Once again the wife and I travelled out to beautiful and scenic Livonia, Michigan, for the 23rd annual AmberCon. For those not familiar, this is a small four-day convention dedicated primarily to playing Amber Diceless and (mostly) similar games. No dealer room, no panels. Just four days of roleplaying in scheduled slots of games. It’s held at Embassy Suites Livonia. There have been other Ambercons spawned over the years, and I am most fond of AmberCon Northwest, but this is the convention originally started by Amber Diceless creator Erick Wujcik.
We got up at o-dark-thirty to catch our flight out on Wednesday. The con doesn’t start until Thursday, but every year there’s an informal potluck dinner hosted by some con regulars. It provides a chance to see old friends and have some casual socializing before the con begins. Wednesday night was also when I started to come down with the bug that is still plaguing me today. This features prominently in my narrative as I go.
On Thursday afternoon we went out and hit Zingerman’s, another yearly tradition, to have some yummy food. Usually we also use this time to do some shopping in downtown Ann Arbor, but we had no time for that this year. I was feeling poorly and we had someone to pick up at the airport. But still, Zingerman’s was wonderful as always.
The hotel was, as always, the hotel. I’m not particularly fond of the location. It’s gotten better over the years, but it’s still pretty meh. I’ll refrain from whining about the place or belaboring problems experienced this year.
And now, the games.
Slot 1: All the Myths are True: The Weird West IV (GM: Dawn Vogel)
We opened up the con Thursday night with my wife’s ongoing game, in which she mashes up Norse mythology with the Deadlands RPG with a diceless system. And it’s all set in the mining town of Deadwood. I play a doctor and gambler loosely inspired by Doc Holliday (more specifically, Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday) named James Beauregard III. This was my second year playing, and I started the game dead. The second year is when people get their mojo from their Norse patron, and as a chosen of Hel I became a Harrowed. For those not familiar with Deadlands, a Harrowed is someone who comes back from the dead powered by an evil spirit. It turned out to be a remarkably intense roleplaying experience as my character had to second guess all of what he found interesting in life as well as work harder to maintain the trust of the other PCs. This proved extra awkward as the plot revolved evil forces that seemed to be the same ones that granted James his new “life.”
Slot 2: The Nano-Victorian Future: Moon Over Beacon Street (GM: Matt Andrews)
I’d played in this game a couple years prior and returned again as Lord Philip Margrave, Count of Cambridge, secretly known as the gentleman thief “Bishop.” It’s a pretty brilliant setting with a lot of really interesting story hooks to play up the different aspects of the genre. More on it can be found here. This year we had a problem with nanotech vampires. I think my main regret with this game is that, as a Friday morning slot, we tend to be more goofy. I’d really to play a more serious take on this game sometime.
Slot 3: Dragon Cities (GM: Me)
I’ve played in James Arnoldi’s fae noir game Dreaming City for several years, and recently began mulling around the idea of what a non-Eurocentric take on the idea might look like. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more and more fascinated by what the world looks like when you strip away western expectations. So this was my attempt, taking the Chinese and Japanese myths about Penglai and Horai, mashing them together and advancing the timeline to modern day. The vaguely sketched out history is that this had once been the paradise of Chinese myth. When Japanese deities invaded the island, the peace was broken and it became a cold dark place. More than anything it was a backdrop to have various icons of Asian myth and pop culture, primarily Japanese and Chinese, all dwelling together in one city.
The plot I cooked up involved the players getting caught up in the schemes between the Japanse and Chinese gods of death (Izanami and Lord Yan). The main targets in this conflict were four Japanese school girls who were secretly Izanami’s Magical Death Princesses (gothic lolita magical girls). I had no idea how this would go, but I didn’t expect the players to be grilling the magical girls, taking away their transformation wands and getting on Izanami’s case for employing child soldiers. Once you take away the belief that “this is cool and important,” magical girls get very sort of weird and creepy.
Slot 4: Ill Met in Amber: Epilogue (GM: Kit Kindred)
I think I first attended Ambercon in 2000. I signed up for the first installation of the game as Sir Reginald Bayle, Baronet. (A thinly veiled knockoff of the Scarlet Pimpernel.) It was originally billed as “swashbuckler noir,” with everyone playing the non-royals in the city. My attendence over the years, as well as my feelings toward the game, have varied a lot over the years. And twelve years later Kit put the game to bed. Or, at least, the name. He’s running another game in this slot next year called “Lean Times in Amber” which is a successor to this game. But this definitely had a feeling of closure.
Over the years, my character in this game suffered over the years from “beautiful internal landscape.” He had a lot of secrets and backstory, with every reason not to share it with anyone. I’ve gotten better over the years, but there’s still a lot of his personality that hasn’t come out. The game ended with a secret wake for King Eric with a surprise appearance from Oberon. It was interesting, settling into the role of this character as they face a time when everyone will have to give more of themselves in the times to come. I was surprised by how much self loathing the character had for himself, and his anger that people would rest so much hope on him. It was a startling experience in terms of character exploration.
Slot 5: Land of Ten-Thousand Dragons: The Scarlet Throne (GM: Me)
I’m not really sure what to say about this slot.
This was my second year running my diceless Exalted: Dragon-Blooded game. I had a good time last year and wanted to push it for a second year. Because most of the players are not familiar with Exalted at all, it’s easier to control information and sculpt them into the Dragon-Blooded mindset.
Saturday morning is the longest slot of the con, and a very intimidating one for me. I usually start flailing as a GM after a few hours and use the lunch break in the middle to figure out how I’m going to spend the rest of the time.
Not only was I living on DayQuil through the whole con, but I started out Saturday morning taking NyQuil instead by mistake. I took DayQuil as soon as I thought I could do it without screwing myself up too much. But still my sense of time felt very slippery, and my awareness of what everone was doing also seemed unclear. I don’t think I did great at pacing things and releasing data to the players to fuel choices. In hindsight, I probably made the whole plot a little too complicated. I had too many factions at the edges jockeying for attention. But still, towards the end it looked like the players were locking onto the thinly veiled obvious villain very well. It wouldn’t resolve the whole plot, but it was at least a partial victory.
I tossed in a tangential threat without thinking about it and then the whole thing imploded, everyone turned against one another both in and out of character, and then we hit the end of the slot. We could have tried to play through dinner, but some people were just *done* and wanted to go eat. So I kicked off the civil war in the realm and ended it there.
I’ve never had that happen in a game that wasn’t a throne war. And perhaps some people came into this thinking it was a throne war. The plot I was aiming for was, “Someone’s trying to trigger a civil war, and we don’t want one.” instead of “Let’s have a civil war.” Several years ago I had a game that had a huge schism between new and returning players, but it was nothing compared to this.
After the con I emailed people to get feedback about how I could have handled it differently. The general concensus was that there was little I could have done. At best I could have adjusted the pacing some or reined people in. The diplomatic comments said that it was just a matter of confusion between new players and returning players. The less diplomatic pointed fingers. I’ve gamed with almost all of these people in the past, they’ve gamed together before, and they’re all fine players. But somehow it all combusted.
For those interested, I have a wiki that includes my clumsy attempt to adapt Exalted: Dragon-Blooded to a simpler diceless format.
Slot 6: The Ashworth Academy: Squashmores (GM: Me)
This was my second year of running this game. I started it as a serial, but it’s running more like a campaign. Inspiration for this game included The Prisoner, Morning Glories, and Lost. I messed with time and had crazy hallucinations bombard the characters. I also unveiled the big secrets behind the game, laying the groundwork for the rest of the series. I don’t know if I blew anyone’s minds, but I was pretty pleased with the results. There was also some great serendipity in terms of how some of the plot came together. There were several moments of, “I don’t know why this is happening but it’s the right thing to happen” and then it worked out. Very gratifying from a storytelling point of view.
Slot 7: Devils and Details in the Dreaming City (GM: James Arnoldi)
As mentioned earlier, this is James’s fae noir setting that he runs every year. I play Diego del Fuego, holistic detective. He’s a frankly silly character, a parody of a Seattle urbanite: Vegetarian, pacifist, very sensitive to respecting different cultural beliefs. As part of his holistic detecting, he can also not follow obvious clues. Normally I prepare with some gonzo divination methods to guide him on this strange path outside of the main story arc, but I was off my game this year. (Cf. cold medicine.) Casting runes with a can of alphabet soup was the best I could manage.
The other frustration I had is that it’s hard to be involved with epic fight scenes if you’re a pacifist. Admitedly, part of the reason for me playing a pacifist was to stand as a contrast to the several players who play badder-than-bad-asses. But really, when the gods are about to have a throw down there isn’t much room for pacifism. I bought a couple powers for him, Tibetan Buddhist empowerments that manifested as spell-like effects (protection and healing). But it was hard to find an involvement that felt more significant than just doing support in the background but didn’t overshadow others. Because in this scenario, any significant help for one person would result in harm against another. I could put myself between them, but couldn’t otherwise influence things. Which ultimately, I guess, is a deeper truth to ponder.
Slot 8: Rebma Confidential: In the Cold of the Tide (GM: Me)
I wrapped up the con with my game of underwater noir and Cthulhu jokes. This year I cribbed ruthlessly from Raymond Chandler’s The High Window, with attempts to create counterfeit Chaosian memorabilia and an ancient Triton coin forged from pit gold. I felt less prepared this year and my plot hooks, especially for newer players, felt pretty weak. But people seemed to have a good time and excited for more, so I guess ultimately that’s a victory.