Strategicon Orccon 2017

A short re-cap of Strategicon Orccon 2017...

It started with an early Thursday of getting there. I ran into Dave and Kurt and we went a drinking at the bar. I was part of the Happy Jacks RPG podcast Drizztmas exchange, and as it turns out my "secret Drizzt" was Kurt, so I brought the gift along to the con. A box filled with various goodies, all wrapped in shredded old Dragon Magazines from my youth!

Merry Drizztmas, Kurt!

Merry Drizztmas, Kurt!

Dave, Kurt and I ended up playing Tokaido, the board game. It's a little game of journeying from Kyoto to Tokyo, bathing with monkeys, and the usual Japanese hijinks. A nice way of starting out the con. 

Friday 2pm: Masks (GM: Carl Rigney)

My friend Dennis talked up Carl a while back, and Masks is also the PbtA game I’ve most wanted to play (that I haven’t already), and that was that. Got to play with Jib and Gina and Ira (all Strategicon staples). Great GM, and great collaboration at the table. And I just love how this superheroes game just oozed teenage angst and attitude. And we all grew and learned... love games that end with me wanting to know what happens next, and a little sad I never get to explore this in campaign form. There must be some German word for that feeling.

Friday 8pm: "Distress on Life Liner 928", a Star Frontiers / Savage Worlds / Lego game (GM: Me)

This was my 2015 Lego game that I just pulled out of the closet. Haven’t even looked at it in over a year. Shit, it’s fun to run. I knew it runs long, so scheduled it for 8pm to 2am. We played over 6 hours and ended at around 2:30am. There was zero combat. I don’t even know why we had so much fun anymore – it’s a bit of a blur – but the players had great personality, and the role playing was just fun. 

Distress on LL928

Distress on LL928

Saturday 9am: Games on Demand, round one.

We've been trying to get Games on Demand to pick up some page at Strategicon. The premise is that people just show up, and we get games going. I've been to a few conventions now which have various ways of handling this, including "the donut" at Go Play NW, and various more organized / sign-up style versions at Big Bad Con. In our case, we're still not advertising it heavily, and just kind of doing it ad hoc.

I was impressed... over 15 people showed up in the morning. My friend Chris from the Gauntlet community ran Fiasco for a table, and Stu Venable (from Happy Jacks RPG podcast) was there to run the Swords and Wizardry and had 3 kids plus more. I spun up a few other Happy Jacks regulars (Bill, CA Dave , Kurt and wife Katie) with The Quiet Year (with Lego Creationary set, my favorite way to run this game). In parallel I was getting another table ready for Dread (they were doing the questionnaires). Bill had played before, so that worked out well and they were off and running shortly, and I went off to run Dread (it’s a scenario I borrowed and tweaked and wrote about back here on blog if you are interested in the materials). Due to the shorter timeframe, I don't think I really followed too much of the scenario as prior written, but I think everyone got the gist of what Dread is trying to do! And of course we ended with a good death, and unhappy endings for all the characters!

Some pics of GoD, round 1

Some pics of GoD, round 1

Saturday 2pm: Games on Demand, round two

A short break, and then more GoD for the afternoon slot. We had a good 10 folks including myself. I got one table started with Forget-Me-Not: Murder Hobo, a Jim Pinto game. After getting them going, I kept hearing them laugh behind me for the entire session, and that was heartening. In parallel, I had a table of players getting Dungeon World characters created, and I ran a dungeon starter for them (check those 1-2 page freebies online, they're by Marshall Miller) called "The Escape". Funny part was I used about 3 or 4 questions from the dungeon starter, and then never looked at it again. The players came up with some kooky-fun characters, and before long they defeated the zombie-horde sent by the elves to collect the bard’s overdue saxophone… all with a wizarding ritual based around the barbarian and his kama sutra belief system. I had such a fun time running this. 

Forget-Me-Not: Murder Hobo table

Forget-Me-Not: Murder Hobo table

My Dungeon World table

My Dungeon World table

Saturday 6pm: Games on Demand, round 2.5:

And then I was catching my breathe, and occasionally marketing the games and pimping GoD to random passerby’s, and suddenly I find myself running a Quiet Year with Lego for a couple who’ve never RPG’d (and two others), and that was fun. I started to burn out, had to clean up, and then had another game scheduled, so jumped out towards the end, but by then they had the flow and kept playing without me for the last 30 minutes or so. 

It went down mostly smoothly. There are some issues with GoD this time around (no reservation signs on the tables to keep off non-GoD gamers, con book confusion, and communication could be a little better), but I got to talk to Jim Sandoval who runs RPGs, and I have no doubts we’ll keep working it into something more seamless by next con.

The Quiet Year, with lego

The Quiet Year, with lego

Saturday 8pm: Apocalypse World with Sam Carter.

Sam comes up from San Diego and generally runs amazing Dread games. This con he was running lots of Call of Cthulhu, but also Apocalypse World. I’ve never played this seminal game of PbtA, and so I just couldn’t miss this. I played a Brainer (psychic weirdo), and hell was that a fun game. We were one fucked up set of individuals, and dealt with both the resurgence of the sun cult, and prevented radioactive military shells from destroying the vicinity, and despite some very strong misgivings, pretty much worked together. Oh ya, AND fixed a record player. Truly happy ending.

I did get to run into the Happy Jacks RPG podcast room on the way to the loo, and the HJ crew had me quickly jump up on the mic, so I guess I'm in that episode.

Sunday morn: Pick up the daughter.

Hit the pool. We were the only ones there, and basically everyone else missed out. Despite the earlier rain-magedon storm in LA, the weather was just overcast, and the pool was warm, and the jacuzzi extra excellent.

Sunday 2pm: Golden Sky Stories (GM: me)

This was my family-friendly game session as the game is “heart-warming role playing” at its finest. The daughter was playing, and although I like to limit the game to 4 or 5 max, I ended up with 7 players, including one 6-year old girl and similarly aged boy. I just couldn’t tell these kids "no" to joining us. Kudos to the kids, cause they stuck around for a 3 hour game, and it was a fun little session. Fortunately, Ira played (who’s run this before at con), cause he actually knows the mechanics, and I barely do. I had the story down, but he helped with a few times where we had to do actions, a foot race, and magic. Stuff to learn for sure, but mistakes are the best way, right? I was very happy with the scenario, which I called "The Kid from Abroad", and plan to write it up at some point.

Nova's little Golden Sky Stories token structure

Nova's little Golden Sky Stories token structure

Lotus

The rest of the night was mostly wandering around, saying hi to folks, and then finding a little card game called Lotus that the daughter and I played in open gaming. Then off to “early” (11pm) bedtime.

Lotus

Lotus

Monday 9am: “Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow”, Bunnies and Burrows (GM: Mook)

The daughter was excited to play in this, as she’d also played in Mook’s Monday morning game the last con and had a great time. A friend’s son also came along for the ride, and despite his shyness, I talked to him afterwards and he said he loved it. Mook had a table of 6, including CA Dave. (No room for me, but I dug just watching the table flow, and the daughter get into it).

The daughter said she liked it more the last time, and I think it was hard for her to share a table with adults. That said, the adults were actually really cool about the kids, and constantly tried to include them, and ask them for guidance, and Mook was excellent. But the mix of the shy boy and the girl who didn't feel like sharing, probably didn't go as well as the last con from her view.

Sage and Lightning

Sage and Lightning

End of con

End of con means “Adventure Scavenger LARP”, where both the daughter and her friend ran around in empty rooms looking for crap. They found a few dice, a Cthulhu for 2016 pin, a plastic mini, and various trash. A successful hunt. And due to some miraculously good timing, I picked up the Car Wars Card Game for $6 just as we were passing by the game auction (another thing I highly recommend for those staying until Monday noon time).

Loot

Loot

And another Orccon comes to a close. 

Story Games Glendale: Atlas Reckoning (old beta)

OK, I'm writing this a few weeks after the fact. Blame sickness. And some laziness... er, distraction. In the name of Crypt of the Necrodancer (this is the most "video gaming" I've done since Fallout Shelter earlier last year).

Late December Story Games

Late December I met up David at Story Games Glendale,  and due to various holidays and such, it was just the two of us motivated individuals. We looked at a few options, and because I'd been trying to get this ready for some time, decided on Atlas Reckoning (link to the G+ community currently, as the game itself is still in beta and not available). I've played before at Go Play NW (prior blog here) with Stras Asimovic, one of the designers (let's be honest... he is the dude). 

Why Atlas Reckoning?

Why? The game is about giant mechs (Atlases) staving off humanities destruction from giant kaiju monsters (Behemoths). Like many story / narrative RPGs, the actual world and premise is designed at the table, and includes questions like "Why is it that giant mechs are the only answer?" This is lovely as it creates enough feasibility with the premise as the players will need, and like many PbtA games (which this is not, but you can see similarities) builds the player investment as well.

AND I want to run this game ASAP. Like maybe next month at Orccon here in Los Angeles. Hoping to get a playtest going prior to convention, and this was perfect. David has no qualms testing a game at the table and figuring it out as he goes, and it was just the two of us. And Atlas Reckoning can play GM-less, since the enemies work on a sort of simple algorithm.

The AR rundown

David and I started with the world building setup, and went with a small colony of 20,000 or so on a mining colony world out in space. The planet is low-gravity, and uses many large mining machines. David liked the idea of "we've dug too deep", and we went with that. Our mining has released some large native lifeform, which we're just starting to combat. Being mining, we have lots of explosives, and have now repurposed some mechs to serve as our protectors. Our colony lives in a large bubble, with some smaller adjacent bubbles and underground tunnels, but help is far away in space in time... so it's either protect ourselves from the kaiju, or be destroyed.

I love games where you do that yummy bit of world-building up front, to focus on a story you are motivated and excited to tell.

The next part of the game is choosing archetypes (similar to PbtA playsheets), and we ended up going with:

  • David as the Rookie, Bryan Smith, Callsign: Echo (from Olympus Mons, Mars)
  • Tomer as the Hotshot, Sluska Hollis, Callsign: Goldie (from Alteris V)

We filled in a few initial traits (Echo: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning", Goldie: "Make mother proud!") and then proceeded to make our mech: the Buxon Avenger. Named due to the large armor plating on the chest, it also is combined with a mono-molecular filament mining blade, a mine layer module (aka mining explosives), and missile swarm. These are the Atlas modules we chose, which all come with various combat advantages, mechanics-wise.

I also love that just prior to battle you use little vignettes to show what your character is doing, and looking like, and use those elements to try and get the (fake) audience a little insight into their personalities, without any long-winded backstories.

Then, it's straight into combat. We fought a small (category 1) Behemoth with spikes all over that was burrowing its way to our bubble city. We decided that command has given us additional instructions to not let the creature even enter the zone with our city, so as not to alert the mostly ignorant populace of the danger. We struggled through the mechanics a bit, but hiccuped our way through, and had fun playing what is simultaneously a card game with whatever narrative flavoring you want to impose on top of it.

We retired to back to the city, slightly damaged (both with character Stress as well as some Atlas scratches, and went into the game's Downtime mode. This is where you can recuperate some health and bonuses for the next combat, by performing little role playing scenes with some vaguely worded goals. We had a fun scene that involved love interests, pilot bonding, and rogue poker games, followed by alarms sounding to our character's hangovers.

Next battle we upped the stakes and brought in a category 2 Behemoth that had Teeth, Frenzy, and also a take-down trait of Retribution. We called this lovely thing the Gnasher. We got damaged a bit more heavily, but made it through the fight (maybe mostly because we didn't understand some of the rules), but all-in-all, a satisfying play.

Unfortunately, I found later that I was using an older beta version due to bad linking. This meant that many of our questions and criticisms about clunkiness with the rules were a little unfounded, as much has been cleaned up. That said, it did give me good insight and practice at playing (even an older version of) the system, and I'm hoping to have the rules down enough to do some more running of this in the very near future.

A little glimpse at mech vs kaiju

A little glimpse at mech vs kaiju

David and I; Rookie and Hotshot

David and I; Rookie and Hotshot

 

 

Story Games Glendale: Hearts Blazing

Another Story Games Glendale Wednesday meetup. It was David, Mark, Lucas, and myself, and after pitching a few games, we went with Hearts Blazing, a lovely little box I brought from a Kickstarter I funded a while back, by Games by Play Date.

The premise is that you collaboratively generate a fictional (sci-fi) setting together, and play what amounts to a season of binge watched drama, a la Battlestar Galactica or Firefly.

We started by setting some caretakers (bold terms = game terms) for different backdrops to the story. Mark started by effectively taking Technology & Ability by saying he envisioned space travel being performed by extremely rare psychics. As we fleshed this out, we ended up with space "ships" being amplifiers for a rare condition which allows some people to warp space and time, and effectively hope from world to world. This could take some time, but mostly days to weeks, and because the ability is so rare, we knew that governments and power brokers would do almost anything to control it. And hence a little bit of dystopia. We also went with a synch type mechanism, where a pilot needed to be trained to aim the ship, and the psychic (which we termed "warpers") as more of an engine for travel. The two needed to work together to pilot the vessel.

We chose our Archtypes, which included (David) Hugh, the Veteran and owner of our ship, (Mark) Bricks, the Engineer who manages the hardware, (Lucas) Ler the Ace pilot, and (me) Cloak the Rookie. 

From there we kept spiraling through Settings & HistoryOrganizationSupporting Cast (which included a sweetheart for Ler, named Aurora, who is the actual warper of the crew; Doc Dahab; Relay Dominic, who is our mysterious boss; and the Red Baron Dusk, who is Aurora's twin sister, who is also a warper, on the run and working for a shadow organization).

We played some more and made some great triangular relationships for most characters. Some had ailments taken care of by the Doc, some worked together in the past, some had jealousies or infatuations. Oh ya, and we're all pretty much smugglers, as having a warper is pretty restricted by large governmental bodies.

But then, how do we smuggle? And that's where we came up with "dampers". Basically my rookie is a new type of psychic which can cloak our ship from other warpers who try and intercept and control this mode of travel ("firewalls"), implemented by big gov't.

A little more, and we were ready to start with our pilot episode. We drew the pilot epsidoe card "Milk Run", and started with a good old smuggling run gone awry. We started straight in with klaxons blazing, and then later a flashback to "12 hours earlier" to start fleshing out the episode. It was fun talking about what the audience sees, and how to introduce them quickly and succinctly to concepts we had defined, without going too in depths. It quickly felt like we were writing a TV series, and I was pretty impressed with how well that came through.

Hearts Blazing, and our relationship chart.

Hearts Blazing, and our relationship chart.

Now, although the back of the box says "swift playing 1-2 hour RPG romp", and the instructions say "2-3 hours", it really felt like it'd fit better in a full 4 hour con slot. With little structure, it's easy for an episode to devolve a bit into finding where to go. Although a high bidder will be able to structure the Launch (premise) of an episode and controls the Wrap (goal / end), it is the Bridge which is the meat of the episode, and often precludes a bit of discussion and exploration. 

In theory you should play 8 episodes: a pilot, 5 mid-season, and 2 finales.  We got through three.

In theory you should play 8 episodes: a pilot, 5 mid-season, and 2 finales.  We got through three.

The best part of the game was the setup and first episodes. We really dug doing the world building part, and it was a fairly collaborative and exciting process. We additionally got a finale that really felt like we got to tie up the story fairly neatly, but left it wide open for season two.

Some of the down sides:

One issue is that the lack of concrete structure left me feeling like I had to do a lot of creative work, constantly, so around the 2 hour mark my brain was starting to get a little tired. 

Many of the cards used to "bid" for an episode provide ideas to run with for your character, but they aren't technically needed, and there isn't any mechanical motivation to use them. We discussed this after the game, and agreed that adding a mechanic there would have been nice, such as getting +1 points for each card you had bid and used, in relation to who "won" the episode (and therefore gets the rewards, keywords that are then later helpful in the epilogue at the end of the game.

I think it would be good to have some options for short-form play, such as how to really get the game going in a shorter slot by having fewer episodes. I mean, you could just cut down the number of episodes (which is what we did), but there appears to be a similar removal of Cliche cards that should be performed if this is done. I.e. you can break some mechanical aspects of the game, so some guidance would be appropriate.

Additionally, some more structure around the Bridge scenes, for new players, would be very useful. Such as setting the bridge as 3 (or so) sub-scenes, so that you can just role-play through it confidently. For example, in our first episode we had a Bridge which consisted of: 1. Get a delivery job from the boss, 2. Fly to Beta Origai Four, 3. Get the package, and 4. Head to Beta Origai Six, where we are waylaid. These were all very short little scenes, but by setting up what we wanted to do, roughly, we then had a blast role-playing quickly through it. Adjustments were made where necessary or ad hoc, but it really helped us first creating this loose structure because jumping into it.

All in all, I liked the game, and would definitely play it again, but I may add some tweaks when doing so to help facilitate play, especially with players who aren't familiar with the game.

November

Been a while

I originally started this thing / blog as a way to record my various thoughts around my exploration of the gaming hobby, and that goal hasn't change. Occasionally I can look back and enjoy seeing my thoughts on a topic. Or occasionally I run into someone who has an opinion or question on a matter, and instead of writing it all out again, I can point and say: "See there? Those are my thoughts!"

So, I'm happy with this little corner I have; it's doing what I want. And although I've been good about getting consistent with updating this place, the last month+ has been a little bit of a break. Was it the US election and post-election malaise? The fact that I haven't gotten much gaming going on? Don't know, but I'm still here, and still very much loving this junk.

So, this is posted a bit after the fact, but here's what's been happening for November...

Fiasco at Story Games Glendale (Nov 2)

Despite the fact that Fiasco is touted as a pretty seminal game in indie RPG and story game circles, I'd only played half a game once, over 3 years ago. It was great to finally get a chance to play a full game. 

We had 5 people total, so Dave helped facilitate. I came with my friend Lucas, and we got to play with Tim, a fellow gamer I had met at another meetup and who is starting to look more into story gaming.

It was a fun playthrough. We did a small-town thing reminiscent of Coen brothers style movies. It's not my favorite genre to play, and I always feel a bit of pressure working with real-world scenarios versus the fantasy/sci-fi genres. That said, we had a decent amount of role-playing type scenes, and a story emerged that ended on some very sad notes. 

2-player board games prior to Story Games Glendale (Nov 16)

This event was a bit of a wash, as no one showed (some with warning), but fortunately I planned to meet my bro-in-law Nigel there. 

So, first off, Game Haus Cafe has some killer sandwiches and food. They also appropriately name them all after various games. For example, this was the amazingly delicious Gyro Quest sandwich I ordered (get it... Gyro / Hero?)

We ended up trying a few 2-player games that I've been meaning to try, including Patchwork.

We tried Rise as well, which is a cute, abstract area-control type game. Not sure the longevity of the game (much like Hive) but it's definitely interesting enough and good as a 2-player filler.

Board games and The Final Girl at Story Games Glendale (Nov 30)

Met Nigel at Game Haus Cafe a bit early, and we did some more 2-player game explorations. We tried Odin's Ravens, which was a little simple, but again, could be a good enough filler as a two-player game. Probably not much replayability, but as someone who enjoys showing people new games, I'd probably get a bit of play from it. Very simple mechanics.

I've also learned to play 7 Wonders' 2-player game called 7 Wonders: Duel with my friend Kevin, and got to actually set it up and teach someone else how it works. I was getting worked points-wise, but eked out a victory with pure muscle, marching my soldiers into Nigel's civilization. If you like the concept of the Civilization video game franchise, this is like a miniature, super simplified 2-player board game version. In other words: fun.  We played a quick game of Patchwork, and that's when the folks showed up for Story Games. Nigel isn't as excited about the GM-less RPG stuff, so took off.

The Final Girl at Story Games Glendale (Nov 16)

We had some new folks show up! Nick was new to the meetup, and Mark, who showed up before and is a friend of Dave's, brought 2 newbies. With 6 people we weighed our options, and went with one large group for The Final Girl, a horror movie RPG meant to emulate slashers or horror movies. We had a good time with strange, supernatural, remote mountain town trying to murder us out-of-towners, along with everyone else. It was a great little intro game for new story gamers. We did fall into a little trap of allowing the Killer (the person who takes turn playing the murderer in the narrative) being a sort of GM, which isn't really in the spirit of the game so much, but even that is a learning experience for the players and a way to transition from one style of play to another.

Thanksgivings and such

So, other than those little events, I've been reading a bunch of RPG stuff in anticipation for running some games at Strategicon, and testing some games before then.

Specifically, I'm very excited about Stras Acimovic's Atlas Reckoning, a mech vs kaiju narrative card-based PbtA-style game (still in beta). I've read through the game, and plan to do some play-test battles with friend Howie, and daughter Nova. I've even put together some cut-down one-shot versions of the archetype playsheets which I'm hoping work a little easier in those situations (and also hoping it's up to Stras' muster).

Golden Sky Stories is another one I'd very much like to run, advertised as "a heartwarming, non-violent role-playing game that’s great fun for all ages". That and Fantasy Friends, the fantasy style version where you can play Aberrations and Slimes and such!

Otherwise, got to spend Thanksgiving up at the folks place, and even found out that a game cafe is opening up in their neighborhood! 

 The youngest of the nephews. Get them early!

 The youngest of the nephews. Get them early!

Holidays ahead!

Just came back from decorating the X-mas tree over at the in-laws house, which was fun, even with my Jewish background, and distaste for Christmas music in general. Nova always has a blast decorating the tree, and the family gathering in general is always great.

I will give you this RPG pro-tip... got extra dice? Glue them to a paperclip (glue gun) and you have excellent ornaments!

My little section of the X-mas tree at the in-law's place.

My little section of the X-mas tree at the in-law's place.

Getting played by the daughter

I don't usually write much about board games here, focusing more on RPGs, since that's a bit more of what I enjoy. The only time I've chosen a board game over an RPG at any recent convention was when my friend Andy was running his T.I.M.E. Pariah Missouri hack, and even then the game plays something like an RPG mystery. That said, we play lots of board games at home, since my wife and daughter are more into that, and it's such a great learning tool, without even feeling like you have to "learn".

Any who... was at Barnes and Noble with the daughter, playing a card game I recently acquired, called Iota. It looks like a cross between Set and Qwirkle, both games we've played a bunch, although not recently. Each card has 3 qualities: a number, a shape, and a color. Game play is about making rows and columns, Scrabble style, of cards that either match or are dissimilar in their various qualities. But the game isn't the purpose of this post...

A game of Iota

A game of Iota

So, we finish the game. The daughter is keeping track of the score on a sheet, which will involve a lot of tallying numbers. I head to the bathroom.

I come back, and she shows me that she's won: 105 to 39! What!? I mean, it felt like we were pretty even, so the shock was palpable.

That's when she flipped over her sheet, and showed the real score was 57 to 58. She had completely copied the entire tally score list, just to fake me out when I returned. It was so lovely. The highlight of my day.

Crazy kid...

Crazy kid...

Story Games Glendale: Roguish

A few days after Big Bad Con, and I knew a Story Game Glendale meeting was coming right up. Helps with the little downer that I was expecting coming from such a non-stop story high during the last weekend.

We met up at Game Haus Cafe again, which so far is working pretty well. The disadvantage is the cost, but man, those advantages: 1000 board games. Great tables. Good food and coffee. A decent environment regarding background volume.

I carpooled there with my fried Lucas. We chatted, and played two rounds of Lost Cities.

David showed up with a friend Mark, and we dived into it. Did a few pitches, and ended up going with Roguish, which I had played the prior weekend. This is a very rules light, story game that emulates the dungeon crawl of Rogue, the old ASCII game from the early '80s.

Things that worked well:

  • We used my little Lego head pieces of different colors as our avatars. (Don't forget the little head icon is exactly what your character looked like in Rogue... bonus!)
  • This matched the colored index cards we used for our characters, which made it super easy to identify who was who.
  • There was some confusion when people had gone their turn, and when they could or couldn't come to "aid" another... I got to use my customized spotlight cards (based on some others... I'll link to it when I find them!) Although these were made for other RPGs such as Dungeon World, I found these worked really well for this game.
  • Everyone was very open to the open-ended narrative structure (or I should really say non-structure) of the game, and brought cute little stories, conflicts, and individualized cards for the game.

What didn't work well:

  • The game is so very story-ish... I think most folks want a little mechanics there. Talking to Lucas on the way home, this was exactly the problem. Even if that mechanic was uber-light, and just let you track the 5 hit points you have, or something. In fact, this would more accurately emulate the original games, perhaps. 

Mark had to go, and it was getting late. We could've probably fit in something small, but decided to go with a game of Splendor instead. One of the advantages of Game Haus!

A game of roguish.

A game of roguish.

Four characters into the dungeon depths. 

Four characters into the dungeon depths. 

The final fight! Legendary Wicked Forks with their pair of rabid rats! Our friend the werefish bard getting some Air Piranha groupies. A character death. Epic ending.

The final fight! Legendary Wicked Forks with their pair of rabid rats! Our friend the werefish bard getting some Air Piranha groupies. A character death. Epic ending.

Big Bad Con 2016: Sunday and out

7am: The Wolf Pack

You read that right. 7am. It was not easy getting up that early. On Sunday. After gaming at full blast all weekend. But it was well worth it.

I've always felt that if there is going to be a physical exercise event at a game convention, I'm going to be a part of it. I ran at the Wolf Pack last year, and it was a serious struggle, but it was the first <insert any number here> K run I've ever done. I'm not in bad shape overall, but I've never been a runner. Like, ever. I started getting into a little bit of trail running in 2015, and actually found it enjoyable. That said, I never got very good, and I haven't run anything in 8 months. So, a little trepidation. Worst case I could walk, right?

There was less than a dozen of us. I was surprised to see Sean, to be honest... he looked worked the last night during our 3am conversation.

But out the door we went, and thanks to some awesome planning by our run leader, we had a very pleasant journey through quiet neighborhoods and a park, and so close to the hotel. Good going, Walnut Creek. And in the end, it was not nearly as physically tough for me as I had feared.

Wolf Pack 2016!

Wolf Pack 2016!

Many Pokemon lost their freedom on that run...

Many Pokemon lost their freedom on that run...

The gap (and no nap)

My original plan was to head back, and then nap, as I had nothing scheduled until 2pm.

That didn't happen. Everywhere I went I ended up getting waylaid by friendly folk, and in fact I sat there in my sweaty jogging gear for an hour, for the first conversation. Shower. More conversations. Dealer room. Discussions with Andi and Becky at the teen game room. Wander around. Brunch at the dining room / atrium hangout area, joined by Kristine. More conversations.

In a sense this was the nap I needed, as the energy just flowed into me. This was a recurring theme for me in this con.

Got to meet fellow Gauntleteer Brian Vo during my various wanderings. Turns out other Gauntlet members were in the area, to be discovered after the fact.

Got to meet fellow Gauntleteer Brian Vo during my various wanderings. Turns out other Gauntlet members were in the area, to be discovered after the fact.

Legend of the Elements: The Last Dowry

Of four games I've Kickstarted and wanted to play this weekend, this was the third. (The forth was Masks, but that'll have to wait to another time). Legend of the Elements is a PbtA game by Max Hervieux that emulates stories in the vein of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Andy has run this a few times, and it sounds like he likes to place the game in the timeframe of the 100 year war, where the Fire Kingdom is starting to push outwards and make claims to Earth Kingdom land, and a time when the Air benders and monks are being hunted.

  • GM: Andy Munich!
  • Kevin as ???, the Earthshaper
  • Doug as Gobo, the Spiritshaper
  • Mateo as ???, the Watershaper
  • Tomer as Refenja, the Scholar

The Last Dowry is one of the two scenarios provided with the base game. Being PbtA, the scenarios are very high-level, provide leading questions specific to different playbooks (i.e. characters archtypes) and no strict guidance on the journey or destinations. What this means is that I've read the scenario in the past, but had no idea what would happen as a player.

In my case I wanted to play a non-bender (or "shaper", as is used in the game, to avoid any legal entanglements). Although the game hinges around element benders (and includes a "spirit" bender / communicator as well), it provides just as many playbooks for other character types (the Monk, the Peasant, the Warrior, and so on). Because the other three players chose benders, this worked well with my choice.

I grabbed the Scholar, and went for a stocky individual who was an inventor type (inspired from my Friday night character, perhaps). This one playbook has a special mechanic called Material. Material is used in aiding certain moves, or creating inventions, although rolls are generally still needed. I liked that it frames a limited economy in session, so you have to portion it out, as in many mechanical constraints.

I also went for some bonds with other PCs that played into a narrative of an ailment which I had, which caused me to need to eat constantly, and allowed me to eat almost anything organic, despite no change in body type or sustenance. I love throwing in little LARP-lite mannerisms, and because I hadn't eaten yet, I decided to very, very slowly chew on my sandwich and snacks over the course of the session... the point being that every time the other players looked over at me, I wanted to be chewing.

As far as the game itself, Andy pulled this off so well. He nailed it as far as characterizations, and we had so many NPCs come in and out of the narrative that felt so authentically from that world. I think that really helped enable me to play up the style of humor and personality that I've associated with the Avatar story. Another aspect of the game system I like is that it doesn't force humor or trappings on the narrative, but allows you to easily associate those in the play-style.

Andy also uses audio heavily in some of his games, and this was my opportunity to gauge how he does it differently from myself. In his case, he doesn't use looping background audio, but instead had very poignant tracks that sound like they're straight out of the show (perhaps they are). He would play these 1-2 minutes tracks at key moments in the story, such as when we start a confrontation. It worked very well, and I may emulate this in some of my games.

Legend of the Elements Pro-tip: One element of the game I found hard to understand, during my initial read, was the system of Tags. These are narrative tags that are assigned to characters, NPCs, and locations ("environment tags"), and seemed to share some flavor with the FATE system, but I didn't see exactly how they'd work in game... especially as a character can get 3 tags before being "temporarily out of commission". (Note: There is no mechanical cause of death, unless the player desires that outcome). Andy made this really easy to understand, and play with, by pulling out his pool of story tags. Additionally, he had a whole set of printed pictures to represent locations and characters, and we could use those easily during the game.

The tags themselves began to make all the sense. You get hit by an acorn on the head? You get the Dazed tag. You're falling through the air? Falling. Swept up by a large eagle in mid-fall? Remove that Falling and Grabbed. Do some Earth bending and raise a wall to protect a hut? Add the Fortified tag to that location. Additionally, what you find is that to make certain moves specifically directed to a character or location, they must be tagged... which means you have a bit of setup in getting a tag on a villain, first. This provided some of the setup and narrative-esque machinations of FATE, but was a lot simpler and less mechanically based.

Tag pool, with tagged people and environments above.

Tag pool, with tagged people and environments above.

We wrapped up a little on the late side (about 4.5 hours for this session), but the story felt complete. Andy mentioned that he could have erred on the side of having less "village" story elements prior to the main course of the narrative, however we all agreed that the village really set the tone and scene so well. 

Mega-Dinner!

Once again down in the lobby, I found Andy as part of an organizational process by which 20 odd individuals were going out to dinner. I got tagged along.

Thanks mucho to Kristine for calling around and getting us a place that worked! We ended up at a Japanese and sushi restaurant that was super excellent. They had a large banquet room that basically just had us in it. Conversations flowed, as did some of only liquor (well, sake) that I drank all weekend. Got to meet Karen Twelves and hear a romantically geeky wedding proposal story... during a game of Parsely, for heaven's sake. How amazing.

Stras and I family-styled some delicious Sushi, and the conversation flowed, as it does. Thanks to Sean and Karen for sneaking out on us, in a pleasant way. Bastards.

More Legend

We returned to the hotel to find dozens of people on many tables and circles sharing in the post-con glow. Chatting, reliving, loving. I got into a nice circle with Andi and others, and realizing I didn't have a way to get back to Sacramento the next day, I even got an awesome offer from Jeremy to drive me back. Although his timing didn't work for me, he explained the Amtrak ride being pleasant experience, and so that decided the matter.

And then Stras runs up like an excited puppy, convincing Andy to run (another) Legend of the Elements game, with him and Morgan and whomever would be convinced. I waiting for them to get others, as my body and mind wanted to just chill.

But as it goes, I followed my heart. We found a little space, and set ourselves up. An amazingly fun little narrative ensued, with Andy running, Stras as Shu the Airbender (with very Ang-like personality), Morgan as a Fire nation Warrior deserter, and me continuing with the Refenja character from the prior game. Even more so than the prior game, we all embraced Avatar-inspired humor and interactions. Andy really brought it, with a cool mystery of who-done-burned-the-village, with nasty villain, and heart-wrenching ending. This could have easily been a great episode produced as a prequel for the series, and to me, that is a measure of the absolute success of our game.

But oh my lord were we wiped out towards the end...

Bookends

And it is with that, that I realize that Stras and Andy and I may have very well book-ended the con. We played in the Dread game Thursday evening, and then this final game that ran all Sunday night to the wee hours. Perhaps there were others playing, who can say. But I'm proud of this particular achievement.

Goodbyes, a Transit Journey, and Home

Dennis and I got up in the morning, still a buzz and chatting about the con, and what the future entails. We checked out, grabbed a ride to the BART station with the hotel shuttle, and then split our separate ways.

I then embarked on a very long, multi-staged mass transit journey, but damn if Jeremy was right. That Amtrak ride is nice. I got some family time with the parents, and then off to grab a flight back to L.A.

The highlight of the journey home, game-wise, was character generation for Golden Sky Stories with my 7-year old daughter on the flight home. She wrote this, unprompted, about her cat character (swoon!):

Hi. I'm a kitty. I'm black. I'm actually pure black. I'm super DARK! My name is Willow. What did you say? Oh, ya, I'm cute. I'm also very selfish. I'm 2 years old. It's hard for me to make friends with people, but nobody tells me what to do. I'm FREE. Yay! I can do everything I want. I'm very independent.
Toot toot! Until next time...

Toot toot! Until next time...

Final thanks

I've said it elsewhere, but it's worth saying again and again as many times as I can: Thank you to Sean Nittner and the entire Big Bad crew and volunteers and participants for making this such an amazing, supportive, and safe experience for everyone. I don't think I can recommend it highly enough. Although the convention and many of the people will be missed until the next time I can attend and connect, it serves as an inspiration for the places I will go and things I'll do. Cheers!

Big Bad Con 2016: Saturday

I woke up groggy after 2 nights of unsatisfying sleep... was it Sunday already? Sure felt like it... holy shit, it was only Saturday morning. That shot an injection of happy straight into my cranium.

World Wide Wrestling: Fall Fracas!

So, when planning for this convention, I was hoping to get in as many games that I've KickStarted, but haven't played, and especially didn't quite groc. Pretty much at the top of that list was World Wide Wrestling. Although on the surface it sounds like just an RPG about wrestling in a ring, it's really so much more. I had heard good things on a podcast or two, and it turned out to be all true.

  • GM: Noam Rosen
  • John Aegard as Sam Nostradamus, the Monster
  • Ben as Ray Locke, the Technician
  • Kris as Avery Adams, the Anti-Hero
  • Tomer as Super Novae, the Golden Boy (or Girl, in this case)

WWW, like most Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games, starts with playsheets that lay out the common tropes of the setting. In this game, those represent the different types of wrestlers: The Technician, The Veteran, The High Flyer, and so on. In this case, you are the wrestler as a whole. There is your persona in the ring, and also your life outside the ring. These collide and conflict in interesting ways during the story, within yourself, and also with other players. Like all PbtA games, you create much of the "backstory" in the game itself, by answering choosing selections from the sheet (Hailing From: Los Angeles, California, and Entrance: Showy and Ostentatious), as well as answering various questions (Who's jealous of my rapid rise? Who did I debut with, and leave behind?)

Before long, you've got Heat with various players (at the table, as well as non-player characters), and that works to your advantage in the ring. 

One of the best parts is coming in with a very thin, half-baked idea, but watching it grow when interacting with everyone at the table. John, who sat across from me, came in as Sam Nostradamus, a burly dude with dark, mystic regalia. But before long, his story had turned into one of a wrestler who'd been through 5 incarnations, and may be on the chopping block if he doesn't get the audience excited.

I came in as Super Novae, a star loved by the audience. However, it turned out that I had a dark past as a villain duo, the Binary Stars... and that I'd switched sides in the ring, leaving my partner in the dust. In the background, she's returned as the (NPC) Pride, and I had Heat with her as well. She didn't make an appearance in this narrative because we wanted to concentrate on the players at the table, however in a home game, that can certainly happen, and cause drama.

I've heard in conversation that someone criticized the art. I can't fathom that level of blindness.

I've heard in conversation that someone criticized the art. I can't fathom that level of blindness.

Because we were playing a con game, we got 3 matches... two individual bouts, as well as a tag-team match. Naom, our GM, who plays "Creative", basically plans the bouts, and also the winners. This means the match is fixed, but us, as the players, didn't know who would win until towards the end of the match. And even then, there are ways to upset the balance, and have Creative change their mind and let the other wrestler win, if the crowd is in their favor, or otherwise. In the end, it's all about entertaining the audience.

Another excellent facet is that wrestlers choose to either be a Babyface (good guy) or Heel (bad guy). Each has slightly different additional powers in regards to a match. In our case we had Sam Nostradamus and Kris as Avery Adams as Heels, and Super Novae and Ben as Ray Locke as Babyfaces. This set up a spectacular final match between the lot of us!

This game was an absolute blast. Not all of us were wrestling aficionados, but you couldn't really tell, because it's so easy to go completely gonzo and get into it.

Exhibit 32b: Sam's spiraling career... from Sam Stone, to Glorious Sam, to Corporal Sam Victory, to Sam Steel the construction worker, and finally... to Sam Nostradamus. My nemesis.

Exhibit 32b: Sam's spiraling career... from Sam Stone, to Glorious Sam, to Corporal Sam Victory, to Sam Steel the construction worker, and finally... to Sam Nostradamus. My nemesis.

In the end, the game just kept you feeling like you wanted more. And from what I've heard this really shines as an on-going campaign where you play a few "seasons". Wrestlers may get fired or retire out, or get injured to a point where they can no longer go on efficiently. And you can bring in new stars to fill their absence.

What more can I say? Favorite game of the con. And props to Noam for helping us be awesome by being an awesome Creative.

The ring. Picture by Brian Kwa.

The ring. Picture by Brian Kwa.

Lunch at Pinky's Pizza

I caught up with Andy and Dennis, and we didn't have much time before Dennis' 2pm game, but we decided to run over to Pinky's Pizza Parlor. Not too far, but Andy had a car, so that helped cut down the time. Food was mediocre, but not bad, and we were even joined for a quick chat by Noah (who turns out is from The Gauntlet community, for which I sometimes get to play in online games).

Ad hoc: Cheat Your Own Adventure

After the morning session ending at 1pm, I had a big gap until 8pm. I think it's vital planning for some down time, to get refreshed. I find more often than not, it ends up being a chatty talk-fest with groups of like-minded individuals, or ad hoc gaming. Or both combined.

So, before long, I find myself convincing a nice big table filled with Andy, Kristine, Andy, Mateo (from last nights game), and Vivian from Sac-town (yay! we got to game!) and more for a little quick thing I found online, that I've been wanting to try.

Cheat Your Own Adventure is a little game written by Shane Mclean, which emulates a Choose Your Own Adventure book in the best way possible. It's a little GM-less game, where you take turns narrating a scene, and 3 other people create possible choices for your character. The narrator chooses one of the possible choices, and then you determine if its a positive outcome, or a horrible death. If the choice is good, than the author of the choice gets to be the next narrator.

If the choice is bad, then the author gets to narrate the death. But lo! As in days of youth, you had your finger bookmarking that last crossroad... and the narrator gets to go back and choose one of the other 2 paths. And that one will always succeed. And on you go.

The path gets more and more difficult, but you will always succeed down the second path, so there will be a happy ending, eventually. And the game itself? Riotous good fun, and very collaborative.

Andy started us off with his little setting: "You are on a field trip with your class at the Natural History Museum, and fall asleep on a bench. You wake up to find it dark, you are by yourself, and the museum is locked." The title of the book? "The Field Trip... Through Time!" We had a shrinking Obelisk, an Egyptian slave driver / taxi driver, and a universe rending rip in time, among other things.

This game is a blast. 

Ad hoc: Roguish

I'd been hoping to game with Tre, who I hadn't seen since last years con, except online. In fact, we played in a little Fall of Magic session a few weeks back on Google Hangouts. He got into a Games on Demand (GoD) session that we didn't, but fortunately met up with him a little down the track. We were joined by two others, and found a table in the little teen gaming hall, that was mostly open.

Andy volunteered to run roguish, a free little game by Evan Silberman that emulates a little dungeon crawl (a la ASCII video game Rogue from the early 80's). In this case, however, the rooms, monsters, and treasures are crowd-sourced from the players, shuffled, and help create a little GM-less narrative game (sans mechanics).

Every few rooms you find one with a set of stairs, and you dive deeper into the dungeon. In our case we decided on a setting with science-fantasy steam punk, in a floating boulder of a dungeon. I had a couple of Lego space heads we used as character markers, and we were off delving.

It's a silly little game, and has next-to-no mechanics, but plays pretty quick (~1 hour or so), and we all had a great time. Definitely in the read-to-play pocket for the future! The best part is seeing all the silly and weird that your fellow players have created, as you go along. Also, Andy was a big fan of ensuring that even after we finished, with monster and treasure cards to spare, we went through and examined them all, as that's always worth a few chuckles.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles...

I gotta send a shout out to my wife, Jennifer, who in the meantime was painting with a bay area artist on an electric box in Glendale! She's over on the right side (and found on instagram as @jgurantz). The bay area artist is Margeau B (on the left). I don't usually say "woot", but WOOT!

And now, back to our regularly scheduled blog...

The Grand Warren

Another of the games I've Kickstarted, couldn't quite grok, and really really really wanted to play. It was at the top of my list, next to World Wide Wrestling. The fact that the caliber of GMs was super high as well (Jason Morningstar, Steve Segedy, Colin Fahrion, and Jesse Coombs)... bonus.

We’ll play The Warren in epic mode, as four groups of rabbits cooperate (and compete!) across four different tables simultaneously. The threats will be relentless, the adventure will be epic, and the Black Rabbit will always be at your paw.

I sat down at a random table, and it slowly came together:

  • GM: Colin Fahrion
  • Albert Kong, as ???, our doctor and herbologist, Composed
  • Kim Farrell, as Tkon'e (Blackberry), Marked by the Black Rabbit
  • Julie Southworth as Syewen (Power Song), Dominant
  • Tomer as Senalisen (Quick Water), the Swift Runner

As it turns out, each table was a separate warren (aka territory) on an island. We each have our quadrant, and comprised of the Salmon, Elk, Orca, and Red Birch (I know I got that tree wrong) tribes. Almost immediately, we created our characters in true PbtA style, answering various questions, and having some interactions with each other. Additionally, we were also answering questions that defined our factions.

And then there was the little stuffed rabbit doll on the table. Each warren had a figure who traveled to other warrens to deliver messages, ultimatums, and just communicate in general. You see, traveling from warren to warren would be close to impossible for any of us, unless we were thrown out of our warren... and even then the journey would be highly dangerous.

Our rabbit was the matriarch of the island, which also meant that we had the warren in "control". As it turns out, we ended up being very isolationist, and in fact kick out any rabbits that breed with other tribes. That contributes to our shrinking numbers.

What was cool was when we stopped for a few moments to listen to everyone introduce their tribes. All of a sudden we find out the Orca clan is completely blood thirsty, and has an initiation rite that includes swimming to a small island and back... basically the Spartans of the group. Other tribes had similar, quite different, personalities.

Colin setting the tone, just prior or after Jason did his great X-card spiel. Picture by Brian Kwa.

Colin setting the tone, just prior or after Jason did his great X-card spiel. Picture by Brian Kwa.

And despite us initially diving into the conflicts and issues within the rabbit communities, very quickly it because apparent that there was another larger issue... the Humans. They had been coming to the island seasonally, but now were establishing a permanent residence. And they brought hunting dogs.

Within the first five minutes of play, Jason Morningstar comes over to borrow a new playsheet from our GM, Colin. He'd killed his first PC. I think we all just stared like deer in the headlights, feeling quite vulnerable.

This game was so great. At first I had the desire to visit other tables, and in fact my character was a bit of an explorer, at least around our warren. However in retrospect I really like what they did here. The stuffed rabbit dolls did travel around with messages, ultimatums, and news and tidings, and that in turn informed our (warped) view of the world. 

One aspect of the system I really enjoyed was the Innovate move: When you do something unheard of, imagine what your actions would look like as a move. Basically, we could craft our own moves. At one point in the narrative, one of us spoke for the First Rabbit, a spirit / rabbit god, of sorts. Because of this, Colin had us roll for the move, and because we were successful, we now had the Speaking for the First Rabbit move. We just invented religion.

You can see the map, split into the 4 quadrants for the 4 warrens.

You can see the map, split into the 4 quadrants for the 4 warrens.

As time went on, things got to a head, and the last 20 minutes was pure chaos. Rabbit warrens were having a war, and we later found out that half the island was on fire due to another Innovate move by another warren.

We split our clan in two, and one joined the Orca in the south, and one went to a remove little area. Poor Tkon'e was our injured and pregnant rabbit, and was carried off by a hunting dog, to everyone's horror... but her special power had always been Marked by the Black Rabbit: When others presume you dead, you’re not. Return, injured but alive, at some later time—with an incredible story. Then cross off this move. She comes back months later, with the 4 scars she earned earlier in the story, and with a litter of little bunnies. An epic win.

Overall, the game itself is great. Playing prey is daunting, as you have almost no ability to fight back. There is a panic track, which is brutal. And getting injured means you scratch off a basic move, which severely handicaps your rabbit. Captures the feelings really well.

The execution of this particular con game was stellar. It was a great balance of being able to play a standard game, but with an larger mega-game going on, that everyone felt a part of. Superb.

Late night ramblings

Fatigue be damned. The next 3 hours or so was filled with running into random lovely people and just having gaming and nerd conversations, as well as talks about the con itself and its excellent support of the community and safety. Highlights always include Andi (from Seattle!), Gavin and others, a discussion on Dread with David Kizzia and Andy, and a group of us being able to lend a helping ear for Sean to vent to.

Looks like 3-4 hours of sleep left until the Wolf Pack 5K run! Wait... what?

Big Bad Con 2016: Friday

Game arrives!

So, I left my Lego box at the cafe in Burbank airport on the way up to the bay area, back on Wednesday morning. Security confiscated it (and of course security is located outside the terminal), and I found out during the boarding process of our plane. Super suckie.

I was stressing on the flight, since I think the game shines with the Lego props, but thought of a few alternatives: maybe Dread it up? Fortunately, the lost-and-found lady at Burbank was dope, and helped me out by Fedex-ing the game box to the hotel. It arrived Friday morning, and I was set to go!

Registration

Last year I was impressed by the the con badges at registration. They included your name on the front, and optional twitter tag (or whatever), but also had your scheduled games listed on the back, including times and room numbers. I consistently heard people marveling at that magic. They also give you little buttons based on all sorts of things like if you pledged to the KickStarter (which helped fund private rooms for all games!) and if you are a GM.

They added pronoun stickers, which I think is awesome in being able to get everyone comfortable about gender associations for their conversation partners. And there are always a bottomless well of conversations, in my experience.

And then they took it to the next level: Playbooks. They created little playbooks to gamify social interactions at the con. You could choose one of them from Mage, Explorer, Ambassador, and Rogue, initially. Each of these had some basic principles on the front, and then a list of goals on the back. Whenever you complete one of these, you Mark XP! Mark 5 XP, and level up at the registration desk by getting the button, and choose another playbook. When you completed the 4 basic playbooks, they had advanced playbooks! You can see the Wolf in my image (there was also Little Red), however I was never able to complete those for the button... they included goals such as "clean up a room you see that has been left a mess" and "feed a staff member that is too busy to get food". All very optional, but oh so fun. Even if you didn't really get into it, it was just a brilliantly executed little piece of gamer-love.

Badges, buttons, playsheets, and more!

Badges, buttons, playsheets, and more!

In addition to all that, there are also amazing donation events, such as the Tell Me About Your Character booth, which raises money for Doctors without Borders:

Nathan wants you! Photo by Brian Kwa.

Nathan wants you! Photo by Brian Kwa.

Lunch: Ramen Hiroshi

Andy came out from SF, and drove Dennis and I to Ramen Hiroshi, in the downtown Walnut Creek area. Most restaurants would be a fair walk from the hotel (not really a problem normally, but difficult if you have a limited window between games).

We enjoyed a few bowls of ramen. Their standard Hiroshi ramen was delicious, and even comes with a free little side of Chicken Karaage. Good conversations, and then back...

A brief viewing of Ghost Court

I was walking about, and happened by the room where Ghost Court was in session. Just stuck around to watch one session in play (it happened to be Ross Cowman as a human on the stand), and it was pretty hilarious. I didn't play, but I mention this because it looked quite popular, and it's in KickStarter mode now (see link above), and I regret not having a go. But in all fairness, I was going to start my game...

Ghost Court in session!

Ghost Court in session!

Fallout Shelter RPG

My PbtA hack for the Fallout Shelter phone game, written about elsewhere and in my various blog posts, was first on my list. Originally I was going to run this for normal con-goers, but Sean asked if I could do it for the teen track. April was a non-teen who wanted in, and waited on signing up for this slot, and was therefore able to secure a place. I'm honored she joined us!

  • GM: me!
  • Bayan as Em Peached, the Ex-Overseer
  • Leo as Elizbeth, the Wasteland Explorer
  • Leo's cousin (name?) as Professor Gregor, the Scientist
  • April as Indi-Go (?), the Food Engineer

A good little session. Bayan and Leo were the two 13-year olds, and uber enthusiastic. I was pleasantly surprised with Bayan's unrelenting pun-fest with character names, including his own character, Em Peached Nuca Mer the Immigrant (bonus for getting Nuka in there!), and Bruce Wane the Wasteland Orphan. I regret not talking in a low, growly voice as the orphan, in retrospect. Also, he wore his Vault 111 hoodie, and brought a little man bomb that made explosion sounds. 

In the end, April's Indi-go was able to complete her mission and make it back to her vault. Bayan's Em Peached did get back, starved and dehydrated, and was promptly thrown in prison. The others died horrible deaths. So: success!

Most of my crew! Unfortunately April had already left before picture time. Notice Bayan's "little man" bomb sitting at the bottom left.

Most of my crew! Unfortunately April had already left before picture time. Notice Bayan's "little man" bomb sitting at the bottom left.

Dinner?

I can't remember now, but I did eat. Maybe I'll edit later when memory returns. But I will say that BBC makes it a point to tell con-goers to follow the 3-2-1 rule, and I will reiterate it now:

3-2-1. In the excitement of gaming it is easy to forget some of the basics. The 3-2-1 con rule is a reminder to get a minimum of 3 hours of sleep, 2 meals, and 1 shower each day.
 

Paradise

I love signing up for game systems I haven't played, or even heard of. This was one of the latter, and I don't regret it. It was listed with:

You’ve traveled long and far to find it. The last haven this side of the Mississippi. They said it’d be safe. They said it lived up to the name. They said it was perfect. But right now, Paradise just looks like a dump.
War Stories is an RPG all about telling stories and surviving to see another day in an apocalyptic world. Players will take turns sharing a tale of harrowing adventure from their past, all while an impending threat encroaches upon their safety.

The GM was Alexis, who turns out is from LA. (Represent!) Played with Matteo and Brian and one other (name redacted). The setting was about 75 years after the "incident".

I created my character as young Novinski the Wizid, a little wizard / wiz-kid, grown up learning fixing things from her mom. And now orphaned and travelling the wild. What I loved, however, was the "Knacks" in this system... the whole character was defined by a few phrases, and also a list of skills. The list is still in beta mode, but I really dug options such as "Fixing stuff" and "Swindling". Some options have asterix, which implies that they are more complex in this post-apoc world, and therefore more expensive to purchase:

The War Stories character sheet

The War Stories character sheet

The game ran in 2 sections, which I thought was really interesting... an initial round-table, narrative vignette / story-telling part, where we each took turns describing our character in a scene. These scenes also are used by each player to add canon to the story, as desired. This felt very similar to some GM-less games I've played, including those from postworldgames.

After this initial section, we then become a more traditional GM-based game, where Alexis brought us into a scene where all the characters were mostly assumed to know each other (or just get to know each other). It's a little loose, and I think that transition could be a little more structured (e.g. with bond-developing questions you see in PbtA games).

From there it was more of a traditional GM-based RPG, however the mechanics were very narrative friendly, as you could really do anything, however your chances were just remarkably better with skills you had. It sounds like the mechanics are bit in flux with the system, but I actually thought they worked pretty well (d6 for non-proficient rolls, d6+d8 for proficient rolls, requiring a 5+ to succeed, if I remember correctly).

The story itself was fun... no spoilers, but I felt like Alexis did a great job evoking the post-apoc setting. It felt dusty and dirty, and the little village we were a part of felt well fleshed out. I felt the ambiance as wandering through the villages of Fallout and Fallout 2 (but that's me).

Alexis did have music, and I supplied my bluetooth speaker, which I was carrying around, but I don't think the audio itself was that audible. When it was, it didn't add too much to the game.

We did do a good post-wrapup session, but I think I forgot to mention audio feedback. One player mentioned he'd like stats for the characters, but I dissented, saying that many games do stat+skill, and I really liked how this one felt different, and felt like it was in sync with the narrative basis of the game. 

Paradise with Brian, Bill, Mateo, and Alexis.

Paradise with Brian, Bill, Mateo, and Alexis.

Big Bad Con 2016: Thursday

Heading Back to the Bay Area

I lived up in SF for almost 8 years, so always love an excuse to get up there. On the plus side I got to fly up with my daughter, visit my brother and his lovely family, see the cousins hang out for mucho tiempo, and see my parents. The down side was not getting to see San Francisco at all, or the friends who reside within it.

Cousins! <3

Cousins! <3

Thursday rolled around, and I made a hasty afternoon exit to a slow, mass-transit crawl up to Walnut Creek. OK, it wasn't that bad. It was really just the standing on the very slow Dumbarton Bridge "express" bus that was lame. It did give me a chance to see the new Rogue One trailer (thanks Morgan!), so not all bad.

The Walnut Creek Marriott

Big Bad Con 2015, the only prior one I've attended, was in Oakland. I remember the hotel being easy to navigate, and with a decent bar. Apparently they bolted down the beds in the rooms, which prevents being able to have private game rooms. That's a show stopper. So...

BBC 2016 was in the Walnut Creek Marriott. I found it a couple of notches up the scale. The rooms were very nice, with hardwood / laminate flooring (much preferable to old carpet nastiness). I checked in to find that my particular room had a window that was intersected in half by the sloping roof. Odd. But that allowed me to see the weather outside, as well as look inside the hotel down at the lobby and dining room below! I spied some gamers ripe for the picking, and getting over some initial vertigo and introversion, I took the plunge.

I stepped up and said my initial hello "Gamers?", and also under the pretext of being hungry, and "how's the grub?" But pretext wasn't needed. It was like stepping into a hug. Suddenly I'm sitting with 6, then 8, then 10, then a dozen individuals, as more little particles came walking into the hotel and gravity worked its magic. Amazingly, I almost immediately got to run into Andy from Seattle. I also got to the lovely wife Kristine, which I hadn't previously met.

Gamers spotted in their natural habitat, with their strange modes of communication. I'm at home.

Gamers spotted in their natural habitat, with their strange modes of communication. I'm at home.

A Dread session

And then Jay, a member of our circle, pretty much mandates some ad hoc gaming! Before I know it, I'm signing up to run a game of Dread. A beam of sunshine named Stras walks in (we've gamed at Go Play NW), and before long, six of us are down in a lower lobby floor, in a dark corner, and I'm running that Dread scenario I wrote about not long ago. Included:

  • GM: me! And as NPC Tarna (Electronics / Sensors), who died in the first minute
  • Stras as Pyotr Romanov (EV Repair / Gravitonics)
  • Jay as Abydos (Heating / Mechanics)
  • Bananachan as Charlie from the Moon (H20 / Waste Disposal)
  • Kristine as Sassafras Jones (Hazmat / Team Psych)
  • Andy as Frunda 41/101 (Power / Radiation)

The last time I ran this I had a 3 hour time limit; This time we played around 4+, ending at a cool past-midnight. The hotel room scenery was good and abandoned, and it's amazing how well the hotel's quiet easy listening meshed with the creepy background audio I was playing.

Everyone seemed to have a good time, and the ambiance worked. I've got mad respect for Stras and Andi (having played with both before) and will freely admit, a little nervous to run for them. But that lasts for a few nanoseconds before diving in, and fortunately gets all forgotten in the moment. The players kept me on my toes with all sorts of technical know-how, physics (or pseudo-physics) knowledge, and things I didn't anticipate. I.e. good fun. We had a very unstable tower at the end, and Stras pushed it over for a little epic save, stabbing more than a few baddies with screwdrivers and shivs. Andi and Stras' characters had a touching moment on the comms before succumbing. The rest made it out, barely, and on to darker futures.

Banana-chan doing what needs to be done.

Banana-chan doing what needs to be done.

My roommate / friend Dennis showed up somewhere towards the end, with his friend Andy from SF (there will be many "andies" in this BBC narrative), and after some post-game chatting with the group, we three ended up chatting until pretty late up in the room, as you do.

All with plenty of time (5 hours?) to sleep and get back to gaming. Unfortunately the excitement bug got me, and it felt more like I was laying in bed for hours on end, but I'm sure some sleep must've been in there somewhere. Right?

A first Story Games Glendale, and Forget-Me-Not Murder Hoboes

Story Games Glendale

So, there is a group up in the Pacific Northwest called Story Game Seattle. My little interactions with this group has mainly been around attending the Go Play NW convention, in Seattle, for the last two years. I know a few well-known game developers (in indie RPG game circles) are from around there or have played in that circle, including Ben Robbins (of Microscope fame). In fact, Ben appears to have a strong hand in much of the weekly games happening and general atmosphere up there. For a little information on what that "looks" like, see the Story Games Seattle FAQ.

I was considering starting something like this in my area, but ended up finding The Art of Story Through Gaming meetup here in LA, and that seemed to do the trick for this year. I've hosted some Indie RPG nights, where we explore both GM-based and GM-less games. However, the meetup itself seemed to have gone quite regarding maintenance, and that reduced my confidence that it'd be around for much longer.

And as I was considering starting up my own meetup, *KABOOM* I get a notification about a new meetup called "Story Games Glendale". Not only a story games meetup, not only based on some of the guidelines from the original Seattle version, but also happens to be in my little corner of this great big trafficy city!?

Turns out a fellow named David has been running games such as these for co-workers for months now, and happens to live and work in Glendale.

First meetup at Game Haus Cafe

Our first meetup was on Oct 4, at our local Game Haus Cafe in Glendale. We've looked into the possibilities of Game Empire (in Pasadena) and Emerald Knights (in Burbank) as possible venues as well, however these locations already have many game and table reservations already.

After meeting up David, Caleb, and Tracy, as well as introducing Harry from my past meetups, we pitched a few games, and ended up taking on Forget-Me-Not: Murder Hoboes (by postworldgames and Jim Pinto). This particular game isn't released yet, but Harry and I had already played the original Forget-Me-Not recently, so wanted something a little different.

I have to admit we probably didn't follow the game exactly by the rules, due to my knowledge of how to run it with 4 people, but not 5. We started with the number of players you'd expect for a 4-player game but we were playing with 4 characters in a scene (instead of 3, the correct number). This meant we were blowing through the character phrases faster than expected, and so later in the game I slowed this down. We took it down to 3 people per scene, with the odd-man-out being assigned an optional NPC role that didn't match any of the characters (a monster, the bartender, so on). 

We had a good time. People appeared to mostly enjoy the free-form nature. We did a round of Roses and Thorns, and much of the negative feedback had to do with not getting to explore many characters deeply (which isn't the purpose of the game, really).

Harry has played a few GM-less games now where there is no attachment to a single character, and was curious if that is just a thing with GM-less games. My answer: not necessarily. Some GM-less games are based around exploring a community, or history, and so there is definitely less exploration of specific personalities, however there are some which do (such as Protocol or Praxis by Jim Pinto, or Kingdom by Ben Robins, or even Downfall by Caroline Hobbs). Perhaps I'll try getting one of these running soon.

The game was a little on the short side (~2 hours). But I suppose that's the advantage of being in a game cafe with 1,000 games on the shelves. So although Caleb had to go, and the rest of us played a round of Splendor, before heading out.

Forget-Me-Not: Murder Hoboes (beta version with temporary art)

Forget-Me-Not: Murder Hoboes (beta version with temporary art)

David, Harry, Tracy, Caleb, myself

David, Harry, Tracy, Caleb, myself

Dread: Only the Food and Aliens

(TL;DR? Just need the files themselves? Skip to the bottom for Copies on Dropbox.)

Some friends were planning to watch a midnight showing of Aliens, at the local Santa Monica Nuart theater. What better time to run a game of...

Dread and the Only the Food scenario

Dread is a role-playing game by Epidiah Ravachol, which uses Jenga as its mechanic, and a questionnaire as character generation. I've played it many times at prior Strategicons, however have only run it myself in a hacked form: the Mad Max Fury Road Dread game.

Needless to say, the Mad Max version is very high paced, whereas a normal game of Dread has got a slow build up. I was definitely worried I wouldn't be able to pull it off, or at least lack confidence in my capacity to do so.

Only the Food is a scenario for Dread, written by David Schirduan, available off his website, which is a sci-fi horror adventure. I found it when looking for simple Dread scenarios to run, and it felt about right.

Preparation: Setting

In preparing to run the game, I found that the scenario itself was great, however I wanted to add some more flavor, and it wasn't organized in a manner that I could use off-the-cuff.

In a conversation with my friend Howie, one thing we quickly agreed upon was that the players should not be told about the history of the game world in the way the scenario describes. In the actual write-up, it mentions that the AIs win over humans, and mostly use them as tools. We figured it'd be much better to make it sound like the AIs were benevolent savior types, and give it more of a Paranoia vibe.

Preparation: Cheat Sheet

My first step in preparing to run it was to break down the scenario, and then put together a cheat-sheet that I could use. I'm a big fan of bullet lists with short phrases that remind me of what I need to know. The scenario as written by David was comprehensive enough (and definitely without too much information), however it fit over 5-6 pages, and would be difficult to use during game time. Hence I ended up with something that fit on a page. It looks roughly like this (with very minimal spoilers here): 

The first few parts of the cheat sheet.

The first few parts of the cheat sheet.

Each "scene" of the scenario is self-contained, and has a bullet list of things to remember, or obstacles that will occur. The obstacles give some guidelines on the types of obstacles that might be encountered, and even the number of block pulls. Keep in mind these are rough guidelines to help understand the pacing of the adventure, but you can easily veer from the path if you feel comfortable. 

Preparation: AI Speeches

The "AI speeches" mentioned on the cheat sheet, refers to those times when the ship's Artificial Intelligence communicates with the characters. I transcribed these onto a separate pieces of paper that I could then cut into separate speeches, and hand to the players. Although I knew I could read them out loud, or play them on audio files (as you'll see I do, below), it's nice to have it written out in case players have a hard time hearing you or the audio, or simply want clarification on what was said.

Example of the AI speeches, transcribed.

Example of the AI speeches, transcribed.

Preparation: Character Sheets (EMS Personnel Forms)

I liked the questionnaires, however the ones that David provided were simply a bunch of questions on a sheet. I wanted them to have more visual flavor, and decided to give them more of a application / employee form type of vibe. I ended up going with a look something like this (with separate sections, highlighted roles for easier visibility when choosing your character, and some font choices meant to provide some flavor). In addition to the "What is your designation number?" question from the original form, I added a "Gender #" field (nothing is done to define what this means), and both the character's physical age (how old they appear) as well as their calendar age (how long since the year they were born, as time changes strangely when dealing with cryo-stasis). 

Here is what the top of the final form looks like:

The top of an EMS personnel form.

The top of an EMS personnel form.

The six character choices all consist of a top "Worker Information" section, a Questionnaire with 3 very simple questions (you can see the first one, above in the example), and then a Private Information section with 3 additional questions. I changed some of the questions slightly from Dave's originals, and specifically had at least one question about general distrust for the AIs, in general. 

Preparation: Audio and Recorded AI Speeches

I am a big fan of audio in my sessions. For this game, this comprised of 2 different sets of audio files.

The first set of audio tracks were the AI speeches. To create these, I used the Text2Speech website, because it allows you to freely download an MP3 file which corresponds to this audio. I wasn't a huge fan of the unmodified speech, as the speed is a little too fast:

I then take the MP3 file, and make some small tweaks to it using Audacity (which is free audio editing software). I used the Effect menu in Audacity to both Change Speed (to make it a little slower) as well as add Reverb (which makes it sound like audio coming from speakers and echoing in the ship.

Screenshot of Audacity, showing the Effects menu.

Screenshot of Audacity, showing the Effects menu.

Here is the final result, of which I'm quite proud:

The second set of audio tracks are related to the background music, which plays in a loop in specific areas. Each room, or travelling sequence, had a different audio track associated with it. Almost all of the tracks are from Plate Mail Games, however there were two tracks from DJ Spooky's Songs of a Dead Dreamer. You can purchase them from those sites, respectively

Here's a list of the audio tracks, as I've organized them:

My audio playlist for Only The Food. Purchase songs from Plate Mail Games or DJ Spooky

My audio playlist for Only The Food. Purchase songs from Plate Mail Games or DJ Spooky

The best part is that my sound board app can play the music loops at the same time as the AI speeches. The way they layer is awesome.

Preparation: Ship Compartments / Map

Again, in preparation, I started to become concerned that the players would get confused if I told them where they were in the ship, but without visuals. I mean, you can just play this "in the mind's eye", however I could already see myself having to explain again and again where things were in relation to each other. Especially since there were more than a few rooms.

So, I decided to go for a modular, simple design for rooms and hallways. This allowed me to print them, put them out piece-meal (one at a time), and also customize them if I wanted to change things during the scenario. In the end I used Microsoft Word tables to create simple room designs, which I could lay out on the table as the players moved around the ship:

Rooms

Rooms

EDIT: I just found these sci-fi tiles, which are pretty cool as well!

Running Only the Food

Well, writing all that makes me realize how much work actually went into it, given it was a scenario that was already written. However, what can I say. It's some of the prep that I actually enjoy, and that I believe the players would find fun and immersive. So how did it go?

I had 4 players. 3 are relatively seasoned, all having played Dread before (at least once, if not more). One was an RPG newbie.

  • Howard as Fred "Brown" (O2/H2O)
  • Sasha as Thoron (Electronics/Sensors)
  • Thong as Kaylee (Heat/Mechanics)
  • Sinh as Wilbur Hatchett (Hazmat/Psych)

We didn't have an unlimited window, and in fact had a pretty strict 3-hour time limit (due to the movie we were going to later). I felt like the pacing was very good, starting slow and building, which is what Dread is supposed to do. And although I ended up removing a scene or two at the end, we had a roughly satisfactory conclusion, with two character deaths through Jenga (one dropped the tower, the other sacrificed himself), and one character just making a weird end-game decision which caused me to epilogue him going out an airlock. The final character "won", by getting the 10% raise and getting back into the cryo-pod.

One of my favorite aspects and memories of the game was using a few player-generated events into the scenario. I also felt like the little touches I added did make the game run smoother, including the little ship compartment cut-outs.

I was able to do a little "roses and thorns" at the end with a few of the players. All in all, everyone loved the game. The newbie player said he thought it was a little on the long side, but he's also admitted to not being used to role-playing games, so wasn't sure if 3 hours was normal. Everyone loved the music and though it added a lot to the scenario.

I do have a suggestion on the additional character sheets that aren't chosen by the character. I would use those as NPCs, and as soon as the players have selected their characters, I would create names and define the remaining characters of their "team". This allows the PCs to create some bonds with some of these NPCs (as some of the questions allude to other members of the team). This works brilliantly in having one of the NPCs be a character that is killed by defective or destroyed cryo-pod. And makes them excellent cannon fodder for attacks and collateral damage.

Copies on Dropbox

And just in case you want these for your own use, here's the files:

Casualty through sacrifice.

Casualty through sacrifice.

The Gauntlet meetup: Online session of The Final Girl

The Gauntlet

The Gauntlet is a great little indie RPG community you can find in the land of Google plus. They've got a couple of great podcasts out there, including Discern Realities (a Dungeon World RPG podcast) and +1 Forward (a Powered by the Apocalypse RPG podcast), as well as a few others.

One aspect I love about this community is that they are actively promoting and running games online. I mean, constantly. And they try all sorts of independent press RPGs (not just Apocalypse World based stuff), which is just up my alley.

The Final Girl RPG

The Final Girl is a role playing game by Bret Gillan of Gas Mask Games. In their own words:

The Final Girl is a horror movie roleplaying game meant to emulate slashers or any other horror movie where the characters are picked off one by one until only one survivor remains to confront the killer.

It's a GM-less game, which means no one is running the overall story. Instead each player takes turns setting scenes, or playing various characters in the story. Sometimes the scene directory also plays the killer, whatever that is.

This game was being run by David LaFreniere, one of the Discern Realities hosts, and was played by myself and another named Tim. First, we started with a basic premise. We ended up deciding on a Bass fishing competition, the Granite Lake Fish Off, happening up in the remote, high-elevation mountains. The killer? Some good ol' Cthulhu style fishies, not to be confused with Bass:

We started by defining 12 characters in the story. You take turns defining characters, so each of us got to create 4. We had a few competitors in the tournament, a wanna-be news anchor, the sweaty camera man (who is always eating hot dogs), a slick sales rep, a competent local sheriff, a buxom trophy queen, a paranoid cat, and the passionate conversationalist. Sounds like a great line-up!

The Google Doc we used to record our characters from the movie.

The Google Doc we used to record our characters from the movie.

It was a cool little game. Very open ended as far as the theme and character generation. The scene creation and assignments felt very similar to Forget-Me-Not, one of my favorite easy-to-play RPGs (that I've written of previously). Similar to that game, no player has any ownership of specific characters, so we all get a chance to play any variety of the roles involved.

The first few scenes set some relationships (important in character survivability), and then there is a massive die-off as the killer gets going. As the game starts getting into second gear, every scene involves 2 or more people, with generally about one survivor, as people get picked off one or more at a time!

Hence the title: The Final Girl. The point is seeing who lives to the end, if anyone at all. Doesn't have to be a girl, and in our case it wasn't. It was the conservationalist Mikolas Jampot. And this is what was brilliant, was the ending character gets decided for you through luck, cards, and tragedy. One player gets to narrate the ending; the player who had more of their characters killed off during play. As you can see in the above table, Tim was killed off 5 times (we left our player colors on those characters that died off while we were playing them).

In this case Tim gave us a beautiful end, where Mikolas goes out to thank the creatures from the bottom of the lake in helping him preserve nature by killing off all the humans. It was glorious.

All in all, I highly recommend the game. It was very free-form, and provided us a campy horror movie. That said, I can see how you could do something more suspenseful, like an Aliens, or even a Funnel-style fantasy game (similar to Dungeon Crawl Classics funnel). If I was playing with completely new players, I might lean towards Forget-Me-Not, as this provides a little more guidance, and less pressure to be "creative". But all-in-all, good fun.

ASTG meetup: The Quiet Year with Lego

Ran another fleeting Quiet Year session with four of us in total: myself, Aaron, Harry, and our newcomer: Tim. We decided on that one since half of us hadn't played it before, none of them had played with Lego, and Tim was coming in cold to RPGs (first time in decades) so asked for something light.

This fit the bill. We played a tribe dealing with an incoming ice age, bones from giant ancestors, cliff watchers with deadly mushroom that made for chemical warefare, and some very giant sunflowers.

ASTG meetup: Fallout Shelter RPG

Another Art of Story Through Gaming meetup. This time for my Fallout Shelter RPG. Four entered, most lived to tell about it. Including:

  • Harry as Major Jones, the Ex-Overseer
  • Charlie as Carl Davidson, the Wasteland Explorer
  • Wale as Bucket, the Immigrant (the first time anyone has chosen this role in all the times I've run this!)
  • Nova as Nova, the Scientist

Harry and Charlie have played in my prior games (Charlie was probably 11 years old the first time with my Lego dungeon crawl). Everyone had played in my Star Frontiers game last year as well. I was also excited that Wale made it, because I have a lot of respect for her as a player and gaming collaborator, and wanted to get her thoughts on this game. And this was Nova's 3rd time playing!

Basically we ran about 4 hours, or just over. There were a few changes I wanted to make prior to the game, per suggestions from my last table at Gateway convention, but just didn't have the time.

That said, the pace was decent, and although I had that GM feeling that things aren't nearly where I want them to be, the players were happy. I got some good constructive feedback as well, including to make the questions on the character sheets more relevant. I.e. I should reduce them so that as a GM I can actually make use of the fewer answers, instead of getting overwhelmed by too much information for this already heavy game and system. At least that's my interpretation. 

Mainly thought, had a great lunch with these people, a very pleasant game session where everyone participated equally and together, even when they were playing against each other, and Major Jones even sacrificed himself at the end for the sake of the party.

Wale, Harry, Charlie, Nova... most survived.

Wale, Harry, Charlie, Nova... most survived.

I've got a few tweaks before bringing it up to Big Bad Con in October, where I'm running it as part of the "teen" track.

And speaking of which, Harry and I made sure to register for our first two games for BBC at noon, while everyone was eating. The excitement is palpable... that is an event I am very much looking forward to.

Strategicon Gateway 2016: Sunday, Monday, Familyday

Sunday sleep-in

By this time in the con I'm sleep deprived, so always opt for a Sunday sleep-in. I never get as much sleep as I want, but it's my winning strategy.

Jen and Nova, the wife and daughter, were scheduled to come out around 11am. I got them situated.

One of the first things we did was go to the Paint and Take. Saturday and Sunday, all day, they have a table set up with free miniatures, with paints and brushes and help at the ready. Everyone can have a miniature to paint and take, and the three of us sat down for some painting. Highly recommended for downtime. The staff are super friendly and helpful, and happy to give painting tips to pros and newbs alike.

It was also nice running into Jonathan, a first-time con-goer who I had many chats with in the prior days. He joined us for the painting and various chats. I make mention of Jonathan here because he reminds me of something. I met Max up at Go Play NW 2015. Max was super friendly and just set the tone for the entire weekend, with how welcoming he was to new con-goers. At the end of the weekend he mentioend that he was actually quite an introvert, but was working against this to try and welcome others, the way he was welcomed in the past. He was an inspiration then, and continues to be today. Be the Max I want to see at the con. I invoked his memory by welcoming Jonathan and others, this con, and got to meet more than a few new faces.

Sunday 2pm: Animalia playtest

Nova had recently showed more interested in RPGs after some decent experiences at the last 2 conventions, and Animalia was listed with "Playtest small furry animals (ala Zootopia, Redwall, Mouse Guard) in a fantasy world as adventurers setting out to on your first adventure." I got Jen's buy-in, so the she and Nova signed up. 

Ben (who I played with Friday night for Delta Green) was the GM and game designer. Due to his kids' love of books such as Redwall, and a request by his daughter to create a game around such a feel, he has been working on Animalia.

Unfortunately no other kids or families showed. I decided to jump in there and play with Jen and Nova. Although there are definitely aspects I liked about the game, I think the game mechanics were too crunchy and complex (especially with a 7-year old). That could be mitigated with materials (well designed character sheets, for example), but Ben wasn't planning to run this for another month, and so it wasn't in a manicured state. That caused a few complexities up front in regards to having to write down stats and skills, many of which are a bit heavy handed for a 7-year old. Don't get me wrong, it isn't a problem teaching words like Intelligence and Prowess, but 6 stats and 9+ skill types, and it was overload too quickly.

That said, Ben himself was a great GM, and Jen was impressed with how he incorporated things that Nova brought to the table, and his overall patient demeanor. He had a rough outline for a story that worked. We ended up cutting down the story severely because Nova was only so patient, so ended with about 1.5 hours of pay time. 

I gave some feedback, mostly around cutting down the various stat+skill choices. This didn't mean he had to remove them from the full version of the game, but when running with toddlers, he could reduce the 9 skills to just 3: physical, mental, social, and leave it at that.

The wife, the Ben, the daughter.

The wife, the Ben, the daughter.

Sunday 3pm: Rolling Dice seminar with Jim Pinto

I was able to duck out for about 20 minutes during the prior game to check out Jim's seminar on dice rolling. Just a few of us there, but I so wish I could have spent more time hanging out. Great dice-rolling wrist skills were displayed. No, not really.

Some good discussion of the role of dice in RPGs, with a focus on the failings. I wish I had a doppelganger to both hangout with the family and keep hanging with seminar, but such is the way...

Sunday 2pm: The missed Hero Kids game

I had already sold Animalia to Nova prior to con, and so that's what we did. But simultaneously, Stu Venable (per Happy Jacks RPG podcast) was running Hero Kids. He ran this in the family area on an open table, and had some younger kids there, including his son Zack. I got to see it as I passed them to and from the Jim Pinto seminar. 

The props looked cool and kid friendly, and the character sheets were nice and simple and the kids looked invested. Wish we could've sat in on that as well; need 2 doppelgangers. Another time...

Hero Kids by Stuart Venable

Hero Kids by Stuart Venable

Sunday evening gaming

We had some mixed success with the rest of the day. The three of us headed to the game library and the family area, borrowed a few games that were too complex to learn quickly with a 7-year old (much less 40-year olds), and then were approached by an older lady happy to teach us Fluxx. For a game she loved, she didn't know how to teach it very well, and we had a mediocre time.

Fortunately, we ran into 2 younger kids (who were nonetheless well versed in gaming) with One Night Ultimate Werewolf, and grabbed my friend Mario along the way. We found a quieter location, and had a blast playing a few rounds.

After that we had a fun round of King of Tokyo, which we taught to Mario. Nova and I were the last two standing, and then she destroyed me with her vicious claws. 

Monday

At one point, Jen and Nova and I met in the grand ballroom where all the board game tournaments and miniature craziness occurs. Jen found a Stone Age 101 session, and wanted to sit in. I took Nova and went around wandering for an hour.

Convention with Kids Pro-tip: Taking kids to game conventions is not just about formal games. You must find the game you want in the convention. In this case, the convention was winding down. Many rooms were empty. And I decided to pitch a dungeon crawl to Nova: The search for the missing dice

We ended with all sorts of goodies, and yes: a single, black d6. It was a lot of fun, and for those with kids, look for opportunities like this when you can, if needed.

Nova with her finds... writing tools, unused tickets, paper clips, empty badges, Happy Jacks flyers in 3 flavors, 10 cents CRV, a map, and the holy grail: a die.

Nova with her finds... writing tools, unused tickets, paper clips, empty badges, Happy Jacks flyers in 3 flavors, 10 cents CRV, a map, and the holy grail: a die.

And that pretty much concludes this years Gateway. On to home, naps, and two days of recovering the lost sleep.

Strategicon Gateway 2016: Saturday and GoD and Praxis

Saturday and Games on Demand

Games on Demand at Strategicon is basically time and space dedicated for open gaming that specifically explores indie RPGs. This type of thing is done at various conventions, including Gen Con and Origins. See Indie Games on Demand for an example description. My experience with this format was mostly at Go Play NW, in Seattle.

Working with Jim Sandoval (Generalissimo of RPGs at Strategicon), we decided on a one-day roll-out, targeting Saturday only, with scheduled time slots that started 30 minutes after each standard RPG start time. In other words: 9:30am, 2:30pm, and 8:30pm. This allowed for those who found themselves unable to get in a game the ability to get into one of these.

The sign

The sign

Saturday 9:30am: The Quiet Year with Lego (take 2)

There were 3 people total: myself, Ryan from last night's Delta Green game, and Mikal. Mikal actually had a Ravenloft type scenario, but with his own system, that he was prepared to run. I think he wanted to run it in a normal time slot, but was too late in getting it in to the con schedule. Jim gave him this option of running it in GoD.

The three of us converse, and it was decided to go for The Quiet Year. Ryan was excited. I think Mikal a little less so, but open. I broke out the Legos, and we had at it.

In this case we decided on a stranded planet colony. We're a few generations in, and don't really have much idea about the origins. The oldest people, of which there are few, may have been the first colonists. We lack potassium, life weed for food processing, and steel. The only thing in abundance is guava fruit, which we need to be able to breath properly, as otherwise the atmosphere is a bit thin.

We got further than the previous night's game, and actually got through a bit of Autumn. Ryan and I really enjoyed the game. Mikal also dug it, but said he wasn't as into these mechanic-light GM-less games. I know he struggled a bit with the narrative constraints of the system, which I enforce somewhat to stay true to what I believe is the intention of the system: everyone shares equally in the story.

A defunct ship, a greenhouse, lifeweed, students and teacher, a satellite outpost for crazies...

A defunct ship, a greenhouse, lifeweed, students and teacher, a satellite outpost for crazies...

Saturday 1pm: Ten minutes of Kaiju

I almost forgot! After my morning GoD session, I was wandering about and ran into Mouser (aka Patrick) running his Pacific Rim FATE monster mech / kaiju game.

Brian Allred's mech partner had disappeared, so I got to jump into the pilot seat and make some advantages to help the party overthrow the super large kaiju monster thing. Basically, I got to jump in and help with the final fight.

One thing that Patrick has mentioned around this scenario is that it well demonstrates the Fate philosophy of using aspects and advantages with characters that are able to do a bunch of setup, and then take down the big bad in one big wallop.

I am very curious, however, what Patrick would think of Atlas Reckoning, a similar type of setting, but a vastly different game. I got to play it with creator Stras at Go Play NW, and it's still in beta, but I hope to figure it out before next con in February, to run it at Games on Demand if nothing else.

Loved the use of the fold-out Noteboard as a grid for these monster mechs! Didn't get a picture of his awesome surface pro + label maker for portable printing of Aspects on demand.

Loved the use of the fold-out Noteboard as a grid for these monster mechs! Didn't get a picture of his awesome surface pro + label maker for portable printing of Aspects on demand.

Jumping into a table of mech madness mid battle. 

Jumping into a table of mech madness mid battle. 

Saturday 2:30pm: Microscope

A bit later, and it was time to run another GoD session. In this case we had a good turnout. About 9 people, all up. After pitching various games, and reviewing the various players' time constraints, we decided on 2 mini-sessions. From 2:30-4pm was a 5-person game of Microscope. Players included Ed (our con's resident Paranoia and Fiasco GM), Dorian Richard, Matt Smith, 

Microscope is a history- and world-building game by Ben Robbins. Some few players had a little experience with Microscope, but most were new. I ran them through the initial game setup, and we ended with:

  • Big picture: "Two space faring races, the Humans and Borents, try to colonize the same planet."(with the focus being the planet, and not other parts of the galaxy)
  • Bookends: "Both races have discovered signal from Sefron VI" and "The planet transforms."
  • Palette (Add): Multiple colonies in space; Lizardmen; Short range / high cost teleportation; Human matriarchy; Lizard telepathy; Human magic is recent and chaotic
  • Palette (Ban): No prior sentient lifeforms on planet; No warp speeds; No general AI; No spells / day (i.e. no Vancian magic tropes)

We built the above setup in starts and spurts, which was great. Everyone was feeling out what they were and weren't comfortable with, and we went 2 rounds with Add and Bans. As the facilitator, I took a light hand and passed after the first round, to allow for their participation.

We started with a focus of "Exploitation of sentients on sentients". Loved it. Leaves so much open for dark times. We got to role play one larger scene, but after completing the first full round, we were about out of time. That said, everyone enjoyed the session, and the feedback was very positive.

I was very happy with one lesson I learned from prior sessions: Make sure to discuss with the group what you plan to write on the card, and then write it down. This allows for some slight revision, and working out the essential parts of what you want. It provides for concise and appropriate phrases on the card.

Ed, Andrea, Dorian and Matt, with history on display

Ed, Andrea, Dorian and Matt, with history on display

Saturday 4:15pm: The Space Skeletons

Now for our second mini-session. Matt, Ed, and Andrea took off, but Dorian stuck around and we were joined by Aaron and Jen. I've gamed with them more than a few times, and specifically my very first time at this con in an epic 7 hour Cthulhu game that holds a dear place in my heart. They brought their two friends Eric and Chris. Because that was 5 players, I decided to be a facilitator / part-time GM for this session of Jason Morningstar's The Skeletons

The premise is that you are the skeletons guarding the tomb, and awaken whenever there are intruders, and deal with them. In my version, we play Space Skeletons, and use Lego instead of paper to draw our map.

Everyone chose their skeleton character sheets, which is itself a fun little exercise. You start by not knowing a thing about yourself, but have a little skeleton to draw upon. Arts and crafts for the win!

Then they collaborated by creating a space ship. I first had everyone build about 8 pieces each, and then once everyone had started creating rooms and computers, we fleshed out the rest. Here was the little piece of space ship we came up with:

A little broken piece of ship in space.

A little broken piece of ship in space.

We had enough time to get through part 1, The Unsealed Tomb, and half of part 2, The Time of Dust. Everyone got a chance to play at choosing the encounter. I played a sort-of-GM, by controlling some aspect of the badies invading the "tomb", but mostly I had them go around in circles each role-playing what their various space people were doing. They were amazingly players, each having cool and unique personalities, and we all did a pretty good job entertaining each other.

I used music specially curated for this session, and this was the first time I got to test out a plan: when it was someone's "turn", I would ask them what intensity of music they wanted: low, medium, or high. I had previously organized the songs as such, so this allowed them some control over the pace of their specifically chosen encounter. I think that worked pretty well and I'll be doing it again.

Everyone had fun. I have even since gotten a message, days later, from Aaron, telling me everyone had a blast. The "thorn" comments were that there wasn't much mechanics to grab on to, you just sort of "won", which is part of the game.

I was worried about the quiet periods, the 1-3 minutes you sit in silence, in between various encounters. We were at a convention and not in our own room. We couldn't turn down the lights. We had other tables there talking. But the music did some work in giving us something close to drown out the background noise, and simply closing eyes and chilling was really cool, and I don't think it was lost on the players despite those issues.

Eric, Chris, Aaron, Jen, Dorian, and space mayhem.

Eric, Chris, Aaron, Jen, Dorian, and space mayhem.

Saturday 8pm: King of Storms (Praxis)

Games on Demand was over for me, and now it was on to Jim Pinto's new Praxis system game: King of Storms. It is described thusly:

In King of Storms, the characters are descendants of the gods and titans who slew one another in a great battle for the heavens 1000 years ago. From their blood rose the scions of power and the minions who would do their bidding. Some were born of gods' blood, noble and perfect. Others were born from titans' blood, twisted and malevolent. A third was born an abomination of the two — half god, half titan: the bloodless gorgons.

The game took a bit to get going. This was partly my friend Howie's fault. He is a gamer who likes to know rules before diving in. I'm the opposite... let me learn by playing, and failing. Unfortunately, the table was mostly people like me, and Howie just needed to know rules, and clarification when something was slightly confusing, and this took everyone out of immersion more than a few times. But there were some really fun epic parts to this game. 

One of the players, Matt, played an excellent sarcastic raven, and he even got a great Ladyhawk joke in. There was some great scenes with some brutal plays, and overall I'm really into the system. It is very mechanics light and heavy on the narrative aspects, but the mechanics matter immensely, and make for a competitive, enjoyable game.

I played The Black Monk, another Praxis system game, at Go Play NW, and despite the player confusion in this one, I really dig the system, and hope to play it with others in the future.

Saturday midnight

There were plans. Great plans. But much flaking, and those plans just fell apart.

But, Howie and I wandered around, and eventually found a few players interested in some Agricola action. I have played the light, family version a few times at home, and Howie had never played. But we dug in. I got to learn how to use the Minor Improvement and Occupation cards, and Howie learned the whole game. Around 4am we finished, and it was good.

Strategicon Gateway 2016: Friday

Another Strategicon Gateway comes and goes! This is my four year anniversary for re-joining my role-playing con-going siblings of the world. The first included great memories of a 7-hour Cthulhu game, RPG overload, and learning to play Wiz War, and Pit-mute (playing the Pit card game with no talking).

Preparations

Other than my Fallout Shelter game (written in prior posts), I was going to be responsible for our re-introduction of Games on Demand (GoD) on Saturday. In preparation, I brought a whole new bag with games at the ready: Fall of Magic, The Skeletons, Microscope, Downfall, The Quiet Year, Dungeon World, Legend of the Elements, and more.

As per usual, I headed a night early, stayed at my friend Howie and Lisa's place, and we ended up playing a round of Citadels (the card game).

Friday 2pm: Fallout Shelter RPG

Friday at 2pm I ran my Fallout Shelter RPG game, with 4 players including Morgan Ellis (a local RPG super-hero; no pressure). During the game, a father with 2 kids swung by, as his game was delayed due to a late arriving GM. The kids just stuck around watching for a while, probably entranced by the Legos.

We did a "roses and thorns" at the end, to review the good and the bad.  There were things they liked. The thorns included some excellent feedback around making PC-specific moves for the various roles, which is a great idea. Also limiting the PC-questions (I had 3 each, which gives too me too much information that I don't end up incorporating into the scenario). Some felt like less time in the Wasteland would be good

On my end, I felt like I didn't run this nearly as well as the 2 sessions at Go Play NW. Partly, it felt a little too easy, compared to the more brutal sessions at the last con. Maybe the PCs just rolled well.

I'm running this again for the Art of Story Through Gaming meetup this coming weekend, so maybe I can make some of these suggested changes and see how it goes.

Friday 8pm: Delta Green

This game was GM'd by Aaron Vanek (of Cthulhu film festival fame, and whom I've played with at the Art of Story Through Gaming meetup in LA, as well as at Big Bad Con 2015 with his Songlines game). It is a scenario that he's running as a playtest for someone else.

Players included Jim Pinto, Ryan (who I play The Quiet Year with the next day), Ben (who runs Animalia on Sunday), Howie, and myself.

Overall, the game was fun due to Aaron's familiarity with the setting and running Cthulhu games. His voices for various characters was great. The other PCs were into it, and brought their various personalities along, which made for some fun dynamics.

System-wise, I'm not a fan. Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu RPG itself is not a system I'm that into (despite loving the settings and scenarios), and Delta Green is not much different. Although there were some things that were interesting (like losing massive amounts of stat points after sanity loss) and a few other brutal mechanics, overall there is too much crunchy mechanics for me... I'm a systems lite sort of guy. Personally, I'm more into Dread as a perfect horror and suspense system.

We ended the game around midnight.

Friday midnight gaming: The Quiet Year and Lego

A while later I run into Dimitri, and a new friend Andre from Sweden. We have a drink at the bar, and then off to look for some open gaming. I offer a few options, and we settled on The Quiet Year. Specifically, a version that I've wanted to play test for a while, which is to use a Lego Creationary set instead of drawing on paper.

Andre is not an RPG-er, so we went with settings he was comfortable with, and settled on a pseudo-Game of Thrones setting after the White Walkers have trashed the continent. In our case we are a little community of Wildlings up in a protected area of mountains.

The Legos... they worked so well. They're 3-dimensional, with vibrant colors, and can easily fit all the same criteria of a standard game, such as forcing you to make things quickly (in this case by limiting the number of blocks, which is similar to the standard guidelines of drawing things that are less than an inch in size and take less than 30 seconds).

We didn't get through a full year, more like half a fleeting Quiet Year, but everyone got the flavor and had a good time.

Dimitri on left, Andre on right.

Dimitri on left, Andre on right.

Totem poles, dead kings, Bengy producing worms, and sexy procreating rovers. What's not to love?

Totem poles, dead kings, Bengy producing worms, and sexy procreating rovers. What's not to love?

A Unified Theory of Music in RPGs

OK, the title is a little pretentious, maybe? But, in all fairness, for about the last 3-4 years I've been running RPGs with music. Not all of them, but most of them. And I have a few thoughts on how to do that successfully, so will pen them here.

Define "successfully"

So, what does that mean, using music in RPGs successfully? Obviously there will be different takes on this, however my definition of successful follow these main objectives:

  • Music should enhance the player immersion in the game. Keep in mind that the players will bring whatever attitude they've got, so like any games, don't expect them to come in with the exact same outlook and attitude as yourself. That said, choosing tracks that evoke the feeling or ambiance you are trying to convey can help steer the mood.
  • Music should enhance the GM immersion in the game. You are also a player, as the GM. I've found that the right track can enhance my immersion in the game as well. A well placed high-pace track can get me pumped for a combat or other high-stakes encounter. Also, plan how you will manage your tracks, because no one wants a GM who has to stop the game just to change tracks. This will pull everyone out of immersion, and have the opposite effect your are looking for!
  • Music should not be distracting to the players (or the GM). This is the most difficult aspect to get right. You don't want the music to drown out the players or their thoughts. It should enhance the mood, not be distracting. The easiest way to deal with a track that starts out well in helping create the mood, but quickly gets in the way, is simple reduce the volume until it's time to change to something else.
  • Music should never get annoying. This is perhaps the most important aspect, and closely tied in with the previous point. I keep it separate, however, because this is the next level of bad selection, where the song isn't just a little distracting, but outright annoying. This can easily happen when a song is too sharp, too loud, or just too repetitive.

A word on immersion

Many groups feel like they get plenty immersive, and have no need for music. That's great! If that works for you, and you have no desire to complicate your life, then keep on rocking on.

Additionally, I've heard of other GMs playing flavorful music (heavy metal, thematic world music, etc.) in the background while playing RPGs, and sometimes, sometimes, the music just hits it perfectly... a climax in the music that coincides with a climax moment in play. Sounds awesome, but also sounds mostly random. This is not what I'm talking about in this article. I'm concentrating on something a little more planned, and intentional.

As far immersion is concerned, I've found that music can definitely inspire the mood at the table. Looking for something mellow and expansive? Music that evokes wandering in the wilderness? A track that gives you that unsettled feeling of being in the dark underdark?

Example tracks

Here's an example of some tracks, and what I think of when I hear them:

  • Noble empiresIslands of Green by Benjamin Bartlett
  • Travelling by landTrader's Life (from Fallout) by Mark Morgan 
  • The dark underearth: Underground Troubles (from Fallout) by Mark Morgan
  • Humid forest full of life: Rain forest by Plate Mail Games
  • Tense explorations of ruins or crypt: Ruins from the Full Metal Jacket soundtrack

To me, the most important aspect of these tracks is that they don't easily get annoying. The cadence (or speed) and volume doesn't change dramatically, or at odd times. There is no pressure to change the story according to the music; instead the music plays a role in the background.

To that end, I normally play these tracks in a single-song loop, so they play over and over. That way I can control when I move to the next song, based on the pacing or scenes that the players are in, in the game. This makes it easy to control the tracks, but does require you to have tracks that do not get repetitive.

Background audio loops

There are places to get thematic background tracks for many situations, such as from Plate Mail Games by Wes Otis. In many cases these are perfect, as they are 10 minute tracks that loop seamlessly. Within that track there is a strong attempt to capture the mood and sounds, but without repetition, so that it avoids getting annoying. It helps that Wes is an expert sound guy with a depth of professional experience, and a huge collection of such tracks. You can find his tracks on Drive Thru RPG, if you haven't already purchased many in one of his prior kickstarters. He also has a new arrangement with Monte Cook games, with specific tacks for use with Numenera and The Strange.

You can sample the 10 minute loops for about 30 seconds a pop. And there are 100's of tracks.

You can sample the 10 minute loops for about 30 seconds a pop. And there are 100's of tracks.

There are some DYI tools out there as well, where you get to mix and match the type of sounds you want. For example, the Ambient Mixer provides a number of different settings, each of which contains a few appropriate sounds, that can then be customized for your needs.

The Ambient Mixer for "Studying at Hogwarts", with sounds for fireplace, background chatter, flipping through pages in a book, and more.

The Ambient Mixer for "Studying at Hogwarts", with sounds for fireplace, background chatter, flipping through pages in a book, and more.

One example of an attempt to create a specifically tailored album for an RPG is The Last Parsec. This is a Savage Worlds space setting by Pinnacle, and as part of the Kickstarter for the game, they released a soundtrack, which you can now purchase separately. Personally, I don't find all the tracks that useful to me, as many have too much of an orchestral feel, but track 2, Beyond the Last Parsec, is a very evocative 5 minute track, and I've used it in a number of sci-fi and fantasy games.

Movies and soundtracks

In theory, another place to go is movie and video game soundtracks. In practice, it is very difficult to find tracks that don't change volume, cadence, or mood in a distracting manner.

Sometimes you find a gold mine, such as the Fallout soundtracks by composer Mark Morgan.

Most soundtracks are built to enhance the movie, however, and they therefore pick up pace and volume during key movie scenes, which may be inappropriate during an RPG where we don't have any planned timings. A soundtrack for a movie such as Lord of the Rings sounds like it would be a great place to get audio, however it's much more difficult to find songs that meet all of my required objectives.

Making concatenated tracks

Sometimes you can find great tracks, but they might be short. A short track isn't a problem in itself, but can more easily get repetitive and annoying. A good example is the No Escape soundtrack (by Marco Beltrami & Buck Sanders). There are some great high-paced tracks there (see tracks 6, 7, 9, 2, and 16), but at 1-2 minutes in length each, they would become very annoying very quickly. However, if you string a few of them together (for example using a free tool such as Audacity), you maintain enough variety to create a solid 9 minute loop, where the overall pace is similar, but the beat and style changes enough to keep it feeling fresh. 

A slightly different, but similar approach, is to cut a track by removing an aspect of it that might not fit. You might have 6 minutes of brilliant, thematic music, and then some climax which just ruins it. Using a tool such as Audacity can make it easy to remove those parts. You too can be an audio engineer!

Finding thematic mood music in other genres

And then sometimes you just find good music. I tend to go with instrumental tracks, as lyrics can more easily distract. This can range from classic blues or jazz, to hip hop and slow techno beats, to various international "world" music tracks.

Here's some examples: 

  • Intense space chase: Mistico by Faust and Shortee. These two are hip hop DJs, and so many tracks on their Digital Soul album are amazing.
  • Tribal combat: Gamal Gommaa by Sahara Saidi. This is a bellydancing track. If you get the full version, check out the temporary pace change that works magic from 2:35-3:35, which gives you that little breather you need to prevent overdose.
  • Creepy space medical bay: Hologrammic Dub (track 5) by DJ Spooky. There are many amazing tracks on the Songs of a Dead Dreamer album.

Playing well during game time

OK, you've collected a number of tracks. Now what?

During game time, I want to ensure that I can easily choose the track I want, on demand. This could be putting all the songs in one special playlist on my phone, or using a custom soundboard app on my phone or tablet to load specific tracks for use.

Have the tracks named appropriately. You can list them by name, if you're very familiar with the titles or artist. Alternatively, use a custom title if that helps you quickly find them, or attach them to your session or game planning. Titles such as "Orc combat scene", "Travelling between towns", and "The great forest" make it easy to hit the correct song. I normally go for a two-pronged approach, with titles such as "Orc combat (Gamal Gommaa by Sahara Saidi)", since I have a decent knowledge of the tracks, but also want that scene or game reminder of where they belong.

As an example, here is a partial view of a folder where I store tracks for a Star Frontiers space game I ran. You can see the tracks were renamed to be "in order" (roughly the order of scenes, however the players could easily skip whole parts of the ship), and always had a title, for example with track 2: "Distress Call", and also a list of songs, in this case "Hyperspace". In some cases there are multiple songs concatenated one after the other to play in a loop.

In conclusion, and what to watch out for

I won't say that everyone needs it, but I have found that in general, the audio I have used has garnered positive feedback. There are a few things to watch out for:

  • Mixing it up: I've found going back and forth from the simple "background audio" tracks which are very simple, to the more flavored (and sometimes high-paced) tracks, is very useful. It gives everyone little breaks from the intensity of the music. The longer role-played scenes usually benefit from mellower tracks. The high-intensity tracks can work for combat, assuming your combat doesn't last an hour. If you are playing games with long combats, try starting with a high-intensity track to set the mood, but then settle back into a background track for the long haul.
  • Volume controls: If you find the music is starting to get annoying, or a track is unusually loud or quiet, be ready to adjust the audio on the fly, without having to stop the game. Have those audio controls within reach so that you can make those changes immediately and seamlessly.
  • Audio track controls: Be ready to change tracks. Does your phone or tablet have a screenlock function that turns on automatically? This may make changing tracks time consuming and distracting. Adjust those before game time begins. Do you need to quickly be able to move to any one of many tracks? Look into a soundboard that plays music tracks, instead of a long playlist that requires you to scroll around looking for the right tune.
  • Get an X card, for music! The X-card is normally used to allow the table to skip a topic that some might find objectionable. Make a music card! If someone taps the card, reduce the volume or stop the track. Alternatively, just make sure that everyone is aware that the music is there to help, so if anyone finds it distracting to please speak up so that the game can be made better.
  • Experience and practice help immensely. Try it out. Make some mistakes. But always ask for feedback from the table afterwards, specifically about the audio, so you can get better.

One other thing: Having music inform the game

There is also another, possibly different take on all this, although I've only so far seen, and made it work, in one scenario: Just have the music play. Use the highs and lows of the music to actually inform the game and the story.

The example being Dread: Mad Max Fury Road (which I wrote about here, here, here, and here), a scenario I stole from Andy Munich, and have run a handful of times since. In this case, the entire soundtrack of Mad Max Fury Road plays in a loop, and as it does so, the GM uses it to guide the story. When the music gets mellow, the story slows down. When the music starts pumping, the narrative gets going, and shit goes down.

Would love to find similar instances where this works, but so far have come up empty... would love to hear from others if they have made something similar work.

Indie Dev Club LA Meetup and Grabbag Microgame

Indie Dev Club LA Meetup

One of the folks who've I played with through the Art of Story Through Gaming meetup is Omowale. She's quickly become one of my favorite gamers: curious, open to new games, and most importantly: present (the key ingredient for the best of players!)

She also runs the Indie Dev Club LA meetup, out there for (mostly) computer game developers to meetup, chat, brainstorm, and network. I decided to check it out.

The meetup is currently sponsored at Pivotal Labs in Santa Monica area. They do similar work, they sponsor the meetup location, and free grub! Wale also says they are shy-people friendly, which is a super bonus. What's not to love.

I went with my friend Sonia, who was open to trying a new experience, and we weren't disappointed. Folks were friendly, and food and drink were provided. One member showcased a prospective kickstarter video for a VR (virtual reality) project he's kicking off. He also had a demo version with mini-cardboard viewer. 

Grab Bag: A Microgame

I was quickly able to get people to playtest a micro-game I've been wanting to try. I tried it a few times with my wife and daughter, enough so I had a few hacks as well. Grab Bag is a game put out by Josh Jordan, in conjunction with Stephanie Bryant's Threadbare RPG (a PbtA role playing game I like to summarize as Toy Story in the apocalypse).

Grab Bag involves players taking turns grabbing colored tokens from a bag, in order to determine a winner of the Grab, and a winner (possibly the same, possibly different) of the Bag. The Grab is the person who grabbed the most tokens. The Bag is the player who's most represented in the leftover tokens in the bag at the end of the game. 

The interesting thing is that players will bet on "Grab" or "Bag" at the beginning of the game, which doesn't decide what they will win, but instead decides what they have to give to the winner of the respective game (Grab and Bag). If you bet Grab, you have to provide a favor to the Grab winner. If you bet Bag, you have to provide a secret to the winner of the Bag. Strange, but very cool and thematic as a microgame in a game about toys.

I started by creating a bag of tokens a few days earlier. I have a box of leftover board game tokens, so used this as a starting point. I tried getting similar objects among the various player colors, and mostly succeeded. Each of 5 players (colors) is represented by 9 tokens:

A bag of tokens; 9 tokens in 5 colors

A bag of tokens; 9 tokens in 5 colors

We played only a round, and although the game works for 2-5 players, we didn't get all around the table before we ran out of tokens. Not really a problem, as the game has rules around this, but if you only play the once, someone doesn't get to grab things out of the bag, which is obviously not the best. That said, if you play twice, everyone should get a chance to have some grabbing action.

Also, as I mentioned to Stephanie as feedback, it helped immensely by creating player identifying tokens (poker chips) that matched each player color. This provided two things: 1. It allows easy identification of which player is which color, and 2. You can write "Grab" and "Bag" on the two sides, to easily track what each player has bet on.

Grab Bag showing player poker chips with betting on them, and their respective collected tokens (which shows Red and Green tied as winners of the Grab, with 7 tokens each), and the results in the bag as the leftover tokens (which shows that Red wins the Bag)

Grab Bag showing player poker chips with betting on them, and their respective collected tokens (which shows Red and Green tied as winners of the Grab, with 7 tokens each), and the results in the bag as the leftover tokens (which shows that Red wins the Bag)

Everyone thought it was a cute and quick game.

And out...

From there we moved on to Splendor, and many conversations.

I highly recommend the meetup if you are into game development especially from the perspective of video game development and project management, and are in the general LA area.