Monday, 23 July 2018

Continuum 2018

TLDR: excellent long running, well organised, quirky (in a good way) residential convention. Superb organising committee, lovely, amiable fellow attendees. Only ran 3 out of 8 game sessions to small groups. My games don't match the demographic. But all three games were great. Played 4 in  fun games. A win! Should be put on every year.

Continuum is a long running, well organised and successful residential convention in Leicester. It runs from Friday afternoon until Monday morning (Monday is checkout only). As well as TTRPGs it also offers "FreeForms" (sort of LARPS, I think) a small trade hall and a range of seminars. And drinking. It runs once every two years - in the years which are even numbered. It is based in student accommodation at Leicester university.

Because of its long history, the convention has a unique character and a number of traditions, both explicit and covert. It has a large number of Runequest/Gloranthan/Cthulhu games on offer. However, the choice is widening and becoming more eclectic. You still don't see much standard fare in the vein of D&D 5th etc. though.

Booking is done in advance via the website. You pay for the convention and accommodation up front. Spaces are limited - 160 - and it does sell out.

You can offer to run TTRPGs when you arrive at the event itself but the organisers prefer that you submit games in advance so they can promote them on the website, check they've got enough etc. In order to encourage this, you get a free advance sign up in a game you want to play for each game you submit. This is well managed by the convention TTRPG games Tsar, the excellent and personable Keary. There are 8 game slots - 2 on Friday and 3 each on Saturday and Sunday.

Despite the broadening tastes and offerings at Continuum, I'm aware that my games don't match the demographic and expect to struggle to get sign ups. If you're desperate to referee, offering a game set in Glorantha, or a Runequest variant or a Cthulhu game should garner interest, provided it's something new. (This crowd have played all the classic stuff.)

Shortly before the event I discovered that I wasn't at work Monday morning and so was able to change my booking from 2 nights (Friday/Saturday) to three. Basically I paid a £30 supplement to play one extra game.

I was still at work on the Friday. So I missed the first game slot and arrived well in time for the second session. I bought some supplies for my room from the Tesco express next to the station. There's an Asda 10-15  mins walk from the event but it's best to come supplied.

However, like an idiot I'd missed the instructions for the printing and bringing my own signup sheets. Though I'd submitted games for Friday Evening and Saturday morning, the sheets for those slots were already up when I arrived. There were no sign up sheets up for my games. I borrowed a pen and quickly wrote up a handwritten sheet for my Saturday morning game. But it looked rubbish next to some of the other sheets. And people had already signed for games in that slot so I didn't hold out much hope of getting players. A friend advised/forced me not to put up a last minute hand written sheet for my Friday game so I signed up for a game of Lady Blackbird.

I checked into my room and attended the opening ceremony. For tea I ate sandwiches etc I'd brought from Tesco. The accomodation is student rooms. They don't have TV sets and are basic. But they're clean with free wifi and there are shared kitchens. There are no pots and pans, crockery or cutlery but there is a Microwave. If Continuum were every year, I might have remembered this and bought some microwaveable meals from Tesco. I also dropped off some games in the Bring and Buy.

My evening game  turned out to be a good choice. I've heard people raving about Lady Blackbird at convention after convention. I've downloaded it and tried to read it but have never understood it. It was expertly run by Rae - the Wyntercon games Tsar. There was a full table of excellent, fun, players. I played the Amazonian bodyguard. This version of the game tended towards the Steampunk but when one player forgot this and referred to security cameras - suddenly we had a demon-based security system. There were a couple of things that didn't suit my personal tastes. Some people had played the game before and were replaying it. Though it's supposed to be repayable and different every time, I don't think there's enough variation to enable this to happen successfully IMHO. I also found the mismatch between players with experience and those without a bit jarring. The second was the habit that some players (Lloyd, the excellent Expo Games on DemandTsar) seem to have developed of deliberately introducing complications into a game to make it more fun. I'm old school and think complications should come from poor choices, the dice or the Referee. Oh, and there was only one member of staff on the bar.

But these are minor moans. Fun players, excellent referee, good game. (I still think it deserves expansion and publishing in a more detailed, printed, commercial version). An excellent session and I now know that I could run this game if I was asked to by a convention Games Tsar.

The bar is stocked with some real ales especially for the convention, is open until 2am and full of gaming luminaries. So it's tempting to stay up but I chose to try to get to sleep before midnight.

Overnight I had a brainwave. I used my iPad to download my game descriptions from the convention website, and quickly produced some typed signup sheets with added convention logo and appropriate other images. I emailed these to the accommodation front desk and they printed them for me. Free. Wow! My concerns about not getting sign ups because of grotty handwritten sheets were allayed. My shower wasn't working but I got some great technical advice from the front desk ("give it some welly!") that did the job. Good work all round.

Breakfast is included and does the job but is basic.

My morning game didn't get any sign ups so I grabbed the last place in Phil Masters' steampunk GURPS game. Then something unfortunate happened. Just about every other player who'd signed up for the game crossed their name off at the last minute. I don't think it was seeing my name on the sheet! I think what had happened is that someone had stuck up another game they fancied and they all decamped en masse with minutes to go. Not very good manners if you ask me. We scraped together three players and Phil ran the game. Great setting, good GM, well prepared. As usual the GURPS character sheets were rammed with information which must have been a nightmare to produce but made playing the game easy. I played the Amazonian second in command (a trend?) Despite all of this, however, I think this has finally cemented my view that GURPS is not the game for me.

Phil, however, delivered a good game. Upon being given my character sheet my eyes fell upon the words "Bomb Gun". Of course I got to unleash this to destroy an airship in the game's climax - so I call that a win.

Lunch was more Tesco sandwiches (I'd stocked up).

For the afternoon I had three players sign up for my "Orville" rip off. Using my Manifold rules but that's irrelevant really. One of the players was Marcus Rowland. This was like a classic White Dwarf contributor meet up! This was fun as always. I just run a straight Star Trek scenario - blatantly ripping off two classic episodes - and watch the TTRPG players dismantle it.

We had the ship's Captain (a sentient cloud of Flies), a prototype Android weapons officer and Kevin - from Tech. support. They were initially extremely successful. They went in and out quick and completed the first mission perfectly, short cutting the scenario. Then things went belly up on the follow up mission. They lost the ship, 277 out of 300 crewmen and the prototype android.  Technically they completed the mission but the inquiries will drag on for years....... Great fun with great players.

In the evening, I sampled the food from the on-site kitchen. The Continuum "main Hall" is basically the students' hall of residence cafeteria. The kitchen is set up to provide students with cheap meals. As such, in past conventions there have been some complaints about the quality of the food and some effort has been made upgrade it. Not that successfully I'm afraid. My (£6.95) meal was a limited portion of beef chilli on a plate full of rice, new potatoes and boiled broccoli. Not enough sauce/chilli to cover the otherwise dry ingredients. Warm, filling, not overly expensive. Some people got pizzas or went out for other meals. I don't blame them. There's a two hour gap between afternoon and evening games so there's load of time to do this.

For the evening game I had three players sign up. I ran Paul Baldowski's scenario from his award winning "Trail of the Wendigo" book, but using my Manifold rules rather than his Cthulhu Hack. When asked for a reason why their characters were driving In the Canadian wilds, the players decided that they were two Mounties bringing in a fugitive. A classic trope! It was made even more perfect by the meta overlap. The two Mounties were two guys who were friends and had come to the convention together. The female grifter was a charming young lady who'd been providing table after table with homemade cake through the day. They weren't exactly playing themselves but it was close.

Despite only having three players again, I loved this session. It is a slow build horror story with a really really sick theme. Because they were Mounties, rather than say a family group, this turned into more "The Wicker Man meets Assault on District 19"  than "Hostel" with a brutal final scene which flirted with a TPK.

During the game Keary checked in with me. I love the way he goes around and checks in with and talks to every Referee. Every. Single. One. And because I'd run two games, he gave me drinks tokens for two free drinks. This convention pays you in beer. Unfortunately, the bar was starting to run out of some beers.

I went to bed before midnight again.

I got up and checked my signup sheet for the morning game. No players. I had breakfast - functional again - and went to my room to collect my gaming stuff expecting to come down and have to find a game to play in. In the short gap, I'd garnered three players!

This was a playtest of my d6 Hack rules being developed as part of Role Play Relief. I offered the players a choice between the old White Dwarf investigative scenario "Plague from the Past" and Dyson Logos' "Goblin Gully". It being early morning after the night before, they chose to twat goblins rather than use their brains.

The game went well, good classic low level D&D with no obvious difference through just using d6's. Lots of great tactical interplay between the goblins and the party. Many goblins slaughtered but the chief and a couple of other survivors escaped with their treasure

 Amazingly I still had some food left from my shopping burst on Friday so lunch was more cold stuff from Tescos. (I could have kept it fresher in the fridge in the kitchen.)

In the afternoon I'd pre-booked into the latest instalment of Martin Pickett's "Victorian Colony of Mars" series. I first met Martin when he wrote and ran "The Great Martian Tripod Race" for my The Code of Steam and Steel game. He's now converted the scenarios set in that world to Manifold. This was the first time I've PLAYED my game. And Martin has adapted the rules for Steampunk as you would do to produce a sourcebook. Both of these things made this session special for me.

Martin had chosen to run the game in a seminar room in one of the houses up the road from the main convention hall. It's quiet and a good place to play but - for me - too far away from the hustle and bustle of the convention (and the bar). We also had players trying to deliberately introduce complications again (see above). And we DID resolve things through auditing the bad guys' accounts rather than high adventure.

But we went from "Carry On Airship Police" at the a start, to being a really effective team, efficiently stopping the wrong doing and individually rounding up two key figures from each faction almost automatically. And all the players were awesome - especially Simon Beaver*. As author of "Stiff Upper Lip" - a FATE game set in the era of British Adventuring (get it printed Simon!) - his immense historical knowledge leant massive verisimilitude to our Law Officer'd actions.

* there were at least THREE "Simon B's" at the convention!

I attended the closing ceremony. Apparently there's going to be a questionnaire coming out. I hope EVERYONE votes to make it an annual event.

For tea I ate the canteen food again. It's easy to get. This was basically a roast turkey dinner and was much more acceptable than the previous night's efforts.

By this time the convention was winding down and most people had gone. The bar was out of most draft beers so I was on cider but had two staff on - now it was quiet - rather than the single harassed guy when it was busy Friday night. Go figure.

My game - based on Fireball XL5 - garnered no players, again. I think I need to retire it, unplayed. It's just too niche. By this time there was one space left in one game - the Great Gloranthan Duck Race game. An RPG based on Wargames rules played on a kind of snakes and ladder board set on the Runequest world of Glorantha and played for laughs as various crews - mostly non human - vied to win a boat race by any means necessary , unnecessary and just downright funny. Not exactly in MY wheelhouse but a pleasant way to end the convention. There was a traditional end of convention sing song somewhere else but we were too busy playing to go.

Was it worth the extra £30 for that game? That's debatable. But it WAS worth it through making the Sunday much more relaxed. I could concentrate on enjoying the event, get a good nights sleep and pack at my leisure rather than worrying about checking out, carrying all my worldly goods around with me for the afternoon and rushing to catch the last train home, as I do at so many events. If you can stay until Monday I thoroughly recommend it

Continuum is a superior residential convention. It has no drawbacks and some truly excellent features. We don't have enough residential TTRPG conventions in this country. We NEED to have Continuum every year.

Adventures in Roleplaying

Simon's adventures in Role playing.....

I don't have a home group or regular game but am just off 7 solid days of RPGs. Here's how the first four went:

I recently ran a couple of TTRPG sessions for colleagues at my school as part of "wellness sessions" on training days. A member of staff asked me to run more so I agreed to run three sessions during three lunchtimes in the last week of school

I decided to run my Steampunk rules "The Code of Steam and Steel" and my standard introductory scenario "The Evolution of Species".

The teacher who'd ASKED for the games couldn't make Monday but said she was free from Tuesday onwards. On Monday only two people turned up. They made a Lord and a Spy. We had enough time for them to be briefed on the disappearances across London and start some investigation.

Tuesday the third teacher joined us. She made an ex-hunter with a Steam Rifle - with maximum score in Steam Rifle. The group tracked clues to sewer grate near one of the disappearances and were attacked by giant mechanised rats. With the aid of the experienced Hunter they fought them off.

Then one of the players used a double to introduce a new plot element of the bad guys' secret stock of explosives going off, creating a hole the characters could use to track them. The session ended with them finding the villain in his lair.

Wednesday, the original player who'd asked for the game was busy and couldn't make it so I was down to two players again.  We fought the climactic battle but with the Hunter as an NPC with that massive Steam Rifle the battle was a bit easy.

I enjoyed the games. The people I played with were great. But there weren't enough players, there wasn't enough interest and there isn't enough time in school. So I won't try to set up an ongoing TTRPG group.

Thursday the Birmingham Central Roleplayers moved from Ladywood - which is inconvenient to me - to Selly Oak, just down the road. So I threw some games into my bag and travelled down. Though I thought I was on time, the room was full when I got there and almost everyone was already playing their on-going games. There was another Referee new to the group looking to run D&D 5th. He had one player. I joined them and we played a two player low level D&D adventure. The Referee was excellent. He's gone from self teaching himself the game to a massively clever and experienced referee in a matter of a few months. He's running regular sessions of D&D 5th for home groups and at venues like Geek Retreat - where he's run for up to 14 players at once.

I'd forgotten just how much fun a simple low level adventure can be. There was bugger all fighting but lots of tricks and traps to solve as we were caught in an ancient tomb. "The penitent man shall pass" sort of thing. A good adventure with a superior Referee.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Summer StabCon 2018

This weekend brought a choice of two conventions.

The first of these was the excellent LongCon. This is a weekend where you can play one game that lasts the whole weekend. An excellent concept and a great alternative  to the usual 4 hour slots of most events. Held at the almost ubiquitous Garrison Hotel in Sheffield, it should be an essential.

BUT the alternative is the long running StabCon in Stockport. Though primarily a board gaming convention, StabCon has strong RPG element. Once you're acclimatised to it, it's like being a member of a family. I couldn't not go.

Friday night I always play in an ongoing Savage World's campaign, currently a pulp/Dieselpunk just prior to WW2 series of adventures. The wonderful inventive Referee always tries to start at 7pm and always fails.  We finally got going sometime after 8 and had some great espionage in pre-War Vienna. However, we were all tired and it was very hot, so we wrapped it up before a fight scene, rather than playing into the early hours. You can do this sort of thing  in ongoing campaigns at a twice yearly convention like StabCon.

Saturday morning I tired to kill two birds with one stone - playtest my "d6 Hack" rules (D&D using just 3d6, for new players, for inclusion in the Comic Relief book) using an investigative scenario from an old White Dwarf I'd always wanted to play. We had the full suite of 4 character classes (two warriors).

I dropped the adventure down from mid to low level. But this proved a bridge too far. A more straightforward scenario would have suited the players' style and we had virtually a TPK.

But the rules worked - well, according to the players.

I now need to decide if I'm going to continue to offer this particular scenario at Continuum. I reckon if I give the characters an extra level, the more experienced demographic of that convention should cope. I hope.

Straight into my version of "The Orville" TV series. This was a romp from the get-go, using the Manifold rules naturally. Original characters created. The intrepid security chief and the grizzled old space hand were Human . The Engineer, Doctor and Captain were all different sorts of lizard humanoid. And the security officer looked just like the Devil. The Captain was brilliant. A kindly creature seeking consensus from her crew before proceeding. The old space hand - lots of experience very little talent - was in the pilot's chair. They were soon on to run from the Krill with their ship in tatters. After much fun and insanity, involving the energy barrier at the edge of the Galaxy (6 times), a Mirror Universe, a God, Demigods and Madness, the last two sane characters fled the ship in escape pods before it disappeared into the Spacial
Manifold. Technically close to another TPK but everyone was just laughing at the insanity, so I went with it.

In the Saturday evening at Stabcon I've sort of defaulted to running Manifold horror games. But my ideas for horror are few and far between. At the last minute I decided to run an scenario from the award winning "Three Faces of the Wendigo" which Paul Baldowski had kindly given me at Expo. I used Paul's own entry in the book because it was the best one and he is one sick puppy. I used Manifold rather than TCH (sorry Paul). I had virtually the same table of players as for the Orville game and they got to see the same rules used completely differently. Oddly only one character fatality this time.

I may stop forcing myself to offer horror at StabCon and only go for it if I'm in the right mood.

Apart from my games, there were loads of Board Games being played, naturally,  and several RPGs in each slot. I really should look at these so I can report them. I know Dr Bob was running some military Sci Fi, but there were plenty of other RPGs being played.

Roll on Sunday!

Monday, 4 June 2018


I’m known for going to lots of conventions and writing memoirs of my visits. These can sometimes be long and rambling, but upon returning for UK Games Expo 2018, I realise I’ve actually got enough material to write a whole flipping book. So I’m going to try and write tersely – and it’ll still be very long.

TLDR: I flipping loved Expo 2018. It was just a little bit bigger and better than previous years but it was BETTER.

UKGE is the UK’s biggest Tabletop Games Convention and the third biggest in the world. It’s rather special and takes a lot of planning – from everyone involved. For some people the prep starts 12 months in advance. For me it starts 6 months ahead when we’re asked to submit any RPGs we wish to run.

I have always “Iron GMed” Expo – that is run RPGs in every slot of the official RPG “track”. ((I’m an addict. I have a problem.)) So I submitted 8 games.

My plan was to have my multi-genre game “Manifold” finished and published by the event, so I submitted 8 games of that in 4.5 different genres. Two of my great mates – Kevin Rolfe (another Expo stalwart) and Martin Pickett (first Expo, I think, but an experienced convention GM) also submitted Manifold games. ((John Dodd – the RPG supremo - thought this was a bit of overkill and asked us to reduce the number of games for this new system.))

My games virtually booked out in advance. Then REAL LIFE rose up and hit me. My convention attendances were curtailed for a few months and the work on Manifold had to be shelved. I moved Heaven and Earth to be back on the scene for Expo. Though Manifold wasn’t ready to be submitted for the Expo Awards (my original plan) I submitted my other recent game – The Code of Warriors and Wizardry – on a punt. There were so many games submitted for the Awards this year that – for the first time – the judges produced a shortlist. And my little game was listed as one of the Best RPGs! ((But because I’d had to submit my RPG’s 6 months in advance I wasn’t actually down to run any games of my Award-nominated game at the event – no-one was.))

((Two weeks before the event it became clear that I would be needed at home on the Friday evening, so I contacted the organisers to cancel my game in that slot. And posted far and wide on Social Media.))

This year, open gaming on the Thursday prior to the official event was back – as was the option to collect tickets on Thursday to miss the queues. So Thursday evening, I travelled over to the NEC. I grabbed a Subway meal and sat doing “Hi’s and Goodbyes” with loads of mates as they passed by. I picked up my tickets and scouted out the Hilton. I’ve always tried to help out the RPG “yellow shirt” volunteers by going straight to the hotel Concierge to fix issues like lighting/heating in RPG rooms. This Thursday I was enquiring about how early we could check in and how early the game rooms would be open. Then I went back to the NEC Hall 2 for the Open Gaming. There was a huge queue!

But  the doors actually opened before the published time of 8:00pm and we were able to march in past a sea of gaming tables. It turned out half the queue was for the Bring and Buy! They were directed one way  whilst we waited less than 5 minutes for the organisers to clear out the last few exhibitors from the Press Conference. They just couldn’t stop hawking their wares. Then I was in and sat at a table.

As always I was attending as a “billy no mates” with no wing-man. But I set up a Code of Warriors and Wizardry sign and soon attracted a table of players. One couple just wanted to play for one hour and then go over to join in a Legend of the 5 Rings game, but once playing they didn’t want to leave.  I ran the scenario from the book for an Illusionist and Specialist Spearman from a Travelling Show, alongside a renegade Elf Noble and a Dwarven Archeologist with time bending powers. The characters and their players were wonderful and we all had a great time. I caught a late train home.

The following morning  I travelled in by train. I grabbed a Subway Breakfast and watched the wave of humanity streaming past on their way to the Expo. More “Hi’s and Goodbyes”. Then I went over the Hilton and – as a designated “Room Captain” asked the Concierge to open up my room. ((I then ran into the magnificent Jude – RPG floor manager – who told me that only Expo Staff could open the rooms so they could control who went in and out – to stop people hogging them for Open Gaming. An improvement over previous years.))

I set up in my room. I had a full table of players. ((My players and then myself tried to rustle up some water for the table from the Hotel, but Jude came up to ask us not to do this.)) The first game was to be the Fantasy scenario from the Manifold rulebook. However, I explained to them about the award and they all agreed to play The Code of Warriors and Wizardry instead. The same rulebook scenario I’d run Thursday night. This time for Three pregens (Blood Leech, Female Warrior, Mystic Monk), alongside the more bespoke Goth, Dwarf Tinkerer and  one of the lost race of Dinosaur people  - who had…. Time bending powers. It was a fun game with a superior group of players who made some extremely good tactical choices but also got themselves into a few scrapes. ((Everyone enjoyed it but I was self-critical feeling that I wasn’t fully “match fit” and allowed some players a bit more spotlight than others at times.)) The player playing the Dinosaur character, told me he was in my Superhero game that afternoon and I was able to collar him for a secret mission. (I normally grab the first player to the table.)

If you run enough games you get free accommodation and food vouchers for lunch. (I run far too many.) So in the break between games I went down to get my lunch – which the yellowshirts had collected for us (superb!) – meet my room-mate for the weekend – my mate Kevin Rolfe – to see if we could check in early. And it all went swimmingly well. This year RPGs start an hour earlier, giving a two hour break for lunch. A little bit better but better. So I had time for lunch, to check in and to have a business meeting.

The afternoon was the Superhero scenario from the Manifold rulebook with the players playing erstwhile protégés having to  track down the senior (but aging) Superheroes who had mentored them. Deathchance (Deadpool-clone), Ruse (Gambit-clone), Professor Thought, White Dragon and “Edna” (she looks like a little old lady but fights like Black Widow), had a great time. ((It was a little investigation-heavy and I’d chosen very experienced player and GM run the secret mission which he over-egged slightly. I’d travelled light to the event for Friday and not brought supplies. So I crumbled and bought myself a pint of beer. FIVE POUNDS!))

After the game, I ran to the station to get home for my urgent errand. I’d noticed that, although the game slots were four hours, most games were clocking in at around three and a half and everyone seemed happy with that.

The next day my wonderful wife gave me a life to the hotel with my slightly heavier bags (possibly clanking with beer bottles). Though I’d missed staying at the hotel the previous night, I didn’t want to miss out on the hotel breakfast. The Hilton Breakfast is very, very good and I sat with two more of my mates (Chris Dean, a fellow game designer) and Dan Marriott (a superb convention GM at his first Expo – and owner of a very fine hat). I also “hi’d and goodbye’d” several other friends. Because I’d had a coffee at home before travelling in, I could only manage four courses. ((I found out that, though I’d cancelled my game the previous night well in advance, the players had all still turned up. Fortunately my Social Media blitz had allowed other referees in the room to let them know what had happened.))

The first game of the day was the Science Fiction scenario from the rulebook. I didn’t keep a note of all the characters but we had a family of four – a mum and dad and two teenage boys. The quieter one created and played Arnold Rimmer – really well. The more hyperactive one made an alien with “nuclear exploding powers”. The mum made a Space Monkey. There were two other – more typical – RPG players who turned up to play and one of them made a very competent Ship’s Pilot. The adventure was an absolute hoot, though keeping play balanced across the players was a GMing challenge. There were many great moments, but for me the standout was when Arnold Rimmer caught the NPC gang boss and Space Monkey using two of the few Escape  Pods to run away. The characters’ unarmed freighter was under assault from a fully armed alien cutter. Rimmer didn’t try to stop the escape. He simply called up the bridge and suggested the Captain roll the ship so that the Escape Pods could be used as missiles against the aliens. Ace!

A brilliant two hour lunchtime with loads of Networking. Then the afternoon was my second Manifold superhero scenario.  The table included another two mates – Jess and Gary Winter-Riley who organise the  ConQuord convention in Bristol. Gary created a Superhero called “Infinity over Null” who had……. Time bending powers. (The theme of the convention?) He (it?) was joined by “Dr Smith”, Photon, Packrat, “The Aussie”, and Bat Bing (“Wings of Steel!”) in their attempt to escape from under the heel of the fascistic “Parliament of Heroes” who had taken over the world. Much fun with standout moments being “Infinity over Null” dropping all the characters into Null Space. And, Dr Smith being knocked out but Pack-rat using his nanites to infiltrate her cybernetic limbs to keep her fighting as some kind of drone.
Tea was the only meal not provided as a reward for GMing, but I grabbed some toasties from the superb artisan booths right outside the event. More networking and “hi’s and goodbyes”.

The evening game was my mysterious occult Manifold one set on a Jumbo Jet. It was great to have Steve at the table. He seems to play in one of my games at every convention we’re at together. Great guy. I can’t give any details of this game. I’m really proud of the set-up. But it ran as well as ever and it was lovely to see the moment when the penny dropped and a player worked out what was going on. There was also, as always, some extremely deep debate about the nature of Freedom and Sin which came dangerously close to blasphemous at times. Thing were well oiled by me enjoying a few sneaky beers – possibly not from the bar.

Sunday morning I was able to manage a full five course breakfast and snaffled a banana for later. Didn’t bump into any mates, alas.
Then it was my Manifold Firefly scenario where the villains from the series get together to hunt down the crew. Though it was fully booked, the rigours of Expo had taken their toll. Three players failed to turn up – when players book as a couple and drop out as a couple, it leaves a big hole. And two of the remaining three players were exhausted from playing in “the Dark Room” until 2am that morning. They chose to play Saffron, Badger and Patience – not the toughest group to take on Mal and his mates. After much fun and searching, and thinking up and discarding various plans, they basically ended up with a typical double cross like Patience tried to pull way back in episode 1 of the series. TPK. Fun but TPK.

Remember my game was up for an award? I didn’t hold out much hope – it wasn’t being played at the convention – apart from my two games – and both other contenders had stalls in the trade hall.  But I was asked to delay my afternoon game to go over to the main stage for the award ceremony. I used the 2 hour lunchtime to browse the trade hall. It was bloody fantastic. Bright, lively, easy to navigate, loads going on. The cosplay was magnificent. I’ve been to a ComiCon recently and was struck by the contrast. I found the ComiCon to be drab and commercial and aimed at taking money from the punters and expecting them make their own fun. Expo is about giving punters a fun experience first and selling them stuff second. There are ComiCons virtually every month across the country. Can’t we do the same with Game Expo’s?

I went to the award ceremony and – as expected – didn’t win anything. ((I rushed back to my game only to find that neither the players or RPG team had been informed I’d been asked to delay my game and lost half the table of players.)) I had three players for my Dr Who game, a couple and a young man who wanted to play but who said his parents would be along to collect him before the end of the game. All three agreed to start. Because of the late start, they used pregens. (A shame. The male half of the couple had been planning to make and play William Hartnell. Not the first Doctor - the actor. I would have LOVED that!) So we had an Ice Warrior, a student timelord and a 1960’s hippy confidence trickster. The younger player told me he’d stepped in to run a game of The Code of Warriors and Wizardry as part of Games on Demand when Lloyd was short of GM’s. When his parents came to collect him, his dad thanked me for Golden Heroes and Squadron UK and the fun they’d brought HIM. Wow! Two generations of fans.

After they left, the couple continued alone. They were totally outpowered by the “big bad”, but out-foxed it and came up with a clever solution to the scenario I’d never seen before – and I’ve run it countless times. Obviously with only two players the game wrapped up two hours early and I offered to take the couple down for request a partial refund but they said they’d enjoyed it and it wasn’t necessary.

So I packed up and set off home a bit early.

Two last things:

1) I’ve put in double brackets above things that didn’t work perfectly at Expo. This is for full disclosure and honesty and not to criticise anyone or the event. In an event this size there are bound to be glitches and you’ll see that these were all fairly minor and easily resolved.

2) I’d been asked to be “Room Captain” for my room. It turned out I was down to be “Iron Room Captain” and do it for the whole weekend. Though the role is a minor (but useful) one, I found it stressful. I was so busy playing my game that I missed a group of players without a GM in my room. I felt bad about that. Then there was one group – against the run of play – that over-ran by almost three quarters of an hour, which meant, theoretically,  I couldn’t leave the room. (Of course I found a way around it.) I may not volunteer for the role next year. If I do, it will be for a limited number of sessions.

Final thoughts? Expo has always been good but this year felt brighter, happier and even better organised. I need to think seriously about what I want out of 2019. Is there any point in putting a game in for an award if you’re not trading in the main hall to promote and support it? Do I REALLY need to run 8 (9 if you count Thursday night) RPG games? I probably need some time off to enjoy (eg.) The Dark Room or maybe run some Games on Demand. ((The price of beer at the event and especially in the Hilton remains immorally high.))

But despite all the stress in the run-up and disruption to my plans at the event, Games Expo 2018 made me HAPPY.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Running a one hour adventure - (1)

I love the tabletop Role Playing Game (TTRPG) hobby and, as it comes more and more into the mainstream, I want to introduce new people to it. So I visit non-RPG venues and events with a set-up I call "Choose Your Adventure". I offer to run Introductory Adventures for people unfamiliar with the hobby.

Key to this is a range of preprepared adventures which I can run in a very short period of time - I typically aim for an hour.

An RPG mate of mine, Guy Milner, has been looking at this idea from a different angle. His thoughts can be found here.

Such short games are also beginning to find their way into TTRPG Conventions, where game "slots" used to be typically 4 hours in length.  People now offer "games on demand" which passersby can just drop into and play for an hour or so. At first these were "story" games, but recently many of us more traditional RPG referees have been able to join in because of our experience of running shorter form games.

So how do you organise and run a one hour RPG adventure?

In my Choose Your Adventure setup I let people choose from:

- Fantasy/"Dungeons and Dragons"
- Space Opera
- Dr Who
- Firefly/Serenity
- Star Wars
- Steampunk
- Superheroes
- Gothic Horror

For half of these I use exactly the same adventure, just "reskinned". I thought I had different unique adventures for the D&D, Horror, Superhero and Space Opera ones but, when I came to thinking about this article, I realised - to my surprise - that even the D&D and horror adventures stick the to same basic structure as my "standard" scenario.

Since D&D is so ubiquitous, I'll use that scenario as the main example.

First of all - the adventure I use is one of three in my set up that I didn't design myself. I use "The Delian Tomb" designed by Matt Colville in the following YouTube Video.

I like the idea that if people have enjoyed the adventure, I can point them to a short video where an enthusiastic advocate for the hobby can talk them through how it was designed. The video contains a link where you can download the adventure as well as
Iinks to pregenerated characters and the free D&D 5th ed rules. It's a one-stop free starter pack for D&D.

Matt, however, didn't design the adventure to be run in one hour. But I've found it's perfect. It follows my standard structure for one hour games:

1. Choose an appropriate game system
2. Make sure you have enough kit for everyone
3. Make pregenerated characters
4. Set the scene and give the characters a compelling reason to act
5. Alllow/encourage/coax/force the players to make decisions
6. Fight with Mooks to learn the combat system
7. Some investigation leading to the final scene
8. Fight with boss and minions with real stakes
9. Closing scene

1. Before you start, choose an appropriate game system.

It has to have an easy to grasp central game mechanic and you have to be able to play out a simple combat quickly. D&D 5th Edition is fine - roll a d20, add a number, try to beat the opponent's Armour Class. Easy.

Personally, I use David Black's THE BLACK HACK, stripped down D&D rules - roll d20 under Strength to hit. I'll explain why in a bit.

2. Make sure you have enough kit for every player.

This may seem trivial but it's vital. You're not going to get through a game in an hour if the players have to share dice, pencils or erasers. You can buy a full set of D&D dice for multiple players complete with dice bags from Amazon et al for a minimal cost. I did. It's really worth the investment.

3. Pregenerated characters.

There's no way you can make characters and get through an adventure in an hour.

(I have managed this but it was  using my own game system and I'm very experienced at what I do. But even I found the tIme very tight).

So you need pregenerated characters for the players. They need to be clear standard archetypes. Each character should be clearly defined on their own character sheet. There needs to be a big colour picture of the character. The game information on the sheets should be the minimum needed to play the character.

This is where I find The Black Hack scores over 5th Ed. I have run this one hour Dungeon using 5th Ed. rules and the pregenerated characters from the excellent 5th Ed starter pack. The whole pack is excellent value for money but I find that even first level characters have a lot of bells and whistles on the character sheets, which are distracting for new players. If you decide you use 5th Ed for a one hour intro game, I'd strongly recommend you produce stripped down sheets showing only the essential rules. In big type.

Even using the minimal Black Hack character sheets I find some players fixating on the contents of their backpacks!

Characters should be first level. Choose their spells for them. Make sure you have enough characters.

I have a Fighter, an Archer (elf), Wizard (half elf), Cleric and Thief (hobbit). I have alternate versions of each character in two different genders (it just means a change of picture) which I've laminated back to back. This reversible gender idea is one is was given by the UK convention maestro John Dodd and is easy and inclusive. The lamination is so I can so I can reuse them. I give the players dry wipe pens and have spare copies. If I get more than 5 players, one can play the female fighter and one the male version etc.

Think through your adventure and be prepared to make changes if you have 6 players turn up. Or only two and they choose to play the Wizard and Thief.

4. Set the scene. Give the characters a compelling reason to act.

Give the players a short, evocative, intro to the situation. Make them feel like they're THERE. Provide a motive to drive them forward.

Matt gives a short version of this, which I favour, in his first video. (He then gives a longer intro in a later video which I don't recommend for new referees or one hour games.) The characters have been hunting goblins that have kidnapped the blacksmith's daughter. She needs to be rescued.

Personally I've adapted his intro. His driver is the classic "damsel in distress" situation which is not so de rigeur in the 21st century, I have the players come across an overturned cart, an injured farmer and his wounded wife. Having bound his wounds, she's about to heft the family broadsword and head off into the forest to rescue their son and daughter (and recover their farm goods).. She sees the characters and begs for help.

5. Allow/encourage/coax/force the players to make decisions.

Don't say "you head off into the forest to rescue the children", say "what do you do?" Because I'm often working with new players, I will sometimes point out they can do whatever try want from following the goblins' trail to murdering the couple and stealing what little they have left.

(I've never had anyone actually murder the couple but if anyone ever does, the Mook encounter will become the City Watch and the final encounter will be with the City Marshal and his deputies. They might have the same statistics as a bugbear and some goblins but the players don't need to know that.)

Don't say "you charge the goblins guarding the doorway to the dungeon" ask "what do you do?" and let the players decide how they're going to tackle the threat.

6. Gratuitous fight with Mooks to learn the combat system

Typically there are three goblins guarding the doorway. Adjust the numbers to suit  characters present.  Not much of a threat and an easy fight. But if they don't put them down quickly one will run back into the dungeon. This will require a quick decision to be made. It's never to early for them to learn they're in a real world, with thinking opponents, not just a computer game.

7. Some investigation leading to the final scene

One of the reasons I run this scenario is because it's a DUNGEON and it lets the players experience exploring and mapping a dungeon. It's got a couple of interesting rooms, a rich history, a nice puzzle and a classic trap. There are no choices in the dungeon map, so the players head straight to the final encounter in good time but still  have the chance to do some searching and discovering.

8. Fight with the boss and minions with real stakes.

In the "final" room, there's a bugbear and some more goblins. This guy is a real beast. - especially, I've found, in 5th edition. Can they defeat the bad guys and rescue the children before the monsters roast them? Characters may die here. I've had a total party kill at least once running this adventure. You generally try to avoid character deaths in these short scenarios but there has to be real jeopardy and it sometimes happens. I've never had anyone upset by it. More often I find when monsters are losing, they use the children as human shields which is interesting.

There is a hidden room with undead and a magic sword here to find  - if the characters solve the puzzle, but this takes the adventure beyond an hour. Usually players don't find this extra bonus.

9. Closing scene.

You don't really want to give experience points, though you may want to explain the concept of going up levels. So I finish the scenario with a graphic description of the parents hugging their children and thanking the characters. I then  personally thank the players and congratulate them on the way they played the game. Handshakes are not unknown. I want to leave them with positive memories of the game.

 I'll talk you through my other scenarios in my next post.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

DevaCon, Chester, 7th April 2018

I'm in the middle of an enforced hiatus from TTRPG convention attendance. I've missed several recently that I would normally go to.

This weekend (7th/8th April) I would normally have flown up to Scotland for the unique ConPulsion at Edinburgh Uni. But, like so many other events, I've had to skip it.

Then, at the last minute - 2pm on Friday 6th April - I found out I was free to go to DevaCon in Chester. This is a one day event organised by Stephanie McAlea of Stygian Fox Publishing. I'd been aware of it, of course, but had not been monitoring it closely because of my commitment to ConPulsion. It's advertised as a local convention for Chester and North Wales etc. It prides itself on being an inclusive event.

So I booked a train and entrance ticket and posted my intention to attend on Facebook and contacted Stephanie via the website and a couple of other routes. It seemed that loads of games had been organised in advance and publicised via
Facebook. So I doubted that I could slip any of mine in at the 11th hour. Apparently it was OK, though, so I dug out and emailed some old blurbs and sign up sheets from previous conventions for scenarios from my Manifold gamebooks.

Chester isn't too bad from Birmingham. I set out quite early and the journey was fine. I had a bit of a ropey moment when I arrived at Chester and found I'd left my hat on the train. I had to run back to get it. Phew! My flat cap and waistcoat are part of my convention alter ego and I wouldn't want to lose it.

The web-site said the venue - a Crown Plaza hotel - was only a mile from the station and I was early so I chose to walk. I got lost and wet in the rain. I swear Apple maps isn't as easy to use as Google Maps used to be. Still the exercise was good for me and I still arrived early.

As you'd expect, being in a proper hotel the facilities were good. Though it was early the doors to the booked conference room were open and lots people were in. Apart from gaming tables and signup desk (stuck in a corner) and the main desk, there was also a local trader selling TTRPG stuff and and area where the hotel sold drinks and food (burgers, butties, chips etc.)

Some signup sheets were out and some people were already signing up. Many of them, including mine, hadn't arrived yet and I hadn't been able to get any printed myself. When the rest of the sheets arrived it turned out that my Word files hadn't paginated correctly and my sheets were printed across several pages apiece, so I had to rip and stick them to make two very unprofessional looking things.

As I waited to see if I got any players, the room began to fill up. As always with these local conventions there'd apparently been some concern in advance that there might not be enough attendees and there were far too many games on offer. But, as usual, gamers made their minds up at the last minute. The room was full of gamers and I could barely recognise anyone. This is a big and popular hobby.

My Superhero game got no takers, so I pulled it down and looked for something to play. There were half a dozen full tables of TTRPG games, making it a busy and successful convention. The only game with slots left was The Princess Bride. I've never seen the film.

This is a Fudge-based game and is apparently part of a current Kickstarter. It was run by Paul. We chose from pregens. Aaron played Frankie - a female swashbuckler,  Andy was a Pirate, James played a French guy - wineglass always in hand and I played the lug.

The artwork and presentation of the game looks good. The interpretation of Fudge seems to work for the game - and there's certainly none of the "tagging aspects" stuff I find so distracting about Fate - but there's nothing particularly clever or inspiring about the rules. They do the job.

It was a straightforward introductory scenario but Paul is a good referee - and it turns out an old aficionado of Golden Heroes -  and all the guys were high quality Roleplayers so the session was an absolute joy.

The game finished early. So James pulled out a card game. A bit like "Cards Against Humanity" (which I dislike)  but based on you trying to say a TTRPG phrase on a card in the style of a designated NPC.  It was a pleasant way to fill the time and some of the phrases on the cards are very funny in their own right.

The morning session was 3.5 hours long with an hour's break for lunch.

My afternoon game - the SciFi scenario form the rulebook - had only one sign up, Andy from the morning game. All the other games on offer were fully signed up. There was one sign up and cross off in a Cthulhu game but not enough for me and Andy. A quick chat with Stephanie and it turned out that Stephen Turner (of Chivalry and Sorcery game) was also at a loose end. Slowly we ended up picking up more players and, before I knew it, I had a table of five.

As it was a "scratch" table I didn't stick to the SciFi scenario offered but let them pick from all four genres in the book and (because I had the pregens with me) my Dr Who and Orville scenarios. They chose Dr Who!

YES! That scenario I've run dozens of times at loads of conventions for three years now was going to get another run out!

Stephen and Pavel chose to run pregens. Stephen picked the Ice Warrior. Pavel chose the 1960's hippie con-man. (It turns out that this character is a bit of a dark horse and can be devastating in the right hands. Pavel handled him very effectively.)

All the others chose to make their own characters. Liam made a Security Guard from the near future. Callum made a Cyborg Space Pirate.

Andy made the philosopher Wittgenstein - in the middle of his military service in WW2 in full uniform with rifle. Quality stuff.

You all know how much I love this scenario and I'm not going to give the details away here. There are still probably a couple of people in the world who haven't played it yet. Let's just say that this was a great group who had great fun and who steamrollered through everything. I'm kicking myself that I forgot about a reroll I'd picked up earlier in the game which I could have used to offset the critical roll which took out the big bad at the end. But that would only have put off the inevitable.

And I got two great quotes about Manifold out of it. Apparently it's:

"High Variance Goofiness"

which I agree with (though I say it has a "cinematic range of outcomes").

But it's also:

"Like the love child of GURPS and Paranoia"

Love it!

The second session was 3.5 hours long with a half hour break at the end. There is a third session in the evening, but I couldn't stay as I had to make my way back to Birmingham.

DevaCon is a pleasant and welcoming convention in a good venue and location. It prides itself on being inclusive - apparently someone was removed right at the start for not sticking to the inclusion policy - and relies upon the niceness of TTRPGers to enable its success. And the people here today were a bloody nice group and the event was a rollicking success. I'd happily come back.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Spaghetti ConJunction 2B was everything I've always hoped for.


TLDR: Spaghetti ConJunction  2a was a great success. Roleplayers are just such NICE people!

I'll let you into a secret. There doesn't seem to be that much to do to organise a simple little games day like Spaghetti ConJunction. However, when it's you doing the organising it's amazing how the simple little things mount up.

This was our third SCJ, hosted again by the wonderful people of Geek Retreat in Birmingham. 1a (last February) was a great start, over 40 people. 1b (November 2017) was a lovely little event but may have had less than 30 people in all. There were sterling efforts from my fellow organisers - James Mullen and Matthew "Pookie" Pook - to promote 2b (especially Pookie's indefatigable work producing press release after press release) but we have a very free and easy approach to SCJ. We eschew prebooking to give everyone an equal chance on the day. But the corollary of this is that we have literally no idea who - if anyone - is turning up. So, naturally, I always panic that we might have no one turn up - or too many.

The day started damp and miserable. Pookie and I met for a quick pre convention breakfast in a local hostelry. James was delayed - as were several other attendees it turned out. I got to Geek Retreat about quarter of an hour before the advertised start time to find an handful of stalwarts had arrived early and we're waiting outside in the rain.

Note to self: for 2b promote a nearby warm place people can wait if they arrive early and Geek Retreat isn't open yet.

We got in and set up and it seemed like the floodgates opened. It was only about 50 people but I felt a bit overwhelmed on the front desk. (I don't think I've actually manned it before. It was a case of being in the right place at the wrong time.)

We have shamelessly lifted the Concrete Cow sign up system. Browse the sign up sheets but you get a numbered ticket. Numbers from 0 through 9 are drawn at random and if your ticket ends in that number you come to sign up. Saves crowds and shoving. If you're new to the convention or refereeing a game in the other slot, you get to sign up first. It's all very well thought out and works well.

Except when half the attendees are new to the convention! Bless 'em they were all very very civilised. But it was like the old days as two dozen people all descended upon the sign up sheets at once!

We had 7-8 games in the morning,  most of which filled out and ran. There was a bit of horse trading at the end, I think.

I got four players for my riff on "The Orville" TV series. I suspected that all you have to do is to run a simple Star Trek scenario and then let a bunch of Roleplayers loose on it. And I was right.

I basically had a version of the Star Trek second pilot - the one with the energy barrier at the edge of the galaxy and a crew member getting godlike psychic powers - but with added Krill. I'd prepared pregens but the players all agreed to make their own characters. By far my preference.

I had Steve, Andrew , Luca and Luca (it's a popular name in Italy). Steve was the ship's pilot - a cybernetically enhanced feline. Andrew made a Lizardman science officer. Luca was the ship's Engineer - who was far better at improvising weapons than he was at fixing engines - and Luca was the engineering robot who actually did all the repair work. The Engineer was the only human and even he was heavily cybernetically enhanced. All were GREAT characters, but my favourite twist was the engineering droid - who had appalling Social Skills - having in-built Muzak to give him a boost with those rolls.

Nobody made a Captain, so I gave them a doddery aging Hero of the Union in charge of his last command in his last year of service.

They were a great team. Not only did they investigate the dead Krill warship they discovered (they'd all mysteriously killed each other) they actually managed to take it over. But two more Krill warships were inbound and the crew had to pierce the energy barrier to download information from an ancient buoy before the Krill could get it.

So a plan was concocted involving sending a remote piloted captured Krill shuttle through the barrier, whilst using the a captured warship to lull the approaching ships into a false sense of security. Then the plan was to get in line with them and activate the Quantum drive - ramming them at superluminal speed. Trouble is, there wasn't time to rig remote controls for the ship and the shuttle, so someone had to volunteer to pilot the warship by hand. A suicide mission. The NPC Captain insisted he do it.

Guess what? He missed - disappearing into warp space - leaving his ship at the mercy of two Krill warships without its Captain.

Somehow the team managed to hold off the attack long enough to download the data and blow the ancient buoy. Then they also managed to show the Krill a clean pair of heels. Mission accomplished, and they hadn't even had to penetrate the energy barrier. (Grrrr.) With an hour still to go.

But it turned out their Captain had been captured by the Krill and they crew had to rescue him before he could crumble to interrogation. It'd already been established on the TV series how to do this (holographic projectors etc.) but this team were again amazingly efficient.

Despite this, it was a great session with some superb Roleplaying. Many laughs. Just give Roleplayers a Star Trek adventure and you have The Orville. Definitely an adventure to run out again. (I ran very little of what I'd prepared.)

An hours break. Then the raffle.

Ah, the raffle! Roleplayers are wonderful people and Roleplaying companies are as well. The prizes we'd had donated were amazing. There was a bit of a hitch when Pookie unboxed the secret prize, a copy of Zweihander, and there was a last minute rush on raffle tickets. And I LOST the book of tickets!

Once this was sorted, though, we rattled through the raffle in record time. If we're not the fastest raffle on the circuit, I want to know just who is faster - and how!

Signups for the afternoon games was also very swift and efficient. My new Dr Who scenario got no takers, so I still don't know how well it runs. (I guess bringing back a villain from the era of the 2nd Doctor after 50 years, doesn't interest many people under 60).

There were a plethora of games I could have slipped into as a player but my wife is away on business and I'd agreed to travel up to Sheffield to meet her after the convention, so I chose to leave everything in the capable hands of James and Pookie and left early.

SCJ 2B was amazing! About 50 attendees, half of whom I've never seen on the circuit before. Lots of younger (20 something) faces amongst the Grognards. The venue remains perfect (though we developed a bit of a queue for the toilets). The raffle prizes were amazing. The games and referees were stunning. But what made it were the players. Roleplayers are such bloody NICE people. There was a lovely vibe in the room. I really loved it.

Thanks everyone! See you at 2b!

(Or NOT 2b?)