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Sunday, April 04, 2010

Mad March roundup #2. Grand geek gathering!

The place
Conpulsion 2010 took place last weekend in the Teviot Row students' union at Edinburgh University, as Conpulsion always does. The "oldest purpose built student union building in the world", Teviot Row is a place of which I have fond memories from the 1980s: I used to play a lot of Defender there- badly; the student wargames club used to have monthly games days there; and it was there- at a FilmSoc showing, that this lifelong fan of classic Trek first saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Teviot Row: the front entrance

You can imagine then, dear readers, that I was keen to see what Conpulsion made of this place so redolent of memory for yours truly. The short answer is that I was impressed.

Teviot Row has changed quite a bit in the intervening years but it is still the gothic pile and veritable warren it has ever been. With the entire building given over to Conpulsion this meant that I was forever happening upon nooks and crannies in which I would find gamers at play. Pleasing at it was in its own terms, this was good because I could see how the building's space was well suited to a con largely dedicated to roleplaying because these little spaces gave roleplayers the privacy which is always better than trying to game in larger, more crowded spaces.

Of course, the downside to this interior layout is that the larger rooms- eg. the traders' and demo games' hall were a bit cramped. Still, they served their purpose admirably at what is- after all, a small event. It'd be churlish therefore to dock points for this in the face of the building's many charms.

The people
After my recent meet with the local SF fraternity I was determined that no longer would I be reduced to trusting to people's memories or to writing "Roll dice and kick ass!" on scraps of paper, so part of my preparation for the weekend was to make up and get printed a simple card. When I say "simple" I mean it, because you'll note that I forgot two important features: my name and my email address. D'oh!

Black Lion Games
Equipped with my shiny new instruments of Blatant Self Advertisement and finding already full my choice of Saturday morning RPG- Star Wars: Iron Cloud Squadron, I hied me to the mezzanine there to investigate the traders. My first port of call was Black Lion Games who- on the strength of my Sunday demo, had specially ordered in 10 copies of Conflict of Heroes: 5 each of Awakening the Bear and Storms of Steel. So no pressure there then.

Liam of Black Lion Games

Liam's faith in me was complete (should that be 'blind'?) and I must say his confidence was infectious even if it couldn't dispel completely the nagging uncertainties inevitable before any brand new venture. Perusing his wares I experienced my second pang of regret of the weekend: my limited budget meant that I couldn't afford to invest in the long awaited WFRP3 Dice Accessory Pack. I consoled myself later in the weekend by buying a couple of sets of Fudge dice. I've never played the Fudge RPG and don't know if I ever will, but the dice geek in me just couldn't resist these unique cuboid randomisers.

Cubicle 7
Flush by this time with the thrill of the networking I'd first experienced at the New Scottish SF event at Aye Write! 2010, I found myself at the Cubicle 7 stall. Cubicle 7 is a remarkable little operation: some 3 years old and only just this week celebrating their first birthday as a fulltime publisher, they managed nearly 2½ years ago to snag for themselves one of the hottest licences going: Doctor Who - Adventures in Time and Space, the official RPG.

Angus Abranson of Cubicle 7

Angus Abranson and I had a pleasant chat ranging across Cubicle 7's own history; their encounters with the BBC; the future of the Doctor Who line; Cubicle 7's developing partnership with small press designers- as a publisher and distributor; and our experiences of the roleplaying ecommunity. I spent some time examining their display copy of the Doctor Who RPG, naturally enough. A slim boxed set of surprising and satisying heft, this is a product to delight the eye and entice the mind. For reasons which remain inexplicable even now, this had always been on the 'someday maybe' list for this lifelong fan of the TV show. Sufficeth to say here that that was changed on the spot that Saturday. More anon, for sure.

In fact Cubicle 7's entire product line was utterly impressive. I neither kid nor exaggerate when I say that I'd've walked off with one of everything on their stall if I'd had that sort of silly money to play with that weekend.

My consolation this time was a copy of Box Ninja's mini-RPG 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars, instantly appealing with its theme of "Space Troopers killing bugs all across the Cosmos". Regular readers will readily appreciate why a game like this was so attractive to me: a DIY Space Marine Chapter Master with a hankering to return to my own HERO bughunter game.

3:16- CAtS is one of the new wave indie games of which I have no experience whatsoever so there really isn't much I can say about it right now other than to note that it is very nicely produced, and that it has some intriguing sounding rules:
  • There are only 2 characteristics:
  1. Fighting Ability (FA).
  2. Non-fighting Ability (NFA).
  • Damage dealt by PCs is not counted off in hit points before you get a KIA; instead each and every 'HP' dished out is a KIA.
These rules strike me as showing the potential to generate some fast and furious hi-octane firefights, so I'm looking forward to giving this one a go sometime. Hearing that 3:16- CAtS writer- Gregor Hutton, was at Conpulsion, I went and asked him to autograph my copy (while passing on "My card", naturally enough).

Collective Endeavour
Another array of impressive looking books and other wares situated just round the corner from Cubicle 7 turned out to be the small press, out in force for Conpulsion under their Collective Endeavour umbrella.

Small press designers Neil Gow & Matt Machell

On duty when I visited the stall were Neil Gow- of Omnihedron Games (cover of OG's Duty and Honour RPG, below right), and Matt Machell- who's self-published a few mini-RPGs on his Realms blog and who discusses web development at Eclectic Dreams.

As you can imagine dear readers - in year 5 of RD/KA! as I now am - I was very interested to hear what Neil and Matt had to say about their experiences in the small press. It was easy for us to agree that this is a boom time for the adventure gaming industry in general, and that Web 2.0 and social networking offer great opportunites for the independent designer to produce and promote their own material, and to find an audience the like of which would've been simply impossible less than a decade ago.

We too talked about our experiences in the roleplaying ecommunity and also enjoyed chatting about other RPGs we liked. Matt I think it was who confessed to a liking for HERO and we both agreed that it remains the unsurpassed 'reality engine' of the hobby. Neil and Matt were both friendly and knowledgable, and the nice looking products on display showed that they were clearly having fun doing what they wanted to do. Impressive, and encouraging.

I also met Malcolm Craig of Contested Ground Studios: probably best known for A|State, their contribution to the dystopic megalopolis genre, written by Malcolm and released to positive reviews back in 2004. Malcolm also wrote Hot War, which had been my choice for a Saturday evening RPG until I had a brainfart and signed up for the wrong game. Malcolm maintained the publishers' existing perfect record by being friendly and engaging- even though he was in a hurry, and full of enthusiasm about and encouragment for my own efforts here @RD/KA!.

The Guest: Loren K. Wiseman
Loren Wiseman is a name well known to me from the days of yore thanks to his work on the landmark Traveller RPG, surely second only to D&D as one of the enduring backbones of the roleplaying hobby since its earliest days. Traveller was the second RPG I GMed. I ran Death Station, an absolute gem of a 'dungeon in space' horror adventure. It was my first time GMing Traveller; only the 3rd time I'd ever been a GM (the previous 2 times being my 1st and only AD&D dungeon); and the game went like a dream: a benchmark of quality in RPG adventure design for sure. With these and many other fond Traveller memories it was a cinch I was going to attend Loren's guest talks when I found myself at a loose end.


















Malcolm & Loren

Loren's first talk was ' Gaming, Politics and the Real World', where he shared the bill with the same Malcolm Craig who'd been hurrying off to prepare himself for this very event when I'd met him. On Loren's part the discussion focussed on another RPG with which he is strongly associated- Twilight 2000, a hugely successful game of American military survivalism in a hostile post-nuclear Europe of whose design team he was a member.

I've never played Twilight 2000 but I know of it and of the controversy surrounding it. Loren did a very good job of bringing these issues down to earth, explaining that the limited nuclear exchange which was the game's premise and which had occasioned so much controversy- the 2nd Cold War being at its height back then and Mutually Assured Destruction being very much in vogue; that this premise was there to provide a functional background for the game. This was something all present could easily understand, differing political leanings notwithstanding.

The discussion then moved on, through the notion of dystopias and utopias in games to 40K, which someone raised because of its crypto-fascist themes and imagery. The point was made that- just like Judge Dredd in 2000AD, this had originally been intended to be taken with a strong measure of irony, which appeared to have been forgotten. I noted that there is a beautiful twist at the heart of the premise of 40K: sure, the Imperium is the Evil Empire to beat all evil empires, but the reality is that the alternatives are all much much worse. I pointed out too that the 5th edition background material makes it quite clear that the life of the mass of citizens in the Imperium of Man is terrible beyond imagining. The irony at the heart of 40K's unique vision therefore remains intact.

We rounded off by talking about Dogs in the Vineyard, a game which has generated much internet ire. In DitV the PCs are lawmen in the Wild West who have absolute moral authority and who are driven to exercise this when they encounter corruption in the small towns of the setting. The game thus becomes one which essentially forces players to choose between living up to their morals- so becoming avenging monsters; or abandoning their morals to remain more humane. I confess that the idea- of RPGs which can dramatise in concise form dilemmas of this ilk, appeals to me and hearing Malcolm and others enthuse about DitV made me keen to give this game a try to see where it leads.

Loren's second talk was a Q&A later that same Saturday. We spent a pleasant hour listening to Loren tell us stories of his days with GDW and Steve Jackson Games, and sharing our own reminsences of games like Traveller, Striker and other memorable products from the heyday of GDW's 1980s.

Two topics stand out in my mind. One is Loren's fulsome praise for William H. Keith, Jr., the illustrator single handedly responsible for establishing the visual tone of Traveller back in those days. Some of my most memorable campaigning roleplaying ever lives on in my mind as much through William Keith's illustrations as it does through our actual play. The other is Loren telling us that he and the GDW crew were student buddies who went on to work together. That strikes me as a recipie for a good life, which I think is evident in Loren himself and in his unabashed fondness for those friends and the good times they shared.

Loren K. Wiseman

Loren Wiseman is the first of the 'Old Guard' of the RPG industry I have ever met. If he is anything to go by, I hope he's not the last because in those talks, and in the other times I hung out with him he proved to be exactly the sort of person you'd want to meet when you encounter someone whose works played such a seminal role in your youth.

Last but not least
I met lots of other people at my Conpulsion weekend, too too many to mention. There are some who must be name checked:
  • Sarah: part of the Embraced vampire LARP crew who were out in force during the weekend. I've never done LARP and have no real interest in the vampire scene I must confess. Sarah mentioned to me that there is some talk of trying to get a Steampunk LARP going. I would probably give that a go, so I guess I'll have to keep an eye on the Embraced website.
  • Magz Wiseman: she liked my Traveller reminiscences at Loren's Q&A; we got to chatting afterwards; did the card swap thing; and I promised her a name check. It turns out Magz is a writer, with a short story included in a new book soon to appear: Dark Harvest: The Legacy of Frankenstein, conceived and written by Iain Lowson.
  • Peter, and Phil Harris: two con-goers I invited to pose for a random photo while I was outside for a fag break; Peter's a gamer; Phil's also a journalist at SquareGo.com.
Peter, & Phil Harris

The playing of games: Saturday
With time on my hands because my Saturday morning roleplaying plans had fallen through, I spent some time exploring to see what people were up to. Here are some snapshots of the games I saw in progress.

Mark (in the hat) at his demo table; Sarah- of the Embraced LARP, looks on

Mark is a stalwart of the convention scene with his demo for Privateer Press' very popular Warmachine minatures game. I'd already met Mark doing his thing at last year's Claymore. One of these days I'll actually get a chance to play a game with those lovely minis on that very cool table. Third time's the charm?

Warhammer Invasion

Warhammer Invasion is part of FFG's LCG range: cardgames that are expandable but not collectible. My profound prejudice against the collectible format put me off Warhammer Invasion when I first saw it in Static Games here in Glasgow. My interest was piqued when Kenny explained the format to me. Seeing the game in action that Saturday in Edinburgh I must say I like the look of it even more now (my love for Warhammer knows few bounds). I expect I'll try before I buy.

CCG tournament action

Given what I wrote above I should clarify: it's the random purchases and artificial scarcity of the collectible games model that I really hate. I've enjoyed playing all the collectible games I've actually tried. Here you can see the Legend of the Five Rings tournament in full swing.

The playing of games: Sunday
More snapshots of games of particular interest.

A game of WFRP3

With WFRP3 somewhere over my own roleplaying horizon, I was interested on the Saturday to meet someone in the process of setting out to learn enough of the WFRP3 system to be able to GM a game on Sunday. Apparently the game went well. In the brief chat for which we had time the GM reported no major clunks or fumbles that'd suggest anything essentially broken. All to the good then.

At Break of Dawn- The Battle for Kustrin-Kietz: Twilight 2000 skirmish

One of the people with whom I shared Loren Wiseman's company on Saturday was running a Twilight 2000 skirmish game on the Sunday. Above you can see the beautifully crafted 1/35th scale urban wasteland on which the game was played.

Alan, Ray, anon, Iain & anon

Alan ran the game; Ray is the master craftsman who created the table; and Iain? Well, Iain turns out to be a friend of my old buddy Mark. A bit of a turn up, eh?

The main event?
And as for my Conflict of Heroes demo? Well I slept in and didn't get there as early as I'd've liked, but my timetable had left a large margin for contingencies so I was in good time anyway. My original plan had been to run the first firefight from Awakening the Bear alongside one of the Chercasskoye all-infantry firefights. I quickly changed this when I realised that I didn't want to have to juggle 2 slightly different rules sets, so I went instead with 2 Chercasskoye firefights: 1 all infantry; the other all tank.

I had 2 players straight away.

Neil and Adam get us rolling bright and early

And yes, for those of you regular readers who might be wondering: that is Adam from DiceCon East 2010. Neil and Adam soon had company.

Neil, Adam, Tom & Rod

Tom was one of the Irish crew who were present in some numbers. Rod is an old gaming pal of mine dating back to the 80s, when I advertised for ASL opponents in my FLGS in Edinburgh. We played some games then drifted apart- as you do, before bumping into each other again at Claymore a few years ago, where Rod was a volunteer on the Bring and Buy. He has since taken to running Wings of War demos (he was located in the room next door at Conpulsion). I'll be looking him up to join in myself sometime soon I'm sure.

Me & Stephen

Neil, Adam, Tom, Rod and Gary- another of the Irish crew who took over Rod's losing position to see what could be done with it, finished their games and Stephen later decided to have a go. He was really unlucky: 2 of my early damage draws- including my first, were instant kills; these can really ruin your day by blowing your position wide open for rapid exploitation. The final game of the day was with Iain, whose luck was only marginally better.

So that was 4 games run with 7 people who experienced the game put through its paces. That wasn't bad for a quiet Sunday at a small convention with a heavy roleplaying slant. The game was as absurdly easy to teach as ever: I was able to get people up and running with their own games in some 10 minutes, and I reckon I could've counted subsequent rules questions on the fingers of one hand.


There was also a lot of interest from non-participants, who I'm sure were attracted by Conflict of Heroes' eye-catching boards and counters. Liam was pleased too: between games bought on the spot and those put aside for later he shifted 7 of the 10 he'd ordered in. So I guess we can call that a result. I'll be back.

It's all very well to bask in the glow of my success of my event, but was there anything I could've done better? Yes, naturally enough. My main worry on the day was the simple fact that I utterly tanked Stephen and Iain in the games we played. I found myself wondering if this was poor form for a demo game.

On reflection I've decided that one merit of my playing my best game is that people could see fully demonstrated the potentialities of Conflict of Heroes' unique AP/CAP system: the flexibility it offers and the sheer dynamism your forces can display, which is part of the game's appeal after all. So downplaying this doesn't strike me as a good idea. I think I have to learn a whole new style of play though, openly explaining my plans and tactics as I go; a style quite different from the competitive game with which I'm so familiar from all those years battling the Badger.

And that then, is that: my first Conpulsion; definitely not my last. ;)

Votes of thanks
There are many people without whose help and support my event would simply never have happened. From the top:
  • Sandy Ryalls: ever helpful, Sandy patiently answered a storm of emails as I was getting my shit together.
  • Uwe Eickert: Uwe's support enabled me to pitch my event as something special, and to approach it with the knowledge that success was a real prize.
  • My 4 friendly traders: likewise, these kind gentlemen gave me the confidence that this event could be just the first of more to come.
  • Mike Bissell: manager of my local Mail Boxes Etc and a gamer himself to boot, Mike went above and beyond the call of duty in helping me with my printing requirements, all of which proved to be more time-consuming than I'd imagined when I'd left myself little or no time to spare.
To all of these people I have to say thank you very much, your efforts are greatly appreciated. To all of the people I met: friends old and new; the Conpulsion blueshirts- especially the blueshirts, who were a top class crew; I have to say thanks for giving me such a good time.

But most of all I really must thank my hosts for the weekend: Chris and George. It was your generous hospitality which really made the whole thing possible, because I couldn't even have been in Edinburgh that weekend if it hadn't been for you. Thank you both so much. :-)

Addendum
08/06/10 It turns out that "Matt" of the Warmachine demo is actually called 'Mark', as Shevaun informed me. No apologies because my mistake actually gives him an extra name check. :b

Related@RD/KA!
Mad March roundup
- #1. Chivalry and... sorcery?!
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