In-Person Gaming Got Weird (Again)

I went to my first major in-person convention this past weekend since 2020 and it was, as you might expect, really weird. But I got to run and play a lot of mostly new-to-me RPGs.

I attended Forge Midwest in Madison, WI back in April, but that’s a pretty small event. 30ish people maybe? Two rooms, five or six tables per room, not that full. The sort of event where you’ll meet everyone who attended and hang out with them more than once. This event, RinCon, is a big (for Arizona) regional gaming convention with hundreds of attendees. And because everything is weird and expensive now, they ran it in conjunction with the Tucson ComiCon, a truly massive event with attendance in the many thousands. I went down to the dealer floor a couple times and between the crowds and the costumes, I felt a little dissociated until I got out. We still have a long way toward normal.

Hotel Manhattans got the job done, tasty enough to keep my mouth happy and weak enough to not screw me up at 11pm.

Growing pains – and concerns about COVID exposure – aside, it was so nice to sit at tables with folks who were eager to dig into new games. My time was spent entirely at the Indie Arcade, a Games-on-Demand-like setup where folks stand up at the top of each slot and pitch games to folks who show up not knowing what would be on offer. There’s always a risk that nothing on offer will be appealing, but I’ve never seen anyone just shake their head and walk away. If they’re at the Arcade they’re there to try something.

I’ll dig into all these in more depth at some point but here’s a quick rundown of what I ran and played, and some initial impressions.

Nahual

This long-delayed Kickstarter by Miguel Angel Espinoza was worth the wait. In Nahual, you play shapeshifters with a direct lineage to a Pre-Columbian priesthood that was nearly wiped out by conquistadores. Those conquistadores brought with them literal angels, straight out of Christian mythology, invisible to non-nahuales and hungry for worship. Those angels largely wiped out the nahuales, but some survived. Now you, a poor Mexican, hunt and kill angels for their meat. And other byproducts. Waste not, want not I guess? It’s a very weird premise, based on the Operacion Bolivar graphic novel series by Edgar Clement. It works well as a holding environment. The characters all work together in a small business (taco truck, cantina, etc.) and they’re never not going to be poor Mexicans.

Yeah, it’s like that. A page from Operacion Bolivar for a taste of the angel-rendering business.

Nahual is Powered by the Apocalypse and is essentially a reframed werewolf story, only instead of wolves you have a connection with the spirits of an eagle, armadillo, jaguar and so on. Central American species, you see. But the rest of the structure is easy to grasp: you start out not being that good at shapeshifting, but you can risk pushing your transformation further than you’ve learned. The angel-hunting is traumatic and gross, but also you’re in a world that knows that angels are real. Rendered-angel products are a fine stand-in for the drug trade, which gives Nahual some Cartel (another game from Magpie) vibes. You’re not judged for doing difficult, traumatic labor.

In our game, an American crime lord operated under the cover of a predatory multi-level marketing business on the streets of Mexicali. He had his hooks into one of the characters’ NPC connections, having loaned the NPC money he knew they couldn’t pay back. Through play they discovered the MLM was selling angel-derived products (“wellness vapes”) for maximum addiction. So our nahuales all transformed into their respective half-human-half-spirit forms (a jaguar, an armadillo, and a snake) and busted a bit of their operation. We could have easily continued playing for many sessions just based on that bit.

As far as pure design goes, Nahual isn’t especially innovative. That’s a good thing, I think, given how weird the premise is. I ran a four hour session of the game with folks who were mostly old PbtA hands, and getting it up and running was a snap since the game doesn’t demand new skills. Unfortunately, I had old playbooks and move reference sheets from the playtest and not the latest text as it appeared in the rulebook. The game still worked well, but it was also fascinating to compare/contrast the texts and see where Espinoza made changes. In every case, I could see why a move got tweaked or described a bit differently. If you ever get the opportunity to play a game with both early and final rules, do it, if you’re interested in the design side of things.

Zombie World

I haven’t always loved Zombie World but I’ve got to say, I’ve developed a new appreciation for it as the best PbtA party game.

In case you don’t know: Zombie World is PbtA-derived but quite far away from Apocalypse World. You get three cards that describe your character and that’s it. Two of them (your secret past, and your secret trauma) are face-down until you choose to reveal them at a dramatic moment. The entirety of the game is run from decks of cards and some dry-erase boards. It is a tuned racecar of a game, designed to get you down the track of zombie survival horror as fast as humanly possible.

Behold! Most of a huge table of survivors.

I first ran Zombie World for a big table – eight players – as a lark last year. I didn’t have anything suitable on my board game shelf for an oversized game day crowd so, sure, let’s see what happens. It was a fantastic success. Everyone understands the genre, the characters are paper-thin but also evocative, and you can quickly run through little scenes of two or three characters at a time. Since then I’ve noodled a bit on big table best practices, and rolled those out for a table of seven at the convention. It was possibly even better than the first time, which honestly surprised me because we had some new folks. Despite needing to explain stuff about the underpinnings of moves and revelations we got a real solid slice of life among survivors hiding in an amusement park.

I have yet to attempt the game as a long-form small-group game! And I’m not sure I want to. Zombie World is in my party-RPG pile, along with Ghost Court (a silly romp) and Inheritance (not a romp, heavy and serious).

Night Reign

I was a player, not a facilitator, for this zine-sized game from Oli Jeffrey. I went in cold, with a pitch that sounded like a more-occult take on similar groundwork laid by Blades in the Dark. Characters belong to a secret underground rebellion composed of royalists after a good and noble king has been overthrown and now work under two secret identities. I like that bit, the idea that you’re actually having to keep it together on three different fronts. For example, I played an agent with public lives both as a backbench politician in the new parliament, and an enforcer for a crime boss.

Night Reign describes itself as “based on Trophy Dark,” which I’ll talk about a bit further down. Honestly can’t see the relationship, but the outline of the system is fairly solid. There are three card-based minigames, all variations on blackjack, depending on your character’s approach (stealth, guile or violence). Everyone’s got a selection of magic effects (devilry) they can invoke in play, but doing so may draw the attention of the god/spirit that provides that power.

Almost none of this maps to the rules!

After spending a couple hours trying to decode the rules, I think the game could have used another editing pass with fresh eyes. There are some unexplained things, the available character sheet doesn’t reflect the rules text, and there’s an economy of tokens representing Blades-style “heat” (chaos, maybe, I don’t remember) that we read as accumulating faster the fewer characters are in play. Which, honestly, makes no sense. The facilitator posted his thoughts in much more detail to Night Reign’s Itch.io page.

I’d be interested in reading the text myself but I trust our facilitator and I think it needs some TLC.

Torq

I’ve been trying to get this combination boardgame/freeform RPG to a table since the day the Kickstarter delivered. This game by Will Jobst is a psychedelic post-postapocalypse car-combat game, with packs of PC drivers traveling together between rest stops and dealing with whatever the road throws their way, then pulling back into a civilized space and playing out the stuff they do when they’re not driving. There are some pretty good tools for setting up a rest stop, and every driver has a to-do list in case you need inspiration setting up scenes.

Vroooooom! A couple huge vehicles vs a swarm of angry Waymos.

Torq itself is quite beautiful, filled with perplexing, interesting tables and little stubs of provocative text. It’s heavy on evocation and light on rules. For the freeform part I’m good with that: you end up with deeply weird rest stops (ours was a village buried under a desert of microplastics slowly fusing together under an ever-hotter sun) and the to-do things your drivers get are pleasantly straightforward. There’s a mode where you can instead play one of several bespoke premade characters, and that’s useful to read through because you end up with much stranger characters than if you just kind of Mad Max it up. One of the premade drivers is a seed collector, for example. The driver I rolled up using the game’s “arcade mode” drove a ridiculous jacked-up pickup with multiple truck nuts strung all over it; I described my driver looking like a conservative Tiktoker in wraparound shades. I was not unhappy when he burned to a crisp on the road.

The boardgame half, a GMless tactical game where the road war itself plays out, is quite abstract and pretty good … but it’s not as tight as the boardgame-iness would suggest. There’s a simple algorithm for deciding what the NPC vehicles do, but it’s underexplained. We quickly discovered that just ramming packs of semi-sentient robot cars will, big surprise, end up wrecking you as well! I think a bit of play would provide a set of best practices and rulings, assuming they stuck to it through some inevitable arguments.

Only got to play a couple hours of Torq but I’d very much like to see what an ongoing campaign might look like.

Goblinville

This is an old con favorite that I’ve written about extensively in the past. The very short version: you play small, ridiculous goblins in a human-scaled world. The actual game engine is a cunning cross between Otherkind (most prominent example being Psi-Run), the position system from Blades in the Dark, and the light/food/turn grind from Torchbearer. Shockingly tight fantasy engine that’s very easy to leverage for goblin silliness.

These guys again! I appreciate guardmice but I looove idiot goblins.

I had a 12 year old walk up to my table and I needed something age-appropriate and Goblinville, once again, delivered. Go read my previous review of it. I love this game and I wish more folks would look to it as inspiration for slightly crunchy new hacks.

Hearts of Wulin

My Night Reign facilitator offered up a couple hours worth of a Hearts of Wulin game, more a demo than a full scenario. Designer Lowell Francis sent me a copy a couple weeks back and I’ve been reading it avidly, so it was exciting to see it in play. Unfortunately, and this is a me-problem, I know almost none of the references Francis makes throughout the text. Hearts of Wulin is very much a love letter to wuxia cinema, but my experience with the genre starts with House of Flying Daggers and ends with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Unfortunately, his extensive references are wasted on me.

Just here for a good time. And definitely not to think about girls kissing each other.

That said, yeah, I get the aesthetics of the genre! And I can suss out what he’s going for because it’s all very well explained. In our little mini-scenario, we had three characters: a guard (the Bravo, more interested in fun than responsibility), the guard’s sidekick (the Student, a dour monk who’s caught feelings off our prisoner), and a prisoner (the Unorthodox, a princess who became head of the revolution). We were escorting the prisoner back to the Emperor for summary execution. There was enough time to explore a bit of a love triangle, face down a worthy foe, and foment a bit of rebellion against a local warlord.

Hearts of Wulin is in the style of PbtA games like The Veil in which you decide what emotion is motivating a roll and then choose that stat. Hearts adds a fun twist in that if you should miss a roll, you mark that stat and you can’t use it again until you’ve cleared the mark (and are nudged to roleplay toward the darker version of the stat’s “good” behaviors). Good way to keep from spamming your best stat! And it keeps folks talking about their emotions, which for this sort of Chinese action-melodrama is tonally perfect.

I’ll write more about Hearts of Wulin in the future. Very promising.

Trophy Dark

My highlight of the con was the last event I ran on the last day of the event, for a friend and a couple nice guys from the local army base who had just recently discovered D&D 5E and Pathfinder. I ran for them Trophy Dark, the one-shot version of Jesse RossTrophy Gold. Both games are based on Graham Walmsley’s Cthulhu Dark, a very stripped down system that nails a countdown-to-doom vibe. You can also roughly describe the entire Dark system in just a couple sentences: collect a white d6 if your character could plausibly be good at the dangerous thing you’re rolling to attempt, another white d6 if they accept a Devil’s Bargain (ie a guaranteed complication to the situation, straight out of Blades in the Dark), and a black d6 if you’re risking your body or mind to do it. If you’re using magic you definitely include a black d6. Then you roll, and look for the single highest die, with 4-5 being “yes, but” and 6 being a straight success. But! If the black die is highest and higher than your Ruin stat (a number between 1 and 6), your Ruin goes up and you acquire a condition. If your Ruin hits 6, the forest wins and you’re out. That’s 90% of the game. There are a couple neat twists on that core, but it’s more than enough to keep things moving and interesting.

How bad could it be?
Narrator: It was going to be so bad.

The premise of Trophy Dark is a band of hapless, under-equipped adventurers on their last legs head into a cursed forest that does not want them there. I drove that home for my D&D guys a couple times: if you had literally any other choice, you would not go into this godawful place. I described the forest as being like entering Area X from Annihilation. Shit is gonna get weird and you’re gonna question your life choices.

As a one-shot, Trophy Dark is designed to slowly but inevitably set the adventurers against one another. It’s a pure acrimony engine. Hopefully your players are bought into both the inherent tragedy of their situation and the inherent insanity of what they’re attempting. You work down a predetermined path of five broad situations, called Rings (like of a tree), each Ring programmed with both a threat and a temptation to ease the players into the inevitability of cross-purposes and real bad survival horror as the forest takes them over.

Guest writer Thomas Manuel will write more in depth about the Trophy games later this week. But as my first contact with this take on the system (I have run Echoes of Chaos, another Cthulhu Dark-based game but for time travel, which was helpful), I found it very satisfying and horrible. The army guys grimaced throughout! It was a good opportunity to explain to them what an X Card is, in any case.

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