Tuesday, May 31, 2011

KublaCon 2011

For the second year in a row, I came out of KublaCon without playing in a single bad game. Some were better than others, but none of them were stinkers and at no time did I ever want a game to end just to move on to something else.

The Wolves of St. Croix (Godlike)
Winter, 1944. As the sky turns grey and snow blankets the French countryside, Patton’s Third Army creeps forward against orders during an uneasy winter stalemate. Your Talent Operation Group has been assigned to vanguard elements of the 25th Cavalry Recon Squadron, currently deployed in hills above the provincial village of Frahan. The last patrol sent to reconnoiter the surrounding forest hasn’t report in and you’re being sent into those dark woods to find out why.
Friday involved a very horrible choice: there were nine games I would've loved to play that evening, all of them in competing slots. I settled on Jack Young's Godlike game as my first choice mostly due to knowing Jack to be a great GM, loving the setting, and wanting to get my One Roll Engine experience under my belt. I was not disappointed, as this was a fantastic game and, besides my own game, the highlight of the con for me. It was a damn good bunch of players, and we gelled quickly as a group. Some of the best moments include the badger (our TOG mascot) that a character kept in his backpack that we addicted to morphine to keep it sedated, my secretly homosexual character (something I added, which Matt Steele pointed out that I often add to my characters... odd) who kept having to deal with innuendo about cigars and pinup girls, and my most metal moment of the con... after getting set on fire, my character dropped his B.A.R. and charged a Nazi brainwashing Talent, brass-knuckled trench knives in hand, screaming "BADGERS GO FIRST!" (the TOG motto is "Talents Go First") that soon degenerated through pain to "BADGER! BADGER! BADGER!" and finally punching dead the Nazi (who has pissed his pants due to failing Will vs. Will contests) through the face as he simultaneously shot me dead through the face. A thing of beauty.

A Knight's Tale (Savage Worlds)
When two monks ask Sir David of Winchester and his entourage for help it seems like a righteous quest is beginning. But the monks of Muchelney Abbey lead a colorful and interesting life, and their problem is no earthly one. To save the monks physical bodies, and maybe their eternal souls, the knights must deal with a divine servant who guards a holy weapon and a French raiding party attacking southern England before facing down the true monster.
Somehow Saturday turned out to be all Savage Worlds, all the time. My first game involved a knight (played by me) and his retainers competing in a tournament before getting recruited Magnificent Seven-style by some drunken, lascivious monks to defend their abbey from having its new construction torn down by a woodland demon. Evidently a published scenario, the game was okay but made much better by having great players at the table, as almost everyone (one player kind of checked out) just dived into their characters. We never encountered a French raiding party, and getting the holy weapon was pretty easy (although it was interesting when my squire, secretly a girl in disguise, failed to pass the test of morality to enter the tomb and was nearly attacked by an angel, while the lascivious, morally-loose herald entered with ease), but the fight with the wood-demon was intense and I felt satisfied after the game. In fact, after my experience running Savage Worlds at Dead of Winter, I was almost lured into again believing that the system could be simple, light, and easy...

The Witch of November (Realms of Cthulhu)
Early November, 1975. You and your crew are about to embark on a routine journey across Lake Superior with a full load of taconite ore pellets in the belly of your freighter. The National Weather Service has predicted clear skies with the nearest storm passing safely to the south... But there is something deep under the water that defies logic and nature. The witch of November is about to come stealing... And she's hungry.
... but then I played this game and quickly returned to reality. It was quite a good game, and I had a lot of fun, but I sat between the GM and someone who mentioned doing editing work for the game, both of whom seemed very familiar with the system, and there were several times when they had to reach for their books to look up rules. There was even a time or two when I knew what the rule was in a situation and they weren't immediately aware of it. If even people like this haven't mastered the system, what hope is there for rules-retards like me?

The game itself was decent. As I suspected, it was based on a rather famous song, so I knew how things were probably going to end from the very beginning. SPOILERS! We were sailors on the Edmund Fitzgerald, so we were all going to die. It ended up being a run-&-fight kind of game, and since I had no melee skills and many of the players had handguns while I didn't, I felt pretty limited in what I could do. On top of that, since I suspected MORE SPOILERS! we were all going to die and survival really wasn't an option, I spent the game waiting for an objective different than "survive," which didn't come until the end of the last combat round in the game. I came away respecting Realms of Cthulhu for its lethality ("gritty" damage rules where you can't Soak damage with bennies are indeed quite gritty) and its Sanity mechanic, but the highly tactical nature of the combat serves more to draw me out of the game than into it. I think I'm done with any notion of running Savage Worlds, although I'm still happy to play in games that use the system.

Fighting for Freedom (Exalted)
Ever felt like you were a demi-god? In Exalted, you are! Your character has been blessed with godlike powers by the Unconquered Sun. However, you've been captured by a rival Solars who feel that only the strongest of your kind should survive to take over the world. Do you fight in their tournament to prove you're the best, or do you fight your captors for your freedom? The choices are yours in this game of Exalted.
I tried to crash in 4 games on Sunday morning: I spent nearly an hour camping to get into a Doctor Who game (which filled up with all its signed-up players, although I was okay with that when I found it the characters would all be from the show rather than original), then a Dark Heresy game that a friend was also trying to crash (who also failed), then a Star Trek game using one of my favorite systems (Cinematic Unisystem) that I thought would be full (and was right), then a Hellcats & Hockeysticks game that sounded so quirky I thought there might be a chance (there wasn't), before my friend from the Dark Heresy game and I ran into an RPG coordinator who told us this Exalted game needed players.

This was an odd game, but a fun one. Talking it over with a friend later, it almost seemed like the GM would've preferred if there hadn't been enough players to run the game, and once we got past the initial set-up, there didn't seem to be much more to the game. Regardless, it was still pretty awesome, as we ripped out trees and beat the Solar into submission with them. I've played Exalted before, which is a strange mix of this interesting setting of highly empowered characters that should be able to pull off amazing stunts and would be an easy fit for something like FATE, but is mated to this incredibly crunchy White Wolf system that goes into far too much detail than is actually required. Still, it works in play, especially under an efficient GM, which this one was, and, after we all picked up the system, it ran smoothly.

Operation Albion (Delta Green)
Delta Green cell Kilo is activated to investigate the odd remains of several animals found in Albion, Washington. Kilo cell is a group of experienced federal law enforcement agents who have worked successfully on supernatural cases in the past. The cell is called to the Hyatt Regency, Burlingame for a briefing provided by A cell.
The Exalted game ended so quickly that I was still able to get into "Apocalypse Tao," a Savage Worlds game using the Tour of Darkness setting. After only one other player and myself showed up, the game had to be cancelled for lack of players. While unfortunate, that did allow me to play in a Delta Green game, a very rare treat for me as I almost always have to run Delta Green myself to see it on a schedule.

This was a good game, but it was one of those situations where I got a little pissy over planning details with a couple of players as I kept getting called on the carpet for my character's decisions. It's very difficult, especially in a con setting where you don't often know the other players, to differentiate when a player is calling your character a moron or when they are calling you personally a moron. It's made even harder when the offended player doesn't really act out their character, using the same tone of voice and perspective whether in-character or otherwise. I'm an immersive role-player, so when I role-play characters in stressful situations that go temporarily insane, I'm not focused on what's the best tactical option but what is the most interesting response. And I'm a geek with self-esteem issues, creating a toxic mix when combined with criticism. I do think that a myopic focus on getting just the right plan in a horror game is rather silly, as no matter what you plan, it's all going to end up going wrong somehow. Nevertheless, I wish I hadn't let it get to me, and while I didn't go into a full-blown funk, I still wish I'd found a way to ignore it completely.

For the most part though, the game was a lot of fun, and had some great moments. I got to yell "The pudding's gone bad!" as my character went crazy and ran away from the protoplasmic monster. One player got killed half-way through by said pudding, and then his replacement character failed a Climb roll and fell to his death about a minute after coming into the game. Another player had an absolutely metal moment where he went nuts and charged the pudding, guns blazing and yelling "I can take it!" as my character grappled with him to hold him back from certain doom.

Götterdämmerung (Delta Green)
Berlin 1945: As the city collapses before the advancing Red Army, a lone glider flies into the flames and ruin. Onboard are a small desperate group of Allied agents disguised as German paratroopers, who must journey through Hel to breach the final stronghold of the SS occult research division known as the Karotechia, where Projekt HODDMÍMIR waits to open the way for the Third Reich to escape its reckoning, as others arrive to reap what black science the Karotechia has sown.
This was my game, and the first time I've run it anywhere. It went very well, in no small part due to an awesome group of players. I'll break it all down...

The Good
Everybody (including myself) had fun, which is the most important thing. A very solid story was created by the end of the game, and most of the characters ran through some kind of personal arc. As the game ran through without any major hitches, I left it confident in my GM'ing abilities, which is the first time I can say that about a con game since... well, the last KublaCon. I was really surprised to see that I almost brought it in on-time (6 hours) without having to sacrifice too much, although the early scenes in Berlin do have to get trimmed and character introduction took way too long. The props came out well and it was good to see that the Soldbuch character sheets held up under use. Listening to it on the drive to KublaCon, I was afraid the soundtrack I'd put together was less than optimal, but it turned out to be okay.

The Bad
At the end of the game, one of the players said he would've paid good money to see this scenario if it were a movie. That made my day, but I also felt like I kind of did run it as a movie, as in it was all very scripted. I didn't give the players enough chances to roleplay their characters (although the players made the most of the few chances I did give), and the game itself pretty tightly runs on rails so that there are too few opportunities for the players to make choices within it. This is something that I can definitely edit in the game, so it'll ultimately be stronger for it.

The Awesome
Like I said, I had great group of players for this one, everyone at the table brought something to the game. One player interpreted his character on a much deeper level than I expected (and I wish I'd been better prepared for that). Another player really followed through on some aspects I was prepared for (and hoping to see), but when something happened (which I had pre-scripted in a dumb way, so it's all on me) to cause almost everyone to drop to zero SAN, that story got ended prematurely.

One thing that I learned from this game was that I never want to run on a Monday ever again. I was on high-energy throughout the game, but I completely crashed after it was over and was at the most tired I'd been in a very long time. It was also weird having a bunch of folks telling me how much they wanted to play in my game, which felt great for my ego but also built up the pressure to deliver. I'd much prefer to run on Friday, release that anxiety, and spend the rest of the con just enjoying the games I'm playing in.

In general terms, KublaCon delivered once again, but I do think there is room for improvement. Unlike DunDraCon, KublaCon uses a wholly electronic sign-up system through off-line terminals at the registration desk. This makes signing-up for games during the con difficult, as a bunch of folks will have only 4 terminals to work with any time and queues can develop. What's more, I'm certain the system could be used on-line, as it's possible to sign-up through their website for a short period before the con starts. If the system were on-line throughout the con, there'd be less need to queue up at the kiosk, and it'd be much easier to change sign-up choices if you get into one game that will overlap with games you signed-up for in the next.

I also feel like the con was very front-loaded this year, with 9 great games on Friday for me, and then fewer great ones (but still several okay choices) the rest of the con. There might've been less games than last year, but I have no data to back that up.

In the dealer's room, I avoided making purchases, but it was a tough job to do so. I thumbed through Black Devil's Brigade and am seriously considering getting it and creating a short-lived group to run it as a mini-campaign. It will probably be a bit raw to begin with before I master the rules, but I'm coming around to the idea that the only way I'll ever master the One Roll Engine is to just jump in and run it a bunch of times.

So, all in all, another great time from KublaCon. It was my first and it remains my favorite. I can't wait to go back next year.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

SS Soldbuch Investigator "Sheet"

In less than a week at KublaCon, I'll be running Götterdämmerung, a Call of Cthulhu scenario set during the Battle of Berlin, where OSS/Delta Green agents, disguised as Waffen-SS paratroopers, infiltrate Berlin (which is surrounded by the Red Army) and try to stop the final machinations of the SS occult division known as the Karotechia. I got the idea to mock up an abbreviated and simplified version of an SS Soldbuch (a pay book carried by German soldiers which included unit information, issued equipment, and various other stuff), since the Soldbuch was also used as a kind of identity card, figuring it might make a nice prop for the investigators' cover identities.

Then I got another idea: why not turn the whole thing into a character sheet?

This was a lot of work. I used Word to create most of it, put into a PDF (the raw files are here), and printed it with the cover on grey card stock (which looks much less grey than it actually is in the photos) and the rest on light beige paper. Then I "bound" it with a long-reach stapler, and covered the spine (and hid the exterior of the staples) with black fabric tape.