Pacificon SF 2011 Report

         This was my ninth time coming to Conquest/Pacificon. I had more free time this year, so I was there pretty solidly from Friday to Monday.


Dresden Files: Fog City

CL-213 Dresden Files: Fog City
Time Block C: Fri 6:00AM
GM Devon Apple
8 hrs, 20 players
Using the "LARPS" system with pregenerated characters
The rumblings of an ancient prophecy have triggered a summit meeting of San Francisco's supernatural factions. The White Council has prepared the space for the visiting representatives from the Summer and Winter Fairy Courts, the Vampire Courts, and other key stakeholders. The Unseelie Accords will be observed in the designated Accorded Neutral Ground, in spite of the Red War currently being waged between the White Council and the Vampire Courts.

This was a well-attended LARP that was similar to the Star Wars LARP I had played two years earlier by the same lead GM, called Togatto Nights. It uses a mildly involved system ("LARPS") where each character had 5 to 10 cards for different abilities. Conflicts are resolved using stat comparison and rock-paper-scissors. The scenario was tricky for a LARP, in that it had a lot of magical powers taken directly from the background. Wizards had spells and sight, fairies had powers, etc. There were 3 GMs for 20 players, which was well covered in principle. However, there were still a number of time freezes for resolution of tricky powers.

The public factions were wizards of the White Council, White Court vampires, Unseelie fairies, Seelie fairies, and some Chinese monks. I was playing a wizard warden named Poe Delacourt, who had just been bitten by a Red Court vampire and thus was "infected" and on the edge of turning into a vampire himself. As an idea of where complexity came from, I had 18 abilities including 9 broken out onto separate slips of paper. The latter were: Addictive Saliva, Soul Gaze, The Sight, Death Curse, Hexing, Elemental Strike, Shield, Fury of the Storm, and Custom Spell. This was clearly a lot of work to prepare, so kudos for good preparation. I really did use most of my abilities, and it did add things to have that much going on. However, figuring out how those applied and interacted did take up GM and player time during the game.

In principle, I had a goal relating to a possible cure to my condition. However, I didn't get traction on that, so I spent much of the game socializing and philosophizing about what to do with my life if my condition was incurable. (I had a hint that another character could cure me, but using my wizard's Sight suggested that it was personal to him and he didn't seem to know how it would work.) I also spotted out a secret Red Court vampire at the event - Hanover Lash (played by Danielle). I confronted her but did not immediately reveal her secret, as she claimed that she had not part in the war. We agreed afterwards that the wizards would chase her down and kill her, but Poe would feel bad about it. It was interesting playing out the vampire-killer who finds himself becoming a vampire and having his first moral qualms about killing them.


Thunderstone

Saturday morning I came with my 11-year-old son. We picked up the Thunderstone card game at the dealer's room and went to the kid's room to try it out. Nothing was set up when we first checked there around 9:30, but by a little after 10:00 there were several kids and games there. Another father and son joined us and we tried it out the game.

Thunderstone is a fantasy card game with a theme of fighting monsters in dungeons, using "deck-building" rules similar to the popular Dominion. We all had a good time playing it. I think a key is the quick turns and fast progression. Even with four players, everyone was constantly doing something, and we would improve our position with every turn (i.e. no setbacks or turns where nothing happens). It is very thematic with characters getting equipment and increasing in level. One aspect of it is that there is virtually no player interaction - everyone has the same set of monsters to attack, but there is no trading, teamwork, or rivalry. It is really a race to see who can beat the most monsters.


PS238: Race to the Top

GY-395 PS238: Race to the Top
Time Block G: Sat 11:00AM
GM John Kim
4 hrs, room for 6 players
Using the PS238 RPG system with pregenerated characters
PS238 is the world's first public school for metaprodigies - children with superpowers! Enormous effort was put into making the school as safe as possible, but still every once in a while something goes wrong. When it does, the kids can really shine. In this adventure, a lurking presence in PS238 forces some students to chase after a friend in trouble to some unexpected heights.

This was a run of the PS238 roleplaying game. It's an adaptation of the "HERO System Sidekick" rules by Steven Long from two years ago, based on the comic book by Aaron Williams. I wasn't sure if I was going to run this at the time. The kids room events were not listed in the program, and so I basically had to run with what kids were around. At 11:00, there were five kids around but they were already playing different games. However, at 11:10 a parent came in with a kid definitely interested in the game, and we got four kids together to play - Shannon, Miriam, Andrew, and Milo. They were between 8 and 11, with Milo being the oldest.

The dynamics were that I wasn't sure how long their interest would hold out, particularly given that we would have to break for lunch. I handed out characters and winged a quick scene at the PS238 gym (nothing like what the event description said). The four characters (Flicker, Shadow, Celestia, and Leo) were competing to cross the gym and ring a bell at the top of a long rope. They weren't per se fighting, but did try actions to slow each other down.

Somewhat to my surpise, we managed to re-convene after lunch - losing one player but getting another. I again winged a scenario, this one being problems with Charles Brigman - who first teleported tigers into the Excelsior school yard, and then teleported the PCs to an underground supervillain lair during confusion in the cleanup.


Another Night in A Lonesome October

KL-196 Another Night in A Lonesome October
Time Block L: Sun 5:00PM
GMs Perpetual Motion Squad
8 hrs, room for 20 players
Once a year, the stars align; a ritual with the potential to change the world is performed. You will stand on the precipice of definition, poised to affect the future. New Era! New Cast!

This was an old-west LARP that I was signed up for that was cancelled for lack of players. The two organizers needed at least 10 people out of 20 possible, and only had 6. I did at least have a chance to look over the characters and system, though. They used a card-based system where each player was given a set of playing cards from 1 to 10. In a conflict, a player would draw a number of cards equal to their stat (usually 1 to 5) from the other player's cards, and used the highest card drawn as their result. This avoided rolling dice and sidestepped a little the player-reading tactics of rock-paper-scissors. The scenario had an Indian shaman doing a ritual in an Old West town with possibly catastrophic. I had been slated to play the apparently psychotic town sheriff, who favored law and order over any moral principles like human life.


An Eye for an Eye

PL-402 An Eye for an Eye
Time Block L: Sun 11:00AM
GM John Kim
4 hrs, room for 12 players
Using Homebrew system with pregenerated characters
Months after the revelation of the horrendous disaster on the planet Miranda, an research facility open to the public has been set up to peacefully study psychic phenomena that contributed to the disaster. Security expects someone to attempt payback for the misdeeds here. However, the form of that payback comes in a way no one expects. This is a LARP set in the Firefly/Serenity universe. Old West or Chinese themed clothing suggested but not required. Children are welcome, but they should be prepared for a mostly serious game of intrigue.

This was a LARP I had designed, which I thought went quite well. I had a full set of 12 players, but didn't have to turn anyone away. We cast by consensus. I described the three groups, the brief description, and gave them each codes based on J Li's Parlor Larp classification. Characters were Emotion-oriented or Goal-oriented, Dark or Light, and Simple or Complex. Emotion-oriented meant they had goals, but their goals were either open-ended or might not be possible within the scenario. Goal-oriented meant the player could fairly try to accomplish their goals. The cast I ended up with was:

Background was quick. Only one player had not seen the movie Serenity, and they were still familiar with the Firefly series. Preparation took about an hour including background, casting, a break for lunch and optional costuming. Once the game was on, we had about two and a half hours of play, and half an hour of debrief to end on-time at 3:00. Play was fairly high energy because there was a lot of tension and physicality in the scenario.

I thought things went well, and the debrief was quite positive. One player commented that it was closely tied to knowing the politics of the Serenity universe - which I found curious since until just before I had to submit for Pacificon I couldn't decide what universe to set my game in. I had conceived of this LARP based on ways to emphasizing the physicality of play. There were a set of fictional neurological effects that happened to player characters, that changed how the player could see, walk, talk, and interact. However, I realize that even though that changed the dynamics of play - the internal character thoughts were very driven by the political situation.


Scourge of the Skies

TL-268 Scourge of the Skies
Time Block T: Sun 6:00PM
GM Lauren Avjean
4 hrs, room for 12 players
Using the LARPS system with pregenerated characters
There's never a dull moment aboard the Cloud Chaser, whether it's fighting a storm to fill the lightning capacitors, fighting over a woman, or fighting to hold your liquor in the ship's galley. All fighting aside, the Cloud Chaser's Captain runs a tight ship, and competing airships tremble at his fearsome reputation, leaving the Northern quadrant of the Seven Skies open for business. While recently harvesting lightning from the mother of all storms, one of the ship's capacitor's blew out. It left her adrift over unmapped territory, the likes of which had never before been seen... or at least no one has ever made it back before to tell the tale.

This was a LARP I had been looking forward to that turned out to be very different than I expected, but quite cool. I am including comments below hidden for spoilers for those who play the game. Click here to hide/unhide text with spoilers below

The intriguing thing about play was that the event description was actually of a virtual reality - much like the holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation, including a control panel. The true background was that of 18 characters, three were creators of a virtual reality; twelve were their virtual reality constructs; and three were unexpected intruders into the scenario causing it to behave differently than programmed. The players of the virtual reality constructs initially had no idea that their characters were constructs. So initially, even out-of-character the players had very different ideas about what the game world was.

I played one of the three programmers, Russell Glasser. The other two programmers, Eric and Dominika, put in mostly variants of characters adapted from media - like Kaylee from Firefly, Captain Shakespeare from Stardust, and two characters like Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride. Russell, though, put in original characters to mess with the other characters. To play off the revenge-obsessed Inigo Montoya characters, he put in the brother of the man they had killed. i.e. How would they react if someone said to them, "You killed my brother... prepare to die?" What happened in the game was that things began malfunctioning and the characters in the game began to realize the nature of their reality.

The cool part of this was that I could put meta-commentary in my in-character discussions, as this was essentially a LARP-within-a-LARP. Throughout, I talked with the other programmers about how Star Trek, Firefly, and The Princess Bride related to the characters. Later, though, the characters began to notice the holes in reality - and in-character I ended up deciding that Russell liked the fourth-wall breaking. I even talked in-character to other players about what fourth-wall breaking was, and how it applied here.

While it worked out for me, it does disrupt some typical parts of LARP play because many character's stated goals no longer made sense in the new framework. Even though I in principle knew better about the nature of reality, I ended up largely ignoring my goals in favor of what I saw as my character's concerns. My stated goals were to figure out what was happening to the program (including the three newcomers) and to figure out how the holograms were evolving from the change. What I saw/decided was that the holograms were becoming self-aware, at which point I became most concerned over my ethical duty to the holograms I had created as sentient beings. I said many variations of, "Yes, I understand and respect that, because you are a real person who makes decisions for yourself." Also, my character background noted that I had created my holograms as an effort to get Dominika to notice me, so another goal I decided for myself was winning her interest/affections.

Basically, I had invented two more human goals as opposed to my initial more technical goals. This isn't a rejection of my sheet, since as a programmer, my initial goals being technical totally made sense. However, under this particular stress, it also made sense that my goals would shift. I suspect that was true for many of the characters, in that the chaotic confusion over reality meant that the initial goals became strained. I ran a similarly chaotic LARP this spring ("Reunion Wishes"), where I didn't list goals with the characters because too much of what happens would be a surprise.

It makes me wonder about other ways to bound or help direct things in a chaotic LARP - because it doesn't always work out. Some players may have trouble adjusting to the shift. In this game, I took an interest in two characters that Russell had created - played by Rachel & Chris whom I'd just had dinner with. It seemed like they stuck to their original in-character goals, and didn't engage much with the reality-breaking. It seemed different than the character Gordon, whose player played his a character as having a family off-ship - and seemed engaged with the unspoken possibility that his wife and kids were just invented memories. No LARP will work for all players, but maybe something could have mitigated this (?).

I don't have any answers for this, except that I'd like to try more chaotic LARPs and perhaps even LARP-within-a-LARP.


Mouse Guard

WR-402 Mouse Guard: Red Harvest
Time Block W: Mon 9:00AM
GM John Kim
4 hrs, room for 6 players
Using the Mouse Guard system with pregenerated characters
As members of the Mouse Guard, you are charged with defending the Mouse Territories against predators and other dangers. However, sometimes the true danger is the mice themselves. Called in at harvest time in the Fall, you must deal with problems both internal and external.

I had played a fair bit of Mouse Guard, and run a short campaign and a few one-shots. I had just a few days earlier borrowed a friend's copy of the just-released Mouse Guard Boxed Set, and this was my first chance to try that out. When I wrote the description, I had a theme in mind. However, from past experience with one-shots, I wanted to have players make their own characters that I would improvise an adventure for, as I felt this made a better Mouse Guard game. (I don't find this to be true for most other games, interestingly.) I had 9 signups for 6 slots, which is pretty good for a Monday morning. As it turned out, my players were mostly kids from 8 to 12 or so. The players and the characters they made were:

I shortened character generation some, particularly to deal with kids whose attention span was limited. So I skipped the Circles and Resources questions, as well as picking Wises. I made sure to pull in things from each character's sheet in a quick scenario. The group's skill set was weighted towards more outdoors skills (Pathfinder, Scout, Survival) - so I decided to set the game in Winter and make some tough outdoor challenges in a quick mission. I decided that August and Finn had the same mentor, and they came up with a brief idea.

The scenario was this: Autumn and Finn's mentor showed up half-dead from cold and exposure at Lockhaven in the middle of winter. He reported that a fox had broken its leg near WolfePointe, so the town was threatened in that the fox might attack out of desperation - when he would normally go after easier prey than a well-defended border down. The Matriarch of the Guard Gwendolyn assigned this as Autumn's first time leading a patrol, specifying August as someone to keep an eye on her. We played out three tough challenges getting through to WolfePointe (including one in a blizzard), stopping off at LonePine on the way to rest under the care of Lorain's parents who were bakers. Thunder had been pushing all the while to rush ahead of the others to defend her home town of WolfePointe, and at Lone Pine she went ahead on her own. She failed a Pathfinder test, and so I threw in a Twist that she had been trapped by the wounded fox. It ended in a big battle against the fox that the players won handily. We wrapped up just about on-time a little before 1:00.

My reflections were that the basics of play worked well, but procedure should have been streamlined. A good cheat-sheet for character creation would have been very helpful, especially given the young players. I was a bit disappointed in the boxed set. I felt there weren't enough cards - I ran out of Sick condition cards during a tough trek through the blizzard, and I had set aside the Action cards because there were less than 3 full sets. (Though in retrospect I could have used them.) The information on the GM screen was not very useful, while there were things that I had to flip through the book to find (mostly the tables for skills and options in conflicts).

The trickiest part of this session was dealing with Imala, who really didn't want to work with the rest of the group. I think she was reasonably satisfied in the end, but there were a few tricky points. Milo - apparently a budding theorist - commented how some players like her get stuck on story, when they really need to put aside the story they want for the game.


John H Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Mon Oct 10 10:40:51 2011