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GenCon demos that I ran, 2007

Started by Ron Edwards, August 23, 2007, 11:06:06 AM

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Ron Edwards


This thread is about demos I ran at the booth, not counting the demos I merely played in. The latter covered quite a few titles, although not Fae Noir or Spirit of the Century, which rarely needed people to round them out. I might post about those demos later if I have time. So, as for the demos that I actually ran, here goes.

Dead of Night - This was my big push-game for Thursday's demos, partly due to inclination, partly due to a commitment to Steampower Publishing (they'd paid $100 after all). I'd been thinking of playing again anyway, and had arrived at a scenario that I stripped down a bit for the demo.

I began by showing them the rules for Survival Points, which are pretty much, "think of a re-roll or here-it-is or any other resource-based metagame mechanic you know of, and a Survival Point can buy it." I also explained that 0 Survival Points doesn't mean a character is dead, only that he or she can die, or go mad or whatever. Then I put out the d20 for the Tension die and explained that (a) every lost Survival Point increases it, and (b) I can spend it to alter the dice rolls. I also showed them my rules for Tension (actually, they were created by the first demo participants):

GM may only spend Tension when the current score (ambient included) exceeds 10
GM must spend a minimum of 3 at a time (but may choose not to spend any)
Spending Tension for combat must reduce the attacker's chance of success (note: this may either raise or decrease the outcome of a given roll, depending on who's rolling)

The scenario is pretty simple: there's an undertaker named Mr. Hicks (names were provided by the first demo participants), Becky is his high-school age daughter, Mrs. Hicks is away on a mysterious vacation, and Thomas, the popular college-age son, was killed two months ago in a car crash. Becky has just won some sort of award and so the family is throwing a party for her and all the high-schoolers, in the Hicks' home. So it's a little creepy, you know, as the Hicks' home isn't a typical socializing spot and what with Thomas and all (did Mr. Hicks embalm him? ewww!). The starting Tension is therefore 7.

Starting characters:

Bill the jock
Identify 4 / Obscure 6
Persuade 4 / Dissuade 4 / Bully 7
Pursue 6 / Escape 4
Assault 4 / Protect 4 / Football Tackle 8

Darren the geek
Identify 5 / Obscure 3 / Random Knowledge 8
Persuade 5 / Dissuade 5
Pursue 3 / Escape 5 / Run and Hide 8
Assault 3 / Protect 7

I hit upon a mechanic which really helps, too - when a monster shows up, put out a d6 next to the d20, set at 5. This is the standard monster increase to ambient Tension, and since it doesn't count for spending Tension points, it's sometimes hard to keep track of. Putting out the "+5" marker makes a big difference.

I usually went with a scene in which Becky nervously welcomed the player-characters to the party, showing them around a little (punch-bowl, picture of Thomas, CD set on random-play, dining room ...). Some clownish kids started cutting up a little, with one guy lying on the couch with his eyes closed and his hands folded on his chest, and stuff like that, to see what the players would do with their characters. Sneaking into the basement to look for beer or to get Becky alone were common inititated actions after that.

All of this allowed a quick tutorial on the dice. The key point is for people to realize that the third listed thing (e.g. Bill's "Bully") is a version of one of the first two things (in his case, Persuade). It also allowed me to show how the dice, announcements, and who-rolls work together. I don't know whether anyone really learned this at the demo, but they could see some of the fun outcomes and recognize that there was a systemic reason for them.

It's interesting but not too surprising that either Bill or Darren was swiftly villainized by his player, and whoever that was, the other guy became the impromptu hero.

Becky just had 5 in everything, as did everyone else besides the following two characters. (I was not too careful in the point-counting, as they were made up on the spot in the first demo.)

Mr. Hicks
Identify 5 / Obscure 3 / Undertaker 6
Persuade 4 / Dissuade 4 / Creep Out 7
Pursue 3 / Escape 3 / Disappear 7 / Appear 7
Assault 4 / Protect 6

The monster: Thomas' body, naked, but stitched together with Mrs. Hicks' head and most of her upper chest including her breasts, reeking of preservative. I used several different monster abilities from the text to construct it, as follows:

Identify 4 / Obscure 4 / Mark Victim 7
Persuade 3 / Dissuade 7 / Frightening Visage 8
Assault 3 / Protect 3 / Crushing Fists 8 / Dead Already 6
Pursue 6 / Escape 2 / Steady Pace 10

I played some games with Mr. Hicks' "appear" and "disappear" skills, and suffice to say that someone usually got trapped in the scary basement with the monster. Right when things got really hairy, and when both players were totally creeped out, I sold the game. Usually two copies.

All comments and questions are welcome.

Next up: It Was a Mutual Decision and carry

Ron Edwards

It Was a Mutual Decision - This was my pleasant surprise, as it was frequently requested for demoing and sold quite well at the booth without much direct promotion. Apparently word has gotten around on the "spouse of publisher" grapevine, if my demo audience was any indication. As always, we demonstrated game startup (making up the relationship, including the two "stories") and ran at least one scene from the Before phase; depending on how long that took, I either mentioned or demonstrated the rules-changes for the During and After phases. When the rueful snorts and personal anecdotes began to appear at the demo table, it was time to mention buying the game.

One caution: if anyone plans on demoing this game, stay strictly to the rule about player gender. You'll need women to play the men, and men to play the woman. This feature should not be sacrificed to the convenience of demo play. I've tried it the other way "just because" and regretted it sorely; the demo did not "snap" without it.

Looking through my scraps of GenCon stuff, I am surprised to discover no less than three relationship sheets left over from demos. They include:

Ted, 36, the rancher, with Katherine, 33, the maker of handmade jewelry. I liked this one a lot; the two characters seemed to have depth. Emily, you were in this game - any thoughts?

Hank, 32, the computer equipment salesman, with Samantha, 35, the university press senior designer. This one was agonizingly funny and seemed to be a sort of romantic comedy in reverse, still using the same interior logic and sappily uplifting details. We played a scene for every chapter and it was almost like playing a whole game, as we were quite invested in the story.

Phil, 27, the PhD student in logistics, with Evangeline, 36, the new community college prof. I don't recall much about this one, as we only played one scene from the Before chapter, but the main thing was that both characters were quite likeable.

You'll note that the women characters were typically older; this was due to my own advanced age. In the first couple, the women were a little older than average at GenCon and the guy I played with was much younger than me. For those who don't know what I'm talking about, in this game, the male character's age and socioeconomic status must be within the range of the women who are playing him, and the same goes in reverse for the female character.

The hardest part about demoing this game, as with Bacchanal, is to keep from getting wrapped up in it and actually playing the whole damn thing. Even running a single roll for each of the scenes is over-tempting sometimes, when the first one went on for a bit or generated lots of questions.

Carry - For this demo, I used Nathan's demo box for the character cards and dice pools. However, I decided to focus on a different angle from Nathan's demo, which concentrates on resolution. I wanted to showcase the role of the ranking officer in action scenes. I set up the scene, fired the appropriate questions, and took it all the way through the end of the scene. Then I showed them the Fallout rules and asked if they'd like to buy the game.

I chose the two developed characters from Nathan's box: Elmo, specified as an Accuser, and another guy, specified as a Warrior; they had dice pools and Burdens and all kinds of things. I also pulled out a higher-ranking character, specified as a Soldier. I pointed out what the Profiles mean and mentioned how they affected dice choices in Squad scenes, but that we were going to be playing an Action scene. I directed their attentions to the Burdens on the cards and pointed to the odd-colored die in each pool as its representative. I also grabbed a few dice from my own bag, more-or-less equivalent to theirs, to use as GM.

The situation was a little bit like the opening scene of our previous game described in [carry] Gun-butts, dope, non-mutual masturbation, and massacres. The squad was sweltering in a village somewhere in south Vietnam, they'd actually found a cache of grenades hidden there (unlike the dozens of other villages they'd ransacked in the last two months), and the villagers had clammed up. No one can tell whether they're defiant, scared, don't understand, or just bored. And it's getting hotter and more humid by the minute. I opened it all by pointing out that all the characters are young (22 at most), that most of them were drafted for a year-long stint, that none of them have any clear idea of where Vietnam actually is on the planet or what in the world communism has to do with anything, that no one supervises what they do in any meaningful way, and that opium, pot, heroin, and whores have been easily available to them since they arrived.

Then I point at the commanding officer player and ask what he orders the soldiers (including the other two players) to do. We take off from there, following the book's rules for an Action scene. Now, it just so happens that the commanding officer wasn't very detailed, without a Burden even, so I told that player that in real play he'd have all that stuff too.

In carry Action scenes, the violent effects on the soldiers and hence the effective use of weapons against them, are determined more by Fallout than by individual actions and successes. Fallout is determined by the difference between the commanding officer's roll and the GM's roll, regardless of won the roll. That's the part that's hard for people to get in a demo: that the more difference in dice between the GM and commanding officer, the more chance for horrific damage done "by the enemy" or due to accidents. That's what I'm shooting for as the juice of the demo, regardless of how well people understand it in detail.

I enjoyed the demos a lot. In one of them, the usual agreement/disagreement obey/disobey dynamic worked out really well for some great drama. In the other, I was surprised to see the players mechanically agree with and obey the officer, no matter what, no doubt under the impression that this was a wargame. John, one of the players, said "he's my superior officer, I have to do what he says, so I have to agree," in a kind of baffled way, until I laid it down, "No, you don't have to do either." The outcome of that scene was that I had received no dice ... so the Fallout was the officer's rolled total, which wiped out nearly all the squad when the grenade went off. I think the players understood it better at that point.

I like to think I did well by carry at the booth. It's an important game for me, in the same way as Grey Ranks and Steal Away Jordan, and I want it to be recognized and played more.

Next: Dogs in the Vineyard and Primitive

Ron Edwards

Dogs in the Vineyard

I had just finished a whole bunch of carry, Primitive, Dust Devils, and Roach demoing when one of the estimable ropers called out "Can anyone do a Dogs demo?" No problem, I said, and waved the guy over to my table. I told the guy that I didn't have a scenario type demo, but that I'd be able to help him understand the rules and run through a dice situation or two. Fortunately, that was a perfect fit. The customer was a little bit familiar with the game and had a very specific request: to see how the dice accomplished things throughout play, and how they changed. H'm! OK, excellent.

Of course, my brain was porridge and I started writing out a Dog character without even remembering the attributes (I mean, come on, after demoing all those games, what did you expect?), and when I did, I started assigning dice of various sizes to them. A Forge-head (Ed Heil? Charles Ferguson? one of them), watching me, swiftly corrected me to the d6's, which was probably pretty comical. Anyway, the box in my head called "Dogs" apparently opened up at that point, and I remembered everything else fine.

We made up a Dog, really quickly, not using the actual rules for numbers at all. So don't try to match these notes to character creation; they won't work. I basically tossed a couple of d6 into Eye and Heart, and bigger handsful into Body and Acuity. Then I jotted down these traits, telling the customer that there's a kind of point or allocation system that you really use, but here are some examples of what you might create:

I was taught the Book by force 3d6
I stood up to hazing 1d6
Good with my gun 2d8
I am a Dog 2d10
Scarred d4

I came up with a pretty quick situation, or rather, a scene in it. The town suffers from bad water from a particular well, and everyone thinks it's poisoned, and everyone blames a particular teen-age girl. My take is that (a) it's not really poisoned, just scummy (i.e. demonic influence), and (b) the girl is innocent. There is definitely Sin in the town, but elsewhere, and manifesting as hatred toward the unpopular girl.

The Dog has gone to speak to the girl. It's evening, and she is just tidying up some stuff in a barn. A lit lantern stands on a side table, or maybe hangs from a beam. My quickly-jotted notes for the girl include no d6s for attributes, as I just grabbed a handful when they were needed, and the following traits: Pretty, Defiant, and I Was Abused. I can't remember how many dice or of what kind I assigned to each but they were numerically more-or-less like the Dog's traits.

We did a few exchanges of conflict. The Dog wanted her to go to a public place to discuss things with him, and she defied him. First, she was Defiant, then Pretty (I narrated how her attempt to seduce him was pretty pathetic on her part, not a vamp so much as a victim). He used I am a Dog and got some strong numbers. When he beat her with talking at this point, she escalated, attacking him desperately with her fists and using I Was Abused. This was important, because the player really got into whether he was going to escalate into fisticuffs as well. He didn't, deciding (a) to use his "taught the Book by force" and (b) to Take the Blow, and narrated that the character just took her beating, wordlessly. Fantastic! I gave, without hesitation, as she saw that he was more like her, and not like the townspeople. The characters moved into an honest dialogue in the barn, and we stopped there.

After that, we continued a little bit of discussion, and a couple of other people sat down with us. It turns out the guy had a big question about reward stuff: reward system, reward cycle, reward mechanic, and how all that related specifically to the dice in this game. Cool! We talked about my character in Dogs, Brother Newton, and how he had (barely) succeeded in his prologue scene: "I hope no one saw me naked," and how that ultimately became a trait called "My hat stays on." ('Cause that was all he had left at the end of that prologue scene, and it wasn't on his head) Then I showed how that trait came into play later, which it did every so often. The example I chose was from two towns later, in which the Dogs were trying to get to a mountain cabin before someone else did, on horseback. We didn't know the route very well, and she was a native, so we had to pull in some serious trait-use to get the dice. At one point, when we'd been skunked in an exchange, Brother Newton wheeled his horse and rode it right through the stream that blocked us, with water splashing to both sides, not knowing whether it was shallow enough to permit crossing. I pulled in "My hat stays on," describing how even though everything was all wet and dramatic and horsey-physical, the trajectory of the hat on his head stayed nice and level through the whole image.

So the reward mechanic (one of many in this game) is the production of traits through conflict, and the reward cycle in which it participates concerns later usage - with nuance, not just repeating the same thing from the original scene which produced the trait. But my big point was that this cycle was actually a minor one - when you have it happening for multiple traits, the Dog becomes a more complex person, far more nuanced and individualized than the fresh-faced, virginal, rather callow starting character. So the bigger reward cycle concerns not only the new and developing trait combination on the sheet, but how that Dog now addresses the upcoming town differently from how he would have before. As a thought-experiment, think of Dogs encountering very similar things, town by town - hell, just for thought-purposes, think of them encountering the same damn thing, over and over. They wouldn't have the same story, over and over, because they are changing.

So the real cycle is town by town, not trait by trait - the latter informs the payoffs and emerging themes for each of the former. Does the Dog grow up any? Does he become more willing to kill, or less? In either case, is that a good thing, given the specific situations? Does he lose his virginity? Does his attitude toward Mountain People change? Does he lay down judgments which alter doctrine significantly, and do these judgments, themselves, change over time?

Now, I then said, take this in terms of the whole reward system, which is to say, the payoff for you of playing this character. It's pretty harsh in Dogs, and is related to the most important resolution mechanic: Giving. Early in play, it's hard to imagine Giving when one's Dog is faced with lethal intent (or perhaps, with a conflict aimed at making him stop being a Dog, but let's stick with the simpler version). Later in play? That's a different story, and the necessary act of judgment one performs every time one's Dog faces such a thing ... well, that's the key to the overall reward of playing this game.

So I explained that and he seemed happy and thoughtful about it, or at least I hope that's how it worked out. Hey man - if you're here, speak up. It was nice playing rough & demonstrative (if not totally accurate) Dogs with you.

Primitive - I have yet to play a real game of Primitive, through multiple sessions. It remains one of my big goals for role-playing. I ran a substantial session at the last Forge Midwest (see [Primitive] Grunt! Grunt! I'm talking to you) and I did some demos at GenCon.

The game at Forge Midwest ultimately turned into a developing power and values struggle within the tribe, specifically leadership by force of combat reputation vs. leadership through religious or mystical (or psychic) connections. I really like thinking about starting conflicts and scenarios for Primitive, and as it happened, when running the demos, I had not yet bought Record of Threats. So the demos were a fine example to put into practice a few notions I'd been kicking around for a while.

For the first demo, I decided that the adversity would be purely environmental - just a bad, cold winter, and the threat of starving. Juli, veteran of much Primitive play, joined us at the table and set a great example for the newcomers. It was easy to run the winter as a kind of monster, using the combat rules pretty much exactly as written. Even the sticks mattered, because they set whether characters were far apart or close together. It was a neat scenario, because the characters managed to miscommunicate quite terribly. Hence, fire was being built in one place, and a dead deer was available in another place, but at least one character was lost and no one knew about both successful actions. Fortunately, Civility prevailed, and the tribe managed to have a fine feast and survive the travails of winter for a while.

Characters for this demo were made by the participants, and I was pleased to see yet another carved stick come into play. Greg Stolze, that was your doing, right? All the grunting and gesticulating was immensely fun and exactly paralleled understandings and misunderstandings that always happen with words anyway!

For the second demo, I merely retained the characters and stick and stuff, passing them out to the participants. I began the scenario with the tribe discovering one of their members killed by a very odd item - what looked like a tiny spear, right through his heart. Characters investigated diligently, finding no one else's footprints nearby, and discovering that the object was flimsy and quite crappy by their standards. Then I introduced the woman, who stood on the mountainside a little ways away, out of spear distance - she had a strange high forehead, less chest hair than real women (none, in fact, what's up with that?), and carried some kind of ritualistic object. Matters proceeded from there quite nicely, as she demanded obedience from them. Right when the conflicts among group members looked likely to end in mighty drama, I closed the demo.

A little after I ran these demos, someone trotted up to the booth and announced that Spirit of the Century had won the Indie Awards. Well, after communicating in grunts and hoots, there really isn't any point to fancy speeches. I did a sun-god worship moment, holding up the book (well, to the overhead lighting anyway), and belting out a cave-scream. I really think we ought to communicate non-verbally more often. All of us. Quite a bit of the time, actually.

I'd really like comments and questions from participants and game authors about the demos I'm talking about in this thread. I'd especially like to point out that although some of the prep was handled roughly, none of the mechanics were presented in stripped-down or "toy" form. I'm finding that to have been a poor idea for demos.

Best, Ron
edited because I forgot to finish one of the paragraphs before posting - RE


I played in one of the Dead of Night demos.  I actually named Darrin, if I recall correctly.  At the time, I was just playing him as curious and nerdy, but, in retrospect, he was kinda creepy too.  Like, he was the kind of kid who would turn out to be some kind of pervert.  In contrast, Bill (or was it Biff?) was actually pretty noble.  He wanted to comfort Becky, and he broke up the jerks who were mocking Thomas's death.  I liked him.

I didn't feel like I completely got a grip on how all the bits work together enough to teach the game.  But it's a short demo; what should you expect?  I did get enough of a sense of how all the bits work together, and I do think that if I sat down with the rulebook, the learning process would go faster.  "Oh yes, this is the bit that Ron mentioned during the demo."  I say this only because I tried selling someone on Dead of Night at the booth, and I feel like I botched the job.

In particular, I did get a good sense of how the Tension mechanic worked.  Ron, the "+5" marker was genius.  First, it completely eliminated the confusion between Tension Level and Tension Points, which is an issue that has apparently been a source of confusion to others.  Second, it was a visual cue that I should be afraid.  "Oh, no.  Ron put the d6 on the table.  Something's going wrong!"

The demo also ended at the right place.  Right as the monster had Bill in a corner, and Darrin was about to leap into the fray....  Well, it's time to close up shop.  Argh!  Nicely done, Ron.

Finally, perhaps the highest praise that I can give.  Here we are, sitting in the dealer's hall at GenCon.  It's loud, the lights are on, and there are approximately a bezillion people around us.  But as we played, I felt the chills run up and down my spine.

Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown