Improv Pushups: The Movie

A week ago today, in the wee hours of the morning, I bid farewell to one Dave Chalker (who I had been staying with for the week, and who had risen with me to get me to the airport before the coming of the dread Day Star).I came all the way to the East coast for one specific purpose: to game my face off. More specifically, DC Gameday was this weekend, and I wanted to game my face off as close to Congress as I possibly could. Somebody’s got to show those guys how to play nice together, right?

Pre-Con Festivities

Luxury accomodations!

After I landed Thursday night, Dave took me to Looney Labs for one of their weekly game nights. I’m not sure what I was expecting exactly, but my mental image of the place involved a sterile-looking office building. That proved to be wildly incorrect, as Dave stopped in the middle of a nice residential neighborhood and we walked into the Looney home. Immediately inside was a huge unfinished mural made out of woodcarvings that made up what I’m pretty sure is some Beatles album art. I also smelled baked goods. My expectations were thusly shattered.

Everybody was really nice there. We played Ascension and some MtG: Commander, and it was not unlike a game night with my own group, except with that totally different people part. There were others playing a few different games including Seven Wonders and some ridiculous game that had everyone drawing Dr. Who having sex with moon rocks or something. I’d get more context but I suspect it would make a lot more sense (and we can’t have that). I will have to find out more so I can play it with my group, I suppose.

Phil and I playtesting D&D 5e.

Friday, we picked up the Chattiest of Phils and brought him back to Fort Chalker, where poor Dave valiantly (and repeatedly) made his will save and continued doing Real Work while Phil and I gamed 10 feet away. It was like a summer day as a teenager. We played the old Mattel electronic D&D game, which I always wanted to try as a kid. It was horrible but TOTALLY WORTH IT. We played some more Ascension. We played lots of World of Warcraft TCG, and Phil was schooling me pretty hard with my own decks. (I think he might be a Shaman IRL.) We even played some oldschool NES games, including Kung Fu, Double Dragon 3, Q*Bert, and (best of all) Popeye. It was awesome.

Friday night, I played in a Magic booster draft. I took dead last, but I had a lot of fun. The new Innistrad set is pretty cool, and very dark and horrorlicious. Even the white cards make you want to hide under the bed, and the black ones make you want to hide in a hole under a bed that’s under a bed disguised as another bed.  I played a monoblack deck with lots of regenerating creatures and stuff that could put Shroud on them, which wasn’t a bad plan until I discovered everybody else could fly. There was also one match when I realized my opponent was about to deliberately deck himself, and I was very confused until he pulled out his Mad Assistant to win.

DC Gameday Cortex Roundup

Saturday was the first day of DC Gameday, and it served up a heaping helping of the Cortex+ system for me to try out. For those who aren’t familiar, it’s the system used in the Leverage RPG, which is based in modern times and illegal situations — but it can be modified for use with a lot of nefarious purposes.

My first game of the day was helmed by none other than Chatty Phil, and it was a fantasy-themed version of Leverage called “The Dungeon Job.” Phil taught us all how to play, and I was delighted at the very low learning curve. When you make a character, you don’t roll stats or assign a class, but you do figure out what role in the party you will play. Phil ran a very light-hearted and nonserious game for us, which I enjoyed immensely. I played a holy necromancer chocolatier, if that gives you any indication of how the game went. Good times.

Cortex+ is based heavily on opposed challenges, and you assign bigger dice to stats and skills that support that role. You also get to roll more dice if something about a challenge involves a distinctive character trait (several of which you mark on your character sheet for this purpose). You have to be careful how many dice you roll, though, because any 1’s mean a “complication” occurred and the DM probably has something they can use against you later. That means you can also sometimes use negative character traits to get another die to roll (but it’s a d4, so high chance of a 1).

This is the extent of the sightseeing I did in DC.

The star of the Cortex+ show for me was the “plot points” mechanic. You can use them to nudge the story a little bit, and you can use them in several ways. You can reroll or add dice to an opposed challenge. You can also, if you need an item of some sort,  say something like “I think I saw a pipe wrench over there” and receive one either for the encounter or permanently (depending on how many points you spend). The system makes it so that a player can’t damage things TOO badly with these plot points. For instance, if a player spends a plot point on the “Sword of Instant Win”, it still only gives them a d6 bonus. In the game we were playing, Phil let us enact flashbacks showing how those bonuses came to be. In my case,  we had a flashback involving me making my special mind-control chocolates (may contain chocolate, pumpkin spice, and the powered dreams of sad children).

Saturday evening I played in another Cortex+ game. Dave ran “Opening Salvo“, a Dragon Brigade module. I got a better taste of how a more “normal” game of Cortex+ works here. We were all using pregens from the Dragon Brigade novels, which was a little weird since nobody had read them and we didn’t really connect with our characters. It was still a good, exciting adventure and a great time. We got to see a lot of complications in play (from people rolling 1’s) at one time, and it really did make the encounters more exciting. It’s amazing what a little controlled chaos, a halfling with a huge shotgun, and some airships can do.

Combat in Cortex+ was a lot looser than 4e, so I’m curious as to whether minmaxing-tactician types will enjoy it. For my part, I’m all about story and roleplaying and the system supported those beautifully. In fact, I liked it a lot more than D&D. I’m curious to see what my group thinks.

We also, against our better judgement, played the Star Trek Deck Building Game after we got back to Dave’s that night. All the Next Generation stuff was awesome, which wasn’t really surprising, but the game itself seemed to drag on awhile due to your deck being polluted with Ensigns every time your ship blew up (which was about every other turn at first). I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t like it very much.

Ia! Ia! Microscope Fhtagn!

As much as I enjoyed playing with Cortex+ on Saturday, Sunday was a day I’ll never forget. It was the day I played Microscope and Fiasco for the first time, and my poor little RPG worldview was shattered into a million pieces and blended into a delicious yogurt beverage.

Microscope is the craziest damn thing I’ve ever played, bar none. You set the start and end eras of a world and (as a group) pick stuff you definitely want to be part of the world and stuff you don’t. In our case, we had loosely chosen a story about Cthulhoid apocalypse and mankind rising up to throw them out. We picked our start point as the “Twilight of Humanity” and the end to be “Humanity Drives Out The Darkness”. We collectively decided we wanted “gifted” people (superpowers, basically), and no actual Lovecraftian-named creatures.

Then, anywhere between the start and end, you can define periods in this era, which can contain specific events related to that period. You can also roleplay scenes in those events, which was fun. Here’s the insane part, though: you can set a period, event, or scene be anything you want – at any point in the timeline you want – provided you maintain continuity. In our world, we had a giant corporation called Simplicidyne doing a bunch of things throughout the timeline to fight off the alien threat. On one of my turns, I set an event that said “Simplicidyne CEO replaced by alien clone”. Suddenly every action the corporation had ever taken had questionable motives. It twisted everything around. It was so cool.

Microscope is unique in that at the end of the game you have a fleshed out world with its own history, and I really felt that you could then go write a novel or run a campaign in another system using what you made. I will say it was pretty taxing mentally, but it was so worth it.

Fiasco: The Other Poisoned Yogurt

Sunday was also the first time I’d ever played Fiasco. I’ve been hearing all year about how crazy it was and how this was the game for me. I believe these are true statements.

We playtested a module called Rainbow Mountain. It involved a lot of drugs and hippies and poison. Fiasco playsets aren’t particularly deep. You get relationships, locations, and needs to assign semi-randomly to your characters, and then you just start setting scenes one after the other. On your turn, you either get to set the scene or determine if the scene goes well or poorly for your character (and the rest of the players decide the other). Halfway through the game is the Tilt, where Something Happens that throws a big monkey wrench into the works. Then you do it all over again.

You accumulate white and black dice from scenes going well/badly. In the first round you give them to other players, and in the second you keep yours. These are used to determine what kind of ending your character gets. White are positive, black are negative, and you want your end score to be as far from zero as possible because zero means a catastrophic ending (possibly death or worse).

I don’t know how the game’s designers managed to capture such chaos with so few rules, but it really does play out like a Coen bros. movie as advertised. I was astounded at the beautiful trainwreck we’d made by the end of our game, minds coming unglued, lives destroyed, poisoned yogurt and brains everywhere.

I was happy to be able to finally meet and play this game with CH’s own Dixon Trimline. Dixon played a character whose mind was barely together, and sold it well enough that my mind came apart. My favorite moment: when several characters were plotting to kill my wife Cindy, and Dixon’s character goes to Cindy’s house and says “OK, so we’re trying to kill Cindy but we don’t think she’s on board. Can you help?”

One of my favorite parts is that the game requires zero prep and can run in 2-3 hours, which makes it fit very nicely into the amount of time my group has on an average game night. I look forward to playing it as much as I can, and hoping the neighbors don’t call the cops on us.


I’d like to give giant, mondo megathanks to Dave and E for letting me crash in their tauntaun, to the Cadorettes and everybody else involved with putting DC Gameday together, and to Tim Ballew for navigating us through Microscope without anybody having a stroke.

I met a lot of awesome people while there, both from the Twitter and elsewhere. I always like meeting people I know online because then I hear every tweet in their voice from then on. If I didn’t say hi to you, chances are I was either feeling socially awkward or was too tired to notice I was being rude. My apologies, I will attempt to atone at Gen Con!

I had a great time on my nerdcation. I see any experience I can come home from that changes me in a way that doesn’t require hospitalization as a success. I feel like I’ve been doing improv theatre pushups. Not the kind where you’ve been doing them for a year and you’re strong. Like the kind where your arms don’t work and you have to shampoo your hair like you’re an allosaurus with tiny arms. But I had so much fun that I’ll keep doing them, and eventually I’ll be able to play Fiasco like a Triceratops.


  1. I was watching you guys play Microscope next to our table and being very jealous. I still can’t believe that all the games I *really* wanted to play got scheduled opposite the game I was running.

  2. @Lugh: Microscope was actually something I halfheartedly picked when what I really wanted to play got filled up. Very pleasantly surprised. 🙂

  3. I was thrilled to game with you and I was so happy with how the game turned out. My write-up is over at RisusMonkey:


  4. @RisusMonkey: Awesome write-up. I had so much fun, thanks for running us through that. I have a whole gaming table excited to try this out now. 🙂

  5. Maybe this is a question for Phil, but, uh, is the Dungeon Job potentially played on a more serious note? I know he likes to run his con games with a heavy helping of good ole goofy humor, but I’m not sure my regular group could stomach holy necromancer chocolatier are a party member 🙂

    Do you know if there are plans for Dungeon Job availability? I heard rumors of a Cortex+ Hack book coming out, but haven’t seen anything in a long time. Maybe the Marvel RPG just got moved to the front burner, though.

  6. @Hawke: I tend to stretch my WTF legs a bit at cons since I know the game is only hours long. I am pretty sure Phil was giving us a considerably longer leash than we’d normally get. 🙂

    All I’ve heard are the same rumors of the Cortex+ Hack book, but it was fun so I hope it does get some publishing love.

  7. Very happy to read about your experiences at DC Gameday! I’m sorry that I didn’t end up being there, but glad to see that you had so much fun! I am definitely interested in Microscope now and will have to check it out as soon as I can.

  8. Alison Looney says:

    With regards to the crazy game we were playing, drawing pictures, and making insane guesses: while you link to the packaged game Who, What, Where, we weren’t actually playing that version of the game. Our game group is always tweaking things, even the total party gamers. We’re a little snooty about packaged party games that are just pencil and paper games. Some of them were even preexisting games in the public domain before someone packaged them.

    But regardless of whether that’s the case, here at Pepperland (that’s the name of our house, hence the Beatles mural) we find that what the box provides is mostly a stack of idea cards, and we think it’s more fun to have the players provide the concept pool. I haven’t played the boxed game, but it probably provides you with Who, What, Where cards. Instead of using that, we have each player provide a Who, a What, and a Where. Then we just make sure we don’t get our own ideas. It produces a markedly raunchier, and more bizarre game than the boxed version. I’m willing to be that there’s no “What” card that says “Having sex” in the mass-market game, and no Who card that indicates the player next to me at the table.

    Another favorite is the game previously known as Celebrities (I think that was it’s name as a game show or something), but box-packaged as Time’s Up. Those folks do have a number of follow up variations which expand on the concept well, though, and our group does play those with the box sets (I think).

  9. I am, once again, fascinated by Cortex+, and I can’t imagine higher praise than “I liked it a lot more than D&D.” I’ve GOT to jump into one of these games, preferably with someone else who will be just as ignorant as I am.

    Microscope sounds terrifying. It’s too open ended, I’m not that imaginative, I have this terrible feeling that I’d be the one stuttering knucklehead at the table who has no ideas and adds nothing to the experience. I’m so terrified.

    On the other hand, I had the same degree of terror reserved for Fiasco, and I loved that. It took me a few minutes and a couple tries to figure out how to tell that story, but once our group got rolling, there was no stopping us, and the final result was sublime. Franklin Mint, Zach Lactose, and Cindy Lactose, here’s to you!


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