Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Origins 2009 - A GM's Report Card, Pt. 2

So, following Dread, we went to bed. (I am not going to continue rhyming, I swear.) Sleep happened, then waking up, then coffee, then Thursday.

The day doesn't officially start until there's coffee, y'know. Which means some days don't start until noon.

Before the first game of the day, which wasn't until 1PM, Heather and the kids and I walked over to the North Market for foodstuff, including Jeni's ice cream. Now, if you've never had it, and you've been in Columbus, you're missing out. Go get some next time. The market is about a two minute walk from the convention center, and you can get yummy brats, there, too.

Anyway, following lunch, we headed back for a game of Aces & Eights. It's a Western game, and I've not really played many of those, beyond Deadlands, which is a different sort of animal. I do like Western as a genre, though, so I figured that the game (which won an Origins award last year for best RPG) was worth a look. Beyond the genre, however, I knew very little about it. Having now played it, however, I have a few things to say, so let's consider both the game itself and this particular game.

The game itself is, as the kids say, crunchy. That means the rules are very dense. Where that really got driven home to me was in combat. It's not the turn-based thing that most of us are used to. Instead, you act in an order based on your Speed, and depending on what you're doing you'll be moving faster or slower than other folks. Drawing a gun takes some time, firing it takes some time, and so on. And every increment of time is one tenth of a second.

On the one hand, for a gunfight, I get the appeal. Coupled with the (high) lethality of the system (getting shot is likely to kill your character), the combat system makes for a pretty darned good simulation of what a gunfight might be like. Appropriate for the genre, methinks.

On the other hand, it takes freaking forever. I think that with a group that knew the rules and enjoyed them, it would move faster and probably be pretty cool. It's a crunchier system than I usually enjoy, but I'd play it again...just not with this GM.

Which brings me to talking about this session of Aces & Eights. The GM hadn't made any characters at all. He told people they could bring their own (which I personally think is a lousy idea on its face), didn't even look at them, and then handed out pre-gens to the rest of us. Except the pre-gens he handed out weren't meant to be played, they were stock NPCs. And that means that, quite apart from any mythical issues of "balance," they were useless in the scenario (which, by the way, was basically "this old guy wants to hire you as cowboys, so you gotta go prove yourself"). The character I played was conceptually OK, but he had no traits that made him useful except a decent Riding score. A high Speed rating (which isn't good, you want that trait low), which meant in combat other characters would act twice for every action I could manage. Oh, and there were eight players.

Thoughts on the game: This game failed for me not because the game itself was bad, but because the GM was careless. The scenario was boring, the characters were cardboard cutouts, and there wasn't even really any attention to bringing out the flavor of the Western genre. I heard later about players who'd played with this GM asking for their money back; I don't do that, because, y'know, caveat emptor. My grade: F

Following Aces & Eights, we had a break in which we tooled around the dealer's room. There were some noticeably missing booths - no Wizards of the Coast (which I really don't care about, personally, and as I recall they weren't there last year, either) but also no White Wolf, which was weird for me. The dealer's room felt a lot emptier than in past years, though from what I heard, attendance for painting minis was way up, so maybe the attendance numbers weren't as bad as some people are saying? I don't know. Ultimately, not a subject I have any real data on.

As we toured the dealer's room, we found the booth for Bucephalus Games. I wasn't familiar with these folks, but I'm always looking for new and interesting board games, both because Heather and I like them (she's not a role-player, so games we can play together are nice) and because it's good to find games I can play with my students. We discovered, first, that their booth was adorned with these horrible purple...well, I'll just post a picture.

Teagan just had to have one. I love my daughter. Sadly, they didn't actually have the Lab Rats game available; they tell me September.

Another stop in the dealer's room was at Geek Chic's display of gaming tables. They're not all that expensive, and since my dining room table is old and getting ready to collapse, we may actually get one of these puppies soon. Heather was just as enthused as I was. I love my wife.

Now, on the subject of shopping for RPGs, here's something I've learned about myself. Rather, something I've rediscovered recently, as I think I've always known it. I really love buying new games. I love reading new games, and I love running new games. But I don't have to run the games to get the pleasure of reading them (and making characters; if you haven't, maybe have a look at my ongoing character creation project). So last GenCon, I decided that I would start buying new games at cons again, and not sweat whether I'd ever run them. And that worked out well, as without that attitude, I'd have missed out on such awesome games as Edge of Midnight and Spirit of the Century (but more on those later).

So while wandering the dealer's hall, I came across the booth for Khepera Games. I'd heard about this Hellas game a bit, and had people recommend it to me as something that I'd enjoy. So I talked to one of the designers, and he was very friendly and very enthused about his game. I wound up buying it, because dangit, it looked awesome. What's funny is that I didn't really notice the space opera bits of the game until I started reading it, but I was so hung up on the dynastic aspects (that is, over the course of a chronicle, your initial character will die and pass along what he's accrued to a new character) that the sci-fi didn't really sink in. I'm looking forward to reading it more in-depth.

Anyway, we grabbed dinner, and then it was time for Spirit of the Century. Oh, baby.

Now, I'd been looking forward this. I read Spirit of the Century a few months back, and made a character just recently. I knew that this game was a Martian Chronicles kind of thing, and I figured we wouldn't be using the usual method of character creation (which I did use for my chargen project; go have a look), but I was very keen to try out the Aspects system. I'm familiar with it from playing Dogs in the Vineyard; basically, if your character has the "Quick Healer" aspect, and it applies to the situation at hand, you get a bonus. Spirit of the Century takes this in a different direction; if your Aspect would compel you to act contrary to your best interests, the GM can offer you a Fate chip to do so and you have to pay a chip to act differently. I love systems that reward flawed characters, so I was jazzed about this. I was not disappointed.

I played a green Martian, the last of his kind, his family and people slaughtered by the evil Emperor Xang. The other PCs were likewise rebels, part of a ragtag band hunting down the Emperor in this novel, The Swords of Mars. My character wound up heroically sacrificing himself, but taking Xang with him, and the group restored Mars to its rightful Princess while unleashing the power of the Elders, turning the Sea of Tranquility into a real sea.

Bloody awesome. Best line of dialog, for my money: During a fight on an Imperial airship (which we totally owned through superior tactics), my character goes to destroy the ship, sending it to the bottom of a canal. One of the other characters talks me out of it, since we can use the ship in our struggle.

Him: "Stop, Throk! Think of all we've done for Mars!"
Me: "Think of what Mars has done to me!"

I love angst.

Thoughts on the game: There is no substitute for a well-crafted story. This GM knew the genre he wanted, he fashioned the characters appropriately, he responded to our suggestions and desires for the story, and he didn't ever, ever work against us just to keep things from being "too easy." The result? I remember that game vividly. I could see Xang being crushed in the gears of the big machine, with Throk (my character) hanging on with him, willing to die in order to free Mars and avenge his people. My grade: A

By the time that game wound up, it was after midnight, and so sleep was in the offing.

Origins 2009 - A GM's Report Card, Pt. 1

I love conventions. They just allow me to revel in a lot of the things about this hobby that I really cherish, namely: Playing new games, meeting new people, and drinking too much Mountain Dew.

The first con I attended was Tol-Con, back in Toledo, and I couldn't tell you what year that was. Tol-Con wasn't the sort of con that attracted people from all around the country. It was presented by Mind Games, my FLGS in Toledo (which I've learned has closed, balls), and took place at the Scott Park Campus of the University of Toledo. I ran Marvel Superheroes there for a group of strangers, and it was there that I first saw someone first take a character that someone else had created and really make it his own. It was also at Tol-Con (though not that year) that I saw how horrible even a game that I loved could become with a careless GM. Pay attention to that note, incidentally, we're going to come back to it.

Tol-Con declined over the years; last time I went, it was just a one-day deal and I forget where it was. I moved around, I wound up in Cleveland, and I realized, hey, I have some money saved up, I'm not living check to check anymore, maybe we could hit a con this summer? I found MarCon, a convention over Memorial Day weekend in Columbus. Bigger than Tol-Con ever was, but not as big as the "important" industry cons like GenCon or Origins. I went that first year, and I had a great time. Lots of people in a hotel room, some really awesome games, and once again, the lesson driven home that a careless GM can really mess up a good game.

That was May of 2001, and this (2009) was the first year since that I've missed MarCon. Financial issues, nothing more, I'll be back next year. But since that first year, I hit as many cons as my schedule and wallet would allow. I've done the big guys: Origins, GenCon, DragonCon, but I've also hit some smaller ones, like Arisia (which is really more medium-sized than small), Trinoc-Con (where I was a guest of honor, which was amazing) and Con on the Cob. I have my preferences; Origins remains my favorite of the big guys, gitchy registration and all, while I'm finding myself more jazzed about Con on the Cob as the summer progresses on. I've had some great experiences as cons, I've learned a lot about running and playing games, and I've met some of the most important people in my life at these weird gatherings.

It would hard to nail down exactly what aspects of GMing I've taken away from con experiences vs. the ones I've developed from the games I've hosted or run regularly, but I do know that I'm becoming more aware of careless GMing as I attend cons. You'll note that as I was discussing games earlier, I avoided saying that a "bad" GM could screw up a "good" system. Instead, I refer to a careless GM screwing up a game that I like.

As I talk about my Origins 2009 experience, I'm going to spend some time talking about the games I played in, and I'm giving those games a letter grade. I'm not grading the game itself; that's down to taste, and my taste isn't yours. I don't expect you to groove on Promethean: The Created if tales of body horror and humanism aren't your thing, and likewise, don't expect me to whoop for joy if you want me to sit down and play Dungeons and Dragons (any edition, though I might give a Monty Python-esque "yaay!" if it's 4th). But no matter what we're playing, there are some criteria that I think we should be able to agree on, especially for a con game.

For one thing, remember it's a one-shot. You don't get to follow this up. Yes, I know people run multi-part games; I don't get that, maybe it works. But if folks just show up to try a game out, or to experience an old favorite with a new GM, then make sure the plot is something that you can do in three hours of actual play (con games are often scheduled for four hours, but till you get done explaining rules and breaking for food mid-game, you're lucky to get three hours in). A lot of my con games wind up having deeper implications than what's immediately presented, but the plot itself - rescue the princess, kill the bad guy, solve the mystery, whatever - should be resolvable within the time you have.

Likewise, have a plot. Make characters for the game you're running. Don't just pull the pre-gens from the book, throw them at the players, and expect your game to work with any combination thereof (if you can do that, congrats). I typically make characters for my games, and then include six questions, Dread-style, as well as a blurb on that character to help players customize.

Anyway, with all of that in mind, let's get to the specifics! Origins, ho! And yes, there are a few pictures, but not many, because Heather had the camera and she was only there two days.


We (by which I mean Andrea, Michelle, Teagan and Cael) left Wednesday morning and arrived in Columbus that afternoon. Andrea headed to registration; she was volunteering (she pretty much spent the weekend doing that, and apparently had a grand old time with it), and Michelle and I got our badges. Well, Michelle got her badge. I stood in the Special Services line waiting for someone to give me a badge. Finally some nice lady asked if anyone waiting in line had an educator's hall pass badge, which I did (in case you don't know, I'm a speech-language pathologist for an elementary school, so I get into Origins free). I got my badge, and Michelle and the kids and I went up to our hotel room. Cael needed a nap, and the rest of us just wanted to veg after the trip.

I know, nothing too exciting so far. Hang on, I'll get to gaming momentarily here.

Heather, y'see, was on GOBA, and had to wait for her father to get her car back...it's complicated. Anyway, Michelle and I had a 10PM Dread game, which we just barely made. It turned out to be not the game we'd signed up for, but whatever, it's Dread.

Here's the deal on this game, in case you don't feel like clicking the link: It's a horror game in which Jenga is the task resolution mechanic. You make a pull when your character wants to do something, but if you knock over the tower, you're out. Dead, catatonic, arrested, on vacation, whatever. Out of the game. But you never have to make the pull, you can always refuse. Characters are created via a questionnaire, which is a method I've taken to using to help flesh out one-shot and con characters.

An aside, here: If you make pre-gens for a one-shot, you know what you're getting. You know that the characters will have the requisite traits for whatever game you're running, and you don't wind up with a bunch of characters that don't have anything to contribute. Likewise, that enables you to make the game about those characters, and can we all agree that that's really the best situation?

Anyway, the way Dread works pretty much ensures that. The GM has to consider what's on that questionnaire, to work those details into the scenario. Sure, there's a plot to consider, but the real fun of Dread comes from using those characters in that situation. And since the players don't have nifty tricks or numbers to fall back, you pretty much have to roleplay like crazy.

My character, it turns out, was an assassin. Rather than go with the stereotypical cool-as-ice hitman, I decided he was a junkie who had killed one of his dealer's rivals in exchange for free junk, and just kept going from there. He'd kicked his habits, for the most part, but was still hooked on painkillers (and mixed them in with Altoids, which he'd crunch during the game). In the game, our plane crashed and we wound up landing on an island populated by zombies. We only had one fatality - me. I knocked over the tower attempting to move our huge raft toward the water, away from the zombies. But man, by the time I did, that tower must've had 30 pulls, so I don't feel any shame at knocking it down. Anyway, my charater got eaten. Nom.

Thoughts on the game: We started late, which was no one's fault, and so we kind of ran out of time and left off with the zombies chasing the survivors - not exactly great resolution. I think the GM could have made more of an effort to either push us toward the island's interior (where there were apparently some answers) or work toward some other form of resolution. That said, the game was fun, and the GM definitely worked with the details that we gave him about the characters. My grade: B- (but that's only because I've played in some spectacular Dread games, so my bar is pretty high)

That game didn't wind up until after 2AM, so after that, we went the heck to bed.