From a gaming standpoint, Gen Con this year will likely blend into all of the other hazy memories I have of Gen Cons past. From a nongaming standpoint, being ill throughout the convention was an unfortunate challenge.
Well, this is a blog about gaming, especially about analyzing gaming, so let’s get into zee gaming.
Bam! First slot, right into Heroes of Rokugan. Unable to get a pickup game in Wednesday night, I needed this slot and the Friday afternoon slot to get my 8 XP to rank up my backup character for the special event, Doom of the Crab. Running through my printout of an Excel mod tracker (like lots of experienced HoRers have), we settled on Harsh Lessons. I met one of the players I play a lot of online mods with and another player I’ve played once or so with who also GMed for us. Another player was someone who actually remembered Ryota’s notable falling off a mountain episode. Harsh Lessons was exceptional. I wish more mods were like it rather than the tragedy or intrigue that suffuses the campaign. It also gave my backup character a new goal, which I thought wasn’t likely to matter since I figured he’d die in Doom. At one point, it wasn’t clear whether we were supposed to cross some water only later to find out that there was no way and that the place on the other side was the world’s version of Hell. Since my Phoenix trained at a Dragon bushi school is as good at sailing as anything else, I now totally see retiring to become a Charon like character who facilitates travel of PCs between spirit realms. There was also a Dragon (shugenja) character in the mod who is meant to provoke a duel with a Phoenix PC. Besides notable for being my first duel whenever the obligation to duel to the death gets resolved, it was terribly ironic given that my Phoenix isn’t a shugenja, the expectation, and is Dragon trained and ended up becoming a guest instructor at a Dragon dojo.
Next up was Oz: Dark and Terrible. Game is still being worked on, but they already have t-shirts. I have the lion and the scarecrow ones. I plan on talking to the designer as there are some things I think they need to work a lot more on. One problem is the marketing plan. What we played – woman having her head popped off, scarecrow snapping the neck of a PC – is not going to fly with the family market. That may or may not be solvable. The mature art, though, I can’t see being used with any sort of family version of the game. There were also way too many wargamey mechanics. I did enjoy it and I hope it turns out well as it’s one sort of genre I can get into.
Thursday night was one of those “good story” games. It should come as no surprise that many of my best role-playing game stories come from the most horrendously awful games. The system was meaningless, the GM forgot character sheets and so just ended up winging the mechanics. It was essentially League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vs. movie monsters. Our party consisted of Sherlock Holmes, Alan Quartermain, Nayland Smith (me, who is Nayland Smith? Fu Manchu’s nemesis), Harry Houdini (yes, out of his time period), Annie Oakley, and Mulder and Scully’s ancestors only switched around to where Mulder was a German scientist and Scully a druidess.
It was just painful. The Mulder player was bored out of his mind and did next to nothing in the 5 hours (of the 4 hour game slot). The Scully character was hugely useful to doing anything but her schtick of rubbing her acorns was the source of numerous juvenile jokes. Houdini’s player made no effort to play a character and was far too loud, too craven, and too disruptive. Quartermain’s “big gun” was the source of more infantile jokes than the acorns. Characters like Sherlock Holmes, only the most famous detective in the history of the human race and one of the most famous characters of any sort, should not be played by people who don’t actually know anything about the character. Things like the fact that he actually investigates mysteries. The plot was tissue thin to where I knew exactly what was going on 10 minutes in. The only obstacle was getting to where the monsters were, which we never actually accomplished. The closest was finding Dracula’s lair and eliminating some of his brides and trying to genocide his rat army. We never did run across him, the Wolfman, The Mummy, or the zombies (because why be so predictable as to have graverobbers be working for Frankenstein). We did find the cultists!?!
With a better group of players, I might have fleshed out my character more. I was thinking James Bond or, even more so, James West as inspirations. But, it wasn’t until the climactic cultist battle that we really did anything that mattered. Well, some of the party did get information from Fu Manchu so that we knew where the hell we were supposed to go, but I question the “mattering” of that. With players into gunfun, I played up my spy’s tricksomeness instead and tried one incredibly cool thing.
I described my turn as: I release the smoke grenade from my boot, I open the secret passage I know is right “there” (I established its existence at that moment), I grapple with a cultist and steal his clothes without going through the secret passage, so that the other cultists would chase “me” to wherever “I” was naturally supposed to go while I chased them to find out where I was supposed to go.
The GM didn’t let me pretend to be a cultist pretty much making the whole thing meaningless as we could have just taken the stairs down to the basement area where we knew where the artifact was somewhere.
Strong concept. Needed reasonable players and a decent GM.
Native American, mythological style role-playing with a Dogs in the Vineyard like resolution mechanic. Add in decent players and decent GMs and this is what I live for. It wasn’t fantastic, but it was quite solid. The interesting mechanical twists on Dogs are that there are multiple GMs to manage conflicts better and that the conflicts are more constrained than Dogs so you don’t run into the Dogs problem of spending two hours rolling all of your dice in a conflict.
The plot was that a water serpent came around every once in a while to steal a child from the village. The relationships were: I saw the hunter who failed to deal with the water serpent as a role model; my sister (PC) hated him for raping our mother; the ugly girl of the village was friendly with the other PC while contrary with me; the wandering shaman/necromancer was involved somehow; the other PC (our cousin) hated our dad because he killed his father; but sis got along well with dad (until she stole his bow to give to Failure).
So, the chieftess of the village is ill and declares that whoever deals with the water serpent will be the next chief. Failure and I run across the shaman outside of the village and I cut a deal with him. My spin on why Failure couldn’t take out the water serpent and why he raped my mom was that he was totally into hooking up with said serpent and frustrated. So, I suggest to the shaman that he make the interspecies couple more compatible and he takes the easy way out and does his mojo to transform Failure into a water serpent (either way was fine with me). I have to keep his secret that he’s hanging around to heal the chieftess. Meanwhile, sis is annoying dad by taking his bow to give to Failure to encourage the wuss to go after the serpent, while cuz is fiddling with some clay pot device to fight the serpent with and humiliates our dad. Sis comes across the transforming Failure and kills him, thus screwing up two-thirds of my character ambitions – helping Failure and hooking him and the serpent up. Alls I gots left for ambitions is dealing with the serpent. So, I gather together sis and cuz to go fight the serpent. The fight is a struggle to get to go according to plan, but I do finally manage to get the serpent killed using cuz’s clay pot trap so that I can pass along all of the cred to cuz. Doing that is important because it satisfies his glory ambition while it also satisfies sis’s ambition of being the next chief assuming sis and cuz hook up (criminal incest in this game is closer than first cousin) with cuz being the village champion and sis being the leader. As a reward (of my choosing) for the serpent conflict, I start a new society of serpentmasters. A reward for … the serpent? GM? punishment for me? … is that I leave the serpent’s egg alone. Well, of course I do – you can’t have useful serpentmasters without serpents to master. ;)
We get back and things are going okay with cuz explaining his marriage to sis and sis being the next leader when ugly girl pipes up out of jealousy and claims our chieftess is evil and in cahoots with the necromancer. Which proves to be true. Fighting stuff happens for a while until ugly girl turns into a serpent and flees with cuz chasing after his true love and my society having apparently a lot bigger serpent problem for us to deal with over the generations. Sis takes over and everyone lives happily ever after … oh wait, that’s the name of a later game I played.
Back to HoR. I just need 4 XP out of this mod to rank up for the evening’s Doom. We play A Day’s Sail, which is the one “shipping lanes” mod I missed. Nothing terribly special happens. I try to help the other PCs get the Thrane badass Daniel Hatcherman as an ally (I already have him as a true friend from the other mods), but we rush the ending and don’t meet the requirements for them to get him as an ally.
Doom. It was a lot like the battle interactive from Gen Con 2008. Tables simultaneously going through scenes. We ended up with a table of six rank 2’s. We had an awesome complement of character types, having three damage sponges, an archer, a fire tensai (infinite fireballs), and a water tensai (infinite healing). We only had two Crabs; we had a Lion and three!!! Phoenix in this event that was limited to Crab Clan and their allies.
The beginning is way more social than expected and it is shown that our biggest failing is lack of etiquette as we fail to get some guards out of our way and lose .3 Glory while trying to evacuate the Crab Champion’s sister. First combat scene, the fire tensai basically solos as he master casts Heart of the Inferno to blow up groups of archers. Second combat scene we face a Dark Moto and his oni horse. Round one, he reduces the water tensai to down and does 53 damage to me with his second attack. I Void for damage but the horse hits me for 17, reducing me to out (76 wounds kills me). Second round, he downs or outs the fire tensai with one attack and does around 50 damage to the Akodo with the other. The water tensai heals himself enough to make the utterly insane tactical decision of healing me so that I can futilely try knockdown attempts on the Dark Moto (jiujutsu or disarms would have been even harder). See, he was invulnerable to normal weapons, which was all we had. He had enough magic resistance that every spell against him failed. Yet, the fire tensai was the only who could hope to do any damage. The cavalry showed up – it wasn’t necessary to kill him, just survive long enough – and he took off. I heard one table killed him and two other tables *almost* got him. As a bunch of rank 2’s in an event designed for rank 4’s and with no weird items/magic items, we had pretty much zero chance. But, we did win by all surviving. Fight three was just a bore fighting some goblin berserkers led by someone with invulnerability who got smoked by lamely crushing a finger of jade on one of the Crabs’ tetsubo.
The Crab allies are removed and the Crab players are consolidated down to Crab only tables to go fight the tough part of the event. Total rewards for my playing in Doom of the Crab, a mid/high rank special event intended to be deadly dangerous and being Crabcentric? 3 XP, lose .3 Glory for first scene, get .3 Glory at the end. I successfully brag for one of the few times ever (3k2 for a TN of 20 is sketchy) to get another .1 Glory, so I net 3 XP and .1 Glory. Favor Crab Clan? Nope. Ally Hiruma Tsuken (guy ordering us around)? Nope. Anything remotely to do with the Crab who I just helped evacuate thousands of people for in the face of a Shadowlands invasion of pretty much all of Crab Lands? Nope. I realize almost everyone, maybe everyone, who played in the event is knowledgeable enough about the campaign to write fiction to get these things, but I’ve now played in two special events that were Crabcentric and have nothing that relates to Crabbiness for this character, not even crabs from … never mind.
The only special rewards were for getting killed as a Crab in the Crab only portion of the event. Speaking of getting killed, the Sacrifices of the Crab table (the rank 1’s who were all grouped together to avoid having them screw up things for the rest of us) were quickly slaughtered, two other Lions apparently got slaughtered, one who had the Crow Tattoo (all Shadowlands notice you and try to kill you, always good when being run down by thousands of Shadowlands creatures). Four? Crab died in the Crab only portion.
Houses of the Bloodied is a game about a sorcerer-king servant race that the GM envisions a lot like Melniboneans plotting against each other. The mechanics are competitive storytelling ones: you establish a fact about the world, whoever opposed you establishes an “and, but, except” type condition on that fact and you keep going until you run out of “wagers”. Sometimes, you are the only one with wagers and just start rattling off stuff. It could be played without a GM, which is what one player really wanted to do stylewise. The problem with games that require intelligent players is that you don’t always get intelligent players. For instance, the diplomat was negotiating with a village chief and, when the chief said “you owe us tribute for passing through our lands”, her response was “okay”. When another character established that it was snowing, she decided to make snow angels. Now, the world was poorly defined (out of necessity for only a 4 hour time slot) and not everyone knows what Melniboneans are like, but distinguishing silly fantasy from other fantasy isn’t that hard.
I had some fun playing a cunning bastard. And, I am okay enough at making up plot twists on the fly that I fixed our plot problems by having the sorcerer-queen eat her daughter, the naughty Suaven (don’t worry about it), which freed other Ven (our people) from the mirror so that they could testify against our liege lord, all as part of some deal to close the well that was going to swallow all of our souls.
There might be something cool with this game. And, I respect competitive storytelling and those who do it well. But, it’s not my thing. I don’t like competing with players, I want to cooperate with them. Dogs and How We Came To This Land (above) don’t have quite the same competitive feel, though they could easily be played that way. More Native American mythology and more Christian enforcers in the New World and less “… but the smoke is toxic …” style creating your own screwjobs is a good thing.
I had an open slot in the afternoon that was intended for exhibit hall stuff and whatever. One goal was to network as much as possible with industry insiders. I was too sick to do anything but nap. I could have done the HoR political interactive, but everything I hear makes them sound irritating. As I’ve been explaining to people, I think HoR already has too much politics and intrigue and not enough heroic fantasy as it is, why play events that are nothing but that? Give me unwinnable wars.
Saturday night was my last HoR slot and I finally got to play my main character. I got to play with one of my roommates, finally. The party’s efforts were weak. Everyone figured out what was going on within 10 minutes, but it took forever for “Scorpion Time” to kick in and the dishonorable scum in the party to solve the mod. We bruteforced our way through some of it and I kept expecting to get hammered with honor losses, infamy, penalties for being a Lion in Lion Lands who couldn’t deal with things elegantly, and whatnot. But, it was a low rank mod, and those sorts of punishments tend to be reserved for higher rank stuff where players aren’t likely to be newbs. So, I got my XP and even a pip of honor and said fairwells to the HoR crowd I met.
I tried to sleep in a lot since I didn’t have a game until noon. But, I had to hit the exhibit hall and I never leave enough time for that. I did the minimum amount of stuff in the hall, bought way more weight of stuff than I expected, and went to my last GC game.
QAGS stands for quick ass gaming system. The genre was fairy tale noir. You start with a film noir archetype. We had a detective, muscle, gun moll, magician, magician’s assistant, and I was the agency researcher/marketer/archivist. Then, you choose a fairy tale character. The detective was Sleeping Beauty, muscle Big, Bad Wolf, gun moll Goldilocks, magician Kate Crackernuts (no frickin’ clue), assistant Sister Rabbit (Brer Rabbit as a chick), and I was Rumpelstiltskin. Then, you choose an actor who would play you in the movie. This I didn’t pay as much attention to with the PCs, but I was played by Danny DeVito (of course).
Someone was sabotaging the new act, the Queen of Hearts (Celine Dion), according to Alice (of Alice’s Restaur- … I mean Alice’s Talent Agency, played by Rhea Perlman). Suspects included Rapunzel (Mae West, previous headliner, now the hostest with the mostest), Knave of Hearts (see below), Papa Bear (John Goodman), Mama Bear (Goldie Hawn), Prince Charming (Kurt Russell), and others.
I should mention that the Big, Bad Wolf was also an Elvis impersonator. The player did awesome drawings, including a wolf in Elvis outfit (giant flared collars, open down the chest). He also did a good Elvis impersonation. Yet, he was quite modest. I so wish there were more gamers like that in the world.
The police were the Three Little Pigs. Yeah, that was awesome. When someone asked who was playing the Knave of Hearts, the writer/producer for the Queen, I had to restrain myself from offering Jim Steinman. GM’s choice? Jim “greatest writer/producer of melodramatic piano rock with 50’s biker fantasy themes ever” Steinman. Because that’s the way this world rolls.
In the end, we confront Alice, the police burst in, take a look at the grenade Alice is holding and start firing at the Wolf whose giant belt buckle deflects the bullets to Alice who falls through the window as the grenade goes off.
I suppose I should mention my giant (for me) old school typewriter that I would lug around the office. When leaving the office? Pull out the iPhone and bring up the typewriter app.
The final scenes that interested me included the Wolf singing Jailhouse Rock on a stage that pans out to be in a jail and my typing away in bed while smoking a cig while a woman under the covers with a huge head of hair sleeps. I got to have Danny DeVito off Rhea Perlman in the movie for +2 fun.
After the convention, it was V:TES time. The locals drove me over to Ankur’s new house for a 12 person tournament that included Jay Kristoff. It wasn’t terribly interesting except for some wild antics by someone I played both rounds and a pickup with. Jay schooled the rest of us with a sketchy deck, getting game wins in every round. I failed to manage a single VP.