassin droid with orders to kill this NPC labor union leader. How did that go for me? Well, we made repeated comparisons to Michael Palin in A Fish Called Wanda. So... about that well, but without the guilt.

Regardless, I had a good time, and really enjoy the mechanics of this game. It's something I think I'd love hacking to bits (in a good way). Just by changing the characters' Values, you completely change the tone of the game. What I particularly liked about Josh's pre-gens was how the Values were worked into a statement instead of set apart from them -- e.g., "Nothing is more important than my Duty to my Master" instead of "Duty: Nothing is more important than obeying my Master." Not every Value was like this on every character (although all of 'em were for mine), but it really gets me thinking in terms of using Cortex-K for other settings.

I mean, imagine bog-standard fantasy gaming in the vein of D&D using Cortex-K. It'd be a hilarious subversion to plug in the ol' six abilities: I can always rely on my Strength. I've never had much use for Intelligence. Wisdom's better than luck. Etc. That, to me, is very funny.

Smallville is one of those games like Houses of the Blooded that makes me want to use it for dungeon-crawling, just because it's so not made for that -- but can absolutely handle it.

The Doom of Damocles (DFRPG): I talk about this game here, just to keep all the FATE stuff together.

To Steal the Orb of Orwand (Shadow, Sword & Spell): I have to say this up front, just to get it out of the way: I'm increasingly dissatisfied with this book. First of all, many of the mechanical elements feel wonky and poorly thought-out. Much has been made of the game's treatment of skills elsewhere, and even the game's author seems confused about how things should work, but that's such a huge part of the game's mechanics -- really, characters are defined almost exclusively through an extensive skill list -- that it isn't easy to ignore. Second, the way it's written reads like it was translated into another language and back again. The result was that everything we did felt houseruled, like we were banging the game into a usable shape as we went. It's one thing to do that after you have a bunch of experience with a game and feel like you want to tweak it here and there to make it do what you want it to, but this was our first contact with SS&S. We weren't going for a nuanced version of the rules -- we just wanted something playable and reasonable.

None of that, though, could slow down the adventure Andy had prepared, which was a classic S&S tale about stealing a thing from some guy. The setting had a vaguely Middle Eastern or Indian tinge -- f'rinstance, we were breaking into the raja's palace. We had a Cimmerian-type barbarian with us, but I figure he was part of the 13th Warrior Exchange Program.

Two especially funny things happened in this game: I freed a guy from a prison cell in the bowels of the palace who'd been locked up there for decades. His name was Manfred, and we almost completely failed to find a use for him despite dragging him around with us wherever we went. Andy did a great job with him -- he was always asking us quite sensible questions in a quavering old-man voice, like "Shouldn't we be trying to get out of here?" and "Why are you bringing me with you everywhere you go?"

The other funny thing was when one of the players, a 10-year-old kid, said that D&D 4E was "not even a roleplaying game" and "like a boardgame now." If you want to think that about D&D, fine, but hearing it from a fifth-grader was just too much. "Yeah, it's not like it was back in '74, right? Those were the days!" A 10-year-old grognard. Now I've seen everything (until someone comes along with a 9-year-old grognard, I guess).

Castle Ravenloft: Woot! I figured I wouldn't have time to try out this new boardgame, but Scott and the Vegas/Utah contingent busted it out during the dinner break. We thought it'd take an hour... it took almost the entire two-hour dinner break. But that's okay, because it was a lot of fun (and we had pizza delivered in the middle of it, so dinner was taken care of). It's a very well-designed, super stripped-down version of D&D 4E bolted onto a tile-placing boardgame. It also reminds me quite a bit of DragonStrike, which I ran at Gamex this year, in that there are distinct characters with individual abilities and a book of different scenarios using a variable map.

Actually, in terms of gameplay, it honestly isn't all that different, apart from a few important points. One, there's no GM. Every player will be responsible for controlling one or more monsters at some point, but since the monsters have such basic scripted attack routines, there's no fudging things to your advantage. Second, the characters can level (only once) using an Arkham Horror-like mechanic that involves trading in XP gained from defeated monsters. Third, each character has a selection of D&D-style powers, and can get more as the game progresses. Fourth, as soon as one character dies for good, the game's over and you lose. Fifth, the tile-placing thing and a very effective mechanic that encourages you to keep moving forward and exploring (placing tiles) instead of just hanging out and taking it easy (which is nearly impossible anyway).

I mean, there's more, but those are the big ones, IMO. Our party ended up victorious, but it was extremely Pyrrhic -- I think all but one of us was dead when Rob's wizard fireballed that room.

Beyond Thunderbowl (Leftovers): Saturday night, I ran Leftovers again. As expected, the previous day's game greatly informed and improved things on the second go-'round, including not making certain things too obvious. The party composition was significantly different -- three pure-human mechanical-types and two Grafted-up ass-kickers -- and I didn't roll nearly as well (Friday afternoon I was routinely rolling in the high teens or low twenties on three or four dice), but the end result was exactly the same: a boiling sea of creepers rising up to throw things into an utter panic and obliterate at least one PC.

For whatever reason, this session involved quite a bit more talking. The PCs managed to convince Blackbeard (the Grafter gangleader for whom they were forced to fight) that the Thunderbowl itself was badly in need of maintenance before it fell apart completely. After some cajoling, he let the three mechanics in there to fix it up, but in the process they set it up for a future sabotage -- which meant a d12 Circumstance die to their later efforts to collapse the metal-grate floor into the seething pit of creepers below, allowing them to come tumbling up out of there and etc. So yeah -- that Circumstance die thing is in.

Dominion: Then we went back to the room and played some Dominion. I suck at that game. Moat it up!

Treachery in the Skies (Swasbucklers of the 7 Skies): I'd been dying to play this for a long time -- since before it came out, really -- and it didn't disappoint. I'd read PDQ# and got a feel for how good it was, but actually experiencing it in action was something else entirely. Chris (the GM) loves games with intrigue, inter-party conflict, and romance, so needless to say that's what this game was all about. I played a Sha Ku Ruqrider -- a sorta primitive island-warrioress type who rides what's essentially a giant parrot -- in love with the first mate of a pirate ship, who was in love with this princess-type who we were "rescuing" from her wedding and taking to safety somewhere.  Turns out the pirate captain wanted to sell her to some shady types on Floating Pirate Island to pay back a debt of his, while the sorcerer wanted to deliver her to his master for a ritual sacrifice.

The final conflict of the game, after a number of double-crosses and backstabbings (and frontstabbings, for that matter), was convincing Hamish's first mate (now captain) to choose me over the princess type, and according to the dice, he did. So I'd like to think that I won that one.

Chad Underkoffler says that S7S is his love letter to every bit of swashbuckling entertainment out there, and I'm happy to say it shows. I don't own the book and only got to flip through it a little, but it's well-written (as is Zo) and loaded to the brim with quotations from relevant movies and books. That latter bit was just as fun to read as anything else. I'm picking this up at my first opportunity, then hoping against hope that I get a chance to play or run it.

Vanguard: Rookie Year (FATE Supers): Amply covered here.

Dominion: We played a little more Dominion before heading home, and this time I tied for the win. Boosh.

All in all, a great convention. My thanks to everyone who made it that way. I'm definitely re-inspired to finish off Leftovers and get it up on Lulu by the end of the month. The plan is to finish off those final few chapters (of advice, really) this week and get it into final layout ASAP.

Coming up next week: Game Chef!


  1. Is that the way the dice went? I thought it was the other way, but I can't remember the actual roll. Looking back, I think having it after the combat had finished removed some of the drama for me.

  2. The combat? Pfft. That was a mere diversion from the main event: convincing Evin to "be" with Chelena. And I assure you that the dice went my way -- 23 to 18 says Evin picks Chelena over... whoever that other girl was.

  3. Yeah, the combat was a diversion alright! I'm sure Evin and Chelena will be very happy together with their airship/parrot combo!