Monday, December 14, 2009

Dead of Winter 2009

I spent this weekend at the first Dead of Winter Horror Invitational, a very small gaming convention held at the Brookdale Lodge deep in the Santa Cruz mountains. My friend, Matt Steele, did an incredible job running this little monster, and despite a bunch of problems that could have wrecked any other con, I came away from Dead of Winter with a fantastic experience.

Just getting to the Lodge was an experience in and of itself. After getting out late and fighting through traffic to pick up my friend Basil in San Francisco, Google lead us astray and onto several miles of winding, mountain roads in hard, slippery rain, until we finally reached Boulder Creek for a good but late-coming dinner at the Boulder Creek Brewery Company (do not eat here unless you have hours to spare waiting for your food and resolving your bill). It was late by the time we got to the hotel, where we found most of the 30-or-so other DoW guests drinking it up in the bar.

The Brookdale Lodge, with a history of iniquity during Prohibition as well as a number of deaths (the most recent in September of this year) has a reputation for being haunted. As Basil and I discovered upon entering our room, "haunted" may simply be synonymous with "broken" or "code violations." Our original non-smoking room, for which we signed a document stating we would pay hundreds of dollars if we smoked in it, was filled with the stench of cigarette smoke. Also the lights wouldn't turn on. So we got ourselves checked into a new room, where the heater was covered by heavy-drapes but the window door to the patio wasn't (so morning light woke up whoever slept next to it), the lights worked (until Sunday morning, the bathroom light shorted-out in a rather explosive fizz... and the bathtub was made of steel, so no shower for us), and there wasn't a smoke detector in sight (speaking to others, they didn't have a smoke detector in their rooms as well). And these were the renovated rooms, as the un-renovated rooms had holes in them and windows in missing. All this might sound horrifying, but I actually had a decent time and, besides the shorted-out bathtub-of-doom that prevented showering on Sunday, was no different than any other room I'd stayed in at a con (for much mucho bucks).

I woke up around 8:45 on Saturday to receive my 8 o'clock wake-up call from an apologetic and addled front desk clerk, and, without any time for breakfast after showering, I made my way through the hotel (filled with buckets catching leaks and water-sogged carpets, past the electrical wires wrapped around a water faucet, and by the half-completed renovation of part of the hotel that burned down only recently). The hotel's main attraction, a long, three-level hall with a roaring creek flowing down the middle, was lovely in pictures, a bit worn-down and poorly maintained in person, and cold-as-hell in the rainy weather. Beyond that was the Log Room, a meeting room made like a log cabin (you could see daylight through the some of the slats) whose only heat was a large fireplace and the many space heaters Matt had place around the room (which went on-and-off intermittently as the outlets regularly shorted-out). This where we ran our games, and my first one was...

Silent Night (All Flesh Must Be Eaten)
It’s beginning to look a lot like TERROR, as a bunch of naughty department store Santas and their not-so-nice little helpers learn that the true meaning of Christmas is FEAR while trapped in a shopping mall full of last-minute shoppers and equally sinister things. You better watch out, you better not cry, and pouting won’t save you on this slay ride straight to HELL.
This was my game, which can more easily be described as Bad Santa with zombies. Absolutely the most offensive game I've run, the players got totally into it from the get-go, and everyone seemed to have a good time. AFBME was a nice, rules-light system for it, staying pretty much in the background, though I did feel that the characters were able to take down the main baddie a little too easily just with normal weapons. I liked the game, but I can't see it running it again (except for my regular gaming group next weekend) as it is so specific to the Christmas season.

Our catered lunch was surprisingly good, and was going swimmingly until just after the end of the session, the power went out throughout the hotel. This seemed fine as we had a two-hour break for dinner. Unfortunately, we all went to the Boulder Creek Brewery for dinner, so what should've been two hours stretched out into four hours as the place took forever to get us our food and then let us pay them for it. We were two hours late when all of us got back to the Lodge for the evening session, where it was discovered that the power was still out. This meant that we had to do everything - navigate the creaky hotel with the history of accidental deaths, go to the bathroom, and play role-playing games - by the dim, flickering light of candles or flashlights. In the "haunted" Brookdale and playing a bunch of horror-themed games, this was AWESOME.

The Night Tide (Basic Role-Playing)
Spring, 1721. Welcome aboard the privateer frigate Revenant. Crew: 261 Souls. The storm season has arrived with a fury and a venegance the likes of which no living sailor has ever seen. And while on a treacherous patrol through the dark heart of Kingbreaker Islands, the Revenant finds what she always seems to find: trouble and the unexpected.
My evening game was run by Jack Young, a great GM who I've had good experiences with in the past, and, despite the conditions (and kind of because of them), this game was no different. The game was set in his homebrewed world of a slightly fantasy version of 18th century piracy, where we played a cursed crew of privateers moving inexorably towards some watery doom of which we only had a vague foreboding. Playing all that in candlelight with a hard rain falling on a rustic cabin was the best atmosphere imaginable, but even after the power returned (by around midnight) it was still a pretty spooky game. BRP is the base system behind Call of Cthulhu, so it fared well for the horror game.

With the power back on, I slept easy through the night, woke early enough to get breakfast, and headed down for my last morning game...

At the Circus (World of Darkness: Mortals)
Dec. 15, 2000 - The small town of Circle Pines, Kansas, was shocked 18 hours ago when the horribly-mutilated body of local girl Ursula Wells, 16, was discovered. The shadowy Paranormal Investigations and Combat Bureau has noticed an unnerving trend, and is sending a team to investigate the cause and stop it before it claims more lives.
A solid and fun investigative horror game in The X-Files mold, this game played out well. I like nWOD as a system to play if not to run (the mechanic to spend Willpower to increase your chance of success is the only advantage I really find it has over BRP), and the investigative process ran smoothly. The GM, Travis Smiley, created a well-textured story of a German who shows up in the American Midwest after WWII, and creates a circus where accidents regularly happen and death toll strikes on a weekly basis. I liked how all the players, including me, immediately think Nazi occultism when we hear that, but it turned out to be something completely different. I played a hard-ass female ex-LAPD cop, and got to shakedown locals in a rough and abrasive manner. There were probably some things that we should've done differently, but the pacing was good and I had fun throughout.

There was an evening game slot, including a Jack-the-Ripper themed Don't Rest Your Head game that I really wanted to play, but I didn't want to drive home in the rain at 1 in the morning nor did I want to pay for another night at the Brookdale Lodge, so me and couple of others headed out in the afternoon. Even though it might sound like a nightmare with all the hauntings/code violations, power outages, and dinner snafus, Dead of Winter turned out to be one of the most fun times I've ever had at a con, and not in spite of all those mishaps. When the power went out at DunDraCon last year, there was a panic about how people would know what games they were in, much less how we would all play in the darkness; but, at Dead of Winter, there was a kind of glee in the air, as though it was all part of some (mis)adventure. That was the general tone throughout, and with such great players and GMs, and so many friends in general, Dead of Winter had a charm that just couldn't be beat. So long as it doesn't bankrupt him, Matt has to do this next year, and I am much looking forward to it.