Los Angeles, February 2020: we’ve tracked the replicants to a hotel near the spaceport. It appears they’re engaging in some sort of imaginary rituals, or maybe rituals of imagination. It’s like they’re creating … memories?
My buddy and podcast rock star MadJay Brown and I were invited as special guests to OrcCon 2020. Despite it being a pretty easy drive from Phoenix, it’s the first time I’ve ever attended. Honestly I’m not sure why. I’ll certainly be back.
I’ve been a “spotlight GM” at a few conventions in the past few years, but I’ve never presented a panel-type thing. I don’t attend them myself. But folks seem to like the blog so maybe we had something to offer?
Jay and I brainstormed a bit and came up with a really rough outline for “fearless facilitation.” It was broad/vague enough for us to tackle a couple different angles: what to do with problematic content, and what to do with problematic players. We also knew we wanted it to not be that format where you sit at a table and talk at an audience. We made a circle of chairs instead, so we could keep it intimate and informal.
I think it turned out pretty well! Mostly it was a meeting of minds, an exchange among peers, about what to do with the material in our games that feels uncomfortable, problematic, scary. Lots of folks shared their thoughts and concerns. Jay and I listened a lot, I probably talked too much, but it was good. If we offer something like it again, maybe we’ll get a recording somehow.
New To Me
We packed in a lot of games across three days. Don’t know about you, but my favorite bit of going to cons is trying new stuff, particularly if it’s not in my home game’s wheelhouse. New stuff I rolled out or played:
Under Hollow Hills
Vincent and Meg Baker’s work-in-progress game features a fairy carnival putting on shows in fairyland, the mortal world, and the spaces between. It’s recognizably Powered by the Apocalypse but it’s very weird in some interesting mechanical ways. Everyone gets a playbook, the MC (Mistress of Ceremonies) gets a worksheet related to the performance venue, and the performers together fill out a “playbill” that describes the multi-act performance they’re going to put on. The playbooks are all “fairy kinds” and put off a really strong British Folklore vibe. Our table featured The Crowned Stag, The Troll, The Worldly Frog, and The Nightmare Horse. There are two sets of playbooks in development right now, just a ton of nifty choices.
Gameplay itself feels similar to conventional PbtA with some important differences. Instead of moves that are triggered by the fiction (to do it, do it), there are plays you choose and execute. They’re more like menu choices. I thought it felt a bit like the choices you make in The King is Dead, which I also played at this con. And coming together as players to plan out your characters’ performance was just terrific. They seemed to have more fun with me away from the table than sitting there making their plays fly off the rails.
There are some other interesting twists to the standard (?) PbtA formula. Keep your eyes open for Under Hollow Hills — it’s eminently playable and relatable and fantastical.
Great American Witch
This game, about a coven of witches in the late 80s/early 90s, is an adaptation of an earlier game called Great American Novel. It’s sorta-kinda PbtAish in that you roll 2d6+a stat to generate 6-, 7-9, and 10+ results. Those results are normalized, and the moves act more like skills. Mechanically there are a few other interesting twists and economies, but if you’ve played any PbtA it’d be very easy to pick up.
Besides playbooks, the players also choose a coven to which they belong. That’s the session/campaign frame, providing an overall goal as well as a shared ritual the coven can perform for big effects. It’s pretty nifty and we had a good table. Designer Christopher Grey presented it, and described it as a “late alpha” playtest.
This is the next Forged in the Dark game from Off Guard Games, still in playtest. You play super-competent secret agents fighting the supernatural. It’s focused on competency porn, with the agents being guided through the mission by another player called The Operator, kind of a co-GM (there’s still a regular GM). I played The Operator, which was nice because I’m a huge spotlight hog and it’s a way to manage that without swamping out everyone else or needing to dial back my own play.
The semi-NPC role I played was fun, and reminded me a smidge of the Legion roles in Band of Blades. The interplay between agents in the field and an operator back in a safe home base was nifty.
For The Queen
Games on Demand organizer Tomer Gurantz asked me to help with the kids’ session Sunday afternoon. I don’t get to run enough games for kids, and my own kid is on a no-games-please kick right now, so I jumped at the opportunity.
The thing I learned from pitching two games to a crowd of kids is that, after a certain age, kids don’t want to play kids any more. Got a very chilly response to my pitches both for Heart of the Deernicorn‘s BFF! (featuring girls going on hangouts, based on their previous Fall of Magic) and Narrative Dynamics‘ Goblinville (not a kids game, but leans on derpy little goblins having adventures). After getting no votes for either, I ended up running/playing For the Queen, which every kid present had played, loved, and felt comfortable getting into.
I ended up playing with a very nice family, two kids and two parents, making me more a guest at their table than hosting them at my table. I haven’t gotten to play For the Queen since playing from designer Alex Roberts‘ own rough draft (questions jotted on index cards), so getting to use the finished product was nice.
Oldies But Goodies
Sometimes it seems like these cons lean a little too hard on the very newest hotness, particularly in the indie gaming space. But I got some replays in as well.
The King Is Dead
I may have played out The King is Dead at my usual conventions, but it turns out it didn’t quite get to L.A. I very happily hosted a private game of it.
It’s good every single time, and occasionally great. We only had 4 of the 5 possible players, but it was super good. Folks grasped the minigame structure immediately, happily chased absurd horny/violent motivations, and generally chewed up the scenery.
Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne
Got to play this freeform gmless storygame for the second time. It was great because I had a much better grasp of the relationship map and flow of the preprogrammed scenes, and the endgame was less of a gut punch than the first time (which is good because I needed to go entertain some kids afterward).
I played the field guide, Ham, an inveterate scumbag and generally skeevy personality. My first time through, I saw that Ham was pretty hard to play: his guidance traits are twitchy, greedy and cowardly. Took some effort but I found a sympathetic angle for him. I think Ham’s my new favorite role.
Sagas of the Icelanders (2nd Edition playtest)
Last event, and my personal favorite event, was a very late-night playtest of Sagas of the Icelanders, 2nd Edition. SotI continues to be my all-time favorite PbtA game, so a second edition has a lot to live up to. It doesn’t quite live up to itself, not yet, but I can see where it’s going. Every playbook has been tweaked, the internal economies have been simplified, most of the moves are reworded. I won’t get into details because they’re all subject to change, but when designer Gregor Vuga finally lands it, it’s gonna be good.
Sometime I’m going to write/confess why my private SotI games are just different than the ones at semi-public tables. This one was quite private, with the rest of the con having gone home for the most part. It was also one of the strongest, most capable SotI tables I’ve ever facilitated, on par with a similarly all-star cast I ran at Dreamation 2016.