ACUS 09 Recap

Hey, only took me a couple months.

April 16th-19th, I flew out with the special lady friend for four days of roleplaying at the 20th anniversary AmberCon US in beautiful, scenic Livonia, MI. For those who haven’t attended one, these cons are relatively small (ACNW and ACUS have 80-100 attendees each year) and lack some of the features you see in larger cons. Like a sprawling dealer room and such. Instead, it’s just solid gaming from Thursday night through Sunday night. And by gaming, I mostly mean “roleplaying.” Like serious, immersionist, actor-stance, honest-to-Buddha roleplaying. There’s a bit of indy gaming that goes on. Fringe weirdos like Amber players tends to have some overlap with the indy game crowd. But there’s also some people who staunchly hate indy games. Especially the story game, roll-for-narrative control sorts of games.

The con definitely has a different feel from ACNW, which is the con I spend most of my time at. It was started by Erick Wujcik himself and has about seven years on ACNW. The median age often feels older. It seems like there are more ongoing campaigns than there are at ACNW, some of which may very well have started in the early years of the con. This is, and has been, the major stomping ground of many of the people I got to know through the old Amber Mailing List. When I think “Amber Community,” I think of this place.


Arrived Wednesday night and went straight to a “pre-con” potluck held by some friends. Generally mingled and socialized. The next day there was a huge outing to Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor. It’s a popular destination for foodies. I’m not a foodie, so the delights of Zingerman’s are like pearls before swine for me.

Walked down to a local comic book store (whose name I’ve forgotten, even though I’ve been there a few times now) and spent more money than I should.

The con changed hands and was really trying to drastically change how it had been handled in the past. Because they were trying a lot of new things, there were some hiccups in the system that will be ironed out as they get used to it. But overall I think it went great.

Con attendees also got a big glass commemorative mug. I gather it was a nod to similar mugs that were given out to con attendees in earlier AmberCons. For me it was mostly “a pain in the ass to get back home on the plane.”

The Venue

As a cost saving measure, the special lady friend and I opted to not stay at the hotel. Instead, we stayed with a friend who lived nearby and also couldn’t afford to stay at the hotel. Instead we had a half hour commute each way and got even less sleep than usual.

Overall I had some very good experiences while in the hotel. The service, I think, was the best I ever experienced there.

Slot 1) The Tomorrow League – GM: Me.

This was the second installment of the “League of Extraordinary Gentlement” game that I started last year. I had the Shadow and the Norse goddess Sif as returning players, with new players portraying Golden Age Superman, Golden Age Black Widow, the Unknown Soldier and… Blackhawk?

The villain was Lucy Pevensie, having been told that she can no longer return to Narnia and learning that she won’t be able to return until after she dies several years into the future. She uses the experience she gained “growing up” in Narnia to amass an occult arsenal, obtain a set of green and yellow rings (a la The Magician’s Nephew) and is combining that with a staging of “The King in Yellow” (in the Globe Theater, with patients from Bedlam!) to send the avatar of Hastur up against Aslan.

No, I’m not at all kidding. This was the plot I came up with.

This year had cameo appearances by Dr. Sivana, Loki (more Vertigo than Marvel), DC Comic’s The Wizard, the Voodoo Master (a villain from The Shadow) and German occultist Rudolf von Sebottendorf. Oh, I also had some wonderflonium in the game. Thank you Dr. Horrible.

Tried to insert a few large threats (like giant robots from Dr. Sivana) for characters like Superman and Sif to thrash, but the infiltration-oriented players ended up doing a few end-runs around them. So I found myself in the situation of, “Do I reward the sneaky guys for their initiative at trying to neutralize a threat in advance, or do I stimy them so that the tanks have a good fight later?” I tried for a happy medium, but it was kind of a challenge.

A little unsure how well the game went over in the long run. I mean, a game where the climax in the action involves a Norse goddess operating at super-speed (thanks to the wonderflonium) pummels an early adolescent girl to death? Definitely not an upbeat ending. Most people seemed to have fun, but their characters definitely made a point of walking away as fast as possible from the end.

Slot 2) Running with the Shadows of the Night – GM: Me again!

This was my first attempt at running a Shadowrun game diceless. I love the setting and have a lot of nostalgia for it. It was the second game I ever played in a campaign for. (There was a one-shot of Call of Cthulhu that I played in back in high school, but I can’t remember where that fell in the timeline.) But as I’ve gotten older, I have less patience with baroque rule systems. If the game is improved by using a spreadsheet when making a character, something is wrong.

So, for this I tried to re-task the basic Amber structure for Shadowrun. I wrestled with how to do this long after I submitted the game to the game book. What I finally decided was to make the attributes based on what Shadowrun characters normally do, then have players choose how their character does that. Rather than ding someone some arbitrary number of points to be able to cast spells, I thought I’d have them just broadly define where their ability comes from. My thought was, “Does it really matter that they are using a mana bolt or an Ares Predator II? Or does it matter that you are hitting someone at a distance?” So, three power sources (Tech, Magic or Resonance), six stats. It was four stats, until I realized some gaps in my thinking. 0 in a stat represented the pinnacle of unenhanced humanity. Beyond that you had to broadly define where that ability came from. If you were really good at the ranged stat (“Blast,” because I had to have cute names for everything) was that because you had a Smartlink, enhanced agility, skillwires and a custom made pistol? Was it because you had an assortment of combat spells in the queue? Was it because you were a Zen shotgun monk with a specially enchanted boom stick?

I fleshed out the edges with a couple simple powers and a crudely adapted version of the Amber item/critter creation rules. I can post the full write-up if anyone cares.

There were a few challenges with the rules.

The first is that… well, my system just didn’t map well to the Shadowrun cosmology. I broke down the attributes to, basically: ranged combat, close combat, hacking, strength/endurance, dodging and willpower. I had cute names for all of them, but that was basically the gist. Yes, even mages can do some hacking but it’s not their forte. But this allowed them to do it. There’s almost nothing a technomancer can do in Shadowrun to enhance their close combat skill without burning out their connection to the Resonance. But yet they could put points into close combat in my game. Willpower was meant as both magical mojo and resistance to magic and, if you’re a technomancer, virtual attacks. But a technomancer with complex forms that helped him resist virtual damage shouldn’t be able to help resist spells being launched at him.

I could have tweaked the rules up a bit, but I was writing these up after I got my players lists. So time was short and I didn’t want to make this any more complicated than I had to. But Shadowrun has a very idiosyncratic cosmology that just didn’t mesh well with “fast and loose.”

A couple people found the rules confusing. One was a person who, to be polite, finds reality challenging. Which was extra bizarre because he had no problem making an actual Shadowrun character. The other was someone who was someone who isn’t a rules guy in the first place and was not at all familiar with Shadowrun. (This prompted me to have to type up a quick summary of the entire Shadowrun universe. Fun!)

In play, the game went fine. I poached the plots from a few of my favorite canned adventures (chiefly “Mercurial” and “Queen Euphoria”). I created a insect spirit analog for the Resonance realms, had some actual insect spirits running around. When I needed to pad it out for another hour, I pulled a third storyline out of my ass. I think it was an AI that was in love with the orksploitation rocker that the PCs were protecting, but I’m not 100% sure on that. Like most Amber-style games, the rules were largely meaningless, but for making the game more accessible to players it kinda failed.

Were I to do it again, I would probably either do a grab-bag system like I have for Pulp Chaos/Rebma Confidential, or I’d do entirely freeform. I’d have done freeform this year, but after the scarring effect of someone utterly butchering the Shadowrun cosmology in a previous Ambercon one-shot several years ago. I wanted to have some way to enforce cosmology to a degree.

Perhaps my problem is that I’m too attached to Shadowrun canon…

Next year I want to try and do Exalted with a a variant of the Amber rules. I’ve got a system mostly worked out in my head.

Slot 3) The Replacements – GMs: Me with James Arnoldi

I don’t like to run outright silly games anymore. I used to be kinda known for them at AmberCons: Luke and Merle’s Excellent Adventure, ShadowQuest, Nine Princes in the Hundred Acre Wood, several sequels for some of those. Silly still creeps into anything I run, but that’s more “against my best intentions.” I still do the outright silly game occasionally, but not often.

From a conventional roleplaying perspective, they are a huge pain in the ass to prep for and, more often than not, are usually… limp. Assuming the players really bring a lot of energy to the game, it usually doesn’t last through the whole slot. And they are a huge pain in the ass to prep for because it’s hard to really anticipate what a bunch of screwball players will do. My best success has mostly been Grindhouse, which usually attracts some really strong and out there players who really bring a lot to the game.

But James and I had a game idea we were really excited about, we had wanted to run a game together for a while because of high mutual admiration. The idea was to do a Z-list superhero game, a la Great Lakes Avengers, Justice League Antarctica, Section Eight and Mystery Men.

We ran into some logistical challenges. James lives in Michigan and works graveyard. I live in Seattle and work “normal” office hours. I hate talking on the phone, he has carpal tunnel or something similar that minimizes his ability to use email. Neither of us are really organized as GMs. I’d been trying to be more organized for a few years, but I’ve increasingly slipped back into “fly by the seat of my pants.” The organizing gave me some discipline and insight, but people seem to prefer me running games off the cuff. But when two people like that are trying to run something together, it can be rough.

The general concept was that the big, elite superhero team was holding try-outs and the PCs were aspiring but useless superheroes. The elite superhero team was abducted by some unknown force and the PCs were all that were left to save the day.

Being useless superheroes, it was hard to steer them towards plot. When co-GMing, I tend to default into “Beta” mode, so I increasingly found myself abdicating choices to James. And most of the game seemed to be James and I cracking each other up, and hopefully the players as well. As a GM, I don’t think this was a shining moment for me.

Slot 4) Ill Met in Amber – GM: Chris Kindred

Kindred bills this game as “swashbuckling noir,” and is perhaps the most prominent and longest running “playing mortals in Amber” game at Ambercons. Which is a great claim to fame, given the size and scope of Ambercons. Really. Seriously.

I dropped out for a while. We didn’t have the money to make it to ACUS, so I couldn’t go. I stuck it out in email roleplay, but ended up dropping out because of a personality conflict with another player. When I managed to make it back to ACUS, I wasn’t inclined to go back. It had a lot of players, not much GM time and my character concept wasn’t very geared towards playing nice with others. (Had too much of a beautiful internal landscape.)

But, I missed the people in the game and playing that character. So I signed up again this year and had a blast. The tone of the game had changed significantly over the last several years, there were less players and less wanton drunkenness. It was a much stronger game. I also tweaked my concept so that my character was no longer stringently trying to maintain a foppish facade. He trusted the other NPCs and hence got to be a part of the plot. Novel that. I had a whole lot of fun.

Slot 5) The League of Quantum Gentlemen… – GM: James Arnoldi

James had wanted to run another sparlypoo-heavy “any character, any setting” game again. He especially wanted to run one that was better suited to running multiple installments of than his last one. The name of the game came from a similar game I ran a year or two prior, but the concept was a bit different. In this game he had Doctor Who on his last incarnation and was gathering heroes from throughout space and time to help defend the universe.

I originally wanted to play the Prince from Katamari Damacy. After that got shot down hard, I played the Scarlet Pimpernel.

It was a generally fun game. I think the main problem was that most of the game was spent creating a cosmic disaster to change the fundamental way the Doctor Who cosmology worked, since alternate universes are inaccessible in the Whoniverse and some of the character concepts relied on alternate universes. I think the game ended up being much more about the mission and the Doctor being taken out of commission so he can’t solve all the problems, than about the sparklypoo that he wanted to focus on. I think he would have been better off just fiating the cosmology change in advance and then starting from there. But the game was fun regardless.

Slot 6) Dashing Blades of Amber – GM: Sol Foster

This is a swashbuckling Musketeer style game set in Amber’s early history. I’d played in a version of this game last year. There’s apparently a “home” and “away” iteration of the game. I played in the “away” version last year and in the “home” version this year. Last year I had a great time. I was tucked in the back of this fight with two other PCs, we bonded pretty well, slaughtered a bunch of mooks is stylish fashion. My character, by the way, was a thinly veiled knock off of Aramis. Kind of a cold bastard who is only in the Dashing Blades until he pursues his true path in the priesthood. Really.

This year ran a little differently. We were assigned on missions in different locations with a partner or two. My partner was a friend I’ve known for years. We got sent to Tir-na Nog’th, a dubious place to be in a normal Amber game and even worse when you’re mortal and in a period when not much is known about Tir-na Nog’th. Our mission? To basically get Pattern swords from Tir ghosts of Amber princes who hadn’t been born yet. The first prince we had to deal with? A young Corwin who didn’t want to give it up without a fight.

Being a mortal fighting a prince of Amber? A downer. Especially in a formal duel. I was the weaker swordsman between the two of us. So I went first to wear him down a bit. When I yielded, my partner took her turn. It was unclear who would win between the two of them at that point. So I thought to myself, “Well, what is the way to win in this situation?” Well, the Amber maxim is that you cheat. “Would my character cheat?” I asked myself. Well, this was a mission assigned to him by King Oberon himself and my character, like his spiritual cousin, is kind of a cold schemer. He cares about a small list of things he cares about, and that’s about it. So sure, he’d cheat. When his partner was fighting Ghost Corwin, my character tripped Ghost Corwin and caused him to impale himself on the other Dashing Blade’s sword.

There were a few things that, had I thought about them, would have given me pause in this choice.

The first is that I hadn’t read the rules in well over a year. Effectively, when I made the character for last year’s ACUS. There’s no advancement so I didn’t look at the rules. If I had, I would have remembered that there are “swash points” used in the game, which are rewarded for derring-do and honorable deeds. They are taken away for dishonorable or villainous deeds. You can spend them to enhance your abilities.

So, not only could I have used a swash point to help in the fight, but by cheating I lost myself a whole bunch of swash points.

The second was that I didn’t realize that my partner was zealously honorable. We did a round of introductions, briefly describing our characters. Little of it stuck, even if our characters had all known each other for years and fought together regularly. So, when my charcter took a crap on her character’s honorable duel, her character stabbed mine in the belly. My character spent the rest of the session gimping about.

She felt bad about it later because it made things awkward. I tried to wave it off as just something that happens, but I felt like a dipshit. It was all kinds of frustrating. Things were strained both in- and out-of-character. A couple months later, I don’t know how it could have been fixed. Clearly making sure I knew the rules of the game in advance would have helped. Having some better way of having my character know the pre-existing characters in an on-going serial game would have been good, but I don’t know what that would have been. I’ve tried to think of how it could have been handled on a GMing level, but I really don’t know. A warning that a dishonorable action would cost him swash points (and been very not fitting for the genre) might have helped, but it’s a fine line to know when to interject “what your character would know” and just letting a player dig his own hole. I’m an experienced roleplayer and a grown up, so the GM shouldn’t have to baby me along through the game.

The other awkward bit for the game was that it became clear that the entire session was a build up for the canonical event of Oberon dissolving his marriage to Cymnia ab initio and marrying Faiella. In retrospect, I think some of the awkward pacing and rigid plot that we saw was because we were building to a very specific ending. It’s always tempting when having a historical game like that for the GM to want to bring in historical events from the books. But you really need to rein the players in so that the historical events still happen. I think it changed the feel of the session on that level, though after my own screw up that was the least of my concerns. =P

Slot 7) Vampires and Vengeance in the Dreaming City – GM: James Arnoldi

I spent a lot of the weekend with James.

I returned to this game as Diego del Fuego, holistic detective. I did whacky things like use burnt toast as rorschach tests to get clues for my case, and then I’d spend my off-camera time frantically using Google and Wikipedia to construct my character’s reasoning and where he was going to look for his next clue. The downside to all this was that I spent most of the session not really involved with the other PCs. Our storylines clearly overlapped, but I had no IC reason to know what they were doing. Otherwise I had a blast. Another solid game from James and my favorite game I played in.

Slot 8) Rebma Confidential: To Sleep With the Fishes

This was my second year running this, and very different from the first year. Increasingly I find this is the sort of game I love running at Ambercons: a street level ensemble cast of loosely connected characters dragged in over their heads into a mystery. It’s kind of a trope at Ambercons, but I’ve tried to take it in a new route by exploring what street culture is like in very non-human environments.

Last year I co-ran the game with my now-soon-to-be-ex-wife. We’d made the mistake of putting a valuable (but unusuable) artifact in the hands of the PC, and had NPCs bidding on it who had effectively unlimited resources. It made me worried that the power level had escaped the street level vibe I wanted. But this year I brought it back to the mean streets of Undertow. I sketched out most of the plot the day of the game, instead of significant advance prep. I poached the core of my plot from Chandler’s The Big Sleep.

Overall I was really happy with how the game went. I had a stellar cast of players. They overlapped neatly and on the occasions where their characters might run out of connection to plot, they found excuses for why their characters stuck it in there. Considering how many times I’ve seen players decide, “Well, my character wouldn’t pursue this further so I’m going to sit her sullen and bored till the GM figures out what to do with me,” this was amazing. This is the sort of game I’d love to run regularly.

The main hiccup in the game was that one of the story elements involved something… politically sensitive. (I won’t say what it was, because I don’t want to start a discussion about it in a public forum. If someone brings it up in the comments, I’ll delete it. If you really want to know, email me.) It was appropriate for the setting and the character who got dragged into it, but as soon as I started talking about it in the game and the plot thread that spun off of it, the more uncomfortable everyone was in the game. After the second time it came up, I apologized to everyone in the game and tried hard to downplay it from thereon. Because it was reeeeeeally awkward.

Even with that, I loved the game and the players I had. This was easily my favorite game that I ran over the weekend.

Next up, I’ll be recapping my Paranoia one-shot that I ran a few weeks ago.

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