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
Conan
Dresden Files
Call of Cthulhu
Hollow Earth Expeditions
Cortex+ hard military SciFi
Fate (not sure of the setting)
And
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!

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Choose Your Adventure at Geek Retreat, 24th September 2017

Geek Retreat Birmingham, Sunday 24th February 2017

I came to  to "Geek Retreat" in Birmingham as I do on the last Sunday of the month to offer my "Choose Your Adventure" set up.

The store was very busy because of a "Magic the Gathering" collectable card game tournament. 

There were a couple of players who have been to my Sunday sessions more than once. I'm trying to get one of those to try her hand at refereeing a game. She's become quite familiar with 5th Edition D&D. I think Geek Retreat could do with a regular or semi-regular 5th Ed. D&D game group, but I'm not the person for the job for several reasons. So today I ran a D&D 5th version of my standard introductory dungeon with the two regulars and a player who was new to the game. I used the pregenerated characters from the excellent 5th Ed. D&D introductory set. When we started, only two of the players were present. They chose to play the High Elf Wizard and the Halfing Rogue. The Wizard generously cast a "Mage Armour" spell on the Rogue, allowing her to remove her own leather armour and move more freely. When they found the dungeon guarded by three goblins, they chose to manoeuvre round to a point on the cliff above them where the Wizard could attack them with his Ice Blasts. The brave Halfling distracted the goblins so the Wizard could attack. At this point the third player appeared and his Fighter saved the Halfling from the pursuing goblins. But, though they hid the bodies, whilst waiting for the Wizard to come down from the cliff top, and change of goblins guards came out, found their comrades missing and disappeared back into the dungeon below.

So by the the time the characters entered the complex, they found the children they were aiming to rescue set up as human shields by the goblins and their Bugbear boss. The halfling rolled herself in charcoal and sneaked in to free the children whilst the Fighter bravely charged in.

Good news! The two children kidnapped by the goblins were rescued and escaped with the halfling Rogue. Bad news! The high elf Wizard and brave human Fighter gave their lives in the rescue. But everyone seemed to have good time.

I then used my "Code of the Spacelanes" rules to run a Dr Who intro scenario with the two "regulars" and a young man whose mum convinced him to try. He has been running D&D using the introductory set and wanted to try a new genre. His mother was happy to watch him play, but I convinced her to play too. Everyone, more or less, chose from my pregenerated characters. The mother and son played - respectively - a student Timelord who'd sneaked into the Tardis museum after hours and the maintenance and cleaning robot she'd bumped into. The scenario started with them careering through Time and Space on an obsolete and rickety old Tardis, bickering about whose fault it was. Despite their attempts to get back to Gallifrey, all they succeeded in doing was to pick up an Ice Warrior and Cave Woman before crashing onto an abandoned space station. As they left the Tardis to explore, the cave woman accidentally activated the recall mechanism, sending the cylinder home to 
Gallifrey, abandoning the characters. 

Before they could find their bearings, they were attacked by a group of pigmen servitors sent from an spaceship docked on the far side of the station. After dispatching them, they tracked their route back to that ship where they encountered the evil Solomon, one of his giant red robots and more of the pigmen servitors. In the battle that ensued, every character was knocked unconscious apart from the Timelord Student. Despite obviously being an indifferent student, at best, and failing to recognise anything she'd encountered so far (Mars? Earth? Never heard of them!) she somehow recognised Solomon's robot and was able to pull up its command codes on her Sonic File. With its help, she won the battle. Everyone enjoyed the game, even the mother who'd been planning to just sit and watch.

After that second game the two "regulars" had to leave. As things quietened down and I started engaging customers in conversation to try and get a new game started, I bumped into the daughter of a fellow Tabletop Role-Playing game designer. It's a small world.

The proprietor  brought me three players who wanted to try D&D. So I ran my introductory to D&D 5th Ed. adventure again. One of the player's mother arrived and was going to watch but, again, I inveigled her in.  This is a hobby for everyone. This time, the team tackled the dungeon in a more headlong fashion, using a Sleep spell to take out the goblin sentries. However, the final battle proved to be extremely bloody and the adventure resulted in a TPK or "Total Player Kill". Everyone still enjoyed it though.

The day rounded off with my standard introductory steampunk scenario. I saw two young ladies perusing my game display and they chose the genre. They elected to play the Businesswoman (with mechanical wings) and the dissolute aristocrat (with her electrified sword-stick). One of the players remembered me from running the Actual Cannibal Shia Lebeouf RPG at London Anime con. It's a small world. We were joined by a young man who was interested and just wanted to watch. Of course we shoved a character sheet under his nose (the  soldier turned hunter) and brought him into the game. After a short detour where the businesswoman was convinced the poor innocent Italian sausage merchant was putting human meat into his produce, the group soon tracked the true villain - an evil Prussian vivisectionist - to his lair and convinced him of the error of his ways.

One of the players wanted to see how she could make her own character and soon produced a werewolf she could play in a future game.


So today I ran four games. I introduced at least ten new players to our hobby including two mums who, originally, were just there to watch. I call that a successful day.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Concrete Cow 17.5

I try to report on my visits to conventions factually. I try to let people know what the convention is like so they can decide if it's an appropriate for them to attend. I don't give explicit ratings. Sometimes, my personal feelings might slip through.

But, dammit, Concrete Cow is simply the best RPG games "day" in the country. There - I've said it.

The website contains all the facts you need to know in a clear, easy to access format. Despite the fact that organisers and devotees are active on a range of social media, there's no crucial fact buried in an obscure Facebook post which only those in some kind of inner circle see. Everything is put on the website. Potential games are advertised in advance but nothing is prebooked.

My experience has evolved over the years. Recently I've started bumping into a fellow hobbyist on the train down and our wonderful chats have evolved into our own Spaghetti ConJunction, a games day where we blatantly steal everything we can from the organisation of Concrete Cow. This year we were joined by an enthusiastic young games designer who I know from other conventions. We seem to be developing a Birmingham Faction to attend.

An easy and, always, efficient journey from Birmingham - under 90 minutes, just over £20 return - and we get to Wolverton railways station just outside Milton
Keynes. A quick, 5 minute, walk to the venue and we're there. It's a bright community centre with a larger central room - split into two using dividers when the games start. There are loads of smaller rooms off, free coffee and tea and a high street outside with a supermarket right next door. It's perfect.

When you arrive you pay £5, write your name on a printed ticket and stick it on your chest. If you're intending to play, you also take a tombola ticket. A new group of wonderful people having taken over the running of the convention and the young lady taking the money was asking everyone if it was their first Concrete Cow so she could issue them with a special "Golden Ticket". I was incredibly gratified when I was asked the question and the guy next to me in the queue burst out laughing and made a crack about the number of conventions I attend. It's nice to be noticed.

Being hypercritical, there are usually raffle tickets on sale at the front desk. I always pay £5 to get in in buy 5 tickets at £1 each. I didn't this time. Throughout the day us crusty old timers were bemoaning how difficult it was to buy raffle tickets (someone usually brings them around) as we had to go and search them out. Ultimately, I didn't buy any this year.

Talking of which I dropped a hardback proof copy of my new game "The Code of Warriors and Wizardry" into the raffle. I later realised I'd mistakenly brought my expensive glossy full colour version rather than the cheaper "standard" colour one. Whoever got it had got a good book. I also asked to organiser to allow us to promote Spaghetti ConJunction, but she did it for us as part of the opening speech.

Sign up sheets for the morning games are on a table for perusal. I proposed to run game based on "Fireball XL5", a TV puppet show which is over 50 years old and rarely repeated due to it being in Black and White.

People are called up in turn based upon the last numbers on their lottery tickets. A fair and efficient system. My game was one of a few that only got one signup. I pulled it and chose to sign up for another game. There are always more excellent games on offer than their are players to play them. Numbers seem to be a bit down this year. (There are lots of conventions to choose from, I suppose.) And my personal rule is to run my game and try to horse trade for more players if I get two or more sign ups.

My respect goes out to the young lady who got no sign ups who refused to give up. She announced that she was happy to run for one player and - eventually - ended up getting two.

I signed up for game of "Hot War" - which I'd seen people rave about on line but never played - set in the Warhammer Fantasy RPG universe (another win) run by a referee I know from other conventions and online forums. We had five players. Perfect!

The game revolved around a conclave following the assassination of the emperor. We played dodgy types who were manoeuvring, Game of Thrones style, to grab the throne for ourselves. It was a massively well prepared game with the referee distributing superbly detailed background sheets. I think there were 5 sides of typing for each of us - all different. Alongside the 5 player characters there were ten or so NPC nobles with votes and myriad threats to the empire which needed dealing with.

The characters were give out by the Referee. I was given the crusty old Pope-type. I'm not aware of any choice in this. The referee seemed to know his players and gave them the characters he thought were most appropriate. I liked this approach.

The game was well run and created a good fictional storyline. The other characters were the Emperor's dissolute son, a General from the Northern marches, a Count from the South (secretly the host of an ancient demon) and a conniving Countess/business woman.

The game itself is slightly "zoomed out" covering the resolution of the various threats facing the empire and the credit this brings to the various pretenders to the throne. Not to my personal preference. Feels a bit board gamish. The resolution is through building large  "dice polls". Also not a personal preference of mine. The winner of the contest then has to narrate what happened in the story. Again, not my favourite. It feels a bit like "now entertain us".

But, all of this was offset  by an excellent referee that knew what he was doing and a very personable group of players - as I'd expect from Concrete Cow. And a great game was had all. We weren't allowed to kill or otherwise remove from the game any other PC until the last hour. I had the conniving Countess (selling promises of political marriages all over - ugh!) on the ropes but was not allowed the finish her off because it was 5 minutes (5 minutes!) before the DEAD line.

So - as we entered the last hour - the southern count - who'd been clearly losing up until this point - ambushed the northern baron, shucking his current "shell" and taking a new host. With their combined abilities, he soon finished off the young prince. Seeing an experienced player clearly gaming the system, I gamed back, forcing a conflict in the only ability I had left which clearly outranked him, Faith. Rather than Roleplaying, I gamed to "win" the game - well, to stop him winning. That's not my usual preferred style of play. The ancient demon was revealed in the light of the powerful Artefect I'd recovered and was destroyed/banished.

Unfortunately, that took us to the end of the session and the referee called the remaining conclave to vote. Players of dead PCs still controlled NPC votes and - with just my Pope and the conniving Countess left standing - she won convincingly.  (5 minutes!)

Good game. I won't turn my nose up at Hot War at conventions in future but it won't  be my first choice. This game was made by the excellent players and the superb Referee rather than the rule system.

Lunch was a couple of meal deals from the Supermarket and then it was into the afternoon signups.

I offered my new Fantasy rules - The Code of Warriors and Wizardry. The scenario from the rulebook. A sprawling romp. BUT I can't put anything specific on the sign up sheet without giving the plot away, so I wasn't sure of getting players. As it turned out, I picked up three plus a referee whose game hadn't filled. These were experienced gamers out for a good time. They didn't use the system to create gonzo events, but preferred to sit back and let things unfold and role-play a romp.  It was fun, but one of those games where clever play let them avoid the climax and succeed brilliantly despite every substitute final battle I tried to improvise into events so I felt it ended with a bit of a damp squib. But it was one of those when the journey is more important than the destination. Gobbo the Goblin developed the battle halibut, Barg the Troll responded by using a shark as a club, Jim Bob the explorer acquired a battle flamingo and Barleycorn Bran, the yokel,  drifted through events inadvertently leaving disaster in his wake like some kind of medieval Frank Spencer.

There IS third game in the evening but most people don't stay. I headed out to catch the 7:00pm train and found the entire Birmingham contingent from the morning making the same trip, joined by another personable long time hobbyist and convention organiser who got off at Rugby.

It's a shame that the growth of conventions seems to be eating into Concrete Cow's numbers a bit. The organisation, games and players remain exemplary. If any newbies come to me to ask "which convention should I go to first" my answer will be - without any hesitation - Concrete Cow.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

FantastiCon 2017

FantastiCon 2017

FantastiCon is a Science Fiction convention in Hull. I first went to it in 2016 as part of my plan to try and visit non-RPG conventions to introduce people to the joys of the RPG hobby. (I find many preconceptions are dispelled within minutes of playing their first game.) WhyFantasticon? Two reasons. It fitted in with my diary for 2016. But, more importantly, the organisers responded to my initial approach and were extremely welcoming. Many a time when I write to convention organisers saying "Do you want me to come an run some Tabletop Role-Playing Games?" I receive no reply.

I'm not an expert on SciFi conventions but FantastiCon seems to me to be smallish one. It is run by a small publishing company but the aim seems to be to run a welcoming event with a family atmosphere with the focus being upon those that attend having lots to DO rather than lots to BUY. There are trade strands and the stage events include book readings by authors that the company publishes, but these are not the central focus of events. There is Cosplay, massive and organised NERF wars, computer consoles of all kinds from retro to VR, live music, live presentations from a scientist trying to reproduce Iron Man's armour and myriad other things I've forgotten.

It runs on Saturday and Sunday. I get in free, but I earn nothing from these events so I have to watch costs. Though Hull is a serious journey from Birmingham the high costs of train tickets on a Friday evening and the cost of a hotel Friday night (at the height of Hull's "Year of Culture" events) meant it would have cost me about £100 more to travel up on a Friday night. So it was a case of getting up at stupid o'clock on Saturday morning to catch the first train from Birmingham to Hull to arrive just in time to dash to the event and set up just before the doors opened.

The event takes place in Hull's historic Guild Hall. A very atmospheric venue. It takes place on the first floor. Basically there's a square central chamber with a stage, seating and some trade stands with an adjacent hall. There are corridors off with other rooms. Last year I was in one of the side rooms - the Board Room with a massive Board Meeting table surrounded by pictures of centuries of Hull's Mayors. It was an interesting venue for RPGs - but not the most suitable. This year I felt I'd been promoted because I was in the Hall adjacent to the main chamber, which had all the computer stuff in it, along with retro arcade machines, other gaming, trade stands (including a craft ale stand selling Mead and Specialist Ciders and Ales) and the Bar. Also a table which was kept full of free squash and biscuits throughout the weekend. The was good communication up front and I negotiated a change from a large circular table - which everyone seems to assume is ideal for all RPGs - to a set up of two smaller rectangular tables arranged in a L shape. One for my "Choose Your Adventure" display and one behind it to actually play on. The table was in prime position, being the first thing people saw when they left the  main chamber. I had the Elite Dangerous Table RPG ("Elite Frontier" I think) on one side and a table offering board games on the other. Perfect!

The convention was slow to start. The taxi driver taking me to the event knew nothing about it. I don't know how these events could promote themselves more. It obviously had capacity for more people. However, there were enough people to more or less fill the central room for the talks and occupy most of the event tables for most of the time. The feeling was of people who felt it was "their" convention - sort of like a large extended family.

I know my place at these conventions. It's not what the punters came for. I get quizzical looks at first, have to grab people and engage them in conversation. They all need to look around the convention first before any of them come back to play. But there are a good mix of people who've heard of RPGs and want to try them and people who've tried it a bit but want to see more of what's on offer. At this convention there were a large number of people who "used to play" when they were younger but have lapsed. And I even managed to grab a couple of people who knew nothing or had misconceptions and convert them.

On Saturday, I ran a total of four games. The first was a one hour demo of my Code of the Spacelanes rules using Star Wars characters. Great fun with the rebels rescuing the scientist with the "important information" from the Imperial Shuttle at Mos Eisley star port. In order to escape, the "Jedi in hiding" severed a coolant pipe to cause the ship's engines to overheat and explode. She got the scientist out but had to abandon her fallen comrades. She made a last desperate attention to telekinetically lift them out before the explosion. I carefully explained how difficult this was and how the difficulty increased with each additional person she tried to lift - only to have her roll a critical success. Perfect!

Before the next game, I nipped out to buy lunch. There were food facilities available somewhere in the venue, but I knew there was an M&S just down the road. I returned with two "meal deals" to see me through the day.

Over lunch I saw a drone buzzing a very active T-Rex in the gaming hall.

My second game was another Code of the Spacelanes (well it was a SciFi convention) but this time skinned for Blakes Seven. Another one hour demo. In fact it's exactly the same scenario as the Star Wars one, but I don't think many people would notice it. We had a couple of people start but drop out to attend events starting elsewhere but Gan, Dayna and Tarrant saw things through. Not all the players were familiar with the series and there was much hair-based humour. This went so well that the remaining three players didn't want to stop playing so I had to tack on a extra scene with Liberator pursuing and engaging Travis' pursuit ship. This pushed the game to almost 2 hours.

Then it was time to introduce a family - mum, dad, teenage son, two (early teens?) daughters - to "Dungeons and Dragons - via "The Black Hack" and Matt Colville's "Delian Tomb".  This was the usual romp but I had to apologise to the dad at the end. He kept trying to get his family to stop, ponder, plan (vacillate) whereas they were all diving in head first after the fun, fun, fun and I went with the majority.

After clarifying the timings - I knew there was an evening musical event in the main hall but didn't know if the gaming hall was staying open (it was) - I ate my second meal deal of the day and corralled some people for an evening game. For this I checked they were up for a longer game and pulled out my Doctor Who scenario. If you don't know what this is, this must be the first one of my convention reports you've ever read. Three years I've been running it, and here it was again. My Favourite.

We started with two players. Make anyone you want from anywhere in Time and Space. So we got a Lizardman Space Corsair and Prince Thundarr with his Sword of Power! (Not He-Man, not at all, no way!)

These two started off by losing the Tardis - the first group in three years to do this. I kept corralling passersby. They were first joined by a 23rd century scientist whose time travel device had gone wrong and - later - by a Witchfinder General who'd been ambushed and banished by a combined coven of all of his most powerful enemies. Again we lost a couple of players before the very end (Thundarr and the Witchfinder) but the Lizardman Corsair and the Scientist saw it through. Not before the scientist threw a dead body into a cyber converter and accidentally created an eight-limbed cyber monstrosity. They never met the real "big bad", choosing to create their own instead.

They were also the first group in three years to simply leg it and leave the J'Duhn to deal with things - seeing the J'Duhn ships as a great way to escape. Another first and - if you think about it - pretty sensible. Which means that they were the first group ever to be in orbit, nuking the moon (it was the only way to be certain), rather than underneath being nuked.

The convention ran until 11pm but my game wrapped up at about nine so I was able to make my way to my hotel quite early.

Sunday was quieter than Saturday. I was warned by the taxi driver taking me from the hotel to the Guild Hall that I wouldn't be able to book a taxi to the station that evening because of all the events on in the town. It was only a short walk anyway. I guess this contributed to the smaller turn out.

But I played two games on Sunday. The first was a group of older teenagers. The girl in the group has discovered 5th ed D&D and has been GMing some games for her friends. However, she was frustrated with the combats being so key to the game. Cue a one hour demonstration of the more storytelling approach, in this case my Code of Steam and Steel one hour demo. (Yes, basically the same scenario as the Star Wars and Blakes Seven one but you wouldn't know it.)

As always, riotous fun, but this group seemed to specialise in influencing others and acquiring followers. It's funny how different groups adopt different styles with the same scenario and the same pregens. So the hunter shot a feral dog and adopted its puppy.* A giant alligator turned up in the sewers to chomp on the cybernetic giant rats. Lampwick, the caretaker of St Pauls catacombs, was so grateful that the posh nob had turned up to fix things, that he offered to help out. In the final battle, Lampwick and the puppy helped fight off the giant rats (Lampwick dying in the process), the giant cybernetic gorilla also took a shine to the knight of the realm and Igor turned on his master who - seeing his evil plans come to naught - chose to kill himself rather than be captured. An unusual but satisfying conclusion.

* During the game we were visited by Death, enquiring about fatalities in the game. We grassed up the dog slaughtering Hunter. Death said he'd refer the matter to John Noakes.

After nipping to M&S for two more meal deals and consuming one, I had a request to run a Firefly game. Two of these were players who'd experienced the Blakes Seven game but not known the series. They wanted to see how it worked with characters they knew. The guy who'd played Gan chose to play Jayne. (Nuff said). His mate chose River. We were joined by a third player who selected Shepherd Book. I'm always  pleased when someone chooses Book because it shows we have subtler type of player in the group. A fourth guy, who I'd chatted to earlier and who had expressed an interest in the games, but who was loathe to join in, asked if he could watch and see what it was all about. We convinced him to have Wash's character sheet in front of him and said he could just sit in the mule outside the bar if he wanted to. (Ha! Got 'im!). I checked everyone was up for a longer game and pulled out my more complex Firefly scenario. (I don't think they'd spotted if I'd run the Blakes Seven one again, but it didn't hurt to be sure.)

What can I say? A romp. Fun, fun, fun. As always, Mal, Zoe and Simon are missing (I don't have them available as pregens). Wonderful misunderstanding with Jayne and River being caught on CCTV holding a watch-house at gun-point. River (as always when I run this) running right into Patience's hands to demand where her brother was and (as always, against the odds) getting away with it. And a great final showdown in Reaver space to rescue an ungrateful Mal. "Who's just brought my ship into Reaver space with the gorram LIGHTS ON!" Pause. A calmer voice comes on the radio. "Wash, dear. Go dark. Now."

As Zoe and Mal - who'd been hiding in a wrecked ship - turn everything on to attract the Reavers away from Serenity, the crew throw everything they have at it, eventually succeeding with much ingenuity and much luck and much depleted on weapons and shuttles.

The game finished in good time for me to pack up and head to the station. And the British rail system has been fine this weekend.

FantastiCon was a success for me. I ran 6 games in two days, three of which were extended far beyond the one hour demos I'd expected. And great, fun games with engaging and inventive players. I sold some books! Not enough to cover the cost of the convention (Mr Taxman) but every little helps. I feel guilty sticking to my table and not taking part in the wider events I was repeatedly invited to, but I'm an RPG junkie and, anyway, the computer addicts were glued their screens and googles as well. If the dates line up, it'll definitely be on my calendar for 2018.