Ropecon 2012 – Back in the Saddle Again

Well, Ropecon is coming again. The chief organizers – Heikki Ahonen, Jussi Leinonen, Eino Partanen and Jukka Seppänen – were announced last month. The dates have been declared as 27th to 29th of July, 2012. We have even confirmed our first guest of honour, Peter Adkison, formerly of Wizards of the Coast, nowadays of Gen Con.

And yeah, I say we. The composition of the organizing committee has just been announced, and I’ll be reprising my role from 2009-2011 as the Master of Game Masters. I’m looking to introduce a few final improvements to the GM system at Ropecon and training my henchmen to the best of my ability. This is the last time I’ll be handling this particular job at Ropecon, at least for the time being.

I’m also looking for a subordinate to handle the scenario writing contest, since I’m starting to have credibility problems even in my own eyes.

I’m looking forward to working on Ropecon again. While I doubt anything can top this year’s con, we will do our very best. We’ve got an excellent team (as far as I know – some new faces in the ranks). We even have all three intelligent bears on the committee. We shall rock mightily.

Ropecon 2011: Sunday & Monday – How Grown Men Cried

Sunday was pretty busy for me. In quick succession, I had to administrate the Game Master loot session, moderate the panel on scenario writing, and then speed away to the closing ceremonies to hand over the prizes.

The GM loot I’ve explained in previous years, but basically, it’s a session on Sunday where all the  Game Masters  who returned their feedback forms get to come and pick gaming items out of a big pile we bought from a local game store, in an order decided by reading the entrails of a munchkin.

Then there was the scenario contest panel.

The Scenario Writing Contest

The scenario contest entered its third year with a format change. I figured that since we’ve got Frank Mentzer and Erik Mona showing up and locally, James Edward Raggi IV, we’ll probably never have as much oomph when it comes to writing modules in the same room at the same time.

So, I decreed that the modules be written in English, using a system under the OGL. I expected the participation to rise by a few modules, up to ten.

We got fifteen.

Also, we put them up for download immediately. That page is yet to be updated with the winners and the names of the anonymous writers, but I can tell that Sampo Haarlaa won first place with Hallowed Be Her Name, the second went to Niilo Paasivirta with Trouble at Troublewater, the third to Tuukka Tenhunen with City of Scorpions and the Player’s Choice Award was taken home by Satu Nikander’s Together We Shall Triumph.

The Player’s Choice thing is a change from past years, when the players decided all the winners. This year, the judges did that and the Player’s Choice was there to motivate people to run the modules. It did not entirely work and there were too few contest modules run for my tastes, but if the writers themselves can’t be arsed to run their own games, they mustn’t want to win all that much.

So, on Sunday I did a panel about module writing with the aforementioned judges. It went reasonably well, though I made the decision that the panel be more generally about scenario writing than about the specific scenarios. There were too many of them, I didn’t want to offend people whose modules weren’t quite as good as the others, and I didn’t really want to spoil the winners. I am not entirely sure if this was the right call, but we did get interesting conversation and comments out of it, so it could not have been entirely wrong, either. Specific criticism from the judges will be forwarded to the authors privately.

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From left to right, that’s  me, Erik Mona, James Edward Raggi IV and Frank Mentzer.

However, I won’t be doing this next year. While I do seek to continue in the position of the Master of Game Masters for one more year, I’ll be farming  the task of running the scenario competition to someone else, if for no other reason then because I know all the winners from this year personally, some of them I count good friends indeed, and I think there are about four people in the contest who I didn’t know at all previously. Even I can’t take myself as credible contest-runner at this point, even though I have the judges’ own lists to verify that indeed, I did not play favourites.

The Crowning Moment of Awesome

Then it was time to speed to the closing ceremony, where I gave out the scenario contest awards, other people gave other awards, and so on.

Then the Guests of Honour Frank Mentzer and Erik Mona took the stage, and gave their thanks.

Frank also gave us something else. He pulled out this folder he had, and produced a number of small, light brown booklets. Every gamer in the audience held their breath.

Then, Frank explained that he was giving them to Ropecon, since we did not, amazingly, have copies of our own.

The booklets were the Chainmail rulebook, the original D&D rules booklets, and Supplement I: Greyhawk, by the hand of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, from the mid-1970s. The applause was thunderous, and grown men wept, I included. I was rushed, on the spur of the moment, up to the stage to accept the relics. My knees were shaky, my mouth was dry and I think I was hyperventilating. When I got down, I had to hand the books over to the chief organizers and sit down, lest I fall.

People I had never met came to me afterwards to tell me how touched they’d been by Frank’s generosity.

There was something magical about that moment.

They’re not shrink-wrapped first printings and they’re far from mint condition, but they’re how all this began. Three little brownish booklets in a Lake Geneva basement over a decade before I was even born. Without them, there would be no Ropecon, no Worlds in a Handful of Dice, no RPG.net, no EN World, no Forge. This would be a poorer world.

We have a safe ready for the books, and a display cabinet for future conventions. They will be placed on display to remind everyone of how this started, of the origin point of this amazing variety and richness of different roleplaying games so different from one another that the term itself defies a single definition, and of Frank Mentzer’s generosity.

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Monday, and the Second Shock

On Monday, after the con, Frank ran interested organizers a game. It was genuine, 1974-style dungeon crawl, where we made it out of the town and into the first room of the dungeon before we managed to botch everything and rouse an ogre that ended up smashing our other fighting man’s face in.

That fighting man, our security chief’s character Dinker, was the last of Frank’s fatalities during the convention. I am told that his final tally ran up to well over 40 during the revolving-door dungeon crawl he ran on Saturday.

Then, after the game, once we’ve cleared the table, Frank bid me sit back down. Then he opened the copy of D&D Rules Cyclopedia that he’d had lying on the table, and asked what I want him to write in my book.

I am still a bit stunned.

In Summary

Personally, this has been the best Ropecon yet. While I will always strive for it, I’m not confident it can be topped. Things may be organized better, the Cone Hall is a noisy place to play and the database has its hiccups, but in the end, it’s the people that make the con. The players, the Game Masters, the organizers, the guests of honour, the attendees, everyone.

It’s hard returning to normal life after such an event. The atmosphere of a good convention is intoxicating. These are my people. “My tribe”, to use the words of Randy Waterhouse, brought together by a shared interest in games, stories, funny  dice and latex elf ears. At Ropecon, I can walk into the bar at any time and find a table of friends to sit down with and talk about games over a pint. This year, we had people from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Poland, New Zealand, Latvia, Netherlands and Spain just showing up on their own dime to run games, play games, and talk about games. Even though online, on forums or the blogosphere, we may have our differences and disagreements, at ground zero Ropecon, the sense of community is palpable.

And the guests! The gaming scene is blessed in that though its celebrities are often busy people, they are also accessible, approachable and friendly (as long as you don’t wax too poetic about your character), and gracious even when things do not go quite as planned. They speak the same language and don’t send weird rider documents. This is different from the guests of honour in many other conventions, and I don’t think we’ve acknowledged sufficiently how lucky we are in this. Though Frank Mentzer amazed and moved us like never before, I would extend my gratitude to all of our guests of honour, past and future, for their part in the awesomeness that is Ropecon.

Thank you, everyone. See you next year.

Ropecon 2011: Friday & Saturday – How I Got My Ass Kicked by a Sandwich

I think I have now recovered both physically and emotionally from Ropecon 2011 and can write about it.

The con was held this last weekend, and was the product of some nine months of work. It was all sorts of draining. As it happens, it also became the best convention ever, at least for me personally. There was a lot going on, so I will split this report into two parts.

I once again stepped into the boots of the Master of Game Masters, responsible for scheduling the tabletop offerings of the convention and assigning them tables. This year, 80 Game Masters from four different nations stepped up to offer some 165 sessions of roleplaying games in three different languages. That’s a good deal more than previous years. While there were the  usual cancellations and not every game found sufficient players, I think there were still over 150 sessions that went off. The number of GMs includes our esteemed guests of honour, Frank Mentzer and Erik Mona.

Among  the more curious sessions were the scenarios from the collection Unelma Keltaisesta kuninkaasta ja muita tanskalaisia roolipelejä (Dream of the King in Yellow and Other Danish Roleplaying Games). It’s a big, fat bastard of a book from the Society for Nordic Roleplaying. I participated in the making of the book as a translator for one of the introductory essays. As it says on the tin, it’s a compilation of 12 Danish RPGs meant to be played in a single evening – about two to six hours, depending on the scenario. I’ll be writing about it in more depth sometime in the distant future when I’ve read it and perhaps played a few of the scenarios.

The most interesting scenario by far in the book is “Slaaraphenland”, a fantasy scenario inspired by Warhammer Fantasy. It’s got a cake mechanic. Other than that, it’s freeform. There’s one cake for each player, sliced into six parts, and every time a character gives in to temptation, the player must eat a piece of cake. It was run three times during the convention, and each time to a full table.

I sorta hoped I’d have time to play it, but for naught. Though I had a solid complement of henchmen to work the desk in my absence, all the sessions were either at inconvenient times for me, or on Saturday.

Because on Saturday, I got my ass kicked by a sandwich.

The Galactus

There’s this Finnish indie RPG publisher and importer called Arkenstone. This year, they were selling sandwiches in the con area.

One of the sandwiches in their selection was the Galactus. You had to specifically ask for it, for it was not on the menu. It was said to include the kingdoms of plants, animals and minerals alike, and it was too large to fit on the plate. On Friday alone, it claimed four of the brave eaters who tested their mettle against it.

So, obviously, I had to try it for breakfast.

I was not intimidated by its admittedly impressive bulk that concealed within four different kinds of meat – including bacon. Courageously, I put the Conan soundtrack on from my cell phone and began devouring, washing it down with mead in the way of a proper Northman.

I managed two thirds of the monster before I concluded that if any more of it went down, it’d all come up. I performed a tactical retreat, packaged the remains away and rolled off.

Didn’t have to eat anything else all day. Couldn’t have eaten anything else all day. Finished it off in the evening, over 12 hours later. Tasty, but man.

Kings of Absalom

I played two con games, and the first one was on Saturday. It was a Pathfinder RPG session called Kings of Absalom, run by Erik Mona.

It was, I think, the best game I’ve ever been a spectator to. The group’s teamplay left a lot to be desired, and the gnome bard Izahh ran off to do her own thing while the rest of the party – the rangers Sam and Arendius (me), the alchemist Doctor Anthrax and the rogue Blackbird fought fell foes. Izahh’s antics also managed to raise the alarm and brought forth a bunch of hardy foes who managed to take us by surprise.

So, there I was, backing out of a room in a fighting retreat, and immediately get squashed by a guard I didn’t know was there. I later stabilize at -8, while the rest of the party engages in a running battle with a total of eight different enemies. One by one, they go down – first Doctor Anthrax, then Sam, then Blackbird. Sam dies, the others stabilize. Izahh is the only one left – and then, with luck, tactics and a loose grasp of the spell selection rules, manages to escape the foes and throw a bunch of compliant slaves at them while she tries to figure out this spell scroll she found. A scroll of lightning bolt, to be specific.

All through this, the initiative count goes “Blackbird does nothing, Arendius does nothing, Doctor Anthrax does nothing, Izahh!” We all chanted it in a chorus, as the tension ratcheted up and the slaves fell one by one to the guards and Izahh botched a Use Magic Device roll after another. Then, finally, a 16 – on the dot. The lightning bolt killed the last remaining slave and all but one of the enemies. The enemy, with three hit points left, charged the gnome. Izahh, at this point, had four hit points.

What ensued was the most pathetic duel in all history. They whiffed two thirds of the time, and Izahh chipped away her foe’s hit points ever so slowly, one at a time. Finally, at 0 hit points, it attacks one last time before keeling over dead. In accordance with all rules of art, it hits and deals four points of damage.

Izahh, staggered, managed to find a potion of cure light wounds (on my character, incidentally) and soon thereafter lifted all of us to our feet. And that’s when we ran out of time.

All in all, I spent about half the game out of the action, which I wasn’t entirely happy about, but it was a fun game, which is a testament to Erik’s ability as a game master. He managed to keep the game fun even for those of us who were out of the action for hours real time. Erik was also generally a great guy to be around, and I found myself agreeing with him in pretty much everything. We even share the same affinity for urban areas.

Also, I now have a signed Pathfinder Core Rulebook with the dedication “Arendius does nothing…”

Swag

They released a crapload of new Finnish games at the con. There’s the rules-light Pyöreän pöydän ritarit (Knights of the Round Table); the Somalia sourcebook Punaiset hiekat (Red Sands); Unelma Keltaisesta kuninkaasta ja muita tanskalaisia roolipelejä; the fantasy games Noitahovi (Witch Court), Generian legendat (The Legends of Generia) and Bliaron; the fly RPG Kärpänen (The Fly); and Yhteys (The Connection), a prelude to Vihan lapset (Children of Wrath), which is coming out later this year.

I bought all of these except Bliaron, and will be discussing them on the blog once I’ve read through them. Punaiset hiekat seems especially promising.

Unfortunately, the one thing that did not get released was Stalker RPG in English. Finishing it for printing  has taken longer than anticipated, but it will come out, eventually, and when it does, it will be good.

Also, I received, as a gift, Ravenloft 3E.

The entire Ravenloft 3E. All of it, as far as I can tell (with the exception of the core book and Masque of the Red Death, but I had those already). I may be reading and discussing them as well (If I ever get around to finishing that Planescape readthrough… I’ve got a post in the works, honest!). I have awesome friends. All in all, I carried about 25 different books away from the con.

There’s also one other thing I received, but that one I didn’t get until after the con, and will be discussed in tomorrow’s post, because it is that awesome.

News, Updates, Self-Aggrandizement

There are many things afoot right now in the local gaming scene.

For one thing, Ropecon is approaching, and the Game Master signup is open.

New Releases

Also, there are intriguing new game releases on the way. The Society for Nordic Roleplaying finally announced that book of theirs, Unelma Keltaisesta kuninkaasta ja muita tanskalaisia roolipelejä (“Dream of the King in Yellow and Other Danish Roleplaying Games”). The link is in Finnish, but even if you don’t understand the lingo, the cover image is worth the click. It’s a collection of 12 one-shot roleplaying games from the Danish convention of Fastaval, translated into Finnish. There’s high fantasy, there’s drama, there’s Lovecraftian horror, a few things that are apparently inspired by Warhammer, and two of those weird games with a designed goal of making everyone involved feel terrible, The Journey and Fat Man Down.

I proofread The Journey’s translation. Even that was an experience I could’ve done without. I discussed the game and its ilk back when the first issue of Playground came out, and, well, damn.

But it’s far too easy to focus on the negative or the weird. Most of the modules in the book are (probably) excellent and suitable even for people whose tastes run to the more traditional. There’s Guernica, a romantic action game about the Spanish Civil War. There’s The Ark, an epic fantasy scenario, and there’s a Warhammer murder mystery set in a community of halflings.

Okay, there’s also a Warhammer thing called Slaaraphenland, where there’s apparently some sort of cake-eating mechanic to simulate the corruption of Chaos. As in, the players eat cake. I have not read the scenario myself, but I am very curious about this one.

While we’re on the subject of weird things, Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing Grindhouse Edition came out. I have not yet studied it in depth, but the art… man, the art! It is a beautiful game in its own quirky, off-putting, face-eating way. I understand the production values are also higher than last year’s Deluxe Edition, but I cannot comment yet as I only have the PDF. There’s also a minor contribution from me in this work, a short essay on H.P. Lovecraft and his works in the Tutorial booklet.

Also, according to Burger Games, the English version of Stalker is on the way. Has been on the way for a while now. Might even be out at Ropecon. Who knows? Some other Finnish games that may or may not come out during 2011 are the fantasy RPG Bliaron – Kalthanien perintö (“Bliaron – The Legacy of the Kalthans”), a sci-fi horror game from Myrrysmiehet called Vihan lapset (“Children of Hate”), something really strange-sounding from The Society of Nordic Roleplaying named Tsernobyl, rakastettuni (“Chernobyl, My Beloved”), another fantasy game called Noitahovi (“The Witch Court”), a third fantasy game called Generian legendat (“The Legends of Generia”) from Ironspine, and finally, Punaiset hiekat (“Red Sands”), a sourcebook for gaming in Somalia. There’s also a rumour from last year that an English-language version of the Finnish penguin roleplaying game Ikuisuuden laakso (“Vale of Eternity”) is in the works somewhere. I reviewed it for Roolipelaaja back when it came out in Finnish and quite liked the game. Four stars out of five, that one. If they ever get it out in English, I’ll translate the review and post it here.

Of course, this is the RPG industry and a handful of the above have already missed one release date. I’ll believe it when I own it. As a consolation to any dejected game designer, if you publish a Finnish RPG, the only ways I won’t buy it is if I get a complimentary copy or they sell out before I can get my hands on it. And I’ve got one of the 18 extant copies of L.G.D.S. I’m good at getting my hands on games.

Me Looking Foolish on Camera

The worst has happened. Turns out that Tracon last year filmed their presentations and panels, including that one about horror in RPGs that I was involved in and posted about. The videos are now in YouTube. There also appears to be another presentation about interactive programs at conventions from Concon a couple of weeks ago that I am also involved with. It is a small blessing that they are in Finnish and none outside our borders may comprehend my shame. However, there’s also good stuff for those who grok the lingo – a presentation on managing con workers, another on managing con security and a one from Tracon about politics in RPGs. The practice of recording convention program is a good one, I think, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen any English-language con programs on YouTube. Does anyone know better?

Planescape

Also, it was my birthday recently. I got Planescape. I mean all of it. There’s a largish cardboard box in my game room at the moment, which contains six different boxed sets and roughly 30 sourcebooks and adventures (everything released under the setting’s label plus a few extra, like Warriors of Heaven and Die, Vecna, Die!). Mint condition. some of the modules are still shrinkwrapped. Only things missing are the Blood War trilogy of novels and Pages of Pain, which I figure I can survive without. There’s also a first-release copy of Planescape: Torment, which makes it my third or fourth copy of that game.

I’m mostly telling this to brag, but will likely discuss some of the material in the coming months. It remains one of my favourite settings, even if my feelings towards the system of AD&D 2E itself are rather cool.

Announcing the Ropecon 2011 Scenario Contest

Well, I can finally talk about this one.

Like the two previous years, we’re having a scenario writing competition for Ropecon 2011. While the con’s theme this year is Finland, I noticed a golden opportunity the likes of which you stumble across once in a lifetime and decided to take the contest in a more international direction.

The contest, this year, is in English. My faith in the Finnish roleplayer’s ability to produce good text in English is strong, and I’ll be doing a minor editing pass on the scenarios before putting them onwards to the judges. I doubt it’ll be even necessary, but nobody need be afraid of an imperfect command of the language ruining their chances. As for the doubts expressed in a few places that the modules being in English would deter game masters from running them, I need only take a look at the Fantasiapelit list of the best-selling RPG items from the last month to figure that reading English is going to be even less of an issue than writing it. This hobby is fluently bilingual, over here.

And why is it in English? Well, our judges are all Americans, and they don’t read Finnish all that well.

And why are all the judges American?

Well, they’re our Guests of Honour Frank Mentzer and Erik Mona, plus the Helsinki-based James Edward Raggi IV, three men who’ve probably forgotten more about adventure writing than I’ll ever know.

I’m terribly excited about being able to make this happen, and already the interest in the competition has been higher than the previous years. It’s a bold move and I’m taking a conscious risk here, but if it pays off, I will have pushed into being something glorious and magnificent.

The announcement can be found at the Ropecon blog.

Of course, the competition is only open to people who will be coming to Ropecon, but then, why would you not be coming to the most awesome gaming convention in the world?

There’s also a Facebook event, and a Finnish-language discussion at the Pelilauta forum.

Exciting!

Ropecon’s Guests of Honour – Frank Mentzer and Erik Mona!

Ropecon has announced its guests of honour for the year 2011, and they are mighty indeed.

First up, we have Frank Mentzer, who’s known for the famous D&D red box – the original, not the WotC knockoff – that was translated into eleven languages and is easily one of the most, if not the most sold roleplaying game product of all time. Half the Finnish gaming scene started the hobby with it, and the Finnish translation is the stuff of legends (not entirely positive ones, but it is a funny read and translating lists of made-up fantasy creatures is a tough job, and it’s still a damn fine game). He also collaborated with Gary Gygax to create the classic dungeon crawl, Temple of Elemental Evil. He has spent a long time away from the industry, but he’s making a comeback.

Second, we have Erik Mona. Erik Mona is Paizo’s publisher, and one of the masterminds behind Pathfinder RPG. And the Planet Stories line. And back in the days of RPGA (which was founded by Mentzer, incidentally), of Living Greyhawk. For the past six and a half years, he’s been indirectly responsible for most of my gaming, really, between the hundreds of Living Greyhawk sessions, two (and soon to be three) Pathfinder adventure paths and couple of dozen Pathfinder Society games. While it’s not all I’ve played, these form the vast majority.

I don’t think I’ve been this excited about the con’s guests of honour, well, ever. And I’ve been pretty damn excited about quite a few of them.

Ropecon, Finland, July 29th-31st

Ropecon released the themes of this year’s convention yesterday: heroes and Finland. I figure this is as good a time as any to remind the readership of the convention’s existence.

Ropecon is the biggest annual gaming convention in Finland, with about 3,500 individual visitors over three days (if converted to how visitor numbers are usually calculated, this will translate to about 10,000). Also, it is organized from start to finish by volunteers, making it one of the largest, if not the largest, non-profit gaming convention in the world. At least, I am not aware of a larger convention of this kind.

As in the previous two years, I’m sitting in the organizing committee, with the tabletop roleplaying games as my specific area of responsibility. There will be some 120-150 sessions of roleplaying games during the weekend, I would guess. In addition, there will be card games, miniatures wargames, board games and larps, plus workshops, presentations and panels on diverse topics. Something for everybody!

We will eventually also have guests of honour. More information on that once there is information. In the past years, we’ve seen Suzi Yee and Joseph Browning of Expeditious Retreat Press, Keith Baker, Greg Stolze, Chris Pramas, Greg Stafford, Robin D. Laws, Kenneth Hite and other gaming luminaries.

The convention itself is still in its planning stages, apart from the stuff that stays same from year to year. In a couple of weeks, the committee, 31 strong, will hide for a weekend into a cabin in the snow-choked, dark forests of Espoo to plot. I find it is a very efficient way to work, since it gives you total focus and creates a strong group sense right out of the gate (unless, of course, there are people who just can’t get along, in which case something horrible may happen, but I’ve yet to see this occur).

Once our guests of honour have been confirmed, expect a post about the awesomeness.

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.

Review: The Pearls of Pohjola from Expeditious Retreat Press

So, turns out I’m an intelligent bear.

Also, let it be known that Expeditious Retreat Press is made of awesome.

The Pearls of Pohjola is the thirteenth adventure module in Expeditious Retreat Press’ series of one-on-one adventures. They’re modules meant to be played by the Dungeon Master and a single player. They used to come out under the D20 System Licence, and as of the twelfth module, using the Pathfinder rules. There’s also a nifty compendium of the first ten adventures converted to Pathfinder, including the infamous #6.66, The Pleasure Prison of the B’thuvian Demon Whore.

The module is written by Suzi Yee, who was the Guest of Honour at Ropecon 2009, and, indeed, the module begins with a note that it is in part a thanks to us, the organizers.

There are also a lot of less explicit references to the convention. While this is nominally a review, I cannot quite maintain objectivity, since I’m in a position to spot most of the inside jokes and references that the module is quite liberally sprinkled with. I’m pretty sure I’m one of them. Apart from the rampant inside humour which about twenty people in the world are privy to, the module has a loose Kalevala fantasy theme. So as not to bog down the body of the review, I’m covering the in-jokes and references at the end. This, by the way, is totally awesome.

Here there also be SPOILERS. If you intend to play this module in the future, stop reading now.

The Adventure

The adventure itself is pretty straightforward and even railroaded at certain points. Actually, the level of railroading occasionally reaches completely absurd levels, but the module does make an attempt at justifying this. I am not entirely certain it works, but it is an interesting idea.

There are many areas that could have been fleshed out in more depth, but I’m giving them a pass on this one as well, since there isn’t all that much room to work with. As I mentioned, the whole booklet is  just 20 pages, which actually strikes me as a bit odd page count, since they tend to come in multiples of eight – 16, 32, 64, 96 and 128 are normal page counts. Something to do with printers, as I understand. I gather this is also the reason that paperback novels sometimes have empty pages in the back. But I digress.

The Pearls of Pohjola is written for a single character, a sorcerer of levels 10-12. There is a pregenerated 11th-level elf sorcerer (fey bloodline) provided, named Ressona. There’s a short bit of advice for running it for a group of four characters of levels 6-7, mostly to do with adjusting encounter numbers. Mostly it’s about adjusting the number of enemies and in one case, replacing one with a tougher foe. It looks solid, though the module still has a plot aspect that requires a sorcerer in order to access the last third of the adventure. Depending on party composition, I would relax the requirement to needing just an arcane spellcaster or any spellcaster. Not a big deal, just something I noted.

The adventure can be divided roughly into three parts. The first part begins with the PC on the way across the icy Northland to a distant inn called the Tallinn Tavern. The module pretty much assumes that the PC has some knowledge of the pearls of Pohjola and is seeking them out.

At the tavern, they meet the couple owning the tavern and some travellers, including the bard Sysikuu, who will sing them a song about the adventure background, while playing his dulcimer (which I would change into a kantele, in keeping with the pseudo-Kalevala setting). The backstory is a suitably mythical tale about the ancient king of the northern lands, Pohjola, and his three daughters, who ended up trapped inside the pearls of Pohjola, a pearl necklace, because of the villainy of a hag follower of Louhi.

The poem is provided, and is a passable piece of work, though were I to run this, I’d of course translate it into Finnish, in trochaic tetrameter. I’m not entirely sure the metric scheme works here.

Anyway, in the night, there’s a werewolf attack, led by a werewolf chieftain who wants to pillage the inn’s booze cellar. The next day, the travellers from the Tavern and the PC go to meet a tribe of intelligent bears called the Jukkas. They’re all called Jukka. The PC petitions the Jukkas to guide him to a spellgate that would take her to the pearls of Pohjola. This is a nifty social scene that has a number of trials and ways to stack bonuses on a Diplomacy check. There is a way to proceed even if the check is botched, and interestingly, it’s possible to stack enough circumstantial bonuses to exceed the actual DC of the check and make rolling unnecessary. This is not easy, though. This scene is very well put together.

The gate takes the PC to a tropical island far from the snowy Northlands, where she has to find the pearls of Pohjola, which is inside a giant clam in the surrounding coral reef. There are also hostile iridescent corals in the reef, which will give chase. I found this a bit strange, especially since they are presented without any comment.

Once the PC has found the pearls, she has to interpret a clue from the poem and enter them. The final section of the adventure takes place inside the pearls of Pohjola, and consists of a hilariously railroaded series of tasks that the PC must accomplish before facing the BBEG. It’s like an old Sierra adventure game. There’s a specific task you must do, and before you accomplish it, there are actual invisible walls preventing you from proceeding to the next pearl. The railroading is justified and explained by the fact that this is a magical prison meant to test the mettle of the hero who would free the daughters. As I said above, I am not entirely convinced that it works, but it’s an interesting experiment.

The end fight is straightforward, though the PC gets two NPC warriors to aid her.

Overall, though it’s not perfect and I have a few minor problems with the way things are presented, I like this module and may eventually run it, if opportunity presents itself.

Inside Humour

Now, the fun part – scratch that, the awesome part – at least for the Ropecon team… I probably didn’t get every in-joke and reference, but I think I got most of them. On my first reading of the module, I was giggling maniacally.

Let’s start with the name of the module, The Pearls of Pohjola. ‘Pohjola’ is a nation in the Finnish national epoch Kalevala, but it is also the name of the Finnish RPG designer Mike Pohjola.

The first part of the module takes part in the Tallinn Tavern. Tallinn, of course, is the capital city of Estonia. However, as we remember from my convention report last year, we also took our guests of honour there. The menu of the tavern supper is pretty much exactly what we ate at Olde Hansa. I can’t place all the NPCs here, such as the innkeeper Otto, his wife Olli (also a male name, incidentally), or the eastern traveller Stefan, but the bard Sysikuu (meaning Dark Moon) is a reference to the troll rock band from the Neonhämärä (Neon Twilight) LARP campaign.

The werewolf attack is led by the werewolf Timo, which would be Timo Multamäki, LARP organiser, game designer and a member of the GoH team. His motivation to pillage the booze cellar, and a magic item he carries, Skoda’s liquor cabinet, refer to our trip to the liquor warehouse. I do not recall if either of our cars for the trip were Skodas.

The daughters of Pohjola are named as Marjatta, Katri and Outi. Marjatta is a character from Kalevala. Katri and Outi are members of the GoH team.

Then there are the Jukkas, the clan of intelligent bears. This is in reference to the fact that there were two guys named Jukka in the main organizing committee of Ropecon and a third one in the GoH team. The other two Jukkas are now chief organizers, I’m still the RPG admin. I joked that there are so many Jukkas that I had to relinquish my name and go by an online nickname because the others had seniority.

The trials of the Jukkas include the Trial of Strength, which is a wrestling match. The specific description matches what previous GoHs, Jonathan Tweet, Kenneth Hite and John Kovalic, have described as “Naked Indian Wrestling”.

One of the NPCs inside the pearls is a cheesemaker named Wizzu. Wizzu is the nickname of one of the chief organisers from last year. He’s now our technology admin.

Finally, the two warriors who accompany the PC to the end fight are Antti and Petri. Petri was a member of the GoH team and is leading it this year, while Antti is probably a reference to Antti Malin, another guest of honour from last year – the 2008 Magic: the Gathering World Champion.

In the interests of full disclosure, I paid full cover price for this module. Twice, actually, since I first bought a hardcopy from Fantasiapelit, gifted it to a member of the GM team, and then purchased the PDF. I’ve actually ordered a new hardcopy for myself.

Still Alive, Just Working on Ropecon

It’s been a while. I haven’t updated for way too long, and I’m sorry for that. There’s just been very little to update about, and I’ve been wrestling essays, a particularly nasty strain of seasonal flu, and a series of exams, often at the same time. Also, girlfriend and Mass Effect 2 – more positive things, but still time sinks.

My Rise of the Runelords Pathfinder campaign went on a summer break after we completed The Hook Mountain Massacre. Come autumn, when school starts up again we’ll continue with The Fortress of the Stone Giants. I’m aiming to bring back Legacy of Fire for the summer, left off in the beginning stages of The Jackal’s Price last year.

The Eclipse Phase game came to naught, presumably because of the proximity of May Day, which is a big celebration over here, especially among the students that form the core of my player base over here. Well, c’est la vie. I’ll try again later. I’ve promised this month’s game to be Decipher’s Star Trek, though. I’ve got very little free time, though, so this may also yet change.

However, there’s still some gaming stuff going on. Even if the dice themselves aren’t getting the workout they’d need, I’m always doing or reading something. Like Ropecon. For one thing, our GM sign-up opened last week. A couple of days ago, we announced our adventure module contest, with the theme of “vampire as the enemy”. Also, our guests of honour have been announced. The more recent GoH announcement was about the board game designer Friedemann Friese, probably best known for Power Grid, but the one I’m assuming is of far greater interest to the readers of this blog is Keith Baker, the creator of Eberron and the designer of Gloom, and an all-around great guy based on my interactions with him. As is known, I invited him over last year when he was doing his Have Dice, Will Travel thing. Alas, the plans fell through, and this year we figured we’d do it right and invite him properly and officially as a Guest of Honour, with all the perks that entails. I look forward to meeting him.

Also, Evil Hat Productions finally released their Dresden Files RPG in PDF. It comes in two books, available as a nice little bundle of a bit under 700 pages for €30. I’ve been flipping through the files for the past two days and I like what I see. I got mine off DriveThruRPG. I’m not familiar with FATE as a system, but it seems simple enough, and I now have an excuse to get funky new Fudge dice. They’ve also got a freebie preview available, the Baltimore chapter of the rulebook.

Well, that’s it for now. I’m still alive and will try to be better about updating this blog in the near future.

Incidentally, anybody know of any gaming stores in Bratislava? Heading down there next week for a couple of days.