AmberCon NorthWest 2006

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

         There were 96 people who attended, up from 85 or so last year. Again most were from the state or adjoining states, with scattered attendees from across the country and a few from England. The gender ratio seemed roughly the same -- roughly 40-45%. And as before, there were many games run by women: 28 by women compared to 48 by men and 12 by both. There were one or two more kids than last time, but still rare.

         I opted this time to run the same two games as I did last year: first, a semi-traditional Amber Diceless game "Princesses in Rebma", and second, a session of Ben Lehman's Polaris. I liked all of the games that I played in and ran, but the stand-out for me was "Karm v. Osric", the excellently designed larp run by the Evil Hat crew. My full list of events were:

Slot #1: "Princesses in Rebma"

GM John Kim
Thursday, November 17, 2006 - 7pm to midnight

         This was my second run, though all the secret parts of the background were quite different from the last run. I asked for people to create characters in advance and submit them by email. Based on the character choices, I assembled a starting situation to drive things. I had emailed out character information to everyone in the week prior to the game, but in a failure on my part, I did not have printed character sheets for everyone. This is less of an issue for Amber DRPG than for most games, but I still felt a little bad. Anyway, the players and their characters were:

         The outsider here was Jeremy's Triton, so I started with him coming in with a MacGuffin which would shake things up. The hook was that he encountered a realm deep underwater which was the parallel of Tir-na Nog'th -- a strange reflection of Rebma where time and space were jumbled, showing visions of the past and future. In my cosmology for this, Rebma is the inverse to Amber -- not a secondary reflection, but rather the Yin to Amber's Yang. It is passive, dark, wet, sensual, and subtle compared to Amber as strong, light, solid, and visual. Within the undersea Tir-na Nog'th, then, Takata encountered King Random and Queen Vialle from many years in the future -- and Vialle handed him a giant white pearl, within which he could sense an intelligence.

         As I set it up, Queen Moire (nicely played by Deborah) was already scheming to put a Rebman queen on the throne of Amber -- ideally beside an Amberite king who was not her equal. The victims of this ambition were her daughters Morganthe and Mairead, whom she was manipulating to be either. As it turned out, both Rob's Corwin and Lydia's Random came across as swaggering boors -- so she eventually decided to back Eric instead.

         The good part of this was there was a lot of immediate interaction among all the PCs. Queen Moire fairly soon sicced her daughters on Corwin to see how they got along. Corwin showed no personal attraction to either -- but got interested in setting up 16-year-old Mairead with someone else, who turned out to be Maximillian in disguise spying on them. Max and Mairead ended up having sex on the beach while Corwin ran into Eric, which lead to sulking on his part.

         A key technique for both this run and the previous run was having an NPC ask pointed questions about something, and then refuse to believe the PC's answer. In this case, it was "What do you know about the cup?" This lead to people mentioning a magical cup -- a parallel to the cauldron of Annwn or perhaps the holy grail. In a somewhat weak tie-in on my part, Prince Random brought this from Avalon to Rebma. The pearl referred to this as "Prince Corwin's Doom" and said that his doom would come at the hands of Mairead.

         In the end, King Oberon showed up -- having been disguised as is his wont -- and bullied a bunch of people, mostly his sons. Queen Moire made a deal with Eric, betrothing Mairead to him in return for information. She then did a tap-dance to get around Oberon, who was gunning for the Triton Takata. However, Takata ended up killing the guards around him and quitting the scene.

         The run was packed with stuff, and one of the nice things was that there was a lot of discussion back and forth between all the players. The two most weakly involved were Patrick and Jeremy. As the Queen's shapeshifting spy, Maximillian did stay involved -- but he didn't have a whole lot of agency. In retrospect, I would have made another twist for him, dragging in something about his unknown parents. Still, he did get it on with a princess. Takata was trickier, in that I had absolutely put him into the center of things -- but somehow because he was played as a total innocent, he didn't engage much.

Slot #2: "Exponential"

GM Eric Todd
Friday, November 3, 2006 - 9am to 1pm

         This was a diceless, systemless game set in an alternate present -- where the PCs were members of the CIA Directorate of Science and Technology, which monitors technological progress worldwide. It was the fourth in a series of games. The center of each was trying to stop an "Omega Incident" -- an outbreak of exponentially world-changing technology which would destroy civilization. The players all submitted characters by email a few weeks prior to the con, basically describing the characters background and what they care about -- and spending 4 points on freeform skills.

         There were seven players, two of whom had played in previous runs. The players and their PCs were:

         The game began when we got a three page handout with a jargon-filled semi-in-character reports of the previous three Omega Incidents (i.e. the previous runs of the games). We took some time to process this, then asked some questions about it. The prior incidents were:

Omega Incident I: Sep 1995
Investigation of Thinking Machines Corporation found a rapidly advancing A.I., which caused a false nuclear strike alert. It was disconnected and brought in to help predict future Omega Incidents.
Omega Incident 2: Nov 2005
Investigation of UCLA research into Alzheimer treatment drugs found a drug which radically enhanced intelligence to post-human levels over a 90-minute period. The program was shut down, and the drug kept for emergency use.
Omega Incident 3: April 2006
Outbreaks of destabilizing technology were eventually traced to a Japanese project near Osaka where 120 senior citizens were connected using a mind-body interface. Using doses of the intelligence enhancement drug, the team sabotaged the effort.

         I'm not entirely sure what I was picturing, but this was rather different. There was more of a geopolitical twist to this, as we took actions at a higher level -- directing CIA and military operations rather than just doing personal investigations. The first part was a personal scene for Dr. Saul Marshall, where he discovered that lingering after-effects of the intelligence-enhancing drug he had taken was suppressing his human empathy and ability to socialize. As a new father, this was rather disturbing to him.

         To start with, we were given two leads to track down by DS&T's pet A.I. -- an AI research center in Virginia, and an advanced MRI prototype in Pittsburgh. Eventually, we found that the MRI prototype was capable of subtlely but massively increasing intelligence via biofeedback techniques. More tricky, the point in common between these two was that both had been infiltrated by Chinese intelligence. By the time we tracked it down, key data from both projects had already been transmitted to the People's Republic of China.

         The puzzle for the end of the session was about how to undo this, preventing a destabilizing incident where a subject in China uses biofeedback to enhance his intelligence and then sets up further changes. I thought it was interesting for my character, who was a Chinese immigrant that moved to the U.S. when he was 5. Shades of Wen Ho Lee came to mind, certainly. The players disagreed over this. To me, it seemed implausible that we could directly penetrate the Chinese intelligence agency and definitively remove all copies of the data. Thus, I suggested that we had to get them to cooperate somehow, but the others felt this wasn't possible.

         We considered having a PC take the intelligence-enhancing drug we had from a previous incident to devise and implement a solution, but the risk was that taking it reduced a person's social capability. As an already anti-social type, Wei Chen seemed well-suited for this. Also, though not the leading expert in computer security, he was skilled in it as well as fluent in Chinese.

         On a meta-game level, though, this was tricky as a solution. How do the only reasonably-smart humans playing come up with a post-humanly intelligent plan? Also, we ended up rather rushed for time, and Eric as GM narrated quickly through a plan which solved things. The GM can describe that a plan succeeds brilliantly, but to me that isn't sufficient to convey that the plan is actually superhumanly brilliant. In some sense it's just a minor point, but intelligence enhancement is central to the scenario.

Slot #3: "Amber's Home for Imaginary Friends"

GM Jennifer Zimmerman
Friday, November 3, 2006 - 2pm to 6:30pm

         This was a humorous game based on a mixing of the Amber background with the television cartoon show "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends". The gist is that the abandoned imaginary friends of the elder Amberites eventually returned to save their adult selves. There was the thin explanation that since the Amberites can shape reality, their childhood imaginary friends became real. However, really we didn't worry about explanations.

         There were five players: Yi-Mei, Glen, Jules, Melissa, and Kai. Most of us had some ideas coming in, but we wrote up a loose character sheet including a picture in crayon -- and after creating our characters, we received semi-random powers. First, the concepts:

         Then we each got a stuffed animal which had a little card explaining a power to us. We picked at first without seeing the cards, but we were allowed to trade. Baron Bear, amusingly, got the power of Warm Fuzzies which made people feel nice. I at first got the power to make gadgets which worked by kid logic, but traded it for Dreamweaver, the ability to delve into dreams to find someone's "fondest wish, darkest fear, happiest memory, deepest secret...". Principal Fin got Hide and Seek (ability to hide and to find people), though Glen forgot about this for ages. I forgot what the other powers were.

         The plot was a trail of events which lead us out from our home, into the wider world, and eventually to the adults who had once imagined us. Just about all of the PCs had ridiculously short attention spans (except maybe for Bad Penny, who just didn't care). So while we stayed active and were doing things in each scene, we weren't really trying after anything in particular. With the mix of characters, we generated a lot of funny material given just a bit of lead. Eventually we came to save our friends, in a bit of action which was a bit more serious, but mostly fit with the silly tone.

         I had at first considered playing up more of the dark side of Flora's deadly puppydog. However, the tone of play was such that it didn't seem to fit. I did bloodily maul a little kid who was being mean to his younger brother, though. In all, this was a very fun romp.

Slot #4: "Amber Shadows -- Continuation"

GM Lee Short
Friday, November 3, 2006 - 8pm to midnight

         This was a continuation of a game started last year, with four of the five players: Emma, Lee, Pôl, and myself. It was using Lee's house system, called Star, Moon, & Cross, which is a rotating GM game using tarot cards for resolution. A key to it is using a "newsreel" phase where we draw tarot cards to generate scenario elements -- that we then go on to resolve.

         We generated some good material in the newsreel, but we didn't get very far in resolving them. The previous slot had been 7.5 hours, whereas this was only four. It took a while to refresh ourselves on what had happened before, and what the mechanics of the game were. In addition, I left slightly early because I was feeling sick. In retrospect, I think we would have gotten further if we had started fresh, because trying to hook up to the older continuity added complications in an already short slot.

         After some discussion, we found four open threads from the last session.

  1. Our cousin Prabha (daughter of Bleys) was still missing.
  2. The captain of the ghost ship had escaped to potentially cause further mischief.
  3. There was an unknown woman in the Hall of Mirrors who had escaped.
  4. The nature of a scroll we found last time was still unknown.
We then each picked a background item to add to our character, and framed a scene to illustrate it. We then started on the newsreel. After the four rounds, we established that the woman (Elke) and the ghost ship captain (Cullen) were coordinating an attack -- her via a disguised troops within Arden, and he by sea. Meanwhile, Ali (son of Fiona) was still in the throes of jealousy.

         Unfortunately, we did not have time to resolve that much. We went through five or so scenes, where our characters were starting to track down these problems. I did evoke some teasing by framing a scene to start out that Mio was making out with the handsome but secretly traitorous ensign Myles. It's also an example of establishing things through scene framing -- i.e. I didn't have to approach or seduce him, I simply framed that it was already done. However, at that point it was close to midnight and I was starting to lose my voice. So I called it in, and the game closed up incomplete.

         I very much like how the newsreel mechanic works, but I think that particularly for a short convention slot, there needs to be a punchy and simple setup that everyone can immediately grasp and build on.

Slot #5: "Karm v. Osric"

GMs Lydia Leong, Yi-Mei Chng, Julian Morley, and Robert Donoghue
Saturday, November 4, 2006 - 9am to 4:30pm

         This was a live-action event with 17 players and four organizers, which was played out in the large theatre room with some adjoining areas (a balcony, hallway, and outside patio). The complete game materials for this are all posted on Robert Donoghue's "Karm v. Osric" Page. Everyone had emailed in preferences ahead of time, but none of the casting was done. As we walked in, each player received a 20-page booklet with background for the game and details on our character. Neatly clipped to the back cover were cards for items and powers (which were uncommon but there). These took some time to read, but they were excellently prepared. The 17 players for this run were:

         One of the organizers, Jules, stepped in to play Prince Benedict since one of the players cancelled. The original note had asked about players doing cross-gender parts, but there were none here. The organizers had the list of players well in advance, so they were presumably able to tailor this. There were 6 female characters out of 18 total.

         The game was set officially at the first birthday party of Prince Eric, baby son of the new Queen Faiella. However, there was a cloud over this since Prince Osric, the son of the former Queen Cymnea (who marriage was annulled), had been sentenced to death the previous night. However, there were tons of plotlines woven through all of the characters over this. Faiella came from a fay realm, and there were others of her kind about. There were secret crimes, magical experiments, and so forth going on as well.

         The materials for this are available, so I won't go into great details or reveal spoilers. I had a somewhat major part in this due to a secret twist, but I was pleased that it seemed like all the characters had an important role to play. This made for a highly overcomplicated story just to hear about in the end, because all 17 players were fairly constantly busy during the course of the game. For example, with the King long absent, there was a governing council which had the power to make vital decisions that would affect the kingdom. Notably, they voted to acquit Prince Osric -- who had previously been condemned to die -- during the course of the game. There was a lot going on, but I felt it all stayed coherent during play and lead to

         There was no rules system used per se except for instructions on the cards included with the booklet. These were for things like invisibility, disguise, and magic. With four organizers for 17 players, issues were quick to resolve. There were two fights as far as I know, both resolved by simple declaration by the organizers. Also, the organizers came up to players who looked like they weren't actively engaged and gave them rumors.

Slot #6: "AmberQuest"

GM Lee Short
Saturday, November 4, 2006 - 7pm to midnight

         Unfortunately, I was sick this day. I was starting to lose my voice after playing the long slot previously, and I opted to rest for the next day rather than play in this slot. I've heard it was an interesting run, with I believe Rob Donoghue as Julian, Yi-Mei as Fiona, and Glen as Corwin.

Slot #7: "Polaris"

GM John Kim
Sunday, November 20, 2006 - 10am to 4:30pm

         This was my second time running Ben Lehman's Polaris at ACNW, which I had picked for closeness to the Amber background in spirit: being about perfect people living in a magical city. I had said minimum 2 and maximum 4 players, and unsurprisingly got the maximum of 4 plus myself for five total. Unlike the previous run, we had a reasonably long time slot (six and a half hours, minus lunch) to get going.

         The five players were: myself, Benjamin Bernard, Glen Gyldersleve, Lee Short, and Pôl Jackson. Pôl had also played in my run of Polaris in ACNW05, and Lee was familiar with the game. However, Ben and Glen were both new to the system. We decided on our common fate being a princess whom we were all devoted to and served. In order around the table, the players and characters were:

         So there were a lot of plotlines going on, but the bigger issues were that everyone went off to another settlement to rescue Keid (though unknown to our characters he was already evil). Alioth stayed behind to defend his side of things, and Gemini came back to confront the evil in his family -- while the others fought their way into a tower and dealt with the evil there. We had around six or so rounds of scenes, which came to a fairly satisfying conclusion.

         There were a number of interesting bits. One of the things which we all remarked at was that nearly everyone took well to doing nasty stuff to their characters. Despite not being antagonists, Lee and I worked together to put him in romantic difficulty given his secret homosexual love. I started as his New Moon playing his mother, who tried to set him up with a woman. He immediately went with this, and I upped it by having her burst into tears when they were alone and confessing that she was secretly engaged to Keid (his love). Lee came back that he realized to himself that this was the only woman he could ever love.

         At other times, it became even more extreme. In terms of rules, an unclear point was what we should do if multiple PCs are on hand for a conflict. In particular, Alioth had his steed crippled and was surrounded by demons as part of someone else's conflict. I was fine with this, but it seemed tricky. We also had shared NPCs, such as when their sole shieldbearer Asmidiske, whom as the Mistaken I killed off in a conflict.


         My second year proved even more fun than the first, thus firmly establishing this as one of my favorite conventions.


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Fri Nov 9 16:29:38 2007