Sunday, September 25, 2011

Gateway 2011: Belated Wrap-Up

All right, so... what, three weeks after the fact? But still, Gateway this year was a good time, so I want to make sure I get around to telling the Internet about it. It was just jam-packed with great games.

Friday 2:00
I may make a Friday-afternoon Dangers & Dragons game a Strategicon tradition. It's a great way to kick off the con, and it requires literally no prep outside of remembering to pack my laminated character sheets 'n stuff. This time we had Brian Allred, Andrew Linstrom, Morgan Ellis, and Megan McDonald matching wits with two Lizard Queens (one good, one bad), a reanimated paladin, and a dracolich, among other calamities. Good times.

Friday 8:00
Nothing! Kinda merciful, in a way. It gave me a chance to prep for Saturday's By The Gods! game, which... was a bit more time-consuming than expected. And eat. And sleep, but not nearly enough of that.

Saturday 9:00
Hamish Cameron and his kick-ass game of Dungeon World. I was determined to get into this game, because I'd only played Dungeon World once before and felt I desperately needed another look at it in action before running it the next day. Also, I just wanted to play it again because it was a lot of fun when Colin ran it at Gamex. On both counts, the game delivered. I played a bard, which was way more effective than you probably think it would've been. Part of that was down to the fact that I put myself at the center of the story as the Spider Queen's ex-lover from centuries before. I'd left her when she started to get way too into spiders, but promised to return one day... to kill her. So ol' Daelwyn the elven bard had a pretty personal investment in things.

The bard has some great starting Moves. One of them, Well Traveled, only got used once (and kinda could only be used once), but it set the stage for a lot of what came later in a very cool way, including Chalt the almost-drider and an enchanted sword I'd left behind to aid in the future killing of evil spidery ex-lovers.

The monstrous Spider Queen herself was the highlight, though. Instead of the standard set of compound eyes, she had a thousand thousand faces instead of eyes. And each of those faces had a thousand thousand smaller faces for eyes. And it was just faces all the way down. So... pretty creepy, really, especially when she kissed me with all those eye-faces and melded my lute into my arm. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a Hard Move.

Saturday 2:00
Last year, I wrote a partial sword-and-sorcery hack of Icons called Sigils. What with one thing and another, that hack mutated and evolved and twisted into something fairly distant from Icons called By The Gods!

So. This was the first playtest of By The Gods!, and it was really great in the sense that it revealed a bunch of fundamental flaws with the system that were apparently invisible without seeing it in action. However, by the same token, it was also terribly frustrating. It became pretty clear pretty soon where the problems lay, and I knew I could probably fix it given 30 minutes or so, but I didn't want to stop everything and do that in the middle of a convention game. If it were just, like, a bunch of my friends from San Diego or Torrance or  something, I probably would've, but it felt weird to ask people to have that kind of patience in a convention setting. So we soldiered on, and I patched things as best I could, and we rushed to an epic ending that  ultimately felt fairly empty and unearned (to me, anyway). People gave some useful feedback, though, for which I was/am grateful.

Let's see if I can remember all the playtesters off the top of my head three weeks after the fact: Denys Mordred, Alex Slizza, Morgan Ellis, Vernon Lingley... uh... well, four out of six ain't bad.

(As an addendum, By The Gods! got its second playtest today, also in a convention-ish-type setting, and it went much, much better. This is mostly because I took another hard look at it not as an Icons descendant, but as its own game, and in the process ended up changing a lot of fundamental things about it. The dice mechanic, for one -- used to be d6-d6, now it uses the same dice mechanic (more or less) from Tales of the Glass Slipper, an Game Fu entry of mine from a couple years ago. I'd always liked the dice mechanic and thought it full of promise, and the players today seemed to really get into it as well, so it looks like we're on the right track. In fact, today's playtest succeeded on nearly every level, but then again it's pretty significantly different in many ways from the Gateway version, so that's not a big surprise. One thing's for sure: It bears pretty much no resemblance to Icons now.)

Saturday 8:00
I was psyched to check out Hollowpoint, the new RPG of bad people doing bad things for bad reasons from the VSCA, the folks who brought you (and me) Diaspora not too long ago. And we had a pretty stellar group for it: Hamish as GM, and me, Chris Czerniak, Sam Carter, and my longtime convention companion Morgan Ellis as players.

Still, something wasn't quite right. It took a while to put our collective finger on it. Part of it was a disconnect between what we'd been told the game was -- "Jason Statham, the RPG!" -- and what it ended up being, which was more like "Jason Statham in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels the RPG!" We didn't feel like hypercompetent badasses. Rather, we felt pretty competent in one or two areas, and rather inept at everything else. I mean, Morgan was pinned down in an office cubicle and riddled by machine guns. That doesn't seem especially badass. Although, to be fair, he also survived, because the mechanics pretty much said he had to, so I guess that was pretty badass. It just wasn't logical at all, even by Stathamesque standards..

Another part of the problem was that none of us really figured out how to use the pool of team dice until fairly close to the end of the game (and following two PC deaths/replacements). Once we did, we could see how we could've worked the system for our advantage. Which seemed weird, honestly -- it felt like an exploit, but it's apparently how it's supposed to be run, so... I dunno. I'm chalking it up to a miscommunication born largely of an unfamiliarity with the rules. I'd like to try it again and see how it shakes out.

Then I went back to the room and prepped for Dungeon World until, like, 3:30 am. Oof.

Sunday 9:00
So needless to say, I was a little tired for Dungeon World, but at least I was prepared. Fortunately, Hamish was one of the players (campaigning subtly but strongly to replace Morgan as my longtime convention companion), so I could bounce rulesy-type stuff off of him when I had to. Turns out I didn't have to very much, so that was good.

As you may know, reader, I like hacking indie games for D&D. Of course, Dungeon World is already that, so I thought I'd try using it to run a classic AD&D module: "Dwellers of the Forbidden City." I'd owned it for a while (I went through an old-module hunting frenzy on eBay last year) but never actually read it. I picked it to run based primarily on its name and its probable cachet among fans of the Old School. Turns out it was a good pick. It's a fantastic sandbox of a module, a bit comparable to "Keep on the Borderlands" but more intense. There's plenty of adventure fodder there for several future one-shots, should it come to that (and it may!). If you're a fan of that kind of thing but don't know "Dwellers," check it out.

In addition to Hamish, my players were Sam Carter, Megan McDonald, and Caoimhe Snow. Hamish was arguably the focus, though, as a cleric of Lunderal, God of Suffering (which may explain why his name sounds like a prescription medication -- seriously, as your doctor about Lunderal and see what he says). He was a total masochist who death-wrestled his way into being chief of the local mongrelman community, and was later killed under some falling temple-related debris and sent back to the Prime Material, barely alive and sans eyes. His eyes are now two never-healing pits that are a constant source of agony, just the way he likes it. Hamish is determined to play him again. Fair enough, says I.

We used highlighted stats for XP, but I also had them mark XP whenever they roleplayed to their bonds. (In Hamish's game the day before, BTW, he awarded XP for monsters, like, five or 10 at a time, which seemed kinda crazy to me, but I wasn't going to complain, because hey, 3rd level.) I'd like to figure out a way to give out XP for treasure, to really harken back to the old-school style, but I need to give it a little more thought to come up with something I like.

In the interest of time, I cut the final encounter a little short, but we still managed to get an animated temple, a Thing From Beyond, and dark ritual in there, so it was all good. I'm really digging the mechanics and everything else DW brings to the table. I just wish I had more opportunities to play and/or run it. (More on that later.)

Sunday 2:00
Andy and I had been talking for weeks about his new Lady Blackbird hack, Lady Silver Age Avengers Bird. (Apparently, he doesn't have this online yet that I can see, which is a pity, but we'll fix that soon enough.) I played Captain America in as to-the-hilt a manner as possible, and had a great time.

Back at Hyphen-Con, when Andy ran Operation: Blackbird, I was a bit modest and reticent when it came to traits and tags and XP, but not this time, man. I worked it. I was rolling in XP most of the time. The awesome thing about Lady Blackbird's system is that doing so doesn't break anything. It just encourages you to play in character as much as possible.

Andy introduced some cool mechanical bits to enforce the Silver Age genre a little more, like regaining personal dice by monologuing, flashing back, or voicing an unnecessary thought bubble. The game definitely had the right Silver Age feel, and I'd totally play this again. It makes me want to finish that Lady Blackmoor hack I started.

Sunday 8:00Colin's Bulldogs! game. I already recapped this one here.

Sunday Late
The Bulldogs! game got out an hour early, so I was all set to just go home, but then Colin walked by and asked if I was going to swing by BarCon, so I was like, "Yeah, I'll see you up there." Ten minutes to say hi and g'bye and I'd be out. So I went up there.

An hour later, I left. What kept me so long? Mostly Colin's crazy idea to do a persistent "living" DW campaign at OrcCon. The idea is this: We get enough DW GMs to run a game every slot, then we connect all those games into a single shared setting. After every session, we confab and figure out what's changed in the world as a result of the players' actions, and that informs the session's worth of games. And so on throughout the weekend. We'd do all the games in the same room, and have a bulletin board or something to track stuff like who has a bounty on their head and who's had an epic poem written about them and all kinds of other stuff. And there'd be some sort of fame that'd also be tracked on that board -- everyone would be able to see how renowned everyone else is. "When you enter a new city, roll+Renown." That sort of thing.

It'd be super-complicated, especially the way I see it being done (i.e., in a super-complicated manner), and we'd need probably two or three more GMs, IMO, but if it can be pulled off, it'd be pretty awesome. I did voice a concern to Colin, though, that if it worked it'd be so cool that we'd want to do it every time, which would mean I'd never run anything but DW for the forseeable future.

"I'm thinking that's what I'm going to be doing anyway," he answered. Can't argue with that.

Best game of the con?
Tough one. I really had a great time with the DW games and Lady Silver Age Aaengers Bird. Not really fair to have a three-way tie, but I'm not sure I can choose, even with three weeks' distance.

Worst game of the con?
Oh, By The Gods!, without question. I mean, it was a valuable playtest, as I said, but in this case "valuable" didn't translate to "fun." If I'd run it with the rules I used today, though, it would've been a blast. Mark my words.

Regardless, some great gaming overall. Already looking forward to OrcCon, crazy living DW campaign or no.

On a somewhat related note, Nerdly Beach Party was this weekend; I missed it, as I always do. I'm just not into camping or long drives enough to get in on that. But I'm regretting that this weekend, because Colin and Hamish apparently flooded that thing with DW games. Looking forward to hearing their after-con reports.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Flash Game Design Challenge: Nerdball

Wow! Has it been well over a month since I posted something here? That's crazy. Sorry about that, folks. Ironically, I've been doing plenty -- I just haven't been talking about it. Have to change that.

So last Friday, Ryan Macklin announced a "flash" game design challenge, in the style of Chuck Wendig's regular flash fiction challenges on Terrible Minds. Write a playable game in 500 words or less! I like it.

The deadline's tomorrow (Friday the 23rd). I immediately had the impulse to do something for it, but I had no idea what and didn't really end up giving it much thought until yesterday.

See, earlier this week, UC Irvine reclaimed the Guinness world record title of Largest Dodgeball Game, with 4,488 players. (I'm a UCI alum, so you can suck it, previous record-holder Rochester Institute of Technology. You don't even get a link!) I was out at dinner last night and saw a UCI student wearing a T-shirt from the event, and something clicked.

The result is this: Nerdball. Players take on the roles (at least initially) of some junior-high nerds forced to play dodgeball in PE class. The opposing team is composed largely, if not wholly, of jocks, cool kids, bullies, and other classmates who make the nerds' lives fairly miserable. Over the course of the game, as your nerd colleagues are picked off one by one, you'll reveal your history with your nemesis, a bully on the other team. You may even end up playing a bully -- in fact, it may shake out that all the players but one end up playing bullies before the game's over. I'd even call it the ideal end to the game to have your fellow players turn on you and, in game terms, pelt you into submission with dodgeballs.

I really like the ingredients for this one, largely because one involved a dice mechanic, and I always enjoy engaging that sort of limitation. Chalk this up as another in a line of recent contest-derived games (with Action City! and Globe Records) that seem playable enough, but at which I'd probably be terrible.

But I'm sure you'd be great at it! Play and enjoy, and if it seems a little sparse, remember -- 500 words. Me culpa.