Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Monthly Wrap-up: a report of July 2012 EtrusCon

Last month, as my gaming staple most of the time, I kept playing two-players, long-form Remember Tomorrow in weird places, outdoors and while traveling. Then, on the last weekend of July, I went to EtrusCon. Sooner or later I’m going to write in detail about Remember Tomorrow and the pros and cons of playing it the way we’re playing it – this time, however, I’m going to concern myself with writing a convention report instead.


I held very high expectations for this summer-edition EtrusCon, both because last year’s summer edition had been capital-A-awesome and because the winter edition was instead considerably underwhelming. What I got was in fact a mixed bag, partly because of a decline in attendance (compared to last summer).
Since EtrusCon is a classic hotel-convention with a very hands-off organization paradigm (what the one organizer, Simone, actually does is just to negotiate a discount hotel rate and reserve rooms for attendees, and that’s it), the obvious upside to it is a no-time-wasted, play-all-the-time attitude, the implied downside being that you need to set yourself up for it beforehand, though, because there is little support provided for organizing tables on the fly (no “front desk”, no call-to-arms, not even a local, off-line master copy of the schedule). I was only half-successful with organizing myself in advance, though, part because of untimeliness and/or risk-taking on my part (reserving a less-than-ideal timeslot for a given game in order to be able to play with a given person, say, plus experimenting with multiple shorter games per time-slot, being late in the morning as is usual for me, etc.) and part because of some players being delayed by traffic, or tired early in the evening, etc. – this resulting in some waste of time re-organizing tables and, ultimately, a high percentage of aborted games. It’s good to hear that this was just my own subjective blight, though (contrary to the last winter edition, when exceedingly low attendance made this the general norm), while the general ratio of finished games people had at the convention was high.
An additional drawback of a hotel-convention is, in the event of lower-than-ideal attendance (i.e. the hotel being not sold-out), having to share spaces with other random people. And, well, the EtrusCon hotel, as it happens, is large enough that it would take 100+ stay-in attendees to sell it out, making this a near-impossible proposition for the time being: AFAIK, the largest attendancies to hotel-based role-playing conventions in Italy were recorded by last year’s summer EtrusCon and some editions of InterNosCon, and barely exceeded 50 people.
But enough with the organizer-oriented gibberish! Let’s talk about the games I played, instead. Asterisks mark games I scheduled and ran/facilitated myself. I was also supposed to run a game of MegueyBaker’s Psi*Run, but we had to cancel it because of half the interested players not making it to the hotel in time.

Fables of Camelot* — this is a little, surprisingly well-crafted game by Sami Koponen with Eero Tuovinen, whose existence I discovered by sheer happenstance as Eero ran it for me and a random bunch of Solmukohta-goers in Helsinki, a few months ago. It’s touted as an introductory role-playing game, good for a convention environment and also suitable for children – and it’s exactly because I plan on using it with children that I decided to train myself in running it. Thus I took it to EtrusCon as a perennial, persistent and weekend-spanning, multi-installment off-slot filler game that multiple groups of players could dip into for a round or more.
While I didn’t get to play all the way to the fall of Camelot (the system-mandated ending), it was good enough to play three full quests, with parties ranging in size from six down to three knights. I think I learned a lot about Fables of Camelot in the process. Fully confirmed were all of its immediately apparent pros: explaining the rules is indeed effortless and takes very little time, heraldic animals are a greatly effective characterization device, drawing one’s own coat of arms is great fun, consequential decisions with no predetermined good or bad choice (think Dogs in the Vineyard) are both an absolute focus of the game and a transparent process (in that you don’t usually have to point them out, out-of-character), dice-rolls are both infrequent and tense (and they take very little time to execute, while channeling a great deal of attention). I think I learned how to plan “adventures” and frame scenes appropriately, and I’m pretty sure by now that should one have access to the full text, with its long lists of example quests and travel-scenes to pick from, then running the game would be truly effortless – unfortunately, the book’s only available in Finnish.
What I didn’t expect, though, was that the game could grow to such a quiet solemnity as we experienced in the Grail quest: I’m deeply impressed. Sure, should I look for a shortcoming to point out, this is not a game of very nuanced and complex characters – but is its reference literature? It’s all about broad strokes and large-picture plots, and emerging commentary which satisfies from a metaplay vantage point, not about the psychological finesse of fictional characters in the resulting fiction. Now I’m thinking I’ll reserve a full time-slot for Fables of Camelot at some upcoming convention, possibly GnoccoCon, to play all the way to the endgame: it should be feasible enough a feat.

SeaDracula — it’s really odd how I’ve been having the handbook for this game in my possession since it still sported a (1$) price-tag, but had never tried it out before! I remember thinking, at the time, that something about the text didn’t “click” for me and I’d rather look up somebody who could teach me how to play by example. Well, how changed I am since then, for now the text speaks so clearly to me! Know that the game was great fun, ran shorter than I expected it to (which is a plus!) and is totally appropriate for parties – almost a party-game, yeah, though maybe a tad too complex in the setup for a “casual gamer” audience. I’m gonna play this again, soon and often. ♥

Tactical Ops (playtest) — having left one time-slot open in my schedule, I found myself with a random party of six people (my old friend Alfredo being in the mix), among them my friend Patrick who rather enthusiastically pitched a playtest session of Tactical Ops, a design-in-progress by Alessandro “Hasimir” Piroddi (who wasn’t there). While I wasn’t particularly grabbed by the premise of the game, some were, and being a curious fellow I tagged along. Small-squad tactics for dangerous missions is, if we read it to mean military/commando operations, the single most overdone thing in the history of role-playing games (I’m of course conflating most flavors of D&D into this) – but, on the other hand, I thought the description could also apply to caper/heist movies (a vague itch I still have to scratch). In fact, the playtest document Patrick had with him came (as far and I can tell) with absolutely no example situation, mission or backdrop included besides the core premise. We soon enough agreed on a twenty-minutes-into-the-future prison break scenario, then proceeded to create our characters: a much lengthier process than was immediately apparent by glancing at the character sheets. I didn’t keep track of the time, really, but I figure we spent a minimum of two hours doing pre-play setup.
So, here’s my shout out to Alessandro, the designer: while not a faulty design choice per se (one can sure invest a much longer time preparing for a multi-session campaign), such a long setup process is unacceptable in a convention environment! If you want to have your game playtested at public events (or, well, out-of-house playtested at all, I might add), may I suggest you release a fast-play package, consisting of one or more example missions with pre-made characters? If I were you, I’d make it my first priority at the moment.
During the prep phase, our motley group seemed to easily agree on things – everybody generally cheered at ideas being thrown around, making the brainstorming/pitch a breeze. But! I think the character creation process – with its attributes and skill groups and skills and specialties to rate, plus advantages and motivational links to “buy” – looked deceptively familiar to all of us, which either got us to pay attention to the wrong things or to not pay attention at all. We should have been paying attention to what each other player was picking out of the available choices! In hindsight, that’s pretty obvious, but in the heat of the moment we just self-tagged with role-definitions (“hacker”, “doctor”, “gearhead”, “muscles”, “face”, “infiltrator”) and hurried up to each fill up one’s own character sheet, in isolation. Had I payed attention, I would have noticed that the “infiltrator” was duplicating part of the “face”-guy’s and (IIRC) “muscles”-guy’s skillsets, not maxing up the athletics/movement skills I incorrectly assumed he were (a skillset nobody focused on at all); that while I was hyper-specializing my hacker guy to be exactly that, some others were spreading their skillpoints wider, for example to be ready for violence in case of a major shit-up; that the “gearhead” was a specialist in jury-rigging veichles which no character was good at operating anyway, and so on. It is thus my humble opinion that as a “team” we were already fucked, whatever the mission. Not that we were going to find out, anyway…
Having gone through all of the preparations, and of course some more necessary rules-briefing as well, we went then into the first actual scene of the game knowing we weren’t going to play the mission to its end anyway, because of our real-life time constraints. This being not what we had been assuming initially (before prep) I daresay we were now in maybe the worst possible collective mood for role-playing: the noncommittal, half-assed one. And that’s when our group’s collective ability to agree on things – this basic foundation of role-playing – began to falter. Having framed a first scene, we started dabbling in the game’s central authority/credibility system of stating “facts”, but I don’t believe we had fully understood it, let alone grasped its subtleties, as we launched into a conflict. Of the conflict, we played a single round at most, struggling with the fact that – in our lack of experience with the system – we had not properly set the parameters of it to match the developing fiction, nor had we picked mechanical categories for our actions that significantly reflected our combinations of fictional intents while giving us a chance to hit the difficulty treshold, no. Very quickly, our game devolved into a debriefing session of the sort which consists in micro-analyzing small bits of the game without having seen the full picture – which was absolutely pointless, the designer not being there and nobody being apparently committed to write a playtest report.
To those who asked my opinion on Tactical Ops as a design, the only honest anwer I could give was: I’ve seen too little of it to form any opinion whatsoever, sorry.

The City of Fire and Coin (Swords Without Master)* — here’s another game which went quite poorly, but not for any defect of design. I had assembled a team of people I love and I know are in love with the (pulp/fantasy) genre – Ariele, Lapo & Tazio – and they took to the game with all of the glee I expected; still, everybody was apparently exhausted by the too much play they’d already had (or maybe with too much food and drink?) and soon my friends’ focus waned. Thus to my great displeasure we had to call it quits, having only played out the first Perilous Phase.
This was to be considered a playtest, not of the game-design, but of the technique of exposition (the way of “teaching” the game) embodied in The City of Fire and Coin, a learn-while-you-play tutorial written in a hybrid rulebook/gamebook style somewhat comparable to the “red box” Basic D&D set of the Eighties. While appearing well-devised on first sight, such tutorial proved way too verbose to read – and translate to Italian on the fly – while playing: sitting through the long passages of read-aloud instructions encouraged Rogue players, as a reaction, to hog the spotlight longer and go for longer talking times in the first Perilous Phase, which proved to be an interest-killer in the end, as the scene (as framed by a read-aloud box in the text itself) consisted of a street brawl with little context or emotional attachment to it. I suspect, despite an apparent interest the players showed in depicting action stunts, that had they made short work of that first Storm instead we would therefore have retained interest in the game well into the following phases.
All things considered, I walked away with a strong commitment to try again as soon as possible – which in fact happened already as of the time I’m writing this report! I won’t discuss my second game here, though, as it will become material for a follow-up post.

Ganakagok* — I’ve been in love with Ganakagok at least since the one full game of it I had a couple years ago. I’m well aware of the polemics surrounding the game’s subject-matter (Bill White was exeedingly naïve in his exotical treatment of elements from living cultures, and consequent blatant misuse of the word “Inuit”, which is something he himself later acknowledged) and my own ambivalence about the affair means I’ve had to develop my own language for explaining the game’s world as fantasy and only referencing real-world cultures in what I’m convinced (as a culture historian) to be a completely respectful way – but that’s part and parcel of dealing with fantasy fiction as a genre, anyway, and come on: instances of fantasy fiction which break out of too oft-repeated, paradigmatic, stupid molds are as needed and welcome as they can be (in gaming especially)! My love of Ganakagok, anyway, is first and foremost a love of its mechanics: suggestive card-reading coupled with some moderately complex resource management (and resource-tracking, which makes actions full of consequences, some of them unintended): it is by far the one title which had greater influence on my own design-in-progress, I reietti di Eden.
The game I ran at EtrusCon wasn’t stellar, maybe, but I felt it was good enough. We couldn’t play it to a proper ending, sadly, but we were so close. I was, in fact, disappointed to learn that what had been a half-full glass to me was instead a half-empty one to my fellow players (my dear Barbara and Daniele Lostia of Piombo fame). I’m not sure, of course, whether it is at all possible, or recommended, to play a game of Ganakagok with only two non-GM players present: maybe we had set ourselves up for a failure since the very onset?
One critique from Daniele which I think is especially poignant is that we had prepped so many elements in the immediate pre-game setup (world/village creation) which didn’t actually get reincorporated. In the moment I couldn’t but agree, but now, with a clearer head, I see the glass as half-full again: sure, we had more prepped elements available than we actually needed to use, as a side-effect of prep being a very organic process, but we did use some of those elements, and built and expanded on the ones we picked (also an organic process, as we focused on the ones we most needed in the moment), which obviously constrained and strongly directed our play – while on the other hand all those unused elements, while never incorporated in the actual scenes, still existed as a backdrop which informed play, and we never forgot nor invalidated them. Prep, in other words, always informs play, even when pieces of prepped content don’t actively come out during it.
On an unrelated note: next time I play Ganakagok, I’m considering dropping the Body/Face/Mind/Soul section of the character sheets entirely, using instead a fixed value of “3” in lieu of those scores for all purposes. Besides scores of “2” being a bit too punishing to be fun, my point is that your average player-character is only expected to be in the spotlight once or twice. Having four different “arenas of conflict” with different (and hugely important) ratings attached, then, needlessly punishes a player for open-mindedness, as the obvious optimal strategy would be to set one of your arenas at “4” and maneveur so that your own spotlight scene(s) focus on that: a boring exercise in predictability, rather than in storytelling. Gifts and Burdens should fully suffice to make characters distinct in competence, instead, especially as character Identity is also a trait with mechanical usefulness attached.

Overall, EtrusCon was an extremely diversity-rich environment, with happy and satisfied people enthusiastically playing things as diverse as OD&D/Lamentations of the Flame Princess and abstract board-games, Joe Mcdaldno’s Monsterhearts (which is an Apocalypse World-based rpg about the coming of age of metaphorically-monstrous teenagers) and Paolo Guccione’s homebrew game of tabletop battles between Go Nagai’s giant robots which is an adaptation of old Chaosium Basic Role-Playing (!). Tazio Bettin, Iacopo Frigerio, Davide Losito, Matteo Turini, Marco Valtriani all ran playtest sessions of their own designs besides the numerous foreign games played.
Some games, of course, struck me as more interesting than others; some I heartfeltly avoided, and when invited to play I declined. In the light of which, I can’t help but turn and look back over my own shoulder, realizing that an 18-years-old me – for example – would have merrily sat down at the BRP Mecha table (calling dibs on Getter Robot, probably) while not even paying a thought to the Lamentations table which these days, instead, I was very much tempted to join. And the reasons I didn’t choose to play LotFP in the end, those are the complete opposite of why I wouldn’t have joined an OD&D table if you asked me when I was, say, 25. All of the above is part due to how changed the landscape of role-playing is since previous times, sure, and part because of how changed I am myself.
Thus, the single most important thing I got from EtrusCon is not merely an appreciation of diversity within a small but fluid scene: it’s an enhanced understanding of my own tastes concerning role-playing games – of what I like and dislike and what I really look for and what I’m actually in it for – and of how mutable those preferences are.