Metatopia 2014

09Nov14

I think this was the best time I’ve had at Metatopia yet, and that’s saying quite a bit. Many thanks to Avie and Vinny and our hard-working hospitable hosts from Double Exposure for making this amazing gathering possible.

*With Great Power* My first moments at the convention were the first playtest of my newly-revised kappa edition of With Great Power. I had a great table, with Lisa Padol, Joshua Kronengold, Lilith Taylor-White and Julia Elingboe. I appreciated their input and their patience as I barreled down blind corners, stumbled over words, and forgot to look at my notes. Despite all of that, and the two-hour timeslot, we managed to tell a great, exciting superhero story that I really wanted to keep playing and find out what happened next. And I valued everyone’s feedback about how the game could improve.

*With Great Power* Early Friday afternoon, I ran my second playtest session, this time with Eppy, Rich Flynn, Christian, Alden, and Dev. The Swords engine stretches right to the edge of its capacity with five players, so the play itself was less developed. But we got to kick the tires a bit harder, both because I could avoid some of the pitfalls of the first session, and knowing when to fast-forward over things to get to the parts in need of testing. The great feedback I got filled two invaluable pages in my cramped scrawl. While I cannot thank everyone enough for their help, I can say that I was glad to get my own sessions done early, and spend the rest of the time being a guinea pig for other people.

*Solar Flare* was one of two different space games that Dev was testing this weekend. This was the lesser-developed of the two, and my sparce notes have things like “‘Answer questions slowly’—what does that mean?” and “What do we do?” The setting has a cool bit of future history of humankind being driven to spread throughout the galaxy due to a solar flare that makes Earth unihabitable. It struggles with several of the same issues as games in that Universalis-space that are very much “make up what you want”. I think that several things here could be fruitfully merged back into Starjump Chronicles to make one stronger game.

*By Word and Deed* was Mel White’s embryonic game of fantasy. With a single mechanical idea of how to apportion narration, and no strong driving situation, the session became more of a focus group than a playtest. Ideas were flying thick and fast about the focus the mechanics gave to play, and whether that was in line with what Mel wanted. Even if we never got past the trolls on the bridge, it was good food for thought.

Friday night I played Keith’s *Ill Counsel* again for the second year in a row. This one went wildly differently from the last one. Partially due to the condensed timeframe, the fiction didn’t really have much time to coalesce, which is very important for this type of game. I lost badly. And the changes Keith had made to patch over some holes in the previous version didn’t quite work as intended. Which is a good thing to learn. The quest for the proper endgame remains an _intriguing_ proposition.

Even though I awoke early Saturday morning, Laura’s *Dreamfall* made it feel as if I hadn’t awoken at all. It’s a Powered by the Apocalypse game where the characters do amazing things in their shared dreamworld. The setting premise is powerful, and Laura excels at asking provocative questions. I played a roofer who had lost the use of his legs in an accident. He dreamed of walking, and of building the White House brick by brick. The game has a lot of promise and I could see that it would truly blossom over a longer timeframe. There’s some work to do on the daytime portion of the game, but it’s a strong start.

Saturday lunchtime I spent like an Intellect Devourer slurping up the wisdom of Epidiah Ravichol, particularly on the topic of a certain game of his that I’m using as a springboard into something else. More pages of cramped notes about game design resulted, as well as the tragic, quintessentially American tale of Ruth Wakefield, inventor of the chocolate chip cookie.

I spent some of Saturday afternoon in panels, like the *Retailer roundtable* with Jim. Also went to the *Hacking Apocalypse World* panel, perhaps better titled as “Watch Vincent squirm while Mark, Mark, Marissa, and Misha say nice things about his game.” I finished up with *Crowdfunding* tips from Fred, Hannah, and Joshua. Lots of food for thought.

Choosing a favorite session at a con like this can be like choosing a favorite child. Emily’s *Heart of the Rose* game was unique in several ways. I rarely get to play in a game with Kat where one of us isn’t facilitating it, so that was wonderful. And I had never gotten a chance to play with Avie before. And her talent was able to imbue drama and gravitas into a time-limited playtest, which was awesome. And watching Emily’s mind work is a thing of wonder. I usually pride myself on knowing which rules are doing what things in an RPG. I’ll honestly say that because we fast-forwarded to the endgame, I really didn’t get the token system. But I could see that Emily did, and it’s always kind of thrilling watching that nigh-scientific attention in action with “try it this way and see what that does.” It was quite a session and I look forward to more about this game.

*Starjump Chronicles* was Dev’s other space game. This one was more developed, lighter and looser. It wins the “most unique mechanic” award from me, for the part of character creation where you choose a song for your character. You then play 30 seconds of each song, and all the other players write an opinion about your character based on the song. It gave rise to the best phrase of the con: “Sinatra is overpowered.” I had fun with this light game, and I think that replayability is going to be a big issue that Dev will need to overcome. When everything is rolled off of lists, those lists can run dry pretty quickly.

Saturday evening was more panels. *Lovecraft WTF?* was Julia, Bill, Ken, and Darren trying to struggle with how to embrace problematic material (Lovecraft, specifically) without also perpetuating its problems. While a few techniques were discussed, they raised issues of their own, and although no one had a surefire way to quell the evil inherent in the Mythos, sometimes struggling against that which will not yeild is the best one can do.

Rob, Cam, Clark and Stephen talked about “Least System Necessary” which prompted me to scribble a line or two in my notebook. I might have personally liked the discussion to include the Lumpley-Boss principle, and games like The Pool, and Once Upon a Time. I didn’t want to be “that guy” in the audience.

*Six Guns Without Master* is Keith’s Swords Without Master hack of the haunted West. We had a great table of Kat, Michele, and Sean. Lots of good color came forth, like a rampaging gray bull, a creepy old man, and a trapper turning into a werewolf. It’s neat to see someone else working in the same design space, and making different choices to mold the same clay into a different shape. Much brainstorming followed.

I don’t know if I can bear to wait until February to see many of you again. I was surprised by the number of people who were surprised to learn that we’re in Allentown, PA. I’m within 90 minute drive of downtown Philly, and willing to come to games! Although December is always crazy, maybe we won’t have to wait until Dreamation. Which is only 102 days away!


I’m rereading +Judd Karlman’s Dictionary of Mu. I can probably count on my fingers the RPG setting books I actually like, and this one stands head and shoulders above them all.

At its root, I’d say the best thing about the Dictionary is that it has a point, and it drives that point home like an obsidian blade to the heart. The setting is about something, and it uses every trick at its disposal to get your players to engage with those core themes: “How does the past constrain the future?” “We may not choose how we find the world, but by our actions, we choose how we leave it.” “What is the point of hope in a flawed world?”

The writing is more enthralling than anything called a “dictionary” has a right to be. Oghma, son of Oghma, has not just one voice, but several. He is the devoted scribe dutifully cataloging the world of Marr’d as he finds it. He is also the incisive and judgmental critic who comments on the proceedings in the margins. He is also a self-deprecating, world-weary soul who must have seen every dream slaughtered before his eyes, except that his words might spark the hope of a better world.

The book overflows with mood, and attitude, and abundant grist for the plot mill. It deftly avoids metaplot through the alphabetical organization, and the fact that every major NPC is a potential PC. Everyone has their own story—no one is too big, or too small, to be the protagonist of their own tale. I’d like a lot more setting books if just that single innovation were to spread like the powerful, infected blood of the Jarl of Spiders. When the future of the red planet is in the hands of your players, how can they help but engage with its themes?

I should point out that the dictionary itself is made into a living document. The setting-specific rules require that as play continues, the players must write new entries for the dictionary, merging the stories they spark at the table with the very verses that inspired it.

The breadth of influence is another tactic used to draw players to engage with the premise. Among planets, only Earth has a longer bibliography, and the dictionary draws on a stunning amount of it. Burroughs’ Barsoom is just the beginning. Tidbits are pulled from scientific facts, David Bowie songs, the stories of the Bible, mythologized history of Genghis Khan, rumors of ancient Egyptian astronauts, and more. And yet, all of it is presented with a spin—the proper twist to make it fit in the brutal, desparate, dying world of Marr’d. And that spin is part of the whole point of the thing. Because if some guy named Judd can take the Bible and spin it into this blood-pumping, heavy metal album cover, sword-and-sorcery explosion, then how can you and your players shrink from the challenge of putting your own spin on Marr’d? It’s your story. Go play it.

I can’t stop writing about the genius of this book without mentioning how it looks. The illustrations by +Jennifer Rogers and the layout by +Luke Crane are phenomenal. We often hear about how pictures can tell a story, and so rarely do we see it in RPG books. No one poses on Marr’d. Every drawing looks like it was lifted from a pulp magazine, illustrating a scene in a developing short story. Characters are defined by action, urging the players to follow suit.

Distressed layout is hard. I typeset books for a living and I can’t imagine laying out this beast. The background texture is vivid enough to make it look like it was actually dug from the crimson sands, while still being light enough to avoid obscuring any text. The fonts are easily read, but full of character. Oghma’s scrawl is always at odd angles. This works together with the rule about writing your own dictionary entries. They will look like they belong in the book, because they do—it has already been scribbled in!

Books this good cannot be complimented enough.


Back from #Dexcon and had a great time. Despite any possible obstacles, +Avonelle Wing and +Vincent Salzillo and the entire Double Exposure family continue to present the most welcoming and fun filled conventions around. This year they even trumped the Fourth of July!

FRIDAY
My con started Friday morning with a rousing game of The Sundered Land. The players were mostly new faces, which is a nice change of pace at this point in my convention career. We played two games of Caravan Guards, a Night Watch, At Ends, and finally Warriors. On the road, we faced down stampeding dog-sized beetles, and a misshapen giant demanding tribute. At night, we learned of the origins of the rifles and bombs and pistols that the three of the characters bore, as well as the nameless witch’s time as a slave and my gray bearded rider’s use of the caravan to smuggle rune-covered parchments into the city. Once in the city itself, our various desires led us on different paths, which again converged when the patrons of two other characters wanted to ensure that my scrolls were never delivered and used to waken the fallen gods. We ended on a big fight where they attacked and destroyed the temple where I was defending the ritual readers of the scrolls. Enkidu, my character, lost his hand, but survived the fight.

In the afternoon, I played in +Brendan Conway ‘s game in development, Masks. It’s about teenage superheroes trying to figure out who they are and what kind of people they were going to become, would they believe the labels that the world affixed to them, or forge their own path? It’s a descendant of Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts, and full of clever ideas. Perhaps too many, but that is why it is still in development. My character was a pre-med high school student who, through an scientific accident, gained prehensile hair that could read the thoughts of whomever it touched and alter their body to heal them … or in other ways. Her superhero name was Dreads. We had some great players, like +Joe Zantek and +Michael McDowell , and a great young team, with Kid Ragnarock, Mags Donner , and Discordia. I have more thoughts on the game, but will take them to another post.

Friday night I brought out the “original” nanogame, Vast & Starlit. We had a full table, with +Melissa S Cohen , Brendan, +Kathryn Miller , +James Harold , +Neil Bennett , and Adam playing. We developed our characters pretty quickly, with some old rivalries and scores to settle both on and off the ship. Kat played the ship herself, a newly independent AI who didn’t want to be memory wiped, but also didn’t want to submit to control of a mere captain. There was a lot of craziness, as will happen with seven people, but actually developing a story was both dangerous and difficult. There was lots and lots of laughter, but I’m not sure that I will offer this one again.

SATURDAY
I started the day by playing Kat’s session of Heroine. Kat devised the session after we saw Maleficent, so the focus heroine was Aurora. She rebelled at never seeing another person besides her aunts, and ran off across the boundary-stream. With the help of an abandoned monster-under-the-bed, and an insightful crow played by +Lisa Padol , and the blind(folded) prince Philip, she lost and regained her shadow, faced That Witch Dwells Downstream, and returned home to better appreciate her lot. It was a decent story, but it took just a little too much work. This is the second time we’ve played, and there just feels like there’s something lacking. I’m not sure what.

After a fun lunch with +Rachael Storey Burke and +Robert Bohl , I had to face the fact that I am old and increasingly decrepit, so did no gaming in the afternoon. I can neither confirm nor deny the rumors of a nap-like activity.

Saturday evening was a second game of The Sundered Land. This had a full complement of Rob, Rich Flynn, Brendan, Sarah and Jenna. The characters were very metal, with rune scars and ancient six-guns and sewn-together monsters in equal measure. We played Caravan Guards twice, and it is definitely solid. Concrete threat led to concrete reaction, with the system eliciting unanticipated twists from us. Night Watch was alright, but really needs the night player to push rather forcefully with his starting questions, unafraid to impose back story on others’ characters. At Ends is still problematic. We were able to develop a single focal point around three of the characters breaking into House Alije for dissent reasons, so we played that using Restless Ambition. It went pretty well.

I actually played Enkidu, my character from the night before, and gave him a hook to replace the hand he lost in the battle. I regret not mentioning it to anyone until the game was over. It might have worked better as an open secret.

Saturday night was a great big ever-growing circle of chat with folks I missed elsewhere, like +Bill White and +Amanda Valentine and +Clark Valentine

SUNDAY
This morning I got to play some Marvel Heroic, run by Mr. McDowell. His characters were fun, with a super-luchador, a super intelligent ape, another thunder good (were they on sale?) and Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt. The fight mechanics are interesting, and this ran more smoothly than the demo I played a few years back. We did two fights and a tiny connecting scene and dénouement in four full hours. I enjoyed it and it scratched whatever itch I might have had for traditional play for a while.

Even with a smaller indie presence at DEXCON, there are still loads of people I didn’t get to see or talk to or game with! I better work on cloning myself.

It was a great con and I can’t wait for Metatopia. Only one hundred twenty four days!


Apologies for the late notice. I’ve been dealing with some medical issues. Regardless, time marches on and DEXCON approaches quickly.

If you would like to run a LARP or LARP-like event, that needs to be submitted directly to Vinny by *tomorrow* Tuesday, May 13. You can send it to his Email account: salvius AT dexposure DOT com

All type top indie games for DEXCON are due Memorial Day, Monday, May 26. You can email those to our Gmail account: indiegamesexplosion

Thanks and please reshare with any potential interested parties. Thanks.


Okay, so my #maelstrom2014 post is a week late. It’s been a busy week. The convention was a good time, as always. Many thanks to Avie and Vinny and the incredible Double Exposure staff for making it happen. I launched three games and played in two.

*Vast & Starlit*
Friday night I was full of nervous energy and wanted to offer something unfamiliar, challenging, that I hadn’t run before. Vast & Starlit filled those points. I pitched the game as “a setting like Farscape run with a system like Who’s Line Is It Anyway?” I got three players, two of which I had never played with before. The start up was a bit rough. We played for two hours and crafted a game that was a bit scattered, and a bit silly. No one really was willing to do _anything_ to be captain. I think the nerves of a new con and a new group made everyone a little less willing to take the lead, and Vast & Starlit definitely needs proactive players. We did get a fun result from the alien species creation rules: A species who are big and strong and intimidating on their low-gravity home planet, but pushovers relative the rest of the galaxy.

*HERO system*
Since my first game finished after only 2 hours, I had a bit of time before bed. Darren Watts was launching a Hero System game. I had never played Hero, but I had once made a character for 4 hours. This session was fun and reminded me of both the strengths and the weaknesses of traditional gaming. I won’t spoil too much of the scenario, but Darren had very cleverly culled a number of ’70s and ’80s action TV shows for characters and setup, and put an interesting spin on the whole package. One of the strengths of traditional play is that the GM’s vision can be fully realized and explored, which is a good thing when the vision is as clever, amusing, and well thought-through as this one. Pondering on how that long-term prep can be brought to bear on the types of games I like is worth thinking about.

*Ganakagok*
Saturday morning I wanted to return to something more comfortable, but that I hadn’t actually played in a while. A return to the island of ice was in order. Rob Bohl, Flavio, Neil, Kat played our Nitu preparing to see the sun rise for the first time. The Ganakagok tarot, and our imaginations, worked their magic once more, and the specifics of our setting were really great. The island was an ice crust on the back of massive beluga whales. They came together to mate once a generation, and the peoples from the various islands would trade, intermarry, visit family, and the like. We only got through three scenes, but I felt it was enough to get a sense of myth and majesty. In the end, the rising of the sun drove the whales to dive deep, where the people could not follow. Luckily, the people were able to find solid land and prosper there, even though they cast out the one who led them there and forgot the ways of their ancestors. The sheets from this game were donated to Phredd & Krista’s project.

*Lunch*
Not technically a game, but one of the best times I had. Bill White, Marissa Kelley, Brendan Conway, Kat Miller, Mark Diaz Truman, Rich Flynn and I laughed over topics ranging from hacking D&D4 to make it amenable to the tastes of story gamers, to new AW hacks being developed, to that time that Hawkeye saved the entire multiverse. Really. He did.

*Four-Color Process*
James Fry gave quite the thought-provoking panel on racism in superhero comics. I wanted to hear other perspectives on the issue–thoughts that would take me outside my own head and my own biases as I continue to ponder the revision of With Great Power. I was not disappointed. James and his fellow panelists, Kirk Etienne and Cornell Green, gave me quite a bit to think about, and I greatly appreciate their time and insight.

*Everway*
The Saturday evening slot was overstuffed with GMs and unattached players were rare on the ground. So Kat and I grabbed a table with our friends Adrian Stein, Joann Clarke-Stein and played some Everway. Although the “adventure” was called “One Day and Three Knights” we did not make much progress. We had too fun making characters and laughing until our sides ached.

*Heroine*
Sunday morning Kat and I wanted to close out the con with something different. Avie had specifically requested that someone be willing to offer up Heroine, so we did. Our group consisted of Joshua Kronengold, Lisa Padol, Phredd Groves, Kat Miller. Kat played a heroine named Diane who was being forced to move from the suburbs into the city because of her father’s work. While unpacking “the Takers” came and stole her parents, and Diane had to venture into a far-off land to rescue them. Along the way, she met a cat looking for investors to help build his railroad, a perpetually indecisive planner covered in eyes, and a wyvern who painted landscapes. She also delivering a mysterious message from the Night King to the Queen of the Sun. It turns out it was a marriage proposal, and for her services in setting up the nuptials, her parents were returned to her and she was returned home. The game is interesting. I’m _really_ glad that I made the player reference cards that I did. Some of the most important rules are buried inside long paragraphs. I found it very difficult to get enough drama points as the narrator in order to do anything. But I really enjoyed the game, and I think I’ll add it to my regular bag as a pick up game.

Maelstrom was a fun time. I’ll post my thoughts on the convention structure separately, but it was a fun time and we’re looking forward to adding this to our regular convention rotation.


Back from yet another another amazing Dreamation. Massive thanks to Vinny, Avie and the whole Double Exposure crew, as always, for making such a fantastic environment to play in. And thanks to all the GMs, volunteers, and players who brought their staggeringly awesome creative might to bear on the snowy expanses of New Jersey.

Thursday night I revived a game I haven’t run in a number of years: My Life with Master. The game delivered, as it always does. The four players crafted me a master who sought to bring his beautiful bride back from the dead. I dispatched them to harvest the dreams of children, kidnap a new host body, and burgle the home of a gravedigger, among other unsavory errands. Nikolai–who could pass undetected through shadows, except when traveling alone, and could not speak unless spoken to–rose up against the Master and brought an end to the reign of terror. It was good to stretch those muscles again.

Friday morning I ran InSpectres. (Yes, that’s right. Both games I ran are more than a decade old. What of it?) We had a full table of six, with players bringing such characters as an ex-exterminator, a priest with ninja training, a shovel-wielding mortician, and an ex-possessee devoted to getting revenge on anything remotely supernatural. They faced down a pack of leprechaun drug dealers, and got embroiled in a magical turf war between a Beef and Borscht restaurant and the aggressive, eldritch Pizza Go Go. Much laughter ensued.

Friday afternoon saw me in a playtest of Brie Sheldon’s game Clash. It’s a game about people caught up in a conflict larger than themselves. The details of that conflict are very open to the creation of the group, but then the meat of play is about character scenes. I liked it very much and enjoyed that character goals and faction goals don’t need to related at all. The game has not yet figured out how it wants to address the eternal problem of “you can play any setting” games. Namely, how best to help the players create that sort of setting. But it’s definitely on a good trajectory and I look forward to seeing the next version and playing again.

Friday evening was my highlight of the convention: Laura Simpson’s The Companions’ Tale. This game was so fun, and it both taught me new things about game design and reminded me of old lessons I’d forgotten. We are all telling the tale of a great hero doing great things upon the world, but we are telling that tale from the point of view of those who witnessed the hero’s great deeds. The companions can be mentors, sidekicks, lovers, rivals, or a host of other types. It does a great job in assigning specific, fruitful story-telling tasks to different players at different times. My absolute favorite role was the Lorekeeper, where you describe how some piece of culture (a painting, a poem, a sport, a type of food, a children’s rhyme, etc.) was formed to reflect the events of the story just recounted. I can’t wait to get my hands on this game and play it again!

Saturday morning, I played In A Wicked Age. I had played once before, with less than stellar results. I wanted to see it from another point of view. This was certainly a better table, with lots of creativity producing a juicy setup with a group of mischievous djinn having been released from centuries-long binding, the wizard seeking rebirth into a new body so he could rebind them, and simple servant girl driven to write her own grand destiny, the scheming conjurer, and the princess who could divine, and re-speak the future. The initial setup of play, with the oracles and the brianstorming and the character building, went utterly smoothly and was lots of fun. And once the dice came out, they felt more like an obstacle to creativity than a spur. Maybe our initial setup was too cut-throat, leaving us too little room to negotiate. I’m not sure. I liked the fiction we created, I just didn’t enjoy half the process we used to create it.

I had a terribly frustrating lunch break on the _lovely_ thruways of the Garden State in my quest for cake. But returned just in time to play a session of Monsterhearts. I had never been in a game with a Selkie before, so I chose that skin. We had several experienced players who understood that in a convention game, you need to go for the throat right out of the gate. I ended up convincing the werewolf to help me get my “swimsuit” back from the infernal who had stolen it. But she had already worn it and stretched it all out. I wept to mother ocean, who obliterated the entire high school in a tsunami. The other PCs survived the devastation because, monsters. It was a fun, raucous session.

Saturday evening we held the Indie Game eXplosion 10th anniversary party. Lots of people stopped down for snacks, cake, and conversation. Exactly as we planned. Thanks, everybody for a decade of great times!

Sunday night I ran InSpectres again. This time, I had five players. Whenever Joann sits down at the same table as me, I know I’m going to have a good time. The others were new faces, who had had InSpectres on their shelves for years but not played. I always love being able to shake the dust off people’s gaming shelves. This franchise started out so down on its luck that they rented a room in the YMCA and used the payphone as their business line. They confronted a building haunted by unsavory Muzak, only to make contact with the ghost of Liberace and sign him to a record deal. Later, they found the town reservoir infested with dragon turtles. We laughed until our sides ached.

Saturday late night was for great conversations with great people. And I realized how much the physical location of the conversation acts as a social constraint of group size, and therefore, topic.

Sunday morning I book-ended the convention with another session of My Life With Master. This time, the players crafted a power-hungry Countess who sought to enslave Lucifer himself. Lots of creepiness in this one, with wedding dresses of human skin and demons unleashed to drive widows from their home. I was so relieved when they finally flung me out the window to be impaled on the cast iron fence outside. Two of the minions died as well, and the other two sought out other vile masters to serve. A melancholy ending to a great weekend of gaming.


Metatopia 2013

04Nov13

What a good, good convention Metatopia 2013 was. Despite the continual growth in size, the culture of critique and improvement has remained strong. While it’s never easy to talk about what parts of games aren’t working, almost everyone had a great attitude about both giving and receiving suggestions. Thanks to Vinny, Avie, and the tireless Double Exposure staff for continuing to put on such a great show.

We got to the convention on Friday in time for Andy K’s panel on the replay culture in Japanese RPGs. Fascinating stuff about how play culture has spread in Japan through replays. Lots of food for thought.

Next, I had my first focus group on the character and setting creation mechanics of the With Great Power revision. Kay, Rishi, and Adrian gave generously of their thoughts and insights into the needs of superheroic games. I filled several pages of notes, but the single best suggestion to come out of this session was that we should have each player describe their character doing their super-awesome super heroic thing, and then the rest of the players take on the role of the media and give the hero a name based on that description.

Next, I was on a panel with Kat, Amanda Valentine, and Cam Banks, about working with family and friends. There were only a half-dozen attendees, so we rearranged the chairs and gathered everyone into a loose circle–a more intimate arrangement of space for a more intimate topic. I thought it was a very interesting and informative discussion about how things can get complex very quickly when personal and professional relationships overlap. Remember: Communication in both directions is key! Asking is better than telling.

After lunch I was able to return the favor to Rishi, by playtesting his game Variance. It’s an interesting premise that has characters leaping between alternate-world versions of themselves, somewhat like Quantum Leap crossed with Sliders. I think that Jody and I were able to offer some solid suggestions, particularly that if the world-leaping is the central premise of the game, then the in-fictional reason and consequences of that should be central to what happens in the game.

Friday night found me in what was certainly the best, most complete game of the con. A great group of Jim, Andy, and Brendan played Keith Stetson’s Ill Counsel, a game of political deal-making. It was fun to just posture and pontificate as arrogant nobles working out the problems of a fantasy kingdom. There’s a few things that Keith can do to tighten up procedures and adding a map will be a big improvement. But the core is good and functional. While this is fun on its own, I could see playing this as a supplement to an ongoing campaign as a way to generate new political situations in your setting. It was so thought provoking it kept me up for hours when I was supposed to be sleeping.

On Saturday morning, I playtested Mark’s character and setting generation rules for his cyberpunk game Headspace. The procedural clarity of the game is a far cry from the disorganized “make stuff up” appeals that current WGP has, and was a great insight into a structured paradigm of guided creativity. I really enjoyed the process, and I hope our suggestions were helpful. I’m interested to see the game when it’s finished, as the team of highly-skilled operators who share skills, but also the emotionally charged memories that forged those skills, sounds really interesting.

Saturday afternoon was the block of RPG panels. I went to great presentations on Kickstarter, game retailing, and ebooks. I should probably mention that if anyone wants help creating epub and Kindle versions of their games, they should contact me. I actually make ebooks as part of my day job.

Saturday evening I played a narration-passing game called Boneyard where you have a handful of dominoes and how they fit together prompts you to tell a story. Vinny had really packed it full of people and there were eight of us playing, I think. It’s odd to be the only person at the table not having fun. I didn’t feel that the dominoes added anything, and the main thing the game did was give everyone the social permission to be creative within a particular genre. The one playtester suggested it would be a good warm up exercise for role playing. I can see it useful in that sense, but not really my thing as an activity in its own right.

Saturday night I had another great panel on WGP character/setting creation with Mark, Will, Amanda, Joanna, and Darren. Ideas flew thick and fast and again I filled pages of notes. I appreciate everyone’s enthusiasm and insight and I hope that I made sure everyone got time to speak. There was so much good advice in this session that’s its hard to pick out just one. The one that leaps to mind is to not shy away from constraint, that superheroes are too broad of a genre to handle all of them. I should take my slice and do that slice really, really well.

After some good after hours conversation, and a decent night’s sleep, Sunday morning had my actual playtest of With Great Power. The rules were less than two weeks old, as I had completely revised the game yet again since BurningCon. They were at the point where I would normally take them for a brief spin with Kat, just to see if the general amounts of dice are right, that the incentives are pointing in the right direction, and so on. Instead, I kicked the tires with Krista, Brendan, Rich, Joe, and Darren. And it was a beautiful, informative disaster. “Disaster” insofar as the dice mechanics themselves do not sync up at all with the goals of the game. “Beautiful” and “Informative” insofar as the goal of the game was discernible by all the players and they could suggest better ways to get there. I filled pages and pages of my notebook again, but the game will be stronger for it.

Thanks to everyone I played with, talked with, and waved to in passing. Can’t wait to see everyone again at Dreamation!


Just got back from a tremendously, awesomely fun weekend at DEXCON! Many thanks to the wonderful Double Exposure staff who put on such a great show, as always.

Due to holiday obligations, our convention started on Friday morning. During event signup, I had wanted to run an extra game to expand the schedule, but knew I wouldn’t have time to prep. One of my favorite zero prep games is InSpectres, so I dusted that off. Many of the folks at the table were relatively new to these strange little games we play, and had only heard of InSpectres as a game from years past. Well, we were able to breathe some life back into its aged bones!

My wonderfully creative players (Marcus, Sarah, Irven, Mitch, and Tim) populated the franchise with colorful employees, ranging from interns, failed librarians, and serial tech-start-up guy to a failed voice actor and a former garbage man who now wanted to take out the paranormal trash! They finished and billed two cases. The first was a case of a sudden, sustained downpour of blood at the food court at the zoo. Turns out that one of the zoo’s acquisitions was cursed. It required a exorcism with a song in multiple voices. Luckily, the voice artist came to the rescue. In their second mission, our working stiffs faced a series of disappearances in a condominium complex. When investigating, they heard voices from the upstairs bedroom. They approached and heard more clearly the words “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in a crazy, mixed-up world like this.” Opening the door to the bedroom, on they other side, in glorious black and white, was the entire airport set from Casablanca, with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman performing the last scene. Of course, the intern was rounded up as one of the usual suspects and pulled into the film just before the end. They managed to rescue him, banish the haunting, return all those disappeared, and face down an entire black and white cavalry regiment. All in a day’s work for the InSpectres.

During the second session, I ran a playtest of the newest revision of With Great Power. I had six players (Amy, Tim, Nick?, Patrick, Jenny, and Dave?), but only five characters. Pat volunteered to sit out, but I was able to use him as the minions of my super villains. It was a fun game, and revealed many of the very rough edges of the latest rules draft. Our heroes were all superhuman mutants who attended a secret school, learning to use their powers to help humans and mutants coexist in peace. Of course, both the would-be Empress of Mutantkind and a group of human supremacists attacked the school simultaneously. We had to cut the session short due to a scheduling mishap, but in comic book terms, that means that we’d leave the reader hungry for issue #2.

After dealing with an inept waiter at the Famished Frog, we returned for the evening time slot. It was my first time running Monsterhearts as a convention game. Of my four players (Karin, Ami, Kathy, and Christian), all were familiar with the genre, but only one had played the game before. I like teaching games, so that was no trouble at all. We had a Queen, an Infernal, a Witch, and a Ghost. At the start of the game, it looked like the rivalry between the Witch, who knew real magick, and the Queen, whose popularity was based on everyone thinking she knew real magic, would be the driving force of the game. As it ended up, the engine of conflict was more and more about the Infernal doing worse and worse things to appease his dark master. It was a fun session, accompanied with the comment, “This is what high school was like. Why do we want to relive this?”

Saturday morning, I ran Monsterhearts again. This time, my four players (John, Andi, Sarah, and Neil?) chose the Werewolf, the Fae, the Ghost, and the Ghoul. All of the players had played or MCed Monsterhearts before, so setup was a breeze. I’m not as skilled at asking provocative questions as I ought to be, but after just a little stumbling, we launched into a tale filled with: one of the school teachers blaming himself for the Ghost’s death and planning to sacrifice a student to bring her back; the Fae having sex and extracting promises from an NPC Chosen and druggie; the Werewolf eviscerating several members of the rival football team; and the Ghoul being immolated in a burning house, but getting up and being just dandy later. Which is just what you want from a session of this game.

Saturday afternoon was my first slot as a player, and I was able to get into a game of Dog Eat Dog, which I’ve been hearing good things about. Keith Stetson facilitated, and my fellow players were Irven, Natalie, and Jim. This game of colonialism and its effects on both the occupier and the natives was interesting in its simplicity. It is very smart and elegant and I could see it becoming very, very brutal. One of our constraints was that the occupying culture did not use spoken language. They used sign language and semaphore. I think that working within this constraint probably prevented the occupation player from developing any distinct characters on his side. It was a very interesting experience and I’m interested in getting a copy.

After dealing with a different, surly waiter at the Famished Frog, I came back to run my second session of With Great Power. My four players (Markus, Jonathan, Kat, and Blair) were all excellent role-players. They brought out the delicious, delectable angst inherent in the Mutant Academy characters. Due to some rules revisions, the fight scene went more smoothly this time. By “more smoothly” I meant as far as the players using the rules and the dice. Not “more smoothly” for the characters, who saw the villains burn the Mutant Academy to the ground, and make off with the data core that held all the mutant research and their secret identities! More rough edges were revealed, and I’ve got my work cut out for me. It was a very fun session and the game’s moving in the right direction.

Sunday morning, I got to playtest Bill White’s new game The New World with Clark and Amanda Valentine. It is also a game about colonization, but much crunchier than Dog Eat Dog. The game uses playing cards as a sort of oracle for creating the setting, culture, and characters. One of the most interesting wrinkles is that the game requires a native culture, a newcomer culture, and an outsider culture, that is somehow distinctive from both. We created a powerful native society that was obsessed with building golden temples to their dead kings. The outsiders were the hungry, overworked miners that brought them gold and built the temples. The newcomers were a commercial fleet arriving with tons of their own gold to undersell the outsiders, which would have left them to starve. Due to impending long drives, we only played a single round, but my dowager queen was ahead in Legacy points. We gave Bill what I think were a lot of helpful suggestions, and I look forward to this game as it continues to evolve.

As always, DEXCON was great. Thanks to all!


Dreamation 2013

25Feb13

I have never had a bad convention experience at Dreamation, but this year’s was one of the best ever! Low stress, lots of excitement and enthusiasm on faces both old and new made for a very, very good time.

I kicked off the convention with my newest Mouse Guard scenario “Death Among the Drifts.” It’s set in the middle of winter, involves some very seriously potent, hungry predators, and, as the name implies, is very deadly. I had a table full of great players, but they were unable to drive off the big, bad, badger, or to repair the Scent Border. I even devoured two of the mice. Everyone said they had fun, but I was beginning to suspect that I had made a scenario that was just plain overpowered and mean.

Friday morning, I played Tenra Bansho Zero, run by Brendan Conway. It was the first time I played the game that Andy Kitkowski first showed me nearly nine years ago. I was expecting the crazy imagery of “every anime you’ve ever heard of thrown into a blender.” I wasn’t expecting the emotional turmoil, character interactions, and story development. I was really, really impressed. My expectations were low, and the game blew past them.

The scenario itself was called “The War-Bride’s Choice.” It was set in a remote retreat where many powerful lords had come to vie for possession of the latest masterpiece of a master craftsman who carved mannequins from wood who then became flesh. I got to play the masterpiece herself, Spirit Trophy. Unbeknownst to the lords, but knownst to their players, the master craftsman was going to allow Spirit Trophy make her *own* decision. We had a great game filled with speed-line filled anime action, heart-wrenching tragedy, self-sacrifice, and foul betrayals. At any other con, this would have easily been my favorite session. Not so at Dreamation.

Friday afternoon, I ran my first public playtest of the latest revision of With Great Power. I had great players around the table: Ralph Mazza, Rob Bohl, Phil Walton, and Joann Stein. I had great story material, as I was using classic With Great Power scenario I’ve run dozens of times before. The rules draft, however, was less than twenty-four hours old at that point, and had never hit the table with multiple players. There were some bumps along the way, and some stops and starts. But we had a good time, told a complete story, and I got some really invaluable feedback. The game that emerges will be so much stronger because of this uneven session.

Friday night saw me playing Dread for the first time. I haven’t played before because the horror genre is most assuredly *not* my thing. But the setting for this event was the universe of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, which I have some familiarity with, and fondness for. I expected we’d do some interesting stuff with players realizing that they were Cylons when the tower fell, and stuff like that. I thought it could be interesting.

When I first came over to the table, I was bowled over by the huge poster-sized diagram of the Battlestar Hades on the table. And the handouts were just as gorgeous, complete with customized ship’s seal and octagonal pages, just like on the show. The GM, Mark Richardson, joked that he had spent all week “cutting corners” for his event. And the careful labor really showed through.

I wasn’t as thrilled with the event itself. It took place during the initial Cylon attack on the colonies, essentially the first two hours of the BG miniseries. We took the time to fill out the extensive Dread questionnaires about our characters, their backstory and relationships. However, as we were on one of the doomed Battlestars, the game became a litany of terrifying, doomed malfunctions, explosions, firefighting, and jury-rigged escape plans. Mark said he was going to post his materials online, so perhaps I’ll run this one sometime, drawing out the timescale and allowing the characters to develop a bit before their demise.

Saturday morning, I again ran Mouse Guard. I had four players: A mom, dad, and their two sons. The kids were probably late tweens/early teens. They mentioned that this was their first time playing Mouse Guard and i didn’t want to diminish their first experience of the game by killing their characters, so I offered to run something less deadly on the fly. They chose to stick with the deadlier scenario, and made a noble effort. The dice were against them, and despite an excellent effort, at the end of the fight with the badger, I still had a few points of disposition left when they hit zero. As a major compromise, i figured eating a few of the mice, instead of the whole patrol and a dozen villagers that the badger had hungered after was a fair deal. In the true spirit of the guard, two of the players hurled themselves into the jaws of death to sate the creature’s appetite and allow the other two to escort the villagers to safety.

Saturday afternoon, I played a hack of Lady Blackbird set in a superhero setting. This session never quite soared for me, but mainly because of external factors: I was late getting to the game. The player whose character was the main target of my character’s subplots left the game about halfway in. The setting was a whole mash of superhero ideas thrown at a wall to see what stuck. We ended up saving Beacon City, and I melted a metallic bad guy with my flaming sword. What more can you ask for?

Saturday evening I ran my second session of All-New, All-Different With Great Power. I got to the table late, and when I did the players were discussing the differences between Aberrant and Wild Talents. I knew where I stood with these guys, and they did not disappoint. It was a very, very good session with loads of angst, impassioned speeches, and zap-bang action. Many of the tweaks that we’d worked out the day before got put to the test, and came through well. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me, but the game is in great shape.

Sunday morning I was able to play Monster of the Week, one of the many hacks of Apocalypse World. I hadn’t played it before. It’s pretty neat. If you distilled all of the teen angst/romance out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you’d get Monsterhearts. The remaining stuff would be Monster of the Week: All scary monster hunting, all the time.

Our group was large and diverse, and we hunted monsters in upstate New York for many and varied reasons. But the history section of the MotW character-creation process did a good job of tying the large group together in a comfortable manner. I loved the way the other players customized their character concepts, from the innocent-looking twelve-year-old Chosen in the pigtails and plaid skirt sneaking out back to smoke cigarettes, to the lithe and heavy-eyeliner look of the half-demon, to the straight-laced, utterly normal Mundane. My character was a tall, broad-shouldered man in a flannel shirt, ax thrown over his shoulder named Summerrain Czegny. It was a fun, fun session.

Thanks to everyone I played with, all the GMs and players who made the atmosphere so electric, and the amazing Double Exposure staff who once more made this grand cavalcade of gaming possible.


The second annual METATOPIA convention in Morristown, NJ was this past weekend, and it was a great time, as always. We had called ahead to ensure that power was on at the hotel and that food would be available in the wake of the hurricane. And indeed, the only resources in short supply were gasoline (which we filled up on before leaving PA) and time enough to playtest and talk about all the things we wanted to.

Friday night was Kat’s playtest of her game “May the Odds be in Your Favor”, a sort of remix of elements from Serial Homicide Unit with setting inspiration from The Hunger Games. This is the third iteration of the rules, and the changes provoked a much more team-centric “us vs. them” mentality than previous versions. Less tragic, more exciting. Which meant for a high energy level at the table. I kind of missed the drops of sadness at each point where the tributes died. But being caught up in the excitement of violence, even when it’s a terrible, tragic thing, is also a phenomenon to be grappled with. Kat made some further changes before her second playtest on Saturday that I was not a part of, so things might be very different now. Regardless, I enjoyed my game a great deal and can’t wait to see the next iteration.

Saturday morning, I played Russell Collins’ game “Tears of a Machine” which is Neon Genesis Evangelion with the serial numbers filed off. It’s a much more traditional design than I’ve played in a while. GM delivers situation, players react to it. Roll some dice to resolve a conflict. The imaginative work of Russell’s setting creation was impressive. We didn’t do much in the way of debriefing, but I personally would have liked more player decisions, even about what to do, where to go, how to address things other than combat. Although, just listening to Russell’s dulcet tones describe the sensations of becoming a hundred foot tall alien robot was engaging enough. Maybe he’ll need to release an audio track along with the game.

After lunch, I was supposed to playtest some new space combat rules for Mobile Frame Zero, but Joshua wasn’t able to make it to the con. I tried out a card game about Civil War infantry combat called “Ready, Aim, Fire.” It’s a quick, two-player strategy card game where you need to try to get cards into their proper order of “Load, Ready, Aim, Fire” in six piles and score points for doing so. It wasn’t quite my thing. I enjoy real time card games enough. And I enjoy strategy card games enough. But just for my own tastes, there was too much strategy for the time frame. Or maybe the strategy parts of my brain don’t like to share with the quick-thinking parts of my brain. I enjoyed it, but proabaly wouldn’t seek it out again.

Saturday night, I playtested Brendan Conway’s hack of Don’t Rest Your Head called “Titans.” It’s inspired by stories like Watchmen and The Authority where superheroes try to actually change the world to meet their utopian vision. The premise is good, and the character creation questions elicited some pretty interesting characters from us. I made The Pendragon, the once and future king, who wanted to bring the whole world under the realm of law and righteousness. Lisa properly described him as “Doctor Doom with better PR.” I was aided in my quest by M.E.R.L.I.N., a sentient computer that wanted to bring enlightened self-interest to the world, my vizier Dr. Veritas, the super genius who wanted to eliminate religion. We were opposed by the forces of Everyman, an Anonymous-like movement of anti-Titan sentiment. Rich, as the player of Everyman, decided he was just one guy, but could possess people to do his bidding. It was a neat setup, with the initial bang being my character saving London from a bomb, and harnessing its energy to raise an island of Avalon from the sea. During the course of the game, I even threatened the Sect. of State that I would personally conquer the US if they got in my way. The fiction we came up with was good. The mechanics that led us there were not quite where they could be. There was really no solid way of changing the environment, of changing the world. We gave Brendan a whole heck of a lot to think about, and I hope he ponders it thoroughly, because i’d love to play another version of this game at Dreamation.

Sunday morning, I was just going to pack and go, but Rob Bohl roped me into a test of his new game Sad and Miserable: The Secret Lives of Stand-up Comedians. It’s got a long way to go, but it’s got potential. You create your stand-ups, and a friend of theirs. And then that friend character, is also the antagonist character to a different stand-up. Which is a nice way to develop a relationship map on the fly, and give immediate depth to the supporting cast. Sometimes, the supporting characters even had more depth than the stand-ups themselves. Rob has a lot of work yet to do on the resolution mechanic (we essentially playstormed that part) but he’s on an interesting track, and I’d like to see more, as well.

And then we left and I drove smack-dab into the middle of a surprise birthday party for me! My wife is tricky when she puts her mind to it.

Thanks to Vinny, Avie, Kate, and the entire Double Exposure family for another fantastic show. Counting the days until Dreamation (109, for the curious).


So, yesterday I went to BurningCon: The Triadumverate. I live a few hours west of NYC, so it’s a long day’s travel to take a bus into the city, catch a subway to the convention site, and then reverse the whole process once the last game slot is finished. But I’m glad I did. I haven’t gotten to play much of anything in months, so it was a welcome reminder that I still know how to do this. And it was also a great opportunity to play with awesome players like Jay, Al, Chris, Phredd, Dustin, Dave, Topi, Ajit, Treci, Josh, Rob, and Terri. The BurningCon always attracts top-notch players who know their stuff and bring their A-game.

I started off by running Mouse Guard. With recent family events, I knew I wouldn’t be up to doing a full-blown MG hack like I did last year. I ran a straight-up MG adventure called “Drought” that I originally wrote for last Dreamation. It’s a decent scenario, with a group of weasels having taken a town hostage during a drought, by rigging the town’s dam to burst if their extortion of food and meat isn’t sated. The guys on Saturday had some of the worst dice luck I’ve seen outside of my own rolls as a player. In the very first conflict, I defeated three of the four mice on the second action! In the end, Thom, the patrol leader was captured, escaped, failed to rally the townsmice against the weasel-enabling mayor, and was defeated in combat by the weasels. They feasted on his ale-fattened corpse, but their banquet served as distraction to allow the remaining guardsmice to disable the booby trap on the dam, and lay an ambush for the returning, overfed weasels, and avenge their fallen Patrol Leader. It was a good game, if a bit gruesome. It was actually the first time I’ve had a PC death in a Mouse Guard game.

After a quick lunch, I flexed my first-priority-rank to grab a seat in Terri’s Lady Blackbird game. I had played once before, and had a lukewarm experience. I wanted to see if playing a different character would help me understand why this game is so often touted as one of the best story games. I played the disguised and on-the-run Lady Blackbird, who suited me much better than the petty thief Kale that I played last time. The other players were also very much bringing their A-game, and Terri was quick to probe our characters’ reactions to events. “Snargle, you just heard Lady Blackbird insult your captain. What do you think about that?” It was a fun game, even I ended up with relatively few xp, simply because I did a lot of helping other players, rather than doing things myself. And, in the end, I may have gone a bit too far into the tired trope of “the scorned woman.” But no one at the table seemed to mind.

After a mild dinner, I was drawn in by Luke’s line of “I don’t think I’ll be able to get nine people for my LARP. You should play.” I was then among the eight or nine people that got turned away due to the priority system. Last time I believe Luke and his modesty (not really)!

Luckily, I was able to snag a seat in an Apocalypse World MC’d by Jay. It was the third time I played the game, and certainly the most enjoyable session. I have mixed feelings about the game, as I find the color/setting material to be off-putting, but the mechanics fascinating. This was a good group who was familiar with the game, and things developed quickly. The setup was that we were all part of a new hard hold being set up in a mysterious complex, that had a big, ominous door in the center. I played a savvy-head named Spector that flubbed his first “talk with machines” roll. I was contacted by the awe-inspiring voice behind the door, and committed myself to opening that door to see what was down there. As more and more of the other characters came to view the door as the biggest threat, I sort of became the villain of the piece. This was not a bad thing, as I was able to provide a focus and drive to the game by just doing stuff to meet my characters’ desires. I think that near the end, Rob backed off from killing my character when he maybe shouldn’t have, but it was as good a convention session of Apocalypse World as I’ve seen. Everyone’s characters got to do stuff they were good at, and accomplish something in their own characters’t stories, as well as address the common situation.

On the bus back, I was thinking about how when I started going to game conventions in the mid-90s, I was often the one to play the wild, active, “gonzo” character. And these days, I am often like the “straight man” on a comedy team, providing grounding and context for the gonzo antics around me. I think that perhaps good con games need a mix of both active energy and context for that active energy. A decade and a half ago, the convention play culture emphasized risk avoidance and keeping your character alive. So, I provided spice and energy. Now, at least in Story/indie/Forge-derived/whatever games play culture, gonzo has become the default mode for convention play, so I try to provide the grounding and context. Food for thought.

Thanks to all I played with. It was a great time!


Just got back from a really, really great DEXCON. Played games, ran games, chatted with people, ate good food. Couldn’t ask for anything more.

My Thursday afternoon Mobile Frame Zero game only had one player show up. He was a Kickstarter supporter, and I mentioned that the game really sings with three players, but we weren’t able to pull in anyone else. I wanted to show off the game he had backed, but I had underestimated the effectiveness of the company I threw together and ended up beating him pretty badly. I think he enjoyed the game anyway.

Thursday night, I played in a playtest of Kat’s Serial Homicide Unit hack based on the Hunger Games. We had a full table and the game was lots of fun. Just like the Hunger Games, we created teenagers that were almost all going to die horribly in an arena of combat. Just like Serial Homicide Unit, there was no joy to be had in this combat, only the tragedy of young lives needlessly thrown away. We had some great creativity at that table, with people coming up with the details of their tributes’ reapings, their parade performance and training, and then the slaughter at the cornucopia where half the tributes die right out of the gate. Since the death is random, it was surprising that all the fittest and most able tributes died right out of the gate. One of my tributes lasted to the final round: the youngest tribute, Woody, small and doe-eyed and weak. The sponsors voted him lots of silver parachutes out of pity/sympathy. I really enjoyed the game.

Friday morning I ran Mobile Frame Zero again. This time I had two players, one of whom was a Kickstarter supporter. The game played more like I was accustomed to. I was the defender, and tried for a “they can’t attack you if they’re dead” defense. I seized a number of stations, too. At one point, I looked unstoppable and was 20 points ahead of my second place competitor. But the doomsday clock was only halfway, and when I fell, I fell hard. I ended the game with no frames. It was great fun, though.

Friday afternoon, I ran the first playtest of All-New, All-Different With Great Power. I ran our original With Great Power scenario “A League of Their Own” with the rules I had only finished the day before. I had great players at the table, and the game went well. It went differently than it ever has under the old system. I got nothing but compliments from the players. I see a number of rough patches that need to be filed down. A solid start, but lots of work yet to go.

Friday evening, I played in Andy Kitkowski’s Ryuutama game. It’s a Japanese RPG about a fantasy world where wanderlust is nigh-universal. The focus of the game is on exploration and travel, not fighting monsters. Characters were simple enough to put together, but then came 45 minutes of shopping for equipment. I really hate shopping, in games and IRL. I understand why it’s an important part of a game about wilderness travel. But for all the time we put into it, we didn’t really use it during this short playtest. The game was enjoyable, and we had some great players who really understood how to enhance the anime-flavor of their characters. I came away with a better understanding of exploration in RPGs.

Saturday morning, I had no players for my second With Great Power playtest. These things happen, particularly on crowded Saturday morning timeslots. This allowed me to try out a game I’ve been trying to get into for a very long time: Shawn de Armet’s One Night. I really enjoyed it. Shawn has faced down the “cold start” problem that’s endemic to games in the Universalis vein where you can pick up and play anything. He’s broken down popular gaming tropes, and randomly assigns groups of them to people to choose. After that, there’s a voting portion that is quick and fun to separate the wheat from the chaff. A similar process takes over once we have a specific setting in place and are developing situation and characters. We went from sitting down to having our situation and characters in hand in under an hour. I enjoyed the process and will likely steal some bits of it.

For this particular game, we came up with a sort-of steampunk story where Nazi robots had gone back in time to the Victorian age, in order to infiltrate and conquer it. As skyships flew overhead, we followed Holmes and Watson in trying to track down Jack the Ripper, and the fate of a simple German Jewish clockmaker, a man out of time. Also, I played Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, and who was currently writing a novel of the present. She would write things, and they would come true. We ended up thwarting Lord Byron’s plan to open a portal to the future inside Big Ben, and with Mary Shelley writing a happy ending for the fictional Dr. Watson. It was a very nice story.

Saturday afternoon, I played in John Stavropoulos’ Mouse Guard game. I haven’t been on the player side of Mouse Guard since the game was in playtest, so it was a nice change of pace. We had a great adventure saving a town from flooding, facing off with rampaging beavers, duplicitous guardsmice, and a charismatic bandit. One of the things I sometimes do in con games to shake things up is to look at a character, ask “What’s the most obvious thing to do with this character?” and then do something else. This time, that “something else” involved being friendly with the town’s bandits. Once I started, I didn’t know where to go with it, and left that loose plot thread flopping in the breeze. Not my best performance.

Saturday evening, I got to play in John’s Apocalypse World game. I’ve read a great deal about the game, but haven’t gotten a good taste of it. I wanted to see how John brought it into the four-hour convention format. I was impressed by the way he made a lot of choices in prepping the characters before hand, but left enough for us to customize at the table in order to make the game our own. Not surprisingly, the game yeilded a brutal, ugly story about brutal, ugly people. The setup was that our biker gang was all set to leave the collection of abandoned buildings they had been squatting at, and half the gang decided to stay. I played an adrogynous battlebabe called Absinthe, who tried to shoot the troublemakers who had incited disharmony inside the gang. We ended up facing down blood wolves and our gang leader nearly got killed by his ex-girlfriend. The whole thing was bloody and messed up, but the process of creating the story was interesting, and I have a better sense of the ways AW is unique, and the basis of its popularity and usefulness in hacking.

Sunday morning was all packing up and saying good bye. All in all, a really great weekend. Thanks to all the DEXCON staff, players, and GMs for making such a wonderful time!


Since I’m working on the new dice system for With Great Power, this kind of stuff is on my mind.

Just looking at dice systems, most of them have certain “points of articulation” like an action figure. Places where inputs from the fiction or from player decisions can affect the probability of the roll. One of the tasks of good design is to determine what those points of articulation are, map them clearly to their triggers in the game, and be certain you have a good understanding of what consequences each decision will have on the probability.

Let’s look for example at D&D 4th edition. The basic roll is d20 + bonus number versus a difficulty class or defense value. Where are the points of articulation in this single dice mechanic? Each item in that formula is its own point of articulation: the die roll, the bonus number, and the difficulty class/defense value.

The game puts in lots and lots (and lots) of different ways to change the three parts of this equation. For dice rolls, there are special abilities, usually race-related, that will allow you a re-roll, or allow you to add a d6 to your roll, or allow you to roll twice and use the better one. Access to these abilities is almost always determined in character creation, but their use is decided in play. The bonus number probably has the most ways to alter it: Level bonuses, ability score bonuses, special powers, weapon bonuses, and gaining combat advantage, just to name a few. The defense value will change through the use of abilities, and some powers allow you to attack different defenses than other powers.

In play, these points of articulation drive players to weigh the options when creating their characters, driving them to design characters that do one type of thing very, very well. In play, it encourages players to look for opportunities that combine bonuses of different sorts into the same attack. Movement is encouraged, since positioning can gain you multiple bonuses. This supports the kind of exciting, action-intense combats that D&D 4e was built to create.

As a designer, these exceptions can be the real meat of your game. They are where the players get to take fate in their hand and shape their own probabilities by the choices they make. Players love doing that. Make sure that the choices they make reflect the basic premise of the game. When your points of articulation do not match up with the tactical, exploratory, or thematic decisions that the premise demands, your game will earn the title “broken.” And deserve it.


Just to make the announcement all official-like: I will be re-designing, re-writing, and re-publishing With Great Power. The entire system will be redesigned to handle superheroic melodrama better than ever. The book will be completely rewritten with new aspects, sample characters and scenarios.

My goal is to have the game ready for sale by DEXCON 2013. I have an editor and a cover artist on-board. We all have a big challenge ahead of us. But the result will be stunning. Watch this space for updates as the game takes shape.


Camp Nerdly 2012 was a really great time. Thanks to all who made camp possible and run so very smoothly. I played a number of unsavory characters early in the con and then put on my white hat to finish off the convention on a positive note.

Friday night saw Kat, Remi, Georgianna, and me playing in Rachel Walton’s Burning Wheel game. It was centered on a group of young theives who had been captured, imprisoned, and sentenced to a life a slave labore in an overseas penal colony. I think that Friday night frayed nerves after hours of travelling were responsible for the tension and difficulty that reared up in the first half of the game. The inter-character conflict soared to eleven by the time we were shipwrecked on the beach. After a break, we came back and worked out how our characters fit into this new society: Could they make lives for themselves? In the end, my character’s brother, played by Kat, sacrificed himself to keep my hands clean. It was a sad, terrible thing, but I let him take the fall and felt like a worthless coward for doing it. Which is how a game about thieves should go, don’t you think?

Saturday morning enabled me to get in on a playtest of Dave Berg’s game In My Clutches. It’s a game of supervillains and their nefarious plans. It has rotating GMship, and each player portrays their villain as well as an NPC that is central to the story of another villain. My main villain was Captain Fahrenheit, who could control temperature. He had gone to the school of hard knocks and didn’t quite understand how to best use his powers for personal gain. He couldn’t even reconcile with his wife. Since his wife was a star reporter and devoted to noble causes like saving the planet and social justice, Captain Fahrenheit decided he would find a way to use his awesome powers to end global warming. However, he had to make her think that he had already had his powers surgically removed, because she would kick him out again otherwise.

It was a really fun game. I probably got more mileage out of playing my guest star: Captain Metropolis, champion of the city. She was being wooed by one of the other supervillains: King Orziman, a pseudo-Doctor Doom character. He succeeded amazingly well at his rolls and convinced her that he was walking the straight and narrow, purging the corrupt officials from his government that had led him astray. In the final endgame, it was revealed that his plan all along had been to sire a child with Captain Metropolis, and raise the child to … wait for it … TAKE OVER THE WORLD.

It’s a nice, tight little game that produces a lot of fun narrative constraint through play. I’d probably tweak the math a bit to make it easier to play a complete story in a single session, but that’s Dave’s call. Maybe an explicit “one-shot mode” and “extended play mode” or the like is called for, similar to MLwM’s “start with one Love and 2-3 points of Fear for a single session game” guideline. I’m really looking forward to seeing more of this game.

Saturday afternoon, I managed to squeeze into Arnold Cassell’s game of the Mountain Witch. I had never played before, and it was very educational. I can see now why trust mechanics were such a big thing back in the day. The giving rules weight to interaction between players was very nice. I suck at the whole “guess what other players’ secret agendas” are bit, even in board games. So, I ignored that part and just played my character. It was fun. We confronted the Mountain Witch about halfway through. He had all sorts of surreal demons and the like at his service, and lived in a palace that floated on a lake of magma. And his evil plot was … publishing books! I put an end to the Witch quickly, beheading him and revealing that I served another master. Unfortunately, one of the other ronin wanted revenge against me, and got it, blowing my head off with a blunderbuss. Highly charged testosterone-soaked action for the win!

Saturday evening, we played Kat’s new hack for Serial Homicide Unit, inspired by The Hunger Games. We we playing tributes in the first annual Hunger Games, a year after the end of the war. We did chose our tributes based on our district, and detailed what was special about us that would make the odds in our favor. I was from the livestock district. My name was Buck and the odds were in my favor because I could handle large animals. We then added why we needed to live. For Buck, it was because he had just gotten engaged. Then, we each listed one reason why the odds were not in our favor, and passed our sheet to the left where that player added another obstacle to our success, and so on. Buck had all kinds of problems: He didn’t think very quickly. He couldn’t stand lizards. We then played out little scenes where our tributes faced these challenges. To resolve the scene, we chose one of two cards. Underneath the card was either a silver parachute, to show that this experience would help us in the arena, or a firework, to show us that this experience would bring us closer to death.

Once we had played some tribute scenes, we all added a detail to the arena. This time, the arena was the urban wasteland that had formerly been the capital of district 13. It was filled with still-burning fires, flying lizards that spit poison, mutant rats that hunted in packs, unexploded mines and sinkholes. On the first round, all the tributes names were put in a fishbowl. One was drawn out, and that one would have to face one of the terrors of the arena. Just when we were about to see whether they lived or not, we would go to the cards. Remember the cards we were building up during the tribute scenes with the parachutes or fireworks on them? Well, we’d shuffle those cards, and add a random one from the deck and then choose one to see if we survived the obstacle. I died pretty quickly, diving for cover into a nest of flying lizards. It was tragic. A very good game and I look forward to Kat developing it more.

Sunday morning, I finally got to play Puppetland, after wanting to do so since I first bought the game umpteen years ago. It was a lot of fun, building on the game that the other players had done last year at Camp Nerdly. I was a lumberjack marionette named Jack Timber that could chop things with my axe, inspire others to do their work, and could not lie, not even to spare someone’s feelings. Dave’s puppet, Splotch Flaggy, had eaten several of Punch’s evil minons in the last game and was slowly being corrupted from within. I plainly stated that to anyone who asked, including an innocent little finger puppet who ran off crying (to her death!). It was sad and heartbreaking. I like the narrative constraints of speaking differently for players versus GM. I’m very glad I got to play.

And I’m very glad we went back to Camp Nerdly.


Originally posted over on G+, but also here in case I want to refer back to it:
?+Epidiah Ravachol was speculating on why John Carter has not done so at the box office. The discussion has just crystalized my own ideas on the subject.
My own first reaction to the movie was “I really enjoyed this, but it’s too geeky for most people to like.” By “geeky” I mean that it has a high barrier of entry. It takes some work to wrap your head around it. It’s super-hard to get the broad movie-going public to identify with, and enjoy, a story set in a world that never has and never will exist. The three huge exceptions, that thread the needle, are Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Avatar. Here’s why all of them have easier points of entry than John Carter.
CHARACTER: Luke Skywalker is presented as a farm boy with big dreams. People know what that is. Hobbits aren’t humans, but they are presented very much as a stand-in for human children. Jake Sully is a wounded warrior who wants to walk again. That “frustrated desire in the real world that is fulfilled in the fantasy world” is a big red carpet of identification.
John Carter is a Civil War officer. The Civil War is a hundred years deeper in history than it was in ERB’s day. In the movie version, he lost his wife and daughter, but we don’t know that until halfway through the movie. He’s harder for a 21st century audience to identify with.
SITUATION: Luke wants to go on an adventure against the Empire, that is very, very bad. Frodo has a big responsibility thrust upon him. If he doesn’t do it, no one will, and everyone will suffer. The big, faceless company is trying to steal the land from the Na’vi. Jake is the only one who can help them. Everyone’s dreamed of adventure, everyone’s had responsibilities thrust upon them. Everyone’s been screwed over by corporations.
John Carter is transported to a strange world where there are many different groups of people, all wanting different things. He wants to go home, even though his life at home sucks. I just don’t see much that resonates with common experience.
SETTING: Star Wars’ setting is not Earth, but Lucas’ greatest accomplishment is using visual cues to subtly communicate to the audience just what their expectations should be. “These guys where full face helmets and their officers look like Nazis. They’re evil.” “This place is filled with all kind of weird looking things you never imagined. It’s a seedy bar.” The setting is made visually digestible.
Middle Earth is also broken down into easily digestible chunks. Jackson gives us all those closeups of the ring, looming twenty feet tall on the screen, to show us how important it is. He spends lots and lots of time slowly introducing us to the more exotic elements of Middle Earth, like Moria and Mordor.
Avatar has the most accessible setting of them. It has Marines and corporate suits and scientists going native (with the same actress that played Jane Goodall!). The bizarre elements of Pandora are introduced slowly and one at a time.
Barsoom does not easily map to anything we already know. You can easily enough say that the Tharks are like Native Americans and Zodenga is the industrialized northern US, with Helium being the noble, aristocratic Confederacy. But you have to squint to see it, and there are no visual clues to tell us this. The red martians all dress like ancient Greek warriors with only a little strip of blue or red cloth to tell them apart. Stanton spent a lot of effort to make sure we knew who was a Thern in disguise, but not enough showing us who the bad guys were.
High barrier to entry on all three fronts = not many people are going to get over that barrier and enjoy the movie and recommend it to their friends.


Had a great time this weekend at Dreamation 2012. As always, the Double Exposure staff put on a great convention. The players are always top-notch and this year was no different.

Thursday

I started off the con playing Monsterhearts, MC’d by Brendan Conway. The game is built on the Apocalypse World chasis and sinks its fangs deep into the genre of teenage supernatural melodrama. We crafted a surprisingly tight story of a wish-made-flesh, and the unnatural forces the force of that wish had released upon the world. I played the brainy girl from the wrong side of the tracks who had finally figured out how to make magic work. As often happens in convention games, the events of the story escalated quickly until we had people vanishing in front of witnesses and a high school kid devouring the flesh of his enemies in the mall parking lot. However, we tied everything up by convincing the NPC whose original wish had unleashed the occult forces to “wish that today had never happened.” We woke up with complete memories of the day, but with nothing having yet happened. It felt very much like a story set two or three episodes into a TV series. It would serve to foreshadow coming events, and dramatize just how far these characters could go. It was a great game, certainly the one I enjoyed most on the player’s side of the table.

Friday

I started off the day running Time & Temp. I had neither run nor played the game before, but a few months ago I had an idea for a Shakespearean time traveling adventure, and the light tone of Time & Temp seemed a good fit. As it turned out, virtually everyone signed up strictly to play Time & Temp, and my quickly dashed off event description was all but ignored. Which was fine, because the game was a blast to play.
I had brought pre-gen characters to the table. Most of them had some sort of humorous Shakespearean connection. There was a survivor of the futuristic nuclear wastelands of Scottland named MacDyff. There was the fourth daughter of King Lear. And, since boys played the women’s parts in Shakespeare’s day, there was a female Elvis impersonator.
I was fortunate that nearly all the players were familiar with the game, and extremely energetic and creative. We laughed a lot, and they saved Shakespeare’s reputation as the world’s greatest playwright.
After a quick lunch at the cafe in the convention center, I played Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, facilitated by Connie Allison. The game was quite a surprise, and nothing at all what I expected. Admittedly, I knew very little and went into the event wanting to learn about the game. I had not realized that the game centered on crafting a written story line-by-line with no room for character play or dialogue. My pilgrim was Cunning Cord. I got into trouble by making things too complex, and helped people by tying impossible knots. We ended up ending the war between the forest and the ocean, but I really had no investment in my character, or the others.
One curious thing happened during the game. I had essentially become secretary, writing down the sentences that the group came up with. We were about half way through the game, and I think that much of the group was beginning to understand that gameplay was going to consist of yo-yoing from being in trouble to being out of trouble until we checked off all the words from the required list. Since I was writing down the sentences, I started to alliterate them. It started as an off-hand comment from another player, but soon took on a life of its own. One of my sentences was “Pilgrim Perfect Penguin pestered the people’s poor parenting procedures, properly putting himself into a positive posture.” In retrospect, I think I was rebelling against the constraints the game was making on me. Since we could have no creative input apart from writing the single, solitary sentence, I was going to pour my energy into stretching that form. Or something. I’m still not sure why I did that.
There was much laughter and I certainly enjoyed the session. The game itself was very thought-provoking, and interesting. I hesitate to say that “I had fun.”
After a disappointing meal from the burrito place (we need to remember to not go there next time), I ran my second session of Time & Temp. This time, the players were not already familiar with the game. My own unfamiliarity became a more glaring flaw, and the game did not quite gel as well as the earlier session. The players missed wiping out all of reality as if it never had been by a single die roll. The all claim to have had fun, and so did I. I guess I just felt that I had let them down.

Saturday

Saturday morning I ran my newest Mouse Guard scenario, “Drought.” It’s a great little setup where a family of weasels have taken a whole village hostage by seizing a dam during a drought. The first session had a nice mix of veteran players and newbies. About an hour and half into the session, the started interrogating one of the town mice about what was going on, and I thought I’d throw in a brief, little scripted conflict for the argument as a way to show the game off to the new players and prepare them for the big fight. Both sides rolled amazingly well on their disposition rolls and we played out this argument for over an hour! It was fun, but it would have been more fun to use a simple versus test for the argument and not be so rushed with the fight with the weasels. But all in all, certainly a good session!
After some rushed, but much-needed takeout from the pizza joint across the street, I played the new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game from Margaret Weis Productions, run by Michael O’Sullivan. The introductory scenario, a supervillain breakout from the Raft, was nothing to write home about. But Mike ran the game with energy and enthusiasm and I got to play Captain America, so how could I complain? The scenario gave a decent overview of the game system. It has fused together the best bits of many different game systems, and would have blown my mind had I encountered it in 2000. I’ll probably pick up a copy for research.
After Saturday night’s traditional dinner with our friend Bill, I ran Mouse Guard again. This time, the group was all pretty well new. And my dice were hot, and the weasels dined well on the tails and ears of several guardsmice. The game was fun, particularly due to the embellishments of my friend Philip, who portrayed the arrogant teenage tenderpaw Sloan. During the game, he wrote a series of diary entries that painted her as the sole competent member of the patrol. We laughed a lot.

Sunday

Sunday morning I playtested a game in development called Becoming. I knew nothing about it, except for the event description that indicated a thematic hero’s journey, and some sort of group GM role. It’s a strictly four person game with one player portraying the hero, and the other three portraying the hero’s fear, doubt, and pain (called “the Chorus”). The hero has a number of virtues, rated in dice. The Chorus has poker chips. In every scene, one member of the chorus lays out an obstacle and puts in chips to set the difficulty that the hero’s die roll must beat. But, the hero can bargain with the other members of the chorus to help him, in exchange for advantages over their fellow chorus members. At the end, victory points for a chips, dice, virtues, and numerous other factors are tallied to determine which single player wins.
The heart of the game is in the horse-trading. The bargains struck are binding, and they serve for a lot of hard-headed figuring of probabilities and making deals, and shifting alliances. Which is all fine and good for the type of game Becoming actually is at this point in its development. It’s just not the game I thought it was. The fiction is utterly irrelevant to game play. The group got so caught up in the horse-trading that we often had started into the next round of bargains before we remembered to go back and establish how the previous scene had ended.
Personally, I didn’t enjoy the game. But I hope that I was able to offer the designer some things to think about as he continues to develop it.
All told, the convention was an incredible time, and a strong reminder of why I do this stuff. Now, if I can only hold onto that reminder as I return to my regularly-scheduled game-fasting, I might be able to really start on designing a game.


I went to RECESS yesterday in NYC. It is just about the longest trip I will make for a single day of gaming fun. And a lot of fun it was.

First, I played Lady Blackbird. I had never played before, so it was interesting to see the New Hotness of 2009 in action. It was interesting, and once I figured out how to play my character, it was good. I wound up with Kale, the sneaky mechanic, and I suck at playing sneaky characters. Plus, the dice hate me, as usual. Twice I rolled eight dice or more and got only a single success. I can see why people love this game. It’s like licking the spatula covered with cake frosting: pure confectionary sweetness. The simplicity of straight forwardness of character advancement is great. But that fact that there is really nothing else to the game besides character advancement left it feeling a bit hollow to me.

After my trivia team lost badly, I played Steal Away Jordan. I had never played before, and the setting was not the traditional pre-Civil War American south. It was late seventeenth century Brazil, a period I had known nothing about. We played rebel slaves who had set up our own strongholds in the Amazon rain forest, faced with the arrival of a Portuguese military force intent on wiping us out. It was an interesting setup.

We had King Zumbi, the warlike leader of the rebels. We had a martial artist possessed by his god. We had a young man bought and sold for his beauty, ready to throw away his life for a chance to kill one of his oppressors. We had a young girl gifted in the ways of magic. And I played a spy on the plantation, with regrets about a man he had killed to try to win a woman’s heart. Oh, and I could turn into a panther. The game ended up with a big fight scene where we routed the Portuguese and saved the day!

The game mechanics were also interesting. The way the dice work, it’s more likely that you’ll wide up with negative numbers than positive ones. So we had a number of conflicts where one side ended up with negative five and the other side had negative three. While, mathematically it doesn’t matter, it also imbues a sense of powerlessness into the game. You fight and you struggle and you make preparations and you get … a negative three! I didn’t get to chat with Julia after the game, but I imagine that was a deliberate design decision.

Also, the way that the dice combine made help interesting. In essence, you roll a bunch of d6s. Every single 1 you roll is worth -1. Every pair of “Lucky Sevens” you roll is worth +1. A “Lucky Seven” is a pair of either 5 +2 or 3+4. 6s count for nothing, and after you pull out all your scoring dice, you must take one more reroll of your non-scoring dice.

If you were really looking at succeeding, you probably didn’t want help, since every roll is more likely to come out negative rather than positive. Your helpers are more likely to drag you down. This morning, my game designer brain is chewing over the possibilities. I kinda want to explore the possibilities that you can trade individual dice with your helpers. So, if I’m left with some 4s that I don’t have any 3s to match them with, I want to be able to take a 3 from my helper and give him a 1 in exchange. If our totals don’t add, but we each suffer our own consequences, this would produce higher numbers and choosing to give someone help would have a lot more dramatic weight to it.

Of course, I’d want the whole question of who helps whom to be decided by the bargains that took place in earlier scenes. So, if I agree to be your helper in task X, in exchange for you being my helper in task Y, then I know that task X is going to be painful for me. But I also know that I have a better chance of success on task Y. I’d also have something about if you are subservient to another, you have to take their trades. To refuse to do so is an act of revolt and dangerous.

I’m not sure if it was the unfamiliar historical setting, or the action movie aesthetic that the GM was going for, or the rushed nature of a convention game, but I didn’t feel like there was much danger in the game, as much as arbitrariness. Which was likely another deliberate design choice. It’s an interesting game. I think I’ll order a copy.

Thanks to all for making RECESS a great day of fun!


I woke up with an idea for a story. It’s set in the Liberty League universe that I have used for my With Great Power… convention events. What do you think?

********

THE STALWART

in

“The Cold, Hard Truth”

by Michael S. Miller

The Armor of Truth was going to fail. Already a dent in the shoulder plate kept me from raising my left arm. Soon, even the enchantments of Veracity that held the mystic metal together would not be able to ward off the blows of The Crusher’s reptilian fists. The Armor was going to fail.

When the Armor failed, nothing would be able to stop The Crusher from killing Constance Carrier. His genetically enhanced muscles, razor-sharp scales, and sinuous snake-like tail would work quickly. Smart, funny, beautiful Connie would die. And it would be all my fault.

The whistling of another thrown car headed my way snapped my attention back to the problems at hand. The car was headed straight for a group of panicked bystanders. I soared over, hitting the car squarely with the my still-solid right shoulder plate. Steel screeched against mystic metal and I could feel the armor tearing against itself–tearing against my soul.

The car and I crashed into a truck near the bystanders. They fled, unharmed, as I pulled myself from the wreckage. What would Wayne do? I wondered. The Armor sharpened my memory. It was as though in that instant I could see Wayne Mason–my mentor, the closest thing to a father I ever knew–standing before me.

“Even with the Armor of Truth at full power,” Wayne had lectured, “I can’t go toe-to-toe with a behemoth like The Crusher. The Armor isn’t that type of weapon. The Truth is neither the hammer, nor the anvil, Earnest. The Truth is the fire of the forge itself.”

Wayne was always saying things like that. And I thought I understood his wisdom. I thought I could take up The Stalwart’s mantel after Wayne died. I thought I could protect people. I thought I could protect Connie. I was wrong.

I looked up and saw The Crusher rip open the side of a van, near where I had stashed Connie. It was now or never. But how could I be “the fire of the forge itself”? Fires brought heat. Heat only enhanced the reptilian DNA in The Crusher, made him faster and stronger. Unless…

I knew what to do. As The Crusher’s ten-foot-tall form loomed over the SUV that I had hidden Connie underneath, I soared over to land on its roof. “If you want the girl, Crusher, you’re going to have to go through me.”

The Crusher’s snake-like mouth twisted into something approaching a grin. “I thought you’d never ask. Yer gonna be the ‘smear of truth’ when I get done with you.” Both his arms lunged at me, wrapping around my already-battered shoulders. With no legs, The Crusher’s long tail wrapped around my legs and began to squeeze. I could feel the mystic metal squeal under the assault. The Armor would fail in a minute, at most.

With The Crusher anchored firmly to me and not the ground, I took to the skies. We weren’t far from the Central Park Reservoir. It was still early spring. I plunged into the water with The Crusher coiled around me. I felt a rib crack under the pressure.

The ice had just melted, but at the bottom of the reservoir the water was still just a few degrees above freezing. The Armor kept me insulated from the cold, but The Crusher had no such protection. I was betting that the bone-chilling cold would sap his irresistible strength, maybe even send him into some sort of hibernation. But would it work fast enough to save me?

Seconds passed. The crushing force did not let up. My left shoulder plate gave way, crumpling like paper.

My shoulder exploded with pain.

I screamed.

And then, the squeezing stopped.

The Crusher released his grip and began to swim weakly for the surface. With my good right arm, I grabbed his tail and held him until I was sure that all his strength was gone. Although every move was agony, I hauled him to the surface, and checked that he was still breathing.

The city was safe. Connie was safe. The Armor of Truth had not failed. And I swore, I would not fail the Armor. Not again.


This weekend I went to the Burning Apocalypse convention in New York City. Finances dictated that it could only be a one day trip, but what a great day it was! I left the house at 6:15 AM and got home at 1:10 AM. Even today, my legs feel like they’re about to fall off. But it was well, well worth it.

After geographic misadventures in the Garden State, I reached the con before the first game slot began. All around me were old friends I had not seen in months or years! Even though I had been traveling for three hours by the time I walked in the door, it was very much like coming home.

Due to a spate of last-minute cancellations, the first slot threatened to be short of player seats. I offered to run Mouse Guard if needed, but the call to duty never came. I was able to slide into a game of Apocalypse World. My deeply flawed memory for names reared its head. I can’t recall the MC’s name, but Matt Wilson played a cool-headed “Can’t we all just get along” gun-lugger. Dave played a skinner who read Tarot cards and incited trouble wherever she went, and Jamal played an operator named Jesus (NOT pronounced “Hey-zeus”) who was trying to broker peace between two rival hardholders. I was the driver. My guy looked like Paul Newman in greasy overalls. His prized Mustang had been stolen from him by a rival gang, and he was driving Jesus’s short yellow school bus until he was able to get his beloved “Betsy” back.

The game itself went okay. I could see that the MC was used to weaving a story over a number of sessions, and our four hours flew past in a flurry of bullets and double-crosses. We got into a fight at the food court of the burned out ‘all over a mysterious box. We went on a road trip through the blasted landscape. We barfed forth some apocrapha. I got to see how the game works. There are lots of fiddly bits to keep track of with all the different moves, and their interactions, but it does a good job of pushing that responsibility onto the players, leaving the MC free (and diceless) to always push the adversity.

In some ways, it feels a bit like my D&D 4th edition in that way. The DM doesn’t worry about making the players’ characters rules-legal or knowing how their powers work. The DM just throws problems, and monsters, at the party and trusts them to know how to play their characters.

After a quick run to the nearby “best Thai food in NYC” place, I ran my Mouse Guard alternate setting scenario: “Winter 1892: Gaslight and Ghouls.” I was trying a lot of experimental stuff for this scenario, as the setup was a Victorian crime-sleuthing situation. Not only had I rewritten the Mouse Guard setting several centuries into the future, but I was testing some unplaytested mechanics for doing scripted investigation scenes. My thanks to my patient, creative, and enthusiastic players for making this my best session of the convention!

I’ll be discussing how the session went over on the Mouse Guard forums. In short, our session ranged from a Victorian CSI to a Victorian The Wire. The Mouse Guard as the police force of a sprawling metropolitan Lockhaven delved into the details of grisly murders plaguing the city. They left no stone unturned in their quest for justice. And vengeance, too. Let it be know that nobody messes with the Mouse Guard, the biggest, baddest gang in the city! I love it when players sink their mousy teeth into the scenario and spend their player’s turn tying up loose ends.

In this one, the conspiracy behind the murders was dismantled and arrested (and their repulsive beast slain) during the GM’s turn. But I had earned a concession. I had the mastermind get away. Well, the players had earned enough checks to track him down to his tropical estate, infiltrate his home, and nab him from his very smoking room! They always get their mouse! Plus, Thor had failed a circles test early on, and earned the ire of a local crime boss. Thor’s character got tossed out of the boss’s pub on his ear. In the player’s turn, he returned for sweet, sweet revenge, burning the pub to the ground.

Although some of my more experimental mechanics ideas are still solidifying, it was a great, great session.

After another quick food run, I was able to slip into a game of In a Wicked Age, with Bret, Judd, Chuck and Bill(?). I was a simple guard who had been murdered simply because he might have overheard nefarious dealings. I played as a spirit who had to make my killers pay for their crimes in order to pass on. The other PCs were the assassin who had murdered me, the diplomat who had arranged a peace treaty and betrothal, and the princess who was betrothed to seal the treaty. There was an brutal and bloodthirsty general who had ordered my execution and was determined to see that there was no peace. In a tight, quick spiral of violence, the assassin murdered the princess, the diplomat killed the prince for his obstinant blindness, and then hired the assassin to kill the general, as my ghost set the bodyguards to take care of the assassin. There can be no peace where brutality reigns.

I hadn’t played In a Wicked Age before, and the rules system took some getting used to. I felt very much at the mercy of the dice, trapped sometimes. I think that’s because the first, last, and only conflict I was a party to, was about the assassin who had killed me wanting to kill the princess. With the death of another player character on the line, there was very little room for negotiation. I kept losing, which eroded my highest dice, which made the next round so much more difficult or impossible to win. In the end, it did end with a compromise that he was able to kill the princess, but left behind evidence of the general’s involvement. I think if it had been a longer session, or part of a longer story where there were multiple things that characters wanted, the dice would lead to more negotiation and a better story.

The convention was a great day. I am so glad I went, and so grateful to my wife for arranging things. And it reminded me of why I game, where the fun is, and how I’m good at this stuff. I want to keep gaming. And more than that …

I want to design!




Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.