Saturday, 14 March 2020

Concrete Cow 20 - Wolverton, Milton Keynes, Sat. 14th March 2020

Concrete Cow 20 - Wolverton, Milton Keynes 14th March 2020

TLDR: Still one of the best Games Days in the country. Still essential. Just don’t take it for granted.

I’ve written about Concrete Cow - in this blog and the printed diaries that predate it - so many, many times that I was tempted to just cut and paste an old report. But, hey, they’ll all here so just scroll down and pick one.

What made THIS year unique, however, was how my taking it for granted came back to bite me in the butt.

The first different thing that happened was that a gaming buddy who I introduced to CC offered me a lift down in his car. I refused because the annual trips down to CC are the times when me and my fellow organiser of Spaghetti ConJunction meet up on the train and chat about it. We never formally organise this, it just happens.

Then I left my train ticket purchasing to near the time and my packing until the morning of the event. This probably a symptom of this being my fifth convention in five weekends. To be sure I packed everything I needed I got up super early. So early in fact that I thought I had time to finish off a small gaming project I’ve got*. I knew I’d left a massive safety margin. 

When I’d finished, however, I found time was tight so had to ring a taxi to take to New Street Station. There I bumped into another gaming buddy. He’d booked advance singles. I smugly said I had an open return and went to find my usual train - only to find I’d just missed it. I ended up on my friend’s train going via Milton Keynes. Only to find that my “open return” didn’t cover all train companies and I had to buy another ticket.

As usual the short walk to the event was easy and I even had time for a detour into the supermarket next door to buy some index cards.

I got to the con just in time to throw down my morning sign up sheet and pay for entry - smugly refusing a Golden Ticket for priority sign ups. I was offering games in both the morning and afternoon and knew that if I HAD to play, I’d pick up my game in the horse-trading after the event.

As it turned out neither the friend who’d offered me the lift nor my fellow convention organiser had chosen to attend due the a virus epidemic currently gripping the nation. (I wasn’t worried myself. CC is a small con populated by decent people.)

I’d guess there were 40-50 people present - which seemed very healthy compared to CC19a -  but there seemed to be about ten games on offer so I wasn’t sure I’d get players for mine. A Call of Cthulhu game run by a CoC celebrity signed up within 5 seconds. In fact 2 of the first 3 games filled were Cthulhu. 

When the sign-ups were over, I wandered up to the table, expecting my signup sheet to be empty only to find I had four players!

This was my Judge Dredd meets Agatha Christie game which I’d run 3 times at conventions over the previous month. The players were all highly experienced and it was great fun. I’d rather one of the cleverer players hadn’t elected to play the Rookie Judge when the player not familiar with the genre chose to play the experienced street Judge. A swap of roles might have helped. And a critical success on a die roll allowed the PCs to catch one of the antagonists in the act which turned the final act into an intellectual rather than a physical confrontation. (However, if I write and referee a set of rules that are so swingy and unpredictable I have to able to live with the consequences.) It was still a very good game and I am blissfully happen with the way this scenario runs.

A swerved a debate about the current Dr Who series (why DO so many people moan about this perfectly decent TV SciFi show?) and nipped to the supermarket to buy a meal deal. (CC is in a perfect Venue for a games con.)

For the afternoon, I put down a Dr Who sign up sheet offering to run a sequel to the newly completed TV series. I am fully aware that many people have turned off the series but the new crop of characters make a perfect role-playing group and I keep offering games featuring them.

At the end of the sign ups, I had no one pick it. No problem, I thought, horse trading. 


There was only one sign up sheet left. It was for FTL - “four tiny LARPS”. This was a brilliant concoction of LARP scenarios where you spend a few minutes reading your characters and then play out a highly intense time-limited scene to resolve the story. This only had two sign ups. The designer insisted on having EXACTLY 5 players. With me and the last unsigned player this gave 4 players. The Referee agreed to play the 5th part(s) himself but then asked to a separate room to play in. By the time we’d found one - one of the players had left. I tried to convince the group to switch to my Dr Who game but they chose to play board games instead.

I can’t play board games. I CAN’T.

All of the other games were full. It is highly unusual to have such a close match of games to players. At UK conventions there are usually far more Referees offering games than are needed. But this is a perfectly possible outcome of running a “sort it all out on the day” convention like Concrete Cow.

So I said my goodbyes and left. I didn’t even feel too bad about it. 5 conventions in 5 weekends is a lot and I’d had a great day out meeting friends and getting to Referee my current favourite scenario.

Concrete Cow remains a perfect little event. My misadventures today were the result of me - having done so many conventions and so many Concrete Cows - thinking I could sleep walk through the prep. My fault.

Yes it’s like an olde English Tea-house compared to the Starbucks of the modern convention scene but it’s still quietly magnificent. It should be an ESSENTIAL part of everyone’s annual gaming schedule IMHO. If you can get to Milton Keynes - you should get to Concrete Cow at least once per year.

* Gears and Gentility - a SteamPunk “Hack” of Lasers and Feelings. Coming soon!

And now for the painful bit:

Travel (Including Taxi and two train fares): £44
Entry: £5
Food (coffee at the venue was free): £4.12
Total: £53:12

Cost per game played: £52.12. 
Cost per hour: £15.50

What they SHOULD have been (if I’d been on my A game) was:

Travel: £15
Entry: £5
Food: £4.12

Total £24.12

Cost per game played: £12.06
Cost per hour: £3.45

Note to self: Dick!

Monday, 9 March 2020

Convergence 2020 - Stockport - 6th-8th March 2020

TLDR: a growing convention that delivers a full weekend of games - Friday to Sunday - at a great venue.

This was the fourth Convergence convention. This was my the second one I was able to attend. Last year I managed to referee 5 out of the 6 games I offered, though the last one has only had 2 players. This year was better in so many ways.

It's in Stockport, which I'm familiar with due to my bi-annual visits to StabCon in the same town. It's based at Element Games - which occupies several massive rooms in what seems to be a redeveloped warehouse. There are inexpensive hotels just over the road. I managed to get into one just a short walk from the venue even though I booked at the last minute in the week running up to the event.

The venue remains very impressive. Through the doors is a games store packed from floor ceiling with all manner of games and accessories. Through this is a massive hall with a basic cafe type counter - selling mainly drinks , including bottled beers, and snacks. (Pint of Diet Pepsi £2.50, bottled beers £3.20.) There are no food offerings on site. However, the venue allows you to order in food from outside - there is a pizza menu on the counter - or bring in your own. There is a good fish and chip shop only a couple of minutes from the front door of the venue and an excellent bakery offering superb pies and sandwiches. (Not open on Sunday, alas.)

The hall is full of tables which are mainly used - it seems - for Wargames. The walls are stacked from floor to ceiling with all manner of massively impressive Wargames scenery, from all epochs and genres, and battle mats abound. You feel the urge to grab some to use on your table.

The convention is a full weekend convention - that is it offers a Friday night TTRPG games slot, three on Saturday and two on Sunday. There were also board games and wargames. The hall was mostly filled on Saturday with a HUGE X-Wing tournament and by various jaw-dropping wargames on Sunday. Proper Marvel Superheroes battles and huge purple aliens vs. I know not what. And more.

TTRPGs are partly prebooked using WarHorn with some places being reserved for sign up at the event. Prebooking was healthier than last year. Most of my games had enough players to run before the event - though I noticed some players signing up for more than one. One signed up for all 6 slots. 


About half a dozen TTRPG games ran in most slots, most with full tables. These were all at the far end of the room past the Wargames/X-Wing tables but before the - extremely popular - figure painting course.

These were all rectangular and lined up parallel. They seemed a bit close to each other so I suggested that the Referees “69” by sitting at alternating ends, which seemed to work very well.

The Pathfinder game was back,  run by a personable and extremely impressive "Iron GM" I know. He seemed to retain his playing group all weekend - which didn’t surprise me.

I was a bit embarrassed by all the people who knew me and greeted me by name who I had absolutely no memory of ever meeting before - a consequence of playing with almost 1,000 people a year, I suppose.

I offered games in all six slots. And they all ran with full tables - the smallest being 3 players and the largest being 6. Drill to the Heart of the World (Steampunk), Blakes Seven (a return of the game that had only garnered 2 players in 2019), d6 Hack classic Dungeon from an old White Dwarf (alas exactly the same one I’d offered in 2109 - I need to refer back to this blog when planning), a Manifold Horror game (different from 2019, luckily), a Judge Dredd game and concluding the The Murder on the Occidental Express (Steampunk again). All were great fun with good players who just wanted to have a good time. Highlights included:

  • a real life engineer nearly derailing my “drill” game by coming up with a really obvious and sensible engineering solution.
  • Pete turning up early to the Blakes Seven game to grab Avon.
  • Because I thought the d6 dungeon wouldn’t fill the full four hour slot, I started with one of my one hour demo games - not realising how well they dovetailed. The ending was epic!
  • Having the Con organiser as a player in my evening horror game.
  • Seeing players start out as Judges saying “The Law is the Law” and ending up in a three way legal debate. They turned the sentencing over to the Rookie Judge. His clever solution was so devastating it caused dropped jaws amongst players and senior judges alike.
  • Pete and another player resurrecting their Friday evening characters for the Sunday afternoon game. Including...... Owl boy! A 19th century Steampunk Batman knock off. 

Another improvement was the venue staff circulating unobtrusively, taking drinks orders. This upped their takings and made the gamers’ experiences better. They were universally wonderful, many - if not all of them - gamers themselves.

Unlike last year, the number of games remained healthy through to the last game on Sunday. I’ll admit after running 6 games I was feeling tired by Sunday afternoon. 

(This wasn’t helped by me having to rush in the mornings - Hotel Breakfast 8am, game starting at 9:30am. And the hotel having LOUD functions on both nights - music so loud earplugs didn’t work and the floor literally shaking. I won’t return there.) 

My last game ran short so I was able to leave a bit early. 

I gave Peter a hug, but to be honest I hadn’t even noticed him playing in all 6 games because he ran 5 totally different characters. 

The con organiser had given all Referees an Element Games voucher but I couldn’t find anything to buy so I left in the Tip Jar for the wonderful staff.

For me, Convergence is a small but growing, friendly, TTRPG convention tacked onto a larger general gaming convention at a great venue in an area with lots of inexpensive accommodation, making it a cheap residential convention which offers and delivers plenty of TTRPGs. It is simply great fun and is growing healthily. I loved it.

My costs:

Rail Travel: £41.20
Accommodation: £102 (including breakfast)
Food/drink: c. £50
Taxis: £15
Total: £203.20

Cost per game: £33.87
Cost per hour: £8.47

You would have to pay for an entry ticket., but this would include all games. I could cut costs by buying Advance single rail tickets and shopping for hotel deals further in advance. Also - and I HATE saying this - by not travelling up on Friday. Skipping that one game would save a whole night’s accommodation costs. 

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

ConCord 2020 - Bristol - Feb 29th/Mar 1st

ConCord - Bristol - 29th Feb/1st Mar 2020

I am lucky enough to have people who visit my table to play games more than once.

In fact there seem to a some who come to conventions looking to play one of my games already on their convention list. “We must remember to play in one of Simon’s games”.

What must be 5-6 years ago - possibly more - some of them told me it was their intention to set up their own convention in Bristol. Of course I threw my hat in the ring to referee some games at that first event.

That convention was ConQuord. I know I’ve written about the event somewhere before - possibly in my printed convention diaries. That first time was in a Bistro, on a Sunday and suffered from poor attendance. Getting to and from Bristol on public transport on Sunday proved to b a non-trivial task. But I remember some elements of the day with great affection.

The following year they expanded to two days into a comedy club above a bar. Again they had poor attendance despite having some great TTRPG referees and variety of demonstration game types on offer (eg Wargames) which didn’t get much trade. I was always occupied by dint of the TTRPG referees coming together to offer games to each other and was lucky enough to run one play one each day.

However, it was a bit sad seeing such effort going into an event and it not getting the support it deserved.

The next few ConQuords, I was always busy with convention clashes. I always told people I’d like to support it but, to be honest and to my shame, I didn’t really miss attending.

This year, however, I had no excuse. No clashes and the event was two days in a decent looking hotel with lots of events on offer. So there was no escaping and I had to put my money where my mouth is. Birmingham to Bristol is an easy journey (if it’s not Sunday morning!) so I was able to save money by booking a room just for the Saturday night.

I offered to run 5 games in the 5 published slots. (3 on Saturday, 2 on Sunday). These were publicised on the web-site in advance for prebooking and prepurchase of game tickets alongside convention entry tickets. I THINK a 5th Ed game sold out before the event but most games only sold one ticket, if that.

So I travelled down early Saturday morning. The hotel was a short (<£10) taxi ride from the station. The web-site recommended a couple of buses which I would have tried if I’d had more time.

The Taxi dropped me off at the hotel reception which led to some confusion as I actually got into the convention via the back door. I have to say I was impressed. The hotel was built in 1760 and was well maintained. (Better than the 1910 hotel I’d stayed in the previous week but double the price.) When I found it the  convention entrance looked extremely professional with banners, printed programmes and, even, a ConCord convention special laser-cut fantasy football stadium you could buy if you wanted. Less professional was the hand-written flip chart which showed all the available TTRPGs and remaining spaces. Strangely it listed systems but not game details. Eg. My first game was listed as “The Code of the Spacelanes” rather than “Blakes Seven”.

Behind the entrance was a trade hall. Small with eclectic stalls. Lots of demo games in the middle. Drop in board games (professional library) to the side. Two TTRPG side rooms (small one, two tables, near the bar - larger one, three tables, in the bowels of the hotel). Also a very good little seminar room with stage and PA.

Morning games were due to start at 9:30 and AM and, despite my worries, before 10am I had a full table for my Blakes Seven game. Punters buy game tickets at the door and you collect them as Referee and as volunteer comes to collect them.

(There was a full and helpful group of green-shirted volunteers always on hand.)

There was the usual mix of B7 experts and newbies. We even had a fan of the Tarrant era! Vila, Avon, Jenna, Dayna and Tarrant. Great fun but these guys proved expert at side-stepping conflicts and resolving issues by cunning. They also exited by the “back door” which has always been written into the scenario but never found  by any previous group.

The official lunch break was 1:30-2:00 but I knew this was tight and wrapped my game up at 1:00

I then blagged an early check in to my room. Very large, 70s decor and facilities.

Went to the bar for lunch. Lager £4.20 a pint. Most lunches £11 ish. But nice. Orders backed up so I ordered a sandwich - £6 but crammed with stuff - not because it would be any quicker but because it could take it into my gaming room if time ran out.

If cost is an issue, Burger King and sainsbury are nearby.

Lots of people in the bar to chat to. I finished my lunch in good time and went to the front desk to check on my game. Only 2 signups. I went to my room to drop some books on the table and a man there checking it out. 

I asked if he was looking for my game. He was. I told him there were only two players signed up. He said:

“That’s my boys.”

I asked if he was playing. He said the wasn’t and would be back in a couple of hours!

One thing Referees resent is being used as a crèche. Also there’s child protection issues. I wouldn’t leave my two preteen sons with me.

I don’t mind running games for young people, as long as their parents are present and - preferably - playing. Also this father HAD brought his sons somewhere they wanted to be to participate in a beneficial experience.

I reported the issue to the organisers. The solution was to send me a young lady (20’s) - known to the organisers but not an official volunteer - to play at the table. She was wonderful. Actively participating but also encouraging the two boys. Basically a chaperone. Good solution.

Instead of the full White Dwarf dungeon I ran The Delian Tomb (completely from memory!) and, when they liked that, a further one hour demo of my own design.

We wrapped up after 2 hours and the boys rang their dad and disappeared. I thanked my chaperone and took a rest in my room. Walking past the seminar room I saw Jollyboat setting up. I knew they’d agreed to appear but had assumed they’d be playing the evening slot whilst I was refereeing. It turned out they were playing in the extended break between afternoon and evening games.

(9:30-1:20, 2:00-6:00, 8:00-midnight. ConCord seems wed to the old 4 hour slots which are so difficult to fit into a single day.) 

I sneaked in and said  “hello” to the guys, gratified they remembered me.

A drink, a bit of reading for my evening game (which has far more moving parts than is usual for my games) and then it was in to see the show. Free. But still the seminar room wasn’t rammed.

This didn’t disturb Jollyboat though who came out and did the same 
sort of set they do at U.K. Games
Expo. They just want to be happy singing silly songs and they want you to be happy too. I WAS happy and bought my first (I suspect not my last) Jollyboat T-shirt.

I again chose to eat in the bar. The good looking and sub £10 pizzas were off so I had to have the £10+ fish and chips. As nice and hot and crisp as you’d expect.

My evening horror game only had a couple of signups - I’d thought - but with game swaps and cancellations I ended up with 5 players - at least two highly experienced referees I respected and one player new to TTRPGS. He’d played his first D&D game that afternoon.

I am extremely proud of the concept behind this scenario and won’t spoil it here. I may publish it - it’s that good.

The new player turned out to a TTRPG savante, deliberately playing an absolute buffoon and having the whole table in stitches. One of two experienced referees turned out to have studied Christian History listing Paradise Lost as one of his favourite texts. This trumped my own knowledge (which is firmly based on the films “Constantine” and “The Devil Rides Out”). He successfully and gloriously flipped the script, driving the game to an unexpected but satisfyingly nihilistic conclusion. With every other player happily eating the scenery throughout this was a great way to spend the night.

Breakfast didn’t start until 8:00am and I was there bright and early. This was in the original 1760 courtyard which had been roofed over conservatory style, with thronelike cast iron chairs. The breakfast was a typical hotel buffet breakfast  - pretty standard but far from the best I’ve had.

After breakfast I had to pack and check out -meaning I had to carry all my gear with me until the end of the - before going to set up my game. I had no players. Again I think if sign up sheet had said “Judge Dredd” rather than “The Code of the Spacelanes” I might have attracted some people.

The table next to me had one player. So I cancelled my game and joined that one. I had to buy a player’s ticket. We corralled an extra player and so had a 3 player game. Anime style Mech pilots in a wonderful bespoke setting.

This was a playbook style game and I played the engineer (call sign: Write-Off). For me there were a few too many items on the character sheet to keep track of, but these all act as player prompts, keeping the game on trope. There are also systems in play in character creation to build relationships between characters, and ones between games to build the overarching campaign story. Really useful for those unable or unwilling to Roleplay these elements themselves.

We ended up with a single, extended, highly tactical encounter played “theatre of the mind” which felt exactly like the pilot episode of a Netflix-commissioned  series about Mecha pilots - and which I enjoyed exactly as much.

We finished early thinking the lunch break was 1:30-2:00 like Saturday. However, it transpired that the
Sunday afternoon slot started an hour later(3:00-7:00) so we had plenty of time.

I again chose to eat in the hotel. This meant ordering a 2 course Sunday lunch. A (newly made at this convention) friend had made his luck roll and accidentally ordered a banned hamburger and chips via a new member of staff. My meal was good but a bit more substantial than I’d needed.

I chose not to attend the raffle but went to my afternoon game. This was a Steampunk scenario using my own Code of Steam and Steel rules. Several months ago I found that I needed new scenarios for the Steampunk conventions I visited and had asked for title suggestions which I could turn into one hour demonstration games. Some of these have proved so popular that I’ve expanded them into full Convention games.

This was the first time I was expanding “Murder on the Occidental Express” like this.

Though things had been quiet in the morning all four of the TTRPGs offered in the afternoon were sold out, including mine. I had five players - a solo D&D player and two married couples - three of whom had never roleplayed before. You’d never have guessed. A ship’s engineer, stage hypnotist, acrobat, Yankee Lawman and Doctor specialising in rare diseases were duly made.

Things started slowly. When I expand a scenario I always add an introductory encounter which takes place before the one hour scenario storyline kicks in. The scene I added - with Goodtime Bertie trying to stowaway to the Americas, proved a trifle bland and will require some tweaking before I run this adventure again. 

But once we got into the meat of the adventure - the Murder, the mad dash up and down the 5 great liners making up the “train”, the shootouts, the completely unexpected Botanists’ Convention etc etc it was rollicking good fun. Alas a bit of analysis paralysis meant they were too slow to stop the express being sunk, but at least all the rich passengers survived.

And then I caught my train home.

In summary, I was struck by the similarities between ConCord and Dudley Bug Ball the week before. A bold and brave attempt to run a complete analogue gaming con - along the lines of Expo, AireCon, Dragonmeet and TableTop Scotland. (I didn’t see any CCGs.) Ambitious, well organised and successful but built for a far larger audience than attended - which gives the unfair impression of it being quiet and unsuccessful. It could easily accommodate and cater for 3 times the current attendance - probably more. It has all bases covered. 

The venue was good - possibly too good as it was a bit pricey for many gamers.  If the event grows I’d recommend the organisers negotiate with the venue’s catering manager to offer some gamer friendly fare as do many other events have done (even Expo).

My only other note would be to have full TTRPG details clearly visible at the front desk rather than just the systems.

But, for some reason, ConCord just made me HAPPY. The completely gratuitous injection of Jollyboat helped, of course. But I think I’m old enough to enjoy eating in a nice hotel. And the company was exceptional. Gamers are always wonderful, of course, but this was a great blend of people.

My costs:

Travel: £24
Accommodation: £84 (1 night inc breakfast)
Taxis £15
Food/drink: c£60
Game ticket: £4

Total:  £187

Price per game: £37.40
Price per hour: £9.16

Against this you have to factor in the free Jollyboat spot.

A player would have to pay £20 entry for the weekend and £4 ticket for each TTRPG but there are loads of free activities - seminars, wargames, board games - so you wouldn’t have to RolePlay in every slot. You could also shave costs by staying in alternative accommodation, eating outside the hotel and drinking less lager than me.

Sunday, 23 February 2020

Dudley Bug Ball 22nd/23rd February 2020, Dudley

TLDR: An ambitious event, with its heart in the right place. Some good gaming with massive potential for growth. One to watch. 

Several years ago (a decade?) there was a successful Games Convention in Dudley in the West Midlands.  For some reason it stopped running.

Last year its organiser decided to bring it back. It was a mixed success. Full of ambition, this year he decided to double down and expand it to two days. His philosophy seems to be “If you build it, they will come” and I cannot fault him for that. Its ambition is one of the reasons that I am happy to support this event.

Last year, I chose to offer my one hour demonstration #TTRPGs in the main/trade hall. They got very little footfall. So this year I elected to offer full/four hour games in the side rooms of the event.

Prior to the event, communication is mainly through Facebook. There is a web-site but most traffic seems to be via Social Media. I submitted five games well in advance and these were posted on the Facebook page and web-site. Game booking is via sign up sheets on the day and there is no prebooking.

As I was on half-term holiday from the job that pays my wages, I chose to make a weekend of it and travel to the event Friday evening, even though there were no official events arranged for that slot. I figured enough people would be staying over that I’d be able to meet up with people and - maybe - arrange an ad hoc game. Last year there had been an outing to a Black Country pie shop, so I assumed something might be on. Anyway the hotel is still inexpensive - even though the prices had gone up from a ludicrous £25 per night in 2019 to a more reasonable £45 a night in 2020.

Though Dudley is right next door to Birmingham, travelling there on public transport is a non-trivial activity. Like EVERYONE else, in 2019 I’d assumed that one the two train stations with the name “Dudley” was near Dudley and had ended up having to get a taxi from the station to the Hotel. This year I tried to carefully plan ahead but every travel planning web-site gave a totally different route depending upon the time of travel. Walking, bus, train and tram were all recommended in various combinations. Eventually I chose to travel by train again but, this time, researched the bus from the station to the hotel.

I arrived early evening on Friday. The Hotel of the event is magnificent edifice. Over 100 years old, in it’s day it must have been fantastic. It still has a really impressive sweeping staircase from the reception to the bedrooms. Getting in wasn’t easy. All of the front/road-facing doors to the building were locked and signs were displayed saying the building was protected by a security company. Access is through the doors to the car park. Like so many of the UK’s Hotels, this venue is one I describe as “fading glory”. The Staff - mostly very young this year - compensate for this by being  extremely courteous, helpful and professional.

It is also the most haunted Hotel in the country. The convention organiser is STILL trying to get the owners to let him arrange a Call of Cthulhu game in the basement at night but they seem reluctant.

After checking into my room, I went down to the bar for a drink, some food and to see if anyone was around. I ordered soup of the day and faggots (it being the Black Country) but - with those being unavailable - (I was offered anything I wanted off the menu for the price of the faggots as compensation), I ended up with a burger. The soup appeared to be freshly made and was good. The burger was burnt meat. Just the way I like it.

In the end, only two fellow referees came in for a chat - they were staying in the premier inn over the road. The loud music seemed to indicate that the Hotel’s banqueting suite- the main venue for the convention -  was booked out to a family event that night. The bar was mostly full of people from the local “ghost hunting” club.

After some nice chat and more beer than I usually drink - inexpensive for a hotel but still not cheap - I turned in.

I got up early and went down to the Hotel Breakfast. I wasn’t impressed - compared to other venues I stay at or the offering last year at the same Hotel. I went to the banqueting hall to find the Organisers and Traders setting up. There wasn’t anything for me to do, so I took the opportunity to nip out and walk up the hill to the city centre to stock up on food for Sunday’s breakfast.

The room I was playing in was a short walk from the Trade Hall. I went in and laid out the character sheets for my first game (Blakes Seven) so that anyone looking would know where I was. This room was a twee setting which would not have been out of place in an Agatha Christie murder denouement.

The main hall was ringed by an eclectic variety of traders. I didn’t look too closely but I think its the kind of place you’d struggle to buy mainstream games but might be lucky in finding exactly that game you’d searching for for months. There were lots of tables set up in the central space where short demonstration games - mainly board games - were on offer. There were LOADS of people I knew from other events and I lost a lot of time in greetings and catching up.

There was some confusion over sign up sheets. Once I’d asked where they were and found them, they covered a large table. All of the sign up sheets for all of the games for both days of the convention - and loads of blank sign up sheets - had been put out together on the table in no particular order, with a single pen. The 5th Ed game was full and running, but no other game had a full table yet as people were only just arriving. I took into upon myself  to re-arrange the sheets into an order that made sense to me, grabbed as couple of extra pencils from reception and suggested the people who hadn’t got as game yet join the one signed up player to my Blakes Seven game.

We started the game with 3 players but were joined by 2 others who arrived at the convention a little bit later. The game went well with the usual combination of people who know and love the old series and youngsters who’d never heard of it. We ended up with Avon, Vila, Jenna, Soolin and Gan in play. The game was fun as usual with the “storyline” and special effects rules bringing in Jenna’s ex-partner, their young daughter and Vila’s younger sister. The climax had Avon revealing himself as a Federation Agent who’d lured them all into a trap only to be shoved into an alien deathtrap by Jenna as Gan said “Hang on, I think this is just one of Avon’s clever plans.”

One of the players then flattered me by pulling out a copy of virtually all of my games and asking me to sign them. Apparently I’d already signed his copy of “Golden Heroes” back in the 1980’s.

Though I finished early, the official gap between games is only half an hour so I ordered a couple of cobs at the bar assuming they were premade. Unfortunately they are bespoke orders like all other food. But I finished them just in time for my afternoon game.

This was a classic White Dwarf scenario - one of my favourites - run using my “d6 Hack” rules. Old school gamers just wanting to get back to the good old days. Great fun. The only issue was that my rules make the game run much faster and I was considering what I could tack on the pad things out. Then, luckily, the players messed up the climax and we ended up with them holed up in the dungeon surrounded by bad guys. There were too many bad guys for them to fight their way out but the dungeon was incredibly defensible. So we had a Mexican stand-off. Fortunately, I think I managed to work my way out of it. The party ended up selling out the NPC who’d hired them - blaming him for the death of the bad guys’ “God” - in return for being allowed to leave. We finished a bit early but I explained to the players that this would just give them more time to order tea. 

I ordered a spicy Tortilla wrap in the bar. With soup of the day again. (The chef, it turns out, is a D&D player who wrote things on the chalk boards like “Need to slay some Ice golems? Try our hot vegetable soup” and something about flaming hot peanuts and dragons.)

The organiser told me that things were quietening down and that I could run my evening game in the main hall. He was very pleased how the day had gone. There’d been some problems with trains through Birmingham (no surprise to me) but they’d still had 70 people arrive and the demonstration games in the main hall had been running pretty non-stop.

As it turned out, I had insufficient people for my evening game and so switched to a game of “The Man in the High Castle” mashed up with Call of Cthulhu. Good game with good RolePlaying but slightly more slow-burn than the games I run.

Having decided not to partake of the Hotel breakfast I was able to lie in a bit and eat my supermarket bought goodies in my room. I went down, left the character sheets in the room again (Dr Who this time) and  went to check out things in the main shall.  Again I only had one player signed up for my game. Eventually the available gamers coalesced into a Pathfinder game. I found a late arriving couple trying to make sense of the table of sign up sheets and directed them to an excellent German “plushy toys trying to survive in the real world” game everybody had been raving about. This left me at as loose end so I told the organiser I was happy to run drop in games if anyone arrived late and was looking for something to do. 

Nobody did. Given that I only had one player signed up for my afternoon game, I made my excuses and left. (It being Sunday this required a totally different return route from the one I’d used to get there on Friday. Go figure.)

With its larg(ish) central trade hall, side rooms and number of TTRPGs on offer, in a hotel, Dudley Bug Ball has capacity for more than double the number of seventy people who arrived. It has ambition and no major flaws as an event. It’s location works against it - though Dudley is apparently being redeveloped  and there will soon be a direct tram from Birmingham to the Hotel. Also, the convention organiser has recently run a highly successful campaign to bring back a classic TTRPG and this took time away from promoting the event this year. What it needs is far more promotion and a little bit more organising of the TTRPG sign up sheets. A lot of convention goers like to have things laid out one a platter for them.

Despite this, I had an excellent day out on Saturday. Next year I won’t attend Friday night, just organise to offer games on Saturday and keep my options open for the Sunday. I’ll also offer new scenarios rather than tired-and-true classics. I know so many people at this convention that most of them have already played many of my adventures. I’ll get more signups that way. On that basis it will be a very cost-effective event. 

If people ask me, I’ll probably recommend treating it as a one day event. There’s plenty to keep anyone occupied for a day. Then extend their attendance as the event grows as, hopefully, it will. It’s an event with ambition and it’s heart in the right place and deserves supporting.

My costs:

Travel - £0 - bus usual bus/rail pass covered all travel
Accommodation - 2 x £45 = £90
Entry: £0 (as Referee I got a free pass)
Food/drink - c. £70

Total: £160

Cost per game: £54
Cost per game hour: £14

BUT if I’d been sensible and not booked Friday evening, I could have cut this to:

Cost per game: £30
cost game hour: £7.50

This will drop even more if I chose to play games on Sunday.

Saturday, 8 February 2020

Spaghetti ConJunction 4a - February 2020

Spaghetti ConJunction 4a - Saturday 8th February 2020

TLDR: Small ,scrappy, friendly - 2 slot game day in central Birmingham. Sometimes things don’t have to be perfect to be great.

Full disclosure - though you probably know by now - I am one of the the two organisers for Spaghetti ConJunction. The other one is “Pookie”, TTRPG editor and the UK’s most prolific reviewer of TTRPG’s. Which makes him a great general factotum on the hobby.

Most of the DNA of SCJ is lifted from the wonderful Concrete Cow. The only major differences are the location, venue and number of game slots. Birmingham - not Milton Keynes. A Gaming Cafe - rather than a Community Centre. Number of game slots - we offer 2 rather than Concrete Cow’s 3.

This was the SEVENTH event we’ve run. The gaming cafe we use - Geek Retreat in Birmingham - benefits from being in an excellent location. If you can get into Birmingham city centre by train, tram, bus or car, you can get to Geek Retreat. It’s massively convenient and custom designed for tabletop games. As it’s all set up ready to use there’s less of a burden organising events at it than at other venues.

For a number of reasons, both organisers found ourselves busy in the early part of 2020 and weren’t able to devote a lot of time to promoting this event - merely going through the usual motions. Also the venue has changed its opening times - usually opening at 12 noon these days. Luckily we were able to negotiate a 10am start, just for SCJ.

SCJ is an event which is predicated upon NOT arranging everything up front. There are no pre-event ticket sales, no game booking, no registration. We ask people to let us know if they plan to offer games and use those details to promote the event - but we don’t hold anyone to this. If you change you mind and want to offer another game or, even, decide not to run a game, that’s fine. If you don’t pre-advertise a game and turn up and feel like refereeing, that’s fine too.

But that means we’re hostages to fortune on the actual day, not knowing who is coming or how many until the doors actually open. However, when we met for our pre-event breakfast, both of us expected the attendance to be down. Our expectations were confirmed when we got to the door and found one person waiting. However, as we waited, more people began to arrive. Due to transport delays, the doors didn’t actually open until 10:10am, but everyone took this in good grace.

As usual, the first 10 minutes of SCJ are a mad blur for me. I have to run upstairs - we book the top floor for our event - get out cash box and tickets and start to take the money. Entry costs £3 and - today - got you an orange raffle ticket. Most people pay £5 to cover entry and buy a couple of (green) raffle tickets. Pookie manages to acquire some superb prizes for the raffle via his professional contacts. This time, some people event paid £15 for entry and 12 tickets. All money taken goes to the Birmingham Children’s Hospital and people are very generous.

Anyone who wants to run a game puts a sign up sheet on the designated table. We provide blank ones for anyone who needs to write one up on the day. Most sheets were handwritten today, as it happens, even mine. (I usually have fully colour masterpieces desperately trying to attract attention to my games.) Only 5 games were offered in the morning but we did a quick count and it was more than enough for the number of attendees.

Sign ups use the patented Concrete Cow system. The numbers from 0-9 are listed in a random order (we do it before the event). These are called in order and if that is the last digit on your (orange) ticket, it’s your turn to go to the table to sign up. This avoids rushes and crushes at the table. The numbers are reversed for the afternoon games. (Newbies, referees etc. can can claim the chance to sign up in the first group.)

After the sign-ups, four games (The Expanse, Alien, Liminal and my own Blakes Seven adventure) all had enough players. A fifth (Shadows of Esterren) only had one player so that player and the Referee arranged to take part in other games.

The games started. And that was when things became a little awkward. Of the space of the next couple of hours, people began turning up for the convention late. In between refereeing and playing we were able to greet them and take them round the games to find spaces. But pretty soon all four games were full and still people kept coming until we actually ran out of spaces. By then it was too late to ask the fifth referee to pull out of the game they were playing to resurrect their game.This ended in a couple of latecoming couples agreeing to wait until the afternoon game session and fill their time in other ways - such as board games. This is the first time this has happened to me and I felt guilty but they were vehement that it was their fault for arriving hours after the published starting time.

Also, the venue’s other punters started drifting upstairs in search of tables to play on or to player the newly installed game console. In the past we would have pointed out we’d booked the top floor for our event. However, as were weren’t using all the tables this time, it would have been churlish to fuss. We just had a quiet chat explaining about our event and they all responded extremely reasonably and continued their own activities alongside our games without any problems.

For me, my Blakes Seven game was fun. I had five players playing Blake, Avon, Carly, Vila and Gan. Pretty much the original crew. (Thinking back I should have pulled Orac out and shoved in Jenna as the NPC in its place.) The game trundled along quite nicely. It was due to run from 10:30am to 2:30pm but we broke at about 1pm for people to order lunch - if they wanted - to be brought to the table as we played.

The adventure built to a satisfyingly edgy climax with Cally agreeing to act as the operating system for an awakening Shadow Vessel (I was doing a crossover of Blakes Seven, Total Recall and Babylon 5) only to substitute an atom bomb for herself at the last minute. Only Vila was left standing after the subsequent explosion.

The break between games was filled with tidying my table, preparing for the afternoon games and networking. It flew by. As usual I called the raffle very quickly. Many people’s prizes had a value which exceeded their costs in attending the event.

Then the afternoon signups took place. Again, there were four games which ran but there was one game without players. However, this was the referee who’d run The Expanse game in the morning. And the Esterran referee from the morning got a full table in the afternoon, so every Referee ran at least one game during the day. (I got to run two!)

My afternoon game was my Judge Dredd meets Agatha Christie one, with Judges being murdered one by one as the try to escape the Cursed Earth. Again it bobbled along nicely and built to a crazy climax with the bulk of the survivors succumbing to massively superior forces whilst two of their number were busy arguing a key point of The Law. The PC Judges needed to rely on some very underhand tactics to overcome their opponents.

Then it was just a matter of saying goodbye, shaking hands and waiting for my fellow organiser to count the takings with me. £191 - all due to go the children’s hospital. A good haul given that there were less than 30 people present.

We certainly took our eye of the ball with regarding promoting this event. We were late starting and had other gamers sharing the space we’d booked. Finally we were unable to find games for some of the latecomers. However, we still had enough attendees to offer a range of games and everyone that came (on time) played two fun games. Even the couples who only played in one game said it had been worth their while coming. And the other gamers present playing in the same room as us didn’t cause any issues. We were all just gamers, gaming in the same room.

So despite us not showing her much love in the run-up to SCJ4a, the old girl still delivered us all a fun day out.

Spaghetti ConJunction 4b is coming sometime in October. Watch this space.