Visiting Gatewaycon 2016

Last weekend Jennifer and I drove down to Strategicon. We had a good weekend–not perfect by any means, but a great getaway.

On Friday, we hit a Santa Monica local place for lunch, essentially at random. It was tasty Thai… and I’ll probably never be able to find it again.

We checked into the hotel around 4, got things moved up to the room easily (we didn’t overpack as badly this time), and rested after our ride, before dusting off Pathfinder and checking out our characters. We brought some snacks down, joined Zach, and played some PFS from 8 until past midnight.

Unfortunately, the GM had received the adventure less than 2 hours before the game started and he was new to GMing. He did great though–and it turned out that he’d prepped wisely, by pressing his girlfriend into work as his dungeon drawing assistant while he read the adventure. (She was done before we reached the table–she had a game of her own to play.) Anyway, it was a good experience, though mostly because we got to play with Zach.

Saturday had a lazy beginning–no urgent morning game. Jennifer and I cruised the dealer hall… a little too quickly. The turnout among venders was much worse; basically no one was carrying indie games unless they were demoing their own. Speaking of which, I did get to play an enjoyable abstract–reminiscent of checkers, with movement allowances dictated by a card deck draw. It wasn’t bad, but it’s not one that’d make it to my table. Still, pleasant enough and the game was quick to play.

After lunch with Zach and Jennifer, I grabbed my gear and headed down to run my Dogs in the Vineyard game, Destiny Branch. (It’s the same branch I ran at the minicon–the familiarity from repeated exposure to the NPCs was great.) I had two preregistrations on day 1, which filled the game. (Only half can be reserved online, with the other half available for signup at the con.) At the con, I had +3 signups on paper. Only 2 people, both the preregistrants, actually sat at my table. Fortunately, Dogs is great with a pair.

They tackled it in a very different manner from my June game, in part prompted by the different relationships they selected with the locals. The blight sign (from an overlook of the town) prompted them to ride directly to the farms, where their relations (and a love interest) were. The next morning they talked with the most affected farmer, then rode into town and encountered the obnoxious gold leaf being placed. From there they saw the Steward… and went off to the final confrontation.

It was a solid session; both players were new to the game, but character generation led to interesting characters who really engaged. They’d both heard about it recently and decided to give it a try. Both really enjoyed the dice mechanic, but wondered about drifting the game to another setting (a less problematic one). I talked about how the problematicness was baked right in, intentionally… it was a great discussion.

After the game, I grabbed a quick Cobb salad (thanks to Bryan for putting that in my head–it’s good fuel!) from the hotel Starbucks and headed up to my table to run my fate game, Camp X. Unfortunately, while it also had two signups early in the online preregistration, by the con one had been changed to “badge refunded”. The one player wasn’t joined by any paper signups, so decided not to bother showing up for a game that wouldn’t fire. [I presume.]

After waiting 15 minutes and noting the attendance as zero, I excitedly headed to the (poorly advertised) Games on Demand. When I got there, a sign explained that six games were on offer (mostly GMless favorites, like Microscope, The Quiet Year, and Kingdom).

(Aside) Games on Demand Pros:

  • Games on demand is a great concept, successfully implemented at GenCon, etc.
  • They scheduled the slots to begin 30 minutes after the roleplaying slots–so, if your game was canceled, you always had a backup available.

Games on Demand Cons:

  • Poor advertisement: It got a decent placement, but I hadn’t heard about it at all, and it was only a line in the Con Schedule Book. I don’t know if it was listed online–since “on demand” meant that you don’t signup in advance.
  • At 8:20 pm, one guy was holding the room and didn’t really seem to understand the concept. He wasn’t a player or GM, didn’t point me to the game interest/signup list or anything else.

Anyway, no game fired with only me present and signed up as interested. After 8:30, we both wandered away.

I headed down to the board game area; it was still quite busy. After drifting around the room and awkwardly looking over people’s shoulders, I came to the HQ table, where they kept track of the events on a white board. I noticed that a Captain Sonar 101 (demo) was going to start at 9, which was in just a few minutes. I was present when the organizer arrived and they discussed which tables would be free for use and where we could muster and discuss crews. There were 31 signups; I made 32.

We gathered in the hallway where we could discuss things without having to shout so loudly. Most of the attendees had never played, though a few had played one position. As resident “expert” and enthusiast, I was provided a crew of three other players and an opposing team. Much as when Josh taught us, we went through a few turns… then leaped into real time. My ship took terrific damage from loading up systems, but eventually we cornered our foe and landed a pair of perfect torpedo hits, eeking out a victory.

Unfortunately, we had only one game box, so we all got up and swapped out for the next two crews. Much like previous times, the people who weren’t playing (and random people walking by) clumped up around the game to study and cheer the teams on. After the second match, we had hit “tournament time” (the demo was scheduled for an hour), but with only one box we built a few more crews (I played one more match) and turned the subs loose on each other. All in all, a very fun end to the evening.

I set my alarm so I could get to Pat’s table for his Fate: Pacific Rim game. He had perfect attendance–6 players showed up on time, with one showing up 20 minutes late and having to get turned aside.

It came off incredibly well; he’d prepared a cool soundtrack that ran in the background (with key moments having custom tracks), and a great in media res beginning with a patrol off to rescue a crashed ship… and fight off a wave of Kaiju.

The fight was the densest, most complete Fate fight I’ve experienced. The pair of people working together to manuever a Jaeger made for a great partner to bounce ideas off. We generated a ton of Aspects for our positioning, target systems, our efforts to distract them and more–and needed them, since the Kaiju could take a tremendous beating and ignored minor pokes.

It was a slick, well produced game–clearly a labor of love. We even walked away with cool mini-movie posters featuring our Jaeger: mine was Aurora Bombshell. Don’t mess with Artemis and Athena!

After another Cobb salad, I got to my afternoon Dungeon World game. It was stacked with engaged players; a pair were new to the system, while the guy to my right was a regular GM of the game.

We explored (and slew!) the Everinth, a twisting collection of elements the demon had eaten over time, including whole towers, sewers, natural caverns and much more. It was a weird and sometimes surreal journey to the labyrinth’s heart…

It was a great one-shot. I made a mistake that I often do–picking a less flashy character–but my portly dwarven cleric got plenty of well tailored hooks (and moves) directed at him. There were a number of good moments, including the PCs stretched out along an icy cliff and climbing–only to hear dragon wings as the lead team reached a cave ahead! Poor Drummond clung to the icy wall, but Dagolir went tumbling down to smash into the icy pond below. Fortunately, Slog kept the dragon busy until Cinder Colfang scorched it badly in its protruding rear… which prompted a roar of pain… and Slog’s sword stab through the top of the dragon’s open mouth.

Several other good scenes popped up; the GM had a logic to the connections between the surreal locations that we moved between–eventually discerned–and lots of vivid locations for us to court danger. Plus our bonds threw us together and encouraged conflict in good ways throughout the adventure.

All in all, it was a great night and a cool tale to kick Drummond’s adventures into new motion.

After the session, I caught the close of Mike’s Traveler game, where I was scheduled to join Mike and Pat for dinner. Unfortunately, a mishap left Mike unable to join us, so Pat and I headed out for night of good conversation on the town. It was nice to get away from the con a bit and catch up.

On return to the con, I headed down to board games learn Glory to Rome. It’s an interesting card game; still popular despite not being published for a while. After a half-game during the 101, I joined the tournament that followed. There… I got to see some very effective strategies, though I did luck into a pretty good one myself. After being eliminated, I headed up to sleep.

Monday We slept in late, before checking out and loading up the car. We returned to see Shane’s game being playtested, but got distracted in the hall by a cool Sherlock Holmes game in development. We got a good description, then got to play through a quick game with another curious customer and the friend of the designer who was demoing.

It’s a fun cooperative game with great art. It’s thematic, and has a great mechanism for connecting clues to tie Moriarty to crimes. On the flip side, Moriarty’s deck makes him threatening… but sometimes he’s so scheming far ahead that you don’t have to worry about this turn’s fiendish twist.

Afterwards, we got a chance to see (but were too late to play) Shane’s space merchant game in development. It was in a much earlier phase–still printed pieces without art. It looked interesting but complicated to explain. Gameplay seemed much less complex once you got started only the techs of your specific ship to worry about.

After watching them play for about a half-hour, Jennifer and I hit the road home. We beat the worst of the traffic–there was some stop-and-go after the 405 joined the 5, but it wasn’t that bad. Then over the mountains and the flat road home.

The Secrets of Bone and Blood by Rebecca Alexander

A second book where I didn’t read the first previously; it suffered for it.

There are three major characters who went through a big conflict last book, and now its time to beat themselves up about their efforts and miscalculations along the way.

Edward Kelley gets flashback chapters to renaissance Venice, where he’s a fish out of water, taken by the locals, in the crosshairs of the inquisition, and manipulated by the duchess. It’s well written and interested me in renaissance Venetian politics, wondering what created the deep forces that Edward only perceives the edges of.

Felix begins the story in modern New Orleans, where he’s worried about the consequences of blood sorcery (probably used at the highlight of the previous book). It’s a tense investigation of various blood drinking societies… but it never really feels tense or dangerous. It’s interesting, held at a studied distance.

Jack gets the main chapters, along with her “sister” Sadie. It begins with an almost homey inheritance of an English cottage, with the associated work to tame the overgrown garden and clear out the house where the previous owner died. It’s not that simple… but the threat lays quiet throughout the first half.

As a second book, on the heels of the first, it’d probably work better for pacing. As a stand alone, there are well drawn characters spread out and non-interactive, investigating different topics that we assume are linked. Eventually, they gather, and the conflict becomes a lot more direct.

I’ll have to read The Secrets of Life and Death at some point; without it, the book doesn’t inspire a demand to read on into a sequel.

Mage: Prepwork 1

The last thing that I want to mention is the five questions that are the main part of character creation. These questions get to the root of the character. What does the character want, what do they appear to be, what are they really, what brought you into the world, and what just happened to you. These questions a designed to give you a lot of freedom to design your character and a lot of hooks for the game master to tie the character to the setting and to drive the story.

Survival: Species Imperative #1 by Julie E Czerneda

Mac (Dr. MacKenzie Connor) is one of the last characters that you’d expect to go to space. She’s a dedicated, hands in the earth biologist, who studies salmon in an earth post-diaspora.

Brymn is a Dhryn, an alien who comes to get her help with his people’s struggles. They are set against by mysterious aliens–the Ro–who are long on murder attempts and short on slaughter.

The heart of the story is the Chasm, a stretch of dusty, long abandoned worlds. Disappearances along the Chasm have begun, and the fear that some dark force is active again spurs Mac and Brymn into investigation.

It’s a good story, but clearly incomplete. I’ll check out the whole trilogy, Species Imperative, and see how it is as a greater story.

The Deed of Paksenarrion reread

I was looking at books to recommend to Jennifer and thought she’d enjoy The Deed of Paksenarrion. A few weeks later, I decided that I must have been craving it for myself, so I reread it.

It’s still very good. It’s interesting, in that each book goes 20% past what you think the conclusion is going to be. Like, book 1 is training, and the first year, which is dramatic–including the awesome return from Dwarfwatch sequence. But the book continues on into season 2, which has a few dramatic scenes–including one where Paks is knocked out and almost dies after fighting priests of Liart. Her calling is clear as she recovers… but the book doesn’t stop there, either. The campaign continues until its end against Siniva… but even there hangs with deeds undone.

The second book begins with dismay at garrisoning cities that… fear their new pirate lord, Alured. That’s brief (a few chapters), followed by a couple of chapters as a caravan guard, followed by a novella long quest alongside Meaceon. Then into Brewersridge for another several chapters–it’s the heart of the book. Then on to Fin Panir, then onto the quest, then onto the bitter consequences. It’s really interesting–it’s five or so discrete and pretty balanced chunks, each with its own tone.

Anyway, it was good to read again. I’ll probably ask for the five book sequel trilogy that follows; I’ve read a few from the library, but think I’d like to have them all.

The Ballad Of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

A well written, interesting take on Cthulhu’s mythos, with an engaging main character to start–Black Tom. Unfortunately, at the midpoint the book shifts protagonists (due to madness), where it’s somewhat less successful.

The story of New York as its various barely connected cities, each with their own character, was great to read and experience. I had little idea that the city’s boroughs were so stratified; that Harlem was black and cool, yes, but the degree of suspicion and exclusion out on the lines was a solid reminder that less than 100 years ago the world was very different.

Tom is a great hustler, and his POV feels consistent, rich, and full of intriguing detail. His relationship with his father, work, and Lovecraftian mysteries were all interesting. The police officers, on the other hand, are shallow to start-particularly from Tom’s POV, but we’re barely asked to ally with them once the story is theirs.

In the end, I really enjoyed the first half–and some of the details of 1920s life all through.

Odds and Ends

Great sector generator for Stars w/o Number

Fate/FAE encounter design–
(for Josh’s game?)

A strong post about “the worst ever” and deflating motivated responses–

Rejected Princesses; women being awesome in history, with great explanations.

Guard Mouse sketches —

Aesthetics, mid–

Dal Fry (Dal Tadka)

Fatayar recipe (yum)–

Music: investigate Metric, Pagans in Vegas

Lots of interesting looking games–

Wipe & wipe reusable graph paper —

All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry

The first book written, but the second I read and the second in sequence. It continues from Dirty Wings… it’s the next generation, Maia and Cass’s daughters.

Reading, it was interesting to see what our narrator gets “wrong” about Cass and Maia’s journey… and to think about what our narrator misunderstood versus what she was mislead about. This book’s journey is somewhat less harrowing, though Aurora’s (and even our narrator’s) lifestyle isn’t one that mom’s are going to encourage their daughters to follow.

The book tackles powerful, senseless teenage love; something that always reads as exaggerated to me… but it works here. The “sisters” are drawn so carefully, as are their relationships to their parents and their deliberate reflection (and rejection) of those parental traits.

It was a compelling read with great characters, despite the superficially lower stakes for the first two-thirds of the book. When she commits, decides to thwart the fait accomplis, she’s almost as driven as Cass and Maia… more so, even, given that she has to do it alone.

I really liked her as a character, and understood her empathy for her near-sister Aurora. She was crazy to go… but it was so true to her stubbornness that I have to just smile and root her on… while staring on in horror. A great kickoff to the series. As the first book, I can imagine Dirty Wings reading like an increase in stakes… and a revelation about Cass and Maia’s journey.

About A Girl by Sarah McCarry

A great conclusion to the trilogy; it’s the last both in publishing and internal chronology. Tally, our heroine, is in the summer before college.

The book starts off jarringly; it’s in Tally’s voice. She’s SO busy letting us know how smart she is with her word choices and casual brilliance that it’s offputting… which, matches the reaction the strangers in her life have to her. Her family and close friend all know her well and put up with (or are charmed) by her positions, vocabulary and diction, which are strong and confident.

Tally’s tale picks up a generation after Aurora and “Aunt Beast” grew up in Cass and Maia’s shadows in All Our Pretty Songs; she’s raised by Raoul (who gets modest screen time), his husband (who doesn’t), and Aunt Beast in a modern mixed family of choice. She’s an orphan daughter of Aurora (she knows), but it’s complicated. She’s surrounded by love, but with both her Mom absent and Father unknown… she’s unsure of herself, emotionally, no matter how she erects intellectual bulwarks.

After the awkward first chapter (once Tally’s not trying to impress us, it seems), the book reads smoothly. The magic is much less metaphorical this time around; it’s more than creepy dreams and bad choices. The overt magic extends Tally’s time on her journey… and, given how straightforwardly she tackles things to start, it was probably necessary to shortcut her having a frank talk and heading home a day later. (I mean, that’s just about how the book ends… but there’s a lot that goes on first because she and others are all being manipulated in the meantime.)

It’s a great book. Tally carries the story and drives everything–and she has the personality and perseverance to make it an interesting journey, even if it’s less obviously perilous than Cass and Maia’s journey. She’s also flawed, but that’s easy to forgive in the moment, and an important component of her authenticity.

Interestingly, her boyfriend Shane is important… but he’s relegated almost to a frame story. It’s a quirky thing to notice afterwards.

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

A worthy conclusion to the trilogy.

The last book ended with Tris’ capture–she begins this book held in Erudite headquarters, this time fortunately not alone. The city struggles with the changes brought about by the assault at the end of book 2… and the Tris’s big revelation to the city.

The world grows again–not just out to the city’s associated Amity farms, but beyond the city altogether. Outside… it turns out the cities and factions are not at all natural–they’re somewhat controlled experiments.

This book introduces Tobias as an alternating POV. For the overall story, the addition makes sense, but I miss the immediacy of Tris’s journey alone, as in the first two books. Some of the conflicts that arise I’d probably have explained away more easily with access to only one POV–with both, the thinness of the dispute felt a little more author inserted.

This book is great for explanations and lore, though I completely empathize with Tobias when he bemoans just how many revolutions he’s participated in by the end of the book.

Time is a little more front and center; you realize that the first two books are much less than a year’s action. This book has a somewhat odd pacing for the world behind–a few longer gaps of “not much going on, losing track of time”. And it features an epilogue set two and a half years later, looking back on this crazy time and its lasting impact.

A good conclusion to a fun book. The politics all trended YA simple, but the excellent and vibrant characters kept the action focused where it was strong. Well done, particularly for a debut series.