Convention game notes 2020
2020 has had one joyous element which I have taken good advantage of: online conventions. Normally at cons I like to mostly do demos, playtesting and flipping between stalls but this time I signed up to a bunch of games I can't normally play and enjoyed myself. Plus I got to go to two US games conventions which I would never be able to do normally. The rest of this post is my impressions of games I played, but just short ones.
Onyx Path Con (June)
Thers's no denying that the world of Pugmire is fun. Alas it's not particularly original, and it runs on D20 which is the least original mechanic around. So it's never going to be the game for me, but if you like that combination then you'll almost certainly like playing it. (On that note, all the adverts in my Facebook feed tell me that if you like D&D5 then there are tons of cool worlds around to pick from.)
Concept: anthromorphised animals Do Fantasy
Rules focus on: Player challenge & maths
This is the first of the new Trinity worlds, using the latest variant on the White Wolf system: Storypath. I always felt that the original equivalent (Trinity) was a whole lot of unrealised potential, largely because the mechanics didn't match the flavour. I have my issues with Storypath, but it's mostly a sound system whose only fault is confusion vs all the variants. Even the different storypath games have small differences between them. Either way, I love the Trinity books released so far and this one shot confirmed they play even better than I thought.
Concept: Psychic heroes in space, + multilayered plot options
Rules focus on: Character and character abilities
Return to the Stars (Fate)
There were loads of Fate games on offer and I picked this one to fit around all the other games I wanted to try. Surprisingly, this was my first Fate game and this confirms that I really love the system. This variant was a far-future entertainment planet that was cut off from the rest of space by a catastrophe, and is just trying to find a way back. Which was such a cool concept that I bought the book; alas the book didn't really explain more than the game did. I can't really recommend this product, but I can recommend Fate.
Concept: Media types in space
Rules focus: Character and story
The Corpse Watchers (Talisman)
This was a playtest and there was some hiccups that resulted from version changes. That doesn't take away from the game being quite fun. This is fantasy as generic as they come. The city is called The City, the land is called The Land etc, trolls are called Troll. Rolls are stats+3d6 which give one of my favourite bell curves, and there are beanies. I left satisfied with the game, and I would be more than happy to play it for simple fun.
Concept: simple fantasy
Rules focus: character abilities
Here be Dragons (Full deck roleplaying)
This is probably has best card-based mechanics I've played (in an RPG)... and they were still disappointing. You have five cards in hand to use for each scene, which in theory allows you to plan your actions around them. You have a handful of traits (randomly generated) which colour the type of manipulation you can do. The idea is that you can see how well you might be at various things and you can choose your action accordingly. The trouble is... it's uninteresting. More often than not, your ability is decided by the cards in your hand rather than your character sheet which doesn't give any sense of ownership of the character; plus it was more player challenge than character-driven. (The setting was ok, but we barely explored it.)
Rules: Player challenge with cards
The next two games I played were all narrative (i.e. collaborate to tell a story, without a preset plot and few if any mechanics). I wanted to try these, to help with my own (Mandatory Failure). Being on the other side did make it clear what some of the flaws are. The first is that if the players run out of imagination, the game limps along. The second is that if the players don't get on board with the game, normally because they don't understand it, their fun will be limited. I still think there's a place for these games, but they have their limitations and requirements.
Tipper City (Atma)
First of the narrative games I played. Your characters are not only random, but so are your abilities, plot and obstacles. Basically flip plot cards at various point to identify the plot elements (good and bad), then the players and Storyteller work together to try and tell a heroic story. This was by far the worst of the three narrative games, because there was no real resonance with the characters. I think this was partly how the game was run, but there was also nothing in the game to help you care about anything. It's just too random.
Concept: lava powered robots & humans Do Stuff on an island
Rules: Narrative with simple dice rolling.
A very odd game. You are in a dream, and you make the dream together. But who you are, what you are, what the dream is, how it connects to anything is ... well undefined. I think in theory you can decide it between you, but the author didn't actually do that. Game creation is shared, but without any hooks you end up not really knowing what you are doing. We ended up agreeing on a "trip through Dixit cards" as a goal of our dream which was a game-saver - any time the game stalled (frequently) we could just go somewhere crazy.
I am sure that with the right players and the right storyteller for those players, you could tell some fun, whacky stories but I feel it's too open for the players and relies too much on the Storyteller to find a story. Something as simple as a randomisation mechanism for character concepts would probably make it much more accessible.
Concept: shared dream creation
Rules: none, players create some basic structural & character elements
Another animal game! I kickstarted this game and it does look fun, but alas I didn't like the game session. The risk when NPCs don't take their own actions is that they don't feel like they are genuinely a danger, and so it was here. I really didn't feel threatened at all, and when I failed I didn't Fail Forwards (as is intended by PbtA). So the game session didn't sell me on Root but I still think it would be a fun game.
Concept: Woodland animals with cool factions and ~16th century technology
Rules: Character abilities and story
A different type of D20 game in a world of technology and fantasy mashed together. There is a lot of player agency in how much you lower difficulties, and that means the game mechanics are less about designing the best character than adapting to situations. Alas, fights are still extended, boring, and a little bit numbery. On top of everything else, you have Cyphers - random one shot equipment - which can apparently make combat much quicker. But which we used to make Gallifreyan technology. I almost really like this, but in my quest to find a fantasy system I can really get behind this still falls short.
Concept: Weird techno-fantasy
Rules focus: Player challenge
Dune is still in development, but it has loads of good things going for it. One of the best bits is that character concepts focus include civilians in a way that is still rare for many games. Three of the PC choices for this game were essentially servants/managers and that pushes you to different types of games (and is very suitable for the world). On top of that, half your stats are "Beliefs" which you pick for each role; it does slow you down a little but also keeps you thinking about the internal dialogue ofyour character. The session itself was really fun, and there were loads of good uses of the 2D20/Momentum system that I saw before in Conan; because of momentum and the ease of getting fun complications, combat is in fact more exciting than sometimes. The main problem for me is that it doesn't seem to have the level of peril that you might expect on Dune.
The only reason I'm not buying Dune is that I don't really have inclination to run a Dune game, and I already have the rules in Conan.
Rules focus: Character, story
Yes, it's another PbtA game, but boy is it fun. It helped that the ST had put everything necessary into a powerpoint and may have made his own fun additions to the game; but equally, it's a great concept well-realised. You play young dragons exploring your world in a fun way, and bouncing off each other. In fact, the friendship mechanic pushes you to tell your stories together and it is easy to spin it into a narrative game. I'll be buying this one.
Concept: Dragons are friendships
Rules focus: Character abilities & collaborative storytelling