Indiecon 2010 (part 2 of 2)

Indiecon 2010 reviews, second part.

Slot 4: 6d6 combat system test – cowboy shoot-out

On Saturday morning Dan & I woke up early and were rather sleepy. We decided not to play and instead to take some time for a proper rest, see if there are any good games on sale and so on. We ditched these plans when the team demonstrating 6d6 combat system snatched us in the corridor and promised a quick strategic game that would wake us up. I’m not really into board games, so I went there for Dan’s company, and also because the devs were really enthusiastic. I usually find that the creator’s/GM’s enthusiasm spreads, and that it promises a good game.

This game modelled a quick shoot-out between four cowboys in a small town. Combat was simple enough to be intuitive but complex enough to allow a satisfying amount of strategy. We used business card-sized cards that represented character attributes, skills, and items. You could only play a limited amount of cards at one time; some returned to your hand, others did not. Damage and movement distance were randomised by dice rolls. All this meant you had to think strategically and prepare for things not going according to your plans.

I have no idea what the rest of the system is like, but the combat part was fun. It woke me up, made my headache go away and kept me excited right until the final confrontation. This is no small feat if you consider that I usually skip the „combat” sections of game manuals. They bore me to tears, as they usually consist of a simple versus mechanic and a huge list of exceptions you have to learn by heart. I prefer to have a small selection of very different, reusable and flexible elements/moves. 6d6 combat we saw at the table looks like it could fit the description.

Personally I wouldn’t use it as a part of an RPG session. I want to be able to play without a box full of boards and miniatures. I also think that counting squares, cards and points would spoil the mood for me. For an RPG, I think I would prefer Mouse Guard conflicts. (Burning Wheel combat and social conflict mini-games have a greater range of moves, but also a larger list of exceptions, and at the moment I find them too intimidating.)

Slot 5: Dogs in the Vineyard

When Dan arrived on Friday, all available games were full, so Pete invited him to his on-demand Dogs in the Vineyard. Afterwards Dan told me that I just had to play Dogs with Pete, so I signed up for another session he GMed. I found this to be another case of „an enthusiastic (and skilled) GM equals a great game”.

The title of the game, „Dogs in the Vineyard”, made me think of Dominicans. I was worried we’d be playing Inquisitors, but instead found out this was about young preachers in the Wild West (it reminded me of „There will be blood”). Still, I played the game despite its setting, not because of it. As with Pendragon, I couldn’t agree with most of what the characters were supposed to preach and practice. This required me to maintain strict mental separation between the character and myself. I could therefore appreciate the story, but I didn’t have any emotional attachment.

All mechanical parts of the game worked smoothly. The GM handed us partly-filled character sheets. We then had to come up with the juiciest parts – traits, relationships and gear. During introductory scenes Pete introduced the rules bit by bit, in such a way that I got them first time, no repeats. He also provided most of the dice required by the system (an enormous amount of d4, d6, d8 and d10 – and even that wasn’t enough for some scenes). I had the impression that everyone got the same amount of screen time and got an opportunity to influence the story.

Our team consisted of a friendly girl from a huge family, an orphan who considered herself a protector of the weak, a traumatised kid whose parents have been brutally violated and murdered by Indians, and a character that was left a bit undefined throughout the game (or at least I didn’t catch who he was). Appropriately enough, the main conflict of our game consisted of deciding whether we could trust a group of Indians who seemed to share our religion but also our methods – they saw themselves authorised to cleanse by fire and kill whoever they thought was a sinner. The friendly girl became convinced by their arguments and initiated them as Dogs, which prompted one character to lose faith, another one to commit suicide, and the orphan to declare herself the steward of the town and the guarantor of inviolability of Indian’s lands.

I think for me this falls into the „fun once, let’s not do it again” category. There are other settings I’d rather explore. In Dogs, I kept seeing myself on the other side of the barricade. I’m not a Christian. I don’t enjoy finding out people’s failings and passing judgement on them. I consider shaming and guilting others to be poisonous methods of communication. And I also don’t want to explore themes of human depravity such as rape or racism. It might be worthwhile to create a Dogs hack with a different setting.

Slot 6: Montsegur 1244

It probably wouldn’t work if the players weren’t in the mood. Fortunately we were playing late at night, in a separate chalet. Six players gathered around the table. The game’s creator was sitting nearby, listening in and discretely taking notes (this was a playtest of an expansion). The story started slowly, as two Cathar knights quietly knocked on a Perfect’s door and demanded a blessing. They were about to commit a terrible deed: kill an Inquisitor, whose hands were bloodied by deaths of many brothers and sisters in faith. The church official’s demise would trigger the Albigensian Crusade and the siege of the fortress at Montsegur, but the characters didn’t know it yet.

It’s hard to explain why this game is so good to people who haven’t played it. Montsegur 1244 allows you to explore adult, serious themes (and when I say adult, I mean things involving strength of spirit, not sex, gore and depravity). I think it should be classified as tragedy, or at least this applies to the story in which I played. No matter how much the characters strive against their fate, it is sealed before you begin. They feel safe in a secure, well supplied castle, but by the end of the play they will burn at the stake, bitterly recant their most precious beliefs or cowardly escape into the night. You know exactly how much time they have left: four acts. That means four scenes left for you to meet your family and friends – and then say goodbye.

There are no dice to roll and no statistics to compare. Each character sheet contains a name, a picture, a short description and a list of three open questions. Each player in turn sets a scene, explains where they want it to go as a story, then invites other players and they all play it out. Scenes are usually inspired by character questions and previous events in the game. And that’s roughly it. The whole setup makes you forget about strategising and playing to win. Instead, you get involved in the story and play to explore the characters. Other players’ input can sometimes turn out to be crucial to the evolution of your character. In the game I played, a soldier breaking a child’s toy sword caused the boy to become a man, start making his own decisions, become validated as the lord’s liege – and finally burn.

I will write a more detailed „actual play” description of Montsegur 1244 in another post, but for now let me end this short review by saying that this is one of few sessions during which I felt deeply moved and couldn’t wait for what would come next in the story.

Slot 7: Trail of Cthulhu

I adore Lovecraft’s stories. Call of Cthulhu was what drew me to roleplaying. Obviously, I was interested in how Trail of Cthulhu improved on the old classic. I therefore signed up for the first opportunity I could find. This was going to be Trail of Cthulhu „pulp”, so I didn’t expect to be scared. I simply wanted to see how the mechanical aspects differed. They turned out to be OK.

True to its name, the GUMSHOE system (po polsku „gumshoe” to gliniarz, pies) streamlined the investigation part of the adventure. In this system, if characters have necessary skills, they always find clues required to finish the adventure, no rolls needed. However, if players want to find out all the background information and the additional details that would allow them to understand the story, they have to do the usual: use their heads and test their skills. Additionally, skills work as point pools. The GM can require you to pay a point of your skill (temporarily reducing it by a point) for something to happen, or you can reduce the skill yourself to add the points to a roll and lessen the chances of failure. Sanity (Mythos-related mental health), stability (the usual kind of mental health), health and resources are treated like skills too, so you might have to pay a point of your resources to purchase something.

We started by choosing one of the pre-generated characters. I grabbed an archaeologist and looked at the character sheet with a smile. Whoever put it together, they had Lara Croft in mind. The team also included a journalist, a psychologist, a big game hunter and a cat burglar (his character sheet politely described him as „a gentleman”). Everyone met in the psychologist’s office in London, drawn there by an advert in a newspaper. Some time ago they all experienced similar, disturbing dreams, and the psychologist knew how to start unravelling the mystery.

The adventure ran smoothly, but it was evident that it would take longer than the slot allowed. Since the GM had to catch an early train, he sometimes had to apply „fast forward” to the story and say „and then you found out X and realised you needed Y”. I had the impression that he tried to skip right to the action, which I didn’t mind it too much since it fit the „pulp” genre. The adventure seemed to be well prepared. I enjoyed the small details the GM worked into it, like the German Shepherd dog in German embassy, which I think came from his wife’s new book, a guide to occult London from that era. Overall, I had fun. I’d play Trail of Cthulhu again, but I’m not convinced I want to buy it. I’m certainly going to look up the guide when it comes out, though.

That’s all. On Sunday afternoon we left for home sweet home, since we needed some proper rest. Anyway, if I were to rate these games, this is how it would go:

  1. Montsegur 1244 – the story + the system + the players = perfect
  2. Cold City (2010 – the year we make contact) – almost made it to ex aequo first place, but points deducted for temporary chaos
  3. Dogs in the Vineyard (Pilgrim’s Progress) – because it was awesome, but I didn’t feel as emotionally engaged as in Montsegur and I wasn’t nearly falling off my chair in anticipation as in 2010
  4. ex aequo, Fiasco (Dallas 1963) and With Great Power – they were fun
  5. ex aequo, Pendragon (The Bride of Llanycefn) and pulp Trail of Cthulhu – they were fun with some minor glitches

Note that I was never bored or unhappy with a game. It’s just that some games were outstanding while others were „merely” fun.

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