A few Thursdays ago (3rd September to be exact) began the journey that had resulted from one of my wackier ideas of late, I set off to Gateway 2015, one of the Strategicon gaming conventions run throughout the year at the Hilton at Los Angeles Airport. For those that don’t know me this was, all in all, a rather wacky idea for the simple reason that I live in the UK and I was basically going to the other side of the world just for the gaming convention, having set aside only a single day of the trip to be a tourist.
Why would I undertake such a trip? Because of the fine folks of the Happy Jacks RPG Podcast, and the rather amazing community that has grown up around the show. Since leaving Glasgow three and a half years ago the amount of gaming I’m doing has drastically reduced and those games I do play in are primarily run online. I miss face to face games and most of all I miss doing them with friends. So I flew five and a half thousand miles for the chance to play in games with people I only knew online and from podcasts. Sounds crazy right?
Turns out while it was crazy it was also one of the best weekends of gaming I’ve ever had and all the people I met were genuinely brilliant fun to be around and I got to have a great time in the games I played in / run. I’m aiming to do separate posts for the three games I ran (Project Cassandra, Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors and Firefly) but first a quick round up of Gateway itself.
Heading down from my room (having arrived the night before) social anxieties almost got the best of me, but encouragement from a couple of Jacker’s on twitter plus meeting up with Tomer (who gave me the run down as to how everything worked) got those under control. First slot of the afternoon I was running Project Cassandra (post to follow) followed in the evening by XCOM: Arctic Enigma run in Savage Worlds. I’ve not had the best of experience with Savage Worlds in the past and don’t really get all the fuss about it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s a bad system (apart from the shaken mechanic), I just don’t think it’s the best system ever.
The game was fun and definitely got me interested in giving the system another shot, especially for heroic games where the PCs are meant to be able to take a lot of punishment and occasionally do amazing cinematic things powered by exploding dice. One of the things that didn’t really gel with me was the battle map. It made a lot of sense from the game, being based on the XCOM games but I’m still not sure I’m a big fan of them. Once the map comes out I start thinking in terms of how many squares I can move instead of, for example, declaring that I’m diving over the table and grappling my opponent. I know one doesn’t exclude the other but it just seems to be the way my head works.
Saturday AM I was once again running a game, Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors, the new edition of the game from Dead Gentlemen Productions. It’s based off of FATE Core but with a number of substantial changes, most notably with the switch from fudge dice to polyhedrals (d4-d12). All in all the system runs and reduces the over reliance on the creation of aspects that FATE can (in my opinion) sometimes get bogged down in (more on this later). A few of the mechanics will, however, require more sessions before I get a full feel for them. The biggest one being Demon Dice, a special die that players can just spend at any time to get a bonus, the catch being that they’re then available to the GM to use. Except I didn’t use them properly, so by the end of the game I was sitting on a massive pile of dice while the players were regularly boosting their results and succeeding with abandon. Really I should have been spending them as often as the players, leaving myself only a modest pool for the final scene.
As for the adventure, well it was ok but there were certainly parts of it that didn’t work or really fit with the adventure. Like the gangster mermen, which I’d added to provide an off-kilter spin to things but in the end they turned into more of a distraction that needed uninteresting explanation. Likewise the baddies never really got enough screen time for them to be anything more than generic, despite (I think) them having potential to be more than that.
The afternoon slot was filled with Pacific Rim, run in a modified version of FATE core, a system which I’ve got a moderate amount of experience running but not much playing. It was a fun game and interesting to see somebody run it as a tactical combat game with a battle map. Again, battlemaps aren’t really my thing but I was surprised at how well FATE managed it. The game did, however, turn into a single combat lasting the full 4 hours and while we had fun it was clear that things hadn’t been balanced properly. The problem was essentially one of damage, both the Kaiju and the Jaegers could just soak up massive amounts of damage, I believe somewhere in the region of 40-50 points once stress, consequences and systems had been taken into account. The problem was we weren’t dealing out damage on that scale so a combat that was meant to be around an hour just just kept on going and ended in a TPK.
I’d say I learned a lot from playing the game. Obviously the need to playtest any mechanical changes made to a system but also how to use the aspects side of the game to full effect. Secondly the GM had done a lot to incorporate the theme from the movie into the game, with 2 players operating each Jaeger and having to act as a team on their action. This was helped by the use of combo stunts, which essentially let one player do something unique that was required for the activation of a stunt by the other half of the pair. The teaming up of 2 random players to control the Jaeger also provided a lot of the RP opportunities in the game, especially when they lost ‘Drift’ and got dragged into their combined subconsciousnesses. The other interesting trick the GM used was a mini label printer for producing aspects which could then be put into play while keeping the battlemap free for the combat map. It wasn’t something I’d considered before but I think without a small laptop / tablet I’d avoid it for fear of getting distracted by notes / rulebooks on the screen.
Jetlag struck and wiped my morning away with a killer headache. Luckily it was time I’d put aside for visiting the dealer room so I didn’t have to drop out of any games but even still it was quite an annoyance given the distance I’d travelled. That afternoon I ran the final of my three games, the Firefly RPG, with a scenario called Niska’s Race. It’s a system and scenario I’ve run multiple times so it ran pretty smoothly, especially after I added the opportunity for more social interactions by having the crew have to get information from another crew being held in Alliance lock-up.
One of the most interesting things for me as a GM, however, is the fact that of the 4 crews they’ve been split down the middle as to how to deal with the final choice. By this point they’ve learned that Niska’s ‘weapons shipment’ is in fact a couple of nuclear weapons that are to be delivered to a group of guerilla Independents. Half the crews just handed the weapons over and seemed genuinely surprised when the epilogue includes the Alliance capital being bombed. It seems everybody just wants to believe that Browncoats are always going to be the goodies in any situation.
The last day of the con was surprisingly quiet so I joined a short drop in D&D 5E game. I’ve never been a fan of D&D and while I enjoyed the game I still wouldn’t say that it sold me on the system. The advantage / disadvantage mechanic is really nice and I can see how it would speed things up at higher levels. Beyond that… well it’s D&D and as we know it’s not really allowed to change. I brought the con to a close with a visit to the auction where I managed to pick up a couple of stonking deals. First was Dungeon World and Apocalypse World books for the sum total of $1. Yup. One shiny dollar. Couldn’t get any better than that so now I might actually get around to a PbtA game. My second acquisition, Wild Talents in hardback for all of $10 which combined with Splendor (a rather excellent card game) constituted the sum total of my con haul. I could have easily picked up more but knowing how little gaming I do at the moment I managed a bit of restraint.
So that was my Gateway. Would I go again? Hell yes, though I think I’d run less games and try to play in more. There was a lot on the schedule that I’d have liked to play and I didn’t even venture away from RPGs.