Talkin’ ’bout Big Bad Con, yeah…

I spent my discretionary time this weekend working on prep for this year’s edition of Big Bad Con. We had our official launch a few says ago, and we’re very excited!

It will be our second year at the new venue, the Marriott Walnut Creek, and we are planning to make better use of the excellent space. (I was bold and already booked a room.) We received a lot of useful (and mostly heart-warming) feedback on last year’s event, which prompted some changes. Notable items include:

  • A new board game track with a game library
  • An expanded program of panels and workshops
  • More games for teens
  • Better access to parking and food at the hotel
  • Quieter space for Games On Demand
  • An all-digital system for on-site game signups

And probably more stuff I’m forgetting. The con have fantastic staff handling all these projects.

Immediately after Thursday’s announcement, we received many game submissions. I spent much time this weekend approving games and communicating with game-masters. And thinking about what games I want to run…

We also received submissions for panels, seminars, and workshops but we’re holding those in draft form until we have our official guest list finalized. This must wait until after the Kickstarter campaign that will run through May. Still, if you have ideas of panel topics you would like to see on the program, send them in!

 

Citizen Pain is in da house

A production 24 years in the making… Citizen Pain! Yes, that’s how long I lived in the U.S. under work visas, then under spouse visas as a resident immigrant. Becoming American has never been something that appealed to me on an emotional level (I’m Canadian, I don’t have to fake it!)

But in recent years I have come to realize just how many rights which I thought applied to residents do in fact apply only to citizens: the right to legal representation, for example. And immigrants can get in trouble for a lot of legal activities, such as supporting civil rights groups, marching and protesting, or using certain privacy software like Tor or Signal. As my attorney and friend said, you can be right about the issue but you’ll still get in a mountain of trouble.

So this year I decided to bite the bullet, particularly since I was hoping to vote after over two decades of paying taxes. Unfortunately, a lot of immigrants had the same idea and my application, though sent in April, was not processed in time. But in the weeks since the horrible November 8 election, the Obama administration worked hard to child-proof the country, including processing as much of the immigration backlog as possible. It was my privilege to be sworn in today as a citizen, on the last tenure day of the president I admired so much.

The oath ceremony took place at the historic Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California, and 1,240 new citizens from 91 countries were sworn in. (I understand that throughout the country, this week was a marathon of such events, thematically linked to Martin Luther King Jr. Day.) We were also able to apply for a U.S. passport and voter registration, so I took care of these items.

To be honest, the ceremony was a little odd, because U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services personnel are trying to be nice, joyful, congratulatory — and until this moment, none of us applicants have seen them be anything but suspicious, stern, and disengaged. As my friend Sean Nittner put it, it’s like having the Department of Motor Vehicles throw you a party! Also, when they were listing the 91 countries of origin, they forgot Canada. Dudes!

After the ceremony and various paperwork, we moved next door to Tiera Mia Coffee for our first caffeine of the day. We took a table in a corner and were having a nice conversation between my husband Edmund, my friends Sean and Dorene, and me, waiting for another friend, Marc, to join us. But then a weird incident happened.

First, this tall guy approached our table and just loomed over us, staring at Sean who asked if everything was okay. The guy said yes, still glaring; Sean gave a few polite words (something like “Good, I’m glad. You have a good day, now.”) It was said in his typical courteous way, didn’t sound snarky in the least. The guy went back to his table and we forgot about the incident.

Then maybe 30 minutes later, he got up, marched to our table and shoved his sandwich (and knuckles) in Sean’s face, then flipped our table in Sean’s lap! Cups and plates went flying, we were splashed and so were our table neighbours, and we all jumped to our feet yelling “What the hell! Why did you do that?” Without answering, the guy spat in Sean’s face, twice! Then he grabbed his skateboard and stomped off, never explaining himself.

The cafe manager called the police and a couple of officers showed up a few minutes later, took down the stories, and viewed the cafe’s surveillance camera footage. The best we can guess is that it was a case of mistaken identity; the guy did not give the vibe of someone looking to pick a fight with anyone, just with Sean.

After some cleaning up and new drinks, and telling the whole story to our friend Marc, we moved a couple of blocks up the street to Agave Uptown, an Oaxacan restaurant where I had made a lunch reservation. Happily, we encountered no further weirdness, and all felt like we had had enough for a while.

As a newly minted registered voter, I plan to keep the phone red-hot with calls to political representatives. Until now my opinion has never mattered; if you’re not a registered voter, your signatures and calls don’t count. But I do plan on being counted now. And I know calls are much more effective than form letters and Internet petitions. So I will use my new citizenship, oh yes I will.

My 2016 in gaming

Time for data analysis, because I’m a nerd!

Unsurprisingly, my gaming in 2016 was affected by my health issues. I had medical appointments, minimal energy, and because of a suppressed auto-immune system, I avoided large gatherings like conventions and in-store game days. The only convention I attended was my beloved Big Bad Con in October, and I still had to have regular naps in my hotel room! The games I did play, I tended to play repeatedly at home, online, or with a small group of close friends. The length and complexity of games I could play was often reduced — even the size, since we played games with a small footprint on a surgical tray in the infusion room during chemotherapy!

By December 31, I still ended up with 47 different games in my list, down from 62 in 2015.  Let’s start with some summary numbers:

2016_in_gamingMy game types were divided between about 55% tactical and strategic play (2 miniatures games, 13 board games, 11 card games for a total of 26 different titles) and 45% narrative play (19 role-playing games, 2 storytelling games, and no live-action role-playing game this year, for a total of 21 titles). This does not reflect the respective amount of time or number of instances I played each; I have not been tracking this level of detail.

  • Games I labelled “storytelling” rather than “role-playing” included Fiasco and Downfall.
  • The distinctions between board games and miniatures games or board games and card games can be blurry, such as in games like Yggdrasil or  The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game.

Some 28 of these 47 different games (60%) were new to me: I had never played them before 2016. And of these new games, 5 were playtests (18% of the new games or 11% of the year’s total.)

To my chagrin, only 6 (13%) included at least one woman among the designers (Megan Bennett-Burks, Emily Care Boss, Peggy Chassenet, Caroline Hobbs, Anna Kreider, and Emma Larkins.) I’m unable to track persons of colour among designers, though I believe there are a few (e.g., Christopher Badell, I think?) I want to do better in supporting diversity.

I also rated each game subjectively, from 1 to 5 stars:

  • Among the 19 games I had played before, the average rating was 4.0 — no surprise there — with my favourites being Night Witches and Sentinels of the Multiverse, each scoring 5 stars.
  • Among the 28 new games, the average was of course a little lower, 3.4; my favourite new games were Masks and Venture City, each rating 4.5 stars, and my least favourite were Exploding Kittens and Haiku Warrior, each earning only 1 star.

I played with a total of 46 different people, 21 of which were new to me (46%.)

Here is what my list of games looked like (after the cut): Continue reading “My 2016 in gaming”

Come at me, 2017

2017As you might have guessed, the last several weeks have been harder on my morale than my body. The last stretch of the American presidential election was hugely stress-inducing, and the results were soul-crushing. I know my friends know what I’m talking about, I heard it in their words and read it in their posts. Except for the most upbeat of topics — my gaming group, Thanksgiving, and the good progress in my treatment — I have been unable to write anything in over eight weeks. I keep thinking of words in my head, it’s all there, but I’ve been unable to put them down in writing.

Two months ago, I was cautiously optimistic. I thought we would probably get a weak Clinton victory, then some incremental building on the cautious progress made under the Obama administration; against this backdrop, I was expecting to focus a lot of energy on my geek communities, and particularly the gaming community, as I returned to health.

Then the world changed. I’m still not ready to unpack this event, but the result is that people previously known as “Gamergators,” “MRAs,” “pissing booth warriors” and “some racist trolls in the bottom drawer of the Internet” now feel emboldened to take their assholiness for a stroll in real space. Suddenly, it’s not just in a few compartments of our lives that we can meet with acts of hatred from people we don’t even know. After what most of us considered a shitty year, 2017 looks like it will be even worse. I met January 1st more downcast and apprehensive than I ever have in my life.

My backlog of writing is not helped by the fact that I feel I will be discussing many unpleasant topics this year. Indeed, in late October and early November before I sank into depression, I was planning to start writing a series tackling some of the successes, failures, and possible paths forward for diversity in tabletop gaming and related geeky pursuits. I feel this is more needed now than ever, but I don’t know how much justice I will be able to do to the topics.

Nevertheless, I can’t just roll over and play dead. It’s not the first time I have dealt with depression, and I will deal with it this time again. In fact, I was hit by a wave at about the same time the year before, when my kind and benevolent employer unilaterally cut my hours and stripped me of my benefits. You know what got me out of the ditch? Cancer. That’s right, sometimes it’s not an improvement in circumstances that serves as the ladder to climb out of a hole, but a disaster you have to respond to. And 2017 looks to be quite the disaster, so I might as well hold on to that to climb.

Happy New Year, folks. Me, I take pride in the fact that I managed to write this post without too much profanity.

Dungeon World: Our Heroes!

Our Heroes - Ram, Rahi, Merit, and Kanta. Art by Claudia Cangini.
Our Heroes. Front: Ram the Holy Killer; behind him, from left to right: Rahi the Relic Bearer, Merit the Trickster, and Kanta the Mage. Art by Claudia Cangini, 2016.

We’ve been playing Dungeon World for over a year now, in Edmund’s own setting inspired by Southern Asia, “The Land of Ten Thousand Gods.” We’re nearing the epic conclusion of a big story arc so as a holiday present to the whole group, I commissioned a portrait of our four characters from the amazing Claudia Cangini. Tonight I unveiled it for the group and people sounded very happy — I know I am!

For those who, like me, enjoy seeing how a piece of art comes together, I will post the various steps of Claudia’s work. All images are in the slideshow at the bottom.

Continue reading “Dungeon World: Our Heroes!”

Thanks all around

johnny-automatic-maid-with-cornucopia-800pxYes, it’s that time once again in the U.S.A., Thanksgiving and sharing your gratitude. It was not difficult to find things to be thankful for, but it was difficult to write about them; 2016 was a very sucky year from the global level to the personal level. Nonetheless, I have things I’m very grateful for.

Thanks, Obama — actually, that’s Thanks, Mr. President, and I’m thankful for that. You have been a smart, compassionate, dignified, eloquent, funny president for eight years and I will miss you so much.

And thanks, Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker. You encouraged us to be our better selves during this depressing, mind-boggling year of election campaigning.

Thanks, people of good will and honest mind who have fought, and plan to keep fighting, the return of fascism around the world.

Thanks to my husband Edmund who had a year of waiting on me hand and foot. I know this was rough and I assure you that I never forgot, in the midst of my own problems, what you were going through.

Thanks to my family — my mother, siblings, extended family who also had their own sorrows this year. I know you were worried about me, and hated that I was so far from you in a country known for its terrifying health care system. I hope I kept you informed enough to reassure you.

Thanks, my friends close and far, including many wonderful people I have never met face-to-face! Thank you for the encouragements, the help navigating bureaucracies, the cute animal pictures, the interesting discussions, the sage advice, the thoughtful gifts, and the simple fact that you cared.

Thanks, Valentine, Ubaid and Phantom, my three felinotherapists. You take good care of me.

Thanks

In which direction lies progress?

Autumn LeavesI have not forgotten that I promised to go back over the “Two Minutes Hate” issue for the three-month assessment of its impact onto the tabletop role-playing community, and particularly the parts of the community centering on indie and small-press games. Since I started the assessment, I have tallied responses from a variety of threads online, and discussed with and interviewed many people closely involved with and/or affected by the events.

In short, based the evidence I collated I believe that after three months (I’ll get back to this in a moment), the impacts of “Two Minutes Hate” and its follow-up FAQ have been more negative than positive, and that the negative impacts are disproportionately felt by a few people who were already on the receiving end for frequent online abuse. The post failed to clearly convey Mark’s intended message and caused harm both directly and indirectly to people singled out as examples. I see the following as key errors: Continue reading “In which direction lies progress?”

Did we see progress?

Trigger warning: Online harassment in the tabletop role-playing community.

Three-month check-in

depression_hurts_by_deadlywolfqueen-d50nfp0In late July, Mark Diaz Truman posted a reflection on his company blog (Magpie Games) about a perceived conflict in tabletop role-playing sub-communities, followed by a FAQ a few days later. I gave my own opinion back then when Mark asked, in response to my disagreement:

I’d also encourage us all (including me) to look at the effects 3 mo, 6 mo, and a year down the road.

It’s time to check in on the effects of the post after three months. Mark concluded his posts with:

I want to inspire conversation and self-reflection, and I believe that people have engaged in productive discussions both online and offline as a result of the post.

If you have been following the various conversations that Mark’s thoughts sparked, if you have some familiarity with the tabletop role-playing community and particularly with the subsets Mark focused on, OSR and story games, what if anything did you observe? For example:

  • Do you feel this has affected the way you post? If so, how?
  • Are any voices more frequently heard since these posts? Or less frequently?
  • Has the tone of community influencers changed in any relevant way?
  • Have certain frequent or prominent discussions changed in tone, style, or frequency?

If you can cite data, like Jessica Price and Jason Corley did last time, extra special thanks.


Credits: Illustration is called “Depression Hurts“, by Inkin Oddity; released under Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Masks: Play report and review

Masks

A few weeks ago, our friend AW ran a one-off episode of the role-playing game Masks for me, my husband Edmund, and two more friends, SP and MP. I thought this was a good time to talk about this game since the PDF version just became available on DriveThruRPG. First, I share a play report that goes a bit long, but talks about the mechanics as well as the fiction generated in play. I follow with a review of the game. Continue reading “Masks: Play report and review”

Night Witches: Wrap-up and Mini-Review

Yesterday we brought our Night Witches campaign to a close, as the war ended in Europe with Germany’s surrender. Here is a quick look back at the campaign, followed by my review of the game itself.

Campaign Highlights

  • The 46th "Taman" Guards Night Bomber Aviation RegimentAmazingly, four of the seven original characters made it out alive (Maryam, Elena, Vera, and Oksana, played by Edmund, Steve, Alan, and Sophie.) For a while now Elena had been close to taking her last mark — “Embrace death and find your final destiny” — so we were all trying to keep her from meeting the bad premonitions she’d been having!
  • Of the others, two players had to drop so their characters (Yulia and Valentina, played by Christine and April) were technically still alive.
  • One new character (Anya, played by Adi) had appeared after the earlier tragic death of an airwoman (Sveta, also played by Adi).

Most of us took a turn at being game-master for one duty station or another, which gave us a chance to learn GMing tricks from each other. I really liked that, and I know I will use some of these techniques with other games.

The most marking events in the campaign, the dramatic fulcrum, were Elena forced by circumstances to kill a German prisoner to save him from a worse fate, followed by Sveta abandoning hope and dying in a subsequent mission. We had tragic loves, stormy friendships, splendid bravery, and wistful secrets.

We all stamped our mark on the squadron: Maryam was our fearless leader, fiercely protective of her airwomen; Elena was the career communist, slowly losing both faith and ambition; Vera was the cheerful pragmatist who always had a trick up her sleeve; Yulia was the sweet young recruit painfully hardened by war; Sveta was the tough-minded survivor who lost her zest for life after one too many tragedies; Oksana was the secret romantic who always tried to have her sisters’ backs; Valentina was the wild rebel; and Anya was the gutsy late-addition to the squadron, trying to make her place without being pushed around.

Mini-Review: Night Witches

Hardcover book and card deck, Night Witches RPGThe role-playing game Night Witches was written by Jason Morningstar and released by Bully Pulpit Games in January 2015 after a successful Kickstarter funding campaign ($48,806 pledged, well surpassing the $5,000 goal.) The game is Powered by the Apocalypse.

The Good

Night Witches brings its own refinements to the basic structure introduced by Apocalypse World. For example, the general moves are divided between those taking place during the day and largely involving caring for the regiment, your own squadron, the airwomen and the planes; and moves used during the night missions to accomplish mission objectives and survive encounters with the enemy. Several day moves allow the players, if they so wish, to accumulate “mission points” which can be used one-for-one to add to rolls on night moves.

These general moves are well designed to daisy-chain and create story material. Combined with the handouts supplied by the publisher for duty stations, missions, Witch-y things that can happen, period history, lists of names, etc., these make the GM’s game preparation very easy. No need to plan for complex story arcs, just sow some seeds and the story will happen. Like all PbtA games, it does require that everyone be willing and able to improvise in response to other players’ choices and any triggered moves.

Night Witches book and card deckThe setting is fantastic, of course. The game’s focus on the experiences of women in one of the most brutal theatres of this exceedingly brutal war is new, refreshing, and challenges a lot of role-playing tropes. The fact that it is also historical, documented, real makes it resonate all the more. If you want to expand from the useful notes on the period provided in the book and handouts, there is a wealth of material available (free or inexpensive), including patriotic music and amazing Soviet and German maps of the era.

Finally, I also got the optional card deck that supplements the book with character portraits, play aids for flight missions, medals, and quick-start character background elements. As I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for visual aids and this one combines art by Claudia Cangini (portraits) and Rich Longmore (plane schematics) with vintage Soviet playing card deck backs!

The Bad

Like most other PbtA games, Night Witches‘ character creation process centres around playbooks, essentially templates with a menu of options each character can choose from. There are only five playbooks or “Natures” to pick from: Owl, Raven, Hawk, Pigeon, and Sparrow. You are encouraged to include as many as you can in the game, but you can have more than one player using the same Nature. You can never go back and change a character’s Nature, however. Each has its own special moves.

After picking your Nature, you choose one of six Roles (Adventurer, Misanthrope, Leader, Zealot, Dreamer, and Protector) which will also give you access to a special move. Roles can change throughout a character’s life.

Unfortunately, the Natures did not feel intuitive for anyone in our group and the special moves granted by Natures and Roles were not as fitting as they might have been.Most of us ended up picking very few advancements from the special moves available to use, preferring to get promotions, improve stats, or forge and change bonds. I believe every character still in play at the end had used their one opportunity to go get a special move from a different playbook, reinforcing the sense we got that playbooks did not hang together in a satisfying way.

In some other PbtA games, such as Monsterhearts, Dungeon World, Monster of the Week, or Masks, the playbooks correspond to easily-grasped archetypes and the special moves fit well with them so that you have little trouble figuring out “what my character would do.” Then again, the game that started it all, Apocalypse World, contains playbooks and associated moves that I found difficult to understand (e.g., the Battle Babe that doesn’t actually, y’know, battle), so as they say: your mileage may vary. Nevertheless, if there is ever a second editions I would recommend revising the Natures, Roles, and associated moves.

Overall Assessment

Hero of the Soviet Union medalThis is a memorable game that has produced intense episodes in our campaign as well as in one-off convention games. I have never had a boring session. It’s easy enough for a GM to pick up and run, provided you familiarize yourself with the PbtA style. (For example, a GM has to realize that she never needs to roll dice in these games — the players do all the dice rolling.) Five of us took our turn at the helm during the campaign, including two that had never game-mastered a PbtA game, and everybody did a bang-up job.

This is not the kind of game book that provides extensive setting material (for example, most GURPS sourcebooks); it offers well thought-out summaries and sketches, just enough for the reader to understand the situation without getting mired in detail. (Naturally, our group of geeks immediately turned to historical sources and went down the rabbit hole of research!) For my style of GMing, the amount of material was just right.

Yes, there are wrinkles around the playbooks, but they are not show-stoppers. Perhaps fan-made playbooks will appear and add the finishing touch to this already amazing game.