Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Kapcon 22 - Part Two

Continued from Part One

Round Four -The Shadow Over Kafiristan
This was my first experience with the Laundry and the work of Charlie Stross.  Some of the characters seemed to have a lot of information to absorb – not me.  According to the briefing my character thought the entire mission to Afghanistan was a bad idea and wanted to get the team home safely.  To accomplish this he had some good interpersonal skills and a sidearm.  Okay, seems challenging, but perhaps this is the kind of challenging you might expect a fictional character in the Laundry to be able to accomplish.
I was a little concerned at having an agenda which was opposed to the entire mission.  I assumed to balance my opposition, either the initial mission would rapidly be changed, or other characters would have opposite agendas, setting the scene for character conflict.  The setting became a major element of the game, the same characters on their home turf would have been a different experience entirely, but in the backwoods of Afghanistan the language difficulties, cultural considerations and constant threat did work to fixate the players less on what their characters should know, and more on what they could know. 

There was a good and interesting story behind the game and Malcolm did a fine job of running it.   He did comment after the game he had made a major error by not starting the game in-media-res and I can see what he meant.  When things started to go wrong, my character doggedly tried to extract as many of the team as he could, as per his motivations, and ignored the major final encounter – something that might not have happened had the scenario begun as Malcolm originally intended.   As I had no authority over the other characters, fortunately most of them ignored me and continued to explore, and so the full plot was revealed. 

I enjoyed the game, and thought my fellow players did an excellent job with their characters.  There was nothing in my experience of this scenario that seemed like it wouldn’t have been perfectly at home in a Delta Green setting, but then I don’t know what access the other characters had to magic and whatnot.  A fun time overall, but I felt like I probably should have ignored my character brief in order to enjoy it to get the most out of it.

Round 5 - Price Slash
Price Slash can be a tricky scenario - Mash has dubbed it the weakest EPOCH scenario to date.  It’s certainly as detailed as Fever Pitch is simple.  Because I wrote it, I have obvious trouble being objective.  However, I believe that If run properly it should deliver you a movie experience reminiscent of elements found in movies like Saw, Devil, Hunger or Unknown.  What I learned at Kapcon, however, is that it’s not a good first-time EPOCH scenario. 

I had 6 players, one of whom had experienced EPOCH previously.  Their characters were great, but only 4 of them really interacted with each other in any significant way.  Part of the conceit of a locked box scenario is that the characters are forced together to an extent (rather than having a pre-established relationship), and ideally use this opportunity interact with one another to create interesting stories and flashbacks.  
Price Slash allows for individual development before bringing the characters together, and I think that this weaving of stories forces the characters to choose between engaging with each other, or largely ignoring each other.  Regrettably half my group chose the latter course, which naturally had a consequence in the ballot and play of cards. There are tools in the scenario which should provoke some engagement, precisely because of this risk, but these proved largely ineffective.

The characters that did weave their stories together were particularly memorable.  A young man cursed with Lycanthropy was responsible for the death of several of the other characters loved ones, a killer of serial killers calmly navigated the horror bumping off other characters while chatting happily with a valley girl, while Ruth had the distinction of creating Simon-Paul Christian, the most despicable character that I’ve yet facilitated in EPOCH.  These dark twists provoked a number of player initiated challenges – which were actually pretty great

Unfortunately, I feel like I didn’t do a great job for the other characters, who fell by the wayside, more from story neglect, then being claimed as victims of the horror.  It could just be that I wasn’t in top form facilitating this game.  Either way, I think I’ll be editing Price Slash to recommend it for experienced EPOCH players. 

Round 6 - Kapcon Summer Slam II
This game continued my tradition of running a Piledrivers and Powerbombs scenario in the informal sixth round of Kapcon.  I love the system – it’s very simple and free flowing, and allows for total hilarity.  There’s nothing quite like mocking professional wrestling, which itself, mocks the mainstream media.  Unfortunately I hadn’t actually re-read the rules since last Kapcon, so there was a bit of stopping and starting as  I checked a couple of elementary things.

I had thought of taking 6, 8 or 10 players and setting the wrestlers up to be each others nemesis.  However, despite having 8 players, the consensus in the room seemed to be that everyone wanted to create both a hero and a nemesis – leaving me with 16 professional wrestling characters to wrangle!

Sure enough, the game delivered the entertaining and hilarious experience I’d hoped.  The nemesis characters despicably used a training montage while the star characters connected with each other, meaning that there was a slight power imbalance which left a villain ultimately victorious – but the play of cards was tense and entertaining affair.  I think each year I learn a few more tricks for running this game better, so hopefully next year it will be better again.
So that was Kapcon 22.  I had a great time, and the organisation was first rate.  Every round ran on time, and I had no problems with player (or GM) wrangling.  I wasn’t called on for surge protection, possibly because numbers were down a little this year, and all the GMs showed up.  I heard a lot of great feedback about EPOCH and most people seemed to have a great time playing the EPOCH games on offer.  I was particularly pleased to see Igor voted the first-equal highest scoring GM in a single round with Red Gold.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Kapcon 22 - Part One

Last weekend I attended Kapcon 22, which features a wide array of tabletop, on demand and LARP games.  This year I had agreed to run EPOCH for 3 rounds, including the informal late-night round, as well as running my light hearted professional wrestling game in the final round, and participating in a panel discussion on game publishing.  That left me with 2 rounds to play games, if I wasn’t needed for surge protection.

Several other GM’s had brought EPOCH scenarios to run at Kapcon (all of which I hope to publish in due course).  To try and help generate some player interest Grant and I had made sure there were a large number of posters spread around the ‘con.  I also added the infamous EPOCH bodycount score, to track character eliminations round-by-round and I brought a few other materials like dark tablecloths and system overview sheets. 

Round 1 - Precinct ‘77 
This was the second installment in Marcus’ 70’s cop TV show game.  The premise is simple – you are police detectives in Empire City with the characters representing era stereotypes and being partnered up.  The game is a sandbox, with the PC’s supplied a large list of informants and then determining how they will investigate several linked crimes.  I had fun playing this game, and thought the freedom of the setup was great. 

There was, probably, too much information for me to easily absorb up-front, which meant the start was a little slow.  I think that this game would benefit from a pre-credits action start (a car-chase or similar) where the characters learn the system and start defining their characters a little, before commencing the investigation phase and consulting their files. 

With only 4 players, and a sandbox setup, I also think that there is a risk that energy levels across the game might be a little uneven.  More players means less screen time for each, but also should also help even out the energy across the game.   I think Precinct ’77 is a solid game, and I hope to see another instalment at future ‘cons. 

Round 2 - Fever Pitch 
Fever Pitch is a very simple and flexible EPOCH scenario, but the strength of the scenario really depends on working to build the characters and their relationships in the first tension phase.  I had a full allotment of 6 players for this game, only one of whom had played EPOCH before.  I used the Colleagues relationship group as I think it’s a good fit for Fever Pitch, and the characters invariably ended up resembling a more extreme cast of the Office – which was awesome. 

We spent nearly 1.5 hours on the first tension phase, and I was very pleased with the office dynamic, which was suitably dysfunctional.  All of the characters were memorable, from Jan-Yves panicked office manager to Andy Mac’s closet survivalist, to Jonathan’s mellow hippie to Steph’s peppy girl who was sleeping with the CEO.

The highlight for me came when it was revealed that Anna’s up-and-coming saleswoman was actually an undercover government agent who had abandoned her assignment out of love for the dweeby office support worker, played by Ants.  Unfortunately Ants’ character suffered terrible deep fryer burns to the face, and was run over and killed soon thereafter, making it a tragic love story.  Jonathan’s final twist that his unbelievably laid-back character was actual a member of a doomsday cult added a nice final touch to the game.  Great fun! 

Round 3 - Getting Your Game Published Panel Discussion 
This was a useful and enjoyable discussion on the subject.  Attendance was light with panellists outnumbering  audience, and so it moved into more of a round table discussion covering issues from motivations, writing, editing, illustrating and promoting your game, scenario  or LARP.  I did my best to highlight my experiences to date, although at one point I was accused of being a shill for DriveThruRPG, so perhaps using a single channel for sales has coloured my perceptions somewhat. 

There was a general feeling that NZ games and game writers should be more active in supporting one another, but it was not clear what vehicle might be suitable, or what value this would add.  While I did feel that it was a good use of time, I doubt I’d give up an entire round of gaming to participate in such a discussion again.  To that end I’ve suggested that there be some shorter panel discussions between the gaming rounds in future to increase attendance. 

Round 3.5 - EPOCH After Dark 
There were initially some concerns about scheduling for this round, as it seems that many people didn’t bother filling in a selection form on the basis that the previous 3.5 rounds have been fairly informal.  It is a hard balance to strike as it’s important not to draw people out of the Flagship LARP, but it would be nice to be  a bit more organised so the GM’s can be prepared.

As it turned out there were 5 folks who were keen to play EPOCH, some old hands at the game, like Mash, Liam and Marcus, plus recent EPOCH converts including James and Theo.  At the last minute Freya was also convinced to join the game, and so we embarked on the first playtest of my EPOCH Sci-Fi scenario Hard Time.

The scenario casts the characters as prisoners sharing living arrangements on the new, high-tech prison facility the Albert Reiss which currently orbits Phobos, a moon of Mars.  The paint was still wet on the scenario as I’d only completed the first draft on Friday and so some of the scenes revealed the need for a little more thought to establish detail and logic.

As I’d hoped the players created a wide range of criminals, from Liam’s very scary cannibal (so scary he was zeroed twice in the first challenge round) to art thieves, con-men and the victims of far worse crimes.  The scenario seemed to have the right level of tension, distrust and drama.  Things came to a head in a final player-initiated conflict which led to the abrupt and shocking murder of Marcus’ character who was only a few feet from freedom.  A great ending, and a very fun game.

 To be continued... 

Previous Kapcon Reports:

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Beating Me At My Own Game

Over the last two nights I helped playtest two scenarios for Kapcon, both using the EPOCH system.   The scenarios were about as different as you can imagine, Death on the Streets was set in 1920’s Boston, while Space Station Icarus was set on a research station orbiting the Sun in the year 2093.  Yet they both were similar experiences due to the intensity of the character stories and the continuous threat leveled by the source of the horror.

As the first time playing EPOCH I was a little nervous about the experience because I know that the players do much of the heavy lifting in this game.  I have facilitated EPOCH a fair bit, and in that role many of the mechanical considerations, which tend to occupy my time in other more traditional games, are abstracted allowing me to focus on the characters and descriptions.  I find it a much less stressful and demanding experience than running a traditional tabletop game. 

From the players chair, however, decisions need to be made immediately and this is quite an intense process of thinking about the elements you have been dealt and how these fit into a character.  While it can feel daunting, almost immediately my head was flooded with memories of movie characters which might fit the bill.  My plan was to use these as an initial crutch, then create an original back-story which would hopefully be compelling enough to win at least one ballot. 

For Mash’s “Death on the Streets” I was dealt ‘debts’, ‘cautious’ and had the role within the gang of ‘enforcer’.  Turning over these options in my mind I settled on playing Rick ‘the stare’ a big, older gangster with one eye, based loosely on Carl Fogarty from A History of Violence.  Because I didn’t see a cautious man having incurred debts in the traditional way, I decided that Ricky’s wife was sick and needed an operation which he couldn’t afford.  Ricky, against his better judgement, accepted a ‘loan’ from a rival crime family to pay for the operation which led to Ricky effectively selling out his crew.  This was the secret that I wrote down at the start of the game.  Because I also thought that simply paying for an operation for his wife shouldn’t mean that Ricky is actually a good man, I used my opening scene to hint that Ricky was no stranger to domestic violence.  This workup gave me material for at least 3 flashbacks, with the final flashback revealing that Ricky had sold out the crew. 

In Liam’s “Space Station Icarus” I was dealt “stubborn”, “creative” “secretly in-love/hates another crew member” and had the role in the mission of “mission commander/pilot”.  Considering the blurb, that we had been stationed on an orbiting research station for a year, I decided that it was unlikely that this would be a mission given to a high quality commander.  I also noted that there were 2 scientists and a medical doctor on board, out of 5 characters, meaning that there would be a fair amount of resistance to a hard military style command style.  I briefly considered playing a character along the lines of Janek from Prometheus, who hated one of the scientists, but instead decided to play an Australian military pilot wannabe, Scott Leighton.  Feeling somewhat mischievous I decided Scott’s secret would be that he’d had his name tattooed on the ass of all the characters soon after they entered cryo-sleep.  It wasn’t until the first challenge round I also decided that Scott secretly loved ‘Bear’ aka Bernstein, the gruff mission engineer, and revealed through flashbacks that Bear resembled Scotts abusive father, and that the secret love was tied up with an unfulfilled need for paternal approval.  This also allowed me to piggyback a flashback to one of Bear’s.

In both scenarios I also used my Hero card to save the life of another character quite early on, taking a hit and reducing my own character’s chances of survival.  In Mash’s scenario, I felt this was appropriate because Ricky was consumed with guilt over his betrayal, and he later tried to (unsuccessfully) help one of the younger gang members to escape a life of crime.  In the latter it was to save Bear, for the reasons I’ve already set out.

My strategies were partially successful.  In both scenarios I did win the ballot in an early challenge round, although probably more for the heroic act, then the flashback and associated story – although you can never really tell what tips the vote.  In both scenarios I was also the target of a Hero card, which allowed both characters to survive until the second-to-last challenge round, before their luck finally ran out. 

I had an absolutely fantastic time in both games.  The other characters, and their stories, were amazing.   There was a difference in the experience levels of the groups, which mostly manifested through the early play of flashbacks – the group which had played more EPOCH understood the importance of using a flashback to increase the interest in your character, and played many more of these in the early tension phases, although the other group caught on fairly quickly as the game progressed.  In both cases we secured a Hollow Victory, although obviously neither of my characters were alive to enjoy it.  Playing your own game is pretty amazing – I look forward to hearing how both these scenario go at Kapcon.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Fear is Contagious

I am extremely pleased to note that Liam has added another EPOCH scenario to the Kapcon lineup.  This means that scenarios using EPOCH now number around 10% of the unique ‘con games at Kapcon 22 and account for roughly 8% of the total sessions run at the ‘con (excluding Day of Games).  It’s now possible to play an EPOCH scenario in every session of the ‘con except round 6.  That’s a pretty decent effort all things considered, and I think it shows how much fun folks have had playing EPOCH in recent months.

In fairness, EPOCH is specifically designed for ‘con outings, so if there was anywhere that the game would get play - this would be patient zero.  The game works to shape player expectations and allow for cooperative play between players and GM while preserving a largely traditional format.  However, I think it’s fair to say that it’s hard to visualise the way the game works just by reading the rules.    

There are lots of moving parts (Audience Ballots, Flashbacks Outcome and Hero/Zero cards etc.) in EPOCH which mean, I think, that it’s hard to get a sense of the overall picture of game-play.  I guess what I really need is a sound recording or a you-tube video of an actual play, or something similar… is this a good idea?

In either event, the Kapcon EPOCH line-up looks like this: 

Round 1: Red Gold 
Round 2: Fever Pitch, Pleasures of the Flesh 
Round 3: Space Station Icarus 
Round 3.5: EPOCH After Dark 
Round 4: Death in the Streets 
Round 5: Price Slash, Red Gold, Space Station Icarus
I hope you’ll come along and play a session.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Leaving Nothing To Chance

As I prepare for Kapcon this year, I’ve noticed something different.  No dice.  That is to say, for the first time I can remember, none of the games I’m running use dice of any kind.  Thinking about the absence of this gaming staple, led me to reflect a little on the role of chance in a ‘con scenario.

Chance features in two main ways in old-school convention games.  The first is through investigation, with the GM offering information to characters via a successful skill roll – everything from “can I track the orcs through the forest?” to “can I tell if he’s lying?”

The problem with employing chance to investigation in a convention game is that the GM almost always wants the players to get the information they are seeking.  In 3-4 hours there is precious little time for false leads, or stonewalling.  It kills time, frustrates the players, and, at worst alienates them from the scenario.  

Of course, there are ways around this.  One is to skew character skills so they are very likely to succeed in critical areas – although this begs the inevitable question of, what happens if they should fail against the odds?  Another is to frame it differently, by changing the question from a binary information/no-information response, entirely dependent on luck, to providing degrees of success or levelling a time cost or similar for failure depending on the roll.  This tends to work best when the stakes are explained before the dice are rolled, and often involves a degree of impovisation by the GM.

The GM can also make the dice roll a fiction, and simple provide the information either way, which, if the players catch on, may lead to the perception that the system is little more than a camouflage for GM fiat.   

The second manifestation is in combat or action scenes.  These raise the stakes, as the result of a failed roll is more likely to be transparent to the players.  Theoretically a character may be killed, or suffer a catastrophic injury through a series of rolls.  As few GM’s are willing to allow characters to be eliminated early during a scenario, this often leads to similar responses to those I outlined previously.

In addition, the GM screen provides a way for the GM to disguise, or change results ‘in the interests of the story’.  In addition to potentially eroding player trust, this also has the disadvantage of camouflaging the role of luck in the game, which can really add to the flow of a game, and is often a leading source of stories told by players about the game afterwards.

Some games, like the Gumshoe system, have tried to separate these areas, guaranteeing players the clues in the investigative phase of the game while keeping an element of chance in action or combat.  Other, more modern games encourage more negotiation or narration from the players, to get at the essence of what lies behind a roll, and bring the outcome back to a broader context of characters and story.

I’ve used pretty much every technique I’ve described at one point or other over the years, including trying Gumshoe to split out the uncertainty of investigation.  This Kapcon I’m running almost exclusively EPOCH scenarios, where the players collectively make all the key choices.  Investigation is optional and as GM I have considerably less say on which characters are eliminated, and when, then any of the players due to the role of the Hero/Zero cards.  My only special power comes in breaking any potential ties in an audience ballot.  And I don’t think I’d have it any other way.  Chance can add a lot of spice to a convention game, but like any seasoning too much or too little has the potential to spoil the overall effect.