Tracon 2011 and the Blades of Freedom

The summer con season is now over. Tracon VI has come and gone, leaving behind a contented gamer with a headache the likes of which gods have never seen.

Tracon is the roleplaying game and anime convention in Tampere, where I study. It moved last year from its former digs at the University of Technology down south to the conference centre Tampere-talo, right next door to where I live. For this reason, it is widely considered absurd that I am not a part of the organizing committee. However, I’m already doing Ropecon and I will organize only one con per year. Otherwise, burnout shall ensue. However, since I’ve also reached the point where I’m incapable of going to a convention without some work to do and refuse to pay for entry, I worked as a consultant for the RPG admin and helped out with Game Master recruitment. Additionally, I was there running demos of a new game I’ve worked on.

Lifting up the profile of the RPG side was on the agenda for this year, and to a certain extent, they succeeded. Pretty much every active game publisher in the country was there, with the exception of Tuomas Kortelainen (Noitahovi). Game demos were run, RPGs bought and sold and gifted, and lively discussions were had. Like Burger commented on his own blog, there was a strong sense of community and great fun was had. Also, though I think perhaps half to one third of the scheduled game sessions failed to run due to lack of players, the difference was made up in game demos. The Ironspine guys ran Generian legendat and E.N.O.C. and Sotakarjut, Sami Koponen ran Pyöreän pöydän ritarit, James Edward Raggi IV ran The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time, the Northern Realms guys ran Bliaron… and I, along with Ville Takanen, ran Vapauden miekat. That translates as “The Blades of Freedom”, for those of you not conversant in Finnish.

The Blades of Freedom

Vapauden miekat is a roleplaying project that I’m working on with Myrrysmiehet, an RPG publisher. The goal is to design a simple, approachable action game. It is inspired by Hayao Miyazaki (especially Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind), the Final Fantasy games, Star Wars and everything else that we find cool. The genre is postapocalyptic science fantasy and the style is anime realism, which means that gravity is not a law, more like a suggestion, and matter is inherently unstable and prone to explode if it serves to make a situation more awesome.

We’re trying to have sensibly dressed people in the art, though. The thing about the apocalypse is that afterwards, there’s no public school system to force girls into those uniforms.

What we had at Tracon was an early playtest version, with a print run of eleven copies. We sold it for a nominal price of €5 to interested parties, and ran demos. It was designed for a convention environment, one-hour long, easily explained and self-contained. We have high hopes for it, and the reception was positive. The scenario told the story of Sakura, a gunblade-wielding former officer of the Last Empire; Remington, a village blacksmith who fused his flesh with the steel of the Ancients; and Kiro, a sage and sorcerer from the faraway mountains who commands the storms like a faithful pet. Together, they had to stop the airship Liturgy of Hatred from demolishing the Shrine of Blossoming Hope.

I did manage to run one TPK session, though. The Northern Realms guys bit the dust.

The final game will be out when it’s ready, which may be sometime next year, perhaps. I am hesitant to give any solid timeframes because I said that the English translation of Stalker would be out for Ropecon and we’re still waiting for it. Apparently the proofreading and layout have stalled for unrelated reasons. Such are the trials and tribulations of small-press publishing, and one must learn to accept them.

Anyway, Jukka Sorsa and Ville, the other two designers, are now wrapping up Vihan lapset, another project of theirs, and once that’s over and done with, development will be really firing up on this one. I am excited!

The Gaming

In addition to running a couple of demos of Vapauden miekat, I played Sami’s Pöyreän pöydän ritarit, which I recently reviewed. I stand by my verdict on it as a product, though I forgot to note in the review that since it is such a rules-light game, you can’t read straight from the rulebook what sort of game it will generate. From a D&D rulebook, or Dark Heresy, or Paranoia, or anything traditional, you can get a very firm image of how the game will behave in practice. With Pyöreän pöydän ritarit, it’s pretty much entirely in the hands of the GM and the players, and Sami is a pretty good GM. My knight, Sir Garis, mediated a feud between the King of Cambria and the northern Picts, and later brokered the King’s daughter’s marriage to a local lordling. Also, he beat up some Saxons.

I didn’t have time for any Pathfinder Society, unfortunately, and thus my elven wood elementalist will have to wait for another opportunity to make his debut in the campaign.

However, the Northern Realms guys introduced me to a decidedly non-vegan dice game from Mongolia, where you throw sheep’s ankle bones. They’re an interesting randomizer, though I advised against using them as a primary game aid in a commercial system unless they want to beat Tähti (of the Chinese fortune cookies) for the title of the most aggravatingly hard-to-find game aids.

I picked up Fiasco from the Arkenstone booth, and in exchange for getting to crash on my spare bed, James Edward Raggi IV gave me a copy of Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing Grindhouse Edition.

The Rest of the Con

Most of my time at the con was occupied by the booth and running demos. I had time to see one lecture, Ville Vuorela’s talk on the Institute in Stalker, where I sat down in the front row and promptly fell asleep, which was rather embarrassing.

There were a couple of other interesting program items, but I managed to miss them all for one reason or another. As a general thing, anime conventions are a bit hit and miss for me, since I have no particular interest in cosplay and it’s a rare moment when I’m up to date on what’s popular.

Also, the goddamn Nazi cosplay. The first thing I saw when I entered the con area was a woman in a leather coat with an Iron Cross on a red armband. I’ve run into the phenomenon at other conventions, but I think the convention’s theme of police state and revolution exacerbated it, and there was at least one Hitler Jugend uniform that I spotted and a bunch of different SS troopers. Seriously, this is just distasteful, and I wish it would stop. Fetishizing the Nazis is about as ignorant as it gets, which is precisely what seems to be going on here. I saw this one lecture about Nazis in anime at Desucon, where the lecturer, in his snappy uniform, started by saying he doesn’t wish to politicize the topic (which accomplished precisely that) and then went on to analyze the uniforms on display in Hellsing with a fetishistic relish. And don’t even get me started on Axis Powers Hetalia.

Seriously, now. You can make fun of the Nazis. The Producers and To Be or Not to Be are hilarious. You can portray them as human, as done in the excellent film Downfall. They’re also pretty good villain material, what with being one of the best arguments for the existence of objective evil from the past century. What you don’t get to do is fetishize, trivialize, excuse, or ignore. There are some standards to maintain.

Apart from that slight annoyance, it was a good convention. The roleplaying games still need some work to either bring in sufficient active players to meet the supply of games or develop some way to interest the primary visitor demographic in playing. I’ve long maintained that Tracon is the best potential recruiting ground for the hobby, if we can only figure out an effective way to reach the audience.

Ropecon Reviews – Knights of the Round Table

…or Pyöreän pöydän ritarit, as the Finnish name goes. It’s a 40-page booklet in A5 size, written by Sami Koponen, the writer of the Efemeros, Mythopoeia and Roolipelitiedotus blogs, to be an accessible and easy beginner RPG. I would usually avoid reviewing stuff Sami has written since most online discussions between us tend to end up as trainwrecks in exceptionally short order, for reasons that are very difficult to piece together after the fact. We get along fine in person, but I think that our respective approaches to the hobby are more or less diametrically opposed. This may also be true of our approaches to life. This should all be kept in mind while reading the following. Also bear in mind that he asked me to write this.

So, the game. It’s basically Pendragon meets Dogs in the Vineyard in a rules-lite beginner game. You make up your knights, you go questing around Britain until everything goes pear-shaped and Camelot falls. This is inevitable.

Characters come with two stats, Glory and Might. The first measures the character’s fame and respect, the second his physical ability. The characters’ Glory is determined by their heraldic beast. In the beginning, it’s 1 + every other PC knight’s heraldic beast that their own heraldic beast could eat. Heraldic beasts are chosen, not rolled randomly, and there’s no rule for adjudicating clear ties – such as if two knights have the same heraldic animal, which is also not expressly forbidden. Each character also comes with a Special Feature rolled from a list, though they’re not really expanded upon. They do allow a knight to reroll failed Might dice in a conflict, but any significance beyond that is not expanded upon. A PC’s Might value is 1 at the beginning and may rise after quests.

The quests themselves are intended to present moral quandaries similar to Dogs in the Vineyard. The knights, as representatives of King Arthur himself, have the last word in adjudicating disagreements in the kingdom.

The basic mechanic is pretty simple. You have a conflict. The PC knight rolls their Might’s worth of d6’s and hopes for results 4-6. If the dice pool produces one of these, they succeed. Since a beginning knight’s Might is mighty low, they may opt to take Resource dice to boost their dice pool. The Resources are dice given from Camelot to the knights by the formula [highest Glory value in the party + the number of knights in the party] for each quest. They’re an abstraction of worldly possessions and can be lost or expended in a number of ways, though using Resource dice in a conflict does not automatically burn them. Generally, though, you’d end a quest with fewer resources than you started with, and Camelot has a limited, non-replenishable supply. Once they run out, it’s time to call the hosts to Camlann and perhaps take a large loan of money, ’cause the end is nigh.

After the mechanics we get a couple of pages of campaign rules, a couple of pages on King Arthur’s Britain and the designer’s afterword, where he names a pile of influences. Apparently, the major influences were Dogs in the Vineyard and The Questing Beast, the latter of which I’ve never even heard of.

Now, I have a couple of issues with this game. First of all, it purports to be a game for beginners, an introductory roleplaying game. I think that while the game itself is pretty sound, it fails in this. For a beginner game, especially one aimed at young players as I assume this is (deducing by the cover, but more on that later), it doesn’t spell things out nearly enough. While it’s easy to run for newbie players, I would not give this to a newbie game master and expect anything good to come out of it. There’s too much between the lines, too much built-in assumption. There are many examples for how the rules work in practice, but I feel these should be longer and more numerous.

There’s also one problem with the layout that I consider moderately serious. The explanatory texts for the illustrations are all several lines long, and in the same typeface as the paragraph text, which is slightly confusing.

The illustrations, by the way, are black and white public domain stuff  from photographs to paintings to stained glass, mostly pretty classical stuff. However, the covers are illustrated like a children’s book, which clashes violently in style and tone with the interior art and the text of the game. The back cover map is even worse than the front cover. Also, there’s no name on the cover, which is apparently a Bad Thing, since the brick and mortar game stores won’t touch it.

And then we come to that “diametrically opposed” thing. The game doesn’t come with a character sheet. One is provided on the website, but it’s rather plain. If a character sheet exists, I figure it should be in the book. Last page, ideally, the time-hallowed location of such things. I cannot fathom the design philosophy that has led to this decision.

Overall, I think that we have a pretty decent game somewhere in here, but its presentation fails to inspire me. One aspect of this might be that I already have Pendragon. When you make a game about the Knights of the Round Table, you inevitably invite comparison with Pendragon, even moreso when the game has other similarities (in this case, the winter phase of the campaign rules and the inevitability of Camelot’s fall in the campaign). As a general thing, being compared to Pendragon will make pretty much any game look bad.

In the interests of full disclosure, I paid a discount price for this (an offer extended to all who purchased Sami’s previous works), and the designer himself asked me to write this. Additionally, the two of us have a history of conflict online though we get along quite well in the meatspace, and I’m working on a beginner-friendly game of my own with a couple of gentlemen. Basically, on top of not quite understanding the designer’s approach to gaming, I’m also seven sorts of biased and you can really ignore all of the above.