This weekend I attended Go Play Northwest 2009. This is my recap. SRSLY. I am working on this in lieu of my novel, so I’m taking my life into my own hands.
It’s a little weird going to GPNW for the third year in a row. There are many familiar faces, many of them Seattle locals, but I’ve done very little to establish contact with them outside of the convention. I didn’t click with people at the Story Games Meetup the one time I went. I dropped the ball on getting together with the friends I’d made from before. I never really got involved in the Story Games forums. I do have some of them as friends on Facebook, for what little good that does me. (I can “Like” their status updates. I feel closer already.) Really, the only people I’ve seen outside of GPNW are the people I already know from GPNW. Not sure what that says about me.
On the bright side, there were no awkward questions from people about why I was with my wife last year and my new girlfriend this year. =P
Looking back, I can see that the first year I just didn’t know much about indy games and was looking to be sold on them. By the second year, I was at the peak of my frustration with story games and my friends who were big fans of them. I still wanted to play them and try new things, but I wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid. This year I think I’ve reached a bit of an equilibirum.
In retrospect, I feel bad I didn’t offer to run or facilitate anything. I’m typically a zealot about getting people to run games when they attend ACNW. I usually let it slide their first year, but after that I expect people to pitch in with the GMing. My excuse for GPNW has been, “Well, I’m not really sold on indy games and I’m not interested in being an advocate for any of them.” I think after three years, that story doesn’t hold water. Next year my goal is to pull up my cowboy panties and run some games. Out of guilt I loaded up my backpack with a every indy game I own, plus a few not-so-indy. But the need never came up. Which is kind of a shame, because I’ve been wanting to try Polaris or Houses of the Blooded for a bit. (I’m increasingly surprised at how little I’ve heard about Houses since it launched.)
At one point I made a comment to someone that I’d was bummed that a particular game I wanted to try wasn’t being run, but I felt like a heel asking for games when I wasn’t running anything. The person commented that it was like asking a chef to make a particular meal: they like making it and you like eating it. Win/Win. I didn’t have an answer for that at the time, but looking back now I think I’m back at my original stance. Ultimately, stuff like Ambercon and Go Play Northwest depend entirely around people pitching in to do stuff. Not just those poor shmucks who volunteer to organize the event in the first place, but the people who pay their money to attend as well. It’s nice to think that there will be some happy balance that will come out of it, but having had to fight tooth and nail to get people to submit games at ACNW, I can say it doesn’t always work out that way. I’ve mellowed in my advancing years regarding the topic, especially as I’ve come to realize how much life can impact your ability to do other stuff, but I still feel that those who can pitch in, should pitch in.
My self-criticism and social commentary aside, this was larger than previous GPNWs. I heard something like 70 people attended (up 40% from what I recall the numbers being before), and by my reckoning there were twice as many women. I’m a big fan of a rich gender mix in my roleplaying and had been discouraged by the male domination of the indy game crowd. There’s such a diversity of games that seem to be coming out of indy gaming that I think it’s broadening it’s appeal and bringing in a more diverse group to the hobby as a whole.
I was also startled to see names I recognized beyond just a social context. It’s hard to think of game designers as celebrities, but these were names I’ve heard bandied about for a while. Sure, John Harper wrote Agon and has been a constant presence at GPNW, but it seems different to play in a game with someone whose games I’ve played or heard a good deal about without actually knowing them. Over the weekend I ran into Matt Wilson of Primetime Adventures (who also I also strangely know from a GURPS game I played in 8+ years ago) and Jason Morningstar of Shab-al-Hiri Roach and Grey Ranks. I heard Polaris author Ben Lehman was there, but I never saw him. The one that really startled me was Jonathan Tweet, who is responsible (to varying degrees) for Ars Magica, Everway, Over the Edge, Talislanta and D&D 3e. My brain kinda broke every time I saw him walking by.
The presence of people from farther abroad, the increased size of the event, and the growing diversity all left me with a feeling that indy games are gaining more momentum than I might have expected a couple years ago.
For each of the three years they’ve hosted the event at three different locations. Each location was very different. This year it was hosted at the Freehold Theater. As best I can tell, it’s primarily a series of upstairs rooms in the heart of Belltown that are available for tiiiiny theater productions or theater classes. How GPNW scored a space like that, I don’t know. I had some concerns about having it right at the edge of downtown that mostly proved to be invalid. The one challenge I did see was the logistics of getting there, especially with driving. The hours of the event Friday and Saturday discouraged bussing, but downtown parking isn’t really cheap. I guess we could have parked for free after 6 on Friday, but that would mean a lot more logistics than we were really up for since both the girlfriend and I work downtown. The hours on Sunday were more forgiving for bussing, but street parking is free on Sundays. There was no hotel or dorm associated with the event this year, so it seemed like people were either stay with locals or some other hotel.
There were a lot of non-geek events going on that weekend, including a marathon and a Pride Parade, which threatened to make driving and parking a nightmare. But none of those challenges seemed to manifest. Clearly, the traffic gods smiled on this event.
However, the upshot of being in Belltown is that there were an absurd amount of good restaurants with reasonable prices nearby. Every meal we had down there was excellent. And there was a coffee place right across the street. Even better.
The space we gamed in was generally nice. As in previous years, we were divided up into three rooms with several tables in each. One room was a “quiet” room, where they only had two tables and sometimes only had one very intense game going on. The other two rooms were basically small theaters/rehearsal spaces. For the most part they didn’t get too loud, but there seemed to be one spot in one of the rooms where I just couldn’t hear a damn thing. Other spots were often noisy but not overly so. This one table, though, just seemed to be a noise magnet.
My only “real” complaint about the venue were the chairs. Most of them were these old plastic chairs that felt like they were going to collapse under my girth. It took me a day to figure out there were less scary options. =) At 300 lbs, I live in constant fear of crushing chairs under my bulk.
The setup was pretty similar to last year: A schedule of game slots was tossed up in advance and attendees were asked to submit games. The day of “game signup” allowed players to add their names to the games on the GPNW forums. (Each game was a different thread.)
At the con, these schedules and game signups were printed out and put on the walls. So you could look at games and see what you’d put your name down for. People could also put games up for you to sign up for whenever they felt like. So if you didn’t get into something earlier (either because things filled up or nothing looked good), there were often other options that could spring up.
Before each of the slots, the con organizers would do a group huddle to help players connect with their GMs and figure out games for people who hadn’t found something to play in.
The free flowing nature of the registration definitely fit with the whole “go play,” pick-up game attitude. It proved to be a little frustrating at times though. The advance schedule only had names of games and numbers of players, it didn’t tell you anything about the game. Which was probably no big deal for the serious indy game crowd. I had no clue what most of the games being offered were. When game sign-up opened some of the GMs/facilitators posted descriptions of their games, but not everyone did.
Overall it felt like my best option for approaching games was to put dibs on a game that seemed like I would like to play it, while remaining open to bagging on that game if something cooler came up that hadn’t already filled. There were a few occasions, though, where I’d find out about a game a little belatedly and it was already filled up. Or you’d join on to a game only to find out later that a game you were really wanting to play was offered after you signed on to this other game. And so on. So, there were some challenges. I don’t know of a better way to do it, though, and retain that same sense of spontaneous fun.
Ultimately, there was very little that wasn’t outright fun and the organizers worked to make sure there was “no gamer left behind.”
This was the first year I made it to the pre-con dinner. I think previously they had just met at a restaurant in the area. This time they had a caterer come in and provide a buffet dinner. It was generally good. There were also complimentary beer and soda, with an honor system for not taking more than two total beverages. There were also gigantic bottles of filtered water for people to avail themselves of. Met some really great people during the dinner, and also scored a “Codex: John Harper” booklet that someone had made and was selling to pay for gas money. For an extra dollar, John Harper himself signed it. Shmexy.
Friday: Slot 1
We’d been out late Thursday night and hadn’t gotten to bed early all week, so we crapped out this night. Since we didn’t want to deal with car logistics with work, we also didn’t relish riding the bus home at midnight then getting up to come back out again the next morning.
We slept like the dead.
Saturday Morning: Slot 2 – Anima Prime
I started off the morning trying out Anima Prime. It is not to be confused with the Anima: Beyond Fantasy RPG. The pitch the GM gave on the forums was awesome. The actual play was even better. So much so that I ended up playing it again Sunday afternoon. This game was probably the best thing I played that weekend.
The short version of the game is: “Exalted if it was all stunting.” In terms of play, it was a lot of what I would like Exalted to be. I’m not sure how much of that was the GM and how much of it was the system. I mean, the first time I played Exalted it felt a lot like this. Actual play of Exalted has not been like this since then.
The system was simple: There were character scenes and conflict scenes. Character scenes were basically roleplayed scenes where you could gain some mechanical benefit. This involved either (a) bringing in facets of your character (called “Traits,” in some ways similar to Aspects in FATE) into how your character acted in order to tap them in a conflict, (b) heal a wound or (c) refresh your action pool. Roleplay actually had a mechanical aspect that didn’t suck. I stand proven wrong by my belief that, “Rules always get in the way of roleplay.”
Conflicts were intentionally drawn out. It involved maneuvering and doing cool stunts to be able to attack and/or build up energy to use special abilities. If it was just a matter of knocking out a guard, that probably wouldn’t have involved a dice roll. That’s just a cut scene. Dice only hit the table for cool, over the top fights. You also built up ability to attack or use powers by using a variety of skills in a scene (instead of just your best skill) or by having your “passion” triggered. That last basically meant if your passion was something like “Anger,” then you would gain power when someone tried attacking you. If it was “Compassion” it would be triggered when an ally was wounded.
You also had “wishlists” of a sort. You could note a number of things about your character that you wanted to invite the GM to mess with, as well as things you didn’t want him to mess with. The simple genius behind this was great. I could see it being abused, but overall it’s just a great and simple way of explicitly telling the GM what you want.
The abilities seemed to mostly revolved around combat, but unlike D&D I was willing to let it slide since there was explicit mechanical encouragement to roleplay. The game system was pretty fast and simple, even with the drawn out combat. The character sheet was elegantly simple.
The tone of the game was decided by social contract. People just decided how realistic they wanted their abilities to be, and we all tried to honor that. Which was really awesome for these games, but instantly made me think of players that would abuse that.
The game bills itself as a “fantasy story game,” but it didn’t have the narrative control mechanic that I tend to associate it. The main elements that set it apart from conventional roleplaying games was just how fast and loose it was. Within certain limits, mostly dictated by social contract, you could have your character do whatever you wanted. If you wanted to ricochet jump up a vertical shaft and then leap down to stab at someone, or jump upwards from rock to rock as those rocks fell, you could. You didn’t need to figure out the hexes you could jump or whatever.
The first game I played of this was pretty over the top and silly. I, of course, indavertantly made a serious character. This worked out well as added comic relief. I ended up taking the trait, “Cynically practical.” “Yeah, these kids are all gonna get themselves killed. I could run across this chain while balancing on it, but I think I better bring the aerial tram so I can all their broken bodies back.”
The only hesitation I have for using this ongoing is that some aspects of the game seemed like they could get repetitive. Now, the game I was in this morning was an on-going game (which seemed odd for GPNW), so I could be wrong on that. We played a little fast and loose with some stuff, so it could be that as your character changes you evolve his traits, backgrounds and links as needed. There didn’t seem to be any punitive aspect to that. (The guiding principal seemed to have everything “all awesome, no suck.”) The cynic in me, of course, thinks of the players who would abuse this and crap on the fun for everyone else.
Still, definitely a game I’d like to try more of. This seems like it would be a fun game to use in other settings beyond just anime: Star Wars, supers, Shadowrun, whatever.
Saturday Lunch: Gamba’s Japanese and French
We went to lunch here because they had an all day happy hour special for sushi. The morning game ran late, so we only had a half hour to eat and get back. We failed to let the waitstaff know about our time limit, so it ended up feeling like they took forever and we ended up getting out of there at 10 after. The food was excellent, BTW, especially for as inexpensive as it was. Four of us at a good chunk of sushi for $32 after tax. Yum.
Saturday Afternoon: Slot 3 – Swords & Wizardry
I’d originally signed up for a two-slot game of Shadowrun using Mountain Witch. But talking to others I felt like there were games I was missing out on due to my absurd desire to try Shadowrun in different systems. Of course, by the time I decided to drop out of it, all the games that enticed me were filled. So I took a chance on this game.
With the release of D&D 4e, it seems like people have been really nostalgic about old three-book D&D. I’m not sure if that’s the “white box” or the red Basic Set that I grew up with. Some people liken 4e to oD&D, others seem to feel that 4e betrays the ideals of oD&D. I’d passed on playing it last year in lieu of trying In a Wicked Age, but since I’ve been having fun with 4e I figured I’d see what the fuss was over oD&D. This game used an oD&D clone called Swords and Wizardry. We made characters with a straight 3d6 roll down the stats. Your high stat basically determined what class you’d be. I was a thief with my beefy 13 Dexterity.
Overall I was kind of bored with it. I think it was less the fault of the the game or the GM, and more the environment. This was one of two games I played in the noise magnet. It was hard to hear, there wasn’t a lot of good group chemistry and there wasn’t a whole lot to push us together more. So it was a lot of wandering pointlessly from room to room, avoiding fights and not hearing anything. Another group played the same game right after us and they seemed to have a lot more fun. Granted, they also had Jonathan Tweet. Maybe he brought the fun in?
Saturday Afternoon: Slot 4 – “Paranoia: Welcome to Omega Complex” using InSpectres
I couldn’t resist this. It was Paranoia using the rules for InSpectres. For my loyal and attentive readers (both of you), you might recall that when I did the One Hit Wonder of Paranoia, I opined that InSpectres could be an alternative.
The setting was a little different from what I was used to, but in a good way. It was less Logan’s Run/THX 1138 and more Lost/The Prisoner/Dark City. Very surreal and creepy. I don’t know if this was his own creation or if he poached it from somewhere else, but it was awesome. The InSpectres rules worked generally well. In some ways, even better than I realized. I had not used the full version of the rules before, and so we had a bit more of the full InSpectres experience. We even had a testimonial, in the form of an “after action report” with the Computer.
This game was a lot of fun. (It also makes me want to see Children of the Corn.) However, I learned that InSpectres does not have a PvP mechanic. I did take a minute to look at my copy of octaNe (which shares much of the mechanics of InSpectres), and it does have some mention of PvP rules, but a quick review didn’t delight me. I may go back and look at it again, but I felt a little discouraged on that point.
But, otherwise, awesome game. Nonstop fun.
Saturday Dinner: Buddha Belltown
We went here because it was basically right downstairs from the con. After a lackluster experience several years back, I’ve been dubious about hip Asian restaurants without a single Asian in sight. I was proven wrong. I really liked the food and the prices were really reasonable. I didn’t care much for their taste in music, but that was pretty minor. Yummy!
Saturday Night: Slot 5 – “The Keep” using the Two-Die/Bridge system
My friends Mickey and Ogre have talked about this simple homebrew system they use for a while. I finally signed up for a run of it when Mickey offered it here. We all played children age 8-15 in a medieval keep in a mountain pass. Our core ability was based around what our parents did for a living. We had son of a goldsmith, a daughter of a midwife, etc. My father was an “alchemist.” (I’d played, basically, a fighter, thief and bard previously, so I figured I needed to round it out with a wizard.) We also got to have three terms to describe what we were good at. Game-play was pretty minimal on die rolls, so I didn’t get a good sense of how mechanics worked outside of dimly remembered discussions of the system a year or two before. Mostly we rolled the dice based off of what we were good at, and Mickey told us what the result was.
The game was very fun. We were definitely put out of our league with the threat we faced, which was intentional. So much of the play revolved around how to solve the problems with our limited skills while maintaining child-like perspective. It was lots and fun and very tense, exactly what I would want in a horror sort of game.
Sunday Morning: Slot 6 – House of Cards
We met the GM of this game during the meet and greet buffet. He was one of the few people who came and sat with us at our table and we went to lunch with him on Saturday. Really great guy that we liked a lot. And his pitch for his game was awesome.
It was a heist game, which particularly appealed to me because I’ve loved Wilderness of Mirrors, it seems like a natural fit for heist games, but the lack of PvP always draws me up short. If you’re going to have people scheming against one another, ya kinda need that. So the pitch for this sounded great.
Character creation was brilliant. It was all the awesome of group Aspect in Spirit of the Century in about 10% of the time. In about 10-15 minutes we had this really awesome web of intrigue and relationships between our characters. It was exactly the thing I would want to poach for a game and it’s a toss-up whether I use this Aspects next time I run a game that involves a “team.” (Though, there is the sad realization that I hate contrived “team” games.)
Actual play… I felt less confident about. It was a playtest, so things ran a little rough. I guess the middle game is something that has gone through a lot of revision as he hasn’t found a sweet spot for it yet. It was fun, but not as startlingly awesome as character creation.
Sunday Lunch: Mama’s Mexican Kitchen
This wasn’t really trying something new and daring. Mama’s is a solid place for food in Belltown and we went there knowing this. There was a startlingly long wait to get our order taken, since service is normally spectacular. We let them know we had a time limit and then service was lightning fast. Like, we had our food in five minutes.
Sunday Afternoon: Slot 7 – Anima Prime (again!)
I’d held off on signing up for anything. I was kind of curious about Beast Hunters, written by the same man who wrote Anima Prime, but when we got back from lunch it was filled. I considered offering something from my big bag o’ games, but when I saw the group that was bunnying up for Anima Prime, I just couldn’t resist.
This was probably more fun in some ways than the first run. We had pregens with pre-established connections but none of the roleplayed background that the previous group had. This game felt much more like Final Fantasy VII than the first. All of the cool setting elements, none of the standing in a line and wailing mindlessly at bad guys. I’m really tempted to run this locally. May have to see about getting the POD version of the book.
Sunday Night: Slot 8
We bagged on this slot. We were exhausted. We had laundry to do. We went home, did chores, watched Doctor Who and passed out.
Next year? Totally running something. SRSLY.