Monday, September 5, 2011

CelestiCon 2011

Just back from CelestiCon, a (relatively) new gaming convention in the San Francisco Bay Area. This was my first year attending and I was mighty impressed by how it turned out. My usual Labor Day weekend gaming con has been PacifiCon, but after some lackluster years that have gotten so bad my face froze in horror, I decided to jump into CelestiCon just as it seemed to expand its presence.

And it was very worth it: CelestiCon ended up being just as good as DunDraCon and KublaCon, simply on a smaller but no less satisfying scale. There were plenty of good RPG games on the schedule, most of whom seemed to be getting filled up with players (something PacifiCon has had more and more of a problem with). Most of my games were played in an executive meeting space, but many were in communal rooms where the noise level got bad, but hopefully there can be more individual game rooms for RPGs in future cons. The dealer's room was tiny in comparison to other Bay Area cons, but I think that was mainly because CelestiCon and PacifiCon were splitting the available dealers between them, and, in talking to one of the dealers, they told me they had done good business. The con food was really bad (the usual fare of hot dogs and hamburgers was incredibly over-priced and somehow always cold), but the hotel was absolutely beautiful (yet the con rate for rooms was somehow the cheapest I've seen for any big Bay Area gaming con). I really wish I had taken photos of all the games and the gorgeous hotel, but the weekend was so jam-packed that it never slowed down long enough for me to do that.

Probably the biggest compliment I can pay CelestiCon is that I had an extremely rare perfect batting average when it came to the games itself. Besides my own game, I played in five games, which is great in itself considering I only played on Saturday and Sunday, and every single one was at the very least an excellent experience if not face-smashing awesome. Even when I was up in the wee hours of the morning operating on too little sleep, there was never a point in any game where I wished I was doing anything else. Outside of Dead of Winter and some smaller and more personal cons, it's been over a year of con gaming that I could really say that about another con.

Götterdämmerung, (Call of Cthulhu/Delta Green)
Berlin 1945: With the city surrounded by the Red Army, a lone glider flies into the flames and ruin, carrying a group of Allied agents, haunted veterans on a final mission that will take them from this world at war to a land of dreams, where the SS and their occult research division known as the Karotechia have built Project HODDMÍMIR, the final gambit to escape their reckoning.
This is the third time I've run this scenario, and I'd been concerned since its first running at KublaCon that it's too locked to the rails and doesn't give the players enough agency to choose their own path through the story. However, this is now the second time I've walked away with the sense that the players had a great time with it specifically because it was a rail-shooter that allowed them to focus on simply enjoying the ride without worrying that they were doing the right thing in every situation. As Götterdämmerung was initially inspired by Inception, there's still a part of me that wants to do that scenario, where OSS/Delta Green veterans are manipulating the Dreamlands to stop the Karotechia and get a final retribution against them, whereas this scenario is more along the lines of "journey through nightmarish Berlin and then see even more fucked-up wrongness in the Dreamlands." I don't know if I'll have the time to edit Götterdämmerung more towards the caper-inspired Inception version by Big Bad Con, but I'm going to try. Nevertheless, this run at CelestiCon has convinced me that the scenario is already good as is, as the players seemed to have a good time and the game felt like a winner.

Have Ship, Will Smuggle (FATE Star Wars)
Setbacks and differences of opinion have left your crew on the verge of selling off the ship and going your separate ways. But every smuggler worth his spice would be crazy not to compete in Thespa the Hutt’s Gunrunner’s Gauntlet, a high speed, high risk scavenger hunt set to rage across the galaxy. Perhaps the winning ship’s 6,000,000 purse and lucrative contract position is just what you need.
I'm not a huge Star Wars fan, but I played in a great game with this GM a few cons back and figured it would be solid. That it was and more, as we played the crew of a smuggling ship entered in race to gather certain items and find a course that would lead to riches and glory. The simple set-up was complicated by our individual goals, many of whom were against each other, as well as by the war raging around us between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance (the game was set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, so there were lots of jokes about how the Imperials wouldn't be dumb enough to build another Death Star). Most of the characters were pretty good, but I didn't want to play the leader so after he was taken I let the other players choose who they wanted to play. I ended up with a Devaronian ex-pirate who sold his own crewmates into slavery after his former captain refused to sell the cargo of slaves they had captured. The GM used portraits of real actors morphed with Star Wars portraits (which was really well-done, better than my efforts of using Photoshop to morph actors into SS uniforms), so my Devaronian was a horned Willem Dafoe, who I played as an alien Bobby Peru with Norman Osborn's gravelly voice. My Devaronian was arrayed against the Han Solo-esque captain, having bought his share of the ship by taking on the gambling debts of the captain's father, and used every opportunity to get the crew into trouble (my "Trouble" aspect was something like "Cannot Shut Up"). I ended up getting his father deeper in debt, nearly destroying the ship of the captain's friend, and trying to double-deal the Rebel Alliance before the captain took his opportunity to sell me to my ex-pirate comrades. I made it back to the ship in the middle of a battle, where the Devaronian and the captain drew down in an epic gun duel that left us both badly wounded and only my character still in the game (the other player had to leave to prep his own game). That was my only regret of the game, as, being a Star Wars game, it felt like the not-Han-Solo captain should win out and put down the not-Greedo Devaronian. Still, it ended well with us selling our cargo of arms to the Rebel Alliance for our own reasons (the Devaronian got a privateer's license and surplus Rebel ships for his new pirate armada). FATE is the perfect system for sci-fi swashbuckling like Star Wars, especially as it so easily handles everything from a raging battle between spaceships to social combat and all in the same scene, making it a surprisingly rich game. I had no complaints, although my throat-box was ripped raw from channeling Willem Dafoe for hours.

Here Be Dragons (Call of Cthulhu/Dark Ages)
The dragon banners of King Alfred have defeated the Viking/Danish forces at Ethandun, making their leader, Guthrum the Unlucky, bend the knee and receive baptism as a sign of his goodwill. During this peaceful time a group of fledgling investigators are given leave to go on holiday. One of the investigators has an invitation to a village wedding and he's gracious enough to invite the other investigators along. But holidays aren't always what they're expected to be and dark forces could be at work that make certain Alfred's dream of a united England never come to fruition.
I'd been trying to play this game for awhile, as I'd been jonesing for some Dark Age axe-on-cultist mayhem. The game was more investigative than that, although I got plenty of shield wall-action by choosing one of the warrior characters. After the rich roleplaying of the previous Star Wars game, I wanted to play a simpler character, especially not a female one as, knowing the GM, I figured those characters would have romantic complications I was uninterested in playing out tonight. I ended up accidentally choosing a woman-in-disguise, although my romantic complications were with a long-dead NPC allowing me to mix that in at my leisure. I used it instead to support a romance between two other characters, which I had a lot of fun with. I would've expected a ten-hour game to drag, but the game went by surprisingly fast and my energy level never flagged, and between the strong attention to detail by the GM and the great role-playing by my fellow players, we put together a pretty nice story with well-realized characters.

A Jury of Your Fears (Wraith: the Oblivion)
As the Empire of the Dead crumbles beneath the weight of corruption, ossification, and external aggression, six wraiths struggle to survive the end of everything.
After staying up until 3AM playing that epic Cthulhu Dark Ages game and failing to submit my signup slip for the session, I had no intention of gaming on Sunday morning and thought to sleep in. My natural clock wouldn't let me, and as I was wandering the main foyer, I crossed the GM looking for an extra player or the game might not run. As I knew my roommate Basil was in the game, I decided to play, especially as it was short enough to still make my next game. It ended up a happy circumstance, as the game was great. I've never played Wraith, but the setting was interestingly gloomy, as we four players either played Wraiths in the San Jose Necropolis out to capture a haunted train to ferry people out of the doomed city then under attack from Wraiths from the Jade Sea, or we played Spectres tied somehow to the Wraith PC's by their past. Essentially we were two couples with competing goals to bring the other closer to oblivion or away from it, and were faced with scenes full of metaphorical imagery on our way to capture the train. My only regret with the game is that I had to leave a few minutes before the ending, as it went a little over time.

Operation Atomic Wichita (Leverage)
World War II is heating up! The Axis powers recently captured Paris, and with it, France. And it looks like the war's about to get worse, if what's rumored is true. A motley crew of Allied commandos is tasked with making their way to a ruined castle where the Nazi occultists known as the Thule Society are working on some sinister project. Maybe they're deluded, but Command is taking no chances. Get it, deal with the problem, and get out. Salute!
This was the kind of a game where we started out parachuting into the Black Forest and getting attacked by a bear in assless lederhosen, only for my character to end up bitten by a werewolf and shoving a gold Star of David necklace into the mouth of an undead Nazi sorcerer as his malfunctioning jet-pack exploded in mid-air and falling to safety by landing on the canopy of an Allied fighter plane. And by that I mean the face-melting sweetness kind of a game. I played Cornelius Lipshitz, an Ethiopian Jewish commando Hitter blaxploitation lovechild of Officer URL and Omar Little (there was a scene where Lipshitz is strolling through the Nazi castle yelling "Cornelius coming... Cornelius coming...")

This was my second time playing Leverage and, while I'm definitely impressed with the mechanics, I'm still unsure how useful it would be to the kind of things I want to do with it. I want a capers game with exactly the kind of rules that Leverage has for turning failure into interesting complications rather than a binary yes/no, but also something a little more gritty and less over-the-top. I think Leverage can do that fine so long as the players understand those limitations and buy into the genre ("I can use a Plot Point to set up a flashback that will get me past this security guard, but not to drop-kick the moon with my big toe."), but once a supernatural aspect gets dropped into the mix and there are vaguer limits to reality, things can quickly go from gritty to gonzo, especially when there is a narcissistic nutjob like myself at the table. Still, between this and my experience playing the game at the last Endgame MiniCon, I've become quite enamored with Leverage and will look to purchase and run it at the earliest convenience.

Spirit of Metal (FATE)
You are a piece of mortal sludge that has somehow washed up on the bloodspattered shores of The Metal Realms, where Brutal Legends clash with an animated classic, featuring the vile machinations of the Loc-Nar. Bring your lyrics, guitar, sword, axe, or battle drum. It’s time to rock!
I've never played Brutal Legend and this was the last song I was listening to on my iPod before the game, but I love the fuck out of Heavy Metal, so a chance to play mere mortals-turned-rock gods fighting the Loc-Nar to free our metal realms from its corruption was something I wasn't going to miss. And Ozzy-dammit if this game didn't bring it hard. The GM was fully-prepped, laying out the world and mixing it with the FATE rules that it felt like the game had been made for just this kind of setting, infusing the room with a strong energy towards metal-mayhem, and delivering some of the finest metal tunes on his soundtrack that I think there's about a dozen or more songs I'm going to be adding to my iPod soon. The players were equally bringing it, creating characters and aspects based on metal songs and lyrics to either build archetypal rock characters like Den the Barbarian or something straight off an Iron Maiden cover, or they were simply born as Matt Steele. For the first six hours of this game, it was a one-way ticket to midnight, as we slayed hordes of animal men, banged bat-winged succubi, turned into a metal man made from WWI tanks and pissed napalm on ancient tomes, defeated castrating goat-woman roadhouse owners, freed southern belles in daisy dukes from meth-dealing Klan scum, brought the cowbell down to make the Reaper fear us in a battle of the bands, and unleashed Godzilla on Tokyo in a final apocalyptic battle against the Loc-Nar.

Now I had been able to get a little rest after the Leverage game, but I was still running on fumes when I started this game on Sunday evening. It is to the game's credit that, even though I was exhausted when it began, after the game reached its scheduled six hours and still had a lot of game left to play, I was disappointed because I wanted to keep going. And the game did keep going, but it was around then that I hit the two-fisted walls of sleep deprivation and the FATE point economy.

FATE (in over-the-top balls-to-the-wall incarnations like this) is a great system, but it strongly depends on the players constantly using FATE points to power their abilities to be awesome and the GM refreshing those points in exchange for the players trying to be awesome. I've never seen that done really right (mostly because it depends on both the GM being able to run a great game and do point-banking adminstrativa at the same time, as well as the players never hoarding chips), but the GM here did something fantastic in the form of "Fan Mail" (I think he took it from Prime-Time Adventures) where the players had a pool of slightly-stunted FATE Points to share among ourselves for players being awesome. Unfortunately, due mainly to my sharing the Fan Mail points perhaps too freely with everyone else and not getting many myself, and the "Bane" aspect I created (which the GM would use to compel me with regular FATE points) frankly sucking, I was left halfway through the game without any kind of points. Normally that would've been fine and I would be cool with fading into the wallpaper to emphasize everyone else being cool, but I had brung it pretty hard up until then and I could tell other players were now looking at me to be bringing the awesome. Since I had neither the points nor the energy to bring said awesome anymore, it left me a little frustrated and the GM sensed that. He efficiently dealt with the FATE point situation, but there was nothing to be done about the sleepiness, so the game didn't end on the high note for me that it so richly deserved. Still, even that tinge of negativity could merely bring this game from Godlike to Fuckin' Legendary on the ladder.

In between the Leverage and FATE Metal game, I got a chance to briefly sit and talk with Kenneth Hite about Night's Black Agents, World War Cthulhu, the next Delta Green book, and his future plans for Project COVENANT and Thirties' espionage in Trail of Cthulhu. It was a short but informative conversation, and while I was most interested in the stuff most-related to Our Darkest Hour, my biggest takeaway was Ken's description of Night's Black Agents. I think the game is going to be much more visceral than I initially appreciated, and I'm now really pumped to see it come out (hopefully sometime early next year). I had a strange nexus when I returned to my room to relax and eat lunch, and was listening to my iPod full of Massive Attack, The Heavy, Rob Dougan, and Crystal Method, and watched (with the sound off) what looked like a spy-fi film with a vaguely European setting filled with black-ops secret agents shooting and staking leather-clad techno-vampires shot with cool filtered cameras and shadowy angles that was looking great until Steven Seagal suddenly appeared in his goth-Tibetan-black muumuu and began doing his patty-cake aikido fat ninja-fu and ruined everything. So I'm already starting to groove with what I might do with "Jason Bourne vs. vampires" of Night's Black Agents.

So that was CelestiCon 2011. CelestiCon 2012 will have some big shoes to fill. My next con will be Big Bad Con in October, which with its stellar slate of RPGs is looking to overload me yet again with even more gaming goodness. Between DunDraCon, KublaCon, CelestiCon, Big Bad Con, Dead of Winter, and the Endgame MiniCons, truly do I live in gamer-paradise here on the Bay.