Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What I Did On My Gencon Vacation

Okay, so now that I've had some time to decompress, here's a run-down of what went on at Gencon. I'm obviously not going to get into all of the shopping and food trucks and stuff I spent money on while I was there. I also met lots of great folks, and couldn't possible rattle off a detailed inventory of all of them. This is mostly going to focus on games I ran and played, which was kind of a small number.

I'm actually still trying to get the hang of how many events I can handle at Gencon -- for many years, whenever I attended, I spent a lot of time orienting the convention around playing Legend of the Five Rings (and to a much lesser extent, Netrunner) with the occasional tabletop game. But over time, the return on investment of time and energy and money dropped. If I wanted to play the game to win, I'd have to schedule myself for at least one qualifier (either Thursday or Friday), probably two just to hedge my bets (both Thursday and Friday), and then leave most of Saturday free for the main event (and possibly Sunday). And of course, I'd get my ass kicked at both qualifiers and have very little to do on Saturday. And while I'm all for playing a card game for fun, if I'm going to go to the trouble at a convention I'm either going to try to go all the way or sign up for a smaller event that has some participation promos or something that I really want.

So, long story short -- too late -- I got tired of that bullshit. Last year, I ran a Mage: The Awakening game that I really enjoyed the hell out of so I put a bit more effort into setting up to run something this year. This year I ran two Monster of the Week games, one on Thursday and one on Friday, and played in a game of curse the darkness on Saturday. (I wanted to run something in the WoD, but nothing story-wise came to me so I'll just see what comes to me before next spring.)

Thursday: The Department of Homeworld Security

So, for those who can't guess from the name, Monster of the Week is a game about going out and hunting monsters and other weirdness in the style of TV shows like Buffy, Supernatural, and Fringe. It's a 'Powered by the Apocalypse' game, which means that it uses a collection of character archetypes called 'playbooks.' Each one walks you through character creation, gives you the stuff you can do -- called moves -- and what you need.

(If anyone familiar with the game is wondering whether I made any particular character-building choices for the one-shots, I let people get away with only assigning a couple of History options, gave them two advancements, and started them off with three Luck instead of the full track.)

For Thursday's scenario, I played with an idea inspired by the comic Desolation Jones as well as other stuff like (again) Fringe, and a few other sources. The premise is that the team of hunters -- the eponymous Department of Homeworld Security -- are government agents who've been found unfit for regular duty (with a couple of exceptions) and have been put on this secret team.

Because of the specific character concepts I was playing with for the makeup of the team, I wrote up some brief backstories for each of the playbooks I was being used including some suggestions on how some of the playbooks might relate to each other.0 I had 9 possible playbooks available and 6 slots in the actual game, to allow for some variance and cut down on the 'stuck with the last one' factor. Quick rundowns of the playbooks I had available and their associated concepts:

  • The Professional, "The Handler" -- Someone once recruited right out of the academy, told they had a great destiny, and attached to this group of weirdos. Since then, they've inherited stewardship of the group and learned that the 'great destiny' line was bullshit. But now they're ostensibly in charge, and the only member of the group the government officially acknowledges. They're the singular point of contact between the team and the higher-ups.
  • The Crooked, "The Contractor" -- A subcontractor who didn't officially work for anyone, until they learned too much about the hidden world of the paranormal. Their ties with their agency were cut, their support was pulled, and they were forced into the Department. If you're spotting a parallel with Burn Notice, that's entirely deliberate.
  • The Expert, "The Retired Analyst" -- A paper pusher back at the office who eventually put it all together, figured out what's going on, deduced the existence of monsters, what have you. So now they've been put to work managing the archives of the Department's lore.
  • The Flake, "The Uneasy Recruit" -- A conspiracy nut who got too close to the Department. But rather than mind-wipe them, kill them, bury them at the bottom of a hole or whatever, the higher-ups inexplicably insisted on recruiting them. Because, again, this is a game that loves its tropes and character archetypes.
  • The Monstrous, "The Infected" -- An agent of one of the various government agencies who got reassigned to the Department after being turned into something inhuman themselves.
  • The Spooky, "The Experiment" -- An agent who, either out of a need to atone for a mistake or excel, signed up for an experimental enhancement procedure. They're the only survivor out of the test group, but now they have powers.
  • The Mad Scientist1, "The Scientific Advisor" --  A less-than-stable scientist who wound up being fully brought into the Department after they administered an experimental enhancement procedure that killed all but one test subject.
  • The Sidekick1, "The Newbie" -- The newest member of the Department, recruited fresh out of the academy and told they have a great destiny. Ostensibly attached as an assistant to the team handler, they could have latched onto anyone in the group.
  • The Summoned1, "The Casualty" -- An extradimensional monster inhabiting the body of a government agent who was unfortunate enough to be the subject of a horrific, blasphemous ritual. As far as the government's concerned, it's still close enough to being the same person, so they were put to work.

So out of the six players who signed up for the game, paying ticket fees and the like, I had four show up. Honestly, I could live with that. Four or five is my personal ideal group size. At Gencon, I do six just for good measure. And given how many players are likely to actually show up for a game, six is a pretty good overshoot.

So I gave people the rundown of the system -- nobody at the table had played Monster of the Week before, though one of them does know Apocalypse World -- and took a moment to thank my lucky stars that this it's such an easy system to get the basics of. I explained the premise and the playbooks and the backstories and the like, let people go through those and figure out what they wanted to play. We had the Professional, the Monstrous, the Sidekick, and the Mad Scientist in play.

And then the players of the Monstrous and the Sidekick, who are friends, just basically ignored the setup and backstories I'd prepared. The Monstrous wanted to play an archaeologist possessed by the spirit of a dead pharaoh and the Sidekick wanted to play his research assistant. Now, I know they were aware of and read the backstories I handed out, as they actually made references to them in conversation. They just completely ignored what they said. And rather than be That Guy Who Threw a Tantrum Because His Con Game Isn't Going To Plan, I just quietly said "Fuck it" and rolled with it. The Professional and the Mad Scientist were at least on-board with the tone I was going for, at least. And I wish I could recall the player's name, but the guy playing the Mad Scientist was just perfectly on-point with the character.

For the plot, I borrowed a story from a Changeling: The Dreaming LARP I ran a Long Fucking Time Ago (partially because it gave me a reason to use Morgantown as a setting so I wouldn't have to think too hard about where the game takes place) and had the team looking into a demon sighting at a fraternity party (the game was set in May, when school was in session) that wrecked up the frat house, killed some people, and put others in the hospital. They were able to talk to a surviving witness, who was locked in a holding cell at the police department, after trying (and failing) to get the cops to completely turn over the case to them. They used some mad science to try and experience his memories of the event, but in the process managed to accidentally summon one of the 'demons' -- which they determined were created by some supernatural drug in the guy's system (discovered to be some unusual, magical strain of marijuana).

First, they recovered from the fight, during which the Mad Scientist did some more mad science to the Monstrous to give him even more powers. While this went on, they traced things back and found the dealer who provided the weed... who was apparently in possession of a massive supply that was supposed to be distributed at an upcoming end-of-school party. Presumably for some nefarious purpose. But he'd given some away to a friend a week early, and well... frat party. 'Demons.' Violence. He eventually led them back to the guy he got it from, someone named Nicholas Andrews who was growing it in a field on the outskirts of town, magically shielded from the authorities.

Nicholas wasn't home but they ransacked his house and found a magical workshop with a bunch of notes and incantations involving breaking down the barriers between the material world and the realms of thought (some of it apparently derived from some classified papers the Mad Scientist had written once upon a time). They also found a magical Greek urn that had apparently been a focus for his magical rituals. The Monstrous coveted its power for himself and tried to figure out if it would be possible to keep the urn and use its magic for his own purposes. They also decided to screw with the magical warding on the field to help set up a trap for Nicholas if he showed up (they managed to get cell phone info suggesting he was in town).

Eventually, however, he came back. And they all laid in wait for him -- The Professional and the Sidekick waited in the house to burst out and deal with him, while the Mad Scientist waited by an upstairs window with a goo gun and the Monstrous had the urn out in the nearby woods. Nicholas showed up with another drug dealer in tow, started revving up his magic to deal with these intruders who'd broken into his home, and... nothing. The Monstrous had managed to whip up a magic spell to break Nicholas' connection to the urn. At that point, it was easy enough to disable him -- especially with the help of the Mad Scientist's goo gun.

I'm half-tempted to run a sequel to this next year, perhaps turning the Monstrous and his Sidekick into the villains after possibly having gone rogue. (which almost certainly would have happened if this is a game that had gone on longer) That said, after the way half of my players reacted to my attempt to establish a particular group dynamic, I'm torn as to whether it would be worth the effort. Maybe I'll just run something looser but keep the story and say he took out a government monster hunter team in the process. Something to ponder for later.

Friday: The Studio Crew

This particular Monster of the Week game was a lot more straightforward. I had a loose premise for the team make-up and a selection of playbooks. I had the Crooked, Expert, Flake, Mundane, Spooky, Hard Case1, Sidekick1, and Snoop1 available. Out of the six players that signed up for the game, three actually showed up and I had two more paying with generic tickets for a total of five.

The setup for this one focused on Hollywood. Namely, what if all of the weirdness of celebrities -- the extreme behavior, the strange religious leanings, the general oddness -- was the result of exposure to supernatural forces? What if, despite the best efforts to use drugs and magic to make people forget, something lingers and they eventually go over the edge? As I put it at the game, "What if Charlie Sheen completely losing his mind was the aftermath of rakshasa possession, which is why he thought he was a sorcerer with tiger blood?"2 The characters would be the studio associates and film industry employees tasked with dealing with the weirdness (answering to a shadowy cabal of executives at the major studios willing to back whatever team they had to to keep from actually acknowledging what was going on).

I told them "You can work in Hollywood however you like for your character concept, even to the point of being a consultant or whatever, as long as you're not a serious celebrity." If I recall correctly, I got a documentary filmmaker (The Snoop), their intern (The Sidekick), Kenneth Hite3 (The Flake), someone who works in the archives (The Expert), and... I'm blanking on what their job at the studio was, but we also had a Spooky.

So the Crew found themselves called down to the set of a live-action remake of "Aladdin"4 where one of the lighting people suddenly freaked out, attacked some people, and burst into flames... but when the smoke cleared, rather than ash his body had become a pile of sand. Security was blaming a special effects technician, the director was fighting with a studio executive who demanded to know how long shooting would be shut down for... and then we had the hunters snooping around looking for anything out of the ordinary.

Based on what was going on, the Expert did some checking and realized that this was something he and an earlier iteration of the Crew had dealt with years before. It was something he thought had been dealt with, but because he wasn't as careful as he could have been it just went dormant... and now someone was dead.

So with the help of some exposition from me, he filled the members of the Crew in on what was going on... Back in the 1950's, there was a film called "The Conqueror" starring John Wayne as Genghis Khan, produced by Howard Hughes. The movie was filmed in Utah, downwind from some atomic weapons testing during the time when everyone insisted that this was a safe place to be. After primary filming, a bunch of the irradiated sand was hauled back to the studio so the reshoots would match. By 1980, just under half of the crew had come down with some sort of cancer and a third of those (including John Wayne) had passed away. After realizing what had happened, Hughes had the movie locked away in his private collection where reportedly out of guilt he watched it every night in his private theater.5

So some time after he passed away, the bad mojo in the sand combined with the radiation created an entity of sorts that would possess people, burn things, and generally wreak havoc and misery. (Some say that it was doing that earlier, but Hughes' obsessive watching of the film was part of some ritual that kept the creature contained) And that in an attempt to cut corners on the budget, the director of the Aladdin remake had found a warehouse with barrels of sand leftover from the earlier shooting that had been misplaced and mislabeled.

Now, dealing with this creature would mean doing what the Crew has done in the past -- get the original film reels from the movie and use them as part of a spell to weaken it so it could be disabled. Normally, the film cans were easy enough to get ahold of, but the group's contacts let them know that Martin Scorsese had added the film to his private collection of movie stuff (in an out of the way warehouse/private museum not too far from the studios) while he was working on the Aviator. They also needed to track down something to help them fight the manifestations in the meantime -- research told them that anything made of borosilicate glass (Pyrex) or cadmium would do the trick, and that maybe there were some glass props that would work somewhere.6

The team split up -- half went to secure the rest of the sand before something stupid happened, while the rest would track down the film cans. So the half dealing with the sand found the warehouse with the barrels, hauling them out to their vehicles and having a bit of a close call as some of the sand started to wake up when the Spooky tried to commune with the presence and got its attention. So they quickly subdued it and busted ass trying to get to the Crew's special vault for keeping this crap, drawing the attention of the police what with all of the speeding and all, and the Sidekick managed to lure the cops away and then hide out while the rest of the group got the sand into the vault just in time.

The group working on the film cans managed to con/bribe their way into Scorsese's personal collection, where some lucky rolls not only turned up the film cans but some props from an unfinished film. They were basically glass tubes with lights in them, intended to be a blatant ripoff of lightsabers. But the glass was Pyrex and conveniently weapon-shaped, so all was good.

They regrouped back at the Aladdin set. Because they couldn't just scoop up all the sand on the set, they had the Spooky get the thing's attention and lure it out of the sand pit -- hopefully taking all of the sand with it and thus separating it from the whole pile -- before they dealt with it. There was a big throwdown, with magically-enhanced glass swords and all sorts of psychic attacks and sorcery but they managed to put it down, seal it up, and lock it away. Job well done.

Saturday: curse the darkness

(Without originally meaning to, I kinda did a write-up for this game the other day. So I'm using the magic of copying and pasting to save myself some time and trouble here. You saw nothing, citizen. Move along)

Here's a basic rundown of curse the darkness: In 2012, a mysterious, unidentified figure (known colloquially as 'Him') showed up with the ability to make portals out of shadows and turn monsters loose. He laid down the basic rules: Take care of each other. Ideology is over; no more national identity, ethnic identity, religious identity, political groups, any of that. Religion is forbidden. Currency and expecting payment for things is forbidden. And He's serious about it; breaking the rules means a nearby shadow opens and the horrible monsters that live in the Between (known as 'Them' or variations thereupon) come through and kill you.

There are other people who can Open the shadows, though they can't control Them and they can't Open with the same skill He possesses. He has allowed people to use the Between to transport things as long as you're helping people, and you can mark that intent with a special symbol (like drawing it on a crate of oranges, for example) but if you get caught abusing it (smuggling bibles in the crate of oranges) you're going to have a bad time.

It's a decade later, the world's population has been cut in half, and over time He's gotten less diligent about punishing rulebreakers. The game is about coping with this new world and making an essential choice to fight to change things for the better ('lighting a candle') or try to accept and preserve things as they are now ('cursing the darkness'). It's also about valuing and remembering the people alongside you and those who came before you.

So after my three paragraphs of 'basic rundown,' ("Long story short--" "Too late.") the scenario we as a group built and played in, run by +Matthew McFarland himself:

We were set up in what's left of Las Vegas, a collection of little settlements based around the most intact casinos. Our little group was based out of the Luxor, and we had the only Opener in the area, a teenage girl named Lucy who mostly grew up after He showed up and isn't really great with people (and had a real paranoia about anyone referring to the people around them with plural pronouns, afraid that any acknowledgement of a community would draw Their attention). I played a former pharmacist and current medic named Wayne, and our other player was a former security guard named Marcus (I think it was Marcus, I'm blanking -- I just remember it started with M and we thought it was Mickey at first because of the guy's handwriting). The three of us were the local source of water, taking barrels through the Between to a lake somewhere out in, I wanna say, Minnesota or something and filling them and bringing them back. But we were occasionally holding back some water to give ourselves and those we cared about a greater share (every group of PCs breaks the rules in some way, determined by the group, and that was ours).

So we're managing the water delivery, Wayne was making a quiet deal off to the side with someone named Brad who knew some outsiders offering to trade medicines for water, Lucy is showing a local more-brave-than-smart kid named Frank where the lake is because people are starting to chafe at how we're the only ones who know how to get to this lake. It becomes chaos at one point because Lucy's so free with Opening shadows that it eventually draws Their attention and They poke their heads in and everyone freaks out. So they realize they need a more permanent, less-Between oriented solution. Wayne says he knew a guy who used to work at the city engineer's office back in the day, and that they might be able to find some way to at least partially restore the city's water supply in whatever infrastructure is left. (the goal of the one-shot was to find a more sustainable water supply for the people)

Which works out okay at first, until the building collapses and Wayne gets killed (characters can die pretty easily in this game, and the character creation process is real quick and easy as a result). Which is a problem because he didn't have a good chance to tell anyone else about the water-for-medicine deal. More on this later. But without Wayne, the 'rig up the infrastructure' plan kind of fell apart. (In the meantime, I took over Frank as a character) And Lucy's quirkiness is keeping things interesting. As in 'good for roleplaying, but really hard on the characters' interesting. It really sets an interesting tone for the game, though, as Marcus and whichever character I'm playing at the time have to dance around our pronoun usage for fear of setting her off. But anyhow, as everyone gets back to the Luxor, that's where a bus of outsiders shows up, insisting that Brad made a deal with them.

So Frank tracks Brad down, accidentally causes him to spill most of the barrel of water Brad and Wayne had squirreled away, and eventually gets him back. They try sorting out the water-for-medicine deal, but the barrel's only half-full and Brad never told the newcomers that the water was being hauled through the Between (which bothered them a great deal). So all hell's breaking loose, people are pointing guns at each other, when They show up again. Havoc is wrought, most of the outsiders are killed when the bus collapses into its own shadow, and Frank sacrifices himself protecting Brad from Their fury.

(at this point, I take over Brad -- for some reason, whenever I play ctd, my character deaths outnumber everyone else's combined and I have very few explanations why as there is a heavily luck-based element to it)

We try to figure out what to do with the outsider, as he's definitely going to be trouble in the long-term. As we're eventually deciding to steer him towards one of the other casino-based communities, the idea comes up that we could just solve the water problem by bringing the people of Vegas (who are officially done with this) to the lake and rebuilding around there. And y'know, I couldn't argue with that logic, it was sort of a 'why didn't we see it before' thing. (also, technically, the game's goal can't be met until certain conditions happen so even if we had hit on it right away there would have been other obstacles to overcome)

The stranger didn't want to go through the Between even if it meant a fairer climate and a ready supply of water, so we gave him what water we had left, told him where he could fix up a vehicle, and wished him luck.

Curse the darkness is always refreshing to play for me because it's just so out of left field compared to the stuff I usually wind up playing in or running back home. The stories can be fast and loose, character creation is easy, and while I don't have an issue with mechanical optimization it's not the sort of game where you'll have a player spending literally three hours with just the core book making sure his character is absolutely perfect like some people I run for. (Honestly, that's a reason why I really want to set things up to run it locally some time, even as just a one-shot, because it'd be like the gaming equivalent of 'tomato soup and grilled cheese' after you've spent years eating elaborate, complicated meals that took hours to make. Just such a wonderful change of pace.)

And that's a description of what I played and ran at Gencon this year. I also attended some of the Onyx Path panels, but I'm pretty sure everything that's been said there is either part of this year's brochure or on the Onyx Path site.

But I think that covers it, and oh hell this is already a long enough post so I'm signing off. Have any questions? Ask em! In any case, I'm sure you'll hear from me again soon enough, not even counting my posting on G+ or Twitter.

0-- I'm aware that this is a bit of a departure from the Powered by the Apocalypse default assumptions regarding characters, but I wanted to give it a try. Honestly, I'm not sure if I'd consider it a successful experiment or not.
1-- This is one of a handful of non-core playbooks, available either through DriveThruRPG or otherwise out there on the net but 'endorsed' by a shout-out in the Revised Edition core.
2-- There's a comment I tend to misattribute to Rob Reiner, said at a Stand By Me cast reunion when talking about River Phoenix, but as I try to find the quote I discover it was actually said by Richard Dreyfuss. Also, there isn't a quote, just a paraphrasing (by Wil Wheaton) of a comment he made, but it goes "[T]here is this monster in Hollywood that everyone knows about. It lurks just out of view, and occasionally it reaches up and snatches someone … and it got River." But it was this line that always stuck with me, and some time later the gamer part of my brain asked 'what if that could be interpreted literally' and that's where this setup came from.
3-- No, really. Someone played 'RPG designer Kenneth Hite consulting for movies' as a character. In the interest of not wanting to stop the fun train and thus become the aforementioned TGWTaTBHCGIGTP, I shrugged and said "As long as I don't have to get the blame for it if he ever finds out."
4-- Live-action remakes of Disney animated films are all the rage right now, apparently, so I decided to go with it. And after I settled on this story and wrote up the stuff for it, I found out that they are in fact doing a live-action prequel. Go figure.
5-- This is absolutely true, by the way.
6-- I picked the brain of Phil Broughton to get some ideas for what would weaken the monster. He came up with the Pyrex and cadmium, along with a few other ideas for finally taking the thing down. Everybody was impressed when I said I consulted with an actual expert for the game.

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