Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Gen Con 2014 Report Card

Gen Con has come and gone. Once again, I find myself sitting down to collect my thoughts on what when down over the course of "The Best 4 Days in Gaming", and more importantly (to me) how it went down. If I have learned nothing else over the past 8 years going to Gen Con, it is that you have approximately 96 hours from when you land in Indianapolis until you leave. Subtracting an hour on the front side to get to your hotel, and another 3 to head back to the airport we are already down 4 hours. That's an entire RPG slot right there! If you are a complete game addict like me, you just don't have any time to waste on silly things like getting to the airport, or serious things like a bad game session.
So let's see just how my Gen Con went, shall we?
(As always, in the interest of fairness, I will not name drop GMs whose games I did not enjoy. It is entirely possible that others did have a good time, so take my opinions with a grain of salt. Perhaps an entire shaker of salt sometimes. My criticisms here are in the spirit of improving our games - I hope that if a GM reads a bad review from me that they do learn something from it, and that it helps them. I hope that people in my games feel that they can do the same. I am far from perfect, so if I'm screwing up, please call me on it.)

Wednesday Night
Outbreak Undead
Rather than go to the swanky steak dinner some of my friends were eating, I decided to head over to the Union Station rooms to see if any games were afoot. I found an Outbreak Undead game getting ready to kick off, themed after Resident Evil. So I jumped in. It seemed light and campy, and in general it was. Though for me, it stuck too much to the "you don't have that key, so you can't go into that door" model of video game design, which resulted in the group hunting for keys everywhere rather than engaging with a story. It was cute at first, but got old pretty quick. This is one of those things that is probably just a style issue for me. Might work for some people, but didn't for me.  The GM was very critical of himself, repeatedly apologizing for his map drawing skills being terrible. Once is fine, twice may be funny, but droning on and on about it. If you're reading this Mr. GM - Give yourself a break. You aren't bad at drawing maps. I found them perfectly serviceable for the game. The only other bit of complaint I have is that the game felt very impossible to do simple tasks. From my readings of the game system though, it seems that this is by design. Not really my cup of tea to fail at most things 75% of the time, whether they are difficult or not. Overall Grade: B-

My buddies and I sat down for a drink at the JW bar and played a game of Hacker, my favorite "card" game. Its out of print now, but it is a ton of fun in a little box, especially when you are playing it with other computer nerds. Yes its dated. It has that early 90's je nais se quoi of computer nerdery that it is a wonderful game.
Overall Grade: A

D&D: Shadows over Moonsea
Buckle up and grab a helmet because I feel the need to once again let loose with both barrels about the game experience quality with WoTC at large events. Let me state that I have yet to ever play in a good game of D&D run at a con by an 'official' D&D group. I haven't even had fun in a bad way either. This year's festival of misery came courtesy of a disruptive young teenager at the table, and a GM who either was unfamiliar with the module, or for whatever reason decided that we didn't need to understand anything that was going on. At first, not understanding how things could be so confusing, I chalked it up to bad luck and maybe my own lack of understanding. After discussing with some friends who did the adventure with a different GM, I have to take a completely different approach to my critique.
Major plot elements were not explained to us, even though we interacted with the right NPCs. The fact that we needed to go into the woods should have been explained to us by our interactions with at least 2 different NPCs (Thats how the other group I spoke to found out about it) - neither of which told us anything of the sort. Net result, in the big battle at the end, not a single person at the table had any idea what was going on. Pure frustration. Add to that a 13 year old who really needs to be the center of attention at a table full of adults and you've got a recipe for disaster. And to his dad, who dropped off a stinky steaming meatball sub at the table in the middle - thanks a lot guy!
My general impression is that this GM was more than likely not given the adventure materials until very late. I hope that is the case, otherwise I can't really determine anything other than lack of preparation and familiarity with the adventure.
Overall Grade: F
(This went poorly enough that we cancelled our follow on game of Official D&D later that night. Please note this had nothing to do with the game system. We are not hating on any edition of D&D, this was purely a table/GM experience issue)

Game Mastering 101 (GM)
This was the first of 3 seminars that I ran this year, and it was very well attended. I feel like I was on my game, and the audience had a lot of participation and seemed very engaged and eager. I had a great time, and many people indicated to me at the end that they enjoyed and appreciated it. <Borat> Great Success!
Overall Grade: A

GM Seminar (GM)
My second seminal was also well attended, and brought together a lot of people to talk about GMing in general. There was a ton of interaction back and forth, and I think a lot of great advice was both given and received to and from the audience. I was a little scattered in my approach, so while I think it was an overall success, I would rate my own performance a little lower.
Overall Grade: A-

Having been turned off by the morning's D&D event, we sat down next to another group of friends in an open play are at the JW, and I broke out another of my favorite card games. This one is called Crunch! It is a game in which the players are the CEOs of megabucks that are too big to fail. Their goal is to enrich themselves and their personal fortune at the expense of anything else. Cheating is not only allowed, but encouraged. The penalty for getting cost is the loss of a "trust" card. These cards represent Federal Government bailouts, so you don't want to run out of those. If your bank goes bankrupt, so what. The only thing that matters is your own personal fortune!
Overall Grade: A

Games on Demand - PSI*RUN (GM)
I ran a session of Psi*Run at Games on Demand.  I certainly had a good time, and it seems like the players did. Note to self, in a 2 hour session, 4 questions for the characters are too many (Read PSI*RUN and you'll understand what I mean)The players were running from a mixed group of chasers who all wore red scarves. The highlight for me was them smashing through a pair of ambulances and a riot team of EMTs (who were all bad guys) as the telekinetic running flung the ambulances several blocks away, crushing the EMTBadGuys into them. Maybe you had to be there, but trust me, it was pretty awesome.
Overall Grade: A

Improvisation for GMs (GM)
This was the third seminar that I ran, and if I am being honest, it was probably the worst seminar I have ever run. My apologies go to the attendees. If you were there, and you didn't enjoy it, I am sorry. I also pledge to you that I will do better next time. While I have done close to a dozen seminars at Gen Con, this was the first time I have focused on Improv as the sole topic. As such, I don't think that it flowed very well, or the way I had intended it to. On the plus side, while doing an improv exercise with some of the people in it, the laughter was so great that the seminar next door poked their heads in to see what the hell was going on. If you attended, and have any feedback for me, I would really appreciate it.
Overall Grade: C-

Games on Demand - Fiasco
A friend and I got into a game of Fiasco at GoD, and it was exactly what it says on the box. Fiasco at GoD. If you've never done it, you really should. It is a winning experience. (For Charlie Sheen values of winning) Awful characters doing awful things to one another and living or dying in awful ways.
Overall Grade: A

Trail Of Cthulhu
This is another game that I have been dying to play for many years. This session did not work out for me. I was there, and the game happened, but I just wasn't able to endure the session. While the scenario was compelling, the GMs manner was of such low energy that everything felt like it was 10 times longer. By the 2nd hour I had to excuse myself and go find something else. Harsh? Yes, but with only 92 hours there, I just can't abide sitting through something I am not enjoying out of a sense of politeness or manners. I think its better to just cut your losses and go than to stay and suffer. Nothing mean or rude intended by it, just cold logic. With that said, it still seems to me that the system itself is very good. I'm going to have to give it another try.
Grade: D

D&D with Friends
We recovered that evening and from about 10 to 2am we played some 5th edition - all friends, including the DM. We used an old school 1st edition module converted up (not much work at all) and had a great time. There was a very big WTF moment as an uninvited guest arrived, plopped down at the table and hung around in a very uncomfortable way, touching other peoples things, etc. It got pretty weird for a while, but such is the danger of the Open Gaming Area.
Overall Grade: A+

Games on Demand - Leverage (GM)
This time the group I was given wanted to play Leverage. I had worked out a skeleton of a plot on the plane ride out, loosely based on the plot of HBO's Silicon Valley. One of the players in the group was familiar with the show, and game a big smile when I gave them the name of their client and mark. Everyone at the table was more or less a fan of the show, which makes this game such a joy to run. If you know Leverage - you know how to play Leverage the RPG. The rules are the easy part after that. The game was a blast, and featured the mark getting run off stage at TechCrunch Disrupt by FBI officials and charged with assault and battery of a police officer.
Overall Grade: A

A great game and we had a great GM, who happened to be one of the contributing authors of the game. What a combination. A space age train heist of a kind was perpetrated by our scheming conniving heroes and justice restored to a backwater planet. A fun game fine tuned to fit its subject matter. If you enjoy Firefly and you enjoy RPGs, I'm going to promise you that you will like this game.
Overall Grade: A

Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator
Any game that results in the captain, upon suggestion from his engineer to command the crew to "Keep Firing Assholes!" a la Dark Helmet has got to be a guaranteed winner. Not sure what to say that would be different than my review of Artemis from last year, except for the same advice. Different / same? Who cares. Go out and BUY THIS GAME. Actually don't go anywhere. Stay at your computer and buy online and then download!
Overall Grade: A+

Games on Demand - Dungeon World
I convinced the group to come over to GoD for some night time fun, and they went along with it. We sat down for a game of Dungeon World. I Love Dungeon World. It has fundamentally changed the way I think about and run RPGs. Its that big of a deal. (For that matter so is the game on which it is based, Apocalypse World. Do yourself a favor and read both) - With that in mind, this session wasn't great. It was good, but could have been better. I think the GM needs to give the book a re-read, because so much of what makes DW so special is in the process of how it is run, and in my opinion, the GM wasn't using it to its potential. Too many easy throwaway moves by the GM, defaulting to damage, trying to go in a logical circle around the table all of the time - things that are the norm in lets say D&D, but are very much out of place in a game a DW.
Overall Grade: B+

Exhibit Hall Shopping
I took it easy this year, being well aware that I already have entirely too much stuff that I'm never going to get a chance to play. Instead I tried to focus in on some things that I know my kids will love to play with me, and that we can all play together. This is going to be the year that I really get them going on RPGs as well. I got my oldest a fancy leather journal that has the Tardis cover, like the one River Song uses in Doctor Who. Given that she's a HUGE Doctor Who fan, she was beyond excited when I gave it to her. I also picked up a print from a female artist, Lorraine Schleter - my oldest is an aspiring artist, and I like to find things to inspire her - For my middle daughter, I got an expansion to one of her favorite games, Space Cadets: Dice Duel - It is the Die Fighter expansion, adding in 2 small fighters for the players to dogfight with each other. I also got her, and my youngest a pair of Sonic Screwdrivers. They were jealous of the one their older sister got last year, so I tried to even out the Doctor Who toys. I also picked up a copy of Cthulhu Gloom for her, and a copy of the Doctor Who card game for my oldest. Hobbit Tales rounded out the game acquisitions as a family item, and I grabbed a copy of the old SpellJammer campaign setting in the auction.

I think in the future, I am going to be hesitant to go out of my way to schedule games with other friends who are attending. The Venn diagram of everyone's interest doesn't always make a huge overlap, and with such limited time, you can end up waiting around for someone to do an event or try and decide what everyone wants to eat, etc. It certainly didn't ruin anything for me, but I think I'm better off roaming on my own, and if the paths cross and stars align, we'll hook up and grab a bite or drink or game. Next year, I'm bringing my older two daughters, and we've got some plans to kick some serious ass together. They've been waiting for years to come, and I think now is the time. Well next year is the time, I mean!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Gencon 2013 Report Card

Another year down, another GENCON in the books. Folks, when they make the claim that GENCON is "The best four days in gaming" they are not messing around. GENCON for me is like every holiday and special occaision of the year rolled into one, and then launched into orbit on top of a giant beam of awesome. Do I get a little too excited about GENCON? Yes I do, and I don't pretend that I don't. I start looking forward to the next year's GENCON before the current year's is even over yet.

The sights and sounds of GENCON are just a marvel to behold. 40,000 gaming nerds all gathered together for the sole purpose of gaming and geeking out. For me that means playing a ton of RPGs. Specifically ones that are either new, or at least new to me. It also means seminars, and running games. As a card carrying member of the GM's union, and "GM for Life", it wouldn't be a geekfest for me if I were not running a couple of RPGs as well.

So without further adieu, I give you my report card for GENCON 2013. I always present my honest opinion in these reviews. No offense is meant to anyone who receives a harsh grade. All criticisms here are meant in honest good faith - with the intent of helping the GM in question improve their game. I hope to find similar critique of my own games out there. Let's go!

Hollowpoint was very high on my list of games to play this year. I picked up a copy from the IPR booth last year after hearing a lot of good things about it. I had only skimmed through it once or twice prior to this session. Enough to know I really wanted to play, but that I had not yet invested the time needed to run my own group through a game. Hollowpoint seems designed for one shot games, and what better place than a convention for such a venture? The two scenarios offered up by our GM were an old west theme, and a sci-fi / space opera theme. Neither of those seemed to really grab the passions of anyone at the table - and the GM picked up on this and offered to take suggestions. (This counts for major points in my book. She expertly read the table and reacted to it in a really enthusiastic and positive way)

We bounced ideas around and settled on 80's action movie in cold war Germany. Our GM, Nykki, took a few minutes and whipped something up while we players got to know each other a bit. Gameplay at the table was excellent. The group definitely hit it off with each other, and everyone really seemed to enjoy playing together, working our characters off of each other, bantering, etc. It was an absolute blast, culminating with out heroic, if crazy rescue of Brice Springsteen and the E Street Band, who were help hostage at the Berlin Airport.

Nykki did a great job explaining the rules and keeping the action flowing. The system isnt difficult per se, but can be hard to grok, and she really helped us all through it without getting anything bogged down or slowed up in the technicalities of rules at the table.
Overall - A

Fate of the Norns
I had a chance to play this game with its creator/author as the GM. I was very much looking forward to it, as I had backed the Kickstarter for the game, and recently received my book and runestones. FoTN is different, in that there are no dice, but there is a definitive random element to the game, in the form of runestones.

The stones are pulled from the bag randomly at the start of a round, and they will dictate which of your characters spells or special attacks are available to them that round. Alternatively any stone can be used to power any normal action, like a move or basic attack. You can also use extra stones to power up the range, or damage of an attack, depending on which color stone they are. The combination of symbols and colors makes for a very tactile and interesting take on random result generation for resolution, with the player in charge of how those results get applied. (In this regard it reminded me of the decision making required in PSI*RUN) The stones are also used to track damage. In fact everything you need to play is on a single sheet of paper, which is used as a playmat for your runestones. No pencil required for tracking things. I also liked this about the game.

On the GM side of things, Andrew was great. Its his game so he obviously knew it very well. You could tell that he also has spent a lot of time researching old Norse mythology - his storytelling and usage of that knowledge came through nicely. On the down side, I was able to see that running the NPCs in tactical combat seemed to mirror exactly the process used by the players. I don't have a solid basis to assume this from but it seems to me that more than a handful of bad guys would be cumbersome and overbearing to run. I could be wrong, but that is my gut feeling.

I was the only player at the table who was not bilingual (everyone else also spoke french) and the rest of the table excluding the GM were a group of friends. As Quebeqois, they would slip into French often, which made sense given that it is their primary language, but at the same time it felt fairly rude and exclusionary to me, who only understood about every 10th word they said when this was going on. I couldn't help but feel left out on the in talk at the table
Overall - B+

Shadows of Esteren
Some times you can sit down at a game, and feel all the signs pointing to a bad experience. I think theres even an internet meme about it. This was one of those times. GM bashing how dumb the players of an earlier session were? Check. GM telling you how great of a GM they are? Check. Another GM running a different scenario trying to dump his players into our group because he wants to go do something else? Check. Not enough characters to go around? Check. This one was firing on all 6 evil miserable cylinders, so I went ahead and excused myself before we kicked off. Its a shame because I still really want to play this game. I just wasn't about to sit in on that session.

This was a Games on Demand session. I jumped in having no idea what it was about, and man am I glad I did. This was my first introduction to any of the Lady Blackbird hacks, and it is a good one. Great sic-fi and a simple but effective system for making the mechanicals of the game interesting are just two of the highlights. The table was great with everyone jumping into character.

School Daze
Having the opportunity to play a game with its creator is always a great nerd experience. When that creator also happens to be a talented GM its even better. When that GM also happens to be a genuinely great person, you've got yourself a grand slam. This game session was a grand slam. We played a monster high school, in which my idiot goblin found himself with the ability to do mathematics at a galactic scale - time traveling dimension hopping maths. Of course it was all just a practical joke on him by Lillith, the school's resident demon girl. It was funny, fun, a little bit sad, and a great time.

I think I might be missing something, but as it turns out I started writing this last year and never finished. So in the completion of it, I know that I must be missing some details.
I hope you enjoy - or find it useful - or something :)