My Summer Vacation, or What I Did at GenCon.
This was the thirtieth GenCon, and my 21st. It was also the first under new ownership, but no great changes were expected until next year, and it will remain in Milwaukee. (Milwaukee threw a bash for WOTC/TSR on Wednesday before GenCon to help make sure it stayed.)
This was the year I went just to have fun. No more months of designing games that I have little fun in running this year: all I wanted to do was play. (I've had people sign up for my events and not show; I've had one game with preregistrations that nobody showed up for. This year I didn't think it was worth the trouble.) And play I did. And after playing I may decide to run again next year.
You see, the games I played in weren't all that much fun. I had a good time with three of them, but not a real great time like the Champions tournaments I've been in in the past, and two other games were simply spoiled; those two brought the whole level of enjoyment down. I'll be getting on to those games later: they're a good example of how not to run convention games.
Anyways, it was good to see old faces again, like David Honigsberg, and a bunch of people from the gaming industry like "Doc" Cross, the Toon-Meister himself, and Mike Stackpole and Liz Danforth and Tim O'Brien. Then were was the art crowd like Pam Shanteau, Ruth Thompson, Heather Bruton, Diana Harlan Stein, Sue van Camp, and Lucy Synk. And I was surprised to run into MJ and JR Holmes, a couple of old friends from Milwaukee that had dropped out of MediaWest*Con because of personal troubles (she has the worst luck with accidents: the last meant she was techically disabled and unable to work.)
Getting up on Wednesday afternoon was actually more pleasant that I had anticipated. I had been scheduled to take classes at work Tuesday and Wednesday, and drove out Wednesday afternoon just after class was over. I avoided an accident on I-94 (a tanker trailer had overturned and was burning, but fortunately it was east of the exit I was using) and took the Skyway (I-90) into Chicago (I-94 into Chicago has construction work), so I made the whole trip in under five hours. It was a little expensive (about $3.00 total) but a lot, lot faster.
That meant I was able to attend the last part of dinner at Toys, the Chinese place across the street from the Hyatt, where the Hero Games people get together and party that night, along with the Hero Auxiliary Corps, a group of Hero gamers who run official Champions tournaments at GenCon. HAC is (or was: they've disbanded this year after 15 years) run by Sue Grau, a real bundle of energy.
By accident or happenstance, every event I had received was either at 4:00 pm or 8:00 pm, so I had all day to wander through the exhibition hall and see the sights.
Besides Castle Greyskull (the TSR mega-booth) and FASA's cityscape, both of which are regulars now, the biggest company presence was Five Rings Publishing, publishers of Legend of the Five Rings, which had just been bought up by WOTC. All of the other regulars were there, too.
There wasn't a killer game this year; there really hasn't been one in the past couple of years. Even Magic wasn't the big game the year it was released: that took a year to get off the ground.
The game that night (Thursday was the only night I had only one event, at 8:00 pm) was an Amber/Babylon 5 crossover. It was nothing like I had expected. It did turn out to be one of the three enjoyable games, in part because it did surprise me and had some unexpected humor, but it did have a few problems, too.
The game's biggest problem was that it took too long for everyone to get collected together. We all wound up in the same place, using the same method, but setting up those circumstances took over half of the four hours allocated for the game. It also had too many people, but that's more of a personal issue: I think that only the best GMs can handle a group of eight players in a convention game. I could, but I prefer to keep the number of players at a more manageable number of six. This GM wasn't that good. Close, but not enough to really handle eight players at once. And Amber is not a forgiving game in that regard, either.
But, like I said, I had fun. There wasn't the feeling of getting railroaded into helping out, and I found the justification for getting the character involved to be logical. And the finale had personal triumph and humor.
The scenario opened with all of the characters somewhere in Shadow. My character, Brigid (the half-Faerie shapeshifter/sorceress/Pattern wielder) was riding in Shadow, experimenting with her new Pattern powers. Suddenly she noticed that Shadow was changing around her, and that she wasn't doing it. Furthermore, and more disturbing to her, she was noticing gaps in her memory as she was travelling: she would suddenly notice that her horse was heavily lathered, as if she had been riding for a long time, but it would only seem like a second or so had passed.
When she began to investigate, a strangely-mottled dark cloud appeared, and after some attempts to evade it, it engulfed her. She appeared out of a large globe of the same strange substance in a valley, where other globes were positioned in a circle. Everyone appeared through one of those globes.
In the next valley was a very tall tree, and next to it was the blue fire of a Pattern. On the Pattern lay a man wearing black and silver (and I immediately thought of the B5 command uniforms): on further investigation we discovered it to be Corwin. He had several crossbow bolts sticking out of him, but it was apparent that he was still alive. How we couldn't tell. There was also this rainbow effect stretching from one part of the Pattern leading to the Abyss.
What we eventually discovered, after convincing one of the characters to walk the Pattern and rescue Corwin, was that he was using the Pattern to fish for Dierdre in the Abyss. He didn't expect a group of Chaosites to ambush him and leave him for dead: the only thing that was keeping him alive and keeping the Pattern from being damaged by his blood was that he was wearing the Jewel of Judgement.
What he also didn't expect was that Shadow creatures from the Abyss were now using the "fishing line" to make their way into Amber's reality. And because of Corwin's desire to bring Dierdre to Amber they were hunting for Amber.
In the first valley, the globes were hatching. They were hatching into Shadow vessels. Some went shifting into Shadow to go to Amber. Others went after us. One started strafing the Pattern, trying to kill the person walking it, when Brigid pulled out her collapsable bo staff, charged it with as much destructive power as she could, and fired it like a missile at the Shadow vessel. It destroyed one of the "legs", making it scream, and it went after Brigid. Brigid changed into something very fast and started running and dodging. Finally another character halted it telepathically, and, seeing this, Brigid assaulted it mentally, too: when it couldn't defend itself it tried to kill us by crashing on us (but failed.)
Another character climbed the tree and leaped off onto another Shadow vessel. He wasn't doing much except to annoy it, but he was pretty annoying. IIRC Brigid fired spells at it and damaged it, so she had parts in kills of two Shadow vessels.
Back in the valley, one of the Shadow vessels tried to assimilate another character, but he was blind, and so it took his dog instead. (It was like the Shadow ship couldn't see him if it couldn't see through his own eyes, so it took the dog thinking it was him.) As we joked, now there is a Shadow ship that can fetch sticks and roll over and play dead. There were also jokes about Minbari Stick Torpedoes.
And with Corwin rescued and ourselves safe (for the moment) from Shadows, the game was over. I can see the possibility of a sequel next year.
Being at the game, I missed the anniversary party out front, where GenCon closed off a major street and threw a party, with live music by the Violent Femmes. I hear that it went pretty good.
After the usual prowl through the exhibition hall I went to the first of my two events for the evening. I had some high expectations of the event, and nearly every one were violated.
When I read the event description it sounded like something I very much wanted to play. The event description itself said "... a dull routine of waiting and watching your kindred screw up on the evening news? Join the team that cleans up after the saps. BYOC 9-13 generation." What I expected was something about an elite team that cleans up Masquerade violations, and I came with a character that would fit into that idea. I would very soon find out that I had been greatly mislead.
The GMs first mistake was in taking three more people than the eight he had originally allowed for. Remember what I had said earlier about eight players being too much for any but the really good GMs to handle? The difficulty grows with each additional player. Eleven players were way too many. And I think the players (but, unfortunately, not the GM) all knew it: after we took a short break halfway through the event, four of the eleven didn't return.
The GMs second mistake was in basing it on his own campaign. That in itself was not a mistake, except he made some drastic changes in the WW established universe. Now having the common universe may or may not be a good thing, but if you're going to run something that you don't want to spend time on explaining in the short time period of a convention game, or you don't want to surprise your players, then a common universe is the way to go. The changes that we discovered were very significant: either we had to have the GM explain things that took valuable playing time, or we were surprised. Neither were very much fun.
The third mistake was in allowing one of the players in his established campaign to be in the event. That gave that player an unfair advantage on the others, because 1) he was much more experienced (14 dice on an attack? Get real!) than the others and 2) knew things that the others did not. That led into the fourth mistake, which was in not putting any kind of restrictions on the BYOC characters. Thus we got some really gross, almost Monty Haul type characters, which my beginning character could not compete with.
The fifth mistake was that the GM had entirely misadvertised the event. What I had expected was that the characters would be members of an elite enforcement squad whose responsibility was to prevent the normal humans from discovering the vampires exist, acting within the Camarilla, the major vampire organization. Instead, what the characters had been invited to do was to form an alternative organization to the established vampire communities, something that my character would not have been interested in, which (as designed) she would have considered a gross violation of her personal ethics. The power level of the game suddenly went from relatively low-level (local, or regional at best) to national, with a corresponding increase in the level of power of the characters, both player and non-player. This I was not expecting and was not really prepared for.
Five mistakes already, and we're hardly even started. Don't worry, it gets worse.
Five minutes into the organizational meeting, the door flies open, and standing in the doorway is a man who draws two Colt revolvers and proceeds to shoot everyone in the room. Without reloading. Multiple times. Several times a round. For at least two rounds. With a 50/50 chance of hitting on each character every time, doing enough damage to almost knock out a vampire on every attack, and incapacitate on two attacks.
Conventional firearms had little effect on him, which was most of us had: it took melee weapons to damage him, but even that didn't slow him down. When one vampire used a claymore (sword, not the explosive) on him, what he got in return was having both of his eyes blown out. When the gunman had mysteriously achieved his objective, he backed out of the room and disappeared. We tried to follow, but the building above had been set on fire. We had to leave using the help of a Mage associate of another NPC.
We found out later how he had managed it: he was half-Faerie (but since the GM didn't like the way Changelings were designed by WW he changed them, too) and the place was not our meeting room but a construct in Faerie we had been diverted to. The sole purpose of the whole encounter was to trap the soul of the main organizer (an NPC), but the collateral damage was way over the top. The GM later explained that the gunman was created to counter another over the top PC in his campaign: he could have accomplished the objective, however, with a lot less destruction and accompanying player frustration.
Mistake number six: this was power gaming at its worst. It also lead to GM mistake number seven, leaving the players with the feeling that they were being led around instead of having any real say in their own destiny.
I think by that time several of the players, most especially the ones who had been unable to do anything against the gunman, were sensing that they were not going to have any fun playing any longer. The GMs reliance on his own campaign's player for hints was beginning to annoy people, too, I think. By this time I had already decided that the game was a botch. The only reasons I was sticking around myself was a) to see what the GM would do wrong again, and b) to see where he was going with it.
The intermediate scenes were largely explanatory, since the plot had become nothing like what the event description had stated. It was now a search & rescue mission for the NPC's soul. And that soul was in Faerie. So we had to go hunting for it, along with about a dozen or so NPCs. (Like we really needed them? Fortunately they were summarily dismissed before the big showdown so they didn't really affect the ultimate decision, but just having them appear in the first place was annoying.)
The big showdown was at the Faerie equivalent of Ayers Rock in Australia, the homeland of the gunman. After the almost requisite verbal confrontation it settled down to another firefight, this time with the gunman only using one pistol, which was actually an extension of himself rendering him impossible to disarm. In the course of the action, three of the player were catapulted (literally) over Ayers Rock to discover where the captive soul was being held: in a black ship hovering over a lake of fire.
Now I've been reading Sandman and Books of Magic, so I recognized the ship from recent issues of BoM as the ship that collects the teind, or payment from Faerie to Hell. This was the first (and only) actual pleasant moment of the game.
The problem turned out to be that Oberon of Faerie had wanted the stolen soul in payment for releasing the gunman, who had been banished to Faerie earlier in the campaign. Thus the others back at Ayers Rock had to prevent the gunman from severing the silver cord that bound the soul to her body.
On the other side of Ayers Rock, Satan was annoyed that Oberon had expanded Faerie against Hell without his knowledge, and he wanted the land back. All it took was for a player to say "It's yours." and the battle was over. We were all banished from Faerie, and for bargaining with Satan, ultimately damned.
Aside from the use of the material from BoM, I was definitely unimpressed with the GM. The entire scenario was a botch, and I certainly think that I didn't not get my money's worth for playing.
That said, let's review the mistakes:
My second game Friday was a whole lot better than the first. This was my first game under the Babylon 5 RPG, The Babylon Project. I participated in a demo last year at GenCon, and I had found the system to be cumbersome. The system has been revamped since then and plays a whole lot better.
This scenario was a convention demonstration game run by Chameleon Eclectic, so you are warned if it reveals secrets about the scenario.
The scenario is about a group of Earth Alliance officers, who are under cover as working for a salvage and rescue company. The company officers are EA officials who give us our orders.
We had just finished a job and were waiting for our shuttle out-system when we discovered that the shuttle had been in an accident on the other side of the jumpgate (in its home system). We contacted our superiors and were given the assignment to investigate and salvage the shuttle. It seems there were other accidents involving the company and the area, so EA wanted an investigation as well as the civilian authorities.
Getting to the damaged shuttle was easy. We took along the shuttle's engineer, who reported that the electrical systems all shutdown just before reaching the jumpgate. The crew had to abandon the shuttle and get through the jumpgate and hyperspace in escape pods.
Upon reaching the shuttle, the four player characters and the engineer split up to investigate the ship. The security officer found a bomb in the ship's security office, as well as a white noise jammer. In the engine room, there was a strange glowing green crystal that seemed to be hooked into the electrical system. Touching the crystal gave the engineer a severe headache, so I took him back to our shuttle for treatment while our engineering officer and security officer tried to disarm the bomb.
When I reached the airlock, I was met by two hostile unknowns in space suits, holding PPGs on me. One took the engineer while the other kept me covered. I figured that the only reason they didn't shoot me there was that they didn't know what was happening on board the shuttle.
I managed to convince him to let me call the others: I was told what to say but the way I did it caught the suspicious security officer's attention. It would take an overt act to get their attention, however, and that would have been difficult with a PPG at my back. Unless...
By this time the white noice jammer had been destroyed, so we had communications. The guy covering me motioned me to go before him and enter the airlock into our shuttle. When he was directly behind me, I pushed off the airlock back into him, hoping that the backpack would protect me from a direct PPG blast. (As we would soon learn, PPGs blasts are quite deadly.) I was able to knock his gun away while yelling a warning on the radio. As I somersaulted in the hatchway, I was able to pull MY PPG (he hadn't disarmed me; stupid move on his part) and shoot the guy from directly overhead. (Zero- G, and I had turned off the suit's magnetic boots.) He was out, and all I had to worry about was the other guy in our shuttle.
The exec and the security officer were leapfrogging their way down the shuttle's corridor in classic defensive fashion, as I was taking a position against the airlock door, when I was shot from behind. It wasn't a killing shot, fortunately. It did reveal that there was a third unknown behind me in the shuttle, but he didn't realize that he was being approached from the rear, himself.
As soon as the other PC spotted the unknown, he was hit with three PPG blasts, all of which struck the chest (the default target). He didn't have a chest left.
That left one unknown in our shuttle. We swept the central area, closed off the hatch to the hold below, then went to check the control. The others were going to open the door while I covered them.
That was when the hold door blew off. The third unknown popped out, just as I swept him into view. He didn't stand a chance. He was the last of the unknowns, thankfully.
The engineer and our shuttle crew were all dead. The three unknowns had apparently been left aboard the shuttle to take care of any investigation and to destroy the evidence.
From our investation before going to the shuttle, we learned enough to present a case against the shuttle company and its owner for insurance fraud. The strange crystal was part of a failed project that had drained the company finances, so the owner was going to use the insurance scam to recover the losses.
It was fun. I got into the military mindset very easily: I guess I was in the mood to blow something up, especially after the other game. We worked well together. I also like the game system: its reasonably clear and simple, and the dice rolling is kept to a minimum. The character creation system, from reviewing the game book, is also straightforward. I hope it has the success the Star Wars RPG has had for West End Games.
Saturday morning I had the pleasure of having breakfast and conversation with Mike Stackpole, David Honigsberg, David's friend (whose name has escaped me) and my friend Van Siegling.
The game Saturday evening was the second of the two events that really spoiled the weekend for me, and this time it was the fault of two of the players involved.
The scenario was a standard "search and rescue" plot. We were playing members of an unofficial detective agency who did "jobs" for people, with hardly any questions asked. The "case" was to recover an occult artifact: we were a mixed bag of vampires, werewolves, and changelings. The recovery would be comparatively easy compared to the trouble I saw with two of the players involved.
The first of these players unfortunately was sitting next to me. He could have used the effects of a good shower, but that was a relatively minor defect compared to what he pulled as a player during the game. For one, he was a demanding and inconsiderate player. Whenever he wanted to do something he yelled to the GM that he was going to do it, demanding the GM stop talking with whomever else he was GMing to answer this guy. The guy also went off on his own, for no satisfactory reason, while the rest of us were trying to break into a compound, and therefore the GM had to interrupt our efforts every time this guy wanted to do something, and he almost immediately got into trouble and had to (or wanted to) do a lot of things.
He also, despite several attempts to tell him otherwise, kept mouthing the character's words or else speaking very quietly (he was playing a Changeling sluagh, who can talk in nothing above a whisper.) Even the GM, sitting to my left, couldn't hear him. Now if this had been in a quiet living room it would have been acceptable to play in character this way but when you're in a noisy auditorium where you can barely hear the people talking at normal volume it was annoying and frustrating. And, like I said, he kept doing it even after we told him we couldn't hear him. He seemed to take pleasure it frustrating the other players for some reason.
The other troublesome player was more restrained, troublesome in a different way. There are what are called "rules rapists", who know every trick and loophole in the rules and use them relentlessly for their own gain. This guy was a "scenario rapist", who used his own additions to the scenario (with the GMs befuddled cooperation) to get away with a lot of things that I as a GM would have stopped after the first or second occurrance.
For example, the character was a computer hacker. The player described exactly how he was going to get the information he wanted in a series of repeated "I do this, therefore that happens, which means ...". It was a long string of statements that were phrased not so much as a question but more of a pronouncement, and, in the end, he got the information he wanted with hardly any effort or dice rolling. But in doing so, he took advantage of the GM. It didn't matter that it advanced the scenario, the player had taken control of the scenario from the GM.
He would continue to do this, stating that he was going to do something and the GM letting him do it. He was really out of control.
The second scenario that night was "Thundarr Rides Again!" Now the Thundarr cartoon was one of my favorites (Princess Ariel especially) and I was glad to be in an event featuring it. However, out of the three events that I did like participating in, this was the one I was the least impressed with.
I did get to play Thundarr, after Ariel and Ookla were already taken. The other characters were mutants. The game system was based on Metamorphosis Alpha, which was an early TSR game set on a multi-generational colony starship that had suffered an accident. The mixture of savagery, superscience, and sorcery fit in well with the game system in the beginning.
However, when we got into playing, I found the game system to be woefully inadequate to represent the cinematic flavor of the animated series. For example, when I tried to attack a robot who was kidnapping some children, I was captured but was able to cut my free with the Sunsword. Unfortunately I was twenty feet in the air and climbing. In the series, Thundarr would have grabbed onto something and swung to safety, or bounced off a hut roof or something and landed on his feet. Here, all that happened was that I fell to the ground without even being allowed to do anything else after getting free, and getting knocked out by the fall to boot.
That said, it was an interesting scenario. The villain was a cyborg who thought that he was Macbeth. As I was fighting him, he said "You are a man born of woman, are you not?" which went right over Thundarr's head and mine, until someone explained that the prediction was that Macbeth would die of a man "not born of woman" or by Caeserian section (Duncan.) We also used tree branches to sneak into his hideout, as his sensors identified everyone carrying the branches as trees and didn't attack (the Dunsinore woods).
Once inside his stronghold, we discovered that we were on the Alpha, and not on the future Earth of the animated series. That was a little bit of a surprise, and I'm still debating with myself whether it was a good idea, as the GM could have used Gamma World (post nuclear holocaust) for the same effect. 'Macbeth' was cast into space when the viewport was shattered behind him, and that's where the scenario ended. I suspect there may be a sequel next year, but I doubt I'll play in it.
I was looking forward to Sunday at GenCon so that I could play in the GenCon Amber game. Hard to believe that it started over ten years ago.
Last year my character Damarian (son of Fiona and general ne'er-do-well) had made the acquaintance of Megan, a lovely young woman from the Golden Circle. An only child and an indulged tomboy she was really what the character had needed, someone to help him have fun.
But the fun had to come to an end. There was still the image of their trip into Tir-na Nog'th, where a future Damarian was on the throne, and a very familiar yet strange blonde woman was beside him. Then the image of the blonde woman became real as she manifested the Pattern through the Jewel of Judgement, then disappeared.
Well, I decided to go looking for her, and I would use my new-found abilities with the Pattern to do it. That was what I had decided since last year, and now was my chance to go do it.
Except the Pattern couldn't do it. There was an overwhelming sense of frustration, as though the woman didn't exist in the realm of Amber and its Shadows. She could be in the Courts of Chaos, where the Pattern has not power, or she could be in the universe of Corwin's Pattern or Harlan's Pattern, or she may not even be born yet.
So we decided instead to go on a picnic: climbing Mount Kolvir to watch the sunset from the top of the mountain.
On the way, we noticed something strange. In a spur of the mountain shielded from Amber, we could see horse pens constructed, for about 40,000 horses. It was already about 25% full. Through a spyglass we could see people with the colors of several of the elders bringing in still more horses.
I had not heard of a mustering: normally that would have been known to at least the Family, as we all hold military rank in some fashion or another in the forces of Amber. Unless it has to do with something that I might not have wanted to cooperate. I took the precaution to contact Godfrey, who is the Warfare master of our little group, and he didn't know anything about it, either. Since it would take several more days to collect the horses, this was a problem that could wait until the following morning: I had more important business to attend to. <g>
That night, Tir appeared in the sky. I was using the spyglass to show Megan things that we had not noticed on our last venture into the city in the sky when I noticed a familiar suite of white armor accompanied by a smaller figure with bright red hair. Mother.
And, watching them, was an indistinct figure in black armor, from about where the royal appartments would be in Amber.
It seemed significant enough that I Trumped Fiona. She appeared to sitting in her rooms, reading, but it was a trick she used, and she was actually in Tir. She seemed quite surprised to hear about the figure in black, distracted enough that she didn't make any comments about my new girlfriend: that was most unusual for her, a sign that she was very concerned about more important things that needling her son. She thanked me for the information and cut the contact.
That was where things ended. I hope to carry the situation on at AmberCon next year, as I will be much closer than the wilds of upper Wisconsin and able to make the convention. I'm planning on watching Fiona and Julian's progess through a Pattern lens, and maybe even offer them a back door out of trouble if necessary.
So there it is, four days of gaming, meeting friends, and generally enjoying myself. It wasn't the best of GenCons, but it wasn't the worst of GenCons, either.
I'm still debating on whether I want to run anything next year. I have an idea about a scenario where some vampires wake up in the evening in a different place than they went to "earth" the morning before. I worked out some of the details with my friend Paul Sunday evening over dinner (well, his dinner and my dessert) and this may prove to be very fun. Certainly paranoia-inducing.