Saturday, 13 January 2018

My first game for Spaghetti ConJunction 2a

Game Title: The Wilbur (Series 1 episodes 1&2 "Fools Rush In" and "Where Angels Fear to Tread)

Game system: Manifold

Number of players (min to max): 2-6

Slot: Morning

A short descriptive pitch:The Wilbur is set on the titular U.S.S. Wilbur (ECV-196), a mid-level exploratory space vessel in the Planetary Union, a 25th-century interstellar alliance of Earth and many other planets.

You play the Captain and crew of the ship. You're not the finest that the Union has to offer, but there are over 2,000 ships in the fleet and they all need a crew.

Pregens will be available but, ideally, you'll make your own characters using my easy to understand MANIFOLD rules. Human, Alien, Artificial or any combination you want. The Union ain't that fussy, apparently.

Your first mission - a distress signal has been received from the U.S.S. Valiant (EV-27). The ship went missing almost a century ago on a mission to breach the energy barrier at the edge of the Galaxy. Looks like this is your chance to find out what happened to it. But better hurry. The signal is coming from the disputed region and the Krill may already gave dispatched a ship (or several) of their own to investigate.

But what's that knocking sound in the Quantum drive? You thought that last delivery of Dysonium smelt a bit off......

Any other information: Manifold is my own multi-genre rule set. Just 2d6, easy to learn and play. Massive fun with magic happening every time you roll a double.

(Warning: I've also been watching "Discovery")

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Winter StabCon 2018

I love StabCon. However, most of you won't need to read this report because I've posted and written about it so many times and it's always the same. (Which is why it's so flipping great!)


TLDR: remains the cheapest residential convention by far. Friendly atmosphere. Mainly board games but RPGs are growing. I ran four Manifold games and played in one Savage Worlds. All games fully booked mostly with returning players who seek out my games StabCon after StabCon.

StabCon is twice per year, Winter and Summer, in Stockport. It's residential, in a low cost hotel and is very popular. The convention can host 300 attendees and was fully booked out for Saturday well in advance of the event.

Because of the way the dates fell this year, it was in the last weekend of my Christmas Holiday, so I had the luxury of travelling down quite early on Friday - instead of rushing to get there after work. In theory that meant I could arrive in time to fit in an extra game session Friday afternoon. However, there is relatively little pre-convention chatter prior to this event and I wasn't able to round up any players before the day.

What I did do, however, was to pop into Element Games in Stockport to have a meeting about the Convergence convention being held there in March. From their website I had the impression that I'd left it too late in the day to throw my hat into the ring as a GM. A face to face meeting disabused me of that notion and I could see how it suited my needs for early 2018. So it was well worth having the chat. I also got one of the guys to carry fliers for Spaghetti ConJunction and Manifold down to Contingency. Win, win!

So I got to StabCon mid afternoon. There was a queue for checking into the hotel. Apparently they'd been strict this year and not allowed anyone to check in before 2:00pm anyway, so if I'd arrived earlier the queue would probably have been even longer. The hotel is at the cheaper end, just over £100 for two nights including breakfast. But it has been recently refurbished so is good value for money. And there is a great synergy between the convention organisers and the Hotel with its friendly and accommodating staff.

After dropping my bags in the room, I went to sign in at the convention. As usual I received my personally hand made name badge. These must take ages to make and show real commitment on the part of the organisers. I booked tables for my RPG games and turned to pin up my sign up sheets. I noticed two things. Firstly, there were far more RPGs being offered than at the last StabCon - and the ones already pinned up were already booked out. Secondly, this year everyone seemed to be using the typed A5 "house" signing up forms. My fully colour A4 sign up sheets looked a bit out of place and seemed to take up rather too much space.

I ordered my usual StabCon evening meal (12" American Hot Pizza) and waited for my evening game to start. This is one of the rare games I play in and the only regular campaign in which I have a continuing character. Savage Worlds Pulp - Indiana Jones with minor Superpowers. (I basically play a WW1 cyborg.) Great GM, wonderful group of players. Always a great way to start the convention.

During a comfort break I noticed all the games on the RPG board - including mine - were fully signed up, and there were even more people scanning the board looking for games to sign up to. StabCon remains primarily a board game convention but the  RPG games seem to be getting more and more popular.

Because the beer is reasonably priced - and the convention bar is open to midnight -  I drank quite a bit and nearly got sucked into a card game. However I ducked out and got to bed just before midnight.

I got up early and ate the adequate hotel breakfast as soon as it opened at 7:00am. This gave me time to get set up for the day.

2018 is going to be the year of MANIFOLD my multi-genre RPG. I need to promote and hone it. Every RPG opportunity I get in the first half of 2018, I'll have to run Manifold. So at StabCon 2018 I offered to run three of the four example scenarios from the rulebook.

In the morning I ran the Science Fiction scenario. Pure TV space opera. Fully booked with 5 players, I think I'd run games for all of them before. Particularly pleased have a father and his two daughters at the table with me. They seem to choose to play one of my games every single StabCon. It's really gratifying.

As the pilot film of a TV series the scenario is written to bring together 5 disparate characters. This group fragmented immediately with, at one point, all 5 in different locations. In an indigenous alien native's hut, in an audience with their parliament, a prisoner of the catlike aliens in their orbiting ship, being tortured by the captain and, finally, drifting in space in an escape pod! Bringing them together for the climax took some work. But it was fun.

The afternoon was the Fantasy scenario from the rulebook. Again this was fully booked including one player who I know of old. I first came across him four decades ago. I was extremely gratified to see him signing up. Two of the other players were ones who'd played in my Dr Who scenario at a previous StabCon and were happy to regale me with stories of it. It had had a stunning climax that even I remember. A further player was one who'd played in the morning SciFi game. He told me I had refereed for him before and told me I was his favourite GM. This is all incredibly gratifying.

Another group of fun players. I'd been worried that this scenario was the weakest in the book and was considering updating or replacing it. However, it worked really well. To be honest I found myself telling the story rather than bringing it to life by fully Roleplaying every NPC, but the players seemed happy. The wise old player, however, spotted every trope and managed to cleverly short circuit the bad guy's plan (to the extent that he was probably lynched off-stage by his disgruntled followers), so the game finished a bit early after only three hours. But no-one complained.

After tea I ran the Superhero game from the rules. Most of the group were players who'd played with me in the Saturday slot at StabCon before. However, those scenarios were horror ones - including the one from the Manifold rulebook. I felt guilty about not having a new horror scenario for them but it's not a genre I have many ideas for. So of the three scenarios on offer, they'd requested the Superhero one. This is the one where you play Superheroes who have to track down their old mentors, who've come out of retirement, before they do themselves an injury. The twist worked well and we had a satisfying climax. So, effectively I've got a regular Saturday night group now. I REALLY need to sort out a horror adventure for them next time.

Sunday morning was, as always, my Star Wars campaign. I ran a refight of "The Force Awakens" two years ago at StabCon when the film came out and the players have been returning for more every convention since. Today was the 5th chapter in what was meant to be a one off game.

TBH, though the game, the characters and the players are all great I'm finding the Star Wars universe - especially the contemporary one with the "First Order" etc. a very limited setting for designing adventures. So I had a chat with them after the game. We agreed to park the campaign and start a Superhero one in the summer.

There is time for another game Sunday afternoon but as I'd got work Monday morning, I set off home early. I have stayed for afternoon games in the past, though, making it a six game weekend.

I made sure to book into StabCon Summer - as I always do - before leaving. You can't afford to leave it to chance.

Obviously I'd recommend StabCon whole heartedly. It's a family atmosphere where everyone knows everyone and I get regular players returning to my game offerings. Still the cheapest residential convention of the year by far with a bar that stays open until midnight. You have to get in early to book a place and it's a bit quirky and eclectic so you might need a guide the first time you come. (Feel free to ask if you need help.)

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Dragonmeet 2017

Dragonmeet is the big game convention in London. There has been a Dragonmeet for decades. I played games at Dragonmeet back in the 1980's. Our Superhero RPG - Golden Heroes - won the "Best new RPG" award for 1984 at Dragonmeet.

The current iteration is held at a Hotel in Hammersmith. It's a one day convention - which I think is a shame. There's certainly enough going on to fill two days for a visitor. But I'm not sure a second day would bring in a 100% increase in revenue for the organisers or traders and - given the need for hotel rooms - their costs would more than double. So a one day event it remains.

The trade hall is open during the day but closes in the evening, presumably to give traders time to strip down and travel home. The games rooms stay open until midnight and there are three game slots. In previous years I have played in all three slots and stayed in a hotel in London overnight - especially as the organisers used to hint that there was a possibility of meet ups and games on the Sunday. That never worked for me, however, so I now just travel down from Birmingham, play in the two game slots during the day and travel back up in the evening, making it a much more cost effective event for me.

I offered to run two games in the daytime slots. Dragonmeet is legendary for the lack of information on its website. Though we all submitted our games in advance, the details weren't published until the event was nearly upon us. Originally the web-site said the games were prebookable - with seats from each game being keep free for on the day allocation. Then it was decided that the games weren't going to be prebooked. "Living world/organised play" games WERE prebookable, but their organisers insist on this at every convention. We are left to draw our own conclusions as to why the RPGs weren't prebooked. There was also a bit of kerfuffle online because referees offering to run RPGs didn't receive specific instructions until the week of the event. This always happens but it made some of the newer referees feel a bit nervous.

A decision was made this year to open the doors early and start the RPGs an hour earlier. Presumably because by the time the doors opened in previous years, there was a massive queue and getting everyone in took ages. It also created a two hour gap between the morning and afternoon games, to give gamers a chance to spend money in the trade hall. However, for some of us, this meant we had to get up at stupid o'clock to travel down. I booked a 6:30am train from Birmingham New Street. I also fretted a bit about how I was going to fill two hours in the middle of the day. I find one hour more than enough to eat and mooch around.

Shortly before the day I received a message from Chris Dean, a fellow games designer and referee, checking to see if we were on the same train. We were.

On the day itself, the 6:30 train was cancelled. The next train was massively delayed. The British rail system can be awful, especially in and out of London, and this was one of those days. Both Chris and I arrived far too late to run our morning games. I tried to inform the organisers of our delay via Facebook etc. Upon arrival, like last year, I followed other gamers there and entered the hotel via a door that led to two small lifts. There was no big sign saying "Dragonmeet this way!"

We checked in and checked that we were too late to play our games. I later found out from a friend that other referees had failed to make the morning slot but, more importantly, there were insufficient gamers to fill all the games that were offered and groups were merged to fill games. I presume everyone ended up with a great game but the early start doesn't seem to have attracted loads and loads of gamers.

Chris and I could have mooched in the trade hall or attended some seminars but we chose to check out the "Games on Demand" room. In this room a small crowd were "pitched" short games by referees and said which they wanted to try. I was surprised at the games offered - many of which I'd never heard of. They were mostly "indie" and seemed - to my tastes - to be a bit vague and woffley. But that's just a "horses for courses" thing. I was also surprised that they were offering two hour slots. I was pretty certain that the pre convention blurb had said the games were starting on the hour every hour, so I'd assumed they'd be one hour games or, at least, there'd be one hour games on offer.

We signed up for a game of "Cthulhu Dark" a stripped down version of the horror game. The Referee was very clear that this was a"purist" game of existential horror rather than a "pulp" game where you can actually confront the bad guys. We started with three players but my instincts kicked in and I hooked a passersby to makeup the numbers. I noticed lots of potential players coming in and out of the room as we played, but there didn't seem anyone hooking them as they passed. I'm pretty sure some new games did start after an hour though.

As it turned out, this was a fairly traditional RPG, with a referee running us through a pre written scenario. Good scenario - a family caught in the crucible of events in 17th century Arkham. Good referee. It was one of those where events unfold and your characters are swept along. There's plenty for you to do and there was much scenery chewing from the players. But ultimately it was about experiencing the journey and the climax was pretty unavoidable. I tried to avoid it. I died.

I was surprised that the game ran for two and a half hours, rather than the two it was pitched at. It was more like a normal game slot rather than a "game on demand" but it was just what I needed after the journey down.

The passing player I'd hooked into the game turned out to be an excellent convention player.  Apart from Roleplaying the sh@t out of the family matriarch, he made a point of telling the Referee that he was a good referee and offered to buy him a drink.

Talking of which, I did buy myself a pint of Lager at the bar and an egg sandwich for lunch. £8.10!!!!!!!! Has London hit the "fiver for a pint" mark?

As it was Dragonmeet, I started bumping into gaming friend after gaming friend, saying a quick "hello" and moving on. Some people come to Dragonmeet just to meet up with old friends before Christmas. The games, trade hall, seminar etc. are incidental. It's the social side that matters. My favourite moment was chatting to three old mates from various conventions only to have one of them point out that none of them knew each other. I just meet so many people on my travels I assume everyone in the hobby knows everyone else. I was pleased to be able to make introductions.

I then chose to pitch to run a game in the Indie Games on Demand room. I wasn't really prepared for this but I had my "Code of Warriors and Wizardry" stuff from the morning and chose to use it to run a version of the intro dungeon I use for my "Choose Your Adventure" set up. I didn't have it with me, but I've memorised it. The only thing I didn't have with me was pregenerated characters.

So I pitched a one hour game. I only got one, player - an old friend - but we grabbed a table and began to make his character. I actively worked on passersby and got a very enthusiastic young man and his father. And then the table suddenly filled up. I had six players.

As often happens, the open-ended nature of the game gave the players license to create a wide range of characters. The young man made and element wielding dryad, whilst his dad was a shape-shifting snakeman. My friend made a Golem. We also had martial artist that could channel his Chi, a Dwarf with a pet Dragon and a young Prince travelling under cover.

With the late start, character generation and full table it was crush to get the story to satisfactory resolution in an hour, but I made it. It was great fun for me and the players.

I then took a tour down to the trade hall. I'm afraid the signage wasn't super clear and I had to ask directions. Yes, I could have looked in the programme but I shouldn't have need to. It was a good trade hall with everything a gamer could want and more.  But my time was spent greeting friends in passing again.

I went upstairs to drop some fliers for my new game and our games convention in the bar only to find they'd started calling the afternoon games early. Unlike the morning, these were all full. When I'd checked the sheets, I'd been disappointed at how bland they looked. Signup sheets for just about every other convention - including all the amateur ones - look far better. And they were pinned up using ordinary drawing pins. It all looked a bit unprofessional.

For reasons which are documented elsewhere, I'd actually called the games at last year's event. So I know how difficult this job is. (And you'll notice I wasn't invited to do it this year.....)

But it started early, was in an open hall and, with the early start, many referees weren't there yet. Even if a referee was present, their players weren't, so it was all a bit ramshackle - which is not the fault of the guy calling the games. And with all the games being full, there were loads of people waiting to play. There was some frustration.

My table was filled by a group travelling together. So I was met by their representative and we chatted whilst the rest of his group finished their various errands and arrived. He, it turned out, was a long time supporter of my work. We'd met before and he's started writing and printing his own games. So we had loads to chat about.

When everyone arrived we went upstairs to find the RPG rooms. Again, this was difficult due to a lack of effective signage. The room we ended up in was crammed with what seems like a dozen games each with half a dozen players around a small table. The windows were closed. It was hot and noisy and not ideal. Everyone seemed to manage though and have a good time.

This was the Science Fiction genre from my Manifold rules, the introductory scenario from the rulebook. A table of six players playing: A Science Officer (basically a Spock clone), a Red-shirt security Guy, an ex-military bounty hunter, a conman, a petty thief and a barbarian space pilot (best not to ask).

This was great fun as always. This was a clever group and succeeded in sidelining a few things that challenge other groups. The barbarian pilot was killed, but the player took over the muscle bound gang boss NPC the group had somehow co-opted to their cause. Despite the clever play, the time flew by and we had trouble completing the game in the four hour slot. Possibly because of the interactions between the players - they all knew each other and we're having great fun, giving me the opportunity to sit back from time to time.

Then it was time to leave. I bumped into another old friend and we shared the walk to the underground station and the underground journey. My train home was almost as delayed as my train down so I got home very late.

Dragonmeet, could be improved. Easy fixes are:

1. Put someone proactive and professional on the website. Make sure it is up to date and accurate. (Eg. It says that Hammersmith underground station is near to the hotel but doesn't give instructions on how to get from the station to the hotel.)
2. Decide how the RPGs are going to be organised. Advertise this early and stick to it.
3. More and better signs get at the event. (The place to look is the AireCon conventions. They use a lot of pull up banners, rather than printed signs pinned to the walls.)
4. If RPG games are going to be called as they are now, do it in one of the RPG rooms. Allocate two people to the task, one introduce, lay down the rules and control the room, the other to call the games.

However, it's easy to critcise. The organisers deliver a convention with a trade hall, excellent gaming and numerous ancillary activities. Too much to all be experienced in a single day. We shouldn't forget that.

Dragonmeet is a great event where everyone who is anyone comes to meet old friends. Because of this, despite the occasionally ramshackle organisation, it's a wonderful event well worth attending.  I enjoyed it immensely, despite the awful train journies. Thank heavens for the Games on Demand room. They really saved my day.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Spaghetti ConJunction 1b - October 21st 2017 - Geek Retreat, Birmingham

Spaghetti ConJunction is special to me. It's in my home town and I co-organise it with two other luminaries of the RPG world. This was the second one. The first event in February was small c. 40 people but was success because it was just so flipping "nice".

This time, despite us posting everywhere we could of think of online and promoting it at every convention we visit, we had no idea if anyone was even coming. We had half the game offers we got last time and that was the only communication we had from ANYONE. We guessed numbers would be down due to the threatening weather - trains were being cancelled apparently - being held when at a lot of people were at a huge convention, Essen, in Germany and it being half term. But we had nothing to base this on.

The convention was due to start at 10am at Geek Cafe in the centre of Birmingham and we got in a bit early to set up. We owned the top floor of the venue for the event. As you'd expect, it's perfect. I'd prepared some signage for this one. Seeing your logo blown up big and plastered everywhere makes the event feel more real.

10:00am came and people trickled in. Old friends mainly. Five games were offered in the morning. Three of these ran. It's an odd thing, but the shiney, glossy, colour signup sheets were ignored in favour of the hand-written ones. A referee had forgotten to prepare one for his pre-advertised Star Wars game so hand wrote a replacement one quickly. Another Referee turned up to offer Tremulus - a horror game - on spec. Again with a hand-written sign-up sheet. Both of these games filled easily. A mashup of the TV series Supernatural, Grimm and Sleepy Hollow was the beneficiary of the horse trading when the "I Love the Corps" space marines sci fi game only got one sign up and my own Fireball XL5 game left everyone cold - again. I keep offering it at conventions but it never runs. Perhaps a game based on puppet series from 1962 is a bit of a stretch for most people.

I played in the TV series mashup game. This is just another great thing you can do with RPGs - create your own "crossover" episodes between TV series you like.

The game was presented by an experienced referee and was a well researched, well prepared romp. It also came with with a Tsunami of "bling". The full colour character sheets formatted to look like actual FBI records of the main characters were just the start.

 Player (looking at the, two, street maps supplied) "Where exactly is it?"

Referee: "Perhaps it'd be easier to see it on the Satellite map" (whips it out).

Newspapers, photo cards for every NPC. Photo montage sheets for every location. Even a 3D Google Earth view of the bad guys' headquarters on his phone! "Impressive"  just doesn't cover it, somehow.

I'd only watched one episode of each series before deciding they're not for me. But I got to play Ichibod Crane's straight laced FBI associate, which wasn't a stretch. And I was able to sit back for long periods of time and just watch everyone else chew on the multi-layered mystery. Headless bikers terrorising the city were just the first of many such layers. As I say - a romp.

This game came really close to over-running. I was surprised that the cafe staff weren't more proactive at the tables but, when I nipped downstairs to grab a menu, I found out why. The place was really busy. It's great to see a Geek Cafe being so successful. We had lunch served at our table during play and everyone seemed happy with the food, milk shakes and drinks they were ordering.

Then there was a raffle. I'm not normally a fan of the raffles at conventions. They tend to drag on and eat into valuable gaming time. But the haul of offerings donated from producers for our raffle was just stunning. (And, afterwards, we were approached online by even more companies saying they'd've made contributions  if we'd only asked them. And I threw in a preproduction proof of my forthcoming. Fantasy rules - The Code of Warriors and Wizardry. I ran the raffle with a "no nonsense" approach and I think we got through it in about 5 minutes flat. And there were a LOT of prizes.

The winner of  my rulebook and asked me to sign it. Nice!

The afternoon slot had four games offered. Three games ran again. The zombie Thomas the Tank Engine Sci Fi game didn't run but we had a D&D 5th game, a game of "Tales from the Loop" (I think some people had come just to try this hot new game) and my own adventure from my forthcoming Fantasy rulebook. Hooray!

I had 5 players. I've run this adventure before, but this group played the scenario the straightest anyone ever has. They listened to the world background and we had three elves, a dwarf and a human rogue. I deliberately don't tell the players the adventure starts at sea, but two players still made Water and Wind wizards. No-one chose to make a wacky character or non standard race. (The Italian dwarf with his pet bear was the weirdest. And somehow, a dwarven Mafiosi worked.....)

Throughout the game they played tactically, using the "doubles rule" to reserve rerolls - which were then well used - rather than constantly introducing new plot details - as so many groups do. It was the straightest play through of the adventure ever, hitting all the beats perfectly. Great!

See? My game CAN be played without going gonzo!

Though the best moment was the wind wizard being pursued by a horde of goblins and luring them into a trap by running - cartoon style - off the edge of a cliff. As one of the other players said - "genius!"

We left the room tidier than we'd found it and checked the takings. Despite the reduced numbers, a  £90 donation will be making its way to Birmingham Children's hospital.

So SCJ 1b was smaller than 1a, but was still great fun. The Geek Cafe owner was very happy and wants us back. Players and referees had a good time and there's a donation to charity. Everyone's a winner!

So we'll be back in February. Watch this space for details. I reckon our convention is going grow.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

WynterCon 2017 day two

WynterCon 2017 - Day Two.

TLDR: 6 more games, three of the The Cthulhu Hack. Another great day.

I caught a taxi up to the event. On the way I passed two of my fellow referees walking up and had the taxi stop to pick them up. Wearing a distinctive refereeing hat makes you easy to spot! Then I felt guilty because we passed the two RPG organisers also  walking up and we had no space left to pick them up as well.

Apparently the Steam Punk standup had been very good, but the venue had run out of beer. (Where have I heard THAT before?)

Then it was the same as Saturday. Running games almost from the get-go. I started off running a game for an old mate and his family. This was my The Black Hack Intro again. Though he was trying to hold back and encourage his kids to take the lead, he couldn't help rushing in to save the kidnapped children. All went well apart from the halfling thief being horrendously disfigured by a bugbear mace.

Then a game of The Cthulhu Hack. The same scenario as yesterday - as written the game's designer. Again I think I ran the investigation phase with the Smokes and Flashlights alright. However, they arrived at the warehouse just as the boat which had delivered the artefact was departing. To my surprise two of the characters ran and leapt to try and board the thing. One made it - and spent the entire scenario on that damned boat - whilst the other disappeared into the water. A three way party split and we'd barely started.

As often happens the investigation into the warehouse eventually foundered and there was some gunplay. The fleeing characters returned with a fuel truck to ram the place. This isn't the first time this has happened when I've run the scenario. However, it is the first time that a character has spent the entire game on a boat and turned it around to come back and ram the warehouse from the dockside.

No sooner had I finished THAT than I had three players completely new to RPGs asking to try TCH. I dunno you wait months to run a game and then you run several sessions of it on the trot!

As new players, they seemed to struggle with the investigation phase. And when they got into the warehouse they were quickly captured. But then something magic happened as the Professor (the female version played by a young lady, this time) turned the tables by convincing the cult leader that his Artefact was a fake. Ritual abandoned. No tentacles. Clever! I love RPGs. The same scenario. Two totally different stories.

Then another group of young players new to RPGs. The Black Hack intro game again. This went well until they cleverly combined their attacks to take out the Bugbear. The remaining goblins tried to use the captured children as human shields. The players got frustrated and shot both of the children themselves. I explained how the game is usually played as a campaign and the likely effects of elven arrows being found in the corpses of young children. But they enjoyed the game and I gave their leader details of how to get his hands on the D&D rules.

Then the RPG organiser brought me three really young girls who wanted to try a Superhero game. They tried to corral their fourth mate but she demurred and actually  dragged one away, leaving me with two, who seemed happy to continue to play.

This was their first RPG. Giving them a game where rolling a double gives you narrative control proved a heady mix for them. The first double they rolled, rather than taking my recommendation of a reserved reroll, they caused the Supervillain to fall in love with the Superheroinne. Then it was just a case of new plot element after new plot element. Their parents turned up but said they were too busy to join in. However, the wife prevailed upon the dad - an old time roleplayer - to sit down so we had three players for the finale with the three heroes, riding dinosaurs by this time (another double), and a detachment of soldiers versus some Daleks in the Cretaceous era.

The last game was another The Cthulhu Hack. The third one today and the fourth across the weekend. This time there were tentacles with the characters escaping by the skin of their teeth and being forced to call in the army to take on the brute.

Then it was heading off on my long long journey home.

So how was WynterCon 2017? I ran TWELVE games in two days, running virtually non stop. Yes these were one hour demos and many of them were repeats of games I've run before but they were still all intense and enjoyable experiences. I loved playing in the big top. Yes the roof leaked a bit on the Saturday and the humidity wasn't good for books (and Pokemon cards, apparently) but I loved playing on grass. It was my first experience with modern "Gig Loos" and I was impressed. I loved the whole experience. Other general conventions would do well to adopt the WynterCon model for RPGs.

I've now got a problem. If it clashes with Furnace again next year. What do I do? Furnace is like fine dining. WynterCon is the instant gratification of a "pudding club."
Choices, choices.

WynterCon 2017 Day One

WynterCon 2017 Day One.

Realise my reports are usually long and detailed but this one is going to be longer than normal.

So: TLDR: WynterCon Eastbourne. Massive eclectic geek event held under big top. Ran 6 games on Saturday - flipping loved it!

Wyntercon is held in the classic English seaside town of Eastbourne. This is its fourth year. I attended the first two but wasn't able to make WynterCon 3 last year because it was on the same weekend as another convention I attend. There seems to be be a small period -.between the end of the summer convention drought and the petering out time around Christmas - which is absolutely rammed with events. And it's about to get even more crammed with the recent announcement of a large new convention in London in October 2018. In fact, WynterCon 4 conflicted with another convention - the wonderful, marvellous, essential (fully booked) Furnace in Sheffield - which is easier and cheaper for me to get to. So, originally, it was my intention to attend that one but I somehow messed up my booking.

Eastbourne from Birmingham is not an easy journey and not cheap. But I found a way cut costs using a budget hotel and some strange train routes (travelling down Friday night and returning stupid o'clock Sunday evening.) So I made a last minute decision to attend. It was pleasing that the organisers of the Roleplaying area were pleased to receive my last minute offer to run games.

The journey down was fine but I arrived too late to hook up with anyone for drinks. There's nothing official on Friday evening, but people that know each other tend to meet up at one of Eastbourne's many hostelries. My hotel was a bit tired, but had a great sea view and did the job for me. Eastbourne as a town  just seems to be one long beach promenade and was probably a fantastic destination in the 1950's and 60's. But it seems to have gone the way of many such places and is now rather faded.......

The convention failed the Simon Burley taxi-driver test. Neither the driver taking me from the train station to my hotel Friday night or from the Hotel to the event Saturday morning knew anything about the convention.

Like DragonDaze, last weekend, WynterCon is the result of the singular vision of one man who has moved heaven and earth to make it happen. Unlike DragonDaze - which is clearly an analogue gaming convention - WynterCon is much more eclectic. It started off as a SteamPunk convention, but now has an unusual range of offerings. There are celebrities - from Privaeval, Star Wars, even...... Tregard from Knighmare! (He looks like he could still pull on the wizard's robes.) There's fantasy film puppetry and makeup and realistic my life-sized walking dinosaurs. There's cosplay, steampunk and comic memorabilia. There's a stage which, this year, had a life sized Jabba the Hutt on it. Accompanied by a young lady in the full slave-Leia outfit. (Of course when I say "full" I mean the opposite. But it doesn't affect me like it used to. I've now reached the "I wouldn't let my daughter go out wearing that!" stage.) There's loads to see and do but I doubt any one person would appreciate every stand. It's too broad. However, loads of people probably enjoy different sub sets of WynterCon's programme.

The first the conventions were held in Eastbourne's historic Winter Gardens. For reasons I'm not privy to, this year's event was held in a park on the edge of town under a massive big top tent. Not a marquee. No. A flipping big top. And a BIG one. With blue and yellow candy stripes. Needless to say, I loved it! Some of my best gaming experiences have been under canvass.

Inside the massive interior, you could see the entire panoply of WynterCon laid out before you. Amazing! The Roleplaying area was slap bang in the middle, five tables - all the right size for each referee, with enough chairs and sufficient space between them so there was no overlap of sound or games. There was me, a table of one-dice games, 5th edition D&D, Golden Sky stories and a table running a mix of made up stuff, Boss Monster and other things. The first WynterCon suffered from the usual syndrome of offering RPGs without really knowing how to do it. Referees turned up expecting to run their usual four hour convention games but convention goers knew nothing about RPGs and weren't ready seek out or sign up for them. The following year some of us turned up with shorter demo games and the area was grabbed by the scruff of the neck by young couple who now run things superbly. It has become an entirely drop-in, run on demand, event. Referees are required to bring pregens and offer one hour games. The RPG has a front desk where the organisers grab passersby and allocate them to games. After months of running by "Choose Your Adventure" set up on my own - and playing the "front man" for RPGs at various events, it was a lovely feeling to have someone else taking the load. Well, sharing the load, actually. Because several referees seem to share my enthusiasm about broadening the hobby and we were all snaring people on all sides, holding forth about the games and encouraging them to play. I felt like I'd found a family.

Shortly after the convention started, we got going. My first game was a a Dr Who intro. Most of the players seems to be people who'd played their first RPGs at previous WynterCons and seemed almost desperate to play. One of them was a female Viking warrior - the player not the character - who's husband was running the hog-roast stand and who'd been dragged along to her first geek convention. She was a bit overwhelmed by the event, let alone RPGs. I was a bit worried she might be put off by all the high level, almost shouty, Roleplaying that began as soon as I started the game. All my usual pregens were in play and the student Timelord and Tardis maintenance droid immediately started arguing about whose fault it was the Tardis museum exhibit had taken off with them aboard, as if they'd been playing the characters for years.

The game was redirected when the guy playing the 1960's hippy decided he just wanted the Tardis to land in a cafeteria because he had the munchies. Unfortunately when he said "Area 51" he meant the Andy Warhol place and I thought he meant THE Area 51! Cue the Tardis landing in the middle of an Army Mess full of soldiers...... Massive fun.

As soon as that game was over, the RPG organisers brought me seven players for a game. Seven. I'll repeat that. SEVEN! I normally struggle to run for six players. Seven was a stretch. And none of my demo games have seven pregens. However, a bit of stream crossing and the Tardis picked up a Wookie and Protocol droid along with the usual crew of misfits. As I always do with large tables I refereed standing up and I think I coped very well. The large group size meant that one player got away with being quiet and a bit of a spectator but that was my only slight self criticism.  This was the same scenario I'd just run. However it stuck closer to my original storyline, with the Tardis rocking up on a space station being  stripped by the evil Solomon (c'mon you Whovians....) and his crew. I enjoyed it with some great interplay between Solomon's crotchety war robots and the protocol droid.

Just as in finished THAT, I had a table of people for The Black Hack D&D. This was basically split in half. A couple of teenagers (mid?) who'd never played before and some guys who'd played some D&D. This was (as always) Matt Colville's "Delian Tomb". (It's on You-Tube, look it up). This went perfectly to plan with the kidnapped children being rescued. Only 10% of parties solve the final riddle and find the hidden room. This party not only did that but did it in record time. One of the newbies cracked it immediately.

Then it all went to pot. Having opened the door by reciting the Oath, the Priest tried it on the skeletal warriors defending the tomb. OK, so I allowed this as a Turn Undead. When he failed his roll he refused to give it up. Having succeeded once in using it, he was determined to use it again, and again. He rushed into the tomb, abasing himself at the bier the skeletons were defending, repeating the oath over and over. Cue all the skeletons turning on him and chopping his prone form to pieces.

This left the party too weak to take the room but, then, they did what parties NEVER do. They shut the secret door, left the undead inside. Went out. Recovered. Planned. And came back at full force. Sorted!

Just as I'd finished THAT, I found three teenagers who'd never played D&D before and ran the same adventure for them. This is why I love RPGs so much. The self same super simple adventure. The same pregenerated characters. Totally different experience. These three tried to overplan every step - so concerned about failing. I don't know if you think me mean but I had to have the monsters respond logically. So when they got the drop on the goblin guards but chose to talk and talk and plan about how they were going to take them out, I had the goblins hear something and prod their smallest member into going to investigate while the rest took cover with their bows. When he found the party, screamed and ran away, they finally attacked but one goblin wasn't dropped in the first wave of attacks and chose to run away into the dungeon. Rather than pursue, this group chose to lie in ambush outside the dungeon to catch the monsters off guard as they rushed out. Unfortunately, they didn't know the goblins were led by smart bugbear who had the exact same thoughts. Cue a standoff with the Bugbear starting to do unmentionable things to lure them into the dungeon.

Long story short:

"Good news - we rescued your son. Bad news. We didn't manage to rescue your daughter. Good news - we managed to bring back one of her hands......"

Before I could take a break, I was introduced to a couple who wanted to try The Cthulhu Hack. This went well, with good use of Flashlights and Smokes (I think I've sussed that part of the system). Then, knowing the warehouse was guarded, the couple's Sikh Warrior character chose to just walk in a door. When one of the guards they - mutually - surprised, called out an alarm, instead of fleeing they chose to continue to try and infiltrate the place. Long story short - total party kill and no tentacles involved. They seemed to enjoy it, though.

After this game I walked to the front desk, having played solidly all day. The organiser said "take a break, you've got a group coming in at 4:00pm." It was 3:55!

I grabbed some fruit from the charity free fruit stall (great idea) and a really good portion on lasagne and ran my last game of the day. The Comics Code - Superheroes vs. Dinosaurs. (Thanks, Matt!). Two characters spent ages trying mend the time portal leaving the Speedster to tackle the big brute alone. He was being tossed about like a limp rag doll by the time they arrived.

The convention wrapped up at 6pm on the Saturday. There was an event with a Steampunk stand up comic in town, but I cover not to attend. I returned to relax in my hotel room. It was easy to find food and other necessities. As a seaside town everything you need was close to hand.

My night had a surreal ending. No-one had warned me about the "drum festival". Hundreds of torch wielding drummers marching past my room. Hundreds. And then, turning around and marching past again in the other direction. Unexpected and loud.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

DragonDaze 2017

DragonDaze, Saturday 30th September 201 7

This was my fourth year at DragonDaze in Newport, South Wales. DragonDaze is a general (non-computer) gaming convention ("and mini-ComiCon"). I've always thought of it as UK Games Expo "lite".

My experiences at DragonDaze in the past have been well documented and mixed at best. The first year the RPGs were buried in a massive function room miles away from the main hall which few people found. There were far more games on offer than players to play them. I seem to remember running a Code of the Spacelanes game, but there was a lot of waiting around and a lot of disappointed would be referees.

The following year I took a trade stand intending to run demos of my games in the main hall and, maybe, sell a few books. That bombed dismally. I discovered today that, allegedly, only two games ran in the RPG room on that occasion.

My third visit, last year, I rejoined the RPG room. This was moved to a smaller room nearer the main hall. I took my "Choose Your Adventure" demo games se- up rather than expecting to run standard four hour games. We still had more games than available players and most referees came prepared for the standard four convention game slots. But things seemed to be better. More games ran, certainly. And I got to be "father of the room" greeting people at the door, directing them to appropriate games and running shorter ones myself if they were short of time.

But there was still a feeling of disappointment of an opportunity missed. A mismatch between the expectations of referees, number of games offered and the number of people looking for RPGs.

So, when I found out that the organiser had accepted offers from ten referees to run RPGs at this event, most of which were being offered in the traditional long convention "slots", I had my concerns. Only myself and the 5th ed. referee seemed prepared to offer fIexible games. I expected most of the games not to run.

They were promoted via Facebook events with people able to list themselves as "interested" or "going". But this wasn't a formal presign system. And, looking at Facebook prior to the convention, most games didn't seem to be garnering much interest. 5th Ed and Dresden Files seemed popular but that was it.

To make room for all the games, the organiser moved the RPGs out of the small room onto the landing overlooking the main hall. This is a great location which had been dominated by Wargames in previous conventions. When I saw the proposed table arrangement, however, I was concerned that the tables would be a bit close to each other - if all the games ran. But as I fully expected they wouldn't, then I told myself to stop worrying.

Birmingham to Newport on the train is a fairly easy journey and with the hours of the convention being 10:00-5:00 I can get there and back in a single day without having to get up at stupid o'clock. Early but not stupid.

Getting the taxi from the station to the Leisure Centre where the convention is held, I checked with the taxi driver. As usual, he knew nothing about the event. This isn't unique to DragonDaze. Taxi drivers never seem to know about big gaming events or science fiction conventions in their town.

Getting into the convention to set up was easy. When I got up to our landing overlooking the main hall, I was pleased to find it bigger than I remembered with tables quite well spread out. All the tables had a printed sheet on them clearly saying the name of the referee and the game. A helper came around handing out demonstrator badges. Good organisation.

There were a couple of tables without game sheets on them, one right at the front of the balcony where punters would be walking past. And my table was set back a bit. I negotiated a swap with the Star Trek referee, to allow me to put my display on a table at the front of the balcony.  I also convinced the Cthulhu Referee to occupy the unused table at the front, leaving his table unused towards to back wall, out of sight.

The convention started and  I began pouncing on punters as they went past, offering them RPGs and directing them to appropriate tables. Initial interest was for 5th Ed D&D and we soon had a table going. Unfortunately, some people turned up who felt they'd booked into the game via Facebook. They were disappointed to see the table full. Fortunately, the "Mythic Britain for Runequest" referee did a great job of selling them on his game. Result! (It seemed).

I was grabbing passerby and pointing them at games, honest! But a group turned up who wanted a short, easy introduction to "Dungeons and Dragons" so I got to run Matt Colville's "Delian Tomb" - again! Shortly after starting we were joined by another player who just happened to be passing by. So I had a full table of five players. I looked up and there were eight tables of RPGs running, all of which seemed - to me - to have a full complement of players. Result! I shouldn't have worried. RPGs at DragonDaze seemed to have arrived at last.

I ran the game using The Black Hack rules, as I usually do, and not 5th edition D&D, as I had the previous weekend. Under 5th edition, this dungeon had proved deadly. It was more of a fun romp again using The Black Hack. But it wasn't all plain sailing. The party started extremely well, but when they slaughtered the goblins in the - apparently - final room, the Bugbear boss and the last goblin did the only sensible thing and grabbed to kidnapped children to use as human shields.

Pah! The halfling thief called their bluff and fired an arrow at the Bugbear. Thunk! Straight into the little girl. The Cleric threw himself in harms way to cure her as the Warrior swing his broadsword. Thunk! Straight into the little girl.

The goblin, meanwhile, was manoeuvring around the room and, holding a sword to the little boy's throat, indicated for the elven archer to back off. I was very clear about the situation. When the elf refused to move, well.........

The good news is both children survived (there's a table in the rules). Bad news - both horrendously disfigured.

When the bad guys are outnumbered and outgunned they're going to use hostages as human shields and, when they do, that's the time to get clever.

In an attempt to get a God to miraculously heal  the injured children, the party accidentally joined the 10% of groups who find the hidden final room. But when the Cleric failed to turn the skeletons within, things all went a bit pear-shaped. Only a bit of quick thinking by the Halfling saved the day. (Skeletons are not brilliant at avoiding tripwires.) But not fast enough to save the Cleric from falling to the swords of the undead.

So this dungeon, and The Black Hack, delivered a memorable experience as always.

Before, I could take breath, I had another group. This time they wanted to try horror, so I ran a game of The Cthulhu Hack. This was only the second time I've run the system and the first time I've run it as part of my Choose Your Adventure setup using an introductory adventure I'd been kindly given by the game's author. I'll admit I struggled a bit. I need to reread the rules and scenario again and, maybe, play a game refereed by someone who runs Cthulhu games more regularly than I do. I don't know how much of this showed, though, as the players used my pregens to break into the warehouse and disrupt the evil ceremony. This was, however, by missing the Cult Leader and shooting the sacrificial victim instead. When this summoned the usual roiling tentacles but stopped the Acolyte from controlling it, the group chose the better part valour. To be fair they did grab a truck outside  and try to get it to ram the beastie and blow it up - but they missed. (Should've stayed at the wheel.....)

I was eating a late lunch (a Marks and Spenser meal deal which I'd brought with me - I'm sure the catering facilities were fine) when the opportunity to run my introductory Steampunk adventure arose. This group proved to be really efficient at solving the mystery and dispatching the evil Prussian vivisectionist and his creations. The players enjoyed it a lot, but I've seen wilder endings. And they didn't even manage to kill one of the captives! (I was disappointed. I thought I'd seen a theme developing for the day.)

Though I spoke to lots of other guests during the afternoon, I didn't get to run another game. Everyone was rushing from event to event and only had half an hour to spare at most. I took a tour around the trade hall. As always, it was fun and eclectic. Though I think DragonDaze has been eclipsed by the rapidly rising star of AireCon, its offerings are far less vanilla than those of its new rival and the mighty Games Expo. I just thank god that there was such a big price tag on the Serenity (the Firefly spaceship) soft toy. Even I was tempted.

And Triple Ace's new game, in development, seems ready to revolutionise the way some products in our hobby are sold.

I did buy some dice from "Bob the diceman" for a(nother) new game idea I've had and might develop. (Too many ideas, not enough time!)

As the convention wound down, some of the RPG referees got together for an informal debrief. I felt it was a successful convention with lots of games running. The local gamers seemed to have turned out (for once). The location on the balcony had proved really suitable. Apart from my games there were games of:

5th edition D&D
Star Trek
Dresden Files
Call of Cthulhu
Hollow Earth Expeditions
Cortex+ hard military SciFi
Fate (not sure of the setting)
Mythic Britain for Runequest.

Unfortunately, it seems the players for the last game had bailed out after an hour leaving the Referee high and dry. Maybe they'd been looking for a short introductory game of D&D? And the Cortex+ referee had no players in the morning and had to wait until the afternoon for a game. And the Cthulhu referee "only had four players". There was a debate about whether games should be presigned or not. However, it was generally agree that Facebook was not an appropriate method for booking game slots. I personally lean towards the idea of a mixed economy of flexible drop in games (which I think this convention needs) and a small number of prebookable games.

I had a chat with the organiser on the way out. He was pleased. Attendance has hit 1,000 and he felt the convention had a great atmosphere.

For me it remains the undiscovered diamond in the convention schedule. It offers loads for a visitor to see and do and has capacity for far more attendees. It's the most child friendly event on the circuit, IMHO, and the RPG track has finally begun to work. It could do with some refinement, certainly. But I'll be back again in 2018. And the RPGs now OWN that balcony!