AmberCon NorthWest 2008

         This was my fourth straight year going to AmberCon NorthWest (ACNW), a small but well-organized game convention lead by organizer Simone Cooper. Besides the Amber focus, its standout feature is the location at McMenamins Edgefield, a hotel and brewery on a historical site.

         It was still reasonably well attended this year, roughly even with previous years. Besides adults, there were seemed to be more kids than last year. I noticed two babies, one toddler, and one teenager. Organization was good, as usual. My full list of events were:


Slot #1: "The Guns of Abalaa"

GMs Michael Sullivan, John Nienart, Madeline Ferwerda
Thursday, November 6, 2007 - 7pm to midnight

         This was a larp event set in the fictional African country of Abalaa, with no supernatural elements. It was connected to Amber, though, in that the cast of characters were all modeled based on Zelazny's characters. The situation was that there were a group of international reporters in the capital trying to cover the story of a recent assassination of an opposition party leader. There were three GMs (Michael, John, and Madeline); and nine players.

         While many ACNW games work out characters beforehand by email, for this one I only found out my assigned pre-generated character at the time. I was surprised to find myself playing a 23-year-old black woman (named "Dara Angula" after a Chaosite ), a native of the fictional Abalaa. It seemed a rather challenging part -- one of two black characters, and the only cross-gender character. For me, this meant I was kind of slow starting up, but I enjoyed it once I got going.

         As Dara, I had two main issues to address. I was not a reporter and was apparently unemployed at present, but I wanted to achieve political goals through selectively helping the reporters. Also, I was dealing with my grandfather -- a rich white man (Benedict) who had funded my education but had never officially acknowledged me. Within the country, the leader of the United Abalaan People's Movement (UAPM) had just been killed, and two figures were the main contenders (in my mind) to be his successor. My goals were:

First, see that the media annoints Nickey Kamwi as Kuaima Nujoma's successor -- this will hopefully help de-escalate the violence in your country.

Bring international attention to the villainy of your government and its stooges in Harrington-Kendra, the mining company.

Third, it would be nice to see some closure in your family affairs -- you've never been all that close to Benedict, but according to your aunt and uncle, who raised you, your mother Misfa was always hurt by the distance between her and her father. It would honor her memory if Benedict would willingly admit the relation. On the other hand, Benedict's been good enough to you, in a distant way, and you may not want to hurt him unnecessarily.

         This used a diceless system of GM interaction. We had no numerical stats, but did have a description of our resources on out character sheets. In practice, there were three areas of play: (1) the dining room as a bar where everyone would go in between action and one GM was permanently at to track and spread rumors; (2) the living room as nebulous places in the capital city where characters would have more private meetings (often dinner or tea); (3) the kitchen and hall as outside places where we would drop into narrated interaction with the GM, usually for expeditions into the countryside or interviews with NPCs.

         It went well overall. Everyone got a big chunk of background, and everyone had things to do. The action was often separated, with two or even one player off with the GM for an extended period as their character(s) went to an interview or expedition. The GMs did the best they could under the circumstances, but I think that was a structural problem with the concept. I think it could have used a reconnecting plot device to bring everyone together occasionally and get updates. In play, I threw my lot in with one reporter, and never knew or saw anything about the others through the rest of the game.


Slot #2: "In the Kingdom of the Blind"

GM John Kim
Friday, November 7, 2008 - 9am to 1pm

         This was a small larp that I wrote for this convention, using the Parlor Larp system by Shifting Forest Storyworks. I had allowed for up to 10 players, but I only got five. The premise was an alternate storyline of the first book, Nine Princes in Amber -- where Dworkin didn't help Corwin escape from the dungeons, but instead waited and secretly showed up at the annual coronation party that Eric threw.

         I had originally pictured this as to be a parlor larp set at a grim party held by King Eric, and where both he and his guests would encounter some surprises. Instead, it took a quite different but still interesting turn where I had to do many more rulings as GM. There were two main drivers of the action. First, King Eric was concerned about the Black Road now threatening Amber, and he wanted to negotiate with his prisoners Random and/or Corwin to get him help -- specifically from the redheads Bleys and Fiona, who knew more about the Pattern than him. Second, Dworkin (the mad shapeshifting dwarf and grandfather of the Amberites) had come to the party to get his squabbling grandchildren to work together, except that he didn't trust his own madness so he came in disguise as Random's wife. The players and their characters were:

         In casting, I needed an Eric, a Dworkin, and a Corwin. Unfortunately, no one really preferred Corwin. Todd and Stephanie both had him as their third choice, so I semi-randomly gave the part to Stephanie. I thought Vialle as Dworkin was a stronger contrast and more interesting than Caine. One consequence was that there were no actually female characters in the game.

         What happened in the actual play was that early on, King Eric allowed Random to contact Bleys by trump. Random wanted Bleys to pull him through immediately, but Bleys demanded he bring Corwin too. Random was then quite close to Corwin, and reached out to him. Eric only intervened at the last minute, so I ran it as a contest under the system. Both Random and Corwin sacrificed to escape, while Eric did not. So now suddenly I've got two groups separated far across Shadow by trump. Then, Eric decided to try to threaten Random by grievously wounding his wife and demanding his return. So he stabbed what turned out to be Dworkin the shapeshifter, who burst into demonic form, cast him aside, and yelled at him in a rage. When he called for the guards, Dworkin leapt upon him and killed him.

         That was about half-way through the game. I felt bad for Ben, who had played Eric and had two disasters in a row. He came back into the game after a brief break playing Prince Gerard instead. I had pictured trump originally as a gateway out, but now Dworkin had left to and they were trying to negotiate via trump between sides. Eventually, we wrapped up with the characters deciding to unite -- and backing Corwin as the next king despite misgivings on almost everyone's parts. The decision was a little forced, but it made for a nice wrap up.


Slot #3: "NINF: Where There's Smoke"

GM Sara Mueller
Friday, November 7, 2008 - 2pm to 6:30pm

         This was part of a continuing series of events called "Neither interested nor fit". The name is inspired by a quote from Zelazny's Sign of the Unicorn, where the protagonist Corwin answered the question "So you are not counting the ladies in the succession?" with "No. They are neither interested nor fit. If I were, though, Fiona would precede Bleys and Llewella would follow him."

         Sara's game was an answer to this, an alternate future of the Amber universe where the three surviving sisters -- Florimel, Fiona, and Llewella -- became the rulers of Amber, Chaos, and Shadow, respectively. The player characters in these games were the Speakers of the Law, a police force loyal to Llewella with authority to investigate throughout all of Amber, Chaos, and Shadow (though they could not take direct action against Amber or Chaos subjects). Each player made an original character for this, with some being returning characters from previous runs:

         This was a plot-driven mystery, where we were investigating an attack that almost killed Bleys, as well as a series of deaths possibly related to a new drug being used in Chaos. We tracked down four deaths, one each in the Chaosite houses of Sthris, Jespy, Sawall, and Mjeris -- as well as the attack on Bleys with a Pattern-energy-charged grenade outside of a club in Chaos. It was a well-run mystery, but I was a bit frustrated because there were a lot of interesting characters (mainly the eight PCs) that I didn't get to interact with much. Also, redundant information can be good for a mystery, but with eight players in a four-and-a-half hour slot, some of the extra time spent can be frustrating.

         Since we developed our characters in advance by email, I think for next time I'd want to work out some combined background with other players. One of the fun points of this game came from that impromptu decision that Jubal was a son of Florimel, Queen of Amber -- and thus older half-brother to teenage Crown Princess Cassandra. (This was inspired a bit by the rash of baldness among the male PCs, when none of the elder Amberites are bald. Since baldness inherits from the mother, I figured I should be son of one of the women -- and Florimel seemed most appropriate somehow.)


Slot #4: "Amberian Nights"

GM John Kim
Friday, November 7, 2008 - 8pm to midnight

         This was a mildly experimental run of Meguey Baker's system "A Thousand and One Nights", set in the early days of Amber. The system as written is a sort of rotating GM game, where each player has a character who is trapped in the Sultan's court, and the player characters take turns telling stories. During each story, the player telling is a GM of sorts with absolute authority. Other players may be assigned parts in the story, and may also ask questions of the storyteller. My game differed in that rather than an Arabian sultan's court, it was set in the court of King Oberon. Also, I gave a limited choice of who the player characters were: specifically King Oberon's older children, ranging from age six or so to twenty.

         The players and their characters were:

         I started the tone off by having Brand tell a story with "There was a dark god of the entire universe" -- at which point Corwin interrupted with the question "Was this god nine years old and named Brand?" -- which I answered with "No!! He was ageless since the dawn of time, and his name was... er... Rand." The result was pretty much what I would have hoped, except maybe that it felt a bit short to me. We were in the third round of stories when Corwin achieved his freedom from the court and we narrated our characters' epilogues after a little over two hours.

         The key was that as known characters and kids, we stayed in-character about as much as in any tabletop game. In other runs of the game that I had played in, it came across as a "director stance" story game. However, here it came across more as immersive chatting in character. There were lots of fun bits to it. As Flora, Karen kept asking to have ponies and princesses in the stories, so when it was her turn for her first story, we told her that she couldn't have any ponies or princesses. Naturally, she started with "There was a kitten in a castle...".


Slot #5: "Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh Trail"

GM Yi-Mei Chng, Julian Morley
Saturday, November 8, 2008 - 9am to 4:30pm

         This was a diceless game, though we used parts of character creation from the 1984 GDW military game Twilight 2000. It was pitched as a non-Amber-based game whose inspirational movies were given as "Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan, Pan's Labyrinth, and the Mystery Movie." The mission was to start on December 21, 1969 -- hence the Christmas theme. The first half of the game followed up with this, as we created characters according to T2K, went through the details of all their gear and its weight, and pored over topographic maps of their insertion point. We got into the spirit of tough special ops soldiers going deep into Laos to spot a depot for bombing. The characters were all American privates in MACV-SOG, the secret covert operations unit operating in Laos. The players and their characters were:

         I deliberately picked a Jewish character as an interesting counterpoint to the Christmas theme. We each got one secret from the GMs -- mine was "Your best friend is in the missing fire team". We went through our insertion on December 21 of 1969, and started out on our mission when everything fell apart as we were crossing a road of the Ho Chi Minh trail. We were engaged on two sides by the VC forces, with support from them just a few miles away. Just as things got bad, though, we suddenly woke up to find ourselves in a strange, snowy country. Soon we spotted a single gaslight lamppost in the middle of a clearing, and as players we all got the idea that we were in Narnia. (I somehow hadn't voiced my thought at this: "So here's a candle burning for... how long?")

         The rest was a complete shift in tone, more in keeping with the Narnia books, where we had fallen into the middle of the war with the White Witch. There were wolves, werewolves, and a witch and her army to fight -- but compared to what our characters had been in, and compared to the players' imaginations it all seemed rather cheery. I was reasonably pleased at how my characters Jewish and Brooklyn heritage came out. In Narnia, there was various conflict as we pondered what to do ("OK, Spud - now do you think these are Russian beavers?"), but in the end we joined up with the four British kids and helped win the war, and were sent back to our own time and place. I loved the picture of Ike and his buddy in Brooklyn both making loud, good-natured complaining loudly about the damn goyem in Narnia, and how messed up everything was there.

         Also, some notes on trying to GM with a baby. Jules and Yi-Mei were struggling with trying to manage their infant while GMing. Having gone through it myself, I could sympathize. The baby was pretty well behaved, so it went fairly well except that we started late and had to all move several times when he went down and up for his nap. We would have been much better off if we had two rooms beside each other, one of which the baby could be put in.


Slot #6: "The Florimel Show"

GM John Kim
Saturday, November 8, 2008 - 7pm to midnight

         This was a straight run of the Amber Diceless game, sort of, with a rather unusual background. It was inspired by the 1998 Jim Carrey movie "The Truman Show" -- where here, we only knew that reality was such that everything in Amber was fabulous, and everyone was well-dressed, and somehow Florimel was at the center of it all. I had players come up with rough character concepts in advance, and then I gave them secret background, with which they made their final characters. In practice, their stats didn't matter very much. The players and their characters were:

         The game went pretty much the way I hoped, though it would have been helped by some better preparation on my part -- pictures and handouts, say, for background. Still, the big secret behind the game was one that Chris knew from the beginning. In this alternate storyline, Brand had actually succeeded in destroying the Pattern. Only Bleys and Fiona were there to salvage it, and they tried a crazy stunt. They collected the dissapating Pattern energy to imbue in one of the Amberites to hold it together. As it seemed incredibly dangerous, they didn't want to do it on themselves -- so they chose Flora as the least offensive of their siblings. The result was that she became the Living Pattern -- the center of the universe from which all Shadows were cast, but without know it. At this point, Bleys and Fiona took turns trying to keep her busy and amused in Castle Amber so that the universe would stay stable.

         So Bleys was desperately trying to keep the secret hidden, while the others were trying to see what was going on. Actually, Quad disliked Florimel and mainly wanted to keep away from her. Bill Roth liked her and wasn't following. So it was more Florimel herself who investigated the strange goings-on. I had a smokescreen plot of sorts, involving a visiting ambassador from Begma who was set on trying to kill Random that kept everyone busy. But in the background, there were some odd events.


Slot #7: "Infernal Desires: Chaos Café (redux)"

GM Jennifer Zimmerman
Sunday, November 9, 2008 - 10am to 4:30pm

         This was a straight Amber Diceless game, set 22 years after the Patternfall War, on the eve of Merlin's coronation as the Emperor of Chaos. We were playing mid-level characters investigating doings going on around the coronation. The players and their characters were:

         We were missing one player, Michele, who would have played Vinta Bayle. It was noted that I was the token male player in this group, though we only had one female PC. Each of the PCs had personal storylines that abutted each other but didn't entirely merge. For roughly the first half, we were in Amber/Rebma each investigating some lead-ins on our own. In the second half, we all came to Chaos for the coronation, and there had more interactions. Arya and Morgan started out friends, and towards the end, Sasha and Morgan teamed up to save his father. However, for most of the game we were all separated.

         I still had fun at this, as there were some very amusing scenes. Liz was great as Sasha the cynical crimelord, who came across as a nice guy who liked to keep his reputation. Also, there were many amusing bits when it came out that the stone gargoyle was actually Morgan's father. I playing into an amusing romance, where I had talked a lady-in-waiting into sneaking away a secretly-magical necklace from Llewella for me, and ended up seducing her in between trying to figure out the necklace. Still, particularly for a convention where I hadn't known most of the other players, I would have preferred a situation that lead to more PC interactions.


Conclusion

         AmberCon NorthWest remains my favorite convention. My big regret was that I had to leave before the closing-out party, because I had gotten my tickets early in the year and didn't have any spare vacation time to take Monday off. Since then I quit my job and could have easily stayed an extra day, though.

 


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Sun Nov 9 21:21:04 2008