No Sleep at Con of the North 2014

February was the annual Con of the North in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area, which I’ve been attending for…15? years now. This year plans were up in the air so we didn’t preregister, but lucked out when we got there and had a great time with a mix of scheduled and pick-up games, including one that I’ve been wanting to play for years. 

I am the Quack that Flaps in the Night!

First game of Saturday was a mash-up of Duck Tales, TaleSpin, and Darkwing Duck involving time travel, air pirates, and Magica de Spell. The person playing Darkwing Duck particularly nailed it, and my wife and I had great fun playing Scrooge McDuck and Baloo, respectively. The system was the Universal Storytelling System, being run by a friend of the creator. The game uses card decks (one per player) for randomizers and freeform skills and advantages/flaws paired with a few standard stats. It sadly didn’t make its goal on Kickstarter last summer, but the author has apparently figured out other options and is planning to publish this summer. 

Next we went our separate ways. Caitlin played a “Murder at a Fairy Tea Party” LARP, that was a bit of a how-to-host-a-murder structure, but set at the Seelie queen’s court when Queen Victoria was a guest and one of her retinue was murdered. There was also more roleplaying involved, and the murderer got away with it. Caitlin informed me that ogre chefs are far more interested in what people taste like than in who killed them. 

Rockabilly Will Never Die!

dromeosaurus by rim2008

Meanwhile, I got to play Time & Temp! I’ve been trying to play this game since it was published (I have copy #50 of the original hand-assembled version)—I’ve even tried to run it at local cons twice, but both times nobody showed up. The game suffered a little bit from all-guys-at-the-table when it came to how one of the female PCs was portrayed (I’m guessing that that player wouldn’t have run his character that way if his wife had been at the table), but was otherwise awesome! I think it continues to be my favorite of Eppy’s games (yes, even more than Dread, which I co-created). The capsule plot was: WWIII happened in the 70s due to an escalated Vietnam War due to no antiwar movement in the US due to no music fomenting rebellion due to no British Invasion due to the Beatles never creating their distinctive sound and thus inspiring rock musicians all over the UK & US (and beyond). Of course, we had to figure all of that out—mostly in reverse order—and then fix it by stopping the people who had replaced Paul McCartney with a doppelgänger in 1966. I was pleasantly surprised when we actually pulled a success out in the end, just barely: we stopped the villains and set things right, and earned 2 synchronicities (but both so late in the game that we never had time to use them). And the only anomalies were a vicious dromeosaurus (we took the carcass with us) and a localized case of permanent gender change (in a timeline that we just eliminated so it really only affected our characters—so no harm done). 

Card Games: 1 out of 2

While Caitlin went on to her intermittent recurring Rolemaster game, I had a little break, so I checked into the hotel and grabbed our dinners. Then I played a couple quick card games to kill a little time. Love Letter left me unimpressed—maybe I was missing something, but how this made the short list for the Diana Jones Award is beyond me. But Hanabi is this amazing game where you’re trying to build card sets cooperatively. You aren’t allowed to look at your own cards, and there are strict rules on how you may share info with the other players. It’s a real challenge, and a nothing like any other game I’ve played. I particularly love that it’s purely cooperative—there’s no competitive element [between the players]. 

Awwwwww…

Then it was back to RPGs, as it should be at a game convention! I got to play Golden Sky Stories in a small late-night game: just me and another player and the GM. I played a very social but rather clueless dog, and he played a crow with difficulties connecting to people. Together, They Fight Crime!

Oh, wait, no, wrong game. No, Golden Sky Stories is near-unique in specifically focusing on “conflict-free roleplaying”. Now, let’s unpack that a bit. It is not completely free of conflict in the literary sense. But it is intended that it not be about violent conflict. More significantly, the game is structured such that it is not really about overcoming obstacles in a challenge sense, but rather about crafting the story and figuring out where you want it to go. For the most part, the henge have the power that if a player wants something to happen, it will happen—maybe not immediately, but certainly with a little planning. So the game is instead about what trade-offs you’ll make and how you want things to turn out. Unlike many other narrative-focused games that focus on this sort of thing, however, it is firmly PG-—even G-—rated. Whatever is on the line, death isn’t, so you focus on other things. 

I had an amazing time playing this, and recommend it without reservation. Probably the best part of my convention—and that’s saying something, because the Time & Temp and Microscope games are two of the best games I’ve ever played at a convention. As it says on the tin, this is a game of “heartwarming tales”, so you’re going for “awwww…” more than “awesome!” It’s about cutesy, not badass, and it does this well. Some of it is simply playing true to the genre, but the mechanics do some of the work. In particular, we found the henge’s special powers really reinforced the feel (one of mine was something along the lines of “everybody’s friend”), and the currency rules encourage you to do stuff, rather than save your points. 

Then bedtime—we were up at 6 am Saturday morning to make it to the convention in time for morning games, and it was well past 2 am by then. (And Caitlin had already crashed.)

Pyscho-history is the science of mobs; mobs in their billions.

von Neumann probe

The next day, we headed straight for the Games on Demand room again, this time managing to land a game of Microscope. In Microscope, you start by describing a vast swath of history, then creating individual eras within this history, then diving into specific events in those eras, and finally looking at specific scenes within those events. It is a fascinating way to play, and to tell a story. It can be as serious or silly as you want it to be, in both setting/content and tone. I’ve been trying to figure out how to make Galactic Network into a playable game that actually makes the titular network matter, and I finally found a way to do it! We actually used that setting, very loosely, for our game, and all had a great time. (Now the question is: did I find the way to do it, and all I need are some setting notes? Or did I find a way to do it, and now that I have that inspiration to draw upon, it’s time to get back to game design? Jury’s still out on that.)

And then we were done. I grabbed a Sorcery and Super Science! supplement in the we-want-it-gone discount bin from the dealer room, and then we went home and slept. 

This was only the 2nd year we’ve gone to Con of the North without preregistering for events, and it went amazingly well. We were able to get into enough games to keep us busy, all of which were things we wanted to play. And this wasn’t just because of the Games on Demand room—several of them were pre-scheduled games. The breadth of options has always been great at CotN, but we’ve had mixed luck in the past trying to get into games at the last minute, so I think the con staff is doing a great job of both encouraging good games to play and making it possible to sign up for stuff without preregistering. I look forward to next year!


Epilogue

However, I do have one minor concern going forward: In the past, the registration system was that they sold N tickets for each game (as dictated by the person running the game) and then 2 (or sometimes more) alternate tickets. That does a great job of giving you some options if what you really want to play is full, without having 14 people all need to swing by a table “just in case”—if there aren’t even alternate tickets left, probably no point in wasting your time. Also, you could trade in a ticket at any time prior to the start of a game, and then it went back on the Big Board, and someone else could now get into the game. This means that if your plans change, the space in the game isn’t going to waste and someone else gets to play something they wanted to play. 

However, apparently some people complained that this was unfair, because it could—not frequently, but occasionally—happen that Person A, who preregistered for the con, got an alternate ticket for a game, then Person B (who preregistered) got to the con and ended up turning in their ticket for that game, so Person C, who just showed up on Saturday morning, ended up with a real ticket and got to play, while Person A didn’t because they only had an alternate. Now, personally, I think that’s a feature, not a bug. If you preregister, you’ll likely do pretty well, especially if you do it early. You probably won’t get into every game you wanted, but you’ll probably get into many of them, and if you have 2nd or 3rd choices for a given time, you would most likely have a full schedule. Con of the North has always worked to have a lot of variety. However, despite that variety, just showing up has always been a crapshoot. Particularly if you’re interested in RPGs that aren’t Pathfinder/D&D, there might be extremely limited options by the actual day of the con. That person who just shows up on Saturday might be lucky to get into even 1 game that is their “1st choice”. So they decided this year to start marking returned tickets, so they have lower priority than the alternates.

So, to summarize: 

Old system: Pre-registering probably gets you 50-80% of the games you really, really wanted, and fills your schedule if you bother to pick alternates. And you’ll probably get into at least one game you only have an alternate ticket for. Showing up on site is a gamble, but there are good odds that you can get 1 or 2 games you really want (so long as you’re not super particular), and you can probably find something acceptable for the rest of the time. You might only have alternate tickets, but there’s a modest chance you’ll get a guaranteed ticket for at least something that interests you. 

New system: Pre-registering probably gets you 50-80% of the games you really, really wanted, and fills your schedule if you bother to pick alternates. You’ll probably get into a couple games you only have alternate tickets for. Showing up on site is a gamble, and it’s unlikely you’ll get real tickets for anything. So long as you’re not super particular, you can probably get alternate tickets for games that interest you, but it’s extremely unlikely you’ll get any real tickets—you might spend your whole weekend chasing hypothetical openings that never materialize.

So a very small problem for people who preregister (and are therefore already having a better experience) has been slightly improved, while a significant problem for those who don’t preregister has been made significantly worse. And roughly half the attendees at CotN don’t preregister, so it’s a lot of people possibly affected. Also, this generates more bookkeeping for the con staff. I really hope they go back to the old system. It’s having a good experience when you just decide to show up on a whim that will turn you into a regular—not many people are likely to say “well, that sucked, but I’m sure it’s only because I didn’t plan ahead. I’d better preregister for next year.” 

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