Convention Report: Big Bad Con 2015

Big Bad Con 2015 badge
Badged and proud of it.

I recently attended — and helped with — my favourite game convention in the world, Big Bad Con.  I can’t believe it was the fifth edition already!  And Edmund and I have been to every instance — and have a ton of souvenir pins to prove it.  (You can read Edmund’s description of this year’s event starting here.)

Every year has been better than the previous, an amazing feat of continuous improvement of an already superb convention.  But this year was also organized differently.  Because of a SNAFU with the hotel, negotiations were difficult and a contract did not get signed until mid-May 2015, for a convention that takes place in October.  If you have ever tried to put on an event of this scope, you know that they take the better part of a year to organize, so this was a challenge.  Plus, organizer Sean Nittner had been putting on the convention with a handful of staff for the first four years through sheer personal energy, and I think exhaustion was setting in.

The Big Bad Wolf and the Wolf Pack

So this year Sean started with a call for volunteers which Edmund and I answered, followed by a Kickstarter campaign to make up for the hotel’s increased fees. The KS campaign was a runaway success, with 205 backers pledging $14,050 or seven times the sum of $2,000 Sean was asking for.  He used the extra money to bring in a bevy of guests selected among enthusiastic community builders and diversity champions in our hobby. 

Big Bad community standards, posted at every door and in the program.
Big Bad community standards, posted at every door and in the program.

With a larger team, new guests, and a short timeline that forced a different approach, Big Bad Con tackled events differently.  Since Sean was delegating a lot of tasks (as a matter of fact, it was materially impossible to do things the same way they’d been done before!), new staff brought new perspectives, skills, and ideas.

Sean continued with his long-term goals of opening the doors to new gamers and increasing diversity and safety at the con.  We had staff dedicated to crafting the community standards (safety and inclusiveness policies), greeting and orienting attendees, running games on demand, hosting open gaming, improving accessibility, mediating conflicts, and so forth.  From game-master recruitment to floor layout to attendees’ first contact, everything was planned with the objective of making this a fun, welcoming and safe event for all.

Some events were incremental improvements of familiar favourites: the regular role-playing games (mostly run in individual rooms for privacy and sound control but adjacent to the common areas), Open Gaming, Games on Demand, Dealers Room, the Wolf Chase on Sunday morning, Improv for Gamers, panels and workshops, the “Tell Me About Your Character” booth, the Alameda County Community Food Bank donation barrels, and the donations to Doctors Without Borders and Child’s Play.

Other events were all-new, like amazing food baskets prepared by Tess Aquarium, Brian Vo and Kristin Hayworth for Kickstarter backers who had contributed at the Little Red’s Basket level; or showed radical re-thinking of previous events, like the Big Bad Gauntlet organized by Lali Cheshire to replace the Big Bad GM Competition from previous years.

How I Spent My Time

My share of duties included helping line up games and recruit GMs in the months leading up to the convention (we ended up with over 200 scheduled events, not including Games on Demand), helping with the Big Bad Gauntlet, doing a Costco run, and running my game War of Ashes: Fate of Agaptus a couple of times.  I also got to play in three scheduled games, attend the staff party, hangout with throngs of cool people, and feel sad about not having time to hangout with the other throngs of cool people because schedule.

Friday

The convention opened with the Costco shopping where Edmund and I got food for the staff party.  Thank you Costco, you made it possible to have nice nibbles while staying comfortably under budget.  Then we headed to Oakland, fighting Friday morning traffic but getting there in time for the staff briefing.

Catastrophic success
Catastrophic success!

In the afternoon I ran an adventure called “Curse of Agaptus” for Brian F., Monte, John, Island Vixen, Brian V., and my husband Edmund. I gauged time poorly and spent too much time explaining the background setting.  On the other hand the players were so nice and so much fun (as is practically everyone who shows up for Big Bad Con!)

The heroes attracted quite a bit of Divine Interest, particularly when Island Vixen (playing Rustica Bibulus) rolled +4… totalling a +9 once approach and aspect invocations were tallied… while praying to the gods!  Unfortunately, I had to wrap up the end of the episode rather clumsily.  Still, everyone was great and it felt odd but thrilling to sign copies of my book!

A food truck menu: Ultra Crepes.
A food truck’s breakfast menu: Ultra Crepes.

Edmund and I had some knishes from the gourmet food trucks for dinner — throughout the weekend we would end up having a rotation between several trucks, from 8am until 9pm or so: King Knish, Benedict Arnolds, Ultra Crepes, El Porteño Empañadas, Siam Loco Wraps, Opie Burger, and Gogo Gyro — then Edmund went to run his Motobushido game.

Bluebeard's Bride - logo
I went to Marissa Kelly’s playtest of the new adult horror game Powered by the Apocalypse which she, Whitney “Strix” Beltràn, and Sarah Richardson are writing for Magpie Games, Bluebeard’s Bride.  Each of us was playing a different aspect of the Bride’s psyche, and I ended up playing the Mother.  My fellow players included Island Vixen (the Virgin), Michelle (the Animus), Zach (the Witch), and Ross (the Fatale).  Again, a wonderful group to play with (I need to write my playtest comments and send them to Marissa!)

Edmund and I crawled to bed well after midnight, happy that we had secured a hotel room instead of having to drive back home!

Saturday

Did I mention that there was a glider in the hotel restaurant? There was.
Did I mention that there was a glider in the hotel restaurant? There was.

We got up not too late because I had a briefing with other GMs for Big Bad Gauntlet over breakfast, and Edmund was running a short, small live-action role-playing (LARP) game from Bully Pulpit Games, JUGGERNAUT.  After my briefing I brought breakfast back to Edmund at his game room, then went to prepare my notes for the big event of the afternoon, the aforementioned Big Bad Gauntlet.

The goal was to harness some of the wonderful energy from previous Big Bad GM contests but without having to pick a “winner” as this inevitably brought the mood down in the room. The plans included:

  • Sixteen players
  • Eight audience members
  • Four game-masters
  • Four Agents of the opposition
  • One Big Bad Wolf…
Big Bad Con 2015 - Social Justice Bards' room
Yep, Edmund and I splurged enough on the Kickstarter to name a room.

The four GMs and organizer Lali had discussed a setting where fictional characters or magical creatures were oppressed by a despot, the Big Bad Wolf, and manipulated by his Agents.  Each of four groups of heroes would represent one such faction, as outlined by the GM and fleshed out by the players at the game table.

We mixed mythology, fiction, and science fiction, and the system was the very simple Fate Accelerated from Evil Hat Productions.  The four factions imagined by the GMs turned out to be:

  • An incarceration facility located on the Moon, for non-gender-conforming Fables (GM: Bry Hitchcock).
  • A rebel group of angry steampunk Disney princesses who had escaped rather than go to “finishing school” (GM: John Kim).
  • Supersmart talking cats fleeing the oppression of the Wolf and his dog minions in a stolen spaceship, in a decaying orbit around the Moon (GM: Kasi Jammeh).
  • Chinese mythology figures, trying to free their Moon Princess captured by the Big Bad Wolf during a parley truce (GM: me).

My players included Mike (the only one whose name I remember because I played again later in the weekend) as the twin Guardian lions/Foo dogs, and three other great role-players in the roles of the white tiger General Byakko (yes it should have been Bai Hu, roll with it — player’s prerogative!), a nine-tailed fox spirit or huli jing, and a Minotaur-like bodyguard to the Moon Princess modelled after Number Ten Ox.  Our Agent was Devon, incarnating the double-dealing Monkey King Sun Wukong.

With so many people in the ballroom, it was a bit of mostly-controlled chaos, but it was great fun. The members of the audience were free to wander in and play bit characters that spun the story in new directions.  We did discover that this could accidentally interfere with the players’ goals, as this casually got our poor Moon Princess killed; next year we’ll have better rules but it was still a darned good afternoon.  The resulting story was too complex for me to try to sum it up here, but I hope Lali will write it up!

Freehunters1_m
Yann maps the area around Stalingrad.

I then grabbed a couple of dinners from the food trucks and met up with Edmund for his evening game, an adaptation of Bully Pulpit Games’ Night Witches called “Freehunters.”  Instead of being women PO-2 pilots from the all-female 588th Night Bomber Regiment, we played women YAK-1 pilots attached to the mostly-male 437th Fighter Regiment (and later two men as replacement pilots) flying over Stalingrad.  Edmund had written some dog-fighting moves to replace the night-bombing action, and nasty little mechanical incentives to overstretch our strength.  We had nice drama and death!

A lot of planes crashed...
A lot of planes crashed…

Other players were Dave (who managed to kill off two characters!), Yoshi, and Yann.  The latter turned out to also be an awesome cartographer, and none of us ever want to try our hand at mapping for games again if Yann is there!  I was pretty pleased that I managed to keep my character alive throughout the game while scoring several kills on the fiendish Hitlerites.

We finished the evening at the staff party, which took place in a suite located immediately above our room…  Actually, I was pleasantly surprised by the hotel’s soundproofing. What a great group of staffers and volunteers to work with!  In fact, we all enjoyed it so much that we’re already chatting about organizing the next convention, less than ten days later…

Sunday

M.O.D.O.K. rolled teh suck.
M.O.D.O.K. rolled teh suck.

Bleary-eyed after a short night, I went in search of coffee.  Bless the food trucks again!  And I was off to a 9am game of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (Margaret Weis Productions) run by my friend Christine, called “We Are Iron Man.”  Bry, Lali, Liralen, Kevin and I played Maria Hill, “Pepper” Potts, Melinda May, Phil Coulson and Sam Wilson respectively, attending a swanky party at Tony Stark’s newly rebuilt mansion (this took place after The Winter Soldier but before Age of Ultron.)

When Tony passed out long before he should have given his tolerance for alcohol, we discovered he had been poisoned.  And on cue, seismic tremors rocked Stark Labs, Hollywood & Vine, and Disneyland!  A pre-recorded message from Tony in case of problems informed Pepper that she had access to the basement and its collection of experimental power suits.

M.O.D.O.K.: Mental Organism Designed Only for Kritical misses.
M.O.D.O.K.: Mental Organism Designed Only for Kritical misses.

We chased, we protected, we investigated, we infiltrated, we battled.  Behind the attacks and a couple of false fronts we found the ever popular M.O.D.O.K.!  Or, as my friend Wilhelm later suggested based on this final defense roll against Pepper, “Mental Organism Designed Only for Kritical misses.”

I had a tremendous time in this game, not the least because everyone was so good at playing their character.  I particularly enjoyed Christine and Lali’s exchanges as Tony Stark and Pepper Potts.

For the final event in the afternoon, I ran a second game of War of Ashes: Fate of Agaptus, reprising the short adventure “Ice, Ice Baby” which I had playtested at Dragonflight in August.  My players Bay, Mike, and Kevin were great once again.  I made sure the exposition was much briefer than at Friday’s game, and we were doing well time-wise, until about 90 minutes from the end.

Then we had a strange situation: a new player showed up late at the convention and, having missed the start of all the afternoon games, found himself at a loss for what to do.  Edmund, who was on duty as a volunteer at the registration desk and knew I would try to help a stranded player, sent the newcomer my way.

But it turned out to be a very bad match; this player was not listening very well either to me or to input from other players (perhaps he was flustered by his transit mishaps.)  He missed such crucial pieces of information, although repeated several times, as the fact that we were two and a half hours into a four-hour game.  He was an attention hog.  He asked questions then talked over my answers to ask the next question.  He forced PC-versus-PC confrontation but refused to integrate the result when the roll went against his preferred outcome.  He meta-gamed not in the fun way (I think meta-gaming is great when it’s used to build a story that is more fun, like in Fiasco) but in the selfish, petty way that involves changing one’s character’s goals to mess with the other players’ goals.  He tried to rob the other players of their victory.

I worked very hard to remain poised, courteous, and give everyone at the table, even him, the attention that my players deserve.  The original players seemed supportive, even as they were becoming irritated with the newcomer.  This little sidestep ate the time I had managed to save up and once again I had to rush the ending while preventing New Guy from ruining it for others.  But I think I did a decent job of it without resorting to railroad.

Thus endeth the convention, with a last round of goodbyes to lovely friends on the way out.  Edmund and I were tired, but very happy with our weekend.  I was really glad I had taken Monday off to recover.

And on Tuesday I lost my job, but that’s another story.

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