AmberCon NorthWest 2009

         This was my fifth straight year going to AmberCon NorthWest (ACNW), now well-established as my favorite convention. This year, there were 110 people, more than any previous year. What makes it great? A host of strong GMs, advance commitment by the players to prepare for games, excellent organization by Simone Cooper and others, and the location at McMenamins Edgefield, a hotel and brewery on a historical site. I came on Friday instead of Thursday this year because of a tight schedule in my program. My full list of events were:

Slot #4: "Firefly: Grounded"

GM Kath Nyborg
Friday, November 6, 2009 - 8pm to midnight

         This was a diceless game, with character creation loosely based on the dice-using Serenity system. It was a continuing series event, with two PCs continuing from the previous year. There is a GM-created wiki site with some of the details. We created characters in advance by email, and exchanged a few emails back and forth creating connections between them. The player characters were:

         There was also an NPC crew-member, cook and cargo handler Delilah Morningstar. Many of the PCs had connections arranged over email -- Jackson the mechanic had rescued Kitty the Companion; and Galvin the gambler had befriended "Doc" in a poker game and Hannah in her job moonlighting as a singer. Events included a satchel full of money that mysteriously appeared on the ship, a wild plan espoused by the captain that few others bought into, a fake bread delivery to the bakery that covered for a money-laundering operation, a firefight in an alley over the beautiful pilot, a bomb attached to the ship, the mechanic quitting, the cook disarming the bomb, the hired gun wounding and capturing a thug watching the ship, and the finale of the ship taking off.

         Despite our arranging connections with each other's PCs, we all pulled in different directions which made the game a bit dissatisfying to me -- maybe because I assumed we would be pulling together more based on the Firefly series. With the ship grounded for months, the characters were less motivated to stick by it when trouble hit -- and indeed we left without a mechanic and nearly didn't have a pilot and passenger. In retrospect, we could have arranged stronger connections and loyalty to each other. On the other hand, the plot also could have connected characters together more. There were really two plotlines going on, though at first we thought they were connected.

Slot #5: "Joker's Wild"

GM Jennifer Edwards
Saturday, November 7, 2009 - 9am to 4:30pm

         This was a game where each player played a character who had no memory of who they were. They only knew that they awoke together sitting around a table with a poker game apparently in progress. Our actual character details were decided by a random lottery between everyone's answers to the following questions (submitted in advance by email):

  1. Amberite, Chaosian, Shadow person, or other (fill in the blanks)
  2. Position of importance (examples: Knight at Arms of Amber, Commander of the Navy, Sorceror Ruler of Kashfa)
  3. Goal (example: win Benedict's love, be the greatest sorceror, take Merlin's spikard)
  4. Weakness (examples: my wife, my children, flattery, need to conquer all)
  5. Personality note (examples: very introverted, likes tea, hates horses, etc.)
  6. Personality note 2
  7. Card hand (5 card stud, jokers wild)
  8. Personality or plot note (anything your little heart desires)

         As players, we opted to start out arranged around the table with a poker game in front of us, in the way our characters woke up. This was a nice bit of flavor, even though most of the game wasn't larp-like at all -- i.e. the PCs spent almost no time around that poker table. We had only a short time to examine the room we were in, and try to cover up the fact that we had lost our memories to each other, when a woman's scream jolted us into action. Soon we found her murdered body, and had split up to search the building. We found various clues to our identities laying around, and as each character encountered familiar items, the GM gave a bit more information on their identity. Some time later, we gathered back at the poker table to talk. We had generally established that the castle we were in was a prison designed to keep us locked away from the rest of the universe -- and most characters had most of their memories back. Going clockwise around the table from my left, the players and their characters were:

         The dead woman we had first found was Via, Queen of Undershadow and wife of Verros -- where Undershadow was the realm we were in that housed the prison. There was also her sister Maya, who now schemed to take the throne from Verros by blaming him for her murder. The one who knew least about their identity was me -- and I was slowly coming to realize that I was an artifact created by Chaos to come here and murder Graykin Barriman, since he was blamed for stealing the Serpent's eye. However, presently I was disconnected from my power source and I had a newfound sense of self-identity that made me question whether I should follow my orders. The others had found several artifacts, including Graykin finding the Serpent's Eye (aka Jewel of Judgement).

         After I rather bluntly revealed my mission to everyone, and it seemed that I may have been involved in the cause of our mutual amnesia -- since there was a large hole I had made in the room we found ourselves in. I reassured everyone that I wasn't going to carry out that mission, at least not without giving them advance warning. Shortly after that, Graykin slipped out.

         Changing into his water serpent form, he dove off the cliff into the sea, and then shifted his eye out to put the Jewel in its place. He then began circling the island, raising a giant wall of water. In the meantime, the others had found a way out of the prison and left. I stayed behind, citing unfinished business, and then tried to soak up as much power from artifacts left in the castle as I could. Graykin and I then began a titanic battle, with me using blasts of energy from my liquid metal form, while he was crushing the castle around me with the force of the water he controlled.

         The others, though, had confronted Maya and killed her. They found that the only way to escape out of Undershadow was to combine all of our powers (not including me). Needing his help, they tried to contact Graykin by trump. That lead to a wonderful moment when I saw Graykin lose concentration, and asked "Do you need a minute?" I felt obliged to fight, but we both agreed that there was nothing personal about our conflict. So he took the call, and after learning the situation agreed to put aside our fight for a time.

         In short, they agreed to break out of Undershadow in a once-only attempt -- leaving Verros behind as king and myself behind as well, since I had decided that I preferred the autonomy I had in this realm. However, Verros and I both plotted about who would rule when we were trapped together. As the others left, I was going to threaten him into leaving, but he controlled the gateway enough to force me out, closing it behind me.

         All of us save Verros then found ourselves in the city of Amber, after having been imprisoned many centuries. The others then went up to confront King Random, while Graykin and I decided to go get a drink together. After a bit of action, they were well along towards establishing themselves as rulers. In the meantime, Graykin and I had chatted for a while in a wine bar -- but then eventually agreed that we had delayed long enough, and stepped outside to begin our battle again in the middle of Amber. At that point, we called it the end.

         I thought this was an excellent event. I liked how we all contributed to our characters as a group, yet still didn't know who we were. The interactions afterward were an even mix of exploring on our own, talking together, and

Slot #6: "Both Alike in Dignity"

GM Benjamin Bernard
Saturday, November 7, 2009 - 7pm to midnight

         This was an game of true love between opposing sides, set at a tenuous peace summit between Amber and Chaos after the Patternfall War. We created characters together by email correspondence, which involved some tricky negotiating. Ben's call at first was to have two couples: each between and Amberite and a Chaosite. We wanted to create linked backgrounds, though, and negotiated a bit over different group ideas before coming up with a setup we all liked. The result was that I and Sara played twin Amberites, a brother and sister (Aviel and Ariel) whose reflections spawned myths of Apollo and Artemis, so alike that they could easily be mistaken for each other. Amber played an young Chaosite woman named Nyla who had lead a sheltered life, raised to be a good political marriage -- while Nathan played her fiancee Llyr, the unwilling heir to his House. Then as couples (i.e. me and Amber, Sara and Nathan) we had arranged three pre-planned scenes:

  1. A scene where the couple fights and comes to physical blows
  2. A scene where one person in the couple defends the other to a family member
  3. A scene that ends in ill advised sex.
  4.          After some back-and-forth in getting started, I think our pre-game preparation went great and created very strong character relations. Like Apollo, Aviel was a deadly archer as well as a talented musician and healer -- though he was a modern figure who evoked rock star as much as Olympian. Like Artemis, Ariel was a haughty huntress who studiously remained a virgin. They had a paired set of Pattern-inscribed bows, and each had sorcerous tendencies -- but Aviel shone more in social and mental endeavors, while Ariel was a superior warrior and huntress. They were equally devoted to each other. Ariel bemusedly would comment on Aviel's strings of lovers (of either sex).

             As originally planned, I think that the game was going to go through our two sets of three scenes in the first half and then move on to the aftermath. However, we quickly began filling in a lot of scenes that we felt were needed before and after our planned scenes -- and so getting to our third scenes took most of the slot. Also, our first scenes went roughly according to our plans, with us filling in details. The third scenes, though, diverged a lot because they had to take into account what had gone before.

             This was an excellent game, mainly because of how the characters changed. Aviel and Ariel began as proud and haughty, but they both changed a lot in how they came to relate. Being a chaste huntress was central to Ariel's identity, and she became a softer person. Aviel had a Pattern-imprinted bow and an intolerance of Chaos, but he broke his own bow in a speech to the family to urge the peace process. Nyla went from being a sheltered dependent into a self-willed woman. Llyr left his duties to his house altogether.

             Nathan commented that a sign of this being a good game was that we were all interested in what would happen to the character afterwards, which I completely agree with.

    Slot #7: "Scientific Progress goes BOOM!"

    GM Julian Morley
    Sunday, November 8, 2009 - 10am to 4:30pm

             This was a game set in the world of Kara and Phil Foglio's Girl Genius comic, a fantasy steampunk world full of robots ("clanks"), monstrous creations ("constructs"), and genius inventors ("Sparks"). It used the Spirit of the Century rules, with some modifications (only four tiers of skills, only five aspects, no stunts).

    Captured by the devilish and socially-maladjusted Dr. Kartoffelkopf, a group of youths suspected of possessing the Spark - an innate ability to create fantastic inventions, aka the 'Mad Scientist' gene - must escape the Kartoffelkopf ancestral castle and day spa before they fall victim to the good doctor's experimental treatments or Baron Wulfenbach's Social Re-adjustment Assault Corps. Can the players navigate the Pool of Woe? Will they be able to resist the siren call of the carnivorous chaise lounge? Who will live to tell the world of the fiendish contraptions that lurk within the caverns of the Inconsequential Sheik? Don't miss this exciting episode of Heterodyne Theater!

             We created characters on the spot, with a little back and forth getting feedback on our ideas as we created them. We did not have a common theme, really, just wacky ideas that we checked with each other about. We knew that we would all be kidnapped by Dr. Kartoffelkopf, so that was our common bond. Our ideas were:

             My aspects were: 9-year-old construct body, hard-boiled, cigar-smoking, "Hey, toots! Down here!" and "I'm wost! Can you help me?" So she was a cigar-chewing, gun-toting hard-boiled detective -- but she wasn't above pretending to be a 9-year-old girl like the way she looked in order to get through a case. She had enough problems as it was.

             We started the game off by creating three cards: one each with an object, a place, and an event. The GM encouraged the stranger the better. To keep up a hard-boiled theme, I wrote "the murder weapon," "deserted dockyards," and "a man runs into the room with a gun." We then learned that we would start the game by drawing one of each card, and then used those three elements to narrate a scene for the player on our left about how they were kidnapped. I had "a three-ton block of cheese," "an obliette," (a dungeon for permanently trapping someone) and "your aunt marries a wombat." I worked it by saying the wombat was slang for an Australian businessman, and at his aunt's massive wedding Roonie had wandered into the bustling kitchen where he had accidentally found the secret entrance in the three-ton block of Australian sheep cheese to where the wombat's earlier wives were kept. As he tried to escape, agents caught him.

             After the kidnapping scenes, we broke for lunch and then got back into the action. There was a fairly standard pulp plot: escape from a cell in the villain's lair, slip into the caves below the castle, then work our way back to interrupt him in the final stages of his plan to save the world.

    The Good: All of the wacky bits that everyone inserted -- like when we found that the Grues in the caverns were afraid of water, Roonie pulled down his pants and began pissing at them.

    The Bad: Ten players was too much for an action-heavy tabletop adventure with one GM. We needed more material to do between ourselves (larp-like or narrational) for players not to be waiting between turns. We did narrate the kidnapping scenes, but that was one in turns -- and they weren't integrated into the rest of the game.

    The Ugly: As players, we came up with a lot of inappropriate and even disturbing stuff. I generally didn't start it, but it got more disturbing when Gracie became involved. Not exactly good clean fun, but entertaining.


             AmberCon NorthWest continues to go strong. I heard that we had the most people ever this year -- perhaps 110 (?). I think it is a good size, balanced between mini-conventions of a few dozen and larger conventions of hundreds.


    John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
    Last modified: Mon Nov 23 10:57:03 2009