This is my fairly belated recap of this year’s AmberCon Northwest. I hope you enjoy it.
We went to the spa. We soaked in the soaking pool before I went in to get a full body massage. It was generally awesome.
Slot 1: Sign of the Unicorn and Zombies. GMs: Mike Sullivan and Madeline Ferwerda
I’m assuming this is a riff on the recent Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It opens shortly after Corwin finds Caine’s body in the Grove of the Unicorn in the third book. I’ve used a similar setup for another game, and it’s a great one to use. It’s the only book where we see most of the family all in one place trying to do something. If you’re wanting to have a game set in the books, this is an excellent place to do it. The twist with this game was that Amber slowly becomes overrun with zombies.
Normally I would try to play Corwin, but I figured in this setup I didn’t want to be that much of a target. So I played Random instead.
Overall I had fun. I had a lot of fun chewing scenery as Random, and had some great moments of actually convincing people of stuff and winning their trust. (I’m usually not a great schemer in Amber games, so my little victories meant a lot to me.) I’m broadly a fan of Madeline’s games, and this was no exception. I also loved seeing how Mike handled conflict resolution with the Amber rules. I struggle with that a lot, and I’m usually not satisfied with how it gets handled by other GMs either. But his handling of conflicts was like a well oiled machine that really made the system sing.
I think my biggest frustration was one of my own creation: I was tasked by Benedict’s player with securing the castle against the zombie hordes. I secured the castle quite well against zombie hordes. And then… I didn’t really have anything to do. Half the players were out fighting zombies in the city. The other half were trying to get down to the dungeons to get to the trump to Dworkin’s cave (the one carved inside Corwin’s cell). The only other PC running around the castle was Flora. My character sheet said the only person I truly hated was Flora, so I wasn’t inclined to collaborate with her. The fact that I thought the player was barking up the wrong tree and more than a little drunk didn’t endear me to that option. Out of character it was clear that the real plot was happening elsewhere. But events earlier in the game left me feeling like I couldn’t leave NPCs in charge of anything. So I was disinclined to hare off after plot, have the NPCs drop the ball in securing the castle, and then catch shit for “not doing my job.”
At one point I think Mike tried to help me out by having Vialle ask me if Queen Moire could help out. I said I’d see if Llewella could contact her. I trump Llewella and ask her to contact Moire. Llewella trumps Moire, in this instance played by Madeline. Moire says they can’t help, they’ve got their own problems to deal with. I’m not sure if Mike had a plan that never made it to Madeline, or if he was just trying to encourage me to contact other PCs to be involved. Either way, nothing came of it.
Eventually I did end up connected to plot, even if I felt out of my league. (“Huh, this is a weird problem involving powers. I have no powers to solve this with. I don’t know what to do.” You know, a lot of Amber games seem to run like that.) And we had this great family sharing time in the Pattern room where we dumped out all of the clues we had from our character sheets and figured out how to resolve part of the threat.
(As an amusing aside: It seemed like we all had the pieces to a bigger puzzle on our character sheets. The players portraying princes of Amber were reasonably open and sharing with their clues. Every time one of the players portraying princesses shared their clues, another princess would snipe at her and dismiss her clue. I’m not sure if this was a commentary on just the players or how the players thought they should portray the princesses. It should be noted that, aside from one GM, there were no female players in this game but there were four female characters.)
Overall, I had a lot of fun in this game. There was just this frustrating lull in the middle that I felt like I could only solve by acting out of character.
Slot 2: Get Shao-Ji. GM: Madeline Ferwerda
I’m dubbing this one my favorite game of the convention that I was a player in.
There’s something of a growing trend towards Firefly games being run at ACNW. But I’ve never signed up for any of them for one reason or another. Some of them were just structured in a way I didn’t care for. I’m not big on team oriented mission games at the con, and in the beginning that’s most of what appeared in the book. As I saw how popular they were, I bowed out because I just wasn’t as much of a fan of the series as other people apparently were. (By saying that, I’ve probably broken the heart of both my girlfriend and the owner of my regular coffee shop.) I felt bad taking a spot that a more dedicated fan would take.
But, my girlfriend had played in a run of this at ACUS and had good things to say about it. And Madeline wasn’t running a noir game this year. So I signed up for this.
It was just a fun, solid game without any hitches. There was great roleplay, great connections between players. It seemed like everyone was kept involved and had a part to play in the game. Just really solid.
As an added bonus, a couple players brought Fruity Oaty Bars. And sang a jingle. Yay!
Slot 3: The Limits of Chandrasekhar. GM: Thaddeus Rice.
I was selfish this year and focused mainly on GMs I like, and Thaddeus is a long time favorite of mine. With him offering up a space opera game, I had to give it a shot.
The chief downside to this game fell mostly on my shoulders. I should know by now not to play a reporter. And yet when I saw this option in the character creation section, I pounced on it. I figured, “This is a great idea that’s a little offbeat!”
There were 7 other players. This was a 4 hour slot. All the other players had a fairly official role on the ship, and overlapped with one another pretty heavily. The first plot hooks to really hit things were transmissions intercepted by the science team, who shared it with the command team. And a lot of energy revolved around that, but no one brought me in on it. Because, well, there was nothing to bring me in on. I had lots of great plot hooks dropped in my lap, but when I tried to bring in other PCs, the obvious ones didn’t want to give anything back. And in previous games I’ve tried the reporter thing in, assuming that I was able to actually take on the role of “reporter,” no one wanted to trust me. Because no one wanted to be “news.”
Towards the end of the game, I finally managed to have enough information to really share. And when that combined with the information the other PCs had, it kind of exploded into a full-blown conspiracy. And, thanks to some serendipity, I was able to tag along with one of the other PCs as he went into the thick of the action. I was excited, but then I realized that once I’d done all my legwork, my reporter didn’t really have much to contribute. I was just following around action-fighty guy while he did his thing.
I managed to leverage my role as “reporter” a bit in order to break a stalemate with a rogue officer that was behind the conspiracy. And combined with the earlier information, I was able to contribute to the plot in a significant way. But it felt like the trade-off was that I was held at arms-length for a good chunk of the game. The price of wanting something off-beat and different.
The game setting was brilliant. Thaddeus is an English professor and his ability to bring in really great tropes of classic sci fi were mind blowing. This was the good parts of Ender’s Game, Sundiver, a lot of really great Clarke and Asimov. Just awesome stuff. And some of the players were really able to feed into the genre as well. And the mechanics were really great as well. It seemed to do some stuff that I had wanted to implement into diceless roleplay but hadn’t found a good way to do it.
Thaddeus is offering to run it next year, and I’m not sure what to do. It is a brilliantly constructed game and game setting and Thaddeus is a great GM. But I just don’t know what I’d do with the character I had.
Slot 4: Princess of Heffalumps. GM: Me.
This was the last of the Pooh/Amber mashups. It was sort of a bitter-sweet wrap-up. I’ve had mixed feelings about the game for years. This was the 10th installment of this series, which roughly paralleled the Amber books. This year all secrets were finally revealed. The players who played in the game over the years loved the game. It was really hard for me to turn them down. When I finished the fifth game, I considered killing it there. But they begged and I relented.
The appeal of the game was that it was whimsical and silly and generally an open sandbox to run around in. It also tended to run absurdly short every year because it lost energy fast. There were times of brilliant absurdity. There were moments of raw frustration. Also, running a game based around the mentality of a five year old was really hard. Over the years my tastes in gaming have changed drastically, and this was very much a legacy of an older style of game. And the more I moved past that sort of game, the more frustrating it was to still come back to it.
I don’t know that I would run a game like this again. At least, not at ACNW. I won’t go into ranting. I will leave it at, “This is not something I will come back to.”
Slot 5: Pulp Chaos: The Shadowmaster Always Rings Twice. GM: Me.
Another installment of my gritty street-level Courts of Chaos game. Much of what I love about running this was present again this year. I have some really great players that come back for this every year, and I’m gratified that some of them put exceptional effort into being able to play in that slot.
I raised the limit on players a little bit, because some new players wanted in but I already had a full load of returning players. So it ended up being five returning players and one new player. It was a rough mix. Most of the returning players live in Portland and know each other. And they’d been playing in this game for a couple years. So it may have been a little hard for a new player to come into the middle of this. I tried putting the new player in the heat of the action with a big corner of the plot revolving around her character and posing an immediate threat to her character. But she just didn’t seem to gel with the rest of the group and seemed uninterested. I didn’t follow-up with her afterwards, which I should do. But it was one of a few discordant note in an otherwise good game. (The other problem was that we had trouble staying focused. I had phone calls from my vet to deal with in the middle of the game and a few players were not doing well with the morning slot.)
I’m considering moving this to a different slot next year, but haven’t decided what to do with it.
Slot 6: Grindhouse. GMs: Me and Thaddeus Rice.
This was a lot of fun, even if we got off to a rough start. First we got off to a late start. My wing-man in running the game had some issues arise last minute, so he needed some time to decompress in order to focus on the game. So, feeling underprepared, I was thrust into the spotlight with my high school movie reinterpretation of Houses of the Blooded, “Slaughter High.”
I’m always a little anxious when running a game I don’t feel comfortable with, and I hadn’t worked out great solutions for how to fix my issues with Houses. Adding to my anxiety was the fact that one of my players was Ben Lehman. He is perhaps best known for a game called Exxxtreme Street Luge. He also wrote a game that some people like called Polaris.
I had a similar encounter with Jason Morningstar at GPNW this last summer. I was a fellow player in a game he was playing in, and I felt way out of my league. The guy was smart and sharp and really intense to play with. And I was really worried that Ben Lehman would be just as scary, especially in a game that really sort of up-ends indie games.
I tried joking with Ben about how intimidating it was to run for him. He assumed I was a smart ass (a generally safe assumption) and rolled his eyes. He didn’t realize how terrified I was.
So… the game went okay. People were having a lot of fun just doing off-the-cuff roleplaying. And then I had the gall to insert rules, and things got clumsy. Not having learned my lesson the first time, I tried to do the whole “have players make risks to establish the plot.” I had something mysterious happen, players asked me questions, I turned it back to them to make some risks, and… nothing happened. I didn’t explicitly say, “This is where we’ll generate the plot!” So what I got was some pretty banal information about what those two were doing.
I house-ruled and hand-waved things a bit as we worked through challenges, having at least learned some things with the playtest. I let everyone establish one fact in those “open circle contested risks.” After a while the game got its legs underneath it and got going. Most of the fun was really just the players. I had some brilliant players in the group and they just ran with the game. The mechanics just slowed them down. It was one of those awesome sorts of games where you laugh so hard and have in-jokes you quote to each other across crowded rooms for the rest of the weekend. (“THE CHAD!!”)
All told, I probably would have been happier just running off the cuff. The players were strong enough to really just deal with anything I threw at them and roleplay their hearts out. They were so beautifully over the top, neither Houses of the Blooded nor even the ven could keep up with them.
As with previous years, I had a “missing reel” allowing us to jump to a gonzo ending. We jettisoned the rules after that and just went nuts. I think we may have had one or two rolls, but mostly it was just people dogpiling ideas into the mix.
(During lunch the next day, I discussed with a friend who was more favorably inclined towards Houses some of the challenges I faced with both the one-shot and the game the night before. He mentioned that John Wick had some tutorial videos to explain how the game work. Which really just annoyed me more. I don’t relish the notion of a $40 hard copy of a game requiring a tutorial video outside of the game in order to play.)
During the “intermission” between games, we had each person come up with a trailer for a cheesy movie. I think the one people most wanted to see as a game next year was “Kick Ass Grannies.” I may also push for “Wulfgar” next year, maybe using In a Wicked Age.
Our second game, “2027: After the Nukes Fell,” was originally meant to use “Shock: Social Science Fiction.” But as we did pre-game stuff over email, it was becoming clear that it was really involved, that only a few people seemed to be into the world-building, and we never actually got through it. With 75 minutes left to the slot, with the bits of information we established before the con, we just winged it. Thaddeus pitched in a few cents, but mostly it was just a free-form version of Primetime Adventures or In a Wicked Age, where we just figured out who our characters were on the fly based off of the source material and figured out a likely plot for this story, describing scenes and roleplaying out little vignettes. It was a totally spontaneous B-movie that we just described by the seat of our pants. Hardly indie game gold, but fun as all hell.
Slot 7: Scientific Progress Goes BOOM! GM: Jules Morley
This was a Girl Genius game using a bare bones version of Spirit of the Century. I think the GM intended on us using more of the rules, but he accidentally set the cap for players at “10” when he submitted the game. And then it got overloaded to 12.
We did character creation on the spot. We just did skills and Aspects. We didn’t pick stunts because it was deemed to be time-intensive. When one person breathed a sigh of relief that we weren’t going to wade through that, I pointed out sarcastically, “There are packages of stunts in the back that help you pick things faster.” I came very close to getting my ass kicked. But it’s nice to know that I’m not the only person who found stunt selection to be time consuming.
I’d never played in anything run by Jules before. Hell, I can’t remember being in a game where he was a player. All told, he was clever, creative and fun to play with. His ideas for the setting were fun and engaging, and he had a brilliant parody of “It’s a Small World” that appeared in a theme park ride in the middle of this Mad Scientist’s lair.
The downside? There were 12 players. It was really hard to get any camera time with 12 players. For most of the players, it wasn’t hard to have a little niche protection. They all had something that helped them stand out. I was playing a Spark. There were four Sparks in the game. When we came upon something that could be tinkered with it, it was a dog pile to get to it. And the opportunities to tinker with stuff were pretty rare. And two of the Sparks were much more entertaining than mine. Overall… frustrating. I really need to be more rigorous when I pick games, as I’m invariably frustrated when I end up in a game that is large.
I did get a nomination for an Obie for this game. It was for “Best use of a item, creature or shadow in a supporting role.” Sadly, it was misquoted on the ballot and the other person involved in it (Jules) had won so many times previously that there may have been a riot. But the corrected quote was.
Me: “So I’ve got my escape capsule finished?”
Jules: “Yes, but you may want to–”
*I mime pulling the lever to inflate the balloon*
Jules: “–wait until you are outside before you pull the lever…”
I received an Obie for “Lifetime Achievement Award.” A few people conspired behind my back to get me a special Obie for that. It was recognition for running a game as absurd as the Pooh game for 10 years. I was forced to give a speech. But I’m tickled as punch to have won.