[Event Report] ArmadaCon 28 – Home Town Heroism, procedural megadungeons, and gross capitalism

They say that wizards can never go home.

Fortunately, as a card-carrying storygamer Swine I reject the shackles of class-based character generation, and can go where I damn well please, so I went back to Plymouth to attend ArmadaCon’s twenty-eighth instalment and do a spot of mega-dungeoning.

M’colleagues on the board have spent some time beefing up the gaming side of the convention, and politely asked if I wouldn’t mind hosting ‘something’ in the games-and-dealers room for the three-day weekend. Obviously my first idea was a through-the-ages Vampire chronicle (Dark Ages on day one, Victorian Age on day two, Final Nights on day three), but then m’colleagues pointed out that they had no idea how many gamers would be turning up, also that gamers buy day tickets rather than signing up for the whole weekend, and that putting an awful lot of work into something might leave me sitting around weeping into my Cappadocian clanbook. (I bought a copy of the first edition – which is actually for the game’s second edition – on the Sunday. It sits next to the Giovanni one on my shelf, feeling awkward about the future.)

Instead, I fished out my Tarot cards, Otherworld adventurer models, A1 sheets of graph paper and a motley assortment of monsters (mostly undead, a few North Star gnolls, and some Fireforge historicals to use as hierlings) and prepared to play some Fuckin’ D&D.

What this means in real money is that I had ten set-piece encounters and twelve PCs statted out, but the routes from set-piece to set-piece would be determined by Tarot flips, as would treasure and traps. Players could drop in and out, taking over existing characters or having a new one turn up trapped under a rock fall or something, and I would be quite chipper about killing PCs off since it’s a con game and that shit don’t matter. There was a story – something, something, expedition, something something vast tomb complex below a suspiciously Cappadocian hillside, something something midnight howls, panicking henchmen, people falling down wells and crevasses – but I wasn’t going to make a big deal of it. Mostly, the story was there to get people into play and justify the random appearances and disappearances of new characters.

Although I didn’t actually get to start until after lunchtime on both days (the sessions were down for a 10 a/m kickoff, but most of the folks in the hotel were there for the panels and regular fixtures, not for the games), I did end up running on both days (not originally in the playbook). Play was slow (they did eventually fill one A1 sheet with mapped tunnels) but entertaining, especially on the Sunday when a critical mass of about six players was achieved throughout the proceedings.

Final scores: 8/12 PCs dead, 2/12 PCs resurrected thanks to The Shop On The Borderlands‘ sponsored wandering wizard encounter, 4/12 PCs returned to surface via wishing well, 3/10 set piece encounters actually used, 3/10 sheets of graph paper covered in horrible scrawls, 3 requests to keep going regardless of time and only 1 player feeling it wasn’t his cup of tea.

That’s not bad. Next time I’ll tie it into the charitable causes side of the event and allow PCs to buy themselves back from the dead by bunging a few quid to St. Luke’s Hospice, which I wish I’d thought of at the start of the weekend rather than ten minutes after the doors closed on Sunday.

Currently playing…

It was World of Warcraft, for about a month. Legion isn’t rubbish. The new Demon Hunter class is suitably entertaining. Gold is easy enough to come by that I haven’t actually had to pay for the second month at all (the subscription was wrangled with an in-game token). As we move into the first patch the novelty is beginning to wear off and I am no longer spending six hours at a time “catatonically staring at a monitor” as one wacky bastard of a commentator has it.

At the present moment in time it’s Blood Bowl (PC version), because a new edition of Blood Bowl (tabletop version) is out just in time for my birthday and there’s talk of a Corehammer tournament early in the new year. Sadly my beloved Necromantic team hasn’t made the cut for the first batch of re-releases, but the Nurgle louts have, so I’m currently learning why Disturbing Presence is hilarious and why nobody needs two Beastmen with Leader. Assuming the Nurgle lads get some new models, I’ll finally make good on that insistent Nurgly itch I’ve have for a couple of years now, without doing something stupid like a whole new 40K army.

I have vague itches towards the World of Darkness and will probably muster the Dark Ages group for another one-off or two shortly after Christmas. These episodic ‘tales from Constantinople’ take a bit of adjusting-to, since I’m used to running an ongoing weekly or fortnightly campaign and can afford to have loose ends dangling between sessions. When it might be months between times, events must be more contained and discrete, and I’m still learning how to pace them and make them feel important while still maintaining the proper quotients of vampirism and player agency.

I also have vague itches towards Warhammer. No, not Age of Sigmar, stop that, back that truck right up. I mean Sixth Edition, the Silver Age of Warhammer, the one I and m’colleagues actually enjoyed playing. More on this as details emerge – at the moment it’s taking the form of “actually acquiring a Black Coach and redoing the movement trays and finishing the display army like I said I would two years ago.” Actual gameplay is being negotiated with the learnéd Dr. Shiny and something may occur in that vein before the year is out.

Currently reading…

The odd couple of Eddisons I hadn’t finished. Styrbiorn is excellent – austere and restrained in a way quite distinct from the lavish prose of his Zimiamvia novels. His extended obituary to one Philip Sidney Nairn, which I read purely for completism’s sake, is quietly moving and offers a glimpse of the late Empire and the standards for being a decent chap therein, but is of little direct consequence. I also started Diary of a Drug Fiend, which is a delightfully rambling little confessional but not hugely compelling, which is why it’s only ‘started’.

Currently hobbying…

You wish. The learned Dr. Shiny will be carrying out much of my miniature painting in the future, in return for the free practice of my trade upon the manuscript for his novel. I hate painting, Shiny’s good at it, I like editing and Shiny needs some done. You see how this works?

[Meta Gaming] A Moment of Sanity

Apparently this appeared in the New York Times the other day.
 

Judge John Hodgman on the Quest of Dungeon Master Dad

Paul writes: “I have a dispute with my son’s friend’s parents. They feel that Dungeons & Dragons is inappropriate for 5-year-olds. I think the imaginative play is good for our boys, but the other parents believe that the game will make their child an outcast. Help these parents see reason and allow their child to play a game of D&D.”

The court agrees that your neighbors are terrible snobs. I suspect, however, that playing D.&D. with your son is more your fantasy than his. Five-year-olds don’t need a lot of hex paper and dice to imagine that they are warriors or elves (or cyborg mermen with rainbow breath): They’re built for it. It is the adolescent who craves D.&D., as it offers the illusion that all of his increasingly terrifying interactions in real life are governed by a secret math that, while occasionally cruel as a vorpal blade, is at least comprehensible. Your moment as dungeon master will come, Dad, but for now I order you to simply let the children play.

I’m not dead. I’m just playing WoW again. I’m also designing a dungeon crawl for this year’s ArmadaCon. Well, I say ‘designing’, it’s more ‘flipping tarot cards and working out how many undead miniatures I can fit in my luggage’…

Currently…

Currently PonderingEmergence vs. Determinism, although not in the usual “railroading r bad and u r bad for doin it” sense. It’s more to do with how the process of designing and ‘solving’ encounters works. Perhaps “Imagineer vs. Prepper” might be a better dichotomy.

Every so often Ben (co-host of that podcast I pretended to do for a while) pops up to ask for my perspective on a strategic or tactical choice that’s emerged in his Star Wars play-by-forum game, and I’m always flabberghasted by the amount of detail – if-this-then-that-ah-but-what-if-this that he presents in these scenarios. It’s not a PbP thing either – he’s the same in tabletop, he seems to think that he needs an elaborate map of his Brujah’s haven and a series of boltholes established all over the city.

Jaro, the DM of my intermittent Roll20 game, is the same – he’s a nice bloke but asking for exact rules on composition, cost and storage of bullets made me raise an eyebrow or two. In Jaro’s  case there’s an element of damage by a dick-move DM who once had an entire party die of exposure because nobody had said they were wearing clothes (this is a dick move because they were in mid-adventure when he dropped this bombshell). Jaro is something of an enthusiast for precision and adherence to rulebook and sourcebook, I think because he wants insulation from this sort of cockbothering behaviour, but it makes for some friction between us since I am definitely not inclined to the “gotcha” nor to the elaborate and intricate modelling of situations.

What I am about is a sketchier kind of gameplay where the fun is not in solving an elaborate situation with detailed resources and forward planning, but in making shit up as you go along. If there needs to be a chandelier for someone to swing off, there will be a chandelier (although dice must be rolled for swinging and the results of the roll are binding). If there needs to be an escape route it will be there when someone looks for it, if they look for it in a plausible place and if  they roll well on some sort of “can you find it in time” check.

This applies whether I’m playing or running the game. If I’m playing… well, the 5e game has now settled down into a predictable and well-oiled machine where I come up with a bare-bones plan which will work and leaves room to improvise, Charles overcomplicates it with needless flourishes and excessive moving parts which nevertheless impress Jaro into letting us get away with it, and we both have to bully Arianna into taking any sort of risk when executing the plan.

(Sidenote: Look, if you roll a rogue you have to accept that you’ll be sent on dangerous sneaky solo stuff, it’s the law, if you wanted to stay at the back and be safe you should have bagged the coveted Cleric/Mage slot and then I’d have been slavishly defending you and not Charles, and yes, I know you’re reading this, Ari, because you hang on my every golden word.)

I suspect this sort of thing has come to my attention because I’ve been playing a lot of single-player CRPGs lately, and those are all about picking your way through a predetermined encounter or chain of quests that trigger in a particular order. I generally suck at this since I’m used to muddling through and improvising, not having to talk to that guy to get that objective before I do this thing so I can actually get XP and phat lewtz and so on. I am getting better at it, but I still occasionally think “can I not just come out with my hands up, spin a plausible yarn about being attacked by four big lads with guns, and coming off best in the shoot-out because I’m brilliant, and then Dementate their disbelief away?”

 

Currently Playing: Besides occasional sessions of 5e or LotFP on the Intertrons, I am mostly playing Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines. I tried this for about five minutes back in the day (real time, strike one! FPS/action controls, strike two! likelihood of accidentally punching a hooker, breaching the Mass-Charade and getting shot in the cobblers, strike three!) but, like Planescape, I’ve reappraised it after a few years away. Buying one of those Razr game controller things (so that I didn’t wear out one half of my expensive split ergonomic keyboard, which I bought so that I didn’t wear out my ailing wrists while typing several thousand words a week for work) has helped me learn how to FPS even as it’s made my MMO-ing suffer and contributed to a drop-off in Warcraftery.

Bloodlines is fun, in a very oWoD kind of way – it feels like a sort of farewell tour of all the wacky shit which was due to disappear when Time of Judgement came out, and if approached in that style it’s not bad. Sadly, the game does indulge in the Major Sins of front-loading, reducing interactivity while NPCs show off in cutscenes, and including arbitrary combats which show up the limitations of my social-build Tremere, but… well, it’s oWoD.

(ETA: This is the sort of business decision which only makes sense if you’re White Wolf. You’re in the process of wrapping up your old game line and launching a whole new universe, and you make your tie-in video game a valedictory salute to the old rather than a launch platform for the new world with its new concepts, encouraging crossover and buy-in. It’s almost as bad as making a mechanistic nerdy-boy game with no particular focus while paranormal romance is ruling the roost, or taking the makers of a major motion picture based on a short story within your setting to court instead of using the buzz to republish and revamp said material. Essentially, you are spectacularly dumb and you deserve to go out of business within the decade.)

I am playing the GOG.com version with the extensive fan patch that actually makes it playable. I am also playing a Malkavian who thinks he’s a ninja (with a katana and a six dot Melee pool he is not entirely wrong about this, and shafting Sabbat thugs up the arse from Obfuscated safety has yet to get old) and a Tremere lounge singer (shagging her way through most encounters and heavily reliant on Disciplines in a scrap). I experimented, briefly, with a Ventrue dominatrix and a Nosferatu eco-terrorist hacker, but the Ventrue was a bit dull and the Nosferatu is definitely hard mode for someone not accustomed to first-person stealth-em-up. If this lot were all in the same party it’d be ‘perfect’ Classic WoD.

Incidentally, while the other V:tM game was very faithful in its adoption of Disciplines but introduced some overly granular percentile bollocks for stats and had an awful level-by-dots feeding/healing/buffing mechanic, this one keeps the elegance of the dot-based system (streamlining it with fewer dots and more defined combinations) and does good things with Disciplines. Streamlining Auspex, Presence, Obfuscate and so on as per the physical Disciplines and eliminating the action economy horrors  of Celerity (as far as I can tell, having not gotten to use it yet) is a good idea. I’ll have to try it in the tabletop game at some point. Hacking White Wolf’s excessive mechanisation = good call.

 

Currently Reading: The Prince (the treatise by Machiavelli, not the Netherese review/antiSocJus blogger/belch-vector, although I’m reading his blog too). Rob Kuntz was surprised that I could manage to write decent Renaissance-esque intrigue settings without having read The Prince and I’ve been meaning to make good on this for a while now. The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (decently accessible social history, conveniently attuned to the needs of a modern reader who wants to understand the difference between Now and Then, possibly recommended reading for twenty-first century gamer-prats). The first four Discworld books (yes, again), although I’m currently on a reduced-fiction diet as I have bought quite a lot of non-fiction (Spinoza, Castaneda, Bowker’s biography of Orwell, the rest of Padel’s poetry essays, and a collection of excerpted Brecht) and had it sitting there for months.

 

Currently HobbyingI bought a job lot of cultists, demons, villains, zombies etc.  from Heresy Miniatures (they have a sale on until the end of July, buy now, beat the rush, help Andy recover from honourable Dragon-related fiscal suicide). These will be making up a Blood Bowl team/rounding out a Frostgrave warband/providing something for my Otherworld adventurers to slap around in RPGs. I was working on a new wargaming table but space seems to be at a premium these days and that one may have to go the way of the dodo. I realise that I barely wargame at all these days, which has checked my hand every time I consider giving Frostgrave or SAGA a proper poke. Insert gripe about how I am old and tired and hate learning new rules, too.

 

Currently Smoking: Poles.