As I’m sure many of you did, I just got my request for feedback from Gen Con. They asked, so I obliged. Here’s the essay I put into their “anything else?” box:
I wrote last week about the awesome time I (well, we—my friends and I) had at Gen Con this year. Easily the most fun I’ve had at a Gen Con without staying downtown.
Which leads me right into the lousy time I had getting set up for the convention. Registering for Gen Con has become a hassle and a frustration. And it doesn’t have to be. The fixes are technically easy. They may not be politically easy, but I think they are palatable, and certainly better than the situation we have now.
Just a quick thought:
Someone on Facebook mentioned that the whole notion of being allowed to sell a firearm as a private citizen without doing a background check isn’t a “loophole”, it’s just the way the market runs everywhere. He used the analogy of selling a used book to your friend, pointing out that you don’t have to collect sales tax. And, similarly, both a used book store selling at a convention and a gun dealer selling at a gun show have to collect sales tax—the differentiation is based on who is doing the selling, not where or to whom.
That’s not the point. This isn’t about sales tax, an attribute of the exchange of money. This is about regulations. If you sell an inappropriate book to a minor, you can get in the same trouble as if a store does it. It may be less likely, because you’re less likely to get caught, but the law isn’t different.
The closest equivalent to the “gun show loophole” to firearm background checks that I can think of would be if buying a used book from your friend would mean that the copyright on the book doesn’t apply to you and you could freely reuse the content—but people who bought that same book from a retailer would have to abide by its copyright.
Tangentially, in this day and age of eBay and Etsy and PayPal and WordPress and Craigslist, the notion that you can draw a bright line between “dealers” and “private sellers” is ludicrous. You can draw a line (as they have with sales tax), but it’s always going to be at best semi-arbitrary. And I can pretty much guarantee there’s someone selling firearms online precisely to skirt the background check laws.
Gen Con was great fun, as usual. This was the first year in 15 when I wasn’t running games, so I had a blissfully laid-back schedule. In a later post, I’ll talk about all the flaws in the organization, but once I was there it was great!
Since we couldn’t get into many RPG events that weren’t D&D or Pathfinder (and we aren’t interested in those), we instead filled much of our game time with Games on Demand. This year they solved the principle problem of previous years by making the “boarding” order random rather than first-come, first-served. So you could show up 15 min—or even 2 min—before the start time and not only get into a game but have a reasonable shot at getting into one of your preferred choices. (Last year, you could show up an hour and a half before a time slot and still not be the front of the line, so you basically had to allocated an additional 1-2 hours of line-standing if you wanted to play Games on Demand and had any preferences whatsoever among the games offered.) I had poor luck on the letter lottery, inevitably picking one of the last letters called, but there were enough games of interest to me that I never had to settle. I won’t talk about every game I played at Gen Con, but want to highlight a few.
This is a response to a recent article on Bill Moyers’ website
Taxi drivers have always (well, for decades at least; and at most companies, though not all) been independent contractors, not employees. So the fact that Uber drivers are independent contractors paying a percentage to the person that really should be their employer is already standard practice in the taxi world. But in the taxi world, you probably pay ~70% of your fares (excluding tips), while Uber drivers are only paying 20% (possibly including tips—I think it’s 20% of whatever is collected via the app, so cash tips would be excluded). That, right there, is what Uber tells people in order to woo them in the first place.
Also, both the taxi driver and the Uber driver are stuck with paying all their own taxes. You know that ~30% that is taken out of your paycheck before you even get it? Add another ~13%, because you’re responsible for the “employer’s portion” of Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid taxes. So if you actually want to compare what you make as an independent contractor (Uber driver or carpenter) vs being an employee, reduce the independent-contractor wage by a full eighth! $20/hr driving for Uber is equivalent to about $17.50/hr working for a legitimate employer. And if you’re making close to minimum wage, say, $8/hr, it’s more like $7/hr—and that’s before you figure in the regular taxes that everyone pays.
[School started, so time is short, and this is late.]
While the rules are not necessarily the game (especially since many game systems are used in more than one RPG), I’m gonna say that “best RPG” has been covered in one way or another by days 6, 12, 18, 20, 21, and 25. There’s no way I could narrow it down to just one favorite RPG—even coming up with a top 5 is hard (and last time I tried I gave up once I’d narrowed it down to 8)—and whatever it is it would be one of the games I mentioned on one of those days, and/or repeatedly on several other days. So rather than bore you with the same things over and over, I’m going to interpret this as my favorite game instance (evening/campaign/whatever)—which includes a particular RPG, of course.
There are a lot of possibilities here—I’ve been blessed with lots of great games. There was our “filler” game of Remember Tomorrow from a couple years back, which did an amazing job of giving us a coherent game that consisted of a quartet of individual stories. I had an awesome time playing Heroine at Forge Midwest this year, and my first-ever game of Primetime Adventures was this amazing con game of “a more serious take on Jem, as remade by J.J. Abrams”. And there are many others. So in my usual decisive fashion, I’m going to declare it a 3-way tie.
In general, my favorite games are ones that other people have run—I tend to be the GM, always have been, so any time I get to play is great, but it’s particularly great if the game is great. So I’ll take running a good game over playing a mediocre one, but if everything else is equal, I’d rather be in the player’s seat.
An exclusive private school somewhere in the Romanian mountains, where exceptional teenagers are taught how to play “the great game”. Except it’s not a game any more—the Cold War is over, and the gentlemanly rivalries of the 19th and early 20th centuries are found only in history books. Not quite as dark as reality, but still a world of deception, double-dealing, and uncertainty. We used Spycraft 2.0, and our characters were 15- to 16-year-olds when they first enrolled. We played through their first year, with a fun mix of fake teaching missions, serious espionage missions—and typical high school events, as depicted in any teen romcom. (We don’t take our games overly seriously.) The GM was great, and Spycraft really supports running a game like this, with lots of crunch to differentiate our characters and make tasks genuine challenges. Plus, I got to play Vacile Moşanu, former Transnistrian teen idol with an ego that borders on solipsism, but an actual knack for organizing others and an inexplicable way with people. I got to play the member of the group that everyone loved to hate—the Barney Stinson of our game, complete with pulling off outrageous plans (when the dice favored me).
Higher for Hire
A few years ago I was playing in a group that was playing fairly traditional, long-running campaigns—things like Arcana Unearthed and Reign. I wanted to play some more story-oriented games, so I pulled a small group together of like-minded people, and one of the first games we played was Primetime Adventures (PTA). We followed the suggested setup, meaning that we first settled on a setting & premise, then created characters, then chose characters from among those to be our PCs. I’d heard multiple accounts of starting from children’s shows producing amazing games of PTA, so we started talking about actual shows that we were all familiar with. Turns out there weren’t that many (mostly due to age differences), and then we hit upon TaleSpin. Taking a tried-and-true method to adapt an existing property, we decided to play the next generation. It was almost 20 years after the events of the show, with Molly & Kit all grown up. Baloo and Rebecca had married and retired. Kit had inherited Higher for Hire, and then run it into the ground—like Baloo, he was a good pilot but no businessman. He was living on the couch of his friend Riki Tavi. Meanwhile, Molly had gone off to college and, teaming up with her friend Gosalyn Mallard, become an actual costumed vigilante, bringing her childhood idol Danger Woman to life! What she knew was that it wasn’t all Kit’s fault that Higher for Hire had gone under: the escalating conflict between the air pirates and the vigilantes had made the airways so dangerous that everyone’s insurance rates had gone through the roof. Sher Khan had made sure of this, and then stepped in as all the smaller insurance companies went bankrupt to “magnanimously” buy out Higher for Hire (and any other competitors that didn’t fold first). Don Karnage was now a doddering shell of his former self (though having gained in wisdom what he had lost in debonair), and the air pirates were only still around because it was convenient for Sher Kahn to continue to have them as an excuse for higher shipping rates. We also had fun pulling in other possible characters, beyond who actually appeared on TaleSpin, from related settings.
We decided who our main characters would be and then randomly determined who would play whom (rolled dice? I can’t remember), which left Dan as GM, me as Molly, and Caitlin as Kit. It was absolutely fascinating as the combo of the dice, the characters’ stats, and the situations drove us into all sorts of unexpected territory. I remember distinctly discovering at one point “Molly’s kinda selfish”, and being surprised by this. But, all around, it was an awesome game, and has me ready to return to Primetime Adventures any time I can find an interested group and a few weeks.
After a couple false starts, I finally got to run a game using The Burning Wheel. We created our own setting, extrapolating from the life paths: a world where the elves had “uplifted” humanity (and, before them, the orcs). Eventually, the humans outgrew their “parents” and war broke out. Humans discovered/invented sorcery and won the war, destroying elven society in the process. Our characters included an elf who feared he might be the last of his people, but the rest were human, remnants of the war. The story was intended to revolve around Anthony de la Bouche attempting to reclaim the throne of Perach from his usurping uncle, but I made the mistake of letting them into the same room with a weapon in the second session. In a deadly and non-narrative system, don’t let the PCs at the main badguy early on, because they will kill him.
As it turned out, this made for a very interesting game: only a select few knew that the uncle was dead, and so it became a game of politics and propaganda while trying to avoid the king’s forces long enough to raise political support for a return. The Burning Wheel system really shone, and made for an awesome game, despite my occasional errors in gauging the effectiveness of enemies. Though my very favorite scene never happened: we were all set for a combined simultaneous duel of wits and duel of sabers between Anthony and the most powerful of his dead uncle’s supporters, Captain Robillard. We’re talking total de Bergerac territory here—and a game system that can actually make both parts equally fun and equally consequential. Then the PCs used a clever combination of facts and carefully fabricated evidence to sway Robillard to their side, thus completely short-circuiting the duel. I was so disappointed. :-( Not that I can actually complain when the PCs are clever and/or non-suicidal—the duel really would’ve been a toss-up, and thus a very risky move on Anthony’s part.
We had a very satisfactory conclusion to Anthony’s storyline, and were just starting to get into the question of whether any elves remained (and they had begun finding evidence of the returning orcs) when the game ended. Had it gone on, consequences would’ve become very interesting: in addition to the orcs no longer held in check by the elves, there were side effects of all the magic, some of it very dark, that had been used to win the war, still lurking about the land. Maybe someday…
I do have a copy of Dune, which is the archetypal rare RPG, but I suspect it is far from the rarest I have. It had a good-sized print run, and I think it’s high price on the used market reflects high demand more than low supply. A lot of self-published RPGs have small print runs, and if they don’t take off they never have a 2nd print run. Sometimes the creator makes the game available in PDF (especially these days), but even as little as 5 years ago that wasn’t a given. So Code of Unaris is basically lost to the world, as are The Shattered Sky, Steeltown, The 23rd Letter, Sketch!, and the Parlor LARPs from Shifting Forest Storyworks.
Then there are games that didn’t even make it that far: I have playtest ashcans of Acts of Evil, Giants, Sign in Stranger, and Kingdom of Nothing, and only the last two have made it to a finished, published version. I don’t know how many copies of each of those were printed, but I know it wasn’t many. For that matter, I have one of the original, numbered copies of Time & Temp, the version as loose parts in a manilla HR folder—I think there were a hundred copies of that?
There are games that weren’t particularly rare when they were new, but that was long enough ago that I don’t hear about them or see them in the wild much any more: NightLife, Bunnies & Burrows, Bullwinkle & Rocky, James Bond 007. And there are games that are still nominally available but largely overlooked: you can buy Great War of Magellan or Albedo from the creators’ websites, but I’ve never seen them in stores,, and they barely get talked about, so I have to think they’re fairly rare in the wild.
But I think my two rarest games are probably HiT: Alpha Limited Edition and Phoenae: the Fierce Joy of Being Alive.
HiT is an attempt to build a scalable game system upon the structure of the Threefold Model. It’s not so much an expression of that model, as the embodiment of a new model that clearly builds upon the Threefold. (For starters, it’s hierarchical rather than multi-axis.) But it’s largely a success as a game system, though the setting/premise are a bit narrow (modern military/mercenary/criminal action), and it never made it to a more polished—or more widely released—version.
Phoenae, meanwhile, is one of those alien fantasy games that defies easy explanation. The characters are cat people, more or less, on a world where that’s the norm. They have either recently awoken to consciousness, or recently lost their memory, collectively, and are trying to learn what it is to be truly alive—to be free-willed. It’s actually a really good premise, and the world is vibrant and interesting, without being overly involved or requiring you to read 200pp just to understand it. Meanwhile, the game mechanics do a really interesting job of trying to give GURPS- or Riddle of Steel-level detail, while working primarily on a verbal rather than mathematical level. That is, the creator tried to make it so that you can say “I parry and then thrust to his left side” and use that directly, rather than first translating each of those actions into a numerical modifier or other mathematical effect. But yet produce the sort of potentially-interesting detail and rigor of a system like The Riddle of Steel. Actually, as I write this, I’m thinking it’s probably even more comparable to the card-based dueling system of Lace & Steel. Regardless, playing a combat reminds me in a good way of Fight! in The Burning Wheel with all the options turned on. I don’t recall right now how well he succeeded at the “hiding the numbers” part of his goal.
Both of these were self-published games that I found at Gen Con, where the creators had a booth. From what I could see, neither sold enough to recoup their costs, and I’ve never seen them in a store. I’ve never even talked with anyone else who has a copy of either, and John Kim needed me to provide a description of Phoenae for his list of obscure RPGs, so I’m pretty comfortable saying they are my rarest games.