Ropecon 2010 – The Definition of Awesome

Ropecon 2010 is done.

Well, not really, but from the point of view of all but the 33 men and women of the Conitea, it’s now over. We still have to handle feedback, document stuff, pay bills, clean up and move items from point A to point B. For us, the con ain’t done until the post-debrief meeting beers have been drunk.

I was responsible for the RPGs – corralling the Game Masters, making sure they had tables and chairs and maybe even players. I think we had a total of 67 GMs (after tallying cancellations and latecomers) and somewhere in the region of 150 sessions of RPGs on offer (not an exact figure, but it’s in the ballpark). This is slightly more than last year.

I spent most of the convention behind the GM desk, serving the Game Masters, bossing around my henchmen (an excellent team, by the way) and listening to power metal. However, I made myself time to check out some of the program and hit the dealers’ room. It was my 14th Ropecon, and the 17th convention to bear the name. Our guests of honour were Keith Baker, the designer of Gloom and Eberron, and the German board game designer Friedemann Friese. After last year’s problems, we decided to invite Keith Baker as a full GoH to prevent another burnout episode. Amusingly, back when we were picking guests of honour, I received an e-mail that he was restarting his Have Dice, Will Travel project right in the middle of the meeting.

Friday

Friday is the busiest time at the GM desk, and I spent most of my time at the desk, processing incoming GMs and solving minor problems. Overall, things went very smoothly and the few issues were resolved quickly, efficiently and politely. Reading my Game Master feedback is better than sex.

As a new feature of the GM service, we had Sami Koponen and Sipi Myllynen directing players to games that suited them. The feedback on them was positive as well, though due to manpower issues, the service wasn’t available all the time. This will be developed further next year. (Sami, apparently, also desires to be Caliph instead of the Caliph. This will eventually have to be resolved in the traditional way of Ropecon – naked seaman wrestling.)

Once my scheduled hours at the GM desk were up, I wandered around a bit, mostly buying a lot of stuff. Pretty much the first thing I did was to make a beeline for the Lamentations of the Flame Princess booth in the dealers’ room, and I scored myself copies of the eponymous game as well as the newly-released Hammers of the God, and Expeditious Retreat Press’ Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe and Magical Medieval Society: The Silk Road. From the Myrrysmiehet booth, I also picked up the minigame L.G.D.S. – Kalpean herrasmiehen tapaus (“LGDS – The Case of the Pale Gentleman”) and the second edition of Roudan maa (“Land of Frost”). Additionally, I managed to bump into Karoliina Korppoo during the con and bought from her a copy of her new game Invitation to Love, which is a card-based storytelling game with romance theme.

I haven’t yet had time to read all this, but the next guy to tell me that roleplaying games are dying is getting a d20 stuffed up their nasal cavity. Apart from the Expeditious Press books, they’re all brand new releases, and they look spectacular (including the Expeditious Press books). From what I’ve had time to read, this is all fabulous stuff! The production values are high, the content is juicy and sets the imagination afire. I will write up a series of posts gushing about this stuff once I’ve had time to go through it properly, but despite having fewer new releases overall than the past few Ropecons, the bar is as high as it’s ever been in terms of quality.

(Okay, I admit that I’ll probably have very little intelligent to say about Invitation to Love for the time being, since it’s so far from my usual fare that it might as well be written in Czech. However, I’ve never let that stop me before.)

L.G.D.S. was originally meant for the scenario contest (another thing that will be developed further next year), but the writer, Jukka Sorsa, called it quits when he was supposed to turn it in. The next day, he told me, he hit upon the idea of writing it up for a Myrrysmiehet release. If he’d finished this in time, he’d probably have won – the adventure is a straight-up railroad, but it features Dracula teaming up with an undead Rabbi Loew and his golem to raise Countess Báthory as an undead tentacled monstrosity, and the player characters opposing their vile plans are agents of the Sun King – a swordmaster, a mechanical man and a fire mage. The GM advice on description notes that explosions are always good, and you should have lots of explosions. However, you shouldn’t just explode people for no reason, because that’s a bit too Spinal Tap.

Seriously awesome stuff.

And then there’s Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which is a beautiful work of art – six booklets in a sturdy cardboard box and a cover illustration that’s so gonna be up for an ENnie next year. The tutorial booklet, for instance, is fantastic. It walks the neophyte gamer first through a really simple adventure story. Then there’s the second adventure, which is styled after a “choose your own adventure” book. For the third adventure, it tells you to find a group of real people and then gives you a long example of play with a lifelike group of gamers, presenting the game as it’s actually played. Of course, this all being written by James Edward Raggi IV, the text is lively and fun to read, and the example of play ends in a total party kill.

I also saw James’ OSR presentation, which he himself posted about on his blog. I didn’t catch all of it since I had to run in and out of the auditorium on con business a couple of times, but I don’t think it was quite as bad as he’s making it out to be, though I think he’s largely correct in that it would’ve been a better show if he’d just talked about the making of the game. When he gets warmed up, he’s a very good speaker.

On Friday, I went to bed early. Saturday was gonna be a long, long day.

Saturday

On Saturday I got my only gaming during the con. Our “bouncy castle” for this year was a tie-in with our theme of “Ropecon 2020”. (“Bouncy castle” in Ropecon jargon means an attraction, event or program number that engages visitors from all of our audience segments – roleplayers, card gamers, miniature gamers. The first “bouncy castle” we had was a bouncy castle, hence the name.) The story went that Ropecon 2020 was gonna be total crap, and time agents from ten years in the future representing different interest groups had come to the con in order to shape its future and recruit sympathizers and activists for their cause. One group wanted to do away with Ropecon altogether, reasoning that no con is better than a bad con, while another one wanted the con to become a haven for academic research discussion and artsy games, and so forth. The time agents directed their recruits to perform certain tasks at certain times at designated hotspots, such as the info desk and the GM desk, and one group’s goal at the GM desk was to play a game of The Orc and the Pie. Of course, I ran it in Pathfinder RPG, and I’d printed up a bunch of A6-size character stat blocks (shamelessly ripped off Paizo’s iconic Valeros). The players could keep the character, of course.

So, I’ve now run some twelve sessions of The Orc and the Pie. Even after the hotspot was over, I had character cards left over, so in the evening, I ran it in the bar for other members of conitea, and at one point in the night for Mike Pohjola. Interestingly, the people who were familiar with D&D generally immediately attacked the orc, while people without a strong grounding in tabletop games looked for nonviolent solutions (and, well, Mike, but that’s just because he decided his 1st-level fighter was pacifistic). My favourite solution was Marko’s, who first asked “is the room airtight?” “Umm… sure.” “I close the door.”

Only a single character died, and even he managed to slay the orc in the process.

Also on Saturday I saw the only other presentation I had time for, Keith Baker’s lecture on how to write fantasy. I think I’ve seen one of these too many. When you’ve heard Ellen Kushner, Pat Cadigan, Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Alastair Reynolds, Jeff VanderMeer and Hal Duncan and I can’t even remember who else discuss the same topic, you start to perceive a certain repetition in the material. There are only so many ways you can put words on the page.

The really interesting thing about Keith was that he writes shared-world fantasy, and the details of how that works from both the creative and the editorial viewpoints. Unfortunately, I was too busy during the convention and pretty tired during his talk, and didn’t have any intelligent questions prepared.

Saturday dragged a bit long for me, mostly because at the bar I sorta got caught up in this collective effort to drink the bar dry (successful, in the end – when will they learn?), and then after they closed, wandered around the con, spent a few hours down at the beach sharing a bottle of beer with a fellow gamer, saw the security guys demonstrate different locks and holds in one of the gaming rooms at three in the morning, and got an overdose of backroom humour. I finally managed to get home and sleep for about two and a half hours.

Sunday

Sunday morning, I was as one of the undead. However, once my shift started, we got some audio gear behind the desk and could get ourselves some proper power metal, I perked up quickly. Sunday was quiet for the most part, and we could just listen to music and bullshit for most of the day. Hannu floated the idea that next year, we could have a dedicated laptop for playing Planescape: Torment, and whoever was on shift would play it during lulls in activity. Savegames only when the desk closes down for the night, and the goal would be to finish the game by the end of the con.

Sunday was more or less uneventful until the end, when you got the usual pomp and circumstance that accompanies the ending of a convention. I presented the awards for the scenario competition and an award plaque for Eero Juhola, who’s been running his Vietnam War -themed campaign Charlie ei surffaa (“Charlie Don’t Surf”) at Ropecon for a whopping fifteen years. The campaign is an institution. As I understand, its rulebase is a heavily modified amalgam of Phoenix Command and Twilight: 2000. This year, he had to start a new Charlie campaign from an earlier date because the primary campaign ran out of war.

Giving Eero some sort of recognition for his work was actually an idea of my predecessor, Janne Lahdenperä. Me, I probably wouldn’t have figured it out by myself. I’ve never played in the campaign, and from my point of view, it’s a fairly self-sufficient and low-maintenance affair. I give Charlie ei surffaa a room, and they do their stuff. Everybody is happy, even if I’m not entirely certain what it is that they do.

It seems I got photographed on stage. The fellow in the background was my lovely assistant Janne, one of our logistics admins. ConText, the con’s official source of propaganda and misinformation, declared us two the most popular conitea slash pairing of 2010. It is said that in the quiet hours of the night, our mascot, The Rock, writes conitea slash in the coat check. If you don’t know what slash fiction is, I don’t recommend googling.

Ropecon is sometimes very, very weird.

And now, it’s over. Until next year.

Convention Report: Finncon 2010

The three-day science fiction event Finncon ended on Sunday. On Monday, I returned home to Espoo, and was immediately swamped with a load of Ropecon-related stuff that has to be done by tomorrow. That’s now all under control, so I can take a breather and write up my account of the previous con before the next one starts.

Finncon was held in Jyväskylä, which is a small town to the north, somewhere in the sticks northeast of Tampere. For some reason, I’ve never learned to pinpoint it on the map. Some fellow members of the RPG.net Finnpack offered me and a couple of others guest beds, with the effective result that at several points during the weekend, there were five people in the same room, all on their computers, all chatting on the same IRC channel. Also, we got the Epic Spinach Soup of Pure Win.

We had a fairly impressive lineup of guests of honour – Pat Cadigan, Ellen Kushner, Sari Peltoniemi and Liisa Rantalaiho. The latter two are a Finnish fantasy author and a researcher and fandom activist of some note. In addition, we had the guests Delia Sherman, Kushner’s partner and an author in her own right, and Cheryl Morgan, an editor, writer and blogger who was the Guest of Honour at Finncon 2007, who seems to like Finncon so much she shows up every year. Impeccable taste, there. (I notice that I use the pronoun “we” when talking about Finncon. It’s not exactly accurate, since I’m not an organiser and wasn’t even a part of the workforce or programming until… well, let’s not skip ahead, but I do know most of the organisers and am fairly deep in the fandom, so I think of it as “us” rather than “them”.)

Unfortunately, I’ve never read anything from any of them. At least it’s nice that I’m not gonna be running out of stuff to read in the future. Oh, well.

Friday

The first day of the con was very light, in that there was only a single program track. There were writers talking about writing, and an analysis of the Hugo shortlists. The consensus seems to be that Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl will win, everybody hopes Miéville’s The City and the City will win, and nobody likes Robert J. Sawyer, which is interesting. I’m thinking of hunting down that Hugo winner of his so I can figure it out. Also, though people were divided on whether Charles Stross is good, nobody seemed to like his novella “Palimpsest”, either.

Funnily enough, there are two works by that name on the shortlists. The other one is up for Best Novel and is by Catherynne M. Valente. Seemed good.

Then, though I’m by no means well-read in the field of science fiction, I’ve never actually encountered a novel that was up for a Hugo that actually disappointed me – though I never did get around to finishing Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Then, it’s a bit of a brick and I couldn’t carry it around with me very well, and I do a lot of my reading on the train or when I need to kill time away from my computer.

Also, on Friday, a funny thing happened… I was chatting with a couple of friends, minding my own business, when suddenly, Jukka Halme, the head organiser of Finncon 2009 shouts from across the room “Jukka! Now there we have a volunteer!” I went “buh?”. Had I gone “NO!” and fled, things would’ve probably turned out differently, but as it happened, I got drafted into presenting the first half of the traditional Finncon masquerade. That was scheduled for Saturday evening. And was the only program item on the schedule at that time. In the biggest auditorium. With all the Guests of Honour present. And it’d be in both Finnish and English. But hey, no pressure. I mean, I’m an experienced public speaker and all. (See what I mean about being fairly deep in the fandom?)

With this in mind, I retired early to work on my notes.

Saturday

On Saturday, the schedule involved checking out the Atorox ceremony, working on my notes, checking out a forum meetup, working on my notes some more, checking out the Definitive Rock Music Panel, and laying the finishing touches on my notes.

Because I was so busy writing my notes, I missed Cheryl Morgan’s presentation on running a masquerade. D’oh!

The Atorox is the most highly regarded literary science fiction award in Finland. It’s named after the main character of the Atorox novels by The Outsider, who wrote the stories in the 40’s an 50’s. They’re also apparently horrendously racist in a way that would have made Lovecraft raise an eyebrow, but then, it’s no secret that Finland was a backwater in those days. An ideal reprint would include a lengthy foreword acknowledging this and perhaps explaining that they have a certain historical value. Personally, I’ve always thought that a closet is a pretty unhygienic place to store a skeleton.

Then, that presenting thing.

I’d written out everything I was going to say up there, because I knew that if I had to improvise, it’d be shit. I’m a pretty decent writer and I watch the Oscars every year, so I had some idea of what I was doing. So, as long as I could stick to a script, it’d be good.

This worked until the second contestant’s background music failed to play on cue, and I had to fill a few minutes of dead air while the tech guys stuffed a redshirt down the Jeffries tube to reverse the polarity of the tachyon compression buffer or whatever. It was a very uncomfortable few minutes and included foolish dancing and a Babylon 5 -themed lightbulb joke.

Amusingly, if I had had the time to see Cheryl’s presentation, I would’ve known to prepare with a separate slip of paper that had a collection of really bad jokes or something, for just such an eventuality.

In the end, though, the tech guys did something techy and impressive, and the rest of the masquerade went quite well, and I got to listen to people telling me how good I was for the rest of the evening. They even gave me a t-shirt as a prize. I’m thinking of having it framed. (It turned out to be marked ladyfit in very small print.)

I’d include a picture link here, but for some reason I haven’t been able to find any photo series of the masquerade. Will do once I find one. The costumes were great work, all of them, and I mean staggeringly well crafted.

Sunday

Sunday was a lighter day for me, and I had time to focus on the program and stuff. There was a presentation on Fenno-Ugric myth in fantasy literature, which was fairly interesting, and a trivia competition on science fiction in the vein of The QI, in that the questions were insanely difficult or obscure, and the emphasis was on entertainment, and entertained I was.

For an example, who’s the odd one out: Dr. Polidori, Robert E. Howard, H. Beam Piper, William Hope Hodgson, and why? How about these: J. Michael Straczynski, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, Harlan Ellison?

There was also the event titled Jyväskylä Animecon 2010. Since for the first time in several years we had a Finncon without an Animecon to go with it, the Espoo Science Fiction and Fantasy Society ESC decided to rectify the issue. Another thing that was gone was Jordan sports, since it was deemed to be in poor taste to use Wheel of Time books for hockey, curling, caber toss or shot put now that Robert Jordan is dead. Also, the Finnish publisher decided to stop translating the series due to risen costs and no new donations were forthcoming.

So, we put two and two together and decided to use manga books. We figured it was a success. Finncon 2011 in Turku will also have an event called “Jyväskylä Animecon 2010”.

As for Finncon 2012… Usually, host cities for Finncon have been decided at the sci-fi clubs’ annual cooperation meeting in Tampere. They’re decided a couple of years in advance, which is handy for events this big. This year, however, first Tampere announced their willingness to host Finncon. According to the rotation, this made sense and everybody expected it. Then, the Helsinki delegation rose and started distributing fliers for Finncon Helsinki 2012. Then, Espoo jumped in and promised Milla Jovovich as a guest of honour. Finally, the Dark Side of the Moon was nominated. Apparently, the con could be held in the Nazi barracks there.

In the end, the matter was put to vote at Finncon 2010, and the final winner was announced at the ending ceremony, amidst carefully rehearsed accusations of treachery and foul play. Finncon 2012 was voted to take place in Tampere, and nobody can say any different because the ballots were ceremonially burned at the dead dog party.

Summary

In summary, a wonderful convention, with wonderful people, wonderful guests of honour, and wonderful weather. Even with the surprise assignment I received, it was a relaxing convention and didn’t kill me nearly as badly as Tracon did or Ropecon (I expect) will.

Next year’s convention is again big and animey and in Turku, but I guess we’ll have to live with it. I know the guys there, too, so I figure I can expect yet another surprise assignment at some point during the con, unless they want me to host the masquerade again (apparently, I was the first host ever to win a prize, probably because I didn’t entirely crumple under stress while at the same time being obviously out of my depth), as someone already hinted.

And this has been your annual non-RPG update. Back to gaming next week. Now, to go and print 150 sheets of paper for Ropecon…

News! ENnies Voting Open, Lamentations of the Flame Princess Looking Good

Just a quick news update from the midst of Finncon 2010 in Jyvväskylä. I’d write up a longer post but I am slightly busy preparing my presentation of the first act of the annual Finncon masquerade, for which I was volunteered by ambush yesterday. It’s the same thing every damn year, I come to this con to have fun and relax and hang out before Ropecon kills me and then I get roped into doing something like this.

The public voting booth for the ENnie Awards opened yesterday, and will be open until midnight according to someone else’s watch, July 25th. I covered the nominees and my thoughts on them in my last post, and already placed my votes last night. Now, your turn. Go vote!

In other news, James Edward Raggi IV’s Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Play is pretty much ready, and it looks pretty. It is the only major game release at Ropecon this year, even though it looked for a while there like we might get loads of new games. I’m not getting my contributor’s copy until next week (I wrote a couple of pages on H.P. Lovecraft for James), and can’t give my impressions beyond being blown away by the art, but for now I refer you to one of the editors, Zak S over at Playing D&D with Porn Stars.

That’s all, folks. Now, silence until next week. Then, convention report.

ENnie Nominations for 2010

The ENnie nominations were actually announced last Friday, so I am ridiculously late with this, but the voting isn’t starting until the day after tomorrow, so I figure it’s not that bad.

Overall, it’s been a strong year for quality gaming material, and this is reflected in the nominations (translation: I bought a lot of this stuff). Here are some of thoughts on the categories where I could give reasonable commentary.

Best Cover Art

The category where judging a book by its cover is expected, and one where pretty much every nominee, the honourable mention, and probably great many books outside the shortlist would deserve to win. Personally, I am partial to the art in Eclipse Phase, though I think the interior illustrations are a fair bit more impressive. I’d give the gold to that and the silver probably to Paizo’s Pathfinder Bestiary, with its Wayne Reynolds piece.

Best Interior Art

I’m kinda surprised Eclipse Phase isn’t represented here, since this is a real strength for the book. I’m guessing this one is another category where you have more deserving winners than you have room on the shortlist, though. While it isn’t as easy to keep up the quality throughout an entire book (WotC’s 3.0 Deities and Demigods springs to mind – some absolutely stunning pieces of art side by side with positively hideous scrawlings), it’s still quite doable when the art director knows what he’s doing. I’ve got both Rogue Trader and Pathfinder RPG, and can verify that they are the prettiest ever, and will be probably voting for them. Then there’s this one that I’ve never even heard of, Willow Palecek’s Escape from Tentacle City. I know nothing about it except that it has won an award called Game Chef Golden Katana that Shoots Smaller Katanas Award for Game That Looks Like it Was the Most Fun to Write. This is awesome.

Best Cartography

Not much I can say about these, since I never even got the obligatory Paizo product, Pathfinder City Map Folio. I suppose it’s possible even WotC has a good claim on this award, since their maps at least have always looked good. I must say I’m a bit surprised to see Death Frost Doom here. I would’ve expected to see it vying for the title of Best Adventure.

Best Writing

Finally, we get to the meaty part of the awards. I’m only familiar with Eclipse Phase (that one seems to be popping up a lot, doesn’t it?) and The Kerberos Club, and both are books with such engaging prose that I read most of them off my computer screen. Aloud, as I recall, in the case of Kerberos Club. Also up for nomination is an interesting game called Colonial Gothic that I know very little about except that a sourcebook for it was part of the Haiti Relief bundle on DriveThruRPG some months ago. Notable about it is that it’s coauthored by James Maliszewski of Grognardia.

Best Production Values

The “oooh, pretty book” category. I’d give the gold to Rogue Trader, because the binding on these books is something magical. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but a year or two ago, I dropped my Dark Heresy rulebook so that the entire binding was torn away from the spine and was only attached to the covers by the cover papers. Well, I pushed it back into place and tried to find a way to repair this, but then I found I could no longer separate the parts. It’s as if the book had regenerated. I can grab the book by the spine and shake it vigorously, and the pages stay in place.

Best Rules

A category where I have no first-hand experience with any of the works. However, Wild Talents 2nd Edition is based on Wild Talents 1st Edition, which is based on Godlike, and is therefore awesome. Likewise, Diaspora uses the FATE system, which is also used by Dresden Files, which is also awesome. I also like some of the things I’ve been hearing about Diaspora’s take on the ruleset.

Best Adventure

Also known as “the Award That Paizo Publishing Will Probably Get Anyway”. While I’ll be voting The Grinding Gear (the first ENnie nominee ever that was produced in Finland, by the way) for gold, I don’t expect it to have enough popular support for even the silver. Don’t get me wrong, I think Stolen Land is also an excellent module, and what Paizo is trying with the Kingmaker Adventure Path is commendable. I am not intimately familiar with the other works in this category, though a Trail of Cthulhu adventure that has the name “Kenneth Hite” or “Robin D. Laws” somewhere on the cover is pretty much guaranteed to rock, and here we have two.

Best Monster or Adversary

Of this bunch, I’ve only read Pathfinder Bestiary and Classic Horrors Revisited. Both are excellent books for what they do. I especially dig what the latter book did with ghouls. There’s a bit of John Romero, a bit of Wolfgang Baur, a bit of H.P. Lovecraft… a lovely book, overall. The Bestiary is more of a utilitarian work, made to be used at the table, which is a task it performs quite well. While it is pretty much a retread of the old Monster Manual, it lacks some of the more annoying monsters like the allip and the tendriculos, and there’s something to be said for the improvements on the ruleset as well.

Best Setting

In this category, I’m only familiar with The Kerberos Club, which, as I mentioned earlier, is made of win and awesome. It’s a Victorian take on superheroes, in the vein of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Somewhat amusingly, one of the NPCs in The Kerberos Club is Christina Rossetti, who is the real-world author of the poem “Goblin Market”, from which another nominee, Goblin Markets for Changeling: The Lost takes its name and, I assume, significant inspiration.

Well, I think it’s amusing. Good poem, too. (And there’s also an adventure inspired by it in The Great Pendragon Campaign.)

Best Supplement

I am not familiar with any of the products here, though I suppose the Rebellion Era Sourcebook for Star Wars Saga is probably pretty good. Also, this Lucha Libre Hero thing looks so insane that it has to be awesome. I am also just going to assume that Ascension for Dark Heresy came out too late to be nominated, because otherwise its absence is quite strange.

Best Aid or Accessory

Well, here we have the Pathfinder Game Master’s Screen, which is again one of those new, shiny and heavy affairs the thickness of rulebook covers. It deflects thrown dice, can be used to slap around unruly players, and also looks pretty good and has really handy tables on the GM’s side. The only complaint I have about it is that it didn’t come with a booklet of something, which seems to be the norm with GM screens. The Dark Heresy screen came with an adventure module, for instance, while WotC’s old DM screen for Forgotten Realms had random encounter charts for pretty much the whole Realms, and the Eberron screen had a big poster map of Khorvaire.

Best Miniature

This is an odd one. It seems that WotC and Alkemy Minis have entire product lines up for nomination, while the others have single products. Very strange. Even stranger is that WotC is here at all since at the present their miniature work can be outdone by a six-year-old with some play-doh and finger paints. The quality peaked around Blood War and Night Below and for some reason plummeted at Desert of Desolation and the subsequent releases. The Alkemy miniatures look very good, but I am irritated by the lack of information on their website. When I buy miniatures, I buy them for roleplaying games. This means they must be compatible with the rest of my collection, i.e. they have to be the same scale as what Games Workshop is releasing, and I can’t find any mention of scale on the Alkemy website. They look like they’d be around 35mm, though.

Best Electronic Book

Yet another category where I haven’t read any of the products, though amusingly some of our local Pathfinder Society players did play The Devil We Know Part I: Shipyard Rats and declared it mediocre.

Best Free Product

Ooh, free swag! I think the best one here is Wayfinder #1, for the sheer size of the thing. The one I have substantial practical experience with is the Advanced Player’s Guide Playtest Document, with the playtest versions of new base classes from the upcoming book. I’m playing a summoner, another guy I know is playing an alchemist and there’s a cavalier in my Rise of the Runelords campaign and thus far nothing has been broken.

Best Website

Interesting things here. The best is probably the Pathfinder Reference Document, but the ones that really catch my eye are Epic Words and Obsidian Portal, which are different takes on the concept of a campaign management website, much like the Finnish Mekanismi wiki that I’ve been using. I figure that if I ever need to do a campaign website in English, I might look at one of these, though they do seem terribly involved compared to the simplicity of Mekanismi.

Best Blog

Well, I like GnomeStew, and there’s something strangely compelling about One Geek to Another, even though I do not quite get the whole concept and feel it may be a subtle satire. The strength of Kobold Quarterly I feel lies in the magazine, not the blog, and the rest of the nominees seem to post little that I find interesting.

Best Game

Pathfinder RPG, obviously. Wild Talents also rocks on toast, as does the new Shadowrun. While I can understand that the clunkiness of Eclipse Phase’s system may keep it out of this category, the absence of Rogue Trader is noticeable. I am a great fan of its party generation rules, among other things.

Product of the Year

And here we get to the Big Kahuna. The list of nominees is certainly impressive, with heavyweights like Pathfinder and Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, and innovative little works of art such as The Kerberos Club and Eclipse Phase. I figure this one goes to Pathfinder, though, and will be voting it for gold. I can’t really comment on the new WFRP, since I still haven’t had an opportunity to try it out. There’s something about the game that makes me deeply suspicious, though I am trying to keep an open mind. The new version of Shadowrun is also of interest, though I already have the third and fourth editions and I’m not sure if getting a third rulebook for a game I’ve yet to play is a good idea.

Would You Like Some Cheese with Your Whine, Mr Kask?

It would appear that there’s yet another tempest of fecal matter in the offing around the phenomenon of the Old School Renaissance. This time the poop-flinger is none other than Tim Kask, the first editor of The Dragon, an ancient and slightly obscure figure from the early days of gaming. A guest editorial of his was posted at Lord of the Green Dragons, and it… looks like a really bad troll, actually. Seriously, I get better stuff from the incoming SomethingAwful links.

Now, I rarely jump in on these blogosphere tiffs. Usually, nothing is resolved and the end result can only be something really ugly. However, in this case, I do not think it can get a lot uglier than what Mr Kask wrote there, and he has managed to personally rouse my ire.

Also, when someone drops their pants, paints a huge bullseye on their buttocks and moons, what am I supposed to do?

Mr Kask’s post is a collection of personal attacks against people he doesn’t feel a particular need to name for claims he does not feel a particular need to source. This is slightly frustrating, since though I can identify some of the people, the more outlandish assertions made in the post cannot be verified. Who, for instance, are the “[t]wo particularly obnoxious individuals [who] have set themselves up as some sort of Star Chamber in which they pass judgments that others are actually supposed to care about and heed”? While the scene clearly has no shortage of obnoxious individuals, I cannot quite place these descriptions. Keeping your targets anonymous, of course, allows you to invent whatever villainy you’re accusing them of.

Most of his shots seem to be aimed at James Edward Raggi IV, presumably due to this post, who, despite being around half Mr Kask’s age, acts rather more mature in his response. Then, I’ve seen more mature displays than this diva show from my nine-year-old cousin. There’s also a swipe at Eero Tuovinen of Arkenstone Publishing, who’s “an obscure self-styled publisher from a small European country”. The man has a company that publishes (and imports) games. What, pray tell, is he then supposed to style himself? As for “small European country,” it’s called Finland, and I’m debating whether this additional descriptor is his way of trying to make Eero recognizable without naming him or just some strange jingoistic anachronism or what. There’s also the line “We built a market in five short years that virtually dwarfed the hobby of five years previous. In addition, we did not do it with a government subsidy or grant,” which has this lovely unstated suggestion of “unlike those godless Communists.” In fact, the whole diatribe becomes even more hilarious than it already is if you imagine it read in the voice of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Then there’s this gem: “OSR (whichever phrase you prefer), is, on its surface, an oxymoron. For something to be “reborn” or revived, it must first be dead. The original spirit of D&D never died; it just was buried under all the crap that came out with editions after the second.”

If you take an extremely myopic view of things, that is largely true. However, from the viewpoint of the gaming community at large, it was dead. AD&D 2E was dropped the minute the Third Edition came out. The older editions were ten years or more out of print and difficult to find on the secondary market. Awareness of them waned. New stuff wasn’t available at the game stores, and the majority of the gaming community had turned to other games. On account of no games being actually available, there was no influx of new players to the old systems. Sure, there was always Dragonsfoot, but that forum quickly garnered an apparently well-deserved reputation for irrational hostility towards new things, and if that’s your idea of keeping a game alive, it’s time to call in Dr Kevorkian. Now, the Old School Renaissance has reinvigorated old-school Dungeons & Dragons, brought it back to the limelight and to store shelves. What, in this, is such a horrid thing that it needs to be attacked and denigrated? What about it is so complicated that it cannot be understood? It’s not defined by anyone in particular, and if it has leaders, they are such by the power of the vox populi. The internet is quite democratic in this. It is also democratic in that even if you were the first editor of The Dragon and were there when they figured out how to use fire, you will get called on your fabrications.

Since OSR is defined as the recent increased interest in old and out-of-print editions of D&D, playing them, rereleasing their rules, and writing new material for them, it’s a mite nonsensical to try opting out of it. It is what it is, the label is stuck, and complaining of things, especially in Mr Kask’s tone, will bring with it a number of other labels that are far less complimentary. Also, I question the marketing sense of declaring your contempt for the competition mere paragraphs before announcing that you, yourself, are going to soon release something that’s presumably going to be targeted at the same audience. If a part of that audience is, say, heavily invested in the hobby, like gamers tend to be, they might take it badly. I’m not going to claim there was much chance of me buying whatever it is Mr Kask is selling to begin with, but this little rant kinda sealed the deal. There’s a certain irony in thousand words of drivel fermented in bitterness that keeps proclaiming that the fun is what matters.

Overall, what we have here is a petty and small-minded attack completely untroubled by facts, common courtesy or reason. Note, if you will, how Mr Kask fails to actually counter any of the arguments or observations that he attacks, even noting that some of them are true, but still somehow “asinine” or “moronic”. Most rants are actually trying to make a point somewhere, while this one is just trying to convince the reader that some conveniently anonymous people are morons and that the Old School Renaissance is somehow bad, based on him saying so.

I am going to remain neutral on the topic of whether the OSR or TSR have produced better material, as I am unfamiliar with far too large parts of both corpuses to pass objective judgment. However, the latter just went on the lead for having produced more annoying spokespersons.

High Fantasy Horror

As mentioned in my previous post, I sat in a panel discussing the above topic at Tracon V. For various reasons, I did not feel the panel went well.

Most of those reasons I can’t help – there was a strong element of human error throughout the whole process, which led to the building of a six-man panel with the original misconception of a 120-minute program slot that then turned out to be 60 minutes long, and finally by one program item running late and another requiring substantial prep time only had about 40 minutes. Just when we were starting to get warmed up and really discuss things, time was up.

For me, warming up really was an issue, because I am not a natural performer, and for some reason I was really off my game that day. This may have to do with the panel consisting including some real heavyweights, such as Frans Mäyrä, a Professor of Information Studies and Markku Soikkeli, a Senior Assistant of the Literature Department from the university across the street, which was slightly intimidating, especially since I’d never even met them before. Hell, Frans Mäyrä’s old Forgotten Realms adventure logs are some of the earliest RPG material I’ve ever read online. I’ve formerly done fine with presentations and lectures, but I didn’t really ever get comfortable during the panel, and the level of my output, despite my notes and preparation, was less than coherent.

This, however, I can help. So, I present to you, reconstructed from my notes and memory, a rather more articulate version of my opening summary.

High Fantasy Horror

Hello, I am Jukka Särkijärvi, a gaming blogger and a former columnist for the Roolipelaaja magazine. I’ve been gaming for 14 years, which I suppose makes me the newbie of this panel.

On the topic of horror in roleplaying games, I am especially interested in the concept of making horror work in a game like Dungeons & Dragons or Exalted – high-powered fantasy with a detailed ruleset. They’re games that operate off the basic principle that your characters are stupendous badasses. There’s an enemy, you go and kick its ass, be it a local crime leader, a vampire count or the God of Darkness himself. This can, naturally, make horror a bit hard to do in these games. When Count Dracula is only worth so much experience points and the Great Cthulhu has a set Armor Class, there’s no fear. Well, sure, there is the threat – that’s not exactly a low Armor Class, and don’t even let me get started on the kind of damage old squidhead can dish out, but you still know what you’re dealing with, you can prepare, make assumptions and educated guesses and more or less intellectualise the challenge. When a player has been with a game for a few years, they’ll be pretty good at that. When I get a hint that there’s a vampire in a D&D game, I know to stock up on holy water, ways to bypass silver and magic damage reduction and preferably deal with level drain.

H.P. Lovecraft once said “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.”

Following Lovecraft’s advice, one technique is to take away the knowledge and certainty of the players about what they’re facing. Mislead their divinations, give them contradictory clues. Flat out make shit up. Change the stats. Make vampires that can survive in the daylight, or who don’t drink the blood but the cerebro-spinal fluid, or who otherwise lack the standard weaknesses. Keep them guessing.

This, incidentally, also applies to certain degree to anything and everything that utilizes the Cthulhu Mythos. The names Cthulhu, Azathoth, Nyarlathotep and Necronomicon have been bandied about in popular culture and geek media for so long that they’ve lost their impact. Many players haven’t even read “The Call of Cthulhu” and know old squidhead from stuff like Munchkin Cthulhu and Goomi’s comics, and pretty much every gamer with any experience knows that Cthulhu sleeps eternally in R’lyeh and so forth. Therefore, namedropping Mythos creatures can evoke giggles just as easily as shivers.

Tragic – Lovecraft’s unknowable is now known by everybody and their dog.

Another thing that the characters’ inherent badassness brings with it is that they’re usually in control of the situation. Even mid-battle, sometimes before the fight has even begun, a player can look at the situation and know that they’re gonna win it, and then they can heal up and press on. The default situation is that they’re safe, even when someone is poking them with a sharp metal implement. Outside of combat, in an investigation or a dungeon crawl, they can rest up and replenish their spells or leave and buy a bigger hammer or something. They can, and will go to great lengths to, face the enemy in their own terms.

Wanna create true fear? Take that control away from them.

There’s a variety of methods for this. The classic is cutting off their retreat, making the only option to press on, despite being low on supplies and bleeding from every orifice, including some new ones. The dungeon’s entrance is sealed by a rockslide. There’s an effect blocking teleportation. They’re dependent on an outside agent for their transportation and he ain’t coming back for another two days, or someone killed him. AD&D’s Ravenloft setting had a version of this, where the darklords of the domains were the ones in utter control of the situation, to the point of being able to seal the borders of their domains with a thought, preventing the characters from escaping and forcing them to face whatever devilry they had prepared and conquer it or die trying. Welcome to the Hotel Barovia – you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

This technique inspires desperation. It directly threatens the characters, hopefully something the player is invested in. It’s also a good technique to force players to play smart, when just kicking in the door and going in swinging becomes a suboptimal strategy, far too dangerous. When you can make them guard every hit point like it was the One Ring, you’ve succeeded.

Another way to remove control is to use threats that cannot be acted or reacted against. A recent horror scenario I ran, called The Skinsaw Murders, had a haunted house with haunt effects that the PCs triggered as they moved through the manor. With a few exceptions, they only affected a single character and nobody else could see them. There was traditional gothic mood-building stuff like a face in the mirror that only one character could see, and some outright threats, such as a sudden suicidal impulse to throw oneself through a window into the roiling sea. Though they managed to save against most of these, the knowledge that they could trigger a haunt at any time and sooner or later they would fail a save generated a certain air of helplessness that spurred on their search through the house.

Of course, for all this to work, you’ll also need to go with the practical horror techniques of every game – good description, maybe a darkened or dimly lit room, mood music, cut the table talk. Craploads of advice in any horror game worth buying. Those, however, are a topic for someone else to discuss.

Audiences of Seven, Maid RPG, and the Heat of a Thousand Suns, or, Tracon 2010: A Con Report

I started my con season over the weekend, when Tracon came to Tampere. The fifth convention to bear the name was also the first one to be held in the Tampere House, a huge conference centre that’s so close I could see if from my window if they weren’t all currently covered with tarps. Façade renovation, bastards woke me up at seven this morning, after last night’s dead dog party, by making a hellish racket with a sandblower on my west balcony…

But I digress.

Like last year, Tracon was actually an anime convention with a bit of RPG stuff on the side, this time mostly shunted off into the eastern end of the second floor. This is vaguely amusing, because according to one account I’ve heard, the idea for the con originally started with Excalibur, the technical university RPG club, who then invited in the anime guys, who took over. Of course, there’s a great deal of fandom overlap among the organizers, if not among the attendees.

This was also the first time Tracon was two days long, and in the summer. The changes in schedule, duration and venue are all very, very good things, since if you’re gonna host a convention for 3500 screaming anime fans, it’s better to do it in a place where you can fit them all and in a time when they can maybe spend time outdoors in costume without freezing their bare asses off.

As it happened, they could, though sunburn was a definite danger. Temperatures hit as high as 29 degrees Celsius, which sorta affected the atmosphere. The heat sapped our energy and cooked us in our own juices. Nevertheless, there was a convention to experience and the option of just lying in the sun and reading was simply not open to me.

The gamer reservation on the second floor was focused around the vendor tables of Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Arkenstone Publishing, with a demo room occupied by Sami Koponen (writer of Mythopoeia and father of the Efemeros ‘zine [both links in Finnish]) and Ironspine (link in Finnish) for most of the convention. I spent most of my con hanging around here and shooting the breeze. On the first day, two other rooms in the immediate vicinity were occupied by the Space Jerusalem group who demonstrated their gaming system and the virtual tabletop that they’re using. Their work interests me. The system is actually an extensively modded version of D20 Modern, meaning that it was their starting point several years and an absurd number of system iterations since. The ringleader, Nestori Lehtonen, gifted me a copy of the rules. The version number is 9.29 and while I can recognize the legacy of D20 in Jacketed Hollow Point, it’s pretty slight at this point. One of the more interesting points of note is that they character sheet and a lot of the mechanics are replaced by decks of custom cards. The system here is executed with a certain elegance, and the cards have a good design. I like the sense of humour in the art choices, too. Check it out. Their website has links to the virtual tabletop and the card design software that they’re using, too.

Since I mostly hung around guys selling games, it inevitably followed that I bought games. I walked away with some things that I’d been meaning to buy for a while, like Expeditious Retreat Press’ Lost Keys of Solitude and Arkenstone’s Solar System and World of Near. I also ended up purchasing Maid, which I’d never had any intention to or interest in getting, but I figured that €25 isn’t a bad price for something that caused such an uproar.

Maid Frost Doom

On the first day, the core gaming crowd ventured forth to the terrace of Nordic Pub to game. We divided up into two groups. The first playtested Karoliina Korppoo’s upcoming card-based soap opera RPG Saippuapeli. The second group was composed of me, James Edward Raggi IV of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Antti who posts at Six-Die Samurai, and Markku Tuovinen of Arkenstone. We spent a long time trying to decide on a game. Antti had his quick fantasy game system, but he didn’t have it with him. Neither of the Tuovinen brothers had brought along a copy of Solar System. I could’ve run Pathfinder RPG without a rulebook but not without some pregenerated stats and characters. James had left his game stuff to the con site. So, I rummaged around in my backpack and produced… Maid. The system is so absurdly simple that Markku could run it for us prima vista, having previously read only half a review, and it was a magnificently absurd game.

My character was Rinoa, a cunning, acid-tongued hereditary maid with a cool head, Antti played Sakura, a childhood friend of the Master, who was skilful and affectionate of the boss, and James had Rogerina, a slave girl who was actually a man. Rogerina was also the head maid. Our mission was to prepare a birthday party for our morbidly obese computer whiz boss, who was so fat he’d had to build his mansion on the Moon where the lower gravity allowed him some mobility.

I could try to give a coherent narrative of the game, but it would bring unnecessary clarity to the innate anarchy and chaos of what occurred. The game featured, among other things, the Uruguayan Deep Fried Chocolate Bar of the Month Club (staffed by a potty-mouthed, pipe-smoking Freemason), weaponized Ayn Rand, a really bitchin’ gamer hat, pillow fights, bubble baths, magical geas, and fan service. I’ve already been requested to run it at Finncon in a couple of weeks, and I’m thinking of making it a new entry in the One Module, Every Game saga.

The Program

I didn’t have a lot of time to watch the program. In fact, I believe there were precisely three program items that I saw in their entirety. The first was the panel Everyday of an RPG Designer on Saturday, where Ville Vuorela, Eero Tuovinen, James Edward Raggi IV, the Norwegian GoH Matthijs Holter and Miska Fredman from Ironspine talked about the practicalities of game design. The  panel started off with disappointment when it turned out nobody had any real experience with the loose women, drugs, untold wealth or fast cards promised in the  programme leaflet, but turned out to be pretty entertaining.

The second one was James’ piece on the Old School Renaissance, which was good enough. He speaks well for having pretty much no preparation and had one of his regular players shouting commentary from the sidelines whenever there was a sign that he was flagging. However, since his program items had been added to the schedule so late, they never actually made it into the program leaflet and there were maybe ten people present. Then, I heard there was a Naruto presentation that had seven people in the audience. Edit: my mistake, it was his Q&A session that was too late for the program leaflet.

The third one was a panel on horror and fantasy in games, which I was a part of. It wasn’t a total disaster, but I was thoroughly unhappy with my own performance and some structural issues of the panel (too many members, not enough time, overall vision muddy). I will discuss this in more depth in a future post, though.

Then there were program items I saw only in part – a presentation on zombies in popular culture by Minna Hiltula, an occasional player of mine, which was pretty good. Had to scoot when the Q&A portion started, though. Then there was a presentation on a really bad manga by Jussi Nikander (link in Finnish) and Janne Kemppi, which was hilarious, and which I saw a full half of before I got a phone call and had to leave. Finally, there was Otto Sinisalo’s (link in Finnish) Five Lies About Manga – Redux, where I came fifteen minutes late after stuffing a pizza down my gullet in record time and then getting lost in the conference centre, which shouldn’t even be possible. Entertaining stuff, though.

Summary

Overall, another good con. Could’ve perhaps been a bit less sweltering, but the organizers can hardly be blamed for the weather. The anime stuff is not to my interest, but then, I had a lot of free time to spend with the other awesome gamers present. We had, if not the entire, then at least a significant majority of the Finnish gaming blogosphere present (in addition to the above, Thanuir from Cogito, ergo ludo and Gastogh from The Small Dragon’s Den made appearances). The program schedule was a bit turbopacked and I’m unclear on whether there was any time explicitly reserved for the audience leaving, the next one showing up and for any pre-lecture prep by the speakers, since everything was scheduled to begin and end on the hour. In practice, especially in some of the lecture halls, this didn’t work out too well, which is one of the issues that plagued our panel.

Well, Finncon in two weeks, Ropecon a week after that. Busy times!

Our Round-Robin Eberron Summer Campaign

We’ve been combating the gaming drought of the summer by playing a bit of Eberron.

I’m spending my time in Espoo, my old hometown, over the summer. This means that I’m not in Tampere, where my regular gaming group is based (we’re now halfway through Paizo’s Rise of the Runelords adventure path, for those keeping count), and anyway, even if I were, most of them have flown to the four winds. This means that the campaign is on a summer break until mid-August when we shall all congregate once more to Tampere, ostensibly to study.

This also means that we had to come up with something else to keep us in the game. Summer is a busy time, though, and  scheduling  games for a regular group isn’t always the easiest thing – so another method was devised.

Anyone can run a game, anyone can play. Any GM desiring a game on a particular day need only announce the game on the campaign website and the group IRC channel and people can then sign up, schedules permitting. There’s not much of an overarching plotline, at least not yet, but some common themes will form. The campaign has only had three sessions thus far, each with a different GM. The pace is strangely slow.

It’s the spiritual successor to Tales from Darkmoon Vale that ran last year over the winter. It was mostly run by Navdi of Blowing Smoke, though, who is absent from this campaign.

The campaign is running on Pathfinder RPG, and is set in the Principalities of Lhazaar. The 3.5 Eberron campaign accessories are quite compatible with PFRPG and when they aren’t, conversion isn’t hard. We’re not entirely sure what to think of the artificer, though.

We’re using an experience point system adapted in part from the Pathfinder Society campaign, in that you get a single point of XP when you show up for a session. The amount of XP needed to climb to next level is the number of your current level. We started at third. Running a session also nets you a point of XP. We realize that as the campaign drags on, this will eventually lead to level differences between the characters of more and less active players, but we figure we can adapt another XP mechanic from another organised play campaign – namely, the level kick used in the old D&D Campaigns of RPGA, like Legacy of the Green Regent and Secrets of Xen’drik. We’re not going the full Communism route that RPGA did, but we should keep the party members within, say, three levels of one another.

There’s also a reason we’re not using Pathfinder Society, which could work rather admirably in the same fashion, which is mostly that now we have more control over the campaign rules and the content and presentation of the adventures, and because back when we originally started to run PFS in Finland, we kept running out of modules and some of them were pretty hideous. I notice with some gratification, though, that they’ve recently been retiring some Year Zero scenarios and their choices are such that they might just as well have been using our reviews as a checklist. Another thing is that we won’t need to keep track of who’s played what, since every session is a different adventure. I haven’t entirely given up on reviving Pathfinder Society in Finland, though.

The campaign started out slow, but seems to be gathering some momentum now. I ran my first session a week ago or so, a take on Heart of Darkness with Colonel Kurtz replaced by warforged who’d been forgotten on an island for twenty years. There’s another session this Sunday, though I will be in Tampere, speaking at Tracon (a post or two on that coming up next week) and cannot attend. Then, I don’t need to.

It’s a theory of mine, by the way, that every GM who games for long enough will eventually run a Heart of Darkness game. I think Alien or Aliens might be another (which I have recollections of doing around 1996-1997).

Another advantage of this system is that we get to try out even oddball character concepts without too much worry of compromising the tone of the campaign, since the tone changes with the GM. My own character is Arimo d’Kundarak, a dwarven summoner (playtest class from the upcoming Advanced Player’s Guide), whose eidolon (think an extraplanar animal companion that you build yourself) is roughly humanoid and, to avoid frightening people, disguised as an armoured dwarf. Arimo introduces the eidolon as Grimmsson, his bodyguard. Grimmsson, due to certain build options and a hat of disguise, has Disguise +24. In Eagle’s Ravine, the party’s base of operations, it’s +28 if the GM is using some optional rules I found in Paizo’s GameMastery Handbook (a brilliant, brilliant book – I’m not promising a review since it’s a 320-page monster, but it’s made of win and awesome and the PDF costs only $9,99 so you can check it out yourself).

This kind of campaign does, though, require that you have a bunch of people with time and the willingness to run games. Out of the ten players who have created characters, half are experienced game masters – from the days of Living Greyhawk, no less, so there are also hoards of unplayed adventure modules that can be adapted. Personally, I used elements of the old Splintered Suns metaregional ESA6-03 River to a Sea of Choices and one of Paizo’s GameMastery modules, W2 River into Darkness for inspiration and various bits that I shamelessly nicked, such as the boat map from the latter.