Actual Play – Vanguard (5/29/2016)

unknownarmiesGM: Todd Furler
Players: Myself and five other KublaCon attendees.
System: Unknown Armies

Two games with Todd in one weekend? Huzzah!

Game pitch

In 2046, Mars Station Courage became the first crewed station on Mars. Their original mission was to pave the way for human colonization. Their new mission: To survive. (This game was first run in 2005. I’m bringing it back in honor of the movie The Martian.)

What Rocked

As Todd said at the beginning of the game, Mars was really trying to kill us and we felt it in every moment of the game. Between concerns of supplies running out, parts malfunctioning, and radiation poisoning, we were all in a perpetual state of survival.

From Paul Tevis I got the term “Conservation of NPCs” which means always using an existing NPC when give the option. It prevents the GM from having to make more characters, but more importantly it builds on the existing relationships between characters. Well, Todd has done conservation of NPCs like nobodies business in this game. It make sense, you’re stuck on Mars, there aren’t many people to talk to, but still, he does it very well.

What could have improved

I wasn’t really sure what to do with my character (Fez) for much for much of the game. I talked to Todd about it at length and it doesn’t sound like that character was difficult for others to play so I think it was more a matter of my uncertainty or the player dynamic at the table. The other five players were having a blast though, I just couldn’t quite figure out how to engage with them.

Actual Play – In a Handbasket (5/28/2016)

Unknown Armies 3rd EditionGM: Todd Furler
Players: Alexis George, George Duryea, Sean Nittner, Theresa Giannetti, Chris Ory, Badger McInnes, and another gentleman I didn’t catch the name of.
System: Unknown Armies, 3rd edition.

The Blurb

Kublacon has their event listing page down right now, so I took this from the Gen Con listing, which I assume is the same pitch:

For years, Police District 12 was largely peaceful. But recently, something has been turning the people against the cops. They’re up to something. They’re out to get you. You can feel it.

You’re damn right something has changed! There’s no respect any more! No god damned respect! – Daniel Leahy

The Play is the Thing

As usual I don’t want to give away spoilers for Todd’s games. If you read this and you’re excited about them, he’s running both this game and Vanguard at Gen Con and at Big Bad Con this year (shil shil shil). 

Some things I can say about the game though:

  • Leahy is just as much of a chauvinist jerk as Todd sells him as (he was my PC in the game).
  • The character backgrounds should be read carefully and quietly. I had something of a giggle when Theresa started reading some of her character’s background outloud and I think I saw a blood vessel burst in Todd’s brain. Great stuff, but let it come out in play. At least some (if not all) of the character have something you’re rewarded for revealing in game!
  • The pairings between three cops, a woman in lockup, and two bibliomancers is just great. Personally I got to terrorize my partner, antagonize the hell out of a detective, and generally be blissfully unaware of the bibliomancers who were up to all sorts of shenanigans.
  • Asking “what’s the worst that could happen?” is a delightfully terrible idea.

Some thoughts on 3rd Edtion

3rd edition does two things that were very notable to me. I’m sure there is more, but this is what stood out.

Identities instead of Skills

UA has always has a freeform skill design so that you can make a skill like “tractor racing” or “xenomorphic rhetoric” and be all set. It does put some onus on the person creating the skill to define how it works but that free form design is much of what makes each game or setting unique. Todd has been famous for using this model to really give you a feel for your character. For instance, in the Vanguard game (which he ran with an earlier edition) my character had a skill called “Pop you one”, and another that all the of the Astronauts had called “The Right Stuff”.

Identities take this a bit further and give the character two (possibly more) defining characteristics that covered a penumbra of effects. For instance, my character had and these identities

  • Because I am a beat cop, of course I can – fix your parking ticket, reasonably request entry into most places, find my way around town.
  • Because I am an alpha male, of course I can – take control of a situation, break up a bar fight,  chat up a girl.

Each identity also had abilities you could use it to substitute for and features, or special uses of it. For instance the alpha male ability could terrify someone enough that it would induce a stress check against violence.

This isn’t novel but I do think the format works very well for Unknown Armies. You’ve got a statement that looks a lot like a stunt from Fate Accelerated and then you’ve got a range of effects that explain the general by way of the specific. Feels like a mash up of Fate and Dogs in the Vineyard with just enough crunch to satisfy the gamist and just enough leeway to make a narativist happy too.

2016-05-28 15.14.34

When an identity didn’t apply, you could roll one of the 10 base abilities (heath, dodge, status, etc) but that gets into…

The way stress checks work

This feels like it needs some work still. I’m not sure if it will get it, but wow, was there a lot of confusion in the game, and I can imagine a lot of confusion happening at a lot of tables.

Okay, here’s the short primer.

See all those dots (most of them not filled out) with the row headers of Helplessness, Isolation, etc? Each of those rows governs how well you do at using two abilities as well as resisting a certain flavor of stress. So let’s break that down by way of example by looking at the last line on my sheet Violence (vs. isolation). Here are four things you can gleen from that row:

  1. When rolling the “up” ability (Connect in this case), you find the rightmost filled in dot (in my case the 3rd dot) and go look at the percent values along the top of the matrix. In this case that is a 50. Which means if Daniel tries to connect with someone one and has to roll, he’s trying to beat a 50%.
  2. When rolling the “down” ability (Struggle in this case), you find the rightmost filled in dot (which will be the same as the “up” ability, so 3rd again here) and look at the percent values along the bottom of the matrix. In this case, Daniel has a 30% in his struggle ability.
  3. When faced with a stressful situation (i.e. one that requires a stress check) you look at the “vs.” value. So, if Daniel needed to make a stress check vs. Isolation, this is is the row I would look at. Like the “up” skill, you follow to the rightmost filled in dot, and use the value at the top of the matrix. In this case Daniel has a 50% chance to succeed at a stress check vs. Isolation. And here’s where it’s easy to get mixed up. You don’t roll violence to resist against a Violence stress check (that’s Helplessness above). This has several very intentional effects. It means, in this case, as Daniel becomes more hardened against violence, he becomes worse at resisting stress caused by isolation, but not worse at resisting stress caused by violence. He also becomes better at the “down” ability, which in this case is struggle, and worse at the “up” ability connect. It’s an elegant concept but the user experience trying to navigate all of that is a challenging one.
  4. Already explained some but when you succeed at a stress check, you mark the leftmost unfilled circle in the category that you were resisting, which is isn’t the one you were rolling. So for instance. If Daniel makes a stress check against isolation (currently rolling at a 50 or lower) and succeeds, he would be rolling based on Violence, but he’d fill in the hardened dot for Isolation (the 2nd row). Extrapolating a bit, you can see that Daniel has a few hardened dots filled in on the Violence row, which means he succeeded on a few stress checks using Helplessness (the first row). Similarly if you fail, you also check the failure boxes on the column that you failed test in. You can see Daniel already has one box checked in Helplessness, which means he failed a roll in on the Isolation (vs. helpessness) row.

Here’s my thoughts on all this:

It’s confusing. Even as I write this up, I find I have to keep referencing the sheet to make sure I’m using the right terms and not mixing up row for the row that you roll versus. What’s even tricker is that the roll you row isn’t the row you mark hardened dots or failure boxes in either. I found it easiest to think of it as a game or Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock. Each ability has another ability that it trumps (or in this case rolls vs.). I still think this could have been made more clear though if the layout was circular in design rather than rows like War of Ashes or even more directly like they did in Big Bang Theory.

Opposing Abilities

Also when I map it out like this I noticed that we don’t have fiver interlocking rows. We have two sets of interlocking rows. Unnatural and Self are totally cut off from Helplessness, Isolation, and Violence. So, we don’t even have the opportunity to create a grid like this without changing one of those. Blerg.

The other issue I have is that I feel like failed checks just got left out of the new design. They are still there, just like they were in previous editions, but both graphically and mechanically they look like vestigial remains of a bygone edition. The don’t do anything to the characters (except act as an abstract sanity hit point system) and they don’t fit in the design.  I’m not sure how they should be integrated, but right now it just feels like they were left over and nobody knew what to do with them, even going so far as to unfortunately mark the section “stupid weak failure” on the sheet.

What Rocked

Okay, back to the actual game at hand!

Theresa came from a dungeon crawling background (maybe even one that involved giant flying reptiles) and had never played a game like unknown armies before. It was like Christmas for me watching her read her character sheet and then play in this very different game. I do not denigrate the crawl, but I do love it when folks try out something new!

Our bibliomancers were just awesome. Reading case files right out of Ursula K. Le Guin novels, turning cheap halloween costumes into completely authentic disguises, and otherwise doing magic that was perfectly flavored to both the setting and our game in particular. I thought it was even cooler when things didn’t go well for them and the kid gloves came off!

As mentioned above, I had a lot of fun being the worst cop ever for most of the game. I also got to feel a personal sense of redemption that by the end of the game I not only went out on my own terms, but I never shot anyone (which is more than I can say for my fellow officers!). Most of this however was due to the wonderful roleplaying chops of my two foils Tom (played by George) and Jim (played by Chris).

Some of the twists in the game were just heart wrenching. Like, yeah all sorts of badness of course, but there were some moments of personal pain that, augh… so good.

What could have improved

I think there is a fear of short circuiting the game, ending it too soon, or not playing “right” that can prevent people from diving into something 100%, and worse that causes one character to try and stop another from doing something foolish. It’s totally natural, in life we do it all the time. Of course you don’t leave your hand on the hot plate, you pull it away. But in games, you have a chance to find out what happens if you don’t. All I’m saying is follow Winston’s advice, if someone asks if you are a god, you say, “yes!”

This was a good for me, bad for others scenario. The game was scheduled online for 3PM, but in most of the printed materials at 6PM (both of which were in the same time slot, so it could legitimately have been either). It was also moved to another location, and the White Wolf game that was running in the new location had also moved to another room. All of this without any total confirmation about what was supposed to be when and where (different sources saying different things). The end result was we had a lot of people showing up for a different game, we had a lot of people showing up for this game, but three hours after it started, and the game we actually played was more full of crashers (myself included) than it was folks who were signed up to play in it (most of them arriving just before 6pm). That didn’t affect the game experience much, but it did make for some disappointed folks. A hiccup in the system.

As mentioned pretty exhaustively above, I do like a lot of what was done in 3rd edition, but the advancement in elegance game at the cost of clarity. I doubt much can be done about that now, but if it there is a chance to change the character sheets before the book is printed, I’d encourage it.

Actual Play – The Harvesters (5/25/2014)

unknownarmiesGM: Todd Furler
Players: Shawn Endresen, Tracy Pinkleton, Chris Vincenti, Jessie Stavely, Chad Lynch, Sean Nittner, and William Lee.
System: Unknown Armies

I was very excited to play in another of Todd’s games. Karen had played in it on Friday and enjoyed it quite a bit, plus I had just been recording an episode of Narrative Control with Todd about game prep, so I was extra enthusiastic to see what he brought to the con.

Two things gave me pause though. The first is that Todd started the game with a disclaimer that their would be depictions of torture in the game, though he did keep his promise to only leave them “on screen” as long as they needed to be to drive the point home. The second concern was gaming with my ex-wife and two of her close friends (who are also friends of mine, but since the divorce we haven’t seen each other often). Both of these ended up working out fine. The torture was never gratuitously graphic and Jessie and I, though we didn’t interact much in game, played together just fine.

Game Description

Yesterday, you were just a regular member of the working throng. Today, you have to kill or be killed. This is a dark tale of psychological terror & body horror for mature players.

Places you can still play The Harvesters

August 2014

GenCon – Friday 12PM – https://www.gencon.com/events/57059

GenCon –  Friday 6PM – https://www.gencon.com/events/57060

November 2014

IndieCon

The play is the thing

Some of Todd’s games make you wonder “why?”, some of them make you question beliefs, some of them evoke sadness. The harvesters was a demonstration is helplessness. Of course we weren’t, not completely, but there were long periods in the game where all of us looked to each other with absolutely no idea what to do…and predictable things came from that. We turned on each other (in lieu of someone we face that deserved the blame) and we started asking ourselves questions like just how awful of things would we do in order to regain our safety an autonomy.

For every other detail in the game, I can only recommend that you play it yourself. And if you do, be nice to Julie. Her boyfriend has really put a number on her.

Thoughts on the Game

Unsurprisingly the game lived up to my expectation of excellence in Todd’s games (no pressure here Todd). It’s also one that engaged more of the UA mythos than I’ve been able to recognize in the past (though that could just be because I’m not familiar with the parts of the setting he’s used in the past). That was a little bit exciting when, after the game I realized, oh yeah, I know what that is!

Todd also employed an unreliable narrator during certain parts of the game. Namely what was on screen wasn’t the whole story, until it was seen again. That was a neat trick that helped make a reveal without us feeling like we had been “duped” for not getting something in the past.

Todd’s characters, even the powerful ones, are all painfully human. They just want what everyone else wants. Safety and security for them and the ones they love. That is hard to fight without becoming a monster yourself.

We “lost” the adventure in some sense of the word, but it really didn’t feel like “winning” would have been any better. It was disturbing, mournful, and creepy. Awesome.

Actual Play – Fallen Sons (10/6/2013)

unknownarmiesGM: Todd Furler
Players: Sean Nittner, Mia Blankensop, Matt Steele, Zed Lopez, Joe O’Neil, Shawn Endresen
System: Unknown Armies

Game Description: A town must determine how to respond when a hate group announces they will picket the funeral of a favorite son. Players will be exposed to the rhetoric of a real-world hate group.

Todd, at my request, ran Fallen Sons, the transcendental sequel to Thy Will, which I played six years ago and still remember as a favorite.

I was excited for several reasons. To play the sequel to a personal favorite game. To play with Matt Steele, a friend and personal favorite gamer, and to play with Mia, who was leaning a new system, and hadn’t played with Todd before.

The game did not disappoint. I had heard that it dealt with really heavy issues, specifically hate crimes, which it did. I also heard that the supernatural elements were both familiar and extremely alien, which they were.

Thoughts on this game

I left out the actual play report because Todd may run it again and I want to avoid spoilers.

The only downside to this game for me was being really frazzled by running the con (and proposing the night before) so I just don’t feel like I gave it my best shot.  Nothing terrible, just more distracted than I would have liked.

 

Actual Play – Ashes of Innocence (2/19/2012)

GM: Todd Furler
Players: Sean, Donnamarie, Rian, Carly, Ishtar, Tom,  Adrian Anderson
System: Unknown Armies

This was a messed up horror game. I wouldn’t say that most of Todd’s Unknown Armies are really “horror”, I’d call them suspenseful or thrillers, but not horror. Todd describes them as episodes of the Twilight Zone, were normal people experience something where reality suddenly takes a sharp left turn.

Well, some episodes of the Twilight Zone are apparently more disturbing than others…

I played Lauren Markowitz, a teenage girl with all the normal kinds of issues surrounding a 15 year old whose mom just remarried after a divorce to a man with two kids of his own. Actually, I’d say that of ALL the characters, my horrors were the most mundane, but they were still awful. Deliciously awful.

Todd had some very interesting perspective on family relationships. He noted a few things in the very beginning, as he was actively trying to get players to walk away from the game if any of this upset them.

  1. When we encounter something we don’t like, we can either try to change it, deal with it, or leave. In a family change is often impossible and leaving isn’t an option, meaning we were going to spend most of the game (and we did) just dealing with problems that were never going to be solved.
  2. Unknown Armies has a rule for how your characters become inured to the terrors they experience. In a nutshell, when you encounter something that freaks you out, if you manage to keep your calm, you start becoming “hardened” to that kind of experience (e.g. violence or helplessness). If you fail to keep your wits, you starts cracking along the edges. One of Todd’s rules in this is that you never get “hardened” to family issues.  So, if we experienced “helplessness”, like having to sit at the table eating dinner when the other kids go to go have their damn tea parties (“So unfair!!!”), even if we made the roll (which I was very happy I didn’t) we don’t get hardened to that kind of horror. It will piss us off just as much the next time it comes up!

Thoughts on the game

Carly, the young woman playing my character’s mother had it rough! First off, Todd had all sorts of hell for her to deal with and then I just added more to it. I mean heaping tablespoons of teenage angst and rebellion. I commend her for a) staying in character and b) not feeling too picked on. It wasn’t personal, she was just the one to bear the burden.

Todd had two characters with special rule about how they could interact. Because of this I wasn’t able to interact with them at all during the game, my character didn’t even know of their existence. Everyone once in a while I would do something that was relayed to them, but from my perspective they didn’t exist. I think this played out well in our game and it makes me wonder if this would be a good way to handle Upstairs/Downstairs games like a riff of of Downton Abbey, where some characters are simply unaware of others. Hmm.

There was one point were Todd was getting pretty close to pushing one of my buttons regarding violence against children. I think if it was another GM I would have probably call to cut the scene. In this case Todd asked us to trust him in advance and I did, and it worked out just fine. Yay, trust exercises!

I really, really dislike DundraCon’s proliferation of nicknames. I blame the system here. When you reg there is a line for your nickname. Most people want to fill out most lines on forms. We’re programmed to complete that kind of stuff. I takes tremendous willpower to leave that line blank. But if you don’t, if you enter anything in that line, it goes with you through the whole con. So, in this case “2 Shotgun Kid” was about 20 minutes late for the game. I’m sure he had reasons, but nobody had any idea who he was or how to get a hold of him. And because that was his name on his badge, that’s all I remember as well. Todd got everyone’s actual names for his personal logs, but I couldn’t remember them.  Not. A. Fan.

Max Rocks. Just saying.

 

Actual Play – Bright Souls, Dark Alleys (7/16/2011)

GM: Ryan Macklin (though in a tired haze the night before I misspelled it Makclin on the Game Table Tent)
Players: Sean Nittner, Matthew Klein, Morgan Hua, Jon Edwards and Chris Hanrahan.
System: Unknown Armies

Billing:

Bright Souls, Dark Alleys
Game System: Unknown Armies
Game Master: Ryan F Macklin FTI
Characters Provided: yes, mostly
Power Level: Street-ish
Variations: Streamed down and laser focused, baby
Number of Players: 4
“You know Rhianna? That gal that works over at the diner, busting her as for seven-five and crap tips? Yeah, her. So, last night she starts speaking in tongues and the diner bursts into flames. Plenty of bodies…but not hers. Now gents & lasses, we have ourselves a serious situation. A normal got herself immense power & blew up a building. That needs to be dealt with, so I hired you freelancers. You know the Weird, you’ve seen things that crack minds. Go fix this, or you might be next.”

Why it almost didn’t happen

This game almost didn’t happen for me. Every year at Good Omens Con something goes wonky. Last year it was the shuffler hate, this year it was drop outs. We had a lot of people that at the last minute couldn’t make it. Most of them were cool and told me about it, but a few just didn’t show. As Shepperd Book said, there is a special place in hell for some sins. Despite having a lot of excitement, and having to turn people away when I first opened up sign ups, the morning shift had games that barely went off. One in particular “shot in the chest lol #seriouslysomeonecalladocwagon” hand only 2 of the five players show up. One of them I heard later in the morning session was sick as of the last facebook update, the second is still unexplained, and a third had told me in advance that they couldn’t make the game. I asked Randy how many players he needed to make the game run and he said 3 would do. So…I was a hairs breadth from playing in that game instead. Luckily last minute Cil Taylor showed up and took a spot, ensuring that all the games could run as planned, or at least close to it.

Why it HAD to happen

Much as I like Ryan, I haven’t had the pleasure in playing in many of his games. Ironically it’s the story of the cobblers sons have no shoes. Whenever I see him at cons I refrain from taking a seat in his games under the assumption that we live near each other and so we could game together any time… only we haven’t. Life, distance, gaming groups, you name it, it gets in the way. Anywho, I was listning to this episode of Canon Puncture where Ryan got on and talked about why Unknown Armies was his favorite game ever. For being a pretty old-school, non-indie game I thought this meant a whole lot. It would be one thing if he said Apoc World or Burning Wheel or even Dresden, but to give that credit to a mainstream game meant a lot to me and I listened to the show intently. By the end of the episode I was doing two things. 1) Special ordering a copy of the game from EndGame and 2) telling Ryan he had to run it for me some time, even specifying that I wanted a street level game.

So, in many ways I felt like this game was a special gift to me and I didn’t want to miss it. I’m glad I didn’t.

Ryan wears a lot of hats. Ryan the entertainer, Ryan the game designer, Ryan the critic, Ryan the podcaster, and the most public Ryan Mother Fucking Macklin from the Internet (list not exclusive). One hat that I really like though is Ryan the GM. It’s a tempered and personal Ryan that is very good at shining the spotlight on others and reincorporating their awesome into a larger narrative. Apocalypse World calls the GM the Master of Ceremonies and I think Ryan is just that. He doesn’t just run a game, he MCs it.

The game is the thing

The story itself followed a pretty loose plot that Ryan populated with a kicker to get the action rolling, a few bangs to keep us on the right track and a few complications to allow for some dynamic options at the end. The information presented at the beginning of the game about the organization we worked for (The Toy Chest) turned out to be more complicated than we though and by the end I think all of our characters had some reasons to question our allegiances.

The player character interaction, which is always the big thrill for me in a game, wasn’t the primary focus of the game but it was nevertheless charged, which I like. I’m all about my character having some obstacle to overcome and looking to the other PCs to either complicate or help in that endeavor. In this case it was the very good chance I was going to die due to a few bad choices my character had made. My interactions with everyone but Jon (the occultist) were very satisfying, and that was only because we lacked a place to connect, although we did have one funny near mishap with some pharmaceuticals. In particular Matthew and I (the preacher and the thief) had some nice connection. His character being one to find salvation in the darkest of places and mine being one who very much hoped said salvation could exist.

The end was predictable in that we “won” but less so in the how we did it. Find out for yourself if Ryan runs it again.

What Rocked

  • Ryan’s presentation of what we knew about the universe was great. It felt very Heroes, first season.
  • Silas (my character) and Solomon (Matthew’s) had a great rapport that was a lot of fun to play out.
  • There were two plot arcs in the story which converged over a single point. Those were murky waters to navigate.
  • Ryan made a character specifically for Chris Hanrahan, knowing that he might need to disappear during the game.
  • Ryan’s approach to being disconnected from time was very well done. The past, present and future all merging together in a complex tapestry of NOW.
  • At one point, due to some overconfidence on my part, and some bad rolls, I was starting to feel a little de-protagonized. Not like my character lost significance in the story, just that he was hired because he was supposed to be capable but he was in fact pretty inept. Ryan pulled a move that I really appreciated and gave an NPC a respect for my character that he probably didn’t deserve but nevertheless allowed him to still seem competent.
  • On that same note, Chris offered the same olive branch of accepting that “shit happens” rather than making the somewhat obvious jump to “why are you such a dumbshit?”
  • I think hunches are something that Ryan made up. They were a very welcome addition to a percentile system game (which I’m generally not a fan of) as they added a little bit of the “decide what is important to you” element that I think most percentile games lack.

What could have improved

  • The character sheets started blank and we filled them out. Largely do to the lack of an editable PDF character sheet. THAT IS A TRAVESTY! Not exactly beautiful but better than nothing: http://www.sadric.com/download/ua_sheet_editable.pdf
  • There were a couple times when the game threatened to go off the rails (like stealing pants from someone at a bar ala Terminator). It took some work to easy those impulses back into the fiction. Fiction friction.
  • I would have liked more face time with the characters. That is a personal preference of mine though, not something I think every gamer shares. We didn’t have competing needs so there wasn’t a reason to have a relationship beyond cooperation. I’d like to have had either a romance, a dependency, a rivalry, or at least some asynchronous relationships (I like you but you’re worried I’ll be trouble, or I dislike you but I need you, etc). Perhaps that wasn’t in the cards for that game or that group.
  • The characters all had three stimuli (rage, fear and noble) as well as obsession skill that a) is what I thought the characters were “about” and b) did some neat things with the mechanics. I was looking for more of those elements to show up in the story. This is tough one I know, it’s almost like niche protection, but instead of creating a situation for every niche, you need to create one for every facet of each character (which would have been 20 if Ryan had done each stimulus and the obsession for each character). Phew!
  • Though it probably would have made the game take longer, I think we needed more stress tests. There was just a TON on unnatural, violence and self encounters in that game (which is a good thing!)
  • One of the antagonists came off a little high and mighty. I got that he was the voice box for a plot thread but he felt overpowering. It turns out he was bluffing and hoping we would back down, but when the GM presents a character as acting invulnerable, you can’t really tell if that is the GM presenting the “Truth” (caps intentional) or just some schmuck’s line. I wanted to take that guy down a notch, but ended up knocking him right off the ladder by means of a metal-bumper-to-the-head sneak attack. In the narrative it seemed that diplomacy lead us to a stalemate and violence was necessary. I felt a little uneasy initiating that violence.

Though that is a long list on both sides, the improvements are nit picks compared to the strengths. I had a great time in the game.

Actual Play – Collision on I-81 (5/28/2011)

GM: Todd Furler
Players: Duane O’ Brian, Sean Nittner, Michael Wilson, Travis Smalley, plus two.
System: Unknown Armies

Billing

Collision on I-81
Game system: Unknown Armies
Start time: SAT, 9:00 AM
# of Players: 6
GM / Judge: Todd Furler
Description
What’s supposed to be a simple week of training starts off with a horrific car accident. And things get worse from there. CHAR: Provided LVLS: Normal folks

Getting to the game

This game only happened by the narrowest of margins for me. To get in I would have had to sign up Friday night (which I didn’t). I looked at the schedule for Saturday noon games and nothing looked at all interesting, so with 15 minutes before Todd’s game started I rushed up to the room and crashed the game.

A major downside to this was not being ready to game. I.e. I hadn’t showered or changed clothes with is a total gamer hygiene snafu. Luckily my lovely family brought me some essentials (breakfast, a clean shirt, deodorant, a toothbrush and toothpaste).

When I arrived, I was first in the waitlist but people in the game were showing up and filling the seats. A single player, a friend of Michael Wilson sent text to bow out and I was in! Awesome

The Setup

Todd opened up the game, introducing us as a group of engineers (and their supervisor) that worked together for a firm and were being sent off for some regulatory training. One the drive, however, we got in an accident, the Collision on I-81. Out of nowhere another van appeared and our vehicles smashed into each other. The other vehicle got the worst of it, several were injured and one died. Luckily we were mostly just startled but otherwise okay.

The characters were a fun group. Bill, our boss, had the exterior of being a caring guy, but had some skeletons in his closet. Seth was the newbie that wasn’t technically qualified for the job. Amanda (my character) was a really good natured woman who wanted to prove herself. We also had the frat boy, the family guy and my favorite (Michael’s character) the ice queen that gave up having any kind of personal life for her professional career.

The game is the thing

As Todd may very well run this game again at Gen Con, I’m not going to write anything about the story, suffice to say, it was a great one.

What rocked

Todd always does a fantastic job delivering a game full of people that are very real and very diverse. I love his portrayal of NPCs.
The plot never required our characters to give up on our previous beliefs about the natural world (as many games that incorporate supernatural elements do).

The player character interaction was great, particularly between Dwane and Travis and Michael and me. Michael and I had a great scene where his character snubbed my so hard, the character relationships really changed, which is something I love to see.

I had two epicly bad rolls (I think 99s both of them) that created some amazing twists in the game, both involving car accidents. Todd did an amazing job of making those horrible failures push the story forward.

Todd Furler! Awesome GM.

What could have improved

It seemed like there was a lot more about the characters that could have come out in the course of a longer game. With four hours (which is my preferred length btw) and a lot of story bits to experience, I left wondering a lot about the other characters. Given out particular ending, I doubt we would ever had found out.

Kubla 2009 – Saturday 5/23/2009

Here be the tale of my Saturday at Kubla.

Saturday 8:00 AM

I really wanted to get a recording of Justin snoring but by the time I got out of the shower he stopped. Apparently he was wearing ear plugs because I had been snoring earlier. Touché

I headed down to the registration desk to ask them to remove me from the 9:00 AM game. I think I signed up for it accidentally. It was a Watchmen game and I’ve neither read the comics or seen the movie. Also BASH has never been a system I was really excited about, so it was just a bummer that I got into the game in the first place. Con staff was cool and told me they would take me off the list and let the GM know. Kubla staff rocks.

Saturday 9:00 AM till 3:30 PM

So instead of playing RPGs I hung out in the morning. I bumped into people, walked around the dealers room, and generally just chilled out. It was quite nice.

For lunch Sean, Kristin, Blinkie, Todd, Matt and I all went out the Elephant Bar and Grill. Good eats but the sampler platter (which I got) was WAY too much food. I was stuffed.

We played Wasabi in the Atrium. Wasabi is a really fun Z-Man game that mixes scrabble and Freddy’s Fast Food of the Damned into a fun make your sushi roll bonanza. Alex, Meg, Blinkie and all made tasty delights. If I weren’t so gorged from lunch I think playing would have made my tummy rumble. Great production value on that game and enough strategy that it would be fun to replay a few times.

Saturday 3:30 PM – Buried Secrets

Something I’ve been looking forward to for a while is Todd Furler’s Unknown Armies game. This one was even more subtly supernatural than the previous game but kept me on edge about the origins of certain people. As he’ll run it again at Gen Con I don’t want to give away any spoilers, I’ll just go over what rocked and what could have been improved.

What rocked

I got to play with Alex, Matt S., and Mike B. Not that the other players weren’t great, but getting to hang out with my friends while gaming is always a plus. Great players overall.

Todd does a great job of framing the game, giving us a good idea of what to expect and what to drive towards. We all started the game with a common thread in our heads of “let’s make this a great story.”

Todd is very flexible, allowing us to move around the story with ease. For instance, there was a scene where we were questioning an NPC. Clearly he wasn’t supposed to give us all the answers but we put him in such an uncomfortable situation that he finally spilled is guts. I think some GMs would have frozen under that or simply made the NPC act unaffected by his situation, but Todd rolled gracefully with it.

Many of the character interactions, especially between my character and her husband, a senator and his aide and my character’s husband and his friends were just great. We had some excellent dialog and laughs around the table.

The story was very “Twilight zone”. Out there, but not too far out there. Close enough that one could imagine it was real.

Ken’s character’s particular issue. I won’t say it hear but I busted up when I heard what it was.

What could have been improved

Due to the nature of the game there were lots of personal scenes between just two or three players. This felt very LARPish which isn’t a problem per se but it meant that a lot of us missed out on conversations that should have been “on screen”. Not sure what there is to do about that.

I had a secret that I really wanted to get out in the open but couldn’t figure out how to do it. My secret was awesome… just couldn’t fathom a way my character would say it. In our last episode on Secrets, I talk about it a little more. Warning, some spoilers there: http://www.narrativecontrol.com/index.php?post_id=484697

Some of our concerns turned out to just be there to make our characters feel like senators (some political issues to talk about), which was great for giving us fodder for a discussion but later felt like it was brushed aside. Also I didn’t feel a strong threat from outside forces. The mob came up a time or two, but didn’t feel like a real danger. I think both of those could have been solved by having some of our political enemies work against us, creating more urgency for our characters.

The players (and GM) of Buried Secrets:

Saturday 8:00 PM to Midnight

The problem with waiting to write this down, I’ve mostly forgotten. I didn’t make it into Matt Steel’s game, which was okay as I was exhausted. A failed attempt to podcast and drink ending in sleeping around midnight. Will fill in more if/when I can remember it.

Kubla is King!

Man, I really can’t say enough good things about Kubla this year. Part con, part company and part serendipity, I had a blast.   Warning: This post is very long, read as time allows.

Pre con excitement.

The fun started for me 10 days before the con. On Tuesday (the 15th) I play tested my Office Waste game with Erik Woodbury, Travis Lindquist, Steve Dunn, Tracy Pinkelton, Omar Camacho and Matt DeHayes. There were some kinks in the game (as there is supposed to be in a play test) but overall I had a great time. Such a good time in fact that I would have been content even if the actual game had been canceled, had no shows or just sucked at the con. The Prime Time Adventure rules (especially Paul Strack’s variations of them) are fast, flexible and fun. My players were awesome and really confirmed to me what a great idea it was to let players play characters who were normal Joes that got to break free of mundane constraints.

After the play-test was done and improvements were made I spent a few nights helping Eric Woodbury with Arathi Ceasefire (a World of Warcaft LARP). Eric is an experienced tabletop and live action role player, but this LARP needed a lot of WoW background information and a system to be created. Erik, Steve Dunn, Tracy Pinkelton and I had gotten together a few times to work out the system and now it was time to crank out the characters. I made seven of the thirty characters and a few minor props. All in all it wasn’t a giant contribution, but I really had fun developing interconnections between the characters. Sadly my game (Office Waste) and Erik’s (Arathi Ceasefire) were both Friday night. So while I helped prep the game, I couldn’t actually be there to be an assistant GM.

Friday Night (Office Waste – by me)

Erik and I got out of Davis just after 4, which was only about two hours late, so I was pretty happy. We arrived and checked in and quickly assembled 30 character packets for the LARP. I helped Erik carry the stuff to Sandpebble D and then left him to run the game. As I had opportunities to check in on the game (while mine was having a break) it seemed like the participants were having a great time. The follow up that I heard after confirmed just that. Arathi Ceasefire went off like gangbusters.

I had an hour before my game was going to start and a friend of mine that lives in Colorado was in town. We hopped across the street, had a bite as Sizzler and then I bolted back to the hotel to get Office Waste started. From left to right here is Alex and Charles just before we went out to dinner.

Alex and Charles - Before Dinner

My players were Justin, Mike Bogan, Sam, Rasilind, Elizabeth, and Brent. I had gamed with all of them except Rasilind and Justin and I was confidant that the group was going to rock. I was wrong. The rocked hard! Every time I faced them with a horrible traffic, evil bosses, sadistic dot-matrix printers, sensitivity trainers, partnership councils, arrogant IT guys, whiners, annoyingly happy co-workers, strange food fetish co-workers and disgusting, greasy, uncouth co-workers they shined like I could have never imagined. Prime Time Adventures (with variations from Paul Strack) allows the players to narrate both successes and failures. Given this, much of the “story” is put in the hands of the players (where I think it should be). They give direction to the plot and narrate a good portion of the scenes. Between the hot-boxed bathroom, “everybody likes my chili”, the fake then real then mocked dying grandmother and the who-on-myspace dialog, I was practically crying from laughing so hard. My players were nothing short of awesome and they made the game something I will never forget.

Deliriously happy, I met up with Erik and Steve who were drinking with some other gamers. I met (hoping I remember names now): Paul, Devon, Dave and Joe. The guys were all friendly and willing to share their wine so how could I turn down the company. We drank for a bit and then eventually headed up the room to crash.

Saturday Morning (Spirit of the 24th Century – by Mike Parker)

I went to bed late on Friday and didn’t sleep all that well. Noise and an uncomfortable bed didn’t help. To my surprise the alarm clock woke me up around 8ish and I made it to my 9:00 game: Spirit of the 24th Century.

For me this game was lot of firsts. Mike Parker is one of Good Omens more recent GMs and one of the few that has never ran a game I was in. I knew Mike had run several Spirit of the Century games already so I was eager to see what he could do with a system he was comfortable with. Also, the game itself was totally new to me. I had heard Paul Tevis’ review of it some time ago and I was interested in the game, but up till now had never played it. Also, of the players in the group I had gamed with Gerry and Greg Eichner before, but Anton, Stephan and the guy who played RxM-42 (sorry, I should have written down names) were strangers.

There are a lot of game reviews of Spirit of the Century (two of them here: Have Games Will Travel, and four more on RPG net (which you can find by searching the reviews at rpg.net) so I won’t go into the details of the game except to note how I think it is well suited for a con game.

In Mike’s game (as per usual with SotC) we created our characters before starting. With a game using d20, Hero System or even World of Darkness I would have dreaded doing on the spot character creation. It can take hours to do and experienced players will end up with much more efficient and “powerful” characters than novices. Spirit of the Century, however, falls in the category of trait based character building which means my “Grew up in a space farm” was every bit as useful and descriptive as Monkey-X who had the trait “Oook Oook”. Character creation is (reasonably fast) and entertaining in its own right. Because this was Spirit of the 24th century, a few things had been changed. We were playing in a high pulp future much like Buck Rodgers or Mars Attacks. Giant Robots, Martians, Space Nazis, you name it.

This took two hours but was well worth it. All of our characters were connected to each other (as part of the character development process) and we had established several antagonists that Mike was able to use as his villains.

In SotC the player describes their character as he or she ages and give them “aspects” which will later be used in the game. I chose to create a “rocketeer” character that was born on a space farm. Quite by accident I named him Davey Rocket and hilarity ensued (along with a chorus of “Davey, Davey Rocket. King of the final frontier.”). As I created the character I ended up with aspects like: An honest face never lies, everyone knows Martians have a glass jaw, a damsel in distress…., and my tribute to Kirk: “But that’s not…possible…” The other characters were similarly rich. Mike did a great job helping us along. As we tried to find appropriate aspects to pull from our history, he was always there with a helpful suggestion that suited the era. After two hours we had a great cast: Davey Rocket, RXM-42 (Android Ninja), Green Something (Martian with only a coincidental resemblance to a mantis warrior found in another slightly larger RPG) Red Starburst, Monkey X (the super intelligent experimental co-pilot monkey), and Doc O, the man of SCIENCE!

Once the game got underfoot, we went from having a good time, to having a great time. Because of our characters backgrounds we managed to have Robot Ninja Monkey Aliens (our side) vs. Pirate Nazi Mind Slavers (the bad guys). The game was completely campy and ridiculously funny. I was quite happy when my rival Hydrogen Hilda (a blue Martian Pirate who worked for the Cult of Hauptman) captured Davey, took away his rocket pack, interrogated him and then had her way with him. Of course RXM-42 came to the rescue only so that I could face my rival again in the field of battle. Mike really impressed me with this game. He rolled so smoothly with our ideas that you would have thought the characters were pre-generated for his story.

As if this review hasn’t been long enough, here is a picture of the players.

Saturday Afternoon (Thy Will – by Todd Furler)

Todd Furler was a new GM to me, but he had come highly recommended. Alex Miller had been in his octaNe game Friday night and Tracy Pinkelton had played Buffy with him in the past. Both told me that Todd was a lot of fun. However, even given that I was skeptical about the game description: “A brutal murder makes you question everything you’ve ever believed. Players in this game must be comfortable having their characters discuss morality and real-world religions.” It wasn’t so much that I was intimidated by the description as I worried that after two very upbeat and entertaining games, this would be a downer. Again, I was happily surprised.

Todd Started the game explaining Unknown Armies as a game that looks at what normal people do when under extreme stress. He prefaced the game with a disclaimer that the game would be disturbing and we must be able to remain detached from our character in order to play. Nobody stirred from their seats. He continued with a few expectations that made it clear to all of us that this would not be a “sit com” RPG.

The story included seven very normal people who all had very different religious views that God had condemned and sent and angel of wrath to destroy. The game spanned five years and in that time our characters were forced to accept realities they really couldn’t comprehend (an example my character who was a happy go lucky pacifist killed someone to protect himself and the others and really went a little nuts when he realized what happened).

By the end of the game, all of our characters had changed profoundly. The atheist had joined Unitarian Universalism. My character who was terrified of commitment married one of the other characters and had children with her, and half of us were killed by the angel of wrath before he finally couldn’t stand the paradox of God’s command, gained free will and was cast from the heavenly choir.

I expected the game to be intense but it was much more than that. The game was full of horror caused both by the world around us and by our own self reflection. I remember at one point taking Jarys (who was playing Eduardo Mendoza the atheist) and literally yelling at him for several minutes because he was trying to give the responsibility of negotiating with the Angel of Wrath to a 13 year old boy. He had very good reasons to do this, but my character who was friends with the boy just couldn’t handle it. We changed, grew, had children and died and we did it all in four hours. Personally I was amazed that Todd told such a moving story in that short of time. This was the most human and most horrific game I’ve every played in. Fantastic job Todd and the same to the other players (who sadly I only got the names of Sam and Jarys who I already knew)!

Todd Fuller's Thy Will Players


Saturday Night (Office Dogs at the Water cooler)

By 8:00 PM Saturday night I was really beat. I had stayed up till 3AM every morning since Wednesday and as I mentioned my hotel sleep was fitful and less than rejuvenating. I found that I had gotten into Wilson Zom’s Office Dogs at the Water cooler game and wasn’t sure I was up for it. Wilson had adapted Dogs in the Vineyard, a game set in an old west that never was, to modern day corporate world. The characters worked for the Davidson-Oligmueller Group (or DOG) and they were consultants that went from company to company to help them implement and maintain the DOG code. As per the normal DotV scenario each company you visit has some problems and you are there to weed out the corruption and get a company back on track.

Since I had some experience playing and running Dogs, I found myself giving advice to Wilson and the other players throughout the game. Normally in DotV this is encouraged. The players are supposed to add their two cents into every situation, however, I worried that I was going overboard. I talked to Wilson twice about it and he said that I hadn’t overstepped my player role but I couldn’t help but feeling I started the game back seat GM-ing. Once I noticed, however, I started doing it a lot less and intentionally put the responsibility of tackling several key “problem employees” in the hands of other DOG consultants.

We had some good times rooting out the corruption. As per a usual DotV game, the adventure isn’t about doing detective work, it’s about confronting people and breaking them down until either a) you make a judgment about them or b) they tell you something that significantly changes your mind. For the most part I played a DOG who walked into the situation thinking (actually knowing) that I already knew what was wrong with the company. The cool thing about DotV is that players decide how their characters interpret the Faith (in this case the Code) and act accordingly. Even thought my character (Dale Bennet) didn’t have all the information, he was certain of who was creating the problem (Wilson had made it pretty clear) and was ready to take action. Since even the CEO was afraid to fire this employee (who the share holders thought was a wonder boy) we did it for him. Then we canned the CEO and forced someone else to take his position and rehire the ex-CEO as a consultant. The latter part was done as part of a narrative, but firing the wonder boy Bob was a really intense conflict. He pulled out all the stops and after he realized there was no way to save his job he started threatening ours. By the end of it all but one of the characters had to defend ourselves in front of the DOG review board. We managed to keep our jobs but earned some nasty fall out. I think mine was “Can’t find the snakes head to grab 1d4”

Interestingly, some of the best conflict actually arose between the dogs. One of us was skeptical of the DOG Code and when he mentioned off the cuff that ignoring it (in this case doing illegal business) flippantly and said “so what” we had a long and vicious conflict which almost amounted to loosing one of our consultants in the middle of the game.

As always I like that DotV skips past the trivial bread crumb system of GMs giving clues until players figure out what is going on and dives right into “this is all jacked up, what are you going to do about?” Good job Wilson and the other players (again I was too tired to remember the names and didn’t think to write them down).

Although I really enjoyed myself, I wish I could have had a clone that got into Rasilind’s “Mystery Men” game. It sounds like the game was awesome.

Wilson Zom's Office Dogs at the Water Cooler players

After being a DOG till 2AM I meandered a bit and then finally crashed in my room.

Sunday Morning (7th Sea – Jay)

Sunday morning I got into a game that didn’t really fit my play style. There were seven players and the others were having a good time so I politely excused myself. Luckily, Erik and Steve had gotten their 7th Sea mentor Jay (sorry don’t have the last name) to start up a game and they called me to see if I could join. Heck Yeah! I called Alex Miller, got him to join and we started.

Jay had run this game before and had a whole list of pre-generated characters to choose from. Collectively we were Sebastian the archer, Andrew the highland warrior, Allison the pirate and myself, Herbert the cook. The game started with a simple mission: Capture a spy whose whereabouts were known and security was lax and turn her into the Lord Bywood. Well, just in case Jay plans on running this game again I won’t spoil the details but after we took a break, all of us agreed that we must have been hoodwinked and of course, we were right. Good times ensued as we tried to get our reputations out of the mud.

Jay is a good GM. I can see where Erik and Steve got their style from. The players however were really what made the experience great. Early on in the game Lord Bywood asked if we were sailors and being both cocky and drunk Steve said Sebastion was part of the queen’s guard, Erik claimed Andrew was a dancing monkey and for my part Herbert said he was part of the church choir (he was singing a sea shanty when the noble arrived). Advice for those who follow: Be careful who (or what) you shove into a canvas bag.

Sunday Evening (Dealers room and dinner with Greg M.)

After the game, I checked as saw that I hadn’t made it into any afternoon games and so Erik, Steve and I cruised into the dealer’s room. I was glad to see that EndGame was doing well and chatted with Chris and Aaron for a bit. Erik was pretty excited about Battlegrounds, which is essentially a miniatures game made with cards. Much lighter, smaller and cheaper. Best of all, no painting required. It’s been a while since I’ve played miniature games so it took some time to sell me on it. Chad from Your Move Games was very friendly and happy to demo/explain as much about the game as I was willing to hear. Clearly he was exited about the game and as it is non-collectable I didn’t feel like my $15 was going to open a huge can of financial worms. Though interested in the game, I didn’t have the energy to try it on the spot so I chucked the box in my backpack and started making dinner plans.

Greg Matheison was coming to the con to have dinner and see friends (he couldn’t attend more due to work) so I went out to dinner with him and a few other guys. Sizzler again. Their salad bar is really expansive (in addition to salads they have nachos, onion rings, chicken and others) but the fish and chips was pretty mediocre. I used to be in Greg’s bi-weakly game but dropped out due to distance, so it was really great just to hang out with him for a bit.

After dinner, I felt pretty crappy. Greg drove an hour or so to see me and I was bolting off to a game. Only I didn’t get into Noah Hills “Thank you for using the Umbrella company…” World of Darkness game or into Larry’s Srenity game or into Matt Espinoza’s “All Aboard” Deadlands game. In fact I didn’t get into squat. I can’t really complain much, though, that is the cost of getting into all of your picks early on in the con. Greg, Alex, Steve and I decided to wait in Matt Espinoza’ room so that Greg could say hi to him before the game started. When we got there we saw a sea of crashers all dying to get their huckster on. Amongst them was Sam and Joel Mikesell and Brent (Brent I need to get your email address, a last name and phone number wouldn’t be too bad either). It was either Joel or Sam that mentioned we had enough people to start our own game and somehow we roped Greg into running a Shadowrun game for us. Mike Parker offering up his copy of the rulebook helped, but ultimately it came down to Greg being a really nice guy who kicks ass at GMing Shadowrun.

We bumped into Kim in the elevator and dragged her along with us, bringing the total up to seven players. Instead of making characters on the spot we just photocopied the archetypes they had in the book and used those. Sam played a troll named “Sue”, Brent played the Arabic and very professional weapon specialist, and I had Carmen, the gunslinger adept who used to be a normal woman who suddenly found herself field stripping and assembling a Colt Manhunter. Yep, it was the Gina Davis character from Long Kiss Goodnight, but I had fun with it.

For creating a game off the top of his head, Greg had some great flavor. Our fixer John Leningrad was missing his oni-bot (yep her name is Yoko Oni ) and wanted us to find him. We made our way through a troll biker gang (and when I mean make our way I mean put holes in every one of them), a prime runner named Flynn and finally to a mafia warehouse. By then end of the session we were all having such a good time and so tired that any kind of plan we might have been able to think up went out the window. A super powered lightning bolt, a rocket launcher and a dwarf ninja were apparently all we needed to rescue the oni-bot. The game was a lot of fun and a great send off from Kubla.

Monday (heading home)
So as to appease the woman of my dreams who was taking care of my two children over the weekend, I headed home pretty early on Monday. I bought a skull to use as a prop in the flea market and then Erik and I (who were carpooling) headed out.

Kubla was really a blast. I am so glad that I went this year.

I’ll be posting a condensed version of this on the Good Omens website (www.goodomensgames.com) shortly.

 

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