Big Bad Con 2011 Report

         This was the first year of a new Bay Area gaming convention, organized by Sean Nittner, located at the Oakland Airport Hilton. There were around 220 players attending, and 83 games on the schedule. Nearly all of the scheduled games were RPGs (including 5 LARPs), but there were many of card games and board games being played in the open gaming area - though no miniature games that I saw. There was a dealer's area that consisted only of End Game Oakland with space to play their games. Signups were handled in advance over the web on a first-come first-served basis.

         The RPGs were in conference rooms with heavy curtain dividers, with reasonable sound blocking. The hotel offered plenty of water and cups as well as validated parking for attendees. The hotel had a bar and restaurant, which were not very good - but there were a few restaurants nearby. I went for the whole weekend.

High School Field Trip

Fri 7:00PM - 12:00PM
System: Teenagers from Outer Space LARP
GMs: Greg Wirth & Sarah Hawklyn
You're a teenager at Ferris Bueller High School, going on a “Field Trip” to the Museum of Modern Culture. You might be a nice, “normal” Earth Teen, or one of the many Alien Races that have descended upon Earth, “The Fun Planet.” Weirdness guaranteed. Serious? Nahhh, it’s Teenagers! Parody everywhere! Odd musical choices. Over the top Roleplaying rewarded.

This was planned as an 18-player LARP based on the Teenagers from Outer Space (TFOS) tabletop RPG. Characters were chosen ahead of time by email, chosen by the GMs after I filled in a questionnaire. The setting was a high school filled with both human and alien students. I was cast Keola Waiinea - a human junior, who was the 2nd Greatest Air Guitarist in the Universe! The Greatest was his good friend Weird Alvin - a four-armed alien who lives in his basement. He had a kid sister Leilani, and a crush on Lori Tanaka. The character sheet listed all of the other 17 characters, but it was tricky to keep track of.

At the game itself, we had 13 or so players. I arrived a little late, but quickly caught up. Overall, I think the game was a lot of fun. It called a bit of performance: Lori's lip-synching as well as Alvin and my's air guitar display. For one sequence, we left our scheduled room to go out to the con party room, where there was a live band playing - the Imperial Academy Dropouts. The game was split into a few phases: general socializing, a bus trip (interrupted by an assault), then a break to go to the dance, then back for the action scene of rescue. There were a bunch of time freezes and a plethora of alien powers dominated the action. There was a fun bit when cat girl who started out allies with us, but flipped to the villain's side when he offered to let her rule the fashion world.

Overall best features of the game: (1) a great set of NPC players as minions; (2) the unusual and amusing alien characters, such as one player who had two sock puppets to portray a pair of cute fuzzy creatures, or Mighty Mouse; (3) good use of the amusing gimmick from TFOS, the Boy/Girl gun (that instantly reversed sex); (4) general comedic high school hijinks; (5) a fun party atmosphere including real party. There were some drawbacks though. There was a set of four supposedly popular kids who were hated by the majority of the others, which left those players rather isolated. Meanwhile, the rest of the characters were amiable, which meant not much tension among them. I think more factions and a variety of tensions would have given the players more to do between themselves. Still, a generally fun game.

Battlestar Galactica: "Flight of the Argus"

Sat 10:00AM to 4:00PM
System: LARP
GMs: Dylan Gregory and Aaron Lopez
The Cylon war has been over for nearly thirty years. So why then is the government creating new weapons of war? Now the new pinnacle of military technology has come off the line for its maiden flight. Though, opinions are splintered and there are factions that oppose the new warship including an enemy that hasn't been seen for decades.

This was a LARP set as a prequel to the recent Battlestar Galactica reboot series, set a few months before the pilot when the Cylons invaded. There was no pre-con communication - the GMs just called people up to cast them as they went. I think there were about 12 players out of 16 parts. I asked for someone not nice, since my last few LARP characters were nice guys. I got a politician as a result: Representative Frugeson "Fergie" Martin. The premise was that Rep. Martin along with his team and members of the press were taken on board a new prototype gunship that Martin had backed the funding of. In-character, we all though of it as an oddity since there had been 30 years of peace - while out-of-character we all new that a surprise attack by the Cylons would soon just about wipe out our civilization. In case of spoilers for those who might play it, I've hidden plot-relevant comments below. Click here to hide/unhide text with spoilers below

I tried at first to play up being a jerk of a politician (if that isn't too redundant). I wanted the test flight to go well, but I threw my weight around to get what I wanted. In the end, the real plot was unsurprisingly that there were Cylon agents trying to sabotage things. In fact, there were four Cylons - one who knew about it from the start, and three who were activated during the trip. Also unsurprisingly, they won and blew up the engines. A tricky issue in play was that there were only four PC military crew members, who tried their best to shut out the civilians from dealing with the situation. That might fit their goals and principles, but it meant that we were isolated into two camps for much of the critical action. I think that probably could have been headed off in plot design.

Also, an interesting plot bit. Many people got clues during the course of play - three of which were the sleeper Cylon activations. To make them all similar size blocks of text, some people just had a single sentence repeated. The meaning of the repetition, though, was confusing. Two alternatives spring to mind: One is just to be up front in explaining that the note is a mostly-meaningless block of text to be a decoy from those with real notes. Another is to find a good reason for a somewhat relevant information dump - like finding a cache of notes.

Overall, it held up well as a game. The humans lost, with the deck stacked against them - but we went down in good way, with plenty of interaction in our different camps. It was a good bunch of players.

If I Had a Little Money - Shadowrun 4e by Erica Schmitt

Sat 4:00PM to 10:00PM
System: Shadowrun 4e
GM: Erica Schmitt
Your employer gave you the info you needed. You got the requested item and managed to escape unharmed. On the way to the meet for payment one of your team made the mistake of declaring it “smooth sailing from here.” Never tempt Fate like that!

This was a six-player game of 4th edition Shadowrun with pre-generated characters - with a straightforward scenario about dealing with an attack on our team while preparing to deliver an item we had stolen. The players and their characters were:

Most of us were familiar with the background of Shadowrun, but only one had played with the 4th edition rules.

The scenario started with two NPC members of our team being killed by sniper fire, as we were leaving the scene of a theft. We defeated and captured the three-man team behind this in 4 or 5 turns. We then interrogated them, removed the tracking device they had been homing in on, and ambushed a second team who were sent to hit us. We beat them in less than one turn, then briefly interrogated the one survivor of that team, and let him go back to his mob headquarters. Finally, we delivered the box in a hand-off that was tense but concluded without incident.

On the good side, the pregenerated characters were well-designed and had handy characters sheets (created using Hero Lab software). The players were generally good - I liked Erik W.'s ork impersonation in particular, but the party dynamic was good in general. Basil was very helpful as the sole 4th edition player who patiently explained the rules to the rest of us. Overall, though, it was disappointing. The rules were a difficult point for a group of all newbies to this edition - especially given characters with a lot of equipment and options, and 3-page character sheets. The GM did give out a set of play aids for actions, but they were not very readable for newbies. Also, there was a lingering issue where the troll Black Jack frequently harped on the issue of killing the prisoners unarmed, which violated Typhoon Mary's code of bushido. The major issue, though, was a glacial pace to the game. Even during combat we often had to prod to move along with our turn.

Game Design Seminar Over Drinks

Sat 10:00PM - 12:00PM
Organizers: Ryan Macklin and Leonard Balsera
Lenny and Ryan are known for enjoy the finer things in life: making role-playing games, and drinking tasty cocktails. They invite you to hang out with them and talk about game design & publishing, an informal Q&A from these two award-winning Fate developers. It should be noted that you do not need to buy us a drink to attend. But doing so will make your games more successful and you more attractive to members of the opposite sex. Or same sex. Or both. Okay, fine, we'll just be thankful and probably talk longer. But the main thing we want is for great company who share the passions we do.

I came to this a little late. When I came in, there was a lot of Ryan and Leonard giving advice to Sketch on her game in development about minor gods in urban fantasy - like the god of lint or the god of cigarette lighter sparks. Some key points included communicating to be run successfully by strangers, having a good genre hook to help that communication, and asking what was key game action by the players. i.e. Not what the background is, or who the characters are, or what the story is... only what the players do.

I also had an excellent one-on-one talk with Leonard. We talked in particular about the contrast of GNS Narrativist and Simulationist. We agreed that there were different modes of being socially engaged through genre/media (Simulationist) and being socially engaged directly (Narrativist). However, we also agreed that these can share the more important personal reasons for play. (More on that some other time...)

Open Gaming

Though it was late at night, I played a few games in open gaming - "Werewolves of Miller's Hollow" and "Red Dragon Inn". It was my introduction to the latter card game - about fantasy adventurers who had finished their adventure and are drinking and gambling in a bar afterwards. I played the deck for "Fiona the Volatile." It was definitely a fun game, with a lot of cool options for drinking, gambling, and slapping your friends. However, it seemed to have an old problem with progression. Particularly with eight players, it seemed to go on for a very long time - but some players could be eliminated only a fraction of the way into the game.

Devices of a Mysterious and Insidious Nature

Sun 9:00AM - 3:00PM
System: Steampunk FATE
GM: Mike Bogan
Professor Cagliostro has returned and is up to his old machinations in his unrelenting mission for world domination through widespread terror. Once more, men and women of great courage and intellect must rise to the occasion and foil the vile professor's devious plot. Will they possess the mettle and acumen needed to unravel the mystery of Cagliostro's doomsday machine?

This was a steampunk game the loosely used the FATE system - specifically a variant of the Dresden Files rules. The biggest difference was that players had a pool of points (represented by a distinct color of poker chips) that they could draw from to offer free compels to other players. This was not exactly a reward we granted each other, since compels are problems for other characters. However, having the pile of chips to give was a concrete reminder and temptation.

We made characters at the session, using a shortened version of the basics. We had Dresden Files reference sheets, and the GM described the changed skills to us. Instead of full stories, we each answered a few personalized questions about how we related to the other characters. The characters we came up with were:

In play, we first came together over a test of Sebastian Dodds' new high-power engine that was interrupted by an attack by giant spider and crab clockwork robots. We fought them together except for John Alexander, who had been planning on stealing the aether fuel but picked up a robot instead. We were then called in by the Queen, who enlisted us all as a team to stop Cagliostro from his plan to blackmail England into installing him as ruler. Then it came to tracking the robots back to the workshop filled with deadly robots, chasing from there to his giant airship, and disabling the doomsday device at its core.

Overall, the game was very satisfying. There were some issues. (1) It was a low-prep improvisational game - but some things could have gone more smoothly like having a summary of character creation with the steampunk changes desired. (2) The isolation of the thief John Alexander was tricky for everyone. It was largely self-imposed in my opinion, but it could potentially have been headed off earlier. There were some good bits from having detective Wu and his gentleman criminal nemesis forced to work together. In the end, say, Wu was saved by Alexander. For much of the time, though, it was something we had to work around.

On the good side, though, all the players got into the steampunk pulp spirit. We also were aligned in twisting Victorian stereotypes. My Wu was an Asian foreigner, but also brilliant and even respected - the GM brought in that he had been previously knighted, and I improvised about how it happened from the Affair of the Jade Cat. Lawrence was not quite the strong-jawed white hero, while Annabelle turned out to be a crack shot. Having Dodds as the central character worked well as a basis for character relations. Finally, the variant of players offering "free" compels to other players definitely worked.

Fiasco - A Game of Powerful Ambition and Poor Impulse Control

Organizer: Leonard Balsera
Sun 3:00PM - 7:00PM

My last game was a Fiasco game organized by Leonard Balsera. Leonard and I had experience with the game, and I think Basil had some too. Out of four options, we pretty quickly settled on a playtest office space playset. We started taking turns picking relationships and other options, starting with me. We ended up with:

Filling in the details. We saw from this that Sketch's and Leonard's characters were executives, and Bill's character was sleeping with the boss. I suggested that Leonard and my characters were father and daughter - he suggested that he was playing the daughter who was the boss who had hired her father. Sketch created Lacy P. Truman - the head of the branch office. Leonard created Cindy Peppering, her assistant manager. I created Roger Bertrand, Cindy's slacker/loser father. Ralph created Lou Grant, a jaded office worker. Basil created Bill, another jaded worker who is sleeping with the boss. We agreed that their company made silicon wafers for computer chips.

We started up, and I introduced that Roger was a pothead who offered a joint to Lou on his break. Sketch introduced that her character Lacy was in video conference being grilled by her bosses in the main office, but muted it at a crucial point to deal with problems on her end. This became a major plotline as she tried various ploys to get back the audio recording of what was said in the conference - including dumping responsibility on her assistant manager Cindy. Lou and Bill were jaded buddies who were potentially on the hook for the latest in a string of failed batched. Bill weaseled his way out of responsibility, but Cindy talked about having Roger take over Lou's job. A few scenes later, Lacy was drunk and in a panic trying to get the recordings off the servers herself. I played her slacker father who came to help her and commented on her drinking habit. This was also roughly when we added in a card for "Chuck (security guard) (knows everything)" - from his watching the security cameras of this. Meanwhile, Lou had surprisingly started to take charge in dealing with his divisions problems.

A interesting bit to me was reaction to Roger as the pothead father. At the last scene before the tilt, I decided to throw in a flashback to Roger with Lacy when she was 13 and had gotten drunk. He was urging her to hydrate, and basically treating her like a drinking buddy more than his 13-year-old daughter. This got a strong reaction from the other players (describing him as an enabler, among others). We then went into the tilt, with the following options:

In the second half, Lacy told Cindy plainly to fire her father Roger. Roger, however, still thought that he was going to replace Lou - a job he was patently unfit for. In short, Cindy went to bat for her loser father, and in turn lost her own job. An interesting bit to me was this - I role-played Roger tell Cindy that he was worried about her drinking, and that he only does two joints a day. Leonard (who played Cindy) then jumped in to narrate that what Roger had just said was a lie - describing the movie montage as the audience sees Roger lighting up five or more times that day. I was fine running with that, but it was interesting that Leonard jumped in to add that.

As we approached the end, Cindy was fired - and somewhat to the surprise of the other players, as she was escorted out of the building, Leonard narrated her attacking the security guard with mace and grabbing for his gun. Lacy had finally gotten her hands on a flash drive with the crucial video memo - but she had not watched it yet and the corporate executives were just arriving. As we went into the epilogue, our totals were: Cindy with White-4, Lacy with White-5, Bill with White-2, Roger with Black-9, and Lou with Black-11. We had some discussion over what would happen in the ending given the sudden introduction of gunplay. Sketch pushed towards keeping in more of a light comedy, and it ended up steering back in that direction.

I think Sketch narrated in that Cindy's pistol shot narrowly missed Lacy - but destroyed the flash drive in her hand, thus ruining her ability to deal with the execs. Roger had also been fired, but of course he was used to that. Only in the final montage we learned that Lou had been embezzling money from expenses cut from the ruined batches of wafers, and he walked away to an early and wealthy retirement. Lacy ended up in a tiny cubicle as someone's assistant. Bill ended up begging on the street, I think. For Roger, who had been a loser all his life, it was largely same-old, same-old. Cindy went to jail, where her father advised her on how to handle prison gangs - leading to solitary confinement. I had the final shot, of Roger as he was waiting in his car outside a prison - obviously many years later. He had a two-week "clean and sober" chip - but then in the glove compartment we see a large collection of previous chips for everything from one week to three months.


It was generally a good start. There were around 220 players, and 83 games on the schedule. A fair variety of RPGs (including 5 LARPs), and a bit of board and card gaming - though no miniatures that I saw. One store was in their dealer's room (End Game Oakland). The venue was overall mediocre. Tabletop RPGs were four to a large conference room, with reasonable sound baffling from heavy curtains.

The big difference from other cons was that sign-up for games was done in advance, on a first-come first-served basis. Only one of my games took advantage of this by contacting players via email before the con, but perhaps more games will take advantage of it next year.

John H Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Wed Oct 19 21:19:45 2011