I just got back from Washington DC where I spent a great weekend with a bunch of cool gamers where I attended a one day gaming mini-convention called DC Gameday.
Here’s a rundown of the cool bits of this weekend of fun and friends.
Dirty Spot it
On the evening before the con, Dave:The Game introduced us to a simple, quick game called Spot it one of those tin-can games you find in book and toy stores. The game is made of a pile of circular cards, each featuring a dozen or so different images. Each card has one, and only one, common image with any other given card.
There are 4 different mini-games that exploit this. The gist of them is that several cards are going to be seen by all players who must spot 2 identical images, call them and then perform an action depending on the mini-game being played (i.e. taking the spotted card or giving it away) until the game’s winning condition is met.
Now this is where things became more interesting. Spot it is a 100% family friendly where people shout “dragon”, “kitten”, “cactus” and what have you. Dave introduced us to the NC-17 version of the game, which is very simple: “You need to add a cuss or an insult whenever you call an image”.
Add beer and your favourite selection of words from Kevin Smith’s extensive thesaurus of sex and coprophilia and you’re in for a half-hour of uncontrolled laughter and groans.
Beavers and Bandits
On gameday, I ran a Mouse Guard session with a great group: my friend E (from Geeks’ Dream Girl), Sean (Your Sword is Mine on Enworld), Kirin (Creator of the Old School Hack) and his charming wife Sabrina. The adventure was my classic con adventure about beaver dams and mice mobsters.
The action revolved around the guard mice having to obtain specific chemicals on the black market of a city called Port Sumac. The chemicals were necessary to repair a “scent barrier” at the northern borders of the mice kingdom that keep predators out. Like all good “burning” games, the characters were put at odds with their beliefs when faced with the choices they had to make to achieve their objectives.
The game rapidly devolved into an argument conflict. On one side, the guards, led by ex-con-turned-patrol-leader Malcom and the other, Big Louis, the local crime lord that had originally ousted Malcom from Port Sumac.
During this argument, two of the guards managed to negotiate a side-deal with a weasely “merchant” to cough up some chemicals. They achieved it at the cost of revealing the paths taken by the guards around Port Sumac and the Scent Border.
This went much against the beliefs of Edgar, the honour-bound guard, forced to let pragmatism trump the guard’s ethos.
Sabrina: “I’m well aware that Edgar is betraying part of what he believes the guard stands for, but our ultimate mission is to save all mice and we can’t afford the delays to do it otherwise.”
Awesome roleplaying just there; this is what Mouse Guard is about.
At the same time Malcolm and his tenderpaw (read padawan) was going for something much more insidious: attempting to establish the presence of the Guard as much more than what it’s mission called, a civil police force. Kirin was playing Malcom and he was totally going for the “Ex-con forced into becoming a guard to avoid jail yet keeping a criminal agenda” Xanathos Gambit trope.
During his quips vs Big Louis, he brought his tenderpaw (Jasper) down a darker path of deceit and lies which yielded a perfect victory, putting the fear of the Guard in the crime lord’s heart when Malcolm and Jasper convinced him that the Guards could muster a punitive strike within weeks that would wipe out all criminal elements of Port Sumac.
Chatty: Throughout the town, you can hear mice whispering “Malcolm is back”
Kirin (with a huge grin): YES!
The rest of the mission was completed without issues and we started the “Player Turn” which is where players get to set their own scenes to catch up on unresolved goals or, had this been a campaign game, set the story for the next session.
E’s character, Jasper the tenderpaw, organized a beer making festival in the hopes of turning some of the criminal elements of Port Sumac toward other, more legitimate activities. While she failed her challenge, she managed to get one of the named thugs, “The Big Cheese”, to stop being a leg breaker and open up a brewery… at the cost of a bad hangover (i.e. Thirsty/Hungry in Mouse Guard terms).
The ultimate highlight of the session for me was when Kirin wanted to set a scene for Malcolm, who, having seen the heroics and selflessness of his fellow guards, felt torn between his felonious nature and his rising sense of worth and honour as a guard.
Chatty: That’s not really a challenge in itself, you totally are allowed to change outlooks and beliefs between games. What do you want?
Kirin: Hmmm, I don’t know… I’m torn.
Sabrina: He ALWAYS does that.
Chatty: Well, the designer in me would want to explore how we could let the dice decide…
Kirin: Yeah that’s cool, I totally want that!
Chatty: Okay, tell me, what side do you secretly hope will win?
Kirin: I kinda hope the Mouse Guard side to win.
Chatty (Taking a page straight out of Free Market) : All right so you’ll roleplay your case for honour and the pride of being a Guard; you’ll roll your Persuader skill for that. I will play your criminal mind and darker agenda; I’ll roll your Deceiver skill. Whomever wins, sets your outlook. You cool with that?
Kirin (eager): Totally!
Kirin (In character): So In the last few days I’ve seen my comrades stand for more than merely protecting the weak and following orders. They went beyond and even against their own beliefs to achieve their mission, yet they still trusted me though I had sinister, selfish plans.
Chatty (Same): Stop that drivel! You’ve worked that angle too long and played your cards too well to let a moment of weakness bring everything crashing down. You’re better than that, you’re better than them all!
Chatty (Out of character): Oh by the way, since you kinda want to have the honourable side of your internal conflict win, I’m going to use your own cunning trait against MY side of the inner monologue, awarding you an extra die.
(Clatter, clatter) He won… and he was very happy!
Sean’s moment came when he set the scene for a great challenge to prepare the redirection of scent chemicals to anther destination than Port Sumac, such to eventually cut off supply to criminals. The challenge involved blazing a new path while rushing to the Territories’ capital to send more chemicals to the jury-rigged border the patrol had just fixed.
When they failed that particular challenge, I made all mice tired and Malcolm (who led the challenge) injured. That’s where Sean, invoking his goal of preventing the death of any of his comrades, requested to take the injury intended for the patrol leader.
Great moment of roleplaying there too! I really love that scenario as it always plays out so differently.
Spies out of Gassy Waters
In the afternoon, I got to play a game of Blowback, a “spy out of the water” RPG inspired by the Burn Notice TV show. This is a small press RPG where players control two characters. One’s a recently “extracted from snafu” spook. The other is a civilian that’s related to all other spies through various relationship ties (spouses, siblings, children, friends, etc.).
In our case, our spies were shipped off to a Maryland mountain resort shortly after a major snafu where we thought we were invading Bin Laden’s house but instead busted a Pakistani intelligence command post, unannounced and guns blazing.
The adventure got our characters embroiled in a story about exploding trailers, fracking (the methane sort, not the euphemistic one), crooked natural resources bosses, a low level thug and corrupted cops.
I’m a bit conflicted about the game and I can’t spare the word count for a full analysis based on just one session. On one hand, I LOVE having to play civilian characters that interact with spy PCs and makes their lives more problematic. I also find it cool that you can ask for favours, lie or break promises and that such actions are backed by game mechanics to simulate the stress this puts on relationships.
What I liked a LOT less can be summarized in 2 words: Analysis Paralysis. The game has a whole phase called “analysis” where players try to piece together enough info on the bad guys’ scheme to move on to the next phase. I don’t think the game has a fundamental flaw about how it handles investigation and spook-like analysis, I just highly dislike investigation and the pitfalls they create with certain styles of play. Anything that makes the story grind to a halt as players get lost in conjectures and chasing chimeras grates on my impatience.
Fortunately, with the help of the GM who eventually morphed his original plan to allow for some plot holes, we ended up the session with a wonderful takedown of the boss and one main character suffering a pileup of trouble.
Bad Guy (Being turned by spooks) : Okay, I’ll squeal if you guys find a good foster home for my kid
Agent (Whose wife took the child temporarily as a favour): No way! No deal!
Wife (played by me, calling on cell phone): Honey, We have to talk now… I’m seeing someone else, I can’t deal with you being here now. This baby reminds me that I want another one, but not with you.
Agent’s Son (Texting): Oh Dad, like your friend Alex (my character) told you (I hadn’t), I’m gay.
Great finish. It saved the aggravating middle part of the session for sure. Enough that I want to play it again, but mostly to explore, from a designer’s point of view, whether I want to “hack” it or “fix” it (as coined by Wil Hindmarch)
I want to go back
Suffice it to say that this trip, and all the social activities that occurred before and after made for a very cool, relaxed weekend. I got to play test my Leverage hack once more, finally getting the last bits of advice to cinch my draft. I may describe the game if I can secure permission. I also got to watch both “The Gamers” movies and play some Portal 2 coop with Dave.
I’m going to come back for sure. All this was well worth the lengthy train rides. Thanks to all the organizers and to my friends who lent me their guest bedrooms and provided car lifts at ungodly hours to get me from and to train stations.
I promise I’ll be more insulting and less Canadian next time.
P.S. I didn’t talk about the sights and sounds of Washington and the are surroundings. To quote my host Tom, it’s kinda weird to see all that neo-classical architecture without a bunch of alien ships trying to blow them up. I was glad to see them with my eyes. Washigton is a great city to see… when there’s no traffic and it’s not raining hard enough to drown in. 🙂
P.P.S: I may have fallen in love with Alexandria, Virginia.