Sunday, February 27, 2011

OrcCon 2011 Post-Mortem

I'm way late on this, I know, but here it is, a rundown of my OrcCon this year. On the whole, a great time -- I had fun in every game, which, y'know, you'd think would be the baseline experience, but it's not always a guarantee.

2:00 PM: Tomb of Horrors (Fiasco)
I'd been champing at the bit to play this since I saw it posted, and I'd even bugged Hamish (the GM) about it a couple times. Unfortunately, it filled up in pre-reg before I could get to it, so I resolved to show up early on Friday to secure myself a spot. Even more unfortunately, Friday at 12:30 I discovered that it'd been canceled, on account of Hamish having some sort of work or school emergency. So... ack. There was nothing else at 2:00 I was really dying to get into, and none of the boardgame stuff interested me, so I went back to my hotel room and slept for three hours. That was pretty awesome -- possibly as awesome as the game would've been. It was rumored that Hamish would run it later in the weekend, but I knew what that meant: He'd run it sometime when I couldn't play it.

8:00 PM: The Battle of Wal-Mart (Leftovers)
I blogged about this from the con. The premise was solid, but that's all I had -- a premise. However, it quickly became a very player-driven sandboxy thing, and the players definitely drove it. In terms of contrast between expectation and result, this was probably my favorite game of the con.

9:00 AM: Smallship Troopers (Smallville)
This was the only game I'd registered for in advance. Hamish was to run this as well, but luckily Josh Robern was able to step in to do it for him. If you somehow don't know who Josh is, he was the co-lead designer (along with Cam Banks) of Smallville, so we were in good hands. I'd played in three other Smallville games he'd run -- one a playtest, one a demo (essentially), and one set in the Star Wars universe -- and enjoyed them all. It's a really great game. I was initially going to run my D&D Smallville hack (Hommlet) Saturday night, but swapped it out for FATE Kerberos when I realized there was just no way I'd have time to get it sorted out.

Anyway! Starship Troopers. I think that's all I really need to say to communicate what this game was. I played Dizzy, or rather Dizzy's clone, which put me in a love triangle with teeth-delivery device Carmen Ibanez (played by Chris -- what other character would he play?) and thick-skulled Johnny Rico (played by Morgan, my longtime FATE companion). Neil Patrick Harris, Clancy Brown, and that buck-toothed fiddle-playing farmboy rounded out the cast, but c'mon. This is Smallville. The real story is the love triangle. So... that happened, and it was a lot of fun. While I did start off separated from the rest of the PCs, much like in the JediVille game at Gateway last year, my character wasn't all focused on working against them, which was kind of a problem for me last time. (With, I'll grant you, hilarious consequences.) I seduced Rico, killed some bugs, and took my top off. Good times.

2:00 PM: A World of Hurt (Mage: The Sorcerer's Crusade)
Chris ran this, and I signed up for it right before playing it. He also ran the only other Mage game I've ever played, and that ended being a long-running disagreement between what I wanted my character to be able to do and what everyone else insisted he could do. But that was a Technocracy game, while this was a straight-up Mage game, so I knew I wouldn't run into that problem here. Turns out I did. The pre-gen I picked was pitched as a sort of Michaelangelo type, so I was thinking I'd be like a Trump artist from Amber. Y'know, paint a place, then step into the painting and be in that place, and so on. But as I looked through the lists of Rotes for the Matter, Space, and Time Arcana, it became pretty clear that limiting myself that much would seriously gimp my character and probably lead to more of that back-and-forth that had kinda marred that other game for me. So I threw all that out the window, gave myself five dots in Matter, and was Doctor Manhattan. Pretty much anything I could think of that I wanted to do with matter -- transmute, create, destroy, alter, etc. -- I could do, so I did that plenty, without being too vulgar about it. And it was fun! So yeah, I'd play Mage again. I just need to change my mindset. Mage mages are generalists, not specialists, and I keep wanting to specialize.

8:00 PM: A Penny Dreadful for Your Thoughts (The Kerberos Club: FATE Edition)
Since this was a FATE game, I'll write about it on Spirit of the Blank.

9:00 AM: The Price of Freedom (Dragon Age)
This was an impulse sign-up. I own but have never played the Dragon Age RPG, and I've always been curious about how it plays. (This is where conventions shine, for me.) So I signed up for it. Then Hamish wandered in and found the brief run-down of the system I gave him interesting enough to sit down and play. I'll just come out and say it: By all rights, this should've been a terrible game. The GM seemed to have no sense of story outside of what the computer game had already done, so when we'd try to cling onto something as character motivation, it was either ignored or eliminated. I know this makes me sound like a dick, but it's the absolute truth.

Case in point: I'm playing a City Elf. Early on, we're attacked by some goons, and when we interrogate one of them, he says they were sent by Lord Vaughn (spelling uncertain). I'm told that this guy broke up an Elf wedding by kidnapping the bride and bridesmaids. ("Or the groom and groomsmen -- it depends on whether you play a male or a female." We cannot escape this computer game I've never played and know nothing about even for the space of four hours.) At the time, I didn't kill him because it would've made things worse politically for my people. But now the Elves have been freed from their bondage, which means there's no good reason not to kill this bastard. "All right," says I, "then let's go kill this guy." Because this is the story, right? I mean... it's like a blinking neon sign. And the name of the game -- "The Price of Freedom." Eternal vigilance! That's the price! We gotta watch out for these guys! Strong character motivation! Let's go!

So we have a rather pointless fight with an undead thing that explodes out of a jar, and as it fades away into nothing it drops a bag. This is weird enough, but then we open the bag and we find... a shield. Damn, that's a big bag. What was this undead spirit-thing doing with a shield? Also in the bag: two rings that increase the rate at which magic points (or whatever) recover. Now instead of getting one back every 15 minutes, our two mages (two rings, two mages!) get back a magic point every round. So... any semblance of resource management or game balance for them is now gone. Excellent!

(On the plus side, As soon as that undead thing dropped a bag with a shield and two rings in it, something in my head clicked. I pretended it was an elaborate parody, and I just wasn't in on the joke. Like if I ran a Goldeneye-themed game for someone who'd never played Goldeneye.)

Anyway, we track the badguy down to a brothel in town. He's behind a locked door. Okay -- we're ready. Arrows nocked, spells readied, swords unsheathed. Because as soon as this door opens, it is on. One of our rogues picks the lock, and...

It's a bedroom. He's in bed with a prostitute. She gets up and runs out. I shout "ROLL INITATIVE!" The guy faints. That's the big confrontation.

Hrm. So after a brief discussion, we tie him up and drop him off at City Elf Town, where my fellow City Elves will surely mete out some sort of justice. Out of my hands!

So if that's not the story, then... where's the story? There's our original mission of escorting a diplomat-type around so he can deliver the news about the Elves being freed. It just really seemed like this escort gig was a red herring for a sweet revenge plot, but man, maybe it really is just that straightforward.  Maybe something cool will happen to us on the road. Fair enough, right? Give the guy a chance.

On the road, we're ambushed by 15 dwarves. These dwarves suck. To their 3d8 attack roll, they add +1. They need a 20 to hit me. You see the problem there, right? In the meantime, I'm adding +8 to my roll using my bow, and I hit them on like a 12. And they don't go down in one hit -- they go down in two or three. So it's just a grind, a straight grind for no good reason other than for us to come face to face with some dwarves. Halfway through this fight one of the players has to go, with 30 minutes left in the time slot. I say, "Look, we're going to beat these guys. Right? And we're going to beat them without expending any resources. So let's just say we beat 'em and move on." We do that, and come upon some town that looks like it's overrun by Darkspawn, which are bad things, apparently. There are six Darkspawn! "Well... let's not go to that town," we wisely decide. "We're here to proclaim Elvish freedom; I seriously doubt a bunch of demon-things care much about that."

So we go around them, and montage through every other town we're supposed to visit, and then five minutes later... it's over. It just ends. Then the GM admits that all he'd really planned for us to do was go around the continent and have a bunch of minor random encounters.

Of course, I had a bad feeling about this game from the get-go, when we got our characters. They were just spreadsheets, with a lot of numbers and terminology and no explanation for what anything meant. and that's it: no background, motivation, description, nothing. Even the names were left asexual, he said, so we weren't pinned down to one gender or another. (Although my name was Alana; it would've been a little silly not to be a female character with that name.) He had us introduce our characters, but what's to introduce? I said, "My name's Alana. I'm a City Elf Warrior. I have 60 hit points." What is there to say? These characters were total ciphers -- numbers on a page.

So how the Hell was this fun? We lucked out with a great group of players, and the combat system was a lot of fun. The game could use a non-combat skill resolution mechanic that's as fun as the combat mechanic, but still, it was a blast. Plus I have this story now! And Hamish brought it with his Dalish Elf Kelten, who we started calling Kelten X. He was this militant advocate for Elvish rights and the violent overthrow of a system that'd kept us Elves down for so long. But, y'know, he was also a PC, so he was on this escort mission with us. (As was an Apostate, which is, like, an illegal, criminal spellcaster or something. But... PC, so come on along!)

But look, I'm not such a great GM. I wasn't entirely happy with either of the FATE Kerberos games I ran at this con. My premise and hook were pretty solid, and I had a good ending, but I had a lot of trouble with the middle. I made some bad mistakes, no doubt. However, at least I had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This game had none of those things. It wasn't a story -- it was a map. We had fun in spite of what the GM had planned, not because of it. I think the GM's plan for the game was to sit around and talk about the computer game for four hours. Seriously. And yes, you'd expect people familiar with the computer game to want to play the RPG, but simply rehashing the events of the computer game is not the same as trying to tell a new story with a group of real live strangers.

2:00 PM: FATE Kerberos again.

Games I Wish I'd Played:

  • Operation: Blackbird, Andy's '60s-spy hack of Lady Blackbird. It looked awesome. He ran two sessions opposite my FATE Kerberos games, so... yeah.
  • Albert's Og game. Much anticipated by the indie-gamer-types who'd played Og the last time he'd run it (which was what, like, two years ago?), it once again got stellar reviews.
  • Either of the games Morgan ran: The Last Airbender: Romance of the Four Kingdoms or Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll, both using DFRPG.
  • Hamish's Fiasco of Horrors, which he ran Sunday at 2:00. Bah. 
  • James Ritter's Mouse Guard game. He ran it Saturday morning, but the lure of Smallship Troopers was just too strong. I want to play Mouse Guard as written sometime.
By the time I got home, I was totally exhausted. But a great time, all told.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Leftovers: The Battle of OrcCon

So tonight (technically last night, I guess) at OrcCon I ran a Leftovers scenario called "The Battle of Wal-Mart." It was the first time I'd looked at Leftovers since last September, and it was an odd experience to explain to a new group of players... and occasionally have to remember how something worked, or actually look up something in the rules.

What's more, for the first week of event pre-reg, nobody'd signed up for it. I've been running Leftovers at every Strategicon convention for the past year, and that's never happened -- it's always filled up in pre-reg. I was all prepared to not run it at all. I mean, if no one signs up, what else can I do, right? I had so much to do with FATE Kerberos that I hadn't given any thought to it beyond the premise (the PCs find an intact Wal-Mart -- go!), so not running it was starting to seem pretty good. I started to look at other games scheduled in that slot, and there were some attractive options. Mona Lisa Overville? Sign me up.

Then, the unthinkable: A few days before the end of pre-reg, one person signed up for it. One. That meant I had to prepare something in the unlikely event that another player or two signed up. I was always facing that eventuality anyway, but now it was more certain. Yet still I held out hope that I would get out of it somehow or other, and continued to not prepare anything.

When I got to the con today, my lone player -- loyal Nicholas Butler, the first Leftovers fan who didn't know me before playing the game at OrcCon last year -- was on the sheet, but the other four spots were blank. "Awesome," said I. And took a nap.

A few hours later, at 5:00, three more players had signed up.

So I walked back to my hotel (in the rain!) and tried to figure out what "The Battle of Wal-Mart" would be, exactly. All I knew was that the players would find the Wal-Mart, then they'd have to defend it against... someone. Other people like them -- opportunist PC-types who just want what's in there? Or crazy Grafters who want the PCs first and the goods later? I settled on the latter, and then... that was it. I trusted that I and my players would be able to flesh out the rest.

But would that occupy four hours? Well... I reasoned that there'd also be an explanation of the setting, sorting out character creation (with only one copy of the rules rather than the customary four I usually bring to these things), and explaining the mechanics of the game. And what I'd forgotten is that all of that is definitely part of the game. Chargen is a mini-game all its own, and figuring out a character's Grafts, Tools, and Bonds is -- from my perspective, watching players go through the process -- fun. There's usually a lot of laughter and lateral thinking, a lot of "Would this work?" and crazy character concepts that catch me by surprise.

By the end of all that, an hour and a half had passed, but it never felt like wasted time, and nobody was bored. I think part of the reason for that is that figuring out your Bonds is a social experience. You need to introduce yourself, learn everyone else's name, and think about how you want to relate to that person. In other words, it works as intended: The players inject all kinds of interesting background and personality both into their own characters and their colleagues'. When we were done and ready to start playing, it felt like something we'd collectively built to, rather than having the "Finally!" feeling it so easily could have.

So that was very satisfying.

After that, running the game was a breeze. I think the time away did me some good, actually -- I could look at it with fresh eyes and adjudicate stuff on the fly pretty easily. I may have even been more permissive as a GM, too. My main criterion for saying yes was "Is the player enthusiastic about this?" And whaddya know, when you say "Yes!" to enthusiastic players, they get more enthusiastic. This seems obvious, but it's important. And, y'know, saying "Yes!" doesn't have to mean "You get everything you want!" -- rather, it's just "Sure, give it a shot!" Just be on their side and be enthusiastic along with them. Odds are if they think it's cool, it'll be cool.

(Now, I have a bad tendency of saying "Try anything you want!" and then following that up with "What? No! Don't be ridiculous!" And I still shoot stuff down that's just beyond reasonable, but I try not to be as harsh as all that. Half the time I find there's a disconnect between what the player's suggesting and how I'm interpreting it. Once we get on the same page, I'm usually on board.)

Anyway. It was a very player-driven game. You turn a bunch of post-apoc survivors loose in a Wal-Mart, and they'll find things to do. Hell, they spent time looking for new clothes. And when the time came for kicking ass, well, they kicked ass. Most gratifying of all, perhaps, was the fact that it was an uphill battle. One PC was killed; another came to the brink of death, pulled back thanks to a quick Graft, then ran headlong to the brink again. The whole plot came down to a single conflict -- "Keep the Grafters out of the Wal-Mart" -- but the pacing was pretty brisk and it felt like everyone was engaged the entire time.

So what's the point of all this? I came in secretly hoping not to have to run this game, and ended up glad for the opportunity to spend time with a great group of players and their infectious enthusiasm. (Thanks guys!) It was also a powerful lesson in trusting myself as a GM -- and a designer.