Gen Con 2014 – Gaming

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.

AfroFuture [alpha playtest]

AfroFuture is a Fate Accelerated setting that the author is still developing. He’s trying to find that fine line between serious cultural commentary and tongue-in-cheek parody, and it’s a tricky one where issues of race relations, cultural hegemony, patriarchy, and ethnic pride intersect. Characters are built around songs about people, from folk heroes (John Henry) through classic rock songs (Major Tom) to modern inventions (Cindi Mayweather). We played with the creator, and he’s still noodling around with rules so I won’t say much about those, because they may be completely different (maybe not even Fate) by the time he irons everything else out. But the premise is fascinating. I think in service to the premise it needs:

  • A brief summary of afrofuturism—I’m reasonably literate and a big scifi fan, and have a comp-lit doctorate for a friend, and yet I’d never heard of it—it’s not quite what the portmanteau implies. 
  • A good, long list of appropriate songs. More than anything else, which songs you choose are going to define how this game feels. In addition to the character described in the song, the genre of the song will also have an influence. 
  • Speaking of which, character creation needs some more guidelines. There’s the practical: how the heck do I build a character who is faithful to the source but more than one-note out of someone like Johnny (from Devil Went Down to Georgia)? But equally important is defining the scope. These are supposed to be progressive, multi-ethnic champions, protecting the oppressed and fighting reactionaries and the forces of hegemony & patriarchy & anglo-centrism, so I’m not sure it really supports the tone of the game to play Maxwell (of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer), or even Major Tom (as I did). Making clearer the connection between the song and the person would help with this, so that others could pick appropriate songs/characters without needing to resort to the aforementioned list. 
That said, I think this is a solid premise for a game, and I love the character-creation conceit. I look forward to seeing a more-polished version of this game in the future. Based on what I’ve seen, I’ll definitely be buying, and playing it again. 

Companions [beta playtest]

Companions follows the adventures of The Doctor’s former companions after he has disappeared or died, while the Tardis continues to carry them around with a mind of its own. It’s Powered by the Apocalypse, and is really quite well done, in particular the basic moves. 

My primary (really, only) complaint about the Apocalypse engine is the problem of mis-match between available moves and actions I want to take in the fiction. I think Apocalypse World itself is the worst in this regard—but it’s also the first (obviously), so maybe it just needed to get ironed out. I know the one time I played, I kept running into “I want to do X” and there were no moves that seemed to apply, so I couldn’t figure out if that meant that X wasn’t supposed to be important in a game of Apocalypse World, or if it meant that I didn’t understand the scopes of the moves properly. Other PBTA games I’ve played have had much less of this problem. Companions suffers from none of this. Every time we wanted to do something, there was an appropriate move, sometimes more than one, and it was clear which move(s) applied. And the special-power moves were all interesting and appropriate to both the genre and the character archetype. 

Beyond the obvious, the creator has added one more interesting conceit to make the game go: the time vortex has “infected” all of the PCs, which both explains why they’re the particular ones the Tardis has picked up, and means that sometimes time bends a bit to save them from fatal circumstances. In game terms, there’s a move that you can use to reverse/survive death, allowing for the level of danger to mortals that we see on Doctor Who, while letting the PCs survive. 

I’m not a huge fan of PBTA games—I’ve liked several of them, but not particularly because of the rules. Nonetheless, I’m really looking forward to this becoming a full-fledged game. It’s one of the best takes on Doctor Who I’ve played. If you’re a fan of Powered by the Apocalypse games, you should definitely check this out. 

RetroStar [playtest]

RetroStar is scifi in the mold of ’70s TV shows: low budgets, not-particularly-high concepts, cheesy often-1-dimensional characters, predictable plots, and laughable projections of what future fashion and industrial design would bring. If that sounds awesome, this is a game you should check out. If that doesn’t, this isn’t the game for you. It’s from the same team that brought you Cartoon Action Hour, and it looks to be shaping up to do a good job of capturing the genre in a fairly traditional low-crunch game. There are a few nice mechanical touches, but the highlight of the game was an awesome little “style guide” the GM had put together for the convention games, full of fashion photos, TV stills, and guidelines on the styles and colors of the era. There are “dials” you can adjust when setting up your game, but I don’t feel like this is the game for you if you want a really serious game. However, the game is pretty early in development, and the creators are open to changes, so I could be completely wrong on this. I’m hoping the final mechanics do even more to embody the genre than they currently do. 

Hope Inhumanity [playtest]

This is a really interesting game. It’s a roleplaying game driven by a custom deck of cards. There are character role cards—really just a sentence or two, condition cards (hurt & hungry), relationships (sibling, enemy, lover, etc.), and then various events. You also need a pile of dice of multiple colors (one color per player). Play consists of choosing character and relationship cards, and then taking turns pulling an event card. The events are all stated in very leading terms, something like “you come upon a sick child; convince your companions that you should take his food because he’ll die no matter what” [I made that one up, because I can’t remember an exact example]. You do a sort of bidding as to how you’re going to respond, and the other players can choose to help or not. You don’t share the consequences, though you can hint at them by how you respond. Then you roll the dice and depending on the result either succeed and gain the benefits or fail and suffer the consequences. Sometimes one or the other is nothing—this isn’t meant to be a nice game. Anyway, it reminds me of Zombie Cinema in that you could play the game, albeit poorly, without any real roleplaying, but there’s a much better game there when you do play it as an RPG (as intended). It’s not something I would play a lot, but I would definitely play it again, and it has some new (well, new to me, at least) and interesting mechanics. 

Little Wizards

Little Wizards is a French RPG that was translated and released in the US last year. It’s sort of “Hogwarts Lite” and specifically designed with parents playing with their children in mind. As such, the rules are simple and the characters simple but evocative. We were all set to let loose our inner 11-yr-olds when the organizers walked up with an outer 11-yr-old to join the game. This significantly changed the dynamic of the game: I’ve never before watched 7 adults work so hard to entertain one kid. Don’t get me wrong—we had a blast! But for those of you who don’t have recent experience with an imaginative 11-yr-old, the speed of new ideas was breathtaking. He was also rarely dissuaded by having ideas shot down—heck, most of the time he didn’t even give us a chance to respond before he thought of a better idea! Anyway, once the GM—a parent himself—got the measure of our new addition, the game went well, and it was a blast! 

GM Outta Nowhere!

And then there was the little scheduling snafu that left me at a table full of gamers with no GM. One of them was specifically there for her first RPG, and I certainly was there to game. So rather than go without, or simply kill time for 2 hours, I ran most of a game of Fiasco. It’s really more of a storytelling game than a roleplaying game, but it’s a great introduction nonetheless. It went well, and she turned out to be a natural RPer. I love breaking in new gamers! After this and the Companions game, we chatted for a little while, because the experienced gamer at the table was quite interested in but had never played Dread, and I’m still kicking myself: if I’d been a little more on the ball, I could’ve gotten contact info and sent off copies to the other players at the table. 

There were other games, but I think I’ll just wrap this up and get it posted, since it’s already October.

In closing, I just want to highlight that the gaming was awesome, despite not so much choosing as lucking into many of them, and despite having no idea what we were getting into for several of them. I used to avoid gaming at conventions—too many bad experiences of a game being ruined by That Guy™. I used to say “why play a game with a bunch of strangers who might or might not be fun to play with, when I can play at home with people I’ve specifically chosen to game with?” I don’t think my standards have fallen; I think the gaming at Gen Con has, mostly, gotten better. And I’ve gotten a little better at recognizing the warning flags for games that are unlikely to be fun for me, and/or are likely to attract players that want something very different from what I want. I still sometimes have a poor gaming experience, but I haven’t had a truly bad one at Gen Con in several years. I just wish they’d bring back a little more organization—I miss game timeslots, but more on that later. 



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