AmberCon US 2008 After Action Report

Another 4 days of gaming in beautiful and scenic Livonia, with very little sleep and eating very poorly. Comments on the games I played and other aspects of the con behind the cut.

For Those Just Tuning In

For the handful of you that don’t know me through Amber gaming, AmberCon US is the original AmberCon started by Erick Wujcik in support of the Amber Diceless RPG. I’ve heard some conventions (like Anglicon) being described as small at just a couple thousand people. AmberCon US boasts around 80-100. It sometimes feels less like convention and more like a very large social group who mostly knows one another and takes over most of a hotel for 4 days just to game. There have been a few spin-off conventions, of which I’m primarily affiliated with AmberCon Northwest.

The Hotel

Embassy Suites in Livonia has been the home for the con for as long as I’ve attended. (Which, by my best reckoning, goes back to 2000.) As far as hotels go, it’s… okay, I guess. I’ve stayed in significantly worse, so I guess it’s hard to get upset. I think the McMenamins Edgefield just has me spoiled.

The service seemed generally better this year. When the housekeeping staff is cleaning a room you pass in the hallway and calls out a cheery greeting, it’s kinda unusual. I might even call it creepy, but it’s well-intentioned creepy. I didn’t eat a whole lot at the hotel. Most large meals I had were elsewhere. The food I had at the hotel proper was inoffensive bordering on bland. I heard some the lunch buffets were a little scary.

I spent the weekend sleeping on a hide-a-bed. It was a miserable experience, but I can hardly blame the hotel or the con for that.

The Convention

The big news this year was a changing of hands for the convention committee. Most of the “old guard” (or mezo guard, as this is hardly the first group of organizers for the con) was stepping down with completely new faces stepping in to replace them. Drastic changes to how the game book is handled, talk of a non-profit organization and a diceless roleplayer exchange program were mentioned. Overall it sounded ambitious, which I guess isn’t surprising given the work towards creating ADRPG 2.0. It would probably be fortuitous for both the con and Diceless by Design to rev things up. I’ll be interested in seeing how it all turns out. Any frustrations I have with the convention stem less from how it’s run and more just… ephemeral stuff. For example, Livonia is a long-ass haul from Seattle and no amount of convention management will really fix that for me.

(Though if they can do something about the decreasing female-to-male ratio, I’ll hardly complain.)

Overall, though, the convention ran smoothly this year and I think the con staff did an excellent job.

The Games

I should note that I didn’t start the convention intending to play only in games run by James Arnoldi and Sol Foster. That’s just how it worked out.

Slot 1: The Tomorrow League
GM: Me.

This was meant to be a WW2 riff on League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with a strong nod to Jack Schleick’s “Enigma Society” games and James Arnoldi’s multi-fandom sparklypoo games (Morpheus Calling, Brave New [Splat], etc). Character creation was pretty freeform, with only a nebulously described top tier.

There was an emphasis in the game description on needing characters in advance so that I could tailor the game to their character. There was no carrot I could offer, since there wasn’t really a point system in place. It was simply an appeal to common sense. I only received characters from half the players in time for me to do any prep in that regard.

The game itself went pretty smoothly, though, despite my game prep frustrations. The PCs included Harry Houdini returned from the dead, Captain Edward Bennet, an eternally young Sir Richard Burton, the Shadow, Logan (as in Wolverine) and the Norse goddess Sif. There were appearances throughout the game by the Baroness Paula von Gunther, Captain Nazi, Baron Strucker, Doctor Werner von Doom, Doc Savage and Detective Frank Hardy (a grown up version of the elder Hardy Boy). The big bad for the scenario was John Carter, who was selling Barsoomian light technology (8th, 9th and 10th rays) to the Nazis in exchange for help in dealing with the skeleton men of Jupiter that were attacking Mars.

It was definitely one of those “sacrificing a sacred cow” sorts of games. I’m a big fan of the John Carter novels, so putting him in the role of a villain was a bit of a challenge. But I figured that the players that knew me probably wouldn’t suspect such a maneuver from me.

Slot 2: Treacherous Waters
GM: Sol Foster

I was originally to play in Tymen Van Dyk’s “Once Upon a Time in the West – Dead Man’s Hand,” a Western game using the indy game “Dust Devils.” I do try and check out at least one indy game per convention, and this was to be the one for this con. But Tymen ended up unable to attend the con so it was cancelled and I begged my way into Sol’s swashbuckling game. I’d never played in anything Sol had run before, due to a combination of schedule conflicts and his tendency to run on-going serial games. (Though not as thoroughly obnoxious as a campaign, they do tend to be harder to get into and have a canon and history associated with them.) But there wasn’t much else in the slot that interested me and so I figured I’d take a chance on this.

I was entirely satisfied with this game. I got to play with a lot of people I don’t usually play with and had a lot of fun with the character I had (Alexandre, a thinly veiled knock-off of Aramis circa Three Musketeers). Just crazy good fun. I’m sad the slot was only 4 hours.

Slot 3: Brave New Gotham
GM: James Arnoldi

I actually signed up for this game from the start. I’d heard good things about it from his run of it at ACNW and was eager to give it a whirl. James’ “Brave New [Splat]” games are usually DC/Marvel crossover universes where you can play any superhero within a certain range of power. Often there are other things mixed in as well. So, for example, this game crossed over with the Buffy Universe. Gotham City had a Hellmouth, natch. PCs for this game included Spike, Oz, Willow, Magik, Wesley Wyndam-Price, Spider-Man and Doctor Sivana. I played Nightcrawler, re-imagined as a vampire slayer through the Catholic Church’s Section XIII (a la Hellsing).

Generally good. James, I know, was a little frustrated at trying to squeeze a 6 hour game into 4 hours, but I generally had fun. I think the only challenge was having 8 players in the game. That really slows down the pacing and the camera time, even with the best of intentions. And, really: Any game with John Schippers in it is awesome.

Slot 4: Murder and Mystery in the Dreaming Cities
GM: James Arnoldi

It’s been a long time since I’ve played in one of James’ Dreaming Cities games. It’s a serial/living campaign game that he runs a couple times each AmberCon. The previous time I’d played in it had been several years ago and I’d had a lackluster experience in it. But there wasn’t much else in the slot that jumped out at me and my wife really likes these games, so I gave it a whirl. Probably my favorite game of the weekend. I got to play Diego del Fuego, the holistic detective that I’ve adapted to a few different settings now. I was particularly pleased that there was actually some basis behind his madness and it could be sensed by other PCs. That way I didn’t seem like I was just a nutjob. (IC or OOC.)

Slot 5: Dark and Golden Ages
GM: Moi.

The best I can say about this game was that it was better than it had a right to be. The original conception of it was that it was to be a pre-Amber Courts of Chaos game, requested by a friend attending the con when I said, “Um, anyone have any games they want to request?” I poached some elements from some old campaigns (as well as my current one) to flesh out a period where it really was a collection of courts ruling over Chaos. What I went with was the notion that the PCs were the 8 High Lords of Chaos and the plot I ultimately decided on was that there were servitor races of old gods that had been imprisoned by the Serpent that wanted to restore their gods and strike down Chaos. It was meant as a sort of riff on the Corwin series.

I had a few players that didn’t get me a character before the con and there were some frustrations that I won’t go into. I also had little time to prepare for this. Between the ongoing games I run and prepping for the other two games I was running, this game really got the short end of the stick.

I don’t know what I expected it to come out looking like, but what it ended up being was a talking heads sort of game. A lot of the action was just the PCs sitting in council and arguing about how to solve the problems at hand. They had gross amounts of power to the point where they could have individually done just about anything they wanted. The only overt PvP conflict was when 5 of the PCs decided they were sufficiently frustrated with another PC to the point that they teamed up to raid his House in order to get a clue they felt he was withholding.

Despite being underprepared, I apparently just had too much plot to explore. I’d had an alliance of three races for them to deal with and some mystery to solve before deciding what to do. Between the number of antagonists and the need to solve problems via committee, this game only fit into the 7 hour slot by me just fast-tracking their gratuitous shivving of the antagonists in the last half hour.

I’ve pondered how I’d do this differently. I had very specific reasons for taking the route I did (letting players make their own characters, the power level involved, etc). And there were good things that came out of it. The Courts of Chaos that the players built was far more interesting than if I’d simply done pre-gens. And I liked a lot of the dynamic that occured. But they were so powerful it was difficult to provide them with reasonable threats that didn’t just negate their strengths. (I really didn’t want to take the tack of “you can have as much power as you want because it will do you no good.”) But the game just seemed like it dragged. But then, I also get horribly paranoid when I see anyone looking distracted and bored, so I may just be overreacting.

At the very least I think I’ll run for a smaller group in the future, and probably tone down the power level to something closer to ADRPG standard. I might just re-boot the universe if I do it in this setting, as well.

Slot 6: Brave New Oa
GM: James Arnoldi

Another spandex game from James, this one going for more of a cosmic scale. I was originally supposed to be doing my Wilderness of Mirrors riff on the Amber universe, but no one signed up for it. So I got to actually play this slot.

In this game, Oa had been attacked and the Green Lantern Corp had to relocate to Earth after the assault. The lower-powered PCs (Catwoman, Echo, Changeling) all got recruited as Green Lanterns while the higher-powered PCs (Zatanna, Silver Surfer, Captain Marvel and, strangely, Animal Man) did not. He drew in a lot of Crisis on Infinite Earth and Amalgam Universe elements, as well as a wide variety of cosmic level villains. (Plus he brought in every obscure Green Lantern alumni that he could.) Generally fun. I have a big soft spot for Kilowog and we had a great bit with Catwoman, Echo and Changeling teaming up with me (the Silver Surfer) to steal the Ultimate Nullifier from Galactus’s ship.

Towards the end I think I must have lost energy and focus, because the wife thought the game was awesome and I was just confused and overwhelmed. I was having some health issues towards the end, so that didn’t help. Animal Man had a lot of breaking-the-fourth-wall moments (a la Grant Morrison), which was entertaining early on but went a little overboard when a couple PCs managed to escape from their “comic book” and kidnap the GM into the game. Doctor Doom managed to steal the power of the GM. Zatanna was able to steal some of the power to set things right, but also ended up amalgamating with the Scarlet Witch… It just went nuts.

Slot 7: Roaring Ripples
GM: Sol Foster

This was the game with Sol I originally signed up for. He’d been amped to be getting back to the old “Shared World” style of Amber con game, where players bring characters they’ve played elsewhere and re-use them in a shared setting. I’m not entirely sure how this differs from most other Amber one-shots, or if there’s something I’m missing.

I re-hashed Sedgewick, my “great detective” son of Benedict. This was not the first time I’d recycled him for a con one-shot, but it was the better of the two. He’s a little bullet shaped for forensic investigation and mental solutions as opposed to combat or power based solutions. (High Warfare, but sold down Strength to Human though. The latter of those got a good chuckle from the combat monsters.) The last time I’d used him he spent most of the game riding around in the back of a tank through the lands of the dead. I didn’t get any great detective moments, but there were lots of situations where I was able to leverage his keen mind into a situation. My favorite had been being able to have the command room out of Enders Game to direct a big space battle. I was also, strangely, the only one with Sorcery (or anything like it) so I was pretty useful in a lot of situations where the other PCs didn’t have such assets.

Slot 8: Rebma Confidential
GM: The Wife and I

Of the games I ran, this was probably my favorite. My idea when I submitted it was as sort of a sister game to the Pulp Chaos game I run at ACNW. I could have just run another iteration of Pulp Chaos, but a certain part of me cringes at the thought of getting ensnared into a larger serial/living setting game that spreads across several slots and cons (such as Dreaming Cities, ShadowWorld, Ill Met, etc). But I like a lot of the ideas behind Pulp Chaos and, of all the continuing settings I’ve run, it’s my favorite. So I thought I’d take some of the thinking behind Pulp Chaos and apply it to Rebma.

My wife hadn’t registered for the con till last minute, so she hadn’t submitted any games to run. And she didn’t sign up for anything slot 8, claiming she’d just sit in on my game this slot. So she got TOTALLY drafted. Dude, totally.

Overall, the game went smashingly well. It had a much different feel from Pulp Chaos. I think part of it is because the players were just a bit more ruthless than the PC crew. Also, it occurs to me that the bottom rung of Rebma is not as bad as the bottom rung of Chaos. Or even Amber. In the Courts there’s the risk that your entire neighborhood might just get nuked. In Amber the canon characters have such a mythos associated with them that any single one makes your bowels clench. (“Oh, crap, they’re sending Caine to deal with this?”) I did a bit of math prior to the con, and figured out that the typical Pulp Chaos/Rebma Confidential character is built off of -70 points. Yes, that’s negative. When you figure 200-300 points seems like a good starting point for an Amber “elder”…

In Rebma… the power gap isn’t as big. The common citizen of Rebma has probably seen the Queen, even if it’s just at a distance. You could justify a 100-200 point version of Moire, and it’s not horribly inconceivable in some individual interpretations of the rules. But for the most part she doesn’t have much power that is inaccessible to the PCs. Yes, she has money and armies and all that. But she can’t smite you with Primal Chaos or drag you off to a special hell they’ve designed to rot for all eternity. The worst she will do is send assassins.

And having Jen as a co-GM for the game probably shifted the tone as well. She made Moire’s sister, Scylla, a lot more human and approachable than I probably would have. But then, my portrayal of faceless government bureaucracy in RPGs is becoming somewhat legendary, so maybe it’s better that she handled that instead of me.

So, yeah. Ruthless players. The plot this year involved a conspiracy involving different factions of House Triton (of Chaos) and the Rebman equivalent of the Jewel of Judgement (which I call the Jewel of Passion) ending up missing and gone astray in the city. The latter is a plot element that Cort used in a couple different campaigns from the other end of the equation. As much as I disliked it in play, I’ve stolen it a couple times and reworked it to my tastes. The players were just wonderful. I think my favorite was the uncomfortable look on Irene’s face when her character, a brothel madame, was trying to maneuver deals with the Rebman crown and other factions in Rebma. “Why, yes, I have the most powerful artifact in Rebma, and I want to extort concessions out of you.”

Because of the centralized nature of her character, the brothel run by one of the PCs was an excellent location for a couple of McGuffins to end up, including the Jewel of Passion. In retrospect that probably lumped a couple of plot points a bit too closely together. We’d been scrambling to prepare the game up until that day, so our work was a little rushed. And there were just gaps in our thinking since this was one game split between two brains.

The end result was that a couple of the PCs were able to bring serious change to the setting and likely gain themselves some serious temporal power. My original thought was that, if it went well, I might run sequels to this game (much like I do for Pulp Chaos at ACNW). And it went well, but a couple PCs might have promoted themselves out of the power level I wanted the game to run at. Well, I have a year to figure out what I want to do. It could be entirely academic if the players in question aren’t interested in returning. =)

That’s about it for the con itself. I’ll probably have some other thoughts later about the more personal aspects of the con, which I will likely cover in my private blog.

4 thoughts on “AmberCon US 2008 After Action Report

  1. colomon

    “I was entirely satisfied with this game.” And I was very glad to have you in the two games. Apologies for the lack of great detective moments — I was thinking in terms of a chance for you to figure things out, but not necessarily the big “figure it out from a shred of evidence” trick. Play him again and I’ll try to do better.

    In the old days, probably at least a third of all Ambercon games were shared world games — all the PCs were pre-existing characters thrown together and pretending they’ve always existed in the game’s version of the Amber universe. This year there were only five games marked with that tag in the whole con, and I’d argue that you used it wrongly for the Tomorrow League. :)

    But yeah, the idea wasn’t that no one at all does them at all any more. Just that there was still something worthwhile in that framework, despite the fact they are currently eclipsed in popularity by Elder games, serial games, and pregen characters.

  2. admin Post author

    No worries about the lack of great detective. I totally recognize how hard it can be to work in the sparklypoo of one weird ass bastard who has a character RADICALLY DIFFERENT from everyone else. =)

    I could see why you’d argue that Tomorrow League was not a Shared World game. I just was trying to be helpful and check boxes that seemed like they might apply. Most of the time I feel like, “None of these describe what I want to run.” But I seem to recall that the way “Shared World” was described, it kinda fit a game like Tomorrow League.

    Now, how is a Shared World game fundamentally different from any other game where it’s set in Amber and you make an Amber character? I mean, I can see how playing a character you’ve played before makes it easier to jump into a one-shot at a con, but it also seems quite possible for someone to just make a new character entirely. I mean, I could have just made a new character and found his voice pretty quickly, but I’d been using Sedgewick as an NPC in my current Amber game and missed playing him.

    On the flip side, I will infrequently have people who adapt characters from other games into something I’m running. For example, both Matthew R. and Irene played characters they’d used elsewhere. They just tweaked them slightly for the specific setting.

    Glancing through the game book for last year’s ACNW, for example, there are at least a couple “normal Amber character” games per slot, none of them specifically “Shared World,” but it wouldn’t be too hard to rehash an old character.

  3. colomon

    I will not accept the excuse that it can be hard to work in sparklypoo. It was mostly just that I didn’t have a solid grasp on the nuances of your sparklypoo. There were actually a couple of opportunities where I probably could have worked it in.

    I think “shared world” will make more sense to you if you understand the history of the con. In the early days, you didn’t get to chose what games you were in, nor did you learn about them before the con. So you’d just bring a few characters with you to the con, and see what happened. There were three basic strategies for running games:

    1) campaigns, which generally started with generating fresh characters.
    2) crossovers, where the characters are drawn into the game from different Ambers, and that is an important part of the game. Like in JD’s first classic Jerry Cornelius game, which started with him asking us each what we were doing (each in the universe we came from) and the next scene had us each in off in Michael Moorcock land, and the goal of the game was figuring out how to get home to our own Ambers.
    3) shared world, where in game the premise is that the characters “have always” belonged in the same Amber, know each other, and any differences in history are quietly ignored.

    Clearly the modern system which gives you weeks ahead of time to create a character for a con game changes the nature of things a bit. But I’d argue the intent is usually still pretty clear. A game like Roaring Ripples is intended to use one of your “standard” characters, even though I can’t stop you from creating a brand new character for the game. Contrawise, for a game like “The Tomorrow League”, your intent was that people create “new” characters, though of course if they had an appropriate character already it could be adapted.

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