Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Ant Vomit and Pocket Plutonium - Running Games at Pegcon

So this is a post (written at 5am so the typos are totally features and not bugs) that'll show how I live in two completely different worlds, as it's all about RPGs and not about sports at all. I guess that makes me like Chris Klewe, except I can't punt all that well, aren't famous, and am not the hated foe of the Gamergate losers. So, friends and family who don't share my gaming passion, feel free to scratch your head in bewilderment or make 'Big Bang Theory' jokes. It's okay. I accept and embrace the duality of my nature.


This past weekend I attended Pegcon, a gathering of 50 or so wonderful gamers at a big ole house in Newton, MA. The couple that runs it decided long ago that the best way to celebrate their wedding anniversary was to fill their home with their friends and play games, and damned if they're not on to something. It's the sort of event wherein the structural integrity of the building is threatened by the constant rumbling of laughter, and your ribs are in danger of being cracked by the hugs of people you don't see often enough. At a 3.5 hour ride from NJ we're only a middling commute - we have folks from Maryland, Las Vegas, California, and even England. Sometimes Canadians, but not this time, I think. Regardless, let me get back to the matter at hand, in which I embraced lunacy and decided to run games in two systems that were brand new to me.

The first was Robin D. Law's Hillfolk from Pelgrane Press. I'm not going to lie, it took me several readthroughs of the rules before I could grasp what was going on and what needed to happen for the game to work. It's a little like Fiasco is that the game is driven by conflicts and conversations between the players, but  intended to be a bit more serious. The suggested starter game is as a tribe of, well, Hillfolk, in Iron Age era Palestine. Using a well-crafted mod designed to ease a group into play was far too logical for me, of course, so instead I made things extra weird by picking a different mod by John Scott Tynes that made the players . . . ants. I used his castes and the threat of a zombifying fungus, but chose to have the players be ants that were suddenly Awakened with human-level intelligence. I was concerned that this game was going to flop on its face. I am happy to report that it did not.

My players were superb, overcoming my initial moment of terror when I cited shows like Sons of Anarchy, the Sopranos, and Justified as examples of what we were trying to make and was met with blank stares from everyone but the Emmy-winning writer at the table (all tables should have one of those, BTW She's awesome). Our game wasn't as gritty and dark as the sample campaign in the book, but we had plenty of conflict along with our humor. The Assassin was trying to come to terms with the sensation of new feelings and his extreme ineptitude at expressing them. In addition, he was addicted to the healing vomit of the Honeypot. The Honeypot, who completely broke the table by spending the first 30 seconds screaming in horror as he realized why they kept giving him so much food (they become immobile larders for the colony), was trying to find a different role in life. The Soldier, who had seen all of his fellow soldier ants die around him countless times while he somehow lived on, decided that there was a Ant God and that he was blessed with immortality. In trying to convert the Communications ant on this he didn't skip a beat when she admitted she had awakened them via a chemical mistake, first saying she was the instrument of the Ant God and then later anointing her as the actual Ant God, a title she accepted after a while. The Assassin and his Tank brother sparred constantly. The Engineer clashed with the Soldier over the replacement limb she'd made for him when the Assassin had torn it off in a berserk rage . . . there was so much delicious and hysterical conflict. Drama tokens, given to the person who loses the discussion, were a nice way to be rewarded for conceding an argument and allowed the Honeypot to shoehorn his way into a conversation in a much more cinematic manner. At the end we went back and decided whether or not the characters had each achieved the desire they'd written down during character creation, and it gave a nice coda to the session. The procedural system used for resolving outside conflicts is interesting but had a bit of a flaw (unless I misread the rules about it, which is entirely possible). There's a clever red-yellow-green system that's used which forces the players and the GM to either be strong, middling, or weak in a conflict - all three have to be used before you get them back again. A deck of cards is employed as well. On the GM side, for the PCs to win a easy fight they have to match the color of the GMs up card (they may or may not know the difficulty, based on what's gone on before). If it's a middling fight, they have to match the suit. For a difficult fight, they have to match or beat the value of the card, and that was our issue. I understand the math behind it - for easy you have 25 cards you can draw to win; for middling, 12. If I draw an Ace or a King there's only 3 to 7 cards that can beat me - BUT - in four difficult level fights I drew 4, 4, 5, and a Jack. Aside from the face card, the other fights were too easy. Maybe let the GM draw 2 cards in secret and play the best one? I would consider house ruling it like that next time. That being said, it was an absurd amount of fun. Not for shy, quiet players, though. Your PCs need to be invested and involved in Hillfolk, which mine were. Good time.

The second game I ran was the brand-spanking new Katanas and Trenchcoats by Ryan Macklin. This one is based on the glorious cheesiness of Highlander and I spent most of my time laughing while reading the rules. I had a tough time deciding whether to pre-gen the characters or have the players make them up on the spot, but in the end I settled for a hybrid and gave them skeletons to drape clothes on. For my part generation was easy and FUN - the inspiration for Batman; an actress so good one of her many roles was Jesus Christ ('Oops.'); an ancient warrior trying to come to term with SO MANY DAMN GUNS; and so on. They wrote up even more great background stuff and terrific Thrones of Comfort - things special to them that the SM would never mess with except for when we do because of course we're going to (although in this instance I didn't have to because the PCs kept moving the plot along). Overall, the session went well, I think. Saturday night is a tough slot - everyone has two four-hour sessions already under their belt for the day and energy starts to flag a bit, but my players were great. My wife, suffering from brutal sinus issues, had to bow out during the first fight (of course she's playing the Zulu character who saw her entire village wiped out by the British and she left right before they run into the RMCP Black Ops who are led by a guy in full RMCP regalia) which left me with 6 PCs, still a big number for this system. Still, I felt it worked pretty well. The PCs, Immortals all, were at the mansion of another Immortal. An uneasy agreement to abandon killing each other for the possibly non-existent 'Prize' was put into place 50 years ago, so this was just a friendly gathering that got ugly when three of the waiters, who turned out to be Vipers in disguise, used what later proved to be Fey magic in concert with one another to Permakill the host (and my wife's PC, since she was leaving anyway). After a good fight they questioned one and discovered they were hired by the Twins, a pair of Twilight-influenced Hungarian vampires. At the airport they were surrounded by the RMCP Black ops and I expected a big fight but the doctor made good use of her Always Another Pocket/Pouch ability to produce some weapon-grade plutonium, which made the RMCP back down. They flew to labs in San Fransisco to determine the makeup of the death balls, then went to the Vampires, where through careful negotiation  (and some brooding) they found out another Immortal had hired the Vipers through the Twins (another scene that could have been a fight, but wasn't). They jetted to confront the Immortal, who welcomed them with open arms and was shocked that 2 Immortals had been killed - he thought it was a joke. After talking (another expected fight that didn't happen - I had were-jaguars, were-rheas, were-poison-dart-frogs, were-giantbirdkiller spiders, and a were-badger!) the PCs found out who had contacted him to hire out the job - an Immortal-wannabe in Australia  who, when confronted in the final scene, revealed that he had made a deal with the Fey and transformed into a massive dragon that could Permakill Immortals, which is exactly what happened to the NPC one who went with them. If we hadn't been running late and close to midnight I would tossed in a few more Vipers with death balls (they had to be in a triangle around the Immortal and all squish the balls at the same time) but it was about time to let them succeed like the badasses they were. The players had a few quibbles with the system but I kind of liked it as it really encouraged them to describe what they were doing. All in all, a pair of great sessions, at least for me.

On Sunday I was part of the scariest horror game EVER. It was set at Fenway. THE HORROR, THE HORROR oh god the Sox are terrible this year. Okay, sports friends, all the geeky stuff is over for now. Let's talk save percentage and VORP.

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