Sunday, November 15, 2015

My goblins are always mildly NSFW.

Played a couple hands of 1,000 Blank White Cards on Friday with Quintin Lee and Mahmood Miah. They'd never played before, but picked up the game very quickly and made some great cards. Here's 27 of my favorites from this weekend.

I think the best card of the night was Mahmood's Goblin Medic, as it required us to write and draw over existing cards in play, and also neatly shut down my Goblin Pike Recursion Engine before it could come online. Well played, sir.

Note there are some goblins in these pictures, and that means that one or two of the cards are very mildly NSFW.  :) Goblins have bad taste, and no sense of decorum. No boobbloons appeared in these games (or at least, they never got inflated because someone else got to finish the text), and I purposefully avoided publication of the rectococks that did show up, for the sake of all the innocent little children in the intertubes.You're welcome.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Games I played this week.

An expanded version of my weekly gamelog on facebook.

Played Red Seven, Five Tribes, and Shadow Hunters at the Ballard Board Game Meet-Up at Card Kingdom/Cafe Mox. The games were good, the group is very welcoming, and the venue is pretty amazing. Much better than staying home and watching TV.

Red Seven is good filler or warm-up material. Solid, but not particularly exciting. It's an interesting retooling of the old trick-taking mechanic, but the lightness of play and absence of a theme keeps it from truly moving me. A game I'm always willing to play, but not one I'd go out of my way to schedule.

Five Tribes is a really deep game, with lots of moving parts and a fairly daunting learning curve. I spent the whole game feeling like I was doing horribly because I could never identify moves that were actually splashy enough to be worth bidding the victory points to get first player status. I think I only bid 3 times, and took my turn at the back of the pack round after round. All game long, I thought for sure I was going to come in dead last. Then we totaled the final scores, and I was second place and just a couple points behind the leader. I had 143 points, the winner had 146 points, and fourth place was 112 if I remember correctly. So there really were very few turns where it was worth spending, that wasn’t just me being confused or overly cautious. We were all new to the game, though, so there's some hope that more experienced players would have weighed the value of their bids better and left my penny-pinching play-style in the dust.  I'd like to give this one another try, and see how my strategy develops over repeated plays.

Shadow Hunters is short enough to be party-game filler but intriguing enough to be something more. It's a perfect game for a large meet-up, as it can handle a large number of players easily and is short enough to let people join and quit as they please. It starts with a puzzle, and generally ends with a beat-down. It’s got some “aha!” moments, and excitement, but is very random and at times unfair. Luckily the game is usually short and speedy, so if you’re getting the short end of the randomness stick at least you don’t have to suffer very long. Overall, I enjoy it quite a bit. It's got a little in common with both Are You A Werewolf? and Betrayal At House On The Hill, but is faster and shorter than either. I dig it.

I played an unpublished scenario of Shadows of Brimstone with Jeremy, Chris, and Sarah up at the Flying Frog Productions studios. Brimstone continues to be a great co-op experience, and has grown more challenging with the expansion previews from GenCon. We’ve been playtesting some amazing content that I'm not at liberty to discuss, other than to assure you that the game keeps getting better and better.

I wish I could fit more plays of SOBs into my schedule right now, but it requires a fair chunk of time and table space. In addition to the playtests, I have two other groups that I specifically schedule Brimstone games with. It's hard to get everyone's calendar's aligned with the days when my table is clear, though perhaps that speaks to my housekeeping just as much as it does the the requirements of the game. This was extra complicated by mass of boxes (over a hundred of them) that was occupying my living room for the past couple weeks. I had to cancel two gaming events this week to stay home culling boxes of old stuff I no longer need in my life. If I don't get a box or two done every single day, I'll never get through them all.

Goofed off with some Rock Band 4 at a Halloween party. We traded instruments and parts in and out every few songs. Rock Band is more an activity than a game, but it's highly enjoyable... especially when there's enough players on-site to feel like an audience. Scott rick-rolled us all (but especially Jim) during one of his turns on the microphone.

You'll notice no RPGs this week. That's something I have to rectify soon. Workplace exhaustion and the aforementioned boxes kept me from attending a couple of usual gaming nights, plus there were some non-game events on my calendar. Other cool things I did this week included seeing a friend's short film play in a movie theater, and participating in a long training and team-building session for the Dragonflight board of directors. I've kept myself busy. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Dryads and Murder Hobos in How To Host A Dungeon

I played around a little with How To Host A Dungeon today, which I hadn't done since December or January. While I don't have a big ol' blog post about it (or even just a finished map to share) this time, I did add a couple new Wandering Monster ideas to the How To Host A Dungeon Wiki. Here's the rules text to two alternate Wandering Monster groups for the map-drawing dungeon-designing game.

Murder Hobos: Murder Hobos start with 4Black-round-md and 2White-round-md just below a random entrance to the dungeon. On their turn they behave exactly like Chaotic Adventurers, except they stop moving after their first Encounter each turn to rest up, regain spells and resupply. Roll a d6 each time, and if you roll less than their remaining Black-round-md, they resurrect one of their number. During other Group's turns (including the Surface Kingdom and other Adventurers), Murder Hobos are encountered as if they were a Wandering Monster.

Dryads: Dryads start at the empty point on the surface nearest where the token dropped. Draw a "haunted tree" there. Dryads will never move below the surface, and create a new haunted tree wherever they end their movement without an encounter. At the end of the Surface Kingdoms' turn, if there are no longer any Dryads in play, add Black-round-md to a randomly chosen haunted tree. Whenever the Surface Kingdoms make a new building on the spot where an unoccupied haunted tree exists, they may first erase that tree from the map. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

5-Yard Penalty for Failure To LARP

I went to two LARPs last night, and completely failed to actually play at either of them. I'm frustrated with myself for my recent inability to come out of my shell. I am also absolutely puzzled at the unnecessary complexity of character creation at these two LARPs, and the lack of a good summary or tool for new players. I plan to got back, because the hard part is over and I might as well get some value out of the night I invested, but I imagine that there must be a large number of potential players who are just turned off and away by the initial hurdles.

Both LARPs were at the same location, and apparently they have a total of 4 LARPs that run there every weekend. Three use the old (pre-reset) World of Darkness setting, and one the newer (but still nearly a decade old) World of Darkness. I made characters at Changeling and Vampire, the other two games are Werewolf and nWoD mortals game.

Now, before I get into my gripes about the experience I had, I should temper it with acknowledgement that this may not have been the typical situation. The LARPs had just moved to their winter location, so it's possible that the venue transition may have shaken things up a bit. Also there was a big competing event this weekend (a 6-month special event at a boffer LARP called Alliance) that greatly diminished the player turnout at the Vampire game at least, and a couple of the Vampire Storytellers were either absent or late as well. Any of these factors may have reduced the effectiveness of the staff to facilitate a new players entry into the game.

As I said, both games use the old WoD setting(s). They don't use the oWoD LARP rules (Rules of the Night, or Shining Host), instead they use a home-brewed system called "Mod-Dot" that is effectively a filter applied on to the tabletop rules. One game uses Changeling: The Dreaming 2nd Ed + Mod-Dot, and the other uses V20 (Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition) + Mod-Dot. Mod-Dot, if I'm understanding correctly, replaces each dice roll with two rock-paper-scissors matches. These RPS matches function rather like FUDGE dice, in that they generate a plus 2 to minus 2 modifier to your base number of successes, which are derived from your tabletop dicepools by some similar formula (not sure if it's 1/2 or 1/3 x dicepool). If you win both or lose both of the RPS tests, that's essentially a critical and triggers another two tests so the modifier can range out to plus or minus 4 (or maybe further, I'm not yet certain what happens when you score two wins followed by two more wins). I didn't participate, and merely watched from a distance, so it struck me as a lot of work for such a strongly centered bell curve. By my math, you have a 78% chance of scoring with one success of your default result. Compare that to FUDGE dice which have a 63% chance of scoring within 1 of the median result. My one complaint with FATE (which uses FUDGE dice) has to do with the overwhelming strength of that bell curve, and here's a system that out-FATE's FATE. Or, so it seems to me from my outsider's perspective. I haven't actually played with Mod-Dot yet, and it's apparently functional enough for several local LARPs to use it for many years. At first glance, it strikes me as more complicated than both the tabletop rules and the old White Wolf LARP rules. I wish either game had a hand-out that covers the mechanics of Mod-Dot, because after 1 night in proximity to it, I'm still pretty iffy on the core resolution mechanic. That said, one does not LARP for the rules, one LARPs for the story, the setting, and the scene.

Unfortunately, I didn't know the Changeling setting all that well. I had emailed the Head Story-Teller a few weeks ago to ask about the game, and we'd exchanged some conversation, but I didn't really have a solid character concept going in. I'd suggested that I'd probably play a Troll because it was one character type I'd remembered from my ~2 sessions of Changeling experience over a decade ago. He encouraged me to not limit myself to a core book character, and showed me lots of Kith write-ups (more or less character classes for Changeling) that came from various sourcebooks or were derived from the old Arcadia CCG. Some of this he'd sent me over a week before, but it was the week where I got a promotion and worked overtime, so I had still had _so_ much to read at the session. There were several people (including the HST) willing to help me out with the process, but their approach was pretty much "let me read you a giant list of options", rather than either making suggestions or asking questions that actually narrowed down the giant pile of information I needed to sift through. After more than an hour of reading I fell back on the Troll idea I'd emailed two weeks back, in hopes that something simple and mildly familiar would let me actually finish my character in time to play or at least watch some scenes. Unfortunately, the wealth of expanded character options continued past basic concepts and into a huge Merit and Flaw list, plus I had to at least skim over the lists of Arts (special powers in Changeling, akin to Disciplines in Vampire, or roughly equal to spells or feats in D&D). Again, so much reading.

The way character creation works in tabletop White Wolf games is that you get a small number of points to spend in each section of the sheet, followed by another pool of freebie points to spend wherever you want but at sort of an exchange rate (such as 7 Freebie points for a Discipline rank in Vampire). The character sheets didn't list the exchange rate. A person walked up and offered to help just as I was wrestling with that, so I asked them about it. They told me there is no exchange rate, just add 15 dots to things. I foolishly took them at their word, thinking they were one of the Assistant Story-Tellers since they were over there offering to help newbies fill out paperwork instead of playing in any of the many scenes going on elsewhere. I should have known better, but instead I accepted their word and my math got completely messed up. I finished my character right about the time the game was wrapping up, and only discovered then what a mess my sheet was.

Now, I had chosen the Changeling LARP because an acquaintance had invited me to it and the Werewolf LARP that followed it. He didn't show up to Changeling. I don't know if he made it to Werewolf or not. It was in the other part of the building, whereas there was a Vampire LARP in the same space where the Changeling game had just finished. I was a little let down to not get to play in that first game, and I only knew Werewolf a little bit better than Changeling, so character creation was likely to take nearly as long and involve almost as much reading. Vampire, on the other hand, that I knew really well from my years of running a V:tM LARP. So rather than head to the other area in hopes that maybe the guy who invited me would show up late, I decided to just do Vampire. Surely, I could bang out a character in a hurry.

But as I mentioned earlier, only a lone Assistant StoryTeller showed up to Vampire on time. A couple others were late, and I gather that at least one of the STs went to Alliance instead. The one that was there didn't have the needed materials to begin character creation. She did have character sheets, so I started planning and lightly socialized while waiting. The thing that held me back was the beads they needed to draw. This group uses a system to allow differing levels of character power and rarity while eliminating all danger of favoritism. You draw three beads from pools corresponding to the ideal mix for the campaign. If you get a lucky draw, you may start with extra XP, or be allowed to play one of the rarer clans or bloodlines. So I started mentally sketching out a Toreador, but had to wait to finalize it till the beads arrived. By then, there were four other new players, and only one copy of the rulebook. So while each step of the process took me a lot less time, I had to frequently wait my turn to look things up while these two guys read every single Merit and Flaw to their non-gamer friend they'd brought with. So slow.

As it turns out, my bead draws gave me completely normal starting generation and basic clan choices, so it started off as an easy build. However, I drew a bead that gave me a bunch of bonus XP to spend. So creation went in three stages: normal points, freebie points (using the various conversion rates as mentioned above) and experience points (using a totally different conversion rate). On paper, my character looks really strong, which is kind of funny as I was completely prepared to play a wimpy little Toreador for just the easy hook in to characterization that provides. And it may still play out to be wimpy, if the obfuscated values of the bead draws means that most characters already start with as many or more XP than I got. The overall power-level of the chronicle is not yet transparent to me.

And I guess that level of complexity and confusion is why I'm here griping about a game that I totally plan to play and enjoy. They said attendance was down because of the competing event, but it still seemed like a big group and probably a good place to game and meet new friends. I'm most likely going to have a lot of fun, but that's because I'm going to power through the initial awkwardness of it all and dive into character and plot. And all of this headache could have been made so much easier for new players. I find myself wanting to lay out a one-page summary sheet for each of these games. At the top it would say which rule books are considered canonical for that game, then explain the Mod-Dot success formula that modifies the engine in those books. Below that would be a listing of the three beads you draw and what options they unlock for that chronicle (and a statement about what percentage of the pool is each bead level). You'd know at a glance what kind of character you could make, how potent or rare they were in the setting, and where to go for more information on the game or rules.

In terms of my old crunchometer system, I had rated oWoD at a crunchy but playable c12 level, and the Mind's Eye Theatre LARP rules at a somewhat simpler c10. After this level of exposure, I'm inclined to eyeball Mod-Dot at around a c20. Thus far it is significantly crunchier and more complicated than I prefer, but I'll give it at least a few sessions for the plotlines or the playgroups to engage me. I used to have a lot more tolerance for needless complexity and the character niches that complexity carved out, but over the decades I've been shown repeatedly by games like Amber, Microscope, and PDQ that the best RPG experiences don't require complicated rules and fiddly modifiers. Good games are made from rich plotlines, nuanced characters, and the presence of good friends.

By the time character creation was all done, it was after midnight. The game had been running since 10:30, and would be continuing for more than an hour. About half the players were sitting around in the main room quietly playing with their phones or having whispered conversations, and the rest were off behind closed doors having private scenes. There was no obvious in-roads for actually joining a scene at this point. I was tired, discouraged, very hungry (hadn't eaten in over 8 hours) and a little grumpy, and I had a long walk home ahead of me, so at that point I bailed. I'll get a fresh start at the next session.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Recent Gaming 9-29 to 10-5

#WhatDidYouPlayMondays #GameLog for 9/29 - 10/5/2015

Card Games: Dark Gothic / Colonial Horror, and Guillotine
RPG / Story Game: Forget Me Not
Board Game: Shadows of Brimstone
Video Game: Sir, You Are Being Hunted!

On Friday I played Dark Gothic with the cards mixed in from the Colonial Horror stand-alone expansion, as well as the smaller Smuggler's Den, Curse of the Werewolf, Dryad of Harper's Wood, and Forgotten Island expansions. I played this with Mark Walters and Laura Mortensen. It was a tense game that ended in defeat for all of us, as our second Villain was The Necromancer. He has two powers that make Minions move to the Shadows, and we kept drawing new Minions to replace the old ones. My deck was really working well and I had multiple turns where I had the cards in hand to defeat the Necromancer but couldn't because his Fight ability would cost us the game. Our bad luck in top-decking only Minions for two full rounds around the table eventually doomed the town of Shadowbrook.

Guillotine is more or less light filler, but it's always an enjoyable way to cap off an evening when the brain power or energy is starting to run low. Long enough to wind down properly, short and light enough to not wear out it's welcome as you do so. We play with the house rule that starting hands are only 3 cards, instead of 5. I first invoked that house rule at least a decade ago when doing demos at the game store I used to run, with the intention of making it easier on new players and speeding up the demos. What I found was that it actually enhanced the game greatly, and I've used that rule every since. With a full hand of 5 cards, there's often a card or two that you never feel the need to use all game long because you've got better options (so they just sit there dead in your hand). 3 cards to start opens up the need to occasionally play one of the weaker cards, and makes it feel more challenging. In the process it provides a little more variety to play experience, which is a good thing when you've had the game in your collection for 10 or 15 years. This time, Mark won, and Laura and I were tied for second place just behind him. 

On Monday I got together with Mark, Laura, Erik and Devon at Card Kingdom, and we played a fun RPG / Story Game called Forget Me Not. It was a riot. Our plot was over-the-top and our characters masticated all over the scenery. The Sheriff was crazy, the local avant-garde artist was murderous and possibly even crazier then the Sheriff, and eventually most of the town was driven just as batty as them by ergot poisoning at the bake sale (or the need for revenge). Very goofy and hectic. Pretty far from the tone of the source material (it reads as basically an unlicensed Twin Peaks RPG), but so damn much fun! I really love the way the randomized pregens and randomized subplots gives the game a solid structure, but mixes it up from one play to the next. Hugely enjoyable. 

On Thursday I went up to Flying Frog Productions' studio to help with playtesting and proof-reading of top-secret Shadows of Brimstone expansions. That's all I'm allowed to say about that at the moment, other than "OMG you guys, there is so much cool stuff coming up for Shadows of Brimstone! Trust me, you're gonna love it!"

Speaking of which, on Saturday and Sunday I spent a little time each night assembling miniatures for my own personal copy of Shadows of Brimstone. These were GenCon preview figures, stuff that will eventually show up in Wave(s) 1.5 or 2 of the Kickstarter. I built the Serpentmen of Jargono and the Masters of the Void deluxe enemy sets, and the Scourge Rats enemy set. The Serpentmen come with a Shaman who has magic trinkets and a deck of spells, and despite the name they are not purely restricted to Jargono (they can and do show up in the mines). The Masters of the Void has some sorcerers that I like to call the KKKultists of KKKthulhu. Tentacles protruding from creepy hoods. They also have a spell deck. The two spellcasting Enemy types each has a very different feel to their magic (and the "AI" that determines how they act each turn), and they really shake up the game quite nicely. Masters of the Void also comes with some other (non-spellcaster) figures that have mechanics that kind of invert which characters are likely to be effective in the fight. The high-initiative xp-gobblers in the party will have a hard time hurting Void Hounds, and the slower PCs will be able to claim a larger-than-normal share of the glory. Scourge Rats aren't nearly as "sexy" as either of those two sets, but they're mechanically simpler and seemed like a good choice to balance out the extra complexity I'd just added with the deluxe spellcasters. I've got several more sets to break out and assemble in the near future, but decided that I could play a session or two with just these three expansions (plus the two core sets and Caverns of Cynder) before I needed to add in more.

That decision left me with an hour or two open at the end of each of those nights to play a video game to unwind. I chose Sir, You Are Being Hunted! which I picked up inexpensively as part of a Humble Indie Bundle this week. It's sort of like a first-person shooter, except it's more about stealth than combat. That, or I'm just really bad at the combat parts. You're on a random archipelago that feels very British, and (as the name implies) you're being hunted by prim and proper robots. I am _so_ terrible at this game, but it's fun enough I'm sure I'll give it another go sometime soon.

Monday, September 21, 2015

A little more on this week's games

An expanded counterpart to this week's #whatdidyouplaymondays post on Facebook... 
On Wednesday, I GM'd a session of FATE on Roll20, for Brendan Riley, Edmund Metheny and Sophie Lagacé. That was a lot of fun, but to be honest my campaign is a little shaky and underdeveloped at this point. I've been having trouble finding the time to prepare to my usual outrageous standards, now that I've got a job and all. FATE is a great system, but I find that it always takes me a few sessions as GM to fine tune and get comfortable with the difficulty numbers and the fate-point economy. The first session or two never seems to meet the level of dramatic and mathematic tension that I want, but then it usually gels in session 3 or 4. So, perhaps I'll do better this week. Here's a picture of one of my screens on Roll20:

On Friday night, I played Shadows of Brimstone with Laura Mortensen and Mark Walters. We played a new mission (from Caverns of Cynder) called "Defend the Bridge". It was a short scenario, and we won easily, but it was highly enjoyable. The special rules in the mission for monster movement and targeting provided a completely new tactical challenge, and it was a neat change of pace from the usual dynamics of the game.

That's the only face-to-face gaming I've done this week, despite having booked my calendar full of games that didn't happen. In the past 7 days I've had 4 different gaming events get cancelled. I bowed out of one myself to hang with a highschool friend I hadn't seen in decades, who was only in town (and the country, actually) for a short time. That was definitely worth skipping a game. In the days following, however, two other games got cancelled by other people, and the fourth was ruined by traffic. A bus snafu made me over an hour late to a story game meetup, and there was no room left at any of the tables by the time I got there. That was a bit of a bummer.

If you count videogames it gets a little better. I played some Dungeons of Dredmor on Saturday night, and got a swashbuckling rogue build through the first three floors, so about 1/5th the way through the entire game. It's going well so far, but I'm worried that this character may run out of steam in the deeper floors. His skills have decent early-game synergy, but he doesn't really have an endgame strategy. I'll have to get at least a little lucky on equipment drops, and play really sharply on the lower floors.

Next week, I plan to return to LARPing. It's been about a decade since I last made the angsty gothic scene associated with Live Action games by White Wolf, but I'll be easing myself back in to the madness by trying a session of a Changeling LARP. If I didn't work at 6 am so often, I'd go play Vampire or Werewolf, but at least Changeling can be played in daylight without it ruining the mood. LARPing, though, for reals. In the unlikely event that I break out the eyeliner and the big tin ankh, I promise I'll post pictures. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Focusing the Microscope

The last weekend of August was PAX, a huge convention here in Seattle. I ended up quadruple booked that weekend. I ran three RPG sessions in the Games On Demand area, spent a day with a friend from Chicago who was in town briefly for an unrelated business meeting, and then helped out a little at the Flying Frog Productions booth between other commitments. Triple-booked like that was intentional.

What I wasn't expecting was for Jury Duty to run long and eat two whole weeks just before the convention. People had to cover for me at my job while I was deliberating and convicting, and then I had to cover for them over the weekend to make up for shifts I missed. So I was going in to work at 6am each morning, throwing freight for 8 hours, and then rushing down to the convention center to do my hastily rescheduled volunteer work at the con. It was a very exhausting weekend, and came at the end of an entire month without a real day off (between three conventions, jury duty, and work, I had 8+ hours of commitments planned every day from August 4th to September 2nd with no exceptions). So wonderfully tiring.
3 days of painful deliberation.
Despite all that craziness, I had a lot of fun at PAX. The three RPG sessions I facilitated ( two games of Microscope and one of PSI*RUN) were all highly enjoyable laugh riots. Natalie Holt and Morgan Stinson from Games On Demand were able to provide me with an extra one-day PAX badge so my friend Brendan from Chicago could actually attend the convention with me on Sunday. That was pretty damn cool of them.
Me and Brendan just outside the convention.

The Games:
The first Microscope game I ran was an exploration of a post-apocalyptic setting, with Mahmood, Quintin and Brian. We chose that both of our end points (the start and the finish of our tale) would be nuclear explosions. In between those mushroom cloud bookeneds, we'd be spending time with a mining community that took shelter underground to survive the end of the world. Most games of microscope cover a stretch of made-up history running hundreds or thousands of years. This one, however, was measured in decades, and saw a lot of recurring characters as a result.

All three of these players were amazing. They were hilarious when it was appropriate to be so, and really dove into the world-building during the less flippant scenes. Voice acting and characterization were really rich, so you got a sense of this fictional community and its problems. We built a great palette, including the wonderfully fresh "RULE #7" which forced us to avoid stealing characters or plotlines directly from pop culture. Tropes were still okay, but everything needed it's own fresh spin. The rule was placed mostly to prevent Quintin from just lifting characters whole-cloth, but to his credit he stepped up and did a marvelous job bringing in new fresh ideas and being very respectful and conscientious of the rule.

Subplots involved rigged local elections, a justice system devolving into gladiatorial games, a war with the next town over (Greenspring) for very petty reasons, nordic naming conventions, deserters from a nearby military base usurping power within the town, sensitive data stored on milspec e-readers, three months of nearly-daily drone attacks from an unknown enemy, and goat-based bestiality.

Microscope palette for Mining Town #37b
The goat fucking was my fault. (Not a phrase I utter lightly.) We were having an in-character argument in a tense scene and my opponent said that he had a confession to make. Since the confession was almost certainly going to be the revelation that he'd helped my Mayor character rig the elections in a previous event (years in the past), I felt the "need" to head him off at the pass and discredit his testimony. "There's no need to confess. We all know about the goats, Scott. There's just so few of humans left after the nuclear war, so we've all agreed to look past your repeated visits to the barn." And everybody just rolled with it, from then on and for the rest of the game in every scene involving any of those characters, it was just taken as fact that Town Clerk Scott Johansen was officially a notorious goat-humper.

Another great moment in the game involved unexpected revelations about a mysterious sniper. Early on we'd alluded in-character to there being stranded units of some sort of Chinese army on American soil during the run-up to the first nuclear exchange. So when a few characters went off on a quest in one later scene, I chose to introduce the "Unknown Sniper" character mostly as a plot device to be overcome on the way, and again I heavily implied (by way of equipment and vehicle choice) that the sniper was from the remnants of one of those Chinese units but never established it as definitive fact. In a later scene, Mahmood played the same sniper that I had, and when he did so he revealed she was actually sent by the Mayor (a prime mover in several previous scenes) to ensure the quest (which would have undermined the Mayor's authority and power) failed. That was a brilliant turn of events that I did not foresee. Well played, sir.

Note as well that one of the restrictions on the palette was that there are fewer than 1,000 bullets available in the entirety of our timeline. Brian tracked that religiously. He noted every gunshot on-camera, and assigned bullet costs for off-camera conflicts. In the end, 809 bullets were fired. Brian also played a recurring gunsmith/gunrunner character, who had a penchant for boobytraps, as well as selling blank cartridges to those he didn't trust. So many good moments in that game.

Emergent Complexity:
 I've said this before, but I'll reiterate it. "No" statements are of great importance and value when starting Microscope. Some folks just put "Yes" statements on the Palette, but I find that "No" statements impose interesting limitations and force people to get creative. Too many "Yeses" can make your game messy, and you can often get away with just laying down the things you're dead-set against.  Here's the entirety of the palette from the second game of Microscope I ran at PAX:
A streamlined minimalist Microscope palette.

 This second game started with an odd and unique premise. It was all about bugs and insects. Our start and end points were "Pre-Sentience" and "Ordinary Again (Our Reality)". In between, we'd tell the multi-generational tale of intelligent arthropods rising to the top of their food chain, building multiple civilizations and figuring out dimensional physics so they could interact briefly with our world before somehow losing the ability to reach between worlds. None of that showed up in the palette, it was just in our basic premise. All we felt the need to say in the palette was what we didn't want to see, and this keep it tight and focused. Astute readers will notice that "Rule #7" was reprised --- I'd told this group (two of them strangers, and the third a person I'd gamed with before at GwenCon several years back) about the previous night's pop-culture ban and they fell in love with the idea behind it.

All of these factors together forced us to really think outside the box and try new things. There were elements of Alternate History, Cosmic Horror, a scene about the devil's successful efforts to eliminate hominid (and more generally mammalian) life on the bug-world, communication barriers and societal differences between different bug types, a ton of 6-legged characters, fire-ants with pyrokinesis, bug-on-bug violence, a clan of stickbug/spider hybrid ninjas, pscientist and inventor (and eventual speed-based superhero) Phineus Polonius Pillbug, and a never-ending series of puns. Oh, dear God, the puns. I will not repeat them. Brian (the guy I'd gamed with at GwenCon years ago, _not_ the same Brian as played Microscope with me the night before) loved to make bad jokes and worse puns... but he also came up with the amazing idea of exploring the politics and religion of dimension-hopping sentient insects, so I've got nothing to complain about overall. Another great game.
Tragedy + Time = Comedy

In addition to the usual cards for periods, events and scenes that always show up in microscope (for example the cards surrounding the devouring of the queeen, above), we made other use of spare notecards figuring out ways to make the game more insectoid. We spent a lot of time, energy, and flash cards on trying to emulate all the non-verbal ways that intelligent bugs might communicate with each other. "If anyone would like to smell my pheromone trail, you may read these notecards and learn what they reveal..." was announced to the room in several scenes. Which was dangerous, because within the setting, "the devil" was a contagious and willful scent that could drive entire hives wild. (And again, nothing like that was expressly listed in the palette, it just grew up organically during play.) It was pretty cool.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Rediscovering something about myself.

 I wrote the following in the days between GenCon and Dragonflight, but didn't have time to edit/polish/post it then. This rambling digression really isn't about gaming, it's more crazy talk about my life. If you're just here for house-rules and game reviews, you can skip this post (and the previous one) and go click on the links down the side of the page instead.

Disclaimer: I am a volunteer for both of the organizations mentioned below (Dragonflight and Flying Frog Productions), not an employee. While I do sometimes speak from a position of some authority in my work for Dragonflight, I do not speak in any official capacity for Flying Frog (I'm just a volunteer who helps when need with playtesting and teaching demos). Any opinions expressed in this post are mine, and mine alone, and should not be taken to represent any official positions of either of those two organizations. This isn't really a post about those groups, it's a post about my life, parts of which just happen to occur in the vicinity of those groups at the moment.

Something I rediscovered about myself this week at Gen Con. I really enjoy hard work that culminates in other people being entertained. There’s this great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes from a long day of effort, especially when that work puts smiles on other people’s faces. That’s why I loved running the 50-player LARP and all those big Magic: The Gathering tournaments back in the day. It’s why I loved even the moments of set-up and tear-down before and after GenCon this week, and it explains what I find so fulfilling lately about my physically demanding job at the grocery store (at the store I don’t bring people entertainment or fun, but I do feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of most days).

About 5 years ago or so, a crushing malaise crept quietly into my life, slowly sapping my confidence and eventually dooming my marriage. As the pain and unease overwhelmed me, I responded by withdrawing further from the world. I kept thinking I just needed more time to myself, and I trimmed my social calendar down to a nub. It is so clear now that this was a self-defeating response. For three years I pulled back “for introspection and healing” and it just got worse. The health issues that I thought were the cause of my hardships just grew more dire the more I retreated, because it turns out they were merely symptoms of my lack of self-esteem. The more I worried about them, the more I tried to hide my Spasmodic Dysphonia, the worse all my problems became.

But this is not a story that ends in despair. Just in the past two years, I’ve started getting better instead of worse. I identified the change in trajectories and have been getting excited about it, but until this week I had misidentified the turning point. I thought (incorrectly) that my healing started when I hauled a bleeding friend (Sarah Bergstrom) safely off a mountain. Truth be told, while that day ended in victory, it was emotionally traumatizing for me at the same time and probably resulted in minimal net change in my long term mental state. As epic as that tale is, I realize now that what’s been actually fixing me these past two years has been a little more mundane, and it started a week before she fell off the cliff in the first place.

Since getting drafted by Mark Walters to help with Dragonflight two years ago, I’ve been feeling much better about myself every time I work a long day to help others have a fun. When the website at Dragonflight crashed last year, I stepped up and busted my ass to make sure the convention went on (with paper sign-up sheets). It was exhausting and prevented me from getting to play games most of the con, but it felt so good. The show went on because of me. That was a major victory, and a huge bolus of actual healing from my long-denied psychic wounds took place that weekend. The next weekend was the struggle on the mountain, and they came so closely together I failed to identify which victory started the healing process.

While I was on the floor at Gen Con this week teaching people a new game, fielding questions from strangers, and wrangling up players for demos, I felt like I was King of the World. All my shyness and social insecurity fled away. Then in the evenings, when I’d get to relax with smaller groups of friends and friends-of-friends, the shy retiring Rolfe would return with a vengeance. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around it. Why was I confident and strong in a room full of thousands of strangers, but so darned quiet when it was half a dozen of us Frog people, several of whom I’ve been gaming with for months? On the last day when we where rushing to break down and pack up the booth in time to catch our flight, why did I feel so happy and strong? Why did I find it so easy to joke around with  the other volunteers when we were “fighting” over who got to use the packing tape, but so hard to find the courage to talk to those same people when we were sitting right next too each other in the airport? Apparently I’m brave when I’m working, but a bit timid when at rest.

In the last few days and nights leading up to me flying to Gen Con, I was putting in full work days at the grocery, rushing home to do online administrative stuff for Dragonflight for a few hours, then carpooling up to the Flying Frog studio to pack boxes full of miniatures onto a big truck, and then coming home for a tiny bit more Dragonflight email trouble-shooting before squeaking in an hour or two of sleep. It was insane, and I loved it, and I feel like it was really good for me.

Holy crap! Am I in danger of becoming a workaholic? That kind of schedule is not sustainable. Does it matter, if it’s healing me? There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m healthier and happier right now than I was 2 years ago, despite the fact that large portions of my life fell apart less than 2 months ago and I find myself crying over random memories. It is all so weird. Is there a way I can reconnect with the braver version of myself without burning myself out? I hadn't seen that part of me in years. Is the solution to volunteer for every imaginable event until the boxes around the days on the calendar start to burst from the pressure? I have some serious soul-searching ahead of me, and _so_ much healing to do, but somehow hope is easier for me to envision now than it has been in years. That's gotta count for something.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Catching Up With The Summer Of Extremes

It has been a while since I blogged. Life has been far more complicated than usual, and gaming has been in "feast or famine" mode this summer.  2015 has been terribly extreme. The good parts have been really truly wonderful, but laced between them has been some absolutely crushing bad news for my personal life, from which I haven't completely recovered.
Disclaimer: I am a volunteer for both of the organizations mentioned below (Dragonflight and Flying Frog Productions), not an employee. While I do sometimes speak from a position of some authority in my work for Dragonflight, I do not speak in any official capacity for Flying Frog (I'm just a volunteer who helps when need with playtesting and teaching demos). Any opinions expressed in this post are mine, and mine alone, and should not be taken to represent any official positions of either of those two organizations. This isn't really a post about those groups, it's a post about my life, parts of which just happen to occur in the vicinity of those groups at the moment. 

Let's just start with the elephant in my (entirely new) room. After over 14 years together, Sarah and I are getting a divorce. (That's why you'll no longer see anything about me being a "kept man" in my bio on this site.) It came on suddenly, without really any warning for me. There was some weird tension for a couple of weeks, but it started while my mom was visiting for 2 months, so I misinterpreted all the tension as being just a function of the extended house-guest. Then, boom!, "I think maybe I don't love you anymore", out of nowhere, followed by a demand for divorce just one marital counseling session later. No fights. Not much effort spent trying to fix things, either. Just done and gone in a hurry. One minute I was a house-husband, the next I'm a grocery-store clerk living alone. (Apparently, she'd been unhappy for some time, and I just didn't see the warning signs at all.) I'm still working through it. That much is essentially public record and I don't feel I'm betraying any confidence in sharing the story, such as it is, of our sudden dissolution.

Both of my RPG campaigns (an Everway campaign, as well a Dark Heresy campaign using a hybrid of Warhammer 3rd and Edge of the Empire rules) collapsed in the process of the rapid separation. She's been a player in every multi-session game I've run in all those years, and was my co-GM in the Everway campaign. So my most recent big creative outlets vanished. To be honest, I kinda crumpled there for a while. She started her life over pretty fast (from my perspective anyway),  but I've found it hard to get going again, at least on a personal level.  For the past few years I've been the quiet one, and she's always been our social scheduler. Charisma and organization are among her strengths. So, before I knew it, she was the one with invites to events, including regular RPGs on the evenings most of our friends have free, and I'm only this week finally trying to cobble together a group and a game. Now to be fair, I've still been attending the weekly rotating-GM one-shot group that I've been associated with over the past 6 years, but that group doesn't always meet regularly, and I've had no time (my hours filled with Dragonflight prep, see below) to GM anything myself. GMing has always been my first and favorite hobby. But more than that, the creative process of GMing is the way I recover from stressful days. GM prep work is my preferred way to fill dead hours and keep my brain busy enough that I don't obsess over the little things in life. So, the extended break from it has further slowed my own healing over the gaping wound in my life, at the same time that I suddenly have a lot more hours to fill and lot more little things feeling wrong.

I'm sure there's a large helping of green-eyed sour grapes of envy poisoning my perspective there, as well. There were a couple of weeks early in the separation where every time I got up the nerve to call friends to see "what are you doing tonight?" the answer was invariably "going somewhere with Sarah, so sorry but you're not invited" and that hurt. I know she wasn't maliciously out-scheduling me, it's just in her nature to plan something cool for every box on the calendar, just as it's in my nature to focus on the now and go with the flow. Problem was, my flow had gotten a little damned up. There were big things on the horizon, and I couldn't figure out how my social life was going to trickle around them. Which, convenient to the metaphor but unpleasant for me, meant I worried a great deal about washing up on the rocks.

Convention season was, at that time, just ahead of us. I'd swung an invite to attend GenCon as a volunteer helping the Flying Frog Productions team, and of course I was running the main ballroom as Board and Card Game Coordinator for Dragonflight the week after. Both of those were solid, upbeat accomplishments that I own, and can be proud of. That said, the invite I'd landed was for both of us to volunteer, and the tickets to Indianapolis were already purchased before we contemplated divorce, and she was signed up to be the Registrar for Dragonflight, too. So there was a lot of motivation to part with a functional friendship or at least a working relationship, rather than just kick and scream and break each others' toys. We seem to have pulled that off for the short term anyway, and with any luck we may actually be one of those rare few ex-couples that stay friendly over the years. I still have some sore feelings over the sense of rejection that comes from losing love, but things could certainly have gone a lot worse and been even more painful had either of us decided not to be so smart and adult about it. Life is a cooperative game, and it doesn't do anyone any good to mess with the other players at your table. I'll take my victories where I can get them, even snatching them from the jaws of divorce.

On that note of victory, I should add that both conventions went really damn well, and I've been invited back to help next time(s).  So that's really good. Hard work, but rewarding, and they gave me something to throw myself into instead of just sitting in a room by myself feeling pitiful. I think overall they did me a lot of good, even though it meant I was too busy every night leading up to the Cons to consider putting together the game that might have helped me de-stress. It's a trade-off. GMing sooner might have been more helpful, but these Cons required me to interact with people and not just lock myself up in my new little apartment. If I didn't have the Conventions to keep me busy, there's no guarantee that would have turned into "more time to GM" and not just "more time to wallow in my loneliness". Especially early on.

Apparently, I felt very strongly about that card.
First was the unending stream of games that was GenCon. I lost count of how many dozens of people I taught how to play Colonial Horror / Dark Gothic at the Frog booth. It was quite a few, many of whom went on to buy the game. In the evenings I hung with new friends on the Frog team, playing card games over drinks and slowly processing all the crazy new emotions just barely contained inside my head. Jason and Scott Hill (the brothers at the core of Flying Frog Productions) are two of the most generous people I have ever met, and they made us all feel like family. Hotel, airfare, food, con tickets -- all paid for, and all I had to do in return was spend my days teaching people how to play a game I really enjoy. I got my quota of much-needed fun that week, that's for sure. And for several weeks before that too, as the fine folks at Flying Frog have been inviting me up once-a-week for the past few months to help playtest upcoming Shadows of Brimstone expansions (many of which debuted at GenCon). That's been a series of very cool experiences. It's rather amazing just how well they treat their volunteers.

One night at GenCon they took us to True Dungeon as a group, which was staggeringly enjoyable, and very unique. Live-action puzzle-solving in a 3D life-sized dungeon, with a shuffleboard to-hit system and memorization minigames for the spellcasters. It was a lot of fun, and I definitely carried my weight by solving one of the puzzle rooms singlehandedly, and by scoring some high-damage spells during our fight scenes. Go me!

The weekend after that was Dragonflight. GenCon had over 60,000 gamers in attendance, and Dragonflight had under 800. That gives two very different experiences. One is roiling chaos, the other feels more like a community. (Though, as I said, the Flying Frog crew was my community while in the GenCon chaos, so I've been surrounded by friends this whole time.)  This was my third Dragonflight, so there were a lot of familiar faces, and I'd gotten a good sense for how the convention rolls along.

Dragonflight ballroom, on a slow morning hour.
It was my first year as Area Coordinator for the main room at Dragonflight, so I had a lot of responsibilities... and yet, it felt like less work than the previous year. Last year, we'd had a big computer problem, and I'd been "Johnny on the spot" retro-converting us back to a paper sign-up system when the website went down. That was grueling work, but worth it to keep the convention running in spite of tech failure. This year, I pushed to just use electronic/online for pre-registration leading up to the convention, and have paper sign-up sheets prepared in advance for the events. I didn't have to reinvent the wheel, and it all went really smoothly.  Smoothly enough I was free to actually play a couple games during the convention. (Meanwhile, Sarah had similar impressive success at the Registration booth. Go, Sarah!) Multiple people have told me that this was the smoothest running Dragonflight in over a decade, so I'm feeling pretty good about that. Attendance was up 25%, but numerous people actually said it felt like it was down a little from last year because the lines were so short and it was so easy to get into a game or find a table. I went to a lot of trouble engineering the flow of the ballroom to make it feel that way, and I'm thrilled it paid off so well. Go me again!

That said, there were a number of other changes and improvements I was unable to implement this year at Dragonflight. I didn't get to everything on my list, partly because I was away at GenCon the week before, partly because it was my first year in this role and I underestimated how much work it would be, but partly because all the stress and craziness in my life eroded my focus and efficiency a bit this summer. Regardless, the convention still went well enough that people were impressed, and partly as a result I've been elected to the Dragonflight Board of Directors. So I'll get to implement my ideas next year.  And to be honest, the hours I put in in the last two months before Dragonflight were a little unreasonable anyway. I had around 400 games to coordinate -- I had to solicit GMs and game hosts, assign them rooms and tables, create a schedule and a map, approve listings on our web software, edit descriptions for the program, and answer a lot of questions over many months to make this all run so flawlessly on the weekend in question. The only person who had more work than me was Amy, our Convention Director (though I'm sure Ted, our Web Developer, would disagree with my assessment). Next year I hope to "hire" (it's an all-volunteer organization) an assistant to handle some percentage of the work. I've got a lot to be proud of, and have laid a solid foundation for even better events next year.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Not bad for a single week.

In the first 7 days of June 2015, I played the following games:
  • Dark Gothic (semi-cooperative deck-building card game) x4 game sessions
  • Shadows of Brimstone (cooperative miniatures board game)
  • Pandemic: The Cure (cooperative dice game) x2 game sessions
  • War of the Worlds (home-brewed RPG scenario)
  • Ultimate Werewolf (8+ player bluffing/deduction party game) x7 game sessions
  • Shadowrun Crossfire (cooperative deck-building card game) x6 game sessions
  • Forbidden Desert (cooperative board game) x3 game sessions
  • Dead of Winter (cooperative survival-horror board game) x2 game sessions
  • Lego Avengers 1895 (home-brewed RPG scenario)
That's 27 plays total of 9 different games, with over 20 different people (ranging from as few as 2-3 in some of the games all the way up to 8-12 players per round of Ultimate Werewolf). Both RPGs were run by GMs I hadn't gamed with in four years or longer. Some of the games were pretty fast little things (Pandemic: The Cure can be pretty zippy), but there were several multi-hour games on that list (Brimstone, Dead of Winter, both RPGs). It's been a pretty great week in regards to restocking the fun after a recent gaming deficit. I actually had the opportunity to spend a little more time gaming than I did this week: I ended up cancelling an RPG session I was going to run on Wednesday because a player had a rough day at work and needed to call the night early. On top of all that, I spent 4 hours at an art museum this week, and took multiple long walks that added up to at least 10 miles.

I needed it, though. The past few weeks have been really stressful and exhausting (more about that some other time, perhaps). I really appreciated the chance to kick back and game my brains out for a few days.