AmberCon Northwest 2017: After Action Report

It’s been a long while since I’ve done a recap of my ACNW weekend, but I had a great time and tried a bunch of new things, and thought I’d share.

For those not familiar, AmberCon Northwest is a four-day game convention just outside of Portland, Oregon, at the McMenamin’s Edgefield. It (and other AmberCons) was originally started as a venue to play the Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game. In recent years, it’s also attracted a wave of indie gamers. So the core of it is still Amber, but it’s a chance to try out all sorts of things.

Ambercon T-shirt art

Ambercon Northwest XXI T-Shirt, with art by Lee Moyer.

There are seven scheduled game slots, and you pick your games (or other events) in advance. Membership is, in theory, capped by the number of offerings available. Fortunately people have stepped forward enough that it hasn’t been an issue. You can check out this year’s game book to see what sort of things people got up to. This doesn’t include games that people have run before, after, or in the spare moments of the convention.

In addition to four days of scheduled gaming, the Edgefield is a beautiful location with a winery, brewery, and distillery on location. A dozen bars. A spa with a salt water soaking pool. And all kinds of good food.

This was the 21st year of the convention, which makes me feel really old. My first year was 1999, making this the 19th year I’ve attended. It’s a reasonably small convention with about 120 attendees. After almost twenty years, it often feels like a family reunion without the weird toxic relations. But we’ve also managed to have a constant influx of new members, which keeps it from getting too stale.

Pre-Party

We arrived early on Wednesday so that we could lounge about the hotel and decompress after the drive from Seattle. Thursday afternoon we got our nails did.

Before the gaming starts, there’s an opening reception where there’s a buffet table, cash bar, and a lot of mingling with people we probably haven’t seen in a year.

Slot One (Thursday Night) – AustenWorld Playtest
GM: Me!

Dawn and I have been working on a Jane Austen hack of Apocalypse World, mostly inspired by Monsterhearts, that we refer to as Austenworld until we come up with a better title. This was our second year trying it out at the convention. We did a pretty drastic re-write of our rules after our first few playtests, and came to the convention with a pretty raw set of rules. I think it generally went well, though there was some tripping over things as we discovered oversights that didn’t come out while we were drafting things up. Certainly people had fun.

My favorite bit was the player who came in and said, “I want to play someone hella gay who is just looking for a gay man who will be her beard.” We’ve been wanting to work on ways to include more LGBTQ content and this filled my heart with joy.

Slot Two (Friday Morning) – Dragon Age: Solstice
GM: Celeste Van Houten

This was a hack of the Amber Diceless rules, adapted to the Dragon Age setting. I signed up for this mostly because it was a GM I hadn’t played with before and I was curious. It was fun, but I know much about the setting going in. It’s been years since I’ve played Dragon Age: Origins, and I haven’t gotten around to playing any of the sequels.

What I have been playing lately is just a ton of Skyrim, so I had a large amount of cognitive dissonance about the nature of elves, dwarves, and Empire in the setting. But otherwise this was a solid mission style game featuring the minions of powerful nobility with dubious morals.

Slot Three (Friday Afternoon) – Blades in Amber: Beginings
GM: Kai Ford

Kai reskinned Blades in the Dark to fit into Amber, using the Vigilantes playset. We were a bunch of dark(ish) protectors. I had a great time playing The Fallen, who was a cutter that had made an unholy pact with a demon to save his life while dying on a battlefield. I played up the whole dark knight thing to the hilt and had a blast.

Slot Four (Friday Night) – The Nightwood Society: Philosophy Club 2
GM: Dan Garrison

When I signed up for this, I had missed that it was intended for returning players only. (Ongoing campaigns are a thing that happens at ACNW.) Fortunately it ended up working out and I was able to play in this.

The pitch for this was very appealing: a band of people who had gone into this mythic and secret forest and returned transformed into magicians. Inspiration for the game included Mythago Wood  by Robert Holdstock and Last Call by Tim Powers, which basically sold me on the concept. Mythago Wood (or rather, it’s sequel, Lavondyss) was one of those things I read in my teens that stuck with me for decades later. I couldn’t tell you half the plot, but hearing the title alone calls to some weird part of my soul.

Seeing that in the game description really snagged my attention.

The game was very fun and the other players were very welcoming. Which was helpful, as I worried that a lot of the game involved getting me up to speed. The system used tarot cards, but I don’t feel like I got to see it in action a whole lot, but I’m definitely jazzed to look into it more. It felt a little similar to Castle Falkenstein, where different suits corresponded to different types of actions. But each player had their own tarot deck and the mixture of cards in the deck varied by player.

Setting-wise, I feel like this better embodied the mythic journey than other games I’ve played or read. Especially both Mage: The Ascension and Mage: The Awakening. I’m not sure how much of that was mechanics or how much was GMing style.

I also got a new tarot deck for the game. Or, rather, Dawn got me a new one. After my divorce several years ago, I had far fewer tarot decks than I once did. And neither the Vertigo deck or either of the World of Darkness Mage decks seemed appealing. So Dawn ran to our local new age store for me with a request to pick something that was very me.

This is what she ended up getting.

Tarot of Pagan Cats

Meow.

Slot Five (Saturday Morning/Afternoon) – The Sliding Academy: The Fallen Valkyrie
GM: Me!

This was the third installment of my Harry-Potter-inspired game set in Zelazny’s Courts of Chaos. I have this weird fondness for world building in weird places, trying to figure out how something might work in an alien environment.

Previously I’d done a series of games about street-level characters in the same setting, trying to figure out what the have-nots looked like in a universe of shapeshifters, patchwork realities, and vast cosmic powers. This game was instead about figuring out what a private secondary school looks like in this same universe.

I’ve been cribbing heavily from the Harry Potter series, and this year corresponded to The Prisoner of Azkaban. Which meant I finally got to do a reveal on a plot element I’d been sitting on for years: my Snape analogue has secretly been Prince Brand of Amber, who had survived his fall into the Abyss by ending up in the school itself. The escaped prisoner, in this instance, was his sister Deirdre who had also survived.

The reaction from the players on discovering it was Brand this whole time filled me with GMing glee. I’ve spent far too much time trying to figure out what I’ll do as a parallel to the Tri-Wizard Tournament next year.

Slout Six (Saturday Night) – Fame, Gold, and Glory
GM: Me!

This was a pretty basic run of Dungeon World. I had wanted to submit a third game but hadn’t felt inspired, so I offered this as something fun that didn’t involve a lot of prep. We had fun. I basically did Google Image searchs for dungeon maps on my phone and made crap up frantically.

Slot Seven (Sunday Morning/Afternoon) – Death Came Howling
GM: Felicity Shoulders, Michael St. Clair

I signed up for this based on the GMs, but didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into. It told the tale of the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, which I knew nothing about, using a game system called Geiger Counter. The game system is described as being GMless but allows for the possibility of a GM. I don’t think this would have worked well without a GM, as Michael and Felicity brought an extensive knowledge of the history and the setting. Everything that happened in the game was based on real things that happened in the historic disaster.

Both the game system and the historical reality are brutal. The game system ramped up in lethality pretty quickly, making us all a little risk averse towards the end. At least half of the player characters died by the end. The history? The scale of the disaster was epic and hard to get my head around. But what nearly broke me, though, was a post-script the GMs threw in at the end. They sketched out the fate of a group of orphans associated with a player character that hadn’t been chosen among the options, bringing in players to make some on-the-spot decisions.

Suffice to say that most of the orphans didn’t make it. The part that wrecked me was Felicity singing the hymn that they sang, as the survivors (who had gotten snatched away in the floodwaters) watched the lights in the chapel go out.

Floating wreckage from the Galveston hurrican

No YOU’RE crying.

Wind Down

Dawn and I have made it a tradition to find somewhere off the property to eat dinner on Sunday night. Previously we had gone to a nearby Salvadoran restaurant, but they were no longer around. Instead we visited a little Mexican restaurant called Tapatio.

There’s a closing reception at the end, a chance for more cash bar fun and dessert. From there a lot of us went off to the soaking pool to relax, socialize, and maybe drink. Some people will run a pickup game in an unofficial “Slot 8”. (Sometimes called Slaaaaate. Because it’s late. Get it?) But this year I opted to just hang out with friends.

And now I count down the days to next year.

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