Saturday, 27 July 2019

BurritoCon 3 - Saturday 27th March 2019 - Manchester

BurritoCon3 Saturday 27th July 2019

I can't remember where I found out about BurritoCon. It either appeared on Dave's wonderful master spreadsheet or I saw it being plugged on Twitter. (I've started tweeting more since G+ died.)

Anyway - it was a one day games day not too far from Birmingham - it's in Manchester - on a weekend where I had a spare slot. (You tend to get spare slots late July and throughout August.)

I wrote to the organiser - at quite a late stage - offering to run games. Turns out we knew each other and he remembered me. (I have difficulty, of course, remembering the hundreds of people I referee games for every year.) So he agreed I could offer a game - but only one, he was very strict on this.

As it got nearer the event the reason for this strictness became clear. It's a small, growing, event. Initially there was interest from fewer than 20 people so he booked three tables at the venue for three games in the morning and three in the afternoon and he had game offers from more than 6 people. And he wanted as many people to get to referee as possible.

As interest grew, he changed the booking to four tables so he could offer a total of eight games. (Still limited me to offering one, though).

All eight games were advertised on Twitter and on the organiser's blog. In fact the organiser did a great job promoting the event and it's always better to have a bit too much enthusiasm than too little effort being put in.

The game offerings seemed to be very eclectic. (Great! Just the way I like things.) I'd just caught and binge watched a bawdy Victorian police comedy series on TV and decided to "Hack" my Code Games to offer a game based on it.

I then playtested the scenario at StabCon and it worked. Well.

There's been some debate on Social Media recently about "comedy" TTRPGs and I generally come down against writing a "funny" game. So I didn't here. The only blatantly "funny" things I did were to called the missing Destroyer the HMS Prince Albert and to give one of the pregens a near the knuckle "quirk". The rest was a pretty basic police procedural story.

There was no prebooking. I enquired before the event about whether I should make my own sign up sheet, only to be told that they didn't use signup sheets. Interesting. The first time I've come across this.

Getting to Manchester from Birmingham was a breeze. Google maps let me walk from the station to the event, even going via a print shop to get some last minute printing done. (I bumped into a fellow GM doing exactly the same. Again, I'm sorry, he knew me but I had trouble putting a name to a face.)

We arrived just before the venue opened. It's in an area of Manchester with lots of "artisan cafe's" and loads of attendees had met up for breakfast at a bistro over the road.

We went across when the venue opened. I was towards the front and overheard the venue manager telling the convention organiser exactly which were the booked tables and so I grabbed the first one, sat down, and filled it with my full colour character sheets. Naturally I got lots of interest and could have had a table of six players. (We'd all agreed as Referees on Twitter in advance to prepare for 5 players but to have a 6th pregen ready just in case.) However, the organiser came around and asked if I could limit my table to 5 people as he wanted every table to have a good number of players 4-5. He'd been around counting. So I'm guessing the total attendance was just shy of 24 people. One of the players agreed to choose another game. (But it was a good choice. Apart from my game there was a FASERIP game, a classic IMAGINE D&D Scenario run using the new Old School Essentials and a Monkey game written by it's creator.)

Of the five players I was left with, four had arrived as a group so there were the usual in jokes etc. But I noticed some of the more socially adept of them deliberately working to include the singleton player as, of course, I did.

As I'd hoped and expected, they'd chosen my game because they just wanted to have a good time. So - even with me playing it fairly straight - it soon descended into an extremely adult version of a "Carry On" film. (We even had the gratuitous cross dressing scene). Laughter and gags flew thick and fast. These were entertaining and experienced players who "got" my system and made it do what they wanted. For large chunks of the time they were simply entertaining themselves and I could just sit back and enjoy the interplay. They made the introductory scene last an hour, somehow.

As we played, I noticed that the venue we were playing in was getting extremely busy. It isn't exactly a gaming cafe. It's a games store on two levels with loads of tables and vending machines and drinks and snacks. There was no special entry free for the convention, the players just paid £3 each for their time at the table and, as referee, I got £1 per player in "store credit" for Refereeing. (£5). Apart from our "convention" there was also a large Pokemon event on (one of the vending machines was just full of packs of Pokemon cards) and the shop was full of casual customers. It was the busiest, most successful shop of its type I've ever seen.

The first session ran from 10am to 1pm.  We then broke for an hour for lunch. I found an artisan cafe down the road with passable sandwiches and French toast. But the eating options were myriad. (I presume there has to be a Burrito place nearby).

As you'll have surmised, in the afternoon I had to PLAY a game. (Not my first choice, but still an enjoyable experience.) I stood back to let everyone choose their favourite one first.

Choices were: Heroquest Glorantha, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Star Wars Cassablanca and psychic secret agents preventing the Kennedy Assassination in Berlin. Good selection.

I ended up in the "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" game and was VERY happy with that. This, it turned out, was a well disguised Hack of Lady Blackbird, run by its designer who's tweaking it for publication. (Doesn't need much tweaking if you ask me). Off the books US psychic secret agents "Project Cassandra" foresee Kennedy being killed in Berlin. No one believes them so their bosses send them in to save POTUS and prove the validity of the project in one go. Obviously things don't go to plan.

It's actually a perfect set-up for a mid-budget action movie. Ideal Gerard Butler vehicle.

The characters were very well balanced. Everyone had their necessary role. I was the mercenary type who got a academic and the ex-thief into the city to let them do their stuff. I hope the arrogance of my character - and my luck with die rolls - didn't come over as an experienced player showing off. I tried to sit back and play up the other characters. (And not scream at their analysis paralysis at times.)

The system was basically a dice pool system. These aren't intuitive to me but I understood it pretty much from the start. As I said, I don't see much that needs fixing and it's pretty much ready for publication as it stands.

I paid for my afternoon game (£3 remember) out of my £5 shop credit. Apart from a couple of cans of Coke, the only thing I could find in the shop for £2 was an unpainted metal Superhero speedster figure in a sale box. (When did games stuff get so expensive?) so I asked to have it transferred to the Convention organiser's account and at least one other person copied my example.

Then I came home.

BurritoCon is typical of the new breed of "Games Days" springing up across the country. Just like our own much-loved Spaghetti ConJunction. Rather than a full scale convention, the organisers book a pre-existing venue - such as a games cafe - and just organise the games. Just about everything else is done for them. Today, for example, all the monies were paid directly to the venue using their usual systems.

And it was a really, really,good venue. You'll have noticed in these reports I rarely name people or venues. But this one deserves special citation. It's Fan Boy 3 in Manchester city centre. Large, bright, two floors. Bursting with gaming goodness. Loads of tables. All the snacks and drinks you want at reasonable prices (£1 for a can seems about right to me). It hosted BurritoCon, a Pokemon convention and still had room for scores of other customers during the day. I think they've got stuff sewn up. If anyone thinks about asking me about opening a game store/cafe, I'll simply suggest they visit Fan Boy 3 to see how it's done.

So, with the venue taking so much of the strain, did the convention organiser actually have any work to do? Well, yes. It's only a small event but he did a superb job of matching the number of referees to tables to players. He planned an offering and stuck to it and then trusted the players to respond to it reasonably without any complex signup systems being needed. And he grew the event through relentless on line promotion. Good job.

He's thinking of offering it again in the autumn - and I think he should, though I warned him it's a much more crowded time in the calendar. If another BurritoCon comes up and I'm free, I'll be back in a shot. Really enjoyed it. Really pleasant day out.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

JollyCon 12th and 13th July 2019

JollyCon 12th - 13th July 2019

TLDR: Huge house party thrown by the excellent comedy duo "Jollyboat". Heaven for Nerds. Lots of appetite for #TTRPGs.

I take my "Choose Your Adventure" - an introduction to #TTRPG sessions -  to many non-gaming cons. But JollyCon has to be the weirdest - and best - I've ever been to.

I first became aware of Jollyboat a couple of years ago when they started performing at UK Games Expo. They are a comedy musical pirate brother duo. I then met them, briefly, last year when a mutual friend introduced us as we were all arriving at Expo early in the morning. I guess we're all just equally professional. This year, as part of me trying to wean myself off my #TTRPG refereeing addiction, I actually went to see one of their shows at Expo. And was blown away.

When they mentioned, as part of the show, that they had a convention for their fans, I immediately messaged them to ask if they wanted my to offer games at their event. Despite it being early hours of the morning, and them being tired (and, I'd guess, drunk) after doing a show, they replied immediately accepting my offer. This is one thing I've learnt about them. They always reply.

Didn't hear much but then in the week before the event I was suddenly hit by lots of info. This makes you very excited and I even invented and sent them a Pirate joke they'd never heard of - which made me inordinately happy. (Why does the Pirate Captain use conditioner?*)

Which meant it was time to get my "Pirate costume". I'd left it to the last minute because I figured my usual "gaming persona" outfit would get me by just through substituting a scarf/bandana for the flat cap. Who knew that buying a headscarf/bandana in Birmingham on the Friday evening would such a non-trivial task? I ended up buying a cheap and nasty pirate set from a Party store with a bandana two sizes too small for my head!l

There is a pre-con meetup (and drinks) Friday night but I chose to travel up Saturday morning. Because Liverpool is not too far, and the con didn't officially start until 11:00am, I didn't have to get up at stupid o'clock for once. The venue was walkable from the station (especially as I discovered my Apple Watch links to the Maps App and gives you brilliant instructions - better than holding a phone.) It was the Nordic Church and Civic Centre in Liverpool's "Baltic Triangle". (They have all sorts of explanations for the name but I still think it's a rip-off of Birmingham's BALTI triangle.)

I got there by 10:00 an hour before it started. Allowed straight in. The venue basically has three floors. The bottom floor is liked a large meeting room with a small stage. The top floor is a chapel designed like a small church with vaulting roof and pews. The middle floor, where I was based, was the socialising area. I'd been given a small table and chairs at one end - identified by a huge inflatable d20 and couple of small games books. ("Weave" the RPG of textiles magicians and a "Magic Girl" Anime RPG. In both bases, thanks for the suggestion but no thanks.) I later found out they'd been left by my friend who was at the event, performing.

The room also contained tables down one side where food (and drink) were sold. The food was of the "home made" variety often found in churches. The drink was mainly ales and rum - suitable for pirates. Both were extremely moderately priced. The end of the room contained the JollyBoat merchandising stand. The rest of the room was filled with tables.

The whole venue had been decorated and styled for the event. JollyBoat bunting and pirate flags were everywhere. The downstairs room was "below decks", the upstairs room was "the crows nest". Toilets were  "the poop deck". JollyBoat themselves were there greeting everyone and "Ed JollyBoat" himself escorted me to my table.

I set up my banner and table. I'd decided to bring a cut down version of my setup - no stands or table covers - which I could fit in a backpack rather than wheeling a large suitcase. I was glad I did. Only one small table. But I set up a display of my available games.

The doors opened at 11:00 and people flooded in. I don't know the exact numbers but I think it was about 200. Lots of people showed interest in my table and we soon had a game going. Firefly using my The Code of the Spacelanes rules. We had mix of people who'd role-played before and newbies. People who'd seen the series and those that hadn't etc. As always happens, the young player who'd never seen the series chose to play River Tam. We'd just had the gratuitous bar room brawl when everyone was called "below decks" for the opening ceremony.

This was an absolute blast! JollyBoat are a musical comedy duo and started out by singing a new song about the convention and everything it offered, with comedy callouts to many of the presenters. There was full program of events in each of the two performing rooms. Singers, open mic, a live roleplay. (Not me. It was called "the Dungeonmster is a Dick"). Live game design on stage, a stripping granny etc. They seemed to be going for a "mini Edinburgh Fringe" festival.

I had two thoughts. Firstly was "with all this on, I'm not going to get any players for games". The second was "who cares. I'd be happen just watching the shows."

Actually I'd even offered 5 mins of gag-telling for the open mic - as long as I wasn't running games. They didn't have a guitar available and I don't have a travelling acoustic or I would have offered a song. As it happened  the open mic was over-subscribed. JollyBoat and the audience they've fostered create an inclusive vibe where every feels they can safely have a go at stuff.

But the highlight of the opening ceremony was the Health and Safety announcement. This was given by an older lady - I suppose the equivalent of a church warden. After last year's event, the Venue staff  had bought themselves Pirate costumes and prepared some material. It was the funniest - and filthiest - safety warning ever. Eg. "If the fire bell goes off, just run like f@ck". The audience chant of "Health and Safety, Health and Safety......." shows how popular she was.

We returned to the table but some players had chosen to remain downstairs for the "speed friending" event. I filled the table with replacements and we finished the game off. (Wash turned up at the bad guys' door dressed as a Waiter with a food trolley. As he rammed into into the boss, and River unfurled from beneath it, Jane burst in with his SMGs. Very in trope and great fun.)

As people drifted off, I really expected it to be my one and only game of the day. I bought lunch - a huge bowl of steaming vegan soup and a roll. Just veg. but so well seasoned and with such good use of herbs it was lovely and filling.

I collared a family doing the "draw yourself as a pirate" giant blackboard and they syuat down the play. A mum and dad (ex-roleplayer) a young daughter (early secondary school?) a hyper-hyper active younger son (late primary?) and a babe in arms (wearing the cutest Harry Potter romper suit). The daughter chose play horror. So I took out "The Cthulhu Hack" by Paul Baldowski and the intro scenario he'd kindly given me. Another grown man joined us - another experienced role-player and I think a friend of the family. (You can never tell. These games make us all instant friends.)

As you can probably tell, the boy was ball of energy wanting to do everything NOW! Somehow I coped and luckily his character (and one other) boarded the departing steamer (not in Paul's original scenario - and addition of my own) as the rest investigated the spooky warehouse.

My favourite moment was when the young boy's character discovered a desiccated corpse and he said "Like Dr Who?"

Good parenting.

It was sometime around now that Ed JollyBoat took the time to come over, check that I was OK and got me a drink. This is typical of the two of them. Organising and running the event, putting on multiple shows but still taking the time to meet people and check they're OK.

The instant that the Horror table cleared it filled again. This time there were enough newbies to justify my standard intro to #TTRPGs - Matt Colville's (check YouTube) The Delian Tomb using The Black Hack rules by David Black. It's a match made in heaven and I've run it dozens of times - never the same twice - and it always delivers. This time the Conjuror was the star, braining goblins with her staff and saving the day with a LUCKY sleep spell.

After the shortest of breaks, I had another full table for a Steampunk game. They chose to do "The Great Airship Robbery". A critical success in the initial "find out what you know" roll meant that I did a massive information dump to the table. I told them EVERYTHING about the plot - including all the twists. I had no idea what this would do and thought it might have spoiled the adventure. However, the info proved simply too much for the group and - whilst they were able to foil one side of the plot they couldn't stop the actual robbery.  Still, there is something really satisfying about having a group of "French Terorrists" burst into a warehouse - expecting to find everyone inside poisoned - running into massed ranks of British Rifles. And then the characters took their small army with them to pursue the real baddies meaning that, in the end, both airships were recovered in perfect condition. (A rare outcome for this scenario).

This scenario finished shortly after 5pm when tea was served. This was massively well organised. You handed over a fiver and took one of the plates already laid out. These contained salads, crisps and a food option. By the time I got there most of the remaining options seemed to be vegetarian but there was a massive range - "burger", kebab, some kind of sausage thing. I took a plate with sizeable piece of cheese and onion quiche and some bread rolls and butter. For a drink I bought myself a "Mai Tai" rum cocktail. Despite the cute sign saying the more you drank, the more it helped JollyBoat - and the oft repeated exhortation from the lads themselves to eat drink and be merry - I'd kept off alcohol all day for personal reasons. I figured I was due some. It was lovely and so was the meal.

Amazingly, in between tea and the "group photo" at 7pm, I got ANOTHER table of players. Steampunk again. This time my standard "Evolution of Species" scenario. Again a good roll at the start meant that the Lamplighter spotted a pattern in the strange disappearances and the team were given a squad of officers to escort them into the sewers. (Slightly hampered by the fact that the Sergeant in charge fell head of heels for one of the characters and spent all his time protecting her.) The other unique feature of the game was a newbie (in his 30s/40s?) who was enjoying the freedom and trying to make things up before waiting for me to announce them or rolling the dice. My usual giant rats were replaced by giant centipedes. (Later eaten by giant millipedes.) And the whole plot was masterminded by Aliens, not my usual Prussian Vivisectionist.

I was rushing this and made a couple of arithmetic all errors which the table spotted. I blamed this on the Mai Tai - and I wasn't totally lying. (That may also explain why the aliens were "Greys" when I should have used Martians.)

I'm guessing I banged through this whole story in about 45mins, in time for the group photo. So I CAN demo games in under an hour. This was also the opinion of a player at the table - a fellow referee and one of the country's premiere #TTRPG convention organisers - whose views I totally respect.

Then it was outside for the group photo. A motley crew of 200 pirates - many with stuffed monkeys (an inside joke) outside a church. Don't know what the passing traffic thought but there were plenty of honks.

Then inside for the headline shows. Upon arrival punters received goodie bags. (I didn't get one or seek one). Inside one of these was a wristband - either blue or gold for the upstairs room or downstairs one. I had a red band - because I was important. This meant I could do "whatever the f@ck you want" but Ed suggested strongly that Red bands should be in the upstairs room as it was larger. And this WAS the better option.

We got to see the support act - a really talented young magician - first and JollyBoat second.

With the Magician everyone was a winner. We got a great show and he got to try out a whole new act he was preparing for the Edinburgh fringe in front of a supportive audience who didn't mind pauses to check his script. I'm an incredibly picky audience member and my evil critical little man inside would have preferred a larger trick to patter ratio. However, though I think I know how some of the tricks were done, I didn't actually catch him doing it and there was at least one great new twist on an old standard.  And every so often he broke off for no reason to give us teasing snippets of his own life story which always cut off unresolved. I loved that and wanted more of it. It was of course resolved at the end of the act.

Then back down to the main room for drinks between acts. BUT the two old ladies who were the venue staff were there in their pirate costumes regaling us all with sea shanties. It was great. The only problem with the venue is the lack of disabled access and they're trying to raise money for a lift. If I HAD a CD player, I would have bought a CD off them as many people did.

Then back to the chapel for the final act - JollyBoat themselves. We got them when they were slightly tipsy, high from a great day, slightly ramshackle (Ed's guitar string broke, Tommy couldn't find the words to a song on his phone - only to be passed a phone by an audience member who'd found them on the website Tommy had made himself!), and absolutely not giving a sh!t. We got their classic songs (the one about D&D monsters was ace as always) but also two of their filthiest and most rarely performed. It was absolute joy!

After 11pm we were supposed to leave the venue. Everyone else was going on to a drunken "after party" ( most having been drinking since 11:00am) but I didn't trust myself and made my excuses to get a taxi to my B&B.

The day had been one of absolute joy. I ran 5 fun games, saw one good show and one completely unforgettable one. Even if I hadn't had any games, I would still have had a great and day. There was just too much to see and do.

At the centre of this were JollyBoat and the crew they've built around themselves. Everything was massively well organised and they seem to be two really genuine guys who'd make any mother proud, who everybody wants to be friends with and - I suspect - many people would like to be MORE than friends with. And they seem to have time for everyone, both in person and on social media. My only conclusion has to be that they are two angels sent down to earth just to bring joy.

I hate 'em. They're just too nice and too bloody talented!

From a #TTRPG point of view is worth coming to JollyCon? Well yes. Apart from my demo games (and I'll be back next year unless something serious happens) there are board games in the main hall and numerous shows to pique your interest and as a nerd. BUT spaces are strictly limited and by coming you'll be squeezing out a real JollyBoat fan.

BUT if you are going to UK Games expo next year, make sure you catch one of their shows. It's the same cost as a Hilton pint, lasts longer and will bring you much much more joy.

Or catch them on tour. I can't recommend them highly enough. They're my friends.

(But they're still far too good looking, nice and talented! B@stards!)

http://www.jollyboat.co.uk



* because of 'is Coarse 'Airs (Corsairs)

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Summer StabCon - 5th - 7th July 2019

Summer StabCon 5th-7th July 2019

TLDR: Anyone who has read my blog - or my earlier printed diaries - already knows all about StabCon. Held twice per year in the same hotel in Stockport, organised by the same couple (absolute Heroes, both!) for years, it's always the same and always delivers. It's the comfort food of conventions. Like coming home to an extended family. Like putting on your old comfy dressing gown and slippers.

You book up in advance (usually at the previous StabCon) and the organisers prebook a room - including breakfast - for you. There is no requirement for any pre-organisation. You just turn up from 2pm on the Friday and see how things go.

Some of the more modern con-goers have set up a Facebook page for the event. This is nothing to do with the organisers but they often check in. I used the page to pre-advertise the games I was intending to run. But there is no requirement for referees to do this.

As usual I travelled up straight after work on Friday. I arrived at the event in time to check in - both at the hotel reception to get my room and at the convention front desk to collect my personalised name badge. I got talking to a player in the queue who was enquiring about my games and I asked him to post my sign up sheets on the board whilst I waited.

I'm never sure at StabCon where to pitch my sheets. The provided sheets are simple A5 forms. Some people bring their own, A5 or A4, B&W or colour. This time I'd gone all out producing A4 full colour jobs only to find almost everyone else using the B&W A5 ones provided by the convention. I looked like I was trying too hard. But my Saturday morning game (Star Trek the original series) booked out in under a minute! Surely a record of some kind. There seemed to be a few more TTRPG games on offer than usual - StabCon is primarily a board game event - and most of them were already full of players. The TTRPG side of the convention seems to be healthy and growing.

I bought myself a pint and ordered my usual StabCon Friday night food (a 12" "American Hot" pizza) and chatted to a couple of people. Loads of people said "hello" to me. I'm sorry. I did a count once. I run games for literally hundreds of people every year. Possibly pushing a thousand. And I've never been good at asking or remembering names. I'm more likely to remember your character. Everyone knows me but I know hardly anyone.

Anyway I made my way over to my usual Friday night group.

A long long time ago I found out that by the time I arrive at StabCon, it's too late to find players for an evening game. But I've been lucky enough so sign up for a Savage World campaign run by the same Referee with the same players every Friday night. This is my first bookend of the weekend. I know what I'm doing and who with before I arrive.

Actually this is the third campaign we've been in with this referee. It all started off with a one-off "play yourself in a fantasy game" adventure which spilled off over two conventions. (The one famous for its "Lancashire Goblins".) The players all begged for more so the referee ran a massively detailed mini-campaign based on a series of books by David Gemmell. For the last two years he's been running a pre-WW2 game. Sort of Indiana Jones territory but we're all minor Super-types. (I'm a cyborg, sort of "the £6,000 man".) This referee is a larger than life character and the games are designed with lovely tongue in cheek humour. Previously we'd stopped the Nazis from weaponising Tea and Opera. This time we were tasked with extracting a German doctor who could confirm the rumours about that status of Hitler's genitalia - and that of other Reichsmarshalls.

The table had suffered some "campaign bloat". When you run a regular group there are times when a player is away and you let another one join in. Then, when the original player comes back, your group has grown. Today we were up to seven players. A couple too many IMHO and any other time I might have felt a bit disgruntled. And Savage Worlds, whilst clever, has a couple of features which aren't to my taste. But THIS referee coped easily and, Friday night, after a long week at work, all I want is few beers with friends and I'm not really bothered about fighting for spotlight time. I found the endless analysis paralysis and discussion about which character exactly was sitting in which seat in which car amusing rather than irritating.

After an incident a few years ago (detailed in my printed diaries) I am usually careful about how much I drink at a convention. But Friday night at StabCon I relax a bit. A total of four of us bought rounds for the table. I was sensible enough to switch to Diet Coke after about four pints

As usual we didn't finish the adventure the referee had planned for the session and we voted to finish early - before midnight - rather than push on into the early hours. (I don't think he's realised yet that we do it to keep him offering the game at the next event. He has to carry on to finish it off.)

It's a lovely setting he's created for the game and when finally gets around to publishing it as a sourcebook, I'll let you all know about it.

Some people at the table carried on playing "beer and pretzels" games. Some of us turned in. What with all the beer and being tired from work, I slept like a log. It had been a great start to the weekend.

I got up early, sorted the resources for the day's games and went to breakfast. As usual I got there as soon as it opened. (I'm not a fan of the peak time breakfast crush at hotels.) The breakfast - included in the booking - is a typical hotel buffet breakfast. Not the best, by far, but perfectly adequate and we've all eaten worse.

After breakfast I checked my sign up sheets. Out of three games for five players each only one space wasn't filled. (More about this, later.)

I'd booked myself a table in one of the side rooms used for RPGs, so I took my place and set up for my first game.

This was Star Trek - the Original Series - using my own The Code of the Spacelanes rules. This is something I'd been putting off for years. I've used the game to replay the classic ST-TOS episode "The Doomsday Machine" many times but placed in a more generic setting. But I'd never gotten around to statting  up the classic characters. Sometimes things are just TOO obvious, you know? But for some reason I thought it was about time.

The five players elected to play Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Sulu and Chekhov. No Kirk or Scotty. Interesting.

I ran an adventure rooted in the first ever Star Trek original novel "Spock Must Die" by James Blish.  One of the things about StabCon is that there is minimal official organisation. The organisers provide a noticeboard, sign up sheets and rooms. That's it. There are no official TTRPG "slots". You have to set your own times. Eg. One I saw for Saturday morning said "10am start, no more than 6 hours."

When you try to do this you realise it's impossible. No-one wants to start before 10am  but you want to finish in time for lunch. You can't fit in a four hour slot easily. So I'd posted this as a three hour game.

And it worked perfectly. The players, most of whom have played with me before, were  all wonderful. I learnt a lot about real science vs. Star Trek science from the player controlling Spock - and had make several rulings in favour of canon. All characters were played with joy and to type. And the setting and rules were a perfect match. Like Fish and Chips. I'll be running this game again. And again. And I'll add the characters into my "Choose your Adventure" set up.

For lunch I went to the bar and bought a couple of baps. The synergy between the hotel and the convention is great. The food offered is just what gamers want. Sandwiches, baps, pork pies, doughnuts, chocolate pies(!) for lunch and Pizzas, Burgers, Curry and Fish'n'chips at night. (Though everything is available all day.)

In the afternoon I ran my "Year of the Rabbit" game. This was a bit of a punt. It's based on a new TV series that not everyone has seen. A gritty, sweaty, Victorian, Police comedy. Somehow I managed to binge it on line before the series had finished on telly. I loved it!

In order to run it I hacked my own Code games. Arguably - spoilers - given the final episode the series could be described as "Steampunk". However, it's only lightly Steampunk and my Code of Steam and Steel rules wouldn't have worked. So I knocked up "The Code of the Rabbit".

This is the game for which I had only four out of five sign ups. The "big three" from the series - Inspector Rabbit himself, his partner, Strauss and London's first WPC, the gloriously foul mouthed Mabel - plus the Flora the contract killer (and Rabbit's lover). No-one wanted to play Joseph Merrick "the Elephant Man" - who is a big part of the series.

Again this was made glorious by players who just came to play and have fun. In particular I was overjoyed to have one of my regular players take the role of Mabel. I've never heard her swear before but soon we were all f-ing and blinding all over the place. The room was filled with other gamers and we distracted a couple sometimes, but it was more for the wacky shennanigans than the swearing.

I'd stated that this slot would run for 2pm to "6ish" giving us four hours, knowing most of my games run for less than this. But what with it being a new scenario - my second of the weekend - and a couple of other factors, the players ate the plot up and were looking to complete it in less than three. During one of the "comfort breaks" I came up with an extra layer of the onion for the mystery which, as it turned out, I didn't need. The final scene was riotous hoot of people repeatedly pushing buttons which they knew they shouldn't - trying to undo the hilarious effects of the previous one. THAT's what distracted the other tables. (When board gamers overhear Roleplayers, they can be a bit bemused.) I'll be running this adventure again at a convention in a few weeks and know what tweets to make.

I was running short of cash, so I ordered my evening food - Fish and Chips - from the bar in the convention room. It is cash only. So I went out to the main hotel bar to buy my drink. The barman there asked about the sort of games we were playing and I launched into my evangelism for TTRPGs. He commented on how much beer gamers put away every time they turned up.

But the hotel NEVER runs out of beer. Another example of the synergy between the hotel and the convention which other venues could learn from. My fish and chips, delivered to my numbered stand at my table, arrived in less than half an hour. The kitchen was constantly banging out hot meal after hot meal. The hotel must make a pretty penny on the catering and the bar even though the gamer food prices are so reasonable. This hotel as been well trained and learnt its lessons.

Another StabCon tradition that's developed is me offering a horror game Saturday night. I don't run many horror games and I've exhausted all the scenarios I'm comfortable with. However, I'd recently played in a game run by its author at another convention. It had gone on to win two awards at UK Games Expo. The scenario was intriguing, clever and devious. (It explores the consequences of transporting a classic bit of Lovecraftian Lore to the near future.) So I'd bought that to run.

Alas, though I'd played it and read it through several times, when it came to play there proved to be just one too many moving parts for me to handle. Like when you've got a cryptic crossword to solve and you just can't crack it.

But the players were having a great time playing their characters and were very tolerant of my occasional page flipping in search of a particular reference I remembered. And we managed to engineer a very satisfying ending. You know those cryptic warning messages you get and think "why is this so garbled? Couldn't they have been clearer?" Well now we know why.

One of the signs, I think, of good referees is that we are very self critical. So I knew I hadn't delivered. It happens from time to time. But the players honestly thanked me for a good session and I did overhear some of them talking to friends about it very positively afterwards.

Before turning in I posted two things on the TTRPG sign up board. One was a note to tell my regular Sunday morning group of players where we were playing. The second was a sign up sheet for a potential game Sunday afternoon.

A week ago on Twitter someone had posted an idea for a game when every time someone used a resource, they tore a piece of paper from a toilet roll on the rebels. So the roll would act as limit on the group's resources. The idea had intrigued me and so I offered to run a toilet roll based game Sunday afternoon - and I wrote the sign up sheet on toilet roll. StabCon is the only convention where I'd feel confident doing that.

I'd drunk rather more beer than I usually do when refereeing and again had a good night's sleep. Breakfast was fine again - the hash browns being particularly well done as I like them.

Sunday morning was my second bookend to StabCon. Just like Friday night's game, I'd once run a one-off game (a refight of "The Force Awakens" with new characters) and the players had asked for a sequel. This had turned into a Star Wars campaign and - when I'd run out of story ideas - changed into a Superhero campaign. Both campaigns using my unpublished Manifold rules.

I was a bit worried about this game because it was six months between episodes and - even though I checked back in this blog to see what had happened - I tend to forget things. But I needn't have worried. The corrupted robot character was rescued - well given the tools to save himself really. And the characters took off into space to defeat the alien invasion despite me throwing literally overwhelming odds against them three times. Somehow all the characters and all the players just gelled this morning. It was an absolute delight. This could have been a natural break point - well they had just saved the world - so I asked if they wanted a change of genre (I wasn't going to offer to step down and let them free to play other games!) but they all want to carry on with their superheroes. One player asked me if I had more ideas for future adventures. "A few". I said.

No-one signed up for my toilet roll game so I left early. I'm always ambivalent about staying for that extra game StabCon afternoon. Before leaving I paid the £15 sign up for Winter StabCon 2020 and made a crack about how it never goes up. "Actually we're thinking of lowering the price" I was told.

When someone mentioned the convention seemed quiet, I overhead that it had had 282 attendees out of a possible 300 places. It had an absolute top limit of 300 places.  So they don't bother advertising. I'm breaking "the first rule of StabCon" with this post! I think it seemed quiet because a lot of the board gamers moved out of the noisy main room to rub shoulders with the TTRPGers in the side rooms. They seemed a lot busier to me, but my games weren't disturbed.

StabCon remains the comfort food of conventions. I think some of its attendees just don't realise how special it is. The organisation is seamless. The synergy between the hotel and the convention is great. It's not a five star hotel but it's cheap. And the attendees are just lovely people. They're just the usual wonderful people this hobby has to offer without the "edge" some gamers sometimes have. I think it's just become my favourite convention. If you have the chance to get your feet under the table here, snap it up.

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Steampunkalia 29th and 30th June 2019

Steampunkalia 29th and 30th June 2019

I started writing conventions diaries - which turned into my blog - because the words "Games Convention" covered a multitude of sins. I thought it would be useful to tell people about the difference between a local club's "Games Day" in a local church hall and beasts like the UK Games Expo.  It turns out the same is true of Steampunk Conventions.

When I have a spare weekend and can't find a Games Convention to go to, I look to attend other "geek" conventions to offer to run introductory TTRPGs. Science Fiction, ComicCons, Anime and Steampunk. Steampunk ones are by far my favourite. As a hobby it studiously defies definition. But it's something to do with cogs. And I find Steampunks - with their universally "splendid" attitudes - to be open to new ideas and to be the closest type of non-gaming geek to gamers.

As you know, last weekend I attended "The Town that Never Was" organised by "The Ministry of Steampunk" at the Ironbridge Gorge museum. This weekend I attended "Steampunkalia" at the Nottingham Industrial Museum. (Nope, I'd never heard of it either.) This one was organised by the promotional department of the Museum in order to attract more visitors. So last week was Steampunk using the Museum, this week was the Museum using Steampunk. A minor but interesting difference.

As usual I found out about it by accident and wrote off at pretty much the last minute. Luckily they accepted me. At first I was told I'd have a pitch outdoors, the later they found me a space inside.

The event is a two day one running from 11:00-4:00 on Saturday and Sunday. The museum shuts at night and there is no evening event. Though Nottingham is only a short train ride from Birmingham, the British rail system was unable to deliver me to Nottingham early enough Sunday morning, so the option of travelling home Saturday night (as I'd done the previous weekend) was denied me. So I had to book into a hotel - which massively increased my costs.

With it not starting until 11:00am and Nottingham being so close, I was able to get up at sensible o'clock to travel. When I arrived at Nottingham station, the taxi driver there didn't know where the Museum was either, but the organisers had supplied me with superb directions. The museum is in Woolaton Park, just outside the city. A sweeping vista of grass and trees - home to a herd of red deer. Beautiful creatures, lovely setting. It's next door to Woolaton Hall, a large Manor House. A 16th century ex-industrial something or other. (It has a working Steam "Beam Engine" whatever that is.)

There's a courtyard outside the door to the museum - where the shops and facilities are - and a further one inside where events take place. I was given a spot in the main hall just inside the museum. I was the first thing visitors would see of the convention after they'd paid. A blessing because I got to pounce on them and got lots of passing trade. However, they always say they'll see the rest of the convention first and will pop back. I'd have to catch them on the way out.

My display was in front of some historical lace-making machines. The second week running when I had to take care not to damage antiques.

Just like last week, the attendees were a combination of Steampunks and ordinary museum visitors. Some of the latter seemed a bit disgruntled at being asked to pay an entry fee. The museum is usually free. And - I have to say - the volunteer manning the desk could be a bit brusque at times.

Some of the museum volunteers had embraced the event by dressing up but many hadn't, which was a shame.

As well as myself the convention had the usual range of trade stalls and shows. Next to me was the photo booth where Steampunks could have their photo taken or ordinary punters could dress up as Steampunks. But the highlight of Saturday was the Steampunk Owl display. I didn't see the display itself but saw the three birds up close and they were truly magnificent creatures.

Saturday was the hottest day of the year - and heat and Steampunk is an interesting mix. Trade was steady but not overwhelming.

I met and talked to lots of people. I ran three games. In the morning I ran a Superhero game for a young mother and her two enthusiastic young sons and her shy young daughter - who was absolutely at the lower end of the age range for my games. I kept it short and when a TPK seemed imminent, bent the die rolls to allow the young girl to save the day. Everyone seemed happy.

I then had a game with a very mixed table. There was a very elegant older lady - who sometimes plays the "Swords and Cogsticks" game - and what I presume was her young grandson.  As we started playing more people joined in, including a very experienced gamer I'd chatted to earlier. And we attracted a small audience. This was a Steampunk game - The Great Airship Robbery. A reporter for BBC radio Nottingham watched for a bit. Everyone enjoyed the game and the young boy wanted to come back later, so I promised to keep his improvements written on his characters sheet until he returned.

I then did a short interview with the radio Nottingham reporter (who was also called "Burley") about what I was going at the event. The experienced gamer also stated to give a players perspective on my game which was great. Of course - as role-player -he was very erudite and expansive and - as an author and referee - I felt he bit into MY time in the spotlight a bit. Hubris, eh? I need to find out when/if the interview is/was broadcast.

After lunch - a tasty and filling cheese pasty from the museum cafe - I ran a third game. As promised the young man and his grandmother(?) returned and we added another couple of players to play "One of our Dinosaurs is Missing". Luckily there were lots of fish at the end to entrap the missing Diplodocus. He ended up taking s photo of "his" character sheet so he can continue playing the game if his family buy the rules.

The only negative thing was that, periodically, one of the lace making machines would fire up as a demonstration and it was a bit noisy - pretty much on the DragonDaze PA level of noise - and I had to raise my voice a bit.

All too soon, we had to clear up. I'd booked myself a hotel on the edge of the park so it was easy to get to. I hadn't organised myself anything to do Saturday evening and didn't  feel like making the trip into town to see a film or anything. So I had a quiet night.

Because the hotel was so close to the event, I was able to have a relaxing morning and arrive fairly late by my standards. But everyone else seemed to be even later. I bumped into a pie man who'd come for the day and we found our way in together.

Sunday was cooler than Saturday and much, much, much busier. Though there were no owls, the events seems to be a step up from Saturday with a unicycle riding fire-eater and a highly superior Steampunk singer ("Captain of the Lost Waves"?)

Despite it being busier, I only got to run two games. The Great Airship Robbery for an eclectic combination of older people and The Missing Dinosaur for three European students. There were just too many other events on to attract people's attention. I also ate some bespoke pies from the pieman I met earlier (Pork and Stilton, Pork and Black Pudding).

Worst thing was they set up a Steampunk jewellery stall directly opposite me and they had Steampunk goggles with a variety of lenses - including ones related to gaming. I just HAD to have them and ended up splashing out on set. They're really nice and will be great when I offer games at the BIG steampunk in the summer. But, still, it was an indulgence.

Best thing was I realised that you could sing "We will rock you" to the rhythm of the loud lacemaking machine and even got the jewellers to join in!

The end came all to soon again and I was soon on my way home.

I enjoyed the event. However, even though I ended up running more games than last weekend, the cost of the hotel meant that I have to do some serious thinking about future events. Is it really worth me travelling to short - 5 hours per day - events with nothing to do in the evening? I need to plan my conventions much much further in advance.

If you're local and want to sample Steampunk I'd recommend the event. The stalls and shows justify the entry fee on their own, and then you've got a great industrial museum to search through on top. And then, on your way home, you can stop to take a look at the deer or play in the park. I wouldn't recommend it for TTRPGs, though. I may not be there next year.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

The Town that Never Was - 22nd-23rd June 2019

The Town that Never Was - 22nd and 23rd June 2019

As well as going to lots of games conventions, I keep my eye out for other "hobby" conventions. I like to take my "Choose Your Adventure" set-up of short (typically one hour) TTRPGS demonstration games. This is a wonderful hobby, but you need to try it out to see what it's really like.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a Steampunk event called "The Town that Never Was'", due be held very shortly.

This piqued my interest for several reasons. Firstly, it's a Steampunk convention. Steampunk is a term whose definition is firmly equivocated by its advocates. More of a mood than a genre. Not quite a re-enactment society for a History that Never Was. It usually involves ornate dressing up and there are lots of pith helmets, goggles, bustles and the occasional feather. Personally I love the alt-history redolent of H G Wells and Jules Verne element of the hobby and have always found Steampunks to be entirely splendid people.

Then there was the fact that the event was organised by "The Ministry of Steampunk" who had organised the wonderful "Asylum" event I'd sampled in 2018 - and to which I'm returning in 2019.  So I knew it was going to be well organised.

And it was being held at the reproduction Victorian village at Ironbridge Gorge. The perfect setting and somewhere I'd never visited. Apparently this was the third time the event had been held there.

Finally the theme was "The War of the Worlds" - specifically a world just after the Martian defeat.

This was all like catnip to me! So I dropped the organisers a line offering my games. Their initial response was that there was no space left. Hardly surprising! However, a day or two later they got back in touch to tell me they'd found an office for me - next to "The Martian Expeditionary Force".

A quick bit of research found that this was a Steampunk group whose conceit was that they were trying to recruit people for a free trip TO Mars (nothing being said about the return journey) and, failing that, to get people to donate their various germs and ailments. So I swapped a couple of emails with their leader and he agreed that my office could be called their Training Department. So I came up with a short scenario based upon their conceit which he approved of.

As with the Asylum event, there were the large daytime events with a separate, smaller, tightly ticketed, evening event for an additional charge. These are music/dancing type shows and didn't interest me, personally. The museum is in Telford, only about an hour's train journey from Birmingham, so I decided my most cost effective option was to travel to and from the event each day, coming home to rest on the Saturday night. Much cheaper than staying at a local hotel.

The doors opened to visitors at 10:00am, though I noted my games were on the programme due to start at 11:00am. Doors opened to exhibitors are 8:00am. I chose to arrive at 9:00am, catching a taxi from the station. I caught the waiting Black cab on the way but thereafter rang the local hire car firm which turned out to be literally half the price.

Entry was easy. I had advance directions sending me to the tradesmens' entrance. My name was on the list of exhibitors and I was escorted to my venue. This was in the the "Estate Office" a building which was partially 16th and partially 17th century. The Martian Expeditionary Force were set up in the main hallway - presumably where tenants would, in past times, have brought their grievances or come to settle rent. They had flyers and various artefacts - weaponry, retrofitted Martian technology, sinister specimens in cloudy jars etc.

As expected, they were a thoroughly splendid set of coves and took me through to my office. I must admit it, I had a bit of a shock. It was small and dominated by a large, antique, leather topped desk. Presumably where the actual Estate Manager hung out. There were two chairs, a tiny square table and a massive chest. I couldn't at first see how I could possibly play games in there.

However, the - luckily flat topped - chest could pulled away from the wall and made a perfect playing surface. There was a small bench in the main hallway the MEF weren't using which I commandeered. I brought and old school chair down from the loft and stowed the small table in a corner. My display of available games was set up on the desk and the chest lid left for playing on. (These are antiques I was messing with remember.)

Trade was slow at first. It always is at this sort of convention. There's so much for people to see and do, it's not until they've seen everything and want to rest their legs that they usually come back to sit down to play. As people came into the hall to hear the MEF's spiel, I'd explain what I was offering and bring them into my office for a chat and give them my business card.

Unfortunately things remained slow. There were a cheering number of people who remembered my games from the Asylum, and people both in and out of the hobby with whom, I had some great in depth nerdy chats. But there was just so much on at the event - a fun fair, displays, a mayoral election campaign, music, dancing, trade stall and all the usual features of the village - that no-one could spare the time for a game. The Village was still open to members of the public who were wandering about bemused at walking into the vibrant, colourful Steampunk event. I even explained TTPRGs to them.

Eventually a couple in their 70's said they wanted to try a Star Wars game. As soon as I sat down with them, a family walked in but I only had spaces for four of them. They left, and as soon as they did, the older couple changed their mind. Grrrr.

They day dragged even more because there was literally no mobile phone signal so I was unable to stay in touch with the world via Social Media in the quiet moments.

But eventually a teenage girl and her father came in. She'd heard about TTRPGs (well, D&D) and was intrigued but didn't know how to get started. I sat them down and we began my old standby - Matt Colville's The Delian Tomb run using The Black Hack (1st Ed). As always, as soon as you start playing, people come in. Another older couple joined. It seemed to me that several families came in and out. Suddenly the male in the couple said he had to leave. I think it was something to do with his blood sugar, but his wife assured me he'd be fine and they didn't need any extra help. This left the father and daughter playing two characters apiece but I was able to catch a passing mum with a slightly younger daughter to take over the characters for the final battle.

It was all a bit scrappy but absolutely worth it because it was just what the original teenage girl had been looking for. Everyone seemed to have a good time but she was especially pleased. I gave her some starting advice and suggested her dad get in touch with me (business card) for more help and advice.

Unfortunately, I didn't get any more games on Saturday. The out of the way location of the office, lack of pre-advertising and draw of many, many alternative activities all took their toll. But it had been worth it for just that one game. Anyway, I'm not going to moan because I want to stay in the good books of the Ministry of Steampunk.

After searching around for a signal,I called taxi to the station and headed home to Birmingham.

I was a bit later arriving Sunday morning due to the fact that the British Rail service doesn't start early on a Sunday. Sunday went pretty much the same as Saturday - even with me doing some promotion on FaceBook and putting my banner outside the estate office to attract passersby. But there were loads of in depth nerdy chats with people, again.

Eventually a young mother and her two - very active - primary aged sons came in. The boys were very interested in trying a game. She told them it was what their dad used to play. She told me she thought the younger boy, particularly, wouldn't have the concentration span to play a whole game, but I reassured her we could stop at any time of there was a problem.

Guess what? The Delian Tomb with The Black Hack again. (It's just so perfect.) Great fun with the boys suggesting that their mum's Halfling thief led the way and took the risks. ("You make a noise and run away. When they run after you, we'll jump out on them.") And whenever she had to make a decision, and asked the boys what to do, they insisted she decide for herself.

After about 20 minutes she said they had to go but both boys insisted they stayed, which surprised her. She couldn't believe how invested they were. We were joined by two teenagers and their dad. Not enough spare pregens (or chairs or space) so they dad said he'd watch. (He didn't. He was an ex-D&Der who couldn't resist back seat driving. It was so funny to watch.)

The adventure came to its usual conclusion with the evil Bugbear using the captured children as human shields and the characters refusing to let him go. Cue children rescued but one young boy crippled by a Bugbear mattock.

Everyone was happy, I was happy but the mum seems to have had a revelation seeing her two sons playing like that for an hour. So even though there were no other games that day and the rain started pouring down, I still thought it was worthwhile coming.

Not least because the loft area - which contained the kitchen and toilets for us - also contained an old typewriter of an ornate design I've never seen before - which should be on display in a museum - and massive my old book which turned out to be an 1832 bible. I felt as though I should've been wearing white gloves as I turned the pages.

The Town that Never Was will be back next year. Is it worth coming to play TTRPGs? No. It'll just be me again - though I'll arrange it more in advance now I know and WILL get myself a better spot. But it's worth coming for the event. You get all the usual draws of the Victorian Village plus the benefits of a lively and interactive Steampunk event. If you feel the slightest pull of the bustle or pith helmet, I cannot recommend it highly enough.



Friday, 7 June 2019

UK Games Expo - 31st May - 2nd June 2019

UK Games Expo 31st May - 2nd June 2019

This is “the big one”. The biggest gaming event in the UK and the third biggest in the world. It’s not a TTRPG convention, it covers all sorts of tabletop gaming. In fact the only type of game it doesn’t cover is computer games. (They have enough conventions of their own.)

However, there is a significant amount of TTRPG gaming - 500 sessions in the “organised TTRPG track” alone - with multiple official multi-table TTRPG Tournaments, TTRPG “Games on Demand”, a TTRPG zone just for parents and children and numerous TTRPG demonstration games in the main trade hall. 

The preparation for Expo starts about 6 months in advance. Some people start even earlier than that by booking their accommodation as soon as possible. Cost effective choices sell out fairly early for this particular weekend. However, officially, the call goes out for people to offer TTRPG games they want to Referee about 6 months before the convention. Seems early. Games I feel like Refereeing in January I may be bored by come June. But I understand the necessity. Referees and Games have to be approved and entered onto the Convention Game Booking system. And this has to happen early enough for punters to look at the offerings and get excited about coming.

Expo is a professional convention. As such it has a generous rewards policy for all volunteers, including TTRPG referees. If you offer a game, you get in free. If you offer to run enough games to provide 4 hours of fun for 30 people in total, they put you up in the Hilton hotel for free and even provide you with food.

In the past I’ve prided myself on being an “Iron Referee” at Expo, running 8 games in total across the three days and, even, turning up to offer a game in the open gaming area on the Thursday before the convention.

This year, however, I decided to try and rein in my addiction to Refereeing and try to see some of the rest of the event. So I offered the minimum games required to get maximum rewards - 5 four hour slots for 6 players apiece. 6 players is a lot to referee for but - in my experience - you often get people not turning up.

Then you have the ordeal of deciding what you want to offer. The rewards are earnt as soon as the games are accepted. If you don’t get any players, you still get the rewards. So it isn’t the end of the world if no-one chooses your game. But it still makes you feel a bit unloved.

So for my first game, Friday morning I decided to offer a classic “D&D” scenario run using the stripped down “The Black Hack” rules.

I chose to have Friday afternoon off the see the Trade Hall. (It’s a bit quieter on Friday.)

Friday evening I offered a Horror Scenario. I rarely Referee Horror adventures and when I do I am very choosy about the adventure. I have a total of four (and a half) in my repertoire. This scenario was actually an adventure which was given away free in the programme from the 2018 Dragonmeet Convention. It’s very well written. I’ve run it a few times and it’s always fun.

Saturday morning I offered my Steampunk Game “One of our Dinosaurs is Missing”. Saturday afternoon I offered a “Blakes Seven” adventure based on the classic TV series.

I planned to spend Saturday night seeing one of the many shows on offer at Expo.

Sunday morning I offered my Dr Who scenario. The EXACT SAME ONE I’ve offered Sunday afternoon at Expo for four years running. This would be the fifth year. The only difference was I now had the game statistics for the new, 13th, Doctor and her “mates”.

I kept Sunday afternoon free, waiting to see what fate would offer.

All of these adventures are ones I’ve run before and which I have faith in. All of them except one used my own game systems - and that one I was totally familiar with. IMHO Expo is not a convention to be taking risks. By accepting the offer of accommodation you’re effectively being paid to run games and it’s a VERY public forum. Offer what you know.

Naturally all 5 games were accepted. I’ve built up a good reputation with the organisers over the years. They trust me. And I know what to offer. If you’re new to offering games at the Expo you’ll probably only have one or two games accepted in the first year, unless you’re already known to the TTRPG Organiser (who does, at times, seem to be Omnipotent).

After your games are offered, you sit back and wait. You can’t help watching the booking system - which is superb, and the best I’ve seen at any convention - to see if people are buying tickets for your games. My Steampunk one sold out almost immediately - months before the event. My Horror one sold no tickets.

I was then contacted by the UK’s expert in Indie TTRPGs. He was arranging a meet-up of independent game authors and publishers such as myself on the Friday evening. This is one of my main issues with Expo. The TTRPGs are submitted and published before other events. So if an event comes up that you’d like to go to, it’s more than likely you’ve already offered a game in that slot.

Luckily, my Friday evening game still hadn’t sold any tickets. So I contacted the organisers, pulled the game, and offered one of Friday afternoon as well. Because it had sold out so fast, I offered a second run out for my Steampunk and Dinosaurs game. And its perfectly OK to do that. You don’t have to offer five different games across the weekend. If you’ve got something GOOD, there’s no shame in offering it twice. In fact, I’d go so far as to say you SHOULD offer it more than once to give as many people as possible the chance to play it.

Then it’s just waiting. Last year all volunteers were asked to take part in web-based training. As I’ve said this is a professional event and everyone affiliated with the convention needs to know the rules and procedures. This year we weren’t asked to do it again as we’d already completed it. Newcomers needed to complete it though. It’s just an hour long presentation you need to watch.

Just before the event I realised I’d made a mistake. I’d offered a game using “The Black Hack” rules. But the author had just written a second edition, and it was up for an Expo award. That meant that at the last minute I had to switch from the edition I was used to the new version which I hadn’t played before. There wasn’t much difference but it made me feel a bit out of sorts.

If you aren’t having your accommodation provided, I’d say book early and shop around. The Hotels on the NEC campus are frighteningly expensive that weekend and the supply and demand basis. To stay at the hotel I was in for the weekend would set you back over £1,000. There are far cheaper options. Birmingham City centre itself is only 10 mins away by train.

I’d also bring your own food and drink - a packed lunch. The NEC food prices are very high.

Finally, if you can get to the NEC the evening before the event, there is Open Gaming but, more importantly, you can collect your tickets early and avoid any crush on Friday morning.

I couldn’t get to Open Gaming this year as I’ve recently joined a local gaming club that meets every Thursday night. So I arrived early Friday morning.

The first thing I noticed was there were LOADS of ticket booths open for people to collect tickets from and the early attendees didn’t seem to have long queues to wait in.  Referee tickets and packs were available from a separate secluded room and I was able to collect mine with ease.

The envelope contained my three day pass, slips for all of my games and a food voucher for each day, as well as printed instructions. Having grabbed that I headed over to the Hilton Hotel where the TTRPGs are housed - away from the noise and bustle of the main halls.

The convention starts at 10:00am but the TTRPGs start at 9:00am. This meant that those in charge of them had a very limited time to set up, open rooms etc. A queue formed with people uncertain of whether it was for Referees or Players. Naturally I pushed to the front to ask. Seeing that they weren’t ready, and trusting them, I went to sit on a comfy chair in the bar.

Shortly before 9:00am I walked back to the front desk. The queue was sorted and I was easily able to register my game on the desk’s computer. The convention has an excellent TTRPG management app, and logging your game in at the front desk is the first step. I then went to find my room.

This was a typical hotel convention room. It contained about 8 round tables, four or five of which had games on. One of the tables bore a bright yellow cloth. This was the table of the Room Captain! Their job is to keep an eye on the room and be the first port of call if anything seems amiss. There isn’t much to the role and I’d filled it in 2018. But I take responsibility seriously and had asked not to be given that job this year.

Because of the slight delay, I wasn’t quite as set up as I wanted to be as the session started. The first thing you do is collect your player’s tickets and enter them into the app on your phone. Then you press a button to start the game. As I said it’s a great app - it lets the front desk know immediately what games have spaces in if people turn up looking for one. If you don’t get any players, your game doesn’t run but you may be asked to play in another game to make up the numbers and allow it to take place.

My first game was fine but I felt a slight lack of familiarity with the system changes.  But the players - a full table of six - were all old hands, understood the rules straight away, and didn’t notice anything amiss. I just found that in the new system characters seemed to do a bit less damage and can absorb a bit more, which made the adventure run a bit more slowly. We all had a great time though. As usual for the Expo, the players were just there to have a good time and were great fun.

During the game the wonderful, wonderful, wonderful yellow shirt volunteers came round to check that everything was OK, collect the tickets and take my Friday Food voucher and my food order. I chose a Burrito. 

When I finished my game, the Burrito was waiting for me at the front desk. It was from the Food Vans that the convention organises outside the Hilton. These are artisan food stalls. They are no cheaper than the NEC/Hilton food but it is of much higher quality. The Burrito was amazing!

They give you a two hour break between the morning and afternoon games. Enough time to nip over to the Trade Hall if you want a quick look or visit the Viking display in the grounds between the two venues or pop into the “Collector’s Fair” which is always, co-incidentally, in a hall adjacent to the Expo. This year, the Expo ticket gets you in there for free. Two conventions for the price of one!

I found the two hour break a bit long but used it to check into my room and sort out my games stuff. Accommodation IS provided but you do have to share a room with another Referee, preferably a friend - as in my case.

The afternoon session runs from 3:00pm to 7:00pm. My Room Captain - coincidentally (or not) also my room-mate - had no players for his game so I was asked to take on the role for that session.

Another full table of 6 players for my Steampunk and Dinosaurs game. Another group just looking to have fun. A variety of genders and ages. One player seemed to be able to see into my head and predict every twist and turn of the game. But it was massive fun with a wild ending involving a giant scientist and one character turning out to a Roger Moore type smoothie, romancing the enemy spy.

My game ended in good time but, to my horror, I saw that four other tables in the room showed no signs of finishing. I had my Indie Gamer’s meet up to go to. I politely reminded all the referees of the time but none seemed to show any inclination to wrap up. Eventually I had to go the front desk and call the Organiser in to have a word with them. Another Referee was temporarily made Room Captain and I made it to my Indie Designers event just in time.

This was good and well meaning and had plenty of potential for networking. But one of the reasons I play TTRPGs is because they give me a structure to interact with other people. I’m not as good in unstructured social situations and didn’t make best use of the meeting. I was also surprised to see so many people from a professional company there as well. However, I will go again next year and try to prepare myself to make better use of the time.

It was then that I made my biggest discovery of the weekend. You don’t get any food vouchers for your evening meal. Prices in the Hilton are notoriously high. The Bar food is expensive and the staff are overwhelmed and slow. Allegedly even a cup of coffee costs £5!  However, one of the larger suites had been turned over to Open Gaming. The convention trade halls close down for the evening and many gamers decamp to the Hilton looking for somewhere to play. And in the corner, the convention organisers had prevailed upon the hotel to set up a stand featuring “gamer food”. Still a bit pricey (£5.10 for a pint, £1.20 for a can of coke, £1 for crisps, and £4.75 for the limpest most pathetic sandwiches you’ll ever see) but it had a “meal deal” for £6, it WAS the cheapest coke anywhere in the convention and there was no queue and the staff were quick, professional and polite. This was to be my stopping point throughout the weekend.

After my sandwich I went to find my evening show. I found a huge queue snaking across the hotel being professionally managed by the wonderful, wonderful yellowshirts. Despite the huge numbers we were soon in and seated.

This was “The Dark Room” a live on-stage computer text adventure. Basically a shouty Australian haranguing the audience with the kind of catchphrases, in jokes and call and response stuff that English audiences love. Real end of the pier stuff. It was good and funny - and it’s easy to see why people return year after year - and presenter was an impressive force of nature. But it was a bit too rumbustious for my tastes.

After the show, I thought I’d grab another meal deal in case I got hungry in the night. Something strange happened. The lady serving was trying to clear out all the leftover sandwiches rather than throw them away. As I was the only person who wanted any, she emptied the chiller cabinet in front of me. About a dozen sandwiches for £2.40. I put them in a box, claimed my own and took the rest to the front desk for the wonderful, wonderful yellow shirts.

In the morning I got up early. Breakfast is included with the room - and it is a very very good hotel buffet breakfast - but experience tells me that the room fills up fast. I got in my 7:00am and by the time I’d finished my cereal course, the queue for the hot food filled the room. However, by the time I’d finished my fruit course it had died down.

Over the course of the hour I rinsed the breakfast, consuming a total of 5 different courses and entertaining people on twitter with the description of my Mr Creosote-like activities. The free hotel breakfast is always one of the highlights of Expo for me.

I was in my room in good time for my morning game. Alas, the internet backbone seemed to crumble under the weight of the busy Saturday at the Expo, so I was unable to use the app to record my players’ tickets. But the wonderful, wonderful yellowshirts collected them in the old fashioned way.

This game was another run out for my Steampunk and dinosaurs game. Again a table of six players. But this time they were all middle-aged, white, men like myself. (What we now call “Grognards”.) I am good with and enjoy diverse tables of players but sometimes its nice to play with your own kind for a bit.

This table totally “got” my game system, milking all the goodness out of every drop. The same scenario, a totally different outcome with the engines from a wrecked airship being repurposed into makeshift missiles to catch the fleeing mad scientist. That’s why I run games more than once. They always work out differently.

Lunch was Burrito again. Over lunch I began to pick up stories from the Trade Hall. Apparently it was rammed and getting around it was difficult, bordering on unpleasant, at times. Hint: Saturday is VERY busy in the Trade Halls. 

There was an excellent seminar that I would have liked to go to and if I’d known about it early enough, I would have offered a game in the evening to keep my afternoon free.

My afternoon game was my Blakes Seven Game - based on the classic TV series. Only 5 players this time - and again all Grognards. Well, I suppose it IS an old TV series. Great players - who, again,  totally “got” my rules. Great fun. Round of applause at the end.

Tea was another meal deal.

I’d booked two shows that night. The first was “Knightmare: Live”. Based on the old TV series. Ambitious but a bit ramshackle. There’s an idea in there somewhere but they need to hone the good bits (the animated wall acting was excellent) and drop some of the less successful elements. The audience seemed to love it though, so maybe I’m just an old fusspot.

After that it was straight into Jollyboat. I’ve been aware of them for a while, met them, even have one as a FaceBook friend, but never seen them perform. I didn’t realise just how good they were. The act is pirates singing funny songs but there’s just so much talent at so many levels that I could appreciate. I’ve written parody songs myself so I can tell you these were top notch. I play the guitar a bit and can tell you, these guys are GOOD. They’ve got great singing voices. But best of all they’re dyed in the wool gaming nerds whose songs feature gags about Owlbears and Mimmicks. It’s like they’re plugged straight into your funny bone. I loved ‘em. (I also messaged by FB buddy afterwards and blagged my way into running some TTRPGs at their upcoming convention.)

Then another meal deal (a different, less generous, woman tonight) and to bed.

Up early for another 5 course breakfast feast. Then my Dr Who game. I’ve run this one dozens and dozens of times over 5 years at dozens of conventions for hundreds of people and it still delivers. A diverse table of 5 players. This lot cleverly avoided fighting the “big bad” - instead accidentally creating their own “big bad” - a giant four armed Cyber-Jhduhn as it happens - to fight it for them. Admittedly the 13th Doctor was behaving more like the 6th, but - by god - I love running this adventure.

Lunch was spiced Korean fish and chips which was simply AMAZING. 

I was tired by then. Not as tired as most people. Many people go a bit wild at Expo and stay up until the early mornings - gaming, drinking, socialising. I’d paced myself, sensibly, but was still flagging. I considered going home early as all the TTRPGs were booked up. However, I hung around the front desk and managed to get into a Call of Cthulhu game. This was a pleasant, mild, stroll through the backwaters of England which unfolded about about a tenth of the pace of one of my games. But I was playing specifically to try and hone my skills as a PLAYER - which I know are poor. I think I succeeded. I didn’t force the pace. I kept my mouth shut most of the time and “bigged up” the other players and their characters and let them solve the mystery - playing the role of jokey sidekick.

And then a train ride home.

I thoroughly enjoyed Expo this year. I didn’t get anywhere near the trade halls and feel all the better for that. If you like board and card games or bring and buy stalls there are two halls of goodness for you - three counting the Collector’s Fair. It’s just not for me. The organisation this year was just slick and the yellowshirt volunteers were amazing! And all my games had full tables making me feel loved and wanted. It was a lovely weekend.


Next year I may offer 6 games for 5 people instead of 5 games for 6 and hold off offering some of them until the seminar schedule is announced. I won’t be going to any shows - even JollyBoat. I think I’ll be seeing THEM again well before Expo 2020.