Friday, August 12, 2016

Gencon 2016 Writeup

So the short version is that this year, I had a lot of fun playing and running a lot of tabletop. There's a few folks I wish I'd seen more of, but that's just how these things shake out at conventions. I also did way too much walking. I stayed at the Columbia Club hotel, which was on the further edge of the range of downtown hotels, and wound up with blisters on my feet from all of the walking back and forth. (Also, just as a quick review of the hotel, the Columbia Club is a beautiful old building and all that, but I personally found the rooms cramped and the shower was probably the worst hotel shower I've used. Their fitness center was to die for, though.)

So I'm trying to think if there's anything specific I want to say about Gencon this year that didn't come out in one of my many tweets over the course of the weekend. Not a lot comes to mind, though. So let's just go with stuff I ran and stuff I played.

(Sorry this is so late, by the way. My schedule has had a bit of an upheaval immediately following Gencon.)

Thursday: Monster of the Week
Old-Fashioned Mummy Hunt
So this game was a semi-sequel to my "Department of Homeworld Security" game I ran last year, and this story had the player characters chasing after a guy possessed by a mummy spirit and following his trail of destruction as he tried to get to the airport and flee the country with a stolen artifact in tow. I'll admit, this wasn't one of the best games I've run, the story wasn't as strong as it could have been and I skimped a little on prep because the Hunter game required more work and attention. I'm not proud of that, but I'll own it. Everyone seemed to enjoy it, though.

The playbooks in use, BTW, were (in no particular order) The Spooky, The Flake, The Expert, The Mad Scientist, The Crooked, The Wronged, and The Monstrous. The Mad Scientist has done well in my games so far, by the way. People really get into that one and it winds up being just fun.

Also, props to the Marriott -- I realized about an hour before I had to run my game that I'd forgotten to print out some basic move cheat sheets to go along with the playbooks. I asked nicely if they could help and they gave me a key to the business center where I could print some sheets at no charge. I probably could have gotten by without the sheets, but the staff were friendly and made things a little easier on me even though I wasn't a guest.

(Of course, printing that stuff involved waiting a half-hour for a couple of guys to print up a few dozen LARP character sheets, using up all the toner and having to reboot the printer a few times. Also it involved having one of them try to pitch the WoD to me despite my already having said I was an experienced LARPer and familiar with the setting. But that's not the hotel's fault. But seriously, I'd pay money to never have to hear "Phenomenal cosmic power, itty bitty living space" used to describe Mages again.)

That said, this'll be the last year I do the "Department of Homeworld Security" setup for a convention one-shot. Both years, the players have done the absolute bare minimum to even justify their characters as government agents. (I think this year, the only character who maintained the pretense of being a government agent was the guy playing The Flake -- which is ironic because half the point of the Flake in this setup is "the conspiracy nutcase who knows too much and is recruited into the organization rather than killed because reasons")

I do have an idea for a story for next year, reviving the "Hollywood behind-the-scenes supernatural troubleshooters" concept. Four words: Actual Cannibal Shia Lebeouf.

Ahem. Anyhow...

Friday: Hunter: The Vigil
Return of the Inquisitor
This game is also a sequel. As I often reiterate, my CofD games all take place in a singular continuity, often sharing characters and certain plot threads (called the Woodburn Chronicles). So here's the quick background of this adventure:

I ran a Hunter: The Vigil LARP many years ago. One of my players' characters was named Vincent Delgado, and he joined the Aegis Kai Doru because they could promise him a magic sword that would make him invisible. No, really. His Morality score degraded over time, and between that and the sheer amount of time he spent invisible because of said magic sword led to him becoming a Slasher called "The Inquisitor" when he murdered a mage who'd been framed for a crime he didn't commit. As far as Slashers went, he went unpunished a little longer than some because he only targeted magic-users and still technically worked for the AKD, so other hunters considered him a lower priority. In the meantime, he and the sword had all but become two halves of the same entity, inexorably linked to his crusade to kill as many wizards as possible.

A couple of years ago, a cabal of mages managed to get the drop on him, stole his magic sword and replaced it with a powerless duplicate, and turned him over to the authorities.

Off-screen, over time, certain individuals were able to link Vincent to a shipping company used by the Aegis Kai Doru as a front, proving that he'd been a paid enforcer and hit man for them. (And let's be honest, that's not entirely untrue) This wrecked the company and other mages swept in to acquire the business and the warehouse full of Relics they held in Harper's Ferry, WV.

This year, a member of the Mysterium decided to try and usurp the sword's power and dispatch a rival at the same time. Imagine his surprise when Vincent suddenly appeared from thin air, holding onto the hilt of the sword. His surprise was short-lived. Elsewhere, someone is finding that Vincent seems to have basically teleported out of his prison cell.

A couple of days later, a hastily-assembled team of VASCU (Vanguard Serial Crime Unit) and TFV (Task Force: VALKYRIE) agents arrive in Hagerstown, MD. This team consists of:

  • David Sculler (TFV): crime scene tech 
  • Father Peter Callahan (TFV): Army Chaplain with a set of social skills and a pretty solid grasp of occult concepts
  • Special Agent Charity Myers (VASCU): formerly deep undercover in a biker gang, joined VASCU after the undercover assignment left her too emotionally scarred for regular field work
  • Agent Archibald Winters (VASCU): An FBI recruit who joined to become the next Fox Mulder, didn't make it into the academy but was a candidate for the Wintergreen Process so VASCU took him in
  • Agent Quincy Williams (VASCU): A computer and encryption geek
  • Special Agent Rob Grimm (VASCU): An expert administrator and team coordinator blocked from promotion because he was too good at his job, he took a lateral move to VASCU to distinguish himself

So the team is met by Special Agent Brian Cutter (another former player character from that Hunter LARP, someone who's actually worked alongside Vincent), who gives them the spiel about who the Inquisitor is, what happened in the warehouse, and that Vincent has killed two other people since his escape, both of them the prior day. One was a computer repair technician with her own business, killed that morning, and the other was a Catholic priest killed that evening. The FBI (and thus VASCU) had been tipped off to Vincent's involvement by Detective Lisa Branson, someone who is familiar with the Inquisitor case and will be serving as their local liaison. (Special Agent Cutter shares a theory that she might be the sort of person who's on his hit list, if you get my meaning)

Quincy uses the somewhat-psychic Teleinformatics abilities given to him by VASCU's Wintergreen process to enhance a records search on Detective Branson, trying to find if she's got any connection to the prior deceased and finding that she does have one of the ones in the warehouse (Harvey) and the girl who does computer repair (Kelly).

They file that away as they meet with Detective Branson and she takes them to the computer repair shop since that's the older crime scene and thus should be cleared before any more time is lost. While Lisa waits out front, Rob goes into the back where it happened and uses Postcognition to recreate the scene: He sees Kelly open the front door, oblivious to Vincent following her, go straight to the back room and log into her personal computer. Once she's logged in, Vincent dispatches her, connects a hard drive to the computer, and copies a bunch of files. At the same time, Quincy does a Scene Read on the computer repair shop, looking for anything else that might be useful, and finds a notebook written in code under a filing cabinet. As David goes over the room, he finds a hidden camera that's not hooked into anything else in the shop and Quincy helps him discover that the video is going to Lisa's phone.

At this point they bring her in and with Archibald's ability to pick up her surface thoughts and exploit them in interrogations (with which he finds out she's concerned about a possible victim named Harold), the group browbeats her into admitting that she's a mage and that she's got ties to a group that has been going after the Aegis Kai Doru for a while. And while she doesn't know how he's finding some of the people he's finding, that Vincent is somehow targeting them specifically. They mention the coded notebook (which she identifies is something that every member of their little group carries, and keeps track of their little projects) and the personal files, and she comes to the conclusion that Vincent must have found Harvey's notebook and deciphered enough of it to start tracking down the rest.

So who's Harold? Harold's another mage, another member of their group, and she's been trying to convince him that Vincent is a serious threat. The group files that away for the moment and moves to the other crime scene to try and get more of a handle on what Vincent's up to and where he might be. As for the camera, it turns out that Lisa has been quietly keeping tabs on her colleagues. (Rob proceeds to give her a bunch of shit over her illegal surveillance and the fact that she almost certainly uses her magic to violate certain basic rights, and she tries to appeal to his sympathies by pointing out that if half of the stories she's heard about VASCU are true, they walk that fine line themselves.)

They go to the church where the priest was killed, where Rob sees Vincent coming in and assaulting the priest (Henry) while the priest was doing some standard 'straightening up the church' stuff. Henry seems to have managed to sense the impending attack, and fought back, but to no avail. They dig through his stuff in the rectory and find a space where he'd been stashing a notebook (now missing) the size of Kelly's. Which concerns Lisa, as Henry shouldn't have had one.

But from there, they hit up Harold at his law firm. Turns out he's been thinking of bringing Kevin into the group, and was letting Kevin store his notebook for safekeeping. As near as they can tell, Vincent must have been following Harold and took advantage of Kevin being an attack of opportunity. The group plus Lisa and Harold talk about who else in the group is unaccounted for, and there's Chad who's a physical trainer and the real combat powerhouse of their little group. They check in and know that he's fine and hiding out, and while they're figuring out what to do next Archibald tries to use what he knows of Vincent's behavior to Synchronize with him.

Now, Synchronize is an interesting power -- the user copies a subject's mind into their own, taking on elements of their personality while also being able to tap into what they know. So Archibald uses this on Vincent and finds himself becoming something not unlike becoming a human shark, always looking forward to the next target, thirsting for the next kill. He figures out that Vincent is likely following around a target he's identified, using him to lead him to other mages that might be easier to take out so he doesn't have to worry about them ganging up on him later.

At about this time, David's been using a piece of TFV tech that lets him see invisible people with the law firm's security cameras to spot Vincent across the street, watching the building. Harold insists that he's got magical defenses up that should at least warn him and give him a fighting chance, but the group is unsure given that they know how things went with Father Lake. But now, with the help of Archibald's synchronization, they know that given a good opportunity he'll get ready to move on Harold, especially to get him out of the way that he's potentially compromised. (By now Vincent definitely knows about the hunters chasing him.)

So the team decides to do the simplest thing: Use Harold as bait. Go to his house, set a trap designed to make him visible enough to properly fight, and then subdue him. And they indeed go ahead and with Archibald's knowledge (thanks to him refreshing the Synchronize, getting an exceptional success and letting him emulate some of Vincent's combat skills) figure out exactly how he'd try to get into the house. They rig up a good old-fashioned bag of flour over a window they deliberately left unlocked, and wait. David and Peter are in the van, watching over cameras, where David can trigger the trap and warn the others that he's there without being in direct danger (because neither he nor Peter have any appreciable means of defending themselves).

Harold eventually comes home, and as he moves into his house from the garage Vincent sneaks in to get the drop on him. The bag of flour goes off and Vincent's invisibility is disturbed enough that the entire group can come after him. There's some unintentionally hilarious moments when he's just too quick to be properly hit until Charity shoots him and drops him to the floor. Archibald's takes his sword away and they manage to subdue and arrest him. Success!

Now the tricky part will be figuring out how to get him out of prison again for a future story, should I decide to do so. Though I've got at least one idea.

Before continuing on to the stuff I played, I'd just like to make a note. Last year, I ran my two games from 4 to 8pm, six slots for players. Both sold out on the site. When it came to run the games, four players showed up for the first one and five showed up for the second. Two of the players in the second paid with generic tickets, which meant that of the 12 people who paid to pre-register for my games, a total of seven showed up. The dealer's room closes at 5pm. So this year, I ran my games from 5 to 9. (I don't always need all four hours, especially for Monster of the Week, but it's a good enough estimation) So this year, in a world where there wasn't the overlap with the dealer's room, I got full groups both times. The Thursday game I got five people who signed up, and two more paying with generics. (Originally four registered and the two with generics showed up. The two with generics were a couple, so when the fifth registered player showed up at the last minute, rather than split them up or lose both I said "screw it, I can run for seven with this system.") On the Friday game, I got all six registered players. At one point, someone with generics showed up early but bowed out when the last registered player showed up at the last minute (possibly because of a problem with table assignments that put the game in the wrong room, which messed me up as well).

The takeaway here is "try not to schedule against the dealer's room if you can help it."

Saturday: Eclipse Phase, Transhumanity's Fate

This was a game I was particularly looking forward to, because I've yet to get a chance to play Eclipse Phase at all and this was in particular a chance to play it with the Fate ruleset they came up with. I've considered pitching the Fate edition of the game to my group (I like the base Eclipse Phase system, but you couldn't pay me to run my usual players through a "Here's a thousand points, now buy all your stats" character creation) in the future so this would be a good opportunity.

The premise of the game is that we're all Gatecrashers (explorers of extrasolar worlds) on an expedition led by Jic-al Hayude, disgraced academic and stim addict who can only get his expeditions financed by making them into reality shows. Aside from Jic-al himself, the other PCs were:

  • Ab-dal, a copy of Jic-al's mind from before the stim addiction riding along in his head computer and trying to rein him in
  • Jinx, a blue macaw security specialist who's really self-conscious about the perception of avians in the universe
  • Shrike, a mercenary who may or may not be "The Butcher of Paris," but her memories have been edited so she doesn't know for sure
  • Voyageur, a hippie xenobiologist and secretly a psychic
  • Kiyomi (aka 'Robot Girl'), an indentured servant in a robot body painted bright yellow and black to serve as a target and muscle
  • Travers (whom I played), someone on the run from the syndicates who took advantage of an opportunity to take the place of the group's xenolinguist and is faking it with bargain basement skill software to stay ahead of the people after him

So we're on the planet Vishnu IV, which is very Earth-like -- little more oxygen in the air, slightly higher gravity. And these annoying monkey things all over the place that don't seem to have any natural predators. It's been a source in the past of relics of the Iktomi, a believed-dead spider-like race that transhumanity has encountered in  All of our characters are rigged to record their sensory experiences for the show.

So there we are, minding our own business, dealing with Jic-al finding ways to annoy us for the sake of 'filming,' when our scanners pick up a metallic object about the size of a trailer buried in the hill on which we were camping. We excavated it, digging out a mostly featureless capsule. Ab-dal was able to find out that it had some sort of active system running, and tried to contact it. A bunch of alien lettering appeared on the side, which Travers was asked to decipher (or at least say something interesting about on-camera). He spouted some made-up bullshit about the writing being an example of the 'Gamma dialect we discovered last year' and thus would need time to translate.

Ab-dal, stumbling through the interface, managed to figure out that he could open the case, whatever it is. He does so and one end slides off, revealing a plastic-y spider-like shape. It looks like the intact molted skin of an Iktomi. And it contains some sort of gooey capsule inside. Another scientist, Dr. Linder, takes a closer look at it and the capsule just explodes all over him.

Everyone freaks out, we put Dr. Linder in quarantine, and basically everyone but Jic-al is advocating burning the capsule and getting rid of it. Heading back isn't an option as the Pandora Gate we took to get here won't open again until tomorrow. But Jic-al is the one in charge, and what he says goes so we mostly just back off and try to figure out what's going on before we're all killed. Ab-dal manages to get the capsule closed up again and he and Kiyomi make sure to back themselves up to the local server just in case they need to abandon their current bodies (since none of the rest of us have cyberbrains and there isn't an ego bridge handy, those of us in meat-bodies can't back ourselves up).

So Voyageur's analyzing the stuff that splattered Linder, Travers' software is slowly and clumsily translating the writing, and everyone else is making plans to burn the site and make a run for it regardless of how valuable the Iktomi skeleton is. Voyageur thinks the stuff is some sort of weaponized nano-goo about the time Travers translates a description of a facility that the Iktomi found 10k years ago where they weaponized this stuff to convert their enemies.

Before we have the opportunity to act on this, Linder's completely transformed into a monster -- one that splits in half once we've done enough damage to it, /The Thing/-style -- and the rest of the session comes down to trying to destroy the creature before it infects or kills us all or worse makes it back through the Pandora Gate. In the end, if I recall correctly, we re-bury the capsule and prepare to break down the expedition camp and prepare a proper warning for the people back home.

This was my first real experience playing Eclipse Phase, and even though this was a more light-hearted game than is usually intended, I still thought that the Fate system did a really good job preserving the feel of the setting. I know a lot of people are concerned about whether or not Fate can handle horror with the assumed competence of the characters but I think it came out okay. (Some of that could be attributed to our GM, though.)

Sunday: Chill, 3rd Edition
Sunshine in Maine

So on Sunday morning I got to play Chill, from Growling Door Games. The scenario was called "Sunshine in Maine," one of the free cases available at GDG's website. (link)

Our character lineup consisted of:

  • Tyler Copeland -- An engineering geek
  • Tessie Dillon -- An advertising exec with a knack for empathic abilities
  • Noriko Frost -- A journalist
  • Maria Gallegos -- A dancer
  • Christopher Monroe -- Also a dancer and performer, and medium
  • Brad Oulette (played by me) -- Wheelchair-bound adrenaline junkie and research specialist

So in Chill, the characters work for an organization called SAVE -- The Eternal Society of the Silver Way. And the SAVE office in Portland, Maine, had recently been contacted by a high school girl named Theresa. She ran a Paranormal Club at her school, and asked the organization for help. Her town of Boothbay Harbor has a pattern of girls going missing for a long time. Supposedly, the town's cursed. One of her friends had just recently wandered off and vanished from a bonfire, and she was starting to hear a voice calling her off into the woods.

So we rolled into town, trying and failing not to draw too much attention from the locals (there's like 2-3k people in town, so a half-dozen strangers, half of them PoCs and one of the others in a wheelchair, are definitely going to be noticed) as we talked to Theresa and began researching the town. She told us about her friend Joan who'd gone missing from a bonfire after stepping through an old gate nearby, and that since then she'd heard the voice of a young girl calling her name. One of us Senses the Unknown, and we become aware that Theresa has been 'marked' by a supernatural entity. We don't tell her this, but instead convince her to let Tyler put a tracking app on her phone in case something happens.

We proceed to start investigating the town. We do some research and find a list of disappearances going back a few decades. No obvious patterns. We go to the graveyard and find that some of the headstones have been marked with 'BBG' (Boothbay Girls), and at near the bonfire spot we find a cloth pouch that one of the local witches had left there. The pouch contains a note addressed to the girl's deceased grandmother, and that leads us to talk to one of Theresa's friends about the curse. We also track down one of the few survivors of the disappearances and find a little more about what happened to her. And we find out that people being targeted by the entity sometimes hear a little girl singing "You Are My Sunshine."

So at this point we're pretty sure it's a spirit of some sort, from the various descriptions, and it only takes young girls who come too close to the gate. Which is a problem, because after we've been in town a couple of days Theresa vanishes. We discover this when one of us goes to give her a call and notices that Theresa's phone is still at home but she should be in school. The investigation kicks into high gear and we learn that the gate was built by the Knights of Pythias, your typical Mason/Odd Fellows-esque secret society. Looking back into their history and the history of the gate, we find out that the locals who tried and failed to get the Knights properly recognized in town had a pair of daughters named Claire and Tamara. Claire, whose favorite song is in fact "You Are My Sunshine," is the first girl known to have disappeared in November, though her body wasn't found until the thaw.

We went back out to the graveyard and got Claire's attention with Christopher's help and she admitted that she was lonely and she was finding new playmates and playing with them until they died. We tried to figure out what could get her to release Theresa and Joan and just pass on to whatever, but the best thing we could figure out would be to find her old teddy bear (or maybe a suitable replacement). While we're trying to sort that out, Noriko gets brought in by the cops to be interviewed for a bit (basically, some bad luck from some dice rolls catching up with us) because she said she was in town working on an article and we were all helping but she hadn't cleared it with her boss. But during all this, we find out that Claire's sister had just died a year ago, and was buried on the anniversary of Claire's death.

(I might be a little off on the exact order of events, so bear with me, after a while a bunch of investigation scenes can run together)

Once Noriko was freed of the cops' interrogation, we gathered out at the gate and summoned Claire. We used the knowledge of her sister's passing to convince her to pass on and go look for her and to let the other girls go. We barely manage to convince her to go peacefully, and Theresa and Joan return -- still alive, though in need of medical attention.

Once Theresa and Joan are taken care of, we leave shortly afterwards after leaving some contact info for Theresa as we're thinking she might make a decent SAVE agent. We also called up the survivor we contacted to let her know that what almost happened to her will never happen to anyone else again.

And that's more or less it for the stuff I played and ran at Gencon. Not really sure what else there is to share at the moment, so if you've got any questions feel free to ask.

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