My GenCon 1996 Convention Report

GenCon was another good time for me. I saw most every one of the people Iwanted to see, did some serious gaming, both as GM and as player, and got caught up on all of the current game releases.

Running Events at GenCon

Or, the Ups and Downs of Being a GM

One of my pleasures is to run events at GenCon. However, the past few years has shown a marked decline in what might be considered "off" events: events for game systems that aren't widely played and single session events in even popular gaming systems. The number of events seem the same but I wonder if the number of people playing card games is or isn't affecting the RP gaming field.

Anyway, last year I was to run three events. One was cancelled when no one showed up, and the other two had poor preregistration and finally were run with generic tickets. This year I was only going to run two events: a Champions game based on Disney's Gargoyles TV show, and a Mage: the Ascension game.

Champions: "The Power of Love"

The Champions game involved the old legend of the Queen of Faerie kidnapping a mortal and taking them to Faerie; if their lover could prevent it, the victim was free. Since Titania (and Oberon) is a character in the series, the mother of the wife of a major character, I thought it appropriate to use this. Titania took Fox, her daughter, plus the gargoyle Demona and MacBeth (yes, the historical individual: he and Demona are linked and cannot die except at each other's hand). Fox's true love, David Xanatos (Jonathan Frakes' character, and he looks like Frakes), discovered that something was wrong when Fox appeared to him in a mirror pleading for help. The same happened to Goliath (the leader of the gargoyles and former lover of Demona) and detective Elisa Maza (MacBeth). They were the three who were considered the "true loves" even though all three had good reason to be doubtful of the connection.

The plot takes a sidetrip to Faerie, where they must obtain the Water of Vision from the scrying pool, in order to be able to see past the glamour that Oberon has placed around his court, as this is Midsummer and he is conducting a Royal Progress through Central Park, after watching a "Shakespeare in the Park" production of "The Tempest" starring a popular TV and Shakespearean actor. The quest actually involves three quests, for three of the other gargoyles, so they would get their share of the spotlight.

Once back in the mortal realm, the gargoyles and Elisa and Xanatos have to discover their true loves: the three Wierd Sisters have transformed them into hawks and are carrying them. In order to rescue them Goliath, Elisa, and Xanatos have to discover which hawk is the correct one, then capture and hold their true love through a series of shapechanges (three, actually). It is Oberon's decree that no one should interfere but the Sisters have an old grudge against the gargoyles and try anyway. That will cost them, which is the whole reason Titania arranged the plot in the first place.

I had one person show up for the game, but that is hardly enough, so I cancelled it and spent the rest of Friday afternoon prowling the dealer's room.

Mage: "To Serve and Protect"

The Mage game on Saturday started with 1 player, then two and three. The last to come said that the developer of Changeling was giving a demonstration game and had over twenty people show up for six slots: I went over and announced my game and was able to fill out the six players I prepared for. Oh frabjuous day!

This event was based on a dream I had a couple of years ago, one Sunday evening after working too long at Marcon. It originally was a short story I had written about a gaming character I was developing and concerned Marcon's GOH the next year, Katherine Kurtz. The character was a vampire who had studied hypnosis for most of her life and unlife and knew Milton Erickson: Katherine has studied Ericksonian hypnosis, so the character would have had an interest in meeting Katherine. Besides, there are some definite parallels between vampires in WW's games and the Deryni, especially the period when the Deryni were hunted as demonspawn.

The scenario had six young mages, all from different traditions, collected together to protect a potential Celestial Chorus Mage, a writer named Caroline Knight: she had written several fantasy novels integrating Hermetic and Gnostic magick. However, it was suspected that other malevolent powers would try to recruit her.

The event went well, as the players got into character very fast. One went around a monastery (the mustering place) and tried to find someone to seduce for the night, while another raided the kitchen and tried to create tacos (without much success: he had to OD on black pepper as that was the only pepper he could find.)

The next day they went to the con and explored. One of the red herrings was a Changeling Unseelie Pooka: he turned into an Irish Setter, which was causing the Cult of Ecstacy mage fits because she was allergic to dogs. Another was a Changeling Unseelie Sidhe, who practiced the art of Ravaging (stealing the glamour from mortals: it has serious side effects on the victims) and was there to suck up as much glamour as she could from the filkers. One of the red herrings they didn't see was the vampire character who had started the whole scenario rolling in my mind two years ago, alas.

The real threat was a pair of Marauders, a woman who wanted to re-establish the Mythic Age and thought a writer of medieval fantasies who was a potential Mage (not to mention a former member of the SCA) would be able to help her out, and her companion, Matthew Jittlov, the Wizard of Space and Time! (A slight parody and homage to Mike Jittlov.) At the end, they tried "blinking" out with Caroline but were prevented at the last monent by one of the players: the Paradox backlash caused a huge explosion of air that was written off as a gas main explosion which forced the con to shut down. Caroline was protected and the players won. And a good time was had by all.

Highlander LARP

Unfortunately that wasn't the case of the live action game I participated in that night. Note I said participated in, not played in. I really can't say I played in it because I did very little playing of a character.

This was to be a live action game based on the Highlander TV / movie series. The players picked either Immortals, Watchers, or Hunters. Random groups were brought to a desert island and told to find the Millenium Crystals by a disembodied voice that called itself "Kalis". If we found him the crystals we would be allowed to leave.

The people running this game ran a spy game at the Safehouse last year. The game system used "Rationale Cards" that players could use to explain a wayout of a situation. One card bought something obvious like a bullet proof vest; two cards bought something unexpected, like a flesh-colored vest (from when the GM remarked that the light jacket couldn't conceal a standard vest); and a third card got something outrageous (at the Safehouse game, if anyone wanted to use a third card, they had to preface their description with the words "Would you believe...?"

I only had the chance to use one card, when I noticed an insane mercenary with a machine gun hiding behind the curtain. I was deciding whether to flee or attack him when he pushed aside the curtain and shot at me. It took one card to rewrite the scene so that I pushed aside the curtain first and pushed the gun aside. Then another player swung a machette at the gunman and he fled. BTW: all Immortals had to spend 2 cards out of their original hand of 10 just to be Immortal; I could have spent 2 cards right then and become Immortal, too, but I decided against it. I also had a couple of other cards (from the Highlander CCG) that I could have played but I didn't think to.

Anyway, the game had a lot of problems. To start with, they had at least double (if not more) the number of people they could handle. Secondly they had little space in which to run the game. Thirdly, people were thrown together with no justification to staying together, so people were wandering around the playing area almost at random, which made it hard for the GMs to do much of anything. Finally after two hours (I think they realized that the whole thing was a mess and stopped it early) they pulled a deux ex machina to finish the game.

About the only fun I had was in discovering I could approximate a good Scottish / Irish accent, so much so that I had people asking me to repeat myself.

New releases

There weren't a lot of new releases of RP games at GenCon. Partly, I think, is that the RP gaming industry is still feeling the effects of the CCG boom of the past few years, but another reason is that a lot of the genres are already being played out.

One genre that apparently had been overlooked until this year is the horror western. Dead Lands is an excellent and simple production of an alternate history Wild West, where manitous (spirits) have been released to cause supernatural havoc through the West. The Civil War is still going on in 1876, Los Angeles is now a cavernous canyon system flooded by the Pacific, supernatural horrors roam freely in the darkness, and the newly-discovered "ghost coal" is making such things as personal jetpacks, flame throwers, and steam automatons possible. Picture The Wild, Wild West crossed with Tales from the Crypt.

The flavor of the Old West is well maintained: the slang is used throughout (but not enough so that the book is unreadable) so skills are named "shootin'" and "horse ridin'", spells can be cast using combinations of poker hands, and there is a system where poker chips can be used to reward and buy Fate. A 220+ page book, it is laid out cleanly and uses B&W and color artwork effectively.

Another RP that was released earlier but that I picked up was Feng Shui. This is based on the same source material as the Shadowfist CCG and owes a great debt to the genre of kung-fu action movies that is epitomized by Jackie Chan. This is a template-based character generation system, mixing sorcery, time-travel, alternate histories, secret societies, and some head-bangin', *ss-kicking martial arts in the Hong Kong movie style.

Another game I picked up is Don't Look Back, a comtemporary horror RP. I got it primarily for the supplement "Giant Psychic Insects from Outer Space" but the game system itself is emminently playable. Its about midpoint between Conspiracy X and Bureau 13, and definitely profitable.

Finally I picked up the latest supplements for Castle Falkenstein and Immortal.

I really like Castle Falkenstein: this Victorian / European era game is a favorite of mine, and now with "Sixguns & Sorcery" they've expanded it to include the America West; if only they could have gotten the rights to The Wild, Wild West, but alas they've had to simulate the major characters.

Immortal is an especially difficult system to master and the game books are hard to understand, but they have some interesting writing and production and are worth checking out.

About the only other game I indulged in buying was a couple of decks from the Arcadia CCG from White Wolf. I have a long-standing interest in the Fae and I was wondering just how this game was set up. I won't bore you with details; it appears good but I have some troubles with its idea of character development as a part of continuing play, primarily because of the obvious possibility for cheating. Otherwise it is substantially different from other CCGs on the market.

And one game I did NOT pick up although I was seriously tempted was the Monty Python and the Holy Grail CCG. This is the first CCG with customizable cards: you can paste pictures of castles and people on specially prepared blank cards. It has all of the sketches and classic bits from the movie, too.

The Babylon Project

And last but not least I got a chance to see parts of The Babylon Project, the RP game based on Babylon 5. As this was a demo / playtest, much of what I describe might not be carried into the final product. What I did see, however, leads me to believe that the game is in good hands.

Characters (Human, Minbari, Narn, & Centauri only at present) were created according to templates (much like Star Wars or other games from West End); default numbers for each characteristic are given but the players were allowed to subtract and add to characteristics as long as the same point totals were maintained, and no more than 2 points were added or subtracted from any characteristic. Characteristics were rated 1-8 and were broken down in three direct groups (Cultural, Mental, and Physical) and one derived group. Skills were selected from a suggested list that applied to a particular template (pilot, ambassador, telepath, etc.) but others could be selected with a good explanation. Skills were rated from 1-6, with level 6 being almost impossible to attain: at levels 1, 3, & 5 a specialty could be chosen, which adds to any use of the basic skill when the specialty is used.

Rolls are based on the total of the characteristic and skill level, plus situational modifiers, against a difficult level. Six 6-sided dice are rolled: every 1 or 2 counts as a -1, 3s and 4s count as neutral, and every 5 or 6 counts as a +1. Also, every 5 or 6 can be continuously re-rolled as long as another 5 or 6 comes up. I haven't worked out the statistics, but the system has a net of +1. Getting above but close to the target number is a minor success: it takes +5 to get a really good success. (This is similar to other game systems that use skill levels.) Therefore you need to be really good at a characteristic or skill or roll really good, or use Fortune points to counter-act bad rolls.

Fortune points can be used to re-roll any die. Fortune points are expected to be given out broadly and used broadly. in keeping with this being a "heroic" game: heroic actions are encouraged and abbetted. Fortune points are awarded for good roleplaying.

Combat is short and very dangerous, many times fatal. PPGs, we discover, have little physical stopping power but cause massive burns. If any part of the system still needs work, it is the combat. Too many tables are needed to determine the extent of damage: this part needs some streamlining. It does however, take into account "splash" effects where a marginal hit would be close to the intended target but not directly on target.

Telepaths start out as a basic commercial grade telepath: no Grade 12s or Psi-Cops allowed. The Psi-Corps is one of the projected supplement books, however, along with Earthforce. The game period is from the end of the Earth-Minbari War to the building of B5.

Am I looking forward to this? Yes, I am. This could be a breakout game system, since a lot of B5 fans are not gamers but would be very tempted to buy the game because of the information given in the rules.

Artwork, artwork, and more artwork

This year besides games I bought artwork; serious artwork.

The first piece I bought was a simple print by April Lee of a winged woman (a redhead: I have a genetic passion for redheads) surrounded by phoenixes (phoenii?) It was one of three she had, but this was the only one that was matted in gold, so I bought it on my first scanning pass through the dealer's room because I thought that I would never see it again.

Unfortunately that was what happened with a Ruth Thompson pencil rough that I was looking at: it was of a faerie sprite with drooping gauzy dragonfly-like wings and a winsome expression on her face, matted and framed and everything. The prints based on the sketch were also very nice, but I like having originals. Alas, when I had returned to her table in the dealer's room it had already been sold.

The most expensive piece I bought was an original from the White Wolf Changeling book by John Dollar: it shows a woman staring at her Fae Sidhe self in a mirror. Its a very striking piece, and I not only bought it but also a color copy in which the color balance had shifted, emphasizing the reds, which strangely enough made it very appealing. I plan to have both framed and will hang them side by side.

As I walked through the art show (much improved over last year but still not quite to quality SF convention standards) I ran into an artist whom I had commissioned at a convention earlier this year to do a picture of a gaming character I liked. He was going to mail it to me but decided to bring it to GenCon in the hopes that I would be there. Thus I was able to have some changes made to it, but I'm still not satisfied with it, although it is a good piece. {What I want a head and shoulders picture of the character, from a victim's POV: she's a vampire who is also a stage magician and hypnotist and I want a picture of how it would appear from her victim's viewpoint of her mesmerizing them. I am beginning to think that this is going to take someone like Kaluta to do it properly.}

Then, just before the dealer's room closed, I bought a pencil rough of a TSR character from Clyde Caldwell. Maybe the term "pencil rough" doesn't do it justice, as there is considerable attention to detail and shading, especially in her long, flowing robes of seeming black velvet.

The two art books I picked up were Barclay Shaw's Electric Dreams and Diana Harlan Stein's Line Items. Shaw is a professional, with a considerable command of coloration and design, whereas Diana is an old friend, Fan Hugo nominee, an excellent B&W line artist, and an up and coming game card artist.

The GenCon Amber Campaign

Damarian, my GenCon campaign Amber character, was settling down for a period of wine, women, and song (not necessarily in that order) at an official party. I said that he'd scope out the ladies present: out of the three best looking ones, one was someone he had dated before, one was a little too young (although he did flirt with her a little just to get a smile and a laugh out of her) and the third was this tall, black-haired and black-eyed beauty. Damarian managed to cut off one of the guests of the party (a Lord of Chaos, who had fought a duel with one of the PCs earlier that day and lost) with a toast, pre-arranged a slow waltz from the lady's Shadow (one of the Golden Circle: she's the daughter of a High Duke or something), and then proceeded to enjoy himself immensely. Her name is Megan.

What Megan wanted was "an adventure". What better place to find one than in the company of an unattached Prince of Amber? Damarian, a little cynical and world-weary at this time, has discovered having a lot of fun again. He took Megan up the staircase to Tir-na Nog'th, where they went to the throne room. One of the futures there was Damarian, looking much older, sitting on the throne, surrounded by older versions of the other PCs. Also there was a blonde woman we had seen once but couldn't identify. When Damarian tried using the Pattern (he is in some respects a Pattern adept) to clarify the scene, the blonde woman used the Jewel of Judgement to manifest herself! She took one look at the younger Damarian and faded out abruptly.

After that the GM (Erick Wujcik) and I drew a PG rated curtain over the scene: I'm planning on writing up the later elements of the encounter that night and later that week, too. They rode through a thunderstorm and participated in a wyvern hunt in the Forest of Arden, visited "Bloody Harry's" in the city, and generally enjoyed themselves. Megan not only is one of the beauties of her Shadow (and many more besides) but a adventurous, energetic, passionate woman who definitely knows what she wants; in other words, a fit Consort (if not more) for a Prince of Amber.

On the advice of cousin Bronwyn, whom Damarian called to describe the scene in Tir-na Nog'th, Damarian decided to Pattern to find who the mysterious blond was. Having advanced in knowledge of the Pattern, it was simple to call the pattern to mind and walk it then, then take Megan's hands and push them both through to where the blond was. What we find will be determined at the next Ambercon.

I almost forgot about the scavanger hunt!

Friday and Saturday the lady assistants to the stage magician in the dealer's hall ran a scavenger hunt. I got involved with it when I stopped by the Steve Jackson Games booth Friday afternoon and found Spike Jones talking with Doc Cross. Spike was also talking with a lady who was collecting items for the scavenger hunt.

I glanced at the list: among the things like Stephen Donaldson's and Walter Koenig's autographs and a Pog with a dragon on it was "an Amber Trump". Now I had brought my Amber character materials with me to GenCon, and that campaign actually has physical Trumps of everyone. (Amazing what a scanner, color printer and lamination equipment can do.) I promised Spike that I would supply that element of the list: all I had to do was go out to my car and get it out of my trunk. Actually them, as I have a card for my character Brigid and one each for her twin daughters Rowan and Rhiannon.

And much later I thought that even if I didn't have my Trumps with me I could have gone over to the kindly people at the Phage Press booth and borrowed one of their French Trumps for a little while.

The contestants gathered at 5:30 pm in the open area in front of the TSR castle (which I always call Castle Greyskull). Spike was in the company of the same lady and the lady's daughter: together they managed to obtain all but one thing (including my Trump), a pair of scissors. I pulled out my Swiss Army Knife with scissors, which made their list complete. Well, almost complete: they couldn't find any vampire teeth so they made some out of paper. That only got them a half a point but they were still way ahead of everyone else. The daughter got the first prize, a $25 gift certificate.

The best single entrant, however, was another player who came down to the listing "a tie" and proceeded to bring out a Star Wars CCG card of a TIE fighter. Then he pulled another card, which had written on it "Cleveland 2, Chicago 2": a tie score. (The rules said to "be creative".) I said that he deserved two half-points for the both of them, and the two lady judges agreed with me. The guy also got to use one of Spike's shoes, since he used the other for his own group: the list said "red high-top shoes" and Spike, from somewhere, got a pair and was wearing them; I actually think he wears them all the time.

Japanese Animation

One especial joy this year was watching the Japanese animation. I got to see the final episode of a Ranma 1/2 story, where Ranma takes part in a rhythmic gymnastics martials arts competition. The opponent is Kodashi, the Black Rose, who is undefeated because she ambushes her opponents before any competition, and had done the same with the team from Ranma's high school. The team pleads with Akane (Ranma's girlfriend (Sorta)) to replace them, but when she stumbled and twisted her ankle Ranma has to take over. Last year they showed the first few episodes of the story but didn't have the final episode which had the actual fight; this year they did. A most stirring example that Cheaters Never Prosper and of the superiority of the Saotome School of Anything Goes Martial Arts.

I also got to see the first couple of episodes of "Slayers". This is a seriously warped and funny fantasy series, with a terribly cute little redheaded sorceress who's way too powerful for her own good, the blonde swordsman who "rescues" her from a gang of thieves she was preparing to take care of, a mystical artifact she has, and the people who want it. The redhead's asides to the audience are hilarious.

Final words

GenCon is one of the few places I go primarily to meet old friends (WorldCon and WindyCon are two of the others). This year I was fortunate in seeing Mike Stackpole (but not Liz, alas) again, even if we never did get together longer than a few minutes; David Honigsburg, with whom I had the best dinner of the convetion; Alan Grimes, unfortunately stuck inside the TSR information booth; all of the Amber people: Erick Wujcik, Carol Dodd, Michelle Spainhauer, Felicia and Mike Sutton, and John Speck; artists Ruth Thompson (a wonderful person), Robin Woods, and Heather Bruton and Diana Harlan Stein (both old friends); old comrades in arms like the Hero Games crew and the Hero Auxilliary Corps, since I've been running Champions games since they first started publishing them: Bruce Harlick, Steve Peterson, Sue Grau (the "Grand Poo-Bah" of HAC), and Brian Grau; friends from the pages of Alarums & Excursions who make up the unregarded second tier of gaming professionals: Spike Y Jones (writer and editor at AH, with his wife Mary and new child), "Doc" Cross (the Toon-meister himself and star of his own card in the "Over the Edge" CCG) and Rob Heinsoo (now working on Shadowfist and Feng Shui); and surprises like Mark Rein*Hagen, who recognized me from Alarums & Excursions (something I was not expecting but was very pleased to have happen) and Tim Zahn (I remember him from his early days when he lived in Champaign, Illinois, and could attend Midwest conventions, but since he's a Big Name Author and moved on the West Coast I've only seen him twice, both times at GenCon).

Copyright © 1998 Terry O'Brien {dragonmage@sprynet}