Monday, June 6, 2011

Gamex 2011 Wrap-Up

(This covers the non-FATE games, which was almost all of them; for FATE coverage, see Spirit of the Blank.)

A week late -- typical! -- but here's the stink from last weekend at Gamex.

Friday Afternoon
I'd been hearing a bit here and there about Vicious Crucible, one of (apparently) a couple new games from Josh Roby and Ryan Macklin, so when I saw it on the schedule I knew I'd be signing up for it. I knew nothing of the system, other than it sounded like it was intended to drive a number of specific scenarios, or at least use them as introductions to various mechanical add-ons the like. The scenario we played was The Vicious Crucible of Verdigris Valley, and essentially involved a long-simmering dust-up between European-style imperialists and native barbarian-types in a fantasy-medievalish world. (There was magic, and some monstrous things, but those things were mostly there to exacerbate the political situation.) I played a half-breed scout who'd been ostracized from the barbarian-types by her own grandfather (another PC) and forced to seek some sort of community with the invaders. I chose to style myself as a "double breed." It's all about spin.

Every character has an Arc, with three thingies listed under it: The first encourages you to follow that arc with a mechanical incentive, the second encourages you to make a sort of character-defining decision (again with a mechanical payoff), and the third gives you a way out of the Arc altogether by finding your way into a new one. At least, that's how it looked from my perspective. I got Heat (the game's currency) for trying to fit in somewhere, could spend Heat and unlock a new character ability to irrevocably reject a place or people as my home, and could move on to a new Arc by deciding that I'd found my home and wasn't an outsider anymore.

If you've played just about any indie game from the past five or ten years, the mechanics of Vicious Crucible will not be difficult to grasp. (I mean this in the most complimentary way possible.) Dice-wise, it reminds me a bit of both Dogs in the Vineyard and ORE. Every round you roll three dice, one for each of three of your Elements. These can be from d4s to d8s. If the Element is helpful, it gives you a d8. If it's a hindrance, it gives you a d4, and every d4 you roll gets you a point of Heat. Otherwise, it's a d6. Low roller goes first and narrates an action, and high roller goes last. Whoever goes last essentially has the last word. In essence, there's no rolling for success or failure -- it's all about getting to be the last one to narrate.

(Why ORE? I dunno. I guess because the roll tells you both who did "well" within the context of the game and gives you an initiative order.)

I had fun, and found the system straightforward and easy to grasp. The Arc mechanic more or less forces you to get in character to earn Heat, which is a good thing, although some Arcs generated Heat more easily than others. (One character got Heat whenever he blamed someone for his brother's death; another, when she acted suspicious of the native-types. In comparison, my trying-to-fit-in bit was often a bit harder to reasonably pull off.) I like the way the dice mechanic creates beats organically.

Friday Night
A couple friends came over to my hotel room and we played our second session of "The Keep on the Borderlands" using Dark Dungeons, the unfortunately named but otherwise-excellent D&D Rules Cyclopedia clone. I highly recommend Dark Dungeons for all your Rules Cyclopedia-replacing needs, not just because it's inexpensive and well-executed, but because it further sticks it to Jack Chick, Santorum-style.

Anyway, a while ago a friend of mine said he'd like to try D&D, and that he could probably get a group together of like-minded tabletop RPG virgins. I jumped at the opportunity, as any sane gamer would, and a few months later we had our first session. Initially I'd planned to use the D&D 4E Essentials line, but after a while I decided that even that level of complexity might be a little too much, despite my players' extensive experience with MMOs and computer games born of D&D's influence. I don't know if I was right about that, but I've been having a God-damned ball running KotB, so no regrets here.

Anyway, in the first session, I ginned up some excuse for them to head off to the Caves of Chaos and fight some kobolds, which they did -- a little combat to satisfy the "kill them and take their stuff" vibe of old-school D&D -- but the second session was all about investigation and talking, with very little in the way of combat. To my surprise and delight, they preferred the second session, which is very cool. In general, they like doing anything that they couldn't do in a computer game, including doing stupid things and getting beaten down for it. They quickly picked up on the fact that anything can happen in a tabletop RPG, and they've been going with it. One of them compared it to a game of Scott Aukerman-style Would You Rather?, and in a lot of respects, he's right -- at least, when it comes to old-school gaming. The more questions they ask, the more they know about their environment. Unlike Scott Aukerman, though, I'm not going to screw them over for failing to correctly pixel-bitch their way to a solution.

After we wrapped up at about 11:30, I took them over to the Sheraton so they could get a glimpse of the convention's late-night goings-on. It's just a whole new world to them. Good times, and well worth missing that Friday night slot at Gamex to do.

Saturday Morning
Morgan's DFRPG game! Read about it here!

Saturday Afternoon
I've had a couple near-misses with Dungeon Crawl Classics, Goodman Games' table-filled, retro-fueled take on 3.5 D&D, so I was resolved to finally check it out. I'd been to a couple other mini-cons -- one at DiceHouse, the other Hyphen-Con -- where Joe Goodman had been either running it at the neighboring table or inexplicably not running it and playing boardgames instead. It was only a matter of time before I weaseled my way into a seat at his table, and Gamex was that time.

Here's what I like about DCC. There are lots of tables for things -- critical hits, fumbles, spellcasting, etc. Just about every class seems to have its own little subsystems or rules exceptions. Characters are relatively fragile. Magic is unpredictable. These things are all likely to turn off the majority of gamers I know. They'd turn me off, too, on a bad day, but last weekend had no bad days, so there.

What I'm getting at is that DCC revels in clunky, piecemeal, un-unified mechanics that seem as if they were written by a dozen designers over the course of a decade. But, like, that's the point. Later, I'll talk about Dungeon World, and its goal to replicate an old-school feel using new-school mechanics and sensibilities. Having just run a D&D module originally published during the Carter administration the night before, I feel confident in saying that DCC nails the old-school thing not by cleverly re-imagining it, which DW does, but by embracing it, warts and all. In fact, I think it might embrace the warts the most.

This takes balls, if you ask me. There's a definite learning curve to this game. Playing a thief won't really give you an idea of what it's like to play a wizard. In fact, playing a cleric won't do that, either, because they cast spells differently. The open playtest goes online June 7th, I believe. Check it out, and if you still have SAN left, it's probably the (a) game for you.

Saturday Night
I ran my D&D hack of Danger Patrol, currently called Dungeon Patrol -- but is Dangers & Dragons better? I dunno. Anyway, this was a lot of fun, and I had a great table of players. I knew them all, in fact! I'd say this is a disturbing trend in my convention games, but the truth is I like all of these people who keep showing up, so I can't complain.

I'd never run or played Danger Patrol, and half my players had never played it, so we were on pretty even footing. Let me tell you something about Danger Patrol, and Dungeon Patrol by extension: It is embarrassingly easy to run. It actually wrecked me for the FATE game I ran the next morning. "Stats? Seriously? Ugh. Can't we just roll some dice and I'll make some stuff up?"

I know John Harper's working on a Gamma playtest edition of Danger Patrol, and from what I've seen so far it looks pretty different from the Beta. I'm not sure I like it better, to be honest, especially when the Beta-based Dungeon Patrol worked so well. The Gamma uses all d6s, but the mix of die types feels a little more D&D-ish to me, so no matter what John ends up doing I doubt I'll change my hack to follow suit.

The only real problem we had was that, with six players, it was hard to keep threats threatening. They could easily dish out 20 hits between them in a round, so I routinely tried to have multiple threats on the table all the time. I managed to split the party, too, which helped as well. But that's not really a "problem," per se -- it's just something to keep in mind. With two or three PCs? Sure, major threats will have 12-15 hits. With six? Double that. And add a few points of Resistance.

The Culture and Class cards have been tweaked and I'm in the process of putting it all online for people to check out. I've gotten a few requests for it, so that's kinda neat, right? I'm also bringing it to GenCon, so if you're interested, find me there and we can get a pick-up game going.

Sunday Morning
Agents of F.A.T.E. Read about my/our triumphs here.

Sunday Afternoon
I played a boardgame! Well, I played Descent. Still, I did something in the boardgame ballroom besides walk through it to get to the dealer room. The allotted timeslot for the game was four hours; after five and a half hours, we called it quits. They all laughed at me when I said the last game of Descent I'd played had lasted for seven hours. Who's laughing now, chumps? We could've easily played for another hour and a half, but I had dinner to eat and a game to get to.

Sunday Night
I'd not-so-subtly hinted to Colin Jessup that I really, really wanted him to run Dungeon World at Gamex so I could finally play it, and he was kind enough to oblige. Not like it was a big hardship for him or anything. He clearly had a blast, as did we all. I played a paladin named Cassius. A beholder disintegrated my shield (but not my arm) right before I jabbed my longsword up through his jaw and central eye. EPIC.

Back at Hyphen-Con, Colin had told me that DW was the game that finally scratched his old-school itch. It was the game he'd been waiting for that'd give him that kind of experience without having to slog through outdated mechanics and design. Afterward, he asked me if it felt old-school to me, and my response was a very noncommittal, "...Sure? I guess?" I couldn't put my finger on it at the time, but after giving it some thought later -- and having recent experiences with both KotB and DCC for comparison -- I had to say "No."

I like Apocalypse World (though I've only read it), and I really enjoyed and will buy DW. Part of that is Colin being an awesome GM, as always, but part of it's just the game itself. The authors have done a great job adapting AW's style and mechanics to the genre while making little tweaks that nod suggestively in the direction of D&D. (Unfortunately, the D&D they're nodding at seems to be 3.5, not AD&D or BECMI, but whatever.) I love the class-based damage and replacing AW's stats with D&D's Standard Six. Colin did his level best to old-school it up with that beholder and those umber hulks and all, but ultimately, it's a game driven by a very contemporary design sensibility, and that really came through in my play experience.

I think the core of what I'm talking about is very simple. There's no Would You Rather? in DW. Like so many modern games (games I play and love!), there's a fair bit of player narrative control. (Even when I fail to Spout Lore, for example, I get to make up the false Lore I've spouted. Contrast this with the MC making my Int roll for me and telling me what I know.) That alone feels so utterly contrary to old-school gaming to me that I find it difficult to get past it. Players are constantly adding to the fiction out-of-character, or fleshing out the setting, or what have you. There's nothing wrong with this, and I like it just fine. It's just that it robs the DM (or MC, here) of their duty as Gatekeeper of Information. There wasn't really the same sense of discovery I see in my newbie D&D players when I tell them what a kobold looks like, or what's at the bottom of the pit they just stumbled upon, or pass them a cryptic rumor at the tavern. It's not that you can't do any of this in DW, but the players are empowered by the system to do this themselves, and taking that away from them would be a dick move, IMO.

So! I liked DW a lot. I'll buy it, run it, play it. I'm sold. I just won't be running it for my KotB guys.

All in all, a great weekend of gaming, especially when I write it all out in a lengthy blog post like that. GenCon's only two months away....

EPILOGUE: Here's a fun fact. This was the first Strategicon since OrcCon of last year that I didn't run Leftovers.


  1. Great writeup man! I alas am to lazy these days to do so ... five kids and graduate school has fried my brain :) I really did enjoy the Dungeon Patrol game, but as you say I could see the quick potential for perhaps the ultimate beer and pretzels one shot old school type game. I used to say Tunnels and Trolls couldn't be topped for that ... but I think Dungeon Patrol might have it beat. Scott and I are tinkering with the idea of printing it on cardstock and getting that laminated so players can use dry erase. Toss it in the bag and if the situation arises ... BAAM!! crazy one shot of doom! (speaking of which ... I would prevail upon you for a PDF of your hack). As for my own experiences as of late for a lite old school-esq rule-set with perhaps its own twist (critical stunt system rocks!) ... I have to say I'm very enamored with Dragon Age and some of the hacks that are being talked about for it (Dragon Age star wars!) ... my group is going to run a classic Greyhawk game with it. For me as much as I want to run an ongoing fate game ... I have too much Warhammer fantasy universe knowledge and always seem to have devious players who want to play "dark" games ... so I go back to the old well again and again. Anyway good times man thanks for running good games again ... we'll be back!

  2. Man, I'd kill for a Dragon Age Greyhawk game. DA is a really fun system -- nearly GM-proof, as I saw at OrcCon -- and Greyhawk is my favorite campaign setting bar none. If I had more experience with the system, I'd hack the Hell out of it.

    Great seeing you guys, as always. Promises of trying to attend LarryCon/Hyphen-Con, etc.