Positive Surprises from Gencon

What I’ve been doing for the last few weeks has mostly been reading games we got from Gencon to retail here in Finland. We got about six copies of most titles, but there are something like 40 games I’d never looked into in any detail before. So that took me quite a while, reading and digesting the stuff.

Our Finnish retail thing mostly runs on expertise – I know the stuff I sell and can presumably recommend things; each product gets a short review/recommendation essay from me in our webstore, and the mostly unstated understanding there is that while I don’t actually diss the games we sell, I won’t claim one inch of virtue where there isn’t any. Just try to find the best honest facet to everything I’m stupid enough to invest in.

Anyway, having spent some serious time reading and thinking about these new games (and doing a bit of play, too, for some of them), I thought that pointing out some interesting ones might be in order.

Now, I could go about this by making long lists of the best games by value or artistic merits or such, but that’d be too many games simply because there’s so many ways to look at “good”. Rather, I’ll concentrate on discussing games that were a positive surprise for me, personally, when I picked them up.

What this means is that the games I discuss below won’t necessarily be the absolutely most amazing ones, or the ones I’d pick first for play if I had a session scheduled for tonight. I won’t be discussing Vincent Baker’s new stuff, for instance, even if I’m a huge fan. Or Spione, which is finally finished and for sale, but which doesn’t surprise me on the account of me having had it for a couple of years now in my bookshelf.

Likewise I won’t be discussing the merely valid stuff or the games that perform to expectation – Beast Hunters performs just fine within its design spec, for example, and Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries seems like I could play it if a crew was specifically peckish for that sort of thing. But those games trod the baseline I expected when getting them.

Lastly, I won’t be making much mention of the titles that surprised me with disappointment. This will be because they are so few of those to discuss, but the greater reason is that I don’t really think that even those games are that bad. Even if OG is comedic and kinda misses the opportunity for being the deep caveman game I’d like, that’s not the game’s fault.

I hope that list covers enough stuff to explain to all the nice people I met at Gencon why I’m not giving their game a mention. (Yeah, that was a long-ass introduction, but that’s what you get for personally meeting and greeting the folks whose games you discuss.) So, without further elaboration, my picks for games to get positively surprised by:

Dread: the First Book of Pandemonium

Preconception is the phenomenon of presuming without direct evidence, merely based on prior experience. It’s an important guide in trying to navigate the modern information flow; there is simply too much data passing through for me or anybody else to process everything.

What this means in practice is that the games that get my initial attention get it for pretty superficial reasons – I have a long list of turn-ons and turn-offs that are basically just family resemblances of “good games” and “bad games”. If your game is about “killing stuff” and features a skill list, say, my expectations and interest drop like a stone.

What this all has to do with Dread is that I’ve been half-avoiding this game for several years based on superficial signs (the other half is that it went out of print a bit back, and then Rafael Chandler, the designer, made a revised second edition, which took a while). The game is about killing demons and features an ability/skill system, traditional GM and so on and so forth. Nothing written about the game actually grabs me, and just look at that friggin’ cover! (Hint: I’m not attracted by violent cheesecake. So ’90s…)

The bright side

The surprise comes in with the fact that this game is a fucking solid design! It’s very traditional in everything except the consciousness the designer brings with him into the process of playing a game about identifying a demon, finding the demon and shooting the demon full of holes. I usually have a slight aversive reaction to traditional rules-systems simply because they’re too clumsy to operate, but the one in Dread is so shaved and polished that I can keep it all in my head, really. (Except perhaps the combat system; I’m debating cutting all the special cases when I play, but I’ll need to read it a second time at some point to see for certain if that’s warranted.)

Dread shines in that it has a very simple idea, to-the-point GMing instructions and a monster list that supports its goals in a way I’ve never seen before in a monster compendium. The demon list was the part of the book that actually sold it to me when I got to thumb through it: every demon in the game has a behavioral pattern that makes it easy to run and really just a plug-in for the game – starting up a new scenario really doesn’t require much more than just picking a demon and letting it run wild in town, then sending in the player characters. When I saw how the game handles demons I figured that the rest of the book can be an undifferentiated mass of legacy design and the game’ll still be worth its price.

There are many other small details in the book that I could geek over, as well as some very important design principles that are too often misunderstood. (The character generation has some excellent nuances I’ll be happy to explain face-to-face if anybody wants a crash course into structuring character design rules.) I understand that Chandler does video game design as his job, and I can see how Dread reflects that a bit – the Finnish game designer Ville Vuorela calls the quality Dread has “Arcade”, meaning that the game’s optimized with the social footprint of a video game in mind. If this is Arcade design in rpgs, color me impressed.

Conclusion

Although I appreciate the historical role many important design currents have had in roleplaying, I don’t usually get a hankering to play a game loaning most of its stuff from Runequest. Consequently I treasure the exceptions, such as Tunnels & Trolls (still current for me), Runeslayers and Praedor (a Finnish game) quite a bit. It’s always a big, fat positive surprise to meet another traditional game that plays to my standards.

A Flower for Mara

Investigating A Flower for Mara was obvious to me, as Seth Ben-Ezra is a considerably highly accomplished rpg designer whose last two games (Legends of Alyria and Dirty Secrets) both delight me.

However, personally speaking, A Flower for Mara was also a disappointment waiting to happen simply because I don’t like larping. Like, at all. I don’t know what it is, but I just get utterly bored by the attention given to visuals, positioning in physical space and all that stuff, which is pretty orthogonal to anything I’d usually find interesting in a game. Being that A Flower for Mara has been introduced as some sort of jeepform thing in the Internet, I fully expected it to be awfully dull.

The bright side

The weak point of jeepform sort of game design, for me, is that those folks and games are just too interested in the freeforming creativity for me to get interested. I like the game, which means constraint, processes and a sort of automatic writing where individual players do not need to take responsibility of the whole aesthetic. Especially, it means unexpected outcomes from uncontrolled processes. Thus a game that micromanages a plot arc and just leaves it up to the players to fill the holes leaves me a bit cold.

A Flower for Mara is just this sort of game: there’s a given number of scenes, the game tells you what they are about, then you act those scenes out, and that’s the game. There is no player control and no system constraint, because the whole thing is, basically, about connecting the dots.

Now, this doesn’t sound like a set-up for a positive review, but the fact is that the way A Flower for Mara is designed and the way it’s written make it very impressive as amateur theater instead of a game! Halfway through reading the thing (which presents itself as an improvised play rather than a game) my perspective shifted and I stopped thinking of how pointless the interactions in the game are. They are pointless, but that’s because plays are not about choices made in interaction like games are; a play is about an aesthetic expression, which A Flower for Mara has in spades! I should not be looking at what choices I can make, I should be looking at what it looks like and what it means for an audience (even if that audience is just us doing the play).

The positive surprise in A Flower for Mara was quite profound, and it was that I could enjoy the thought of playing through it if I took its theatrical affectation seriously (and not as an empty analogue, like the theater-rpg thing is usually presented); I have some history in amateur theater myself, and I like doing it, but it has almost nothing to do with roleplaying games – an actor is trying to project a work of art, which is a pretty different thing from playing a game. A Flower for Mara seems like a really fun piece of theater: it has solid rituals, pacing, symbology and a chunky topic (dealing with sorrow) that everybody has an opinion on. I’m tempted to put together a troupe and put this on in front of an audience, actually.

I might be a little bit misleading about the game-part of the thing, so let it be said that there is a slight bit of rpg interaction in the game in that each player gets the opportunity to either stay silent or give a rose soliloquy, a special sort of monologue. I don’t personally see this as enough to carry a “game”, but it’s a nice bit of game-like tension in an improvised play.

Conclusion

It’s far too soon to tell, but I suspect that A Flower for Mara helps me quite a bit in dealing with other jeepform games (and possibly certain sorts of live-action rpgs as well)  such as Under My Skin, another one of these things that I took with me from Gencon. This is very welcome, sometimes it gets a bit tiring to simply not understand why somebody cares about these games. I’m sure that I’ll be reading the play several times yet to think about its creative goals, and might even arrange a showing at some point if I get an excess of free time from somewhere.

While it’s not the reason for my positive surprise, I should also note that A Flower for Mara is clearly written and has some beautiful rituals. These things are important in that for me to get anything out of something like this, it has to work as theater – and this game just might. At least it makes me think so.

Don’t Lose Your Mind

Independent rpgs have a rather suspect history with supplements, as far as I’m concerned. There are not that many games that do get supplemented, of course, but the few that do seem to be pretty weak sauce. The original game might be rather good, but the supplement is usually something that’s hardly going to be useful at all.

There are of course exceptions, like Sorcerer and Burning Wheel, both of which get very functional and substantial supplements, but the GMing guide -type supplements that some games get in imitation of ’90s style supplement treadmills are at best average. The same goes for the adventure supplements, the reskins of the system… almost anything made for those games would be better off as a forum post, I feel.

Still, I generally persist in checking out the supplementary material for games that are otherwise OK; you never know when the lightning might strike. There is no particular reason why a good rpg book couldn’t be a supplement instead of a whole new game.

The bright side

Don’t Lose Your Mind is a total surprise in this herd of average-to-useless supplements. At first I just noticed that it’s a surprisingly pretty book – my brother was not amused by the switch-over layout and the other visual tricks, but they work with my sense of humor. And the art does a notably good job with the subject matter.

The actual meat of the supplement is its writing, though. Don’t Rest Your Head is a rather smart game (slightly under-valued and unknown in the forgista scene, I’d say), but it’s written in a pretty dull manner that doesn’t really bring on the setting color the way games like Polaris or Legends of Alyria (two other games that are very style-dependent) do. (Nine Worlds is another game that suffers from the same phenomenon of being written in a bit too dry a manner to get through to the audience.)

While DRYH is a bit colorless in writing and actually hampers actual play by leaving a person a bit at loss on what it’s trying to do, DLYM makes up for that in spades! I had to literally check the title page after reading some pages to see if this is really a supplement for that game, such was the poetic force and mad tension of the supplement’s writing compared to the merely fantastical symbolism of the original. (While checking I noticed that the supplement is written by some other guy… Benjamin Baugh, it seems. If memory serves, I passed on some of his stuff at Gencon on account of not being impressed by the system design, but the man can obviously write!)

While DLYM is very entertaining to simply read (one of the few actively entertaining books in that pile of 40+ titles that I slogged through post-Gencon), I think that it’s significantly meaningful for actual play of DRYH, too: at least I’d totally missed the intention and proper use of Madness talents while reading the main rulebook, so getting that stuff clarified here opens the game in a totally new manner. The setting stuff is also good, as it somewhat expands the original’s conception that feels a bit too much like Fred’s campaign notes.

Conclusion

Small press games are not very often written in an impressive manner from a literary viewpoint (unlike mid-range ’90s companies, which make their bread by colorful fluff writing), so a supplement that does that while simultaneously being actively instructive towards actual play is a rare beast, indeed. Reading the supplement simply drives me towards play with the sheer awesomeness of the vision it presents; the book consists of 27 new Madness talents for the game, and it’s telling that I’d play a character based around any of them. Wouldn’t actually need to be DRYH, I’d play the guy who can summon ninjas in any game.

Urchin

Clint Krause is, from my viewpoint, one of those designers from the underbelly of the small press rpg scene. That probably tells more about the disjointed nature of the “scene” and of my own ignorance than about Clint’s merits. Still, I had hardly heard of him before Gencon.

Considering that I knew nothing about the guy, I was a bit skeptical about his games, on account of those superficial signs that I discussed up above in relation to Dread: the guy had four games there, which is just unseemly and smacks of hackery in my eyes unless you’re a decade-old veteran in the industry or I’ve followed your design process personally to make sure you’re actually not just churning them out to pad an oeuvre. Clint also seems to have a house system, the amazing somethingorother, which he’d used in two of those games. The signs of an under-educated (rpg-wise) hack author were there, in other words; Clint was at the Design Matters booth, but that didn’t mean much to me: as far as I knew he was probably friends with some other authors there, and they’d never given out any policy or guarantees on how they triaged their participants, so the booth in itself was no guarantee of quality.

(I’m completely aware of how unfair this sort of superficial judgement is towards people and their games, by the way; I’m listing these things here to give a sense of how I, specifically, cope with the information overflow related to small-press rpgs in the recent years. All sorts of small signs hint at cultural context a rpg author resides in, and if I can figure out that somebody is totally committed to d20 fantasy adventures, say, then I’ll save both our time and energy by finding that out.)

Anyway, Clint himself was nice, smart and willing to explain his games. It’s pretty difficult to get any real sense of a game’s quality just by leafing through it and listening to a spiel, but I did get enough to justify picking up the two best titles (would probably have gotten Bizenghast as well if Clint could have met the retail discount). I was completely uncertain as to whether the game’s I was buying would be lame shit or not when I bought them, but they were relatively cheap and I figured that I’d better find out about this Clint Crause character, as he apparently has managed to do this stuff for some time without me noticing him before. Better get some of his games now and see what he’s made of.

(If you’re a designer and want to make my life easy when I come look at your game: tell me about your design background in clear, honest terms, without saving on stereotypes. I find it pretty easy to make a positive purchase decision if you’ll just tell me that your game is based on a thorough understanding of modern forge-style design, for example. Or you could say that you’re fixing D&D by doing Y and X, which makes your game do something other games do not do. Or you could say that your name is Ralph Mazza. Whatever. What you’re selling in these situations, though, is not your game, it’s your own competence. I’ll probably buy your game if your one-minute spiel proves that you know what you’re doing with the right sort of name-dropping and design speech. If I’m left uncertain or you come out as a complete doofus, then I need to thumb through the game itself and use my faulty psychic powers to divine whether the design is solid or not just by looking at the pretty pictures. I’ve been known to strike wrong in those situations, to both directions. Just look at Dread, up above.)

The bright side

Now, that was a long introduction to my positive surprise. I could say something about Roanoke, the other game we got from Clint, but it was merely up to the expectations. Urchin, on the other hand, was the positive surprise! It’s a rather pure example of Forge-style design with some intriguing mechanical ideas, which was not at all what I was expecting after hearing about Clint’s house system I still can’t remember the name of. (It’s the one he uses in Bizenghast.)

Urchin has a very specific context related to the movie it’s based on (yes, it’s a movie licence game, and just might be the best game of that sort that I’ve ever seen): homeless people live under New York in subway tunnels and caverns below, trying to keep the light going, taking drugs that lead them to paradise, they hope. Urban fantasy, basicly, as there’s a strong feel of both Lovecraftian horror-man-was-not-meant-to-know as well as your basic fate-has-picked-you-to-save-us going on.

The game is very challenging in two almost separate ways:

  • At first I felt that the game was pretty disrespectful of homeless people by mystifying, romatizing and giving purpose where there is none in the real world. Then I figured out that the game is actually not about generic “bums in New York” (as it says it is), but rather about some specific plot situation based on the movie. It’s about these specific bums, who happen to be in a fantasy situation, instead of being about bums in general. I’m still uncertain whether I’m comfortable about making urban fantasy about common misery, though.
  • The rules-system of the game is challenging in a similar way Primitive is: it feels rough and ready for a slight bit of drifting and rules-adding to whichever direction you’d want to take it. Me, I kept thinking that I’d want to loosen up the situation a little bit, make rules for non-vagrant characters and add some rules for authorities causing mental damage to the vagrants through their system; fiddly details, all, but of the sort that gets under your skin.

Overall, though, the game keeps together well. It also features a turn-based structure, character resource cycles, some pretty good setting stuff (reminds me of Don’t Rest Your Head, actually, in terms of both scope and style) and random tables in some rather unexpected places. The game is light-weight and easy to run, which combined with the interesting and provocative rules-set is making me want to play it in a very good way.

The game’s topic is superficially goal-based in that the player characters are in constant need for cash to replenish their constantly consumed resources. There is a higher-order goal as well in that characters who illuminate sufficiently (probably by taking this special drug that I think is supposed to be all about the specific fantasy setting of the game and not at all about real-life drug culture) can try for a spiritual transcendence type deal, the nature of which is left uncertain and determined during play, only. Although I constantly have a feel that the game could be better if its situation was loosened up a bit (allowing characters to exit the game by rehabiliation, stuff like that), that sort of thing is easy to include if actual play proves the necessity. Meanwhile, the game has a pretty cinematic quality and might well provide some rather nice, dark urban fantasy.

Conclusion

Urchin was a positive surprise simply because it was a completely valid and pretty ambitious Forge-style indie game from a designer I hadn’t considered seriously (been aware of, really) before. Now I’ll be interested in seeing what Clint’s other games are like – having a house system, for example, is not a bad sign at all if the designer actually has a head on his shoulders and makes the system good in the first place. (I certainly hope this is the case, considering how I’m myself writing for Solar System, which is also a generic system.)

That’s it, folks

As I said at the beginning, there were many other games that are rather good, very good or even brilliant. But these were the ones where I went into it expecting nothing, or even expecting mediocrity, but came out inspired and elated at the positive surprise. Make of that what you will.

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9 Responses to “Positive Surprises from Gencon”

  1. Rafael Says:

    Eero, thank you for the kind words about Dread! I see what you mean about “violent cheesecake”, but as I myself am a sucker for this marketing ploy, I had no choice but to commission such a cover for my game.

    It was great to meet you at GenCon. Hope to see you at another such event. It looks like I’ll be visiting the Netherlands next June — it would be cool to play some games with you.

    Best regards,
    Rafael

  2. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Yeah, I wouldn’t worry about my hangups in your stead! As I described, the game’s market profile is just so opposite to everything I like in games that I really needed to read it through cover to cover to ascertain that it’s actually great. I imagine that this is the case for others with my sort of proge tastes, too – perhaps you should make a point of starting forum threads or whatever at intervals to explain to people why they should look at the game regardless of the violent orientation and skill lists and all that stuff – show a different facet of the game, in effect, and convince my sort of skeptics that there’s a mind working in the designer’s head, out there. After a guy encounters his 25th D&D or Vampire clone he gets very, very skeptical at picking up a new game that’s about cool protagonists killing things in a modern occult setting with a hidden war against demons going on…

    Netherlands: it’s a bit far. Is there some gaming convention there? I’m thinking of doing a bit European travel for game conventions this coming year if opportunity raises its head.

  3. Brand Robins Says:

    Don’t Lose Your Mind was shockingly good, and yes, its by Benjamin Baugh, and yes he can write. He also did Monsters and Other Childish Things and a couple of others that now escape my mind. And while the mechanics of the games he writes don’t always sell me, his text is always pure fun to devour.

  4. Rafael Says:

    Hey, Eero, that’s a great idea. Starting a thread like that. May have to look into that…

    Yeah, the NLGD Festival of Games in Utrecht (www.nlgd.nl). My wife (a video game producer) has lectured there twice, and may well return next June. I am thinking about presenting at the conference as well, in which case I would only be a short flight from your part of the world. Might have to come check out Sonkajärvi. Since I’ll have Heather with me, maybe I’ll give akankanto a try…

    But it would be cool to visit with you and perhaps do some gaming. This is all contingent on a number of things (for starters, I would presumably need to submit a paper to the festival committee, which would be sometime next year), but it could be cool if it worked out.

  5. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Oh, if you’d be coming to Finland, you’d certainly find hospitality! This is my usual hunting grounds, after all. It’s a bit of a side trip, but if you feel like taking a wilderness holiday, Finland is an excellent choice. Sonkajärvi is a bit annoying to reach, internationally speaking, but that’s my place of power.

    Brand: I just might have to take a closer look at that Benjamin Baugh’s monster game in private capacity when I get an opportunity. Don’t Lose Your Mind was one of the relatively few books in my stack that I wouldn’t have regretted buying into a private bookshelf, and I’m rather stingy, too.

  6. A Dark And Quiet Room » An early review of A Flower for Mara Says:

    […] Tuovinen (of Zombie Cinema fame) gives A Flower for Mara a thoughtful review. Here’s a sample quote: The positive surprise in A Flower for Mara was quite profound, and it […]

  7. Seth Ben-Ezra Says:

    Hey, Eero. Thanks for writing about A Flower for Mara.

    I’m glad that the theatrical angle worked for you. I decided to take that approach for a few reasons. One is simply a marketing schtick, to be honest. But, the deeper reason is that I’ve generally tried to avoid the whole “what is a roleplaying game?” debate. In Dirty Secrets, I generally avoided using the term “role-playing” to apply to the game (although it slipped in a couple of times), and I determined to be even more conscious of this in A Flower for Mara. With the exception of the Designer’s Notes, I deliberately removed all uses of the term “game” from the manuscript. People can argue about it as they wish; I really don’t care. As long as everyone understands how to do the activity, I’m not really invested in arguing about its particular status as a game.

    As you note, I am serious about the theatrical aspect of A Flower for Mara. And, like you, I’ve toyed with the idea of actually performing A Flower for Mara in front of an audience. I’m thinking that the audience would need some secondary form of participation, though. I’m not sure that a truly passive audience would be best for the play. I’m still rolling around ideas (as I think about it), and I’ll certainly describe the experience, if I ever do it.

  8. Ben Lehman Says:

    No How to Host a Dungeon?
    For shame.

  9. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    That’s because I got surprised by HtHaD at Gencon, not in the aftermath – at that point I already knew that it’s an alluring, original game.


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