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[GenCon] Dust Devils, SotC and Grey Ranks; my scheduled GM'ing sessions

Started by Hans, August 23, 2007, 02:52:21 PM

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I wanted to post a quick summary of all five scheduled sessions I ran at GenCon this year, in case someone may benefit from them.  But before I do, some thoughts on scheduled indie game sessions in response to Jason M's comment...

Quote from: Jason Morningstar on August 22, 2007, 07:55:08 AM
3.  Regularly scheduled games are a pain in the ass and possibly not worth the trouble.  The only up-side was that it brought maybe ten people to play our games that wouldn't have known about them otherwise.  Balance that with logistical and administrative headaches, shitty time slots, poor management, and other irritating problems.

There are four reasons I have ran and continue to run scheduled indie games at GenCon:

* I love the games.
* I think I can provide people with a good time, and enjoy myself as much or more.
* My ego is stroked by seeing my name on the GenCon schedule.
* Its a good way to get a free badge, and I'm a cheapskate.

My primary purpose is NOT commercial in any way; most of the people that signed up for my sessions of Dust Devils, SotC and Grey Ranks were either people I know personally or people who already owned the games, or a combination of the above.  Maybe, just maybe, a few additional sales might be generated for someone, and I certainly talk up the games as much as I can because I would love for the designers to make some cash.  But ultimately, I'm doing it for the fun.

With that said...

Dust Devils: Western - This game continues to be my favorite convention game ever.  I used the same town of Galilee as I used last year and have used in a number of other one shot situations, but shifted the core conflict generation bit around.  Normally, to ensure that there is some initial conflict, I start one character down a well, amnesiac, next to the body of their dead partner.  This time, I decided there would be a wedding between two of the NPC's (Kat Miller [a pure chance coincidence, btw], and Mayor O'Gallagan) in the game.  I then provided pregen character sheets, each of which had the following set of four things on the bottom.

Bride's true love or bride's worst nightmare
In love with the bride or spurned by the bride
The groom needs you or in the grooms way
You need the groom or the groom is in your way

Each player then picked one of the eight options above, and then another of the eight, with no overlap on the first choice, and no overlap on the very first item.  Then, I started off the game by saying "OK, the wedding is going to take place in four hours, what do you do" and it all went from there.  Everyone seemed to really groove on this, with people picking sides like crazy.  I wish I could remember the names of all the players (I foolishly did not write them down), but the fellow who played Sancho the Monkey (the ugliest thug in town) immediately jumped on "Bride's True Love", which set up a great conflict from the get go, and also allowed a wonderful scene of Sancho climbing into Kat's window while she is crying in her wedding dress, and a fantastically romantic flashback to an almond orchard.  As usual in Galilee, everything ended up with a massive struggle at the end, with suprise, surprise, Sancho and his true love just about the only ones alive, primarily due to the selfless sacrifice of another character. 

Good things:
* The set up, above, with the different options.  It really shot people right at each other from the get go.  There was a moment at the two hour mark where I thought maybe we would be finishing early, even. 
* The pregens.  Everyone seemed to really groove on the available choices.

Bad things:
* Massive conflicts in Dust Devils are tough.  When you have 5 players AND a GM character or two all in one big conflict brawl, you really have to be on your toes to keep things straight.  Honestly, the sweet spot is probably 3-4 players, not 5, but at 4 players a shot I wouldn't be able to get my free badge.  :)

I really will try to get this posted someplace online, for those that asked for it.

Dust Devils: Concrete Angels - This was the first time I had tried this.  My set up was as follows:

* I came up with 7 different pregens, each printed on a piece paper glued to a magic card.  Each pregen carried both the name of one of the Seven Dwarfs, and also one of the deadly sins.  The deadly sin formed the basis of the Zero for each character.  The Dwarf names were the code names for the crooks who were doing the Job.  At the beginning, I just laid the cards out on the table with only the name of the dwarf visible, and told the players to pick based only on that name.
* I came up with the Job.  This was a fairly detailed plan (a full page) of how the crew formed by the seven characters was going to pull off kidnapping both the mob accountants and their main books from both the West Coast and Chicago Mobs while the two Mobs were meeting at a hotel in Colorado.  One of the pregens was actually one of the Mob Accountants ("Sneezy") and one was a bodyguard in the West Coast Mob ("Happy").  The point behind the Job plan was to make it so that the game was NOT about planning out the job.  My intent was that the Job plan would serve as a kind of map for the first hour or two of the session, where I could throw complications at the characters and build towards the eventual inter-party conflict that everyone knew would happen.
* I allowed each character one flashback, which would allow them to set up something their character did before the job starts that would affect the current situation in the job.
* In my notes I had all kinds of possible complications, difficulties, and twists I could throw as the plan began to unfold, from frat boys playing drunken golf in the hallway of the hotel to a cop pulling up in the back parking lot with a hooker to the inside man getting in trouble with his boss for lifting cash from the cash register, etc.

I then started play by saying "its now 10:50 pm (the first time on the plan was 11:00 PM) August 16, 1937, what are your characters doing".  This started the game off right on the cusp of the plan beginning.

Good things:
* the card pregens: people really loved the seven dwarf names (even though I had accidentally pasted the wrong names on some cards, DOH!) as it set up the Resevoir Dogs vibe from the very beginning.  People actually asked me to sign their cards at the end!  Talk about ego boost.
* the Zeros as drivers to conflict: I had tried to craft the Zeros on the pregens to really build up friction among the characters as the game progressed, and it seemed to work.  One character was an undercover cop, one a sadist, one a paranoiac, etc.
* the Flashbacks.  WOW, this worked well.  The player of "Bashful", the undercover cop, called for a flashback at the exact moment where he knew he was going to have to reveal "Bashful"'s true identity, and had a conflict with the police commissioner to make sure that all kinds of patrol cars would be available as back up, and succeeded wonderfully (and at the same time informing everyone else at the table who the snitch was to great effect).  THEN, the player of "Doc", the mission planner, immediately called for a flashback in which his character was PAYING OFF the commissioner to ensure that the cops that did show would be on the take, which he failed horribly.  It was marvelous.  The player of "Sleepy" the big, stupid, greedy thug, had a marvelous flashback in which he is organizing his own crew of even stupider, bigger thugs to have a counter job to steal from the others; again, marvelous.  I can't stress highly enough how well this flashback technique works in Dust Devils.

Bad Things:
* the Job - I still think it was a good idea, but the first hour or so felt a bit too "traditional" for my tastes.  It was mostly GM vs. player type interaction.  It was fun, but lacking the energy of the last two hours when everything REALLY started to go wrong.  I'm not sure exactly what I could have done differently to skip over the whole job planning thing.  Maybe start immediately after the job is finished or gone horribly wrong ala Resevoir Dogs? 
* Dust Devils for film noir caper stories - much as I love Dust Devils, I think that the mechanics really don't offer anything particularly special for this genre of stories.  Also, I am not fond of some of the changes made in the Concrete Angels translation.  For example, instead of having four fairly general traits (Heart, Eye, Guts, Hand) that are combined by twos to generate initial hand size, we have single traits (Resources, Trade, Violence, Emotion) that are used on their own.  Two of these tratis (Violence, Emotion) are used ALL the time, while two (Resources, Trade), not so much.  I think this was a mistake, and if I ever do this again I will probably return to the base Dust Devils traits, which are much more flexible and thematically interesting.  Also, some kind of trust mechanic would have been very useful, as people decide who they trust and who they don't.
* Running games in a 10 PM to 2 AM time slot.  I'm just not as young as I used to be, and keeping my full energy going that late was not easy. 

Next post will be Spirit of the Century...
* Want to know what your fair share of paying to feed the hungry is?
* Want to know what games I like?


Spirit of the Century

I ran two sessions of this, which I will discuss together.  One, "the Warlord of Fear", had as its base plotline the fact that Cao Yun, a major criminal gang lord in Hong Kong circa 1932, was planning on making a play to take over Fujian province from Shan Shi Lan, its current "governor" (Aspect: Less brutal than most warlords).  Cao Yun's base was in Kowloon's Walled City.  The characters start at a tai-pan's dinner party with Shan Shi Lan as the guest of honor, where a group of Cao Yun's Golden Coin triad (let by Tony "Hot-Hand" Chow and his chrome plated mausers) try to assasinate him.  The plot was fairly straightforward as it was actually played, with the characters stopping "Hot-Hand", doing a bit of investigation, and then raiding Cao Yun's compound.

The other was "the Jade Ogre", about a dreaded pirate who was laying waste to shipping in the South Pacific circa 1932.  The characters start on board the S.S. Sumatra, bound for Sydney out of Hong Kong.  Of course, the vessel is attacked by the Jade Ogre and, as it turned out, the characters fought him and his Zeppelin flying minion Professor Klause Belial off.

My set up for both sessions was virtually the same.  I had 11 pregen characters, each one with a different Superb skill and a fair amount of variety in the Great skills as well, so that each character would have something they alone were really good at.  Three were "fighter" types (top skills Might, Weapons, and Guns), three were "talking" types (top skills Deceit, Rapport, and Intimidation) and the others were a smattering of different things.  I left five aspect slots and 9 of the skill slots (filling only the superb, both great, one good, and two average) empty, for customization by the players on the fly.  Strangely, in both sessions four out of the five players all picked the exact same pregens.  I'm not sure if this is because the others sucked, or these were so good, or just random chance.  I also had about a page of notes for both sessions and a few (2-3) main NPC's stated up for each.  I just winged the rest of it.

One bit of fiction to give you and idea of just how freaking cool Spirit of the Century is.  So, Professor Hank Jeffersion (Superb Skill - Might, Great Skills - Academics, Survival, Key aspects - "Field Anthropologist", "6'6", 275 pounds of pure muscle", "University of Kansas, Omaha") is on the S.S. Sumatra as it is being attacked from within by bribed crewmen and from above by a Zeppelin.  He goes to the edge of the ship and looks down to see the Jade Ogre's submarine, and a horde of the Jade Ogre's pirates climbing up cargo netting to the ship.  Jade Ogre himself is on the deck.  Hank has the Piledriver stunt (+4 to attacks against inanimate objects) so he attacks the netting, ripping it free and tossing the pirates into the water.  Jade Ogre looks up, smiles his jade-tooth smile (a detail supplied by one player, I might add) and calls Hank down.  Hank has the aspect "mild-tempered", but says, "I'll be right down", and leaps onto the deck of the submarine.  At this point, Hank's player looks at me and says "I think I know something about south sea pirates with my Academics".  I say "maybe you do, make a Good or better roll".  He makes his roll and says "I just remembered that South Seas Pirates will follow the strongest captain, established by challenge.  (adds aspect of "follow the strongest captain" to the pirates)  Now, Hank says, in Thai "Jade Ogre, you are NOT the strongest, I challenge you for command!"  All of the pirates, about to leap on Hank, stop, and all say "The challenge has been given".  What follows is an absolutely titanic wrestling matches between two characters with Might as their superb skill that had everyone around the table cheeriing.  You just don't GET that kind of fun in any other pulp game, period. 

Good things:
* Declarations, Assessments, and Maneuvers - If you are running this for a con with people who have never played before, REALLY stress the power of placing or finding out about aspects.  This is where the fun of the game really lies.  Sure, an aspect like "Follows the Strongest" on the Sea Pirates, mechanically, is only worth an extra free +2.  But story wise, WOW, the pirates only follow the strongest!  That is some powerful mojo! 
* Pregens with only half the sheet filled out - I cannot stress highly enough how well this worked.  People were totally grooving on writing down new aspects for their characters and deciding, at the moment of the roll, whether to add a skill or not to their sheet. 
* getting to the action fast - I don't let any grass grow under me as a GM for SotC.  If I haven't had some kind of major conflict in the first 30 minutes, then I'm not doing it right.
* but...getting the character bits in first - Pulp is all about character bits, and half of the fun is entertaining your fellow players with the fun bits you have for your character.  Therefore, I made sure that each player had time to get in their crazy accents, fun character schticks, and trademarked moves. 
* Concede, concede, concede - I usually just offerred interesting concessions when the writing was on the wall during conflicts to keep things moving.  This seemed to work well.

Bad things
* Explosives - What the Sam Hill?  If you are ever, ever tempted to let explosives into your game, read the rules carefully before hand.  WOW, that's some power.  I HADN'T read the rules beforehand, and found this out to my surprise.  Fortunately it only came into play in one of my sessions in the last 15 minutes or so, so the fact that a single grenade pretty much trashed ALL of Professor Belial's minions and the Professor himself was perfectly fine, but these rules seem completely counter to pretty much everything else in SotC.

Honestly, there were no down sides to SotC at GenCon.  Each session was an incredible joy, and I think the players absolutely loved it.

Next up, Grey Ranks...
* Want to know what your fair share of paying to feed the hungry is?
* Want to know what games I like?


But first, one more bad thing about Concrete Angels, above.  One thing I did was, on the spur of the moment, provide to two players an extra "character" each as a result of their flashbacks.  To the undercover cop, I provided a character called "Cops" and to Sleepy, I provided a character called "Stupid Thugs".  The intent was to give them some advantage based on their success in the flashbacks.  In practice this was really a horrible idea.  Not only did it make major conflicts even more confusing and difficult, it also gave those two players much more control over things then I anticipated.   Never do this.  One things Dust Devils does not have is any way to carry a mechancial ADVANTAGE over from one conflict to another, as you can in, say Shadow of Yesterday (bonus dice) or Heroquest, and I felt like, in the moment, I should give those characters one.  But in reality I should have left it strictly on the story level, and if any new characters were necessary brought them in under my control as stud hands.

Now, Grey Ranks...

I cannot emphasize enough how much of a zealot I am for this game.  I have called this the Schindler's List of RPG's and I'm am serious in doing so.  No other game I have played not only allows but FORCES you to deal with real, meaty issues and real, deep characters in this way.  This is the only RPG I think that can and has made me cry.

The session at GenCon continued to prove this to me.  I was not an actual player in the game, I simply expounded the rules and then helped out when people ran dry of ideas.  Really, it was the players that made it.  We had one euthanasia, two cases of madness, all kinds of glorious failure, and more teen angst than you could shake a stick at.  We also had deep religious awakenings and one or more triumphs of the human spirit. 

I really want to mention my friend Debbie.  Debbie is not a role-player.  Her first experience with role-playing was a LARP last year with a 50's B-Science Fiction Movie theme.  Her 2nd experience with role-playing, ever, was Grey Ranks.  This is like a grade schooler going into a College level physics class and taking a test on General Relativity.  And you know what? She passed.  She worked at it.  She came up with a wonderful character (Mouse, victim of past bullys and near a berserk release) and some wonderful situations.  She held her own against three other very skilled role-players.  She accepted suggestions from others when she was drawing a blank, and then made them her own.  She told me later how incredibly nervous she was, and how challenged she felt participating in something like Grey Ranks, but she pulled it off.  Props to Debbie. 


Good things:
- Jason's little prep envelope: Thanks Jason M, for this.  I was scared as heck that I had left my copy of the grid behind, but then you handed me this envelope and my world turned all rosy.  It had everything a person running Grey Ranks at a con needed.
- Stressing the failure vs. success choices: In Grey Ranks, the most crucial mechanical push to make the stories it makes is the fact that almost every choice a player makes means increasing the chance of success at one thing while decreasing it for something else (choice of which dice to roll where, explicit failure = high mission die, success = low mission die table).  I tried to make this very explicit at the beginning, and then stressed it throughout, and I think this helped people recognize the kind of game they were playing. 

Bad things:
- Read the bloody rules: I should have read over the rules more fully before starting the thing.  Not only were there changes from the last playtest rules, but there were a few things I just flat out forgot about until part way through.  Grey Ranks is rules light, but not rules weightless.  Read the bloody rules, Hans!
- Don't lose your keys just before a session starts:  Wondering whether your car is being stolen is not a good way to generate energy in a convention session.  Thankfully this was actually a GM-less game, and the players were gracious enough to let me sprint to my car and secure my keys. 

Grey Ranks in its short form is pretty much a perfect convention game.  I highly recommend it, after seeing it in action.

That sums things up.  I'd love to hear from people who actually played in my sessions, and see what I missed, what I did wrong, what I might have done right, and what you liked didn't like about the games themselves. 

Thanks to Matt Snyder, the Evil Hat guys, and Jason Morningstar for designing such incredible games.
* Want to know what your fair share of paying to feed the hungry is?
* Want to know what games I like?

Jason Morningstar

Hans, related to my scare quote, what was your experience as a volunteer GM with the venue, the staff, the organization?


Quote from: Jason Morningstar on August 24, 2007, 06:52:27 PM
Hans, related to my scare quote, what was your experience as a volunteer GM with the venue, the staff, the organization?

You could be referring to two different entities here, and I will address both:

GenCon itself - Other than the mix up with locations of games printed on tickets, there didn't seem to be any problems.  The big room at the Hyatt was no worse than anything I have seen in the past, and maybe better.  There was a bit more elbow room between tables there than there was last year in the actual convention center, and the room was marginally more sound absorbent (or maybe just less full).  The water cooler right outside the door was a godsend. 

Independent Games Explosion - Working with Kat to get the sessions set up, and then to get my GM badge, was hassle free.  As to the time slots, I'm not sure I differentiate between them, but can see that Grey Ranks might have been better in the evening than in the morning.  The G.o.D. stand seemed really useful, with pens, box of dice, etc. 

I was glad as all get out when I found you there on my morning to do Grey Ranks and you had that envelope full of good stuff; you might have noticed I was doing a total Jerry Lewis as the Absent-Minded Professor schtick and lets say a teensy bit tense.

I guess I personally have no administrative or logistical nightmares and/or poor management to report.  Maybe you could provide more detail on those (here or elsewhere) and then we could identify the point where the whole process could have been improved.  That may be very useful, constructive feedback for Kat and Michael at IGE.
* Want to know what your fair share of paying to feed the hungry is?
* Want to know what games I like?

Steve Segedy

Hey Hans,

Thanks again for running the game.  I'm curious how you ended up structuring the session- for example, which chapters did the players go through?  Did you go through the full character generation prologue, or did you abbreviate that part?  Did you or the players have to do any special record-keeping to track the results of each scene (personal scene wins and losses, mission successes) for the final grid movement?

Also, as I've said elsewhere, we'd love to encourage more Grey Ranks events at other cons.  If there's anything in particular we can do to help you run games at other cons, just let us know!
The Shab-al-Hiri Roach and Grey Ranks, available now at IPR!

Jason Morningstar

Yeah, just to be clear in this thread (Hans already knows) my comments were based on my personal experience (as an exhibitor with many fish to fry) with Gen Con LLC, not Kat and Mike (who were calm and pleasant and professional and where they were supposed to be).  I must not be as con-hardened as you, Hans, because I ran two games in the same space and found it almost intolerably loud and distracting.  I'm really relieved to hear that it wasn't a big deal for you, and that everything else went smoothly. 


Quote from: Steve Segedy on August 24, 2007, 11:23:00 PM
Thanks again for running the game.  I'm curious how you ended up structuring the session- for example, which chapters did the players go through?  Did you go through the full character generation prologue, or did you abbreviate that part?  Did you or the players have to do any special record-keeping to track the results of each scene (personal scene wins and losses, mission successes) for the final grid movement?

I went pretty much exactly through Jason's little Con demo sheet.  I don't have a copy, but if memory serves...

We went through almost the entire char gen process, but not an actual chapter 1 prologue.  There was some brief discussion about each character. 

There was no special record keeping to track results; scenes happened fast enough that everyone could remember what their results were.

We played through Chapters 5-7; we read through the Radio Lightnings for Chapters 1-4 to set the stage.

To jump start things, we used the rules from the book about starting halfway through (checking off the invocation of thing held dear, shifting pawns towards the edge one step, checking off the d6 boxes on the reputations).

As to con-hardened, Jason, I guess I am.  When I said that Grey Ranks was a great con-game in my post, I guess I meant that it is able to deliver in four hours a lot of fantastic fun.  A quieter, more contemplative atmosphere would be better than a loud con room for any game, but especially this one.  As you know (you were sitting next to me and warned me off at the time) I would have moved things into a quieter corner if I could have gotten away with it, but it still worked out very well. 

Jason, if you could post somewhere (maybe the BPG website) the cheat sheet and other stuff that was in the envelope you handed me, it would really help others who are considering doing Grey Ranks, even if not at a con but just as a taste as a one shot home game.
* Want to know what your fair share of paying to feed the hungry is?
* Want to know what games I like?

Jason Morningstar

Good idea, Hans - most of it is here, but Steve wrote up that cheat sheet and I don't believe it is posted yet.  I'll get on that.


I was a player in Hans' "Warlord of Fear" Spirit of the Century game -- the one with the hand grenade, in fact. I played Prince Krishna etc. etc. etc. IV and bought the hand grenades during a "stocking up for the big mission" sequence.

The characters Hans prepared were great! I especially appreciated that each was written up with male/female names, and abilities that worked just as well either way. And being able to fill in Aspects and Skills on-the-fly was great.

I would normally say that I am not a huge fan of "pulp" (not opposed, just not aware enough to have much of an opinion), but that didn't detract in any way from the game. It was a great showcase for Spirit of the Century -- were it not for my extenuating circumstances, I would've purchased a copy at GenCon (circumstances = moving to Europe, buying RPGs as PDFs when possible now.)

I took a photo of Hans' GMing:
- Joshua Wehner


I was a player in Hans' game of Dust Devils (as Bowler Jim, a crazy Native American troublemaker, and was the only other survivor besides Sancho) and in The Jade Ogre game (as Prince Krishna - how could anyone resist such a character).

I have to say I had a fantastic time in both of those games.  I already owned Dust Devils and SOTC so I was excited to play, but two friends of mine also played in the SOTC game with me and they both stated it was the best game they played that year at GenCon.  In addition one of them bought the book because the game was so much fun.

My hats off to you Hans for bringing so much energy to the table and making it an incredible experience for everyone.

And as I stated at GenCon, I think the situation generator that you use in the "Wedding in Galilee" game (e.g. "Bride's true love or bride's worst nightmare) really deserves some attention - it was a fantastic tool for positioning our characters relative to the NPC's and their agendas.  For a convention game or other scenario where the GM is pre-establishing the overall situation this is solid gold.
Adam Flynn