Sunday, 23 December 2018

Birmingham Central Roleplayers Club

I usually write about TTPRG conventions. But this post will be about another part of the hobby, a TTRPG club.

One of the truly great things about TTRPGs is the way you can play the same character over and over again and watch them grow and develop. This happens when you play a game repeatedly as part of a campaign. This is actually the default way to play TTTRPGs, with the "one off" games at games conventions being the exception rather than the norm.

Every week across the world hundreds of thousands - possibly millions - of people get together to play the next instalment of their TTRPG campaign.

I haven't actually been able to do this for a couple of decades.

Then the Birmingham Central Roleplayers club moved near to where I live. I'd tried to  attend it before but it was based in Ladywood in Birmingham which made it difficult for me to get back from at the end of the night. Now, however, it's in a Social Club in Selly Oak, a short bus ride from my house. So I started going.

The club has been running for years. I don't know how long. (I know I started a short lived club with a similar name back in the 80's - maybe this is a continuation?) It has dozens of members and is bigger than most conventions I attend. It's run by a small but enthusiastic and effective committee. Communication is via a Facebook page - whose usage seems spotty - and a website - which is in need of an update.  Mainly everything works by word of mouth. And works well.

As I said, it's now in a Social Club - what used to be a "working man's club" - in Selly Oak. As this is on one of the major arterial roads out of the city centre and right next to a railway station, it's easy to get to. The club is bright and completely appropriate for a TTRPG club. A couple of people have commented that, with the club being so busy, the acoustics can be a bit loud. But there is at least one side room, and I haven't personally noticed a problem.

Being a Social Club, the beer is cheap and the staff are incredibly friendly - a real bonus. It think it's a symbiotic relationship. The takings at the till on Thursday evenings must be quite significant.

Cleverly, I think , the club doesn't have an open structure. They break each year into 3 or 4 sessions and encourage referees to run limited duration campaigns that last c. 3 months. I started attending a few weeks before the end of one of these sessions and was easily able to fill my time running or playing in one-off games. There are a regular trickle of newbies and these usually seem to be able to find a place in an on-going group.

At the end of a session, referees are encouraged to finish their current campaigns and players are encouraged to sign up to new games. Some people enjoy the games they are in so much that they just carry on, and I suppose that's OK.

There's the mix-up week. Players are encouraged to sign up to new games. This is through sign up sheets like at conventions - except that you're committing several months of your life so it's a big decision. At the same time a big mix-up game is run designed to let the club members move around and play with a variety of different people. This is, of course, a very difficult - almost impossible - thing to set up. The one I witnessed used a very simple multi-genre system developed by one of the club committee members. Each table was a different world. After a bit of play, each world came under attack through multi-dimensional portals and characters were sucked between worlds to try and piece together - and defeat - a larger threat.

I played in a zombie apocalypse world and did my usual thing of focussing on achieving my character's individual goals rather than engaging with the larger storyline and spent a fun evening twatting zombies.

Them the new campaigns started. I offered a Steampunk one using my The Code Of Steam and Steel rules and Martin Pickett's marvellous Victorian Colony of Mars setting. I got 6 players, one of whom disappeared almost immediately with no explanation.

I knew none of the players previously - though a couple may have played in one of my one-off games. We had a couple of note-takers who really tried to engage with the system, a quiet player, an inventive player with a scientific mind (who successfully used Archimedes'  principle against me - kudos) and a typical student who'd only ever played "what you see is what you get" D&D types games. The narrative control elements of my game went to his head a bit and we had sweeping changes to the storylines. I think the players were a bit surprised, initially, how I went with these and embraced random changes to the plot.

"How does alcohol affect Martians?"
"I don't know. Let's make a random table and roll!"

The highlight was easily the moment when a player not only illustrated her own and her partner's characters - professional standard - but then was so enamoured of one scene that she produced a whole page of comic illustrating it. The first time
Martin and I had actually seen his cat-like Martians in the flesh.

It was a fun campaign and I learnt a lot about being a weekly Referee again - mainly about the crushing responsibility. If you have a referee who regularly runs games for you, treasure them and treat them well.

As you play each week a marvellous man comes around and collects £2 from each player. Not from the Referee though. We get to play for free.

I'd always intended to run the campaign within the club's recommended constraints. Campaigns were due to end at Christmas. Rather than a mix-up game, the club has a quiz session with a buffet laid on - and a seemingly endless tab at the bar - paid for from club funds. It's a real party event.

My group chose to play through the quiz and into the final, optional pre-Christmas, week. (The club was still busy.) I bought my whole group a round of drinks and drinks for the bar staff. (It cost roughly the same as three pints would at UK Games Expo.)

"Afternoon, Simon. Just wanted to say thank you for the sci-fi/steampunk campaign over the past three months or so and for managing an ending that had some drama and 'last minute' dice rolls. I liked the flexibility and simplicity of the mechanics.....

"I'd certainly play again, now I have regenerated limbs, and whether our travels take us across mars, or back to Earth, I'm sure the others would probably feel the same! Have a good holiday season and see you next year. Cheers, Paul."

I've chosen not to run a campaign in the next session but to play - I'm in a Savage World's "black powder - probably pirates" game for three months. I'm intending to offer to referee again in the summer, when I'll put in place everything I've learnt from this recent campaign.

I really love this club. The people - players and staff - are lovely. The venue is perfect. The club management is effective but unobtrusive, easily facilitating games and gamers' quirks. Most of all I love the structure where we get to play in extended games and encouraged to mix with other people and sample different systems. Yes the "I only play D&D 5th with people I know" die hards at present, but they're catered for as well.

I'm really glad they moved near me!

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Conventions 2019 - Initial thoughts

I'm an awkward sod. 

  1. I like to referee (with "like" being far too mild a word).
  2. I only offer games I've written myself (with "The Black Hack" and "The Cthulhu Hack" being minor exemptions.)
  3. I often can't confirm my attendance until the last minute and have great ideas for games to offer at the last minute too.
  4. I don't enjoy playing anything other than TTRPGs. (This is also far too mild a statement).

So, though I like to go to lots of conventions I effectively self excuse myself through the above criteria or because they're on at the same time as other events I want to attend. I'm aware that there are loads of system specific conventions which are great (Revelation and all the Pathfinder ones) but I won't go to them - despite receiving the odd invitation.

I was going to list my conventions for 2019 when I had time to sit down and work out my diary but I can't resist getting involved in the on-line debate currently going on, so here's a quick stream of consciousness/memory list:

STABCON - my first convention of the year and an essential. There's also one in the summer I have to go to. You won't see this advertised anywhere. It's a residential weekend in a CHEAP hotel in Stockport, has been running for decades. It's at capacity. If you know about StabCon then you're a regular. If you don't then it isn't easy to break in but it's worth the effort. Though mainly a board game convention there is a strong RPG track and I have several regular ongoing games already booked in - even though there isn't a booking system.

CONTINGENCY - I'd kill to get there and keep number crunching over and over again in the hope of getting everything to add up. For the old Naish cons it's replaced I used to be able to dash out of work at 4pm on Friday and get there in time for a Friday night game. I can't do that for Contingency which makes it economically unviable. The costs aren't worth it for four game sessions. If you CAN get to Contingency easily , the reverse is true and you really should go.

SPAGHETTI CONJUNCTION - I can't believe our sweet little games day is into its 3rd year. Twice a year. Birmingham. Great people, good venue. Love it!

CONCRETE COW - SCJ's big brother. Twice a year in Milton Keynes. It's still the best one day games day on the circuit but with numbers dropping slightly and some of the "big names" no longer attending it's now a strong preference rather than an essential, sadly. 

CONPULSION - I used to love Conpulsion when it had three hour slots to create two hour gaps between so I could attend (and be on panels at!) non-gaming events. The uniqueness made it worth the horrendous travel an accommodation costs to Edinburgh. When they switched back to the standard "choose between games and seminars" approach in 2016 the convention lost some of its uniqueness. I couldn't go in 2017 and am seriously debating 2018. (Though I have received a "guest invite" email).

THE GARRISON CONS - 7Hills, Furnace, North Star. These are, of course, wonderful but I'm not sure the games I offer match the demographic. I'd love some advice on how make what I bring more appealing to the masses there. Again these have, sadly, moved into the strong preferences rather than being essentials.

LONGCON - I'd LOVE to support this. But I'm not sure I'm a long form referee. I know I'm not a long form player. And I'm even less likely to get players for my quirky offerings for a whole weekend. If it's on the same weekend as another event, it's very likely to get second billing.

THE DUDLEY BUG BALL - I really don't know how this is going to work out but it's worth try.

CONQUORD - they keep trying with this Bristol convention and their doggedness deserves our support. But it conflicts with Dudley Big Ball which is a far more economical option for me.

DEVCON - well organised convention in Chester. Sort of a professional version of Concrete Cow and SCJ. Again my quirky offerings don't match the demographic but I'll take a serious look at this one.

EXPO - 'nuff said, though I need to seriously plan what I'm going to do. The easy "Iron Referee" option means I could be missing out on something special

DRAGONMEET - is now finally the essential it should always have been.

WYNTERCON- this is mad. Hordes of ordinary punters queuing up to play the sort of short form games I offer - many coming for their annual  TTRPG fix. And I’m just one  member of a well run team! Essential.

AIRECON/ODDCON - though wildly different cons they fall into the same category for me. Successful cons and I’d love to support them but they’re mainly boardgame (other game) cons. The organisers seem to want to support TTRPGs but they don’t seem to be very successful there (by MY quirky criteria) as far as I can tell. The organisers earnestly want to offer TTRPGs but haven’t but specific strategies in place to encourage them to grow. I want to support these but need to see more.

DRAGONDAZE is in the same category but the organisers HAVE actively supported TTRPGs - through taking my advice (amongst other things). We now have the best venue in the Hall - apart from being right next to the PA. (PA’s are the enemy of TTRPGs.)

TABLETOP SCOTLAND - seems wonderful but expensive to attend for me.

TABLETOP in London - no. Not welcoming to TTRPGs. “You can pay US for you to run games for us.”

There’s also another one in Stockport I’d like to support. The name eludes  me ATM.

GROGMEET - sounds great (even if their raffle is a bit slow). But it’s overbooked and can I confirm early enough to get in as referee?

In fact that’s a REAL issue. Many cons I’d like to go to but by the time I can confirm the referee slots have gone - often stitched up internally behind the scenes. I have to try and read between the lines to identify local events where they don’t mind a couple of strangers turning up to bulk out the numbers but don’t really welcome strange referees.

I also go to non RPG conventions and my essentials for 2019 are:

ASYLUM - 100,000 Steampunks. 100,000! Deffo room for TTRPGs. I may even be looking for a wingman. 

My favourite report this year was the young lady who said she’d enjoyed racing teapots (radio controlled gizmos), Dinosaurs (two dozen Middle Aged men dressed as boar war redcoats on top with Bernie Clifton dinosaurs below) and Tripods (my game).

FANTASICON- wonderful SciFi convention with the best beer on the circuit where, apparently, I’m now an annual feature running live roleplays on stage!

I’m sure I’ve missed some off this list I’m going to or will be looking at (ReUnicon etc.) Apologies for any obvious ones I’ve missed.

It’s a wonderful life!

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Dragonmeet 2018

TLDR: the premiere London gaming convention finally done properly. An impressive achievement and now an essential fixture in the calendar.

Dragonmeet is THE London Games Convention. It’s been running in one form or another for decades. It’s a no brainer that it should be a “must not miss” fixture on everyone’s TTRPG Convention calendar.

But, somehow, for me it hasn’t been in the past. 

Firstly it’s a one day event. And it’s in London, in the run-up to Christmas. Even though games run until midnight, if you’re not local then accommodation costs make it uneconomic to stay over in London for a night if there’s nothing happening on Sunday.

Secondly, I’ve had the impression in the past that the convention wasn’t as slickly organised as you’d expect from such a premiere event.

So in recent years I’d been travelling down Saturday morning, running two games and then travelling back up Saturday evening, skipping the evening game slot. This made it a satisfying and economically viable day out.

But in 2017 the failing British Train system meant that me and my mate were massively delayed missing our morning game.

So this year I chose to make it a one day event again but arranged to offer short “games on the hour” in the morning and a long game in the afternoon.

Shortly before the event I was contacted by one of the organisers - who I’ve known for years. He needed more games advertised in advance on the web-site (to attract punters). In return for me staying all day, offering three games, and being “room captain” for the RPG floor he said I could bunk in (literally) with the volunteer crew. So I agreed and submitted three games - along with, I hoped, exciting and engaging blurbs.

(I also submitted an article for the programme about Role Play Relief which was printed.)

Given this flexibility, I chose to try to make my trip as cheap as possibly and booked tickets on a slow train to London.

This meant, Friday night, I arrived just as the crew were finished setting up at the venue - Novotel hotel in Hammersmith - and was able to walk with them in a crowd to the accommodation. Perfect!

In the morning the convention opened for signing up for games at 09:00 with games starting at 09:30. The trade hall didn’t open until 10:00. This allowed a staggered start. This plus over staffing the reception meant punters got in with minimum queuing. Much better than previous years.

Sign up sheets for TTRPGs were on boards clearly labelled with the rooms they were in. So punters could go to the rooms at their convenience instead of having to wait for them to be announced at a “muster” (as in previous years). Another massive improvement. 

Unfortunately my morning game garnered no signups - well it got four but all then found other games and crossed their names off or switched. It was my demo of the “lite” rules from the “Role Play Relief” Book but with the limited space on the standard sign up sheets created and printed by the convention, none of this transferred over from the blurb.

Note to self and other prospective TTRPG referees - when submitting games for DM don’t rely on detail and length to grab punters. Short and exciting is best.

So no game but, as room captain, I had to hang around and help punters - which I did a lot of. Also lots of nice chats with people - including advising a professional company on how to promote their up-coming TTRPGs. And I got to watch a stunning 5th Ed Referee enthralling a table of children.

A volunteer from the front desk was sent up to relieve me for an hour so I could trawl the rest of the convention.

Now, as a Referee, DM gives me the option to run games. That’s what I want to do. I don’t need - or care about - the rest of it. But I was very very (very) impressed.

There were three floors - the bottom was the trade hall. This was packed with goodies as you’d expect. But I found the offerings to be particularly interesting and eclectic. Even I was tempted by a couple of items myself.

(“The Big Book of Maps” is amazing. I also visited the “All Rolled Up” stand. They usually have stuff I didn’t know I needed. Today it was “Dungeon Cards”).

The floor had its own bar.

If you like gaming bling you can spend the whole day in the trade hall.

Above trade hall was the general gaming area. Room after room after room of demos, drop in games and open gaming space. The Bring and Buy was there in a large open area - not a side room - and it was impressive and well run. 

There was also a room offering a full programme of seminars.

This floor also had its own bar.

This floor was a convention of its own. If you just wanted to play games, there was more than enough here to keep you occupied for the day.

I grabbed a programme from reception and headed back upstairs to the third floor - “my”floor - which houses room after room of TTRPGs.

I took up my Room Captain duties again and began reading through the glossy professional programme. As well as the article about RPR there are other contributions including a full and impressive “Horror” scenario that I may well run at some point.

Lunchtime came. This is a two hour break - another improvement - but a game in my room overran and I had to wait for it to wrap up. I nipped out to a nearby artisan sandwich bar for lunch rather than sampling hotel cuisine (and prices!)

Sign up sheets for the afternoon games went up halfway through lunchtime. Apparently their was a bit of a rush as some people were desperate to get into particular games

After lunch my East End gangster game was fully booked with 6 players. This was an absolute hoot. I went  for the players designing elements of the setting route. And it worked because they were all amazing. We were all in fits of laughter throughout. It was one of those “you had to be there” things. One of the best groups of players I’ve ever had. 

I was also bought a couple of pints of lager, which was nice.

I made sure to finish early to give my players time to get to the sign up sheets for the evening games.

Only an hour’s break for tea - so  went out again -  this time grabbing a takeaway pizza from the nearby Hammersmith station.

Again my evening game didn’t get any sign ups. Again my fault. I use my own (published and known but not famous) rules and based it on an obscure property (the 1962 TV scifi puppet series Fireball XL5.)  Note to self - many older punters at DM seem to look for specific games. If you can’t (or won’t) offer one of the “big” game systems, offer a well known IP.

However I arranged for someone to fill my room captain role and the wonderful “yellow shirts” told me there were a couple of spaces in a Star Wars game.

This was the referee’s own rule system - which I like. It was meticulously researched and used the canon characters in episode 9.1. This guy’s take on Star Wars was that it was “bickering in space” and he’s not wrong. 

The character sheets were like scratch cards and as the characters suffered consequences, lost hit points or levelled up you scratched off the relevant part. Consequences (personalised for each character) were usually deeply emotional events rather than physical ones.

Good system.

The other three players at the table were three older teenage girls/young women who were an absolute delight. They’d come to Dragonmeet and just thrown themselves into games without knowing what to expect and had had a ball. Their enthusiasm was infectious. 

We played Luke, Leia, Han and the droids (designed as a single character - nice touch). Everyone played their characters perfectly. 

The highspot was Han and Leia back to back surrounded by troopers, blasting away and having an emotional argument about when she hadn’t told him she was pregnant. Only Han was played by a teenager and Leia by a middle aged man (me) and it worked! I love this hobby.

There was time for a pint at the bar with mates - £4.60 not as bad as I’d  feared - and then back to the accommodation with the convention crew.

I felt a bit guilty accepting the free accommodation but I feel it was justified by all the work I did as room captain.

So for me this was: 

The. Best. Dragonmeet. Ever. 

(Despite only getting to referee one game.)

It’s moved from being one of the better events on the convention circuit to an essential.

But I was in with the convention crew. Is it worth it for a normal referee or punter?

I’d say YES! If you’re local, you’ve no excuse for not treating yourself to this wonderful experience. If you’re not, I’d suggest making it a day trip or booking a weekend’s accommodation and making DM the centre of a pre-Christmas weekend away. Come for the convention, stay for sight seeing or shopping.

At last - at last - Dragonmeet has got it right!