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.