Gencon 2018 is over, but the games played left an impression. Here is our report of games played at Gencon 2018 in no particular order.
Ironically, the first game played was an “Invisible Sun” scenario by Monte Cook Games named “We Begin at the End.” Invisible Sun is a surrealistic fantasy RPG with a heavy emphasis on player-driven story development, minimal game mechanics and long-term goals. It is not suited for convention play, but MCG put together a fun four-hour slot in the IS world. IS has a deep, complex world behind it, so I will hit the highlights rather than make a deep dive. It gets a little weird, so bear with me. A local luminary named the “Illustrated Messiah” asked the PCs to kill her. Said messiah had powerful magic tattoos that kept her alive at all costs and she wanted to die and go into the “Pale” (land of the dead) to expand her experiences. However, killing her meant the murdere became afflicted with a magical madness. So the PCs arranged for a demon to do the deed not knowing about the curse. Demon shows up in the first 10 minutes of the game and kills the target. All is good…until we discovered he captures souls of his victims. Which means we had to hunt him down and get the soul back. Off adventuring we go!
After some research and non-combat encounters we tracked down the demon, half mad from the curse and used a combination of guile ( telepathy convinced the demon I was a voice in his head…my advice was not helpful) and brute force (beat him up until he gave up the soul). We eventually got the job done and the Illustrated Messiah passed on to the next level of existence.
Unlike a traditional convention RPG slot I felt this was more of an introduction to the game mechanics and a (very brief) introduction to the world of “Invisible Sun.” The game has many layers and this covered perhaps two. It did help me get a better understanding of the mechanics before I run my own campaign and I highly suggest anyone interested in IS give it a run.
Our next round was “Numenera” also from MCG, so we did not even have to leave the room for our next slot. “Forgetting Doomsday” had two opposing sides in a long-running war combining forces to resolve a memory-loss plague. Numenera is a favorite of mine, but this event had elements from the new “Discovery and Destiny” Numenera books. There are new character classes and abilities designed to build long-term bases and communities. Nice to give these a try because Invisible Sun has me tied up for the foreseeable future.
Blades in the Dark
“Blades in the Dark” is one of the new line of “heist” style RPGs. Rather than focusing on dungeon crawling it places a heavy emphasis on planning and executing an “Ocean’s 11” style heist. Instead of the players burning time planning the heist BitD uses a “flashback” mechanic to allow players to build a plan on the fly. It allows items or other preparations to magically appear as though we had planned it in advance, though it is limited to prevent abuse. In our case, we needed to break into a locked train car and steal some items. We ran into a steel cage we needed to get into so I used the “flashback” to acquire some bar-destroying acid. As with most game heists, ours went wrong. Our original plan totally failed, but we improvised, got the goods and framed a poor guard for the crime. Good times.
The Yellow King
“The Yellow King” RPG draws inspiration from Robert W. Chambers short stories, which in turn inspired Lovecraft. Though from an earlier source, TYK plays much like a Cthulhu game with a literary air. Set in “Belle Epoque” Paris, we played art students, poets and architects hunting a book, the legendary “The King in Yellow” play. It physically alters and kills all who read it. An investigative mission, we ran around Paris chasing mutated bodies, crazy old art collectors and had to dispose of a body. As an aside, the PCs were utterly ill suited to playing investigator. Which was quite amusing, especially when we had to get rid of a body and I suggested using a dangerous river feature called a “stopper.” It is a feature in many rivers where an object (like a body) is recirculated in a hole by the flow of the river. Objects can be trapped for days or weeks and would make a great body disposal site. I was an architect, so I thought some river features might have come up in his studies. The jaw drops I got at the table made me smile. I dabbled in kayaking in college and it was high on the hazard list. I think they thought I was a serial killer in training. After tracing the book we defeated an invader from the dark city of Carcossa and saved Paris. Great fun, but I dislike the Gumshoe system, so I will only play this if it is ported to a less annoying game system.
A board game, Haaldar raved about it last year and it lived up to expectations. “Captain Sonar” needs eight players (yes, eight!) to control the movement and combat of two submarines. Each player has a task, such as listening to the other team and tracking their commands on a board or maintaining the engine room. As you move around the board you activate systems on your ship, attack your enemy and try not to overload your engines. It plays fast, under 20 minutes and has a high adrenaline factor. Think of it as a real time game of “Battleship!” Great for conventions as rounding up eight players is a challenge.
There is one every Gencon, a game memorable only for the suffering it caused. “Harn” is that game at Gencon 2018. Let me be clear that the game, the setting and the rules were not the problem. This game lacked a key element to make any RPG fun; a competent GM. I need to give a little history on this event. Harn was on my gaming bucket list because it was one of the early 1980’s games I always saw in “Dragon” or mentioned by other gamers, but never played. Swearing to check it off my list I signed up at Gencon 2018. Haaldar and others warned me that as a game from the 1980s it was afflicted with complex rules derived from wargames played by retirees in the back room of an Elk’s Lodge circa 1979 that I am on record as loathing. I ignored their advice and went in knowing full well that the game would likely not be to my taste, but I would finally play Harn!
I sit down and was pleasantly surprised.
The character sheet looks reasonable and the system is a simple percentile system. Woohoo! I can work with this. The game begins and the GM passes out some rather nice pre-gens in folders. Complete with equipment and history provided for each PC. The setup is we are on a ship and we need to make some cash to keep sailing. The captain is up to his eyeballs in debt to the wrong people and needs to make money. First step is to sell off the current cargo, keep the creditors at bay and go get some more goods to sell. I smell piracy! Alright, we will spend 10 minutes selling our cargo, grab some equipment and we sail off to adventure!
Then it goes completely off the rails.
We wandered into town, hit a house of ill-repute got into a little trouble as sailors do. Then the captain started selling his cargo to make what he could and keep his creditors from killing him. This set off at least an hour of pointless meandering around town as the captain DID THE MATH on selling his cargo…individually. I will paraphrase.
“You have 25 barrels of ale, each worth 25 gp, with a 10% tax rate and 8% going to bribe for the longshoremen and the local mafia…”
Rinse and repeat… for each type of cargo. The captain player deployed a calculator to do the math. This meandering and math misery went on until the 1 hour and 45 minute mark. That is when I politely left the table rather than waste any more of my life on this disaster.
Rant time. Sorry.
I am not usually so harsh on convention GMs because I am acutely aware that I too have shortcomings when I run a game. I am far from perfect. That said, the highest priority in my mind whenever I run a game is “are the players having fun?” If the answer is no then I need to adjust, compensate and get creative to save the game. A meandering, dull plot and tax preparation do not a fun game make.
The real irony here is the Harnmaster system did not cause the issue. It was fine, but the GM destroyed the experience. Oh well, bucket list item checked.
Trask, The Last Tyromancer