Monday, January 23, 2012

Kapcon 21 - Part 2

In Rounds 3, 4 and 5 I ran the Love of Money, a recent Esoterrorists release. In December I was looking around for a published scenario to run as a second Kapcon offering and picked this after a skim read – in retrospect it wasn’t the best game to take to a time limited ‘con. Firstly Esoterrorists is a complex setting, I lost 35 minutes to establishing the setting and system alone. Secondly the pre-generated characters were very detailed (3 full pages of text). I don’t think they were overly complex (with one exception) but they were, perhaps, over written. As an existing team of investigators who have established relationships, who find themselves in a bad spot, there was probably more detail then I think could easily be absorbed in ‘con conditions.

Finally, the plot, which had several cool scenes, was overly complex, and unnecessarily convoluted. It prompted the players to think it was even more convoluted then it was, which chewed up a lot of time. Finally, investigative games are a tough ask in a ‘con. Players inevitably engage with the investigation more thoroughly than is anticipated by the scenario, and even in a fairly tight setup where the clues are guaranteed – like Love of Money – there is a fair bit of doubt and second-guessing which slows the scenario down.

After the playtest, I had taken steps to address some of the problems, and managed to cut the scenario down from 4.5 hours to 3.5, and with a little effort 3.25 hours, although this inevitably truncates the climax, which is a shame as this is a much better scene than the longest scene (the intro). Plus, I prefer to have my games come in on time, for everybody’s sake.

How did it go? Well, the averaged response is good. I think most groups enjoyed the game and had fun. But some games felt like they dragged, and some players played a less active role than I’d have liked, while others were better as the players managed to dig out some characterisation and conflict from the pre-generated characters. As a GM I found running Love of Money really, really hard work, and wished that I had offered Sundown to replace this for 2 of the 3 runs. It wasn’t a bad game, but I don’t think it lived up to my normal Kapcon standards. I think this is entirely my own fault for trying to force a square peg through a round hole, and I’ll certainly look to take some lessons away from it.

In Round 3.5 I was going to simply go and have a drink with some of my regular Cthulhu group to debrief the first day of the ‘con, but that wily salesman and veteran GM, Mike Sands managed to sell me on Psi-Run a game where people with psychic powers and amnesia are hunted down. It sounded cool, so I thought I’d give it a go.

Much like Geiger Counter, this game starts a little rough - from a cold start you have to make a number of character decisions that you might wish you could rethink once you understand how the game works – so subsequent runs would be fun, but it’s tough on the first run-through. Also, like Geiger-Counter, the system seems to not account for a player’s natural desire to have their character ‘succeed’ (which in this context is remaining on the lamb) at the expense of other elements – so on most of the tests we made people didn’t prioritise answering questions about their characters amnesia which prolonged the chase. This is reinforced by the fact that having the chasers get closer affects all the characters - regardless of their circumstances - so there is an additional social pressure not to screw everyone with your decision.

However, unlike Geiger Counter, Mike acted as GM and did a great job of contextualising the chase, setting and the inevitable psychic surges. This helped structure the game to a point where most of the player believed that actually it might be better if the psychic escapees were recaptured, rather than continuing to wreck havoc on the world. In my opinion, the weird mix of complete creative freedom, which is then straitjacketed by an overly dictatorial dice mechanic. All in all, I had a lot of fun playing this, and would recommend it to others in the hands of a GM who loves to improvise.

For Round 6 I ran Piledrivers and Powerbombs for 8 players. In retrospect I think 8 might have been a touch ambitious and I probably should have used a variant of the ‘royal rumble’ party rules. Needless to say I will tinker with it to try and get a slightly more coherent approach for the next outing. It was a really great time, and a great way to have some silly fun to close out the 'con. I’ll cross post my remarks from NZRaG:

Kapcon Summer Slam in round 6 was epic-level insanity - the players were screaming, cheering, jeering, waving hillarious signs, smack-talking and scene framing until they could wrestle and game no more. I salute your ridiculous, magnificent, amazing wrestlers:

- Rainbow Warrior (Sophie)
- Polar Bear (Nick P.)
- Jolly Roger (John B.)
- G.I. Joey (Liam)
- Baseball Boy (don't remember your name, sorry)
- La Cucaracha (Stephanie)
- El Diablo (Andrew M.) *Crossover character from D.O.G.
- Drunken Truckie (Grant)

And, all of their hilarious and tragic nemeses.

You can read my report of Kapcon 20 here and here.

Kapcon 21 - Part 1

My Kapcon started on Thursday this year, when we playtested Liam’s The Matter Involving the Missing Cats, an adventure for Cat-thulhu, where you play Arkham cats investigating the Mythos.  I reprised my role as Pops the (mostly) fearless maine coon, and we soon got to the bottom of the mysterious lights and missing cats, and managed an improbable victory of sorts.  I tried to provide some useful feedback, and Liam said the game ran well at Kapcon

I spent most of this Kapcon (5/6 rounds) running games, and these games either ran to time – or slightly over time, so it felt I had less time to talk to folks than in previous years, but it was good to catch up with some people at the drinks beforehand.

Round 1 was Games on Demand. This was my first ever time in the G.O.D room during a round, and I was impressed by the enthusiasm of those proposing games, and the range of games on offer. I elected to play Geiger Counter (although it was a close call over Monster of the Week) as I wanted to try this well regarded survival horror offering as part of my thinking about EPOCH. The game was admirably facilitated by Svend, and we somewhat randomly agreed to play Steampunk adventure in a South American Jungle, with an abandoned research station, ancient temple, and infectious Panther People.  It was very much like the opening chapter of The Passage, only with more Victorians:

This was a fun game, and I think the mechanics were very interesting. I liked the idea of a thought dump at the beginning, and was very impressed with the trailer mechanic, but I’m not sure that this, and the inclusion of useful ‘elements’ at different ‘locations’ is sufficient to create a rich or well developed plot when the players are trying to balance a mechanical consideration of their own characters survival against the fluctuating dice pool of the ‘monster’. The game had a rich set-up, but the twists and developments were executed on a much less ambitious scale, as the burden of balancing continuous creativity wore against mechanical considerations and general fatigue. Like many Indy games there is also a constant tension around getting universal buy-in for new ideas, as these will affect all the characters – so a group of like-minded individuals might furiously agree and have a great time, but a group of strangers are more likely to be tentative, and often accept ideas they don’t like for the sake of politeness, and have a less rewarding experience as a result.

For the record, my character, the cruise director of our giant zeppelin cruise ship, Athos Theopopolus, managed to keep things together until the very end, trying to keep the spirits of his Victorian cruise ship passengers high until he discovered the zeppelin had crashed in a freak storm, and the survivors were finally overrun by Panther People.

Round 2 was Sundown, my Western Call of Cthulhu game, and the third time I’d run it. This time I had decided to run a game with all 8 pre-generated characters, as I was fairly sure the simplicity of the scenes and relative dynamics between the group (there are 3 bad-ass loner types) would allow this increased cast.

On the day, one player didn’t show. I radioed for a replacement, but alas, none were forthcoming. The game was actually great – it delivered almost exactly the kind of experience I wanted. While reasonably limited and formulaic in structure (it is a Call of Cthulhu ‘con game), the players did a great job of bringing the characters to life, and ensuring their drama overshadowed, but did not obstruct, the main plot. I thought every player did a great job, and afterwards I was immediately keen to run the game again – which is usually a sign that the game has gone fairly well. 

To be continued...

Monday, January 16, 2012

A New EPOCH Begins

I’ve finally got around to writing a first draft of EPOCH – my experimental horror game.  It is a game of 3 parts.  A Skeleton, which provides a framework for open dialogue with players, and which establishes the conceit of the horror genre, all driven around the concept of closing the distance between player and character.  Muscle, which provides a simple system designed to support and reinforce the skeleton, emphasising player choice, and the traumatic nature of being a character in a horror setting.  Finally the Skin, which is draws everything together into a single structure, and provides some tips and tricks to help the game  try and deliver on its potential.

Today I thought I’d raise the issue of player choice.  In EPOCH I decided I wanted the players to have complete choice over the range of outcomes that will befall their character.  There are no character sheets, no dice, no numbers.  Just a range of outcomes to choose from.
I wanted this more naked style of approach to remove some of places where players can hide from horror – the small abstractions and devices which can generate endless distraction – by removing these I hope to encourage players to close the distance between player and character for longer periods (I’m tentatively calling these suspense phases).  I wanted to emphasise the players choices would entirely dictate the fate of their character – the GM cannot ‘kill’ a character, every death, maiming or psychosis would be entirely the choice of the player.  These outcomes are known in advance, the same way an audience knows that most characters in a horror movie won't survive, and indeed many will meet a grisly end - but the specific details of who will survive, and how, remains a mystery.

Obviously this is just a teaser of what I’m working on building into EPOCH.  I’ll post more here in due course, as I get closer to a finished draft.  In the meantime, if you’d like to get an advance draft, or simply share your thoughts on this – I’d welcome any input.
Continuing the theme of horror games – I recently picked up Dead of Night (2nd ed.)  in New York.  The blurb made me think it was going to deliver a game along the lines of EPOCH:

"Dead of Night is the roleplaying game of campfire tales, slasher movies and b-movie horror. It is a game of screaming victims, unstoppable killers and slavering monsters, where the horror movie clich├ęs flow thicker than blood and the only victory is survival.

Dead of Night is designed to be quick and easy to play, with rules that help you tell horror stories without getting in the way of the fun. The rules are simple and straightforward to learn, yet offer all the options and depth to allow you to customise the game however you like."

But I was surprised to find that the creators had concluded that monsters were the essence of horror movies.  That’s not the way I see it – character is king in horror.  Without character we care little for monsters, we lack a connection to this abstract fantasy and, therefore, we find it increasingly difficult to suspend our disbelief.  That’s why I am writing EPOCH to put the focus on character, and to try and really invest the players into the characters they create.  But Dead of Night is an interesting take nonetheless – Can you recommend any horror games (or even non-horror games) that emphasise character?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Gearing Up

I haven’t had much to post about, as I didn’t actually do any gaming in December, and most of the things I post about come out of gaming experiences. But for the New Year I plan to run more Rogue Trader, finishing “Lure of the Expanse” and possibly doing the “Warpstorm Adventure Trilogy”. The epic Call of Cthulhu campaign for 2012 is looking to be “Beyond the Mountains of Madness” following the popular vote amongst players, probably using a cut down version of my pulp rules for a little extra character longevity on the ice.

Meanwhile Kapcon preparation is also on the agenda for this month – I’m running “Sundown” and the most recent Esoterrorist release “Love of Money” then finishing up with “Kapcon Summer Slam” – so it’ll be cowboys, spooks and wrestlers for me this year.  Kapcon needs more games, so if you've got some game, drop them a line and join the fun!

Finally – more interesting than you'd think– Luke talks about balls.