The Secret Indie Underbelly of RinCon

My alternate clickbait-y title was The Sordid Secret Small Press Scene at RinCon. I kind of wish it actually was any of those things, but it’s not: we just wrapped up RinCon, a very mainstream, lovely, family-friendly gaming convention in Tucson, Arizona. And I played a bunch of small-press stuff while I was there.

RinCon has been going on for, gosh, many years. It is, in my estimation, the best convention in our state for roleplaying. For lots of small reasons, but none I can really point at, Arizona has had a hard time cultivating a stable roleplaying scene. We also have the Arizona Game Fair (mostly boardgames, but they’re doing their level best to up their roleplaying representation — Apocalypse World creator Vincent Baker was this year’s guest of honor!) and Crit Hit (ostensibly small press focus, but not the way I think about that). Now in terms of no-BS gaming, it doesn’t get any more hardcore than ConSimWorld Expo, the world’s biggest wargaming convention and it’s held here in my hometown of Tempe. There’s miniscule crossover out of wargaming into roleplaying and in particular small-press roleplaying, as far as I can tell. I need to attend one of these days and get an eyeful.

Back to RinCon! Lots of boardgames; it’s probably the bread-and-butter of the event. Then there’s the “muster hall,” which is scheduled RPGs. Generally quite active, every table fills pretty quick, and we have a small handful of local luminaries (7th Sea’s John Wick, World of Dew’s Ben Woerner, Savage Worlds‘ Shane Hensley) who are regular guests of honor. Then, starting last year, they added the Indie RPG Arcade. The tiny, intense indie gaming scene (mostly in Tucson, a smidge in metro Phoenix, but also strongly supported by Magpie Games in Albuquerque) decided it was time they/we have our own space. This year the Arcade had a own room in the Muster Hall and snagged a few walk-ins.

When you’re Indie AF(tm) at a mainstream con like RinCon, your life is pretty much 3 tables of demos and playtests amid the constant swirl of a parallel event that is The Actual Convention. It’s also the best thing happening. Here’s what I played and ran, most of which were neither demos nor playtests.

The King is Dead: This GM-ful/-less game of court intrigue and sex and violence is still a favorite of mine, but I’ve also played a lot of it (six tables at this point?) so I bring a pretty tight understanding of how it works. That is to my detriment at this point, because unfortunately it makes me a little impatient with new players. We had a very nice game despite my itchiness to ratchet the melodrama up to 11. That might also just be me. I’ve been thinking about this aspect of my convention behavior a lot the past couple days.

Zombie World: Another one I’ve played a bunch, but in playtest form and only with the creator. It was nice to play with someone who brought a different perspective! Zombie World is a very innovative Powered by the Apocalypse hack that relies on cards to generate quick, somewhat disposable real-world characters. Cards drive everything from taking actions (a deck replaces the 2d6 of Apocalypse World), to taking damage from zombies, to generating a population of NPCs that share space in your stronghold. It’s snappy and fun and punchy as heck. Highest recommendation. The final production copy is super nice, lots of laminated surfaces and dry-erase markers.

Stone Age: Ben Woerner, author of World of Dew (a samurai hack of Houses of the Blooded), was testing his new Forged in the Dark game about stone age tribes. The mechanisms and rhythm are nearly straight Blades in the Dark, but Ben has brought a couple interesting innovations. The big one that jumped out at me was Story Dice, which are d6es the GM throws into a pool whenever they introduce a complication or want to recognize good play or a good idea, a la Primetime Adventures‘ fan mail. Those dice are then available to any player to add to their rolls. Ben explained that he felt worn out by having to cook up Devil’s Bargains for virtually every roll, and this was a way to offload that pressure. I liked it but it also feels very squishy compared to the relative tightness of Blades procedurals.

Stone Age I thought had a nicely mystical, kind of Glorantha-y vibe to it. When we were doing our (very long!) setup, I enjoyed building on that mysticism: our tribe’s lands had been living in total night for months! The children of our rival tribe never died young! And so on. Our tribe’s “mission,” as it were, was to save our dying elder by stealing the sun back from our rivals. It was weird and decidedly non-modern, and I’m all about trying to model non-modern mindsets in play. Keep an eye out for the Kickstarter in a few weeks.

Dungeon World: The Arcade organizer ran this a couple times, totally off the cuff. Playing was like slipping on an old pair of shoes: terrible support, kind of smelly, but very comfortable. It’s starting to show its age, and I think the upcoming Root RPG is gonna eat its lunch. But it was a familiar game with friends, we brought a lot of fun to the table, and it was a nice nostalgia hit.

Dust Devils, twice: my first go of this was purely a nostalgia run in honor of RinCon’s “weird wild west” theme this year. I never really pay attention to con themes, but Dust Devils is still one of my favorite old storygames. It’s also a relic of a bygone era, when the players were tasked with wholeheartedly jumping into the hottest possible conflicts to generate the hottest possible fiction. Story. Game. Two of my players were indie-adjacent players (big Burning Wheel fans!) and could suss out that attitude; a third was younger and had not been exposed to the old ways; the last was a much older guy who, I think, had wandered in from the boardgame space and then never left the Arcade. The game itself was okay but running Dust Devils was a hell of a constant creative lift. A good reminder of how easy the past 5 years of storygame development has made playing. I left that table feeling like I’d gotten soft.

My second run of Dust Devils was a post-con command performance for a mix of Tucson friends and the Magpie-adjacent crew from Albuquerque who come in every year. We started late, we ran late, but it was such a hot experience. More of them understood that you need to bring your own conflict and melodrama to the table, and my lift was much less pronounced the second time through. Lovely blood opera where all but the school marm ended up gunned down or beaten to death. Heartwarming.

Goblinville: This was my half-assed Sunday morning hangover game. It was fine, it’s good, it’s very amusing. A couple hardcore Pathfinder folks at the table were super into it, which was nice, and I got to answer a bunch of questions about the games that had been cannibalized and repurposed for Goblinville. My intention was to run Mutagen Trail, a less gonzo looking hack of Goblinville with some crypto-Western aesthetics (it’s a post-apocalypse game about a caravan; the vibe is mostly in the page layout and spot art). I actually came out of Goblinville stoked to try its hacks. Good con game for folks who are all-in on something trivial-but-good.

Other games I saw, heard, and otherwise spied on:

Masks: Tucson local super-GM Jason Corley ran a couple Masks events, both in his unique “dynamic duo” format: two heroes and all that comes with it. I wish I’d gotten in on one of them! Jason wrote up his tricks on the IGRC Slack (email me if you want in).

Dangerous Times: historical journalism/occult game. Amazing premise, second-hand reports were that it’s undercooked rules-wise, sounds like it was pretty fun regardless.

Tall Pines: surreal small-town murder mystery game in the vein of Twin Peaks. I keep missing this event but it’s high on my play list. Get it before ABC hears about it!

Root: Magpie is puttings the finishing touches on this PbtA RPG based on the blockbuster asymmetrical boardgame. Lots of hype for violent, political woodland creatures. I haven’t played yet but these are the same designers as Masks and Zombie World, and those are so solid.

Power Up: pitched as a “Japanese superhero team” game, but creator Claire Mulkerin referenced lots of properties I don’t know anything about and it just made me feel old as heck. What even is a Steven Universe? Anyway, still in playtest. One of my roomies played and he reported back two two thumbs up.

Cartel: Magpie boss Mark Diaz Truman ran lots of his game about being caught up/in the Mexican drug trade, and it’s always such a pleasure just listening in on it. I’ve had a chance to be in on … hmmm… maybe three tables of Cartel over its rather extensive development. It’s coming out soon, can’t wait to get my paws on the final work.

I feel like I might have missed some. There’s of course also the shadow con that runs parallel to or after the regularly scheduled events. There are some very strong arguments against the shadow con phenomenon — we should be more inclusive, meeting and recruiting new people is better than holing up with what is frequently the most intensive talent — but it seems kind of inevitable. My after-con Dust Devils game was kind of in that spot, but I felt good about playing with such a strong table of players because it was after the main event.

The conversation that has stayed with me longest in my post-con fugue state is about how much bigger the Indie Arcade should grow. It is loosely based on Games on Demand, which has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams and is now a prominent presence at the biggest tabletop cons: GenCon, Origins, PAX and so on. The argument against it getting bigger is that playing these indie games is going to forever be seen as weird and maybe a not-fun gamble as long as they’re ghettoized. I think that argument has merit! I’d love to see Urban Shadows and Mobile Frame Zero: Firebrands and Fiasco in the regular schedule, alongside all the other RPGs. I know we all love the “skating storygaming is not a crime” punk identity, but is that really more important than getting more folks to play them?

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