Con report: Dragonmeet 2019

After attending a number of excellent events earlier this year I knew that my final convention of the year had to be something special. That really meant I had only one option, Dragonmeet this past Saturday (November 30th) in London. As I’m no longer based in the South East I went with the there and back again stupidly long day option, taking a 06:45 train down from Liverpool and then rushing off to catch a 18:07 train home again. Was the 16 hour round trip worth it? Absolutely.

The Convention

The last time I was at Dragonmeet (2015 I think) it had just relocated to its current venue, the Novotel West hotel near Hammersmith. In that time it has grown substantially, with the trade hall now spread over two floors and they have finally (!) replaced the game sign-up process with online booking that limits the sign-up scrum that the convention had become infamous for.

I spent the morning in the trade hall, saying hello to people and browsing the stalls and even conducting an impromptu interview for the Rolistes podcast. After working on the Crystal Heart kickstarter I also finally got the chance to say hello in person to Eran and Aviv from Up to Four Players and I can’t wait to see how that world progresses over the next year. I handed out business cards with free download links to a few people, so hopefully that will help with getting my work seen by a wider audience. (This is something that I find excruciatingly difficult so sorry to anybody that thought I was avoiding a conversation!)

Overall I was really impressed by the range of products on offer and thanks to expanding onto the second floor it never felt too busy (unlike the chaos of Expo). Dragonmeet is built around RPGs and it was good to see that while it has grown there were still dozens of independents mixed in with established small studios and some of the larger publishers such as Modiphius, Cubicle 7 and Pelgrane Press.

I’ve posted a separate loot post but suffice to say I had no problem in spending more than I’d initially planned to and was happily over budget by half eleven. There were a few further products I did consider picking up – Carbon 2185, which looks really nice but from my perspective is a difficult ask given my apprehension towards 5E derivatives. There was also Broken Shield 2.0, a brand new iteration of an interesting dark future-noir setting. Unfortunately I’d bought the original game many years ago and got burned by the clunky, old-school system so was reluctant to jump straight in. I have, however, downloaded the quick-start so will give that a good look through.

Indie Games on the Hour

After playing in Games on Demand at UK Games Expo back in June I volunteered my services to run games in two slots at indie Games on the Hour (iGOTH), organised (primarily) by Josh Fox from Black Armada. I offered two games – Project Cassandra and Demon Hunters, which are probably the only systems I know well enough to comfortably run in under two hours for strangers.

During my first slot I had three players for Project Cassandra and we played the Ich bin ein Berliner scenario that is included in the minimal playtest packet (which will be receiving an update soon). The players seemed to really enjoy themselves and dived in to the game, with one player liberally spending premonitions to the point that they had run out with half an hour still remaining.

From a playtest perspective this session was extremely valuable. On the positive front it demonstrated that with a proper use of difficulties the switch back to using premonitions to re-roll dice that didn’t already add a success wasn’t game breaking. The players still failed an appropriate number of times and didn’t rely on the same small set of skills. It also reinforced my belief that the game is best with three players – that provides both a wide range of skills while ensuring that they are sufficient gaps to allow for challenges to arise naturally.

The session also picked up on two trends that I’ve spotted previously and that I’d now say form a pattern of potential issues. Those centre around powers and pacing. On the powers front they are generally underused and players tend to save them for big scenes. Not an issue but definitely something to take note of, especially during one shots. The pacing is a bigger issue – after reaching Berlin the first thing the players did was head to the site of the coming assassination attempt. Which is a perfectly logical approach but somewhat breaks the tension. I’ve got some ideas on how to go forward and will incorporate them into the next playtest.

By the time of the second slot the interest in iGOTH had seemingly exploded and all of a sudden we were swamped with players. Thankfully an additional GM was able to step up, ensuring that almost everybody got a game (I think a few late comers may have been unable to). At first count I had 11 people express an interest in Demon Hunters! While I’d have loved to accommodate them all that’s just not feasible and in the end I ran for a table of 6, which included two younger players (aged 10 and 7) and their dad plus 3 other adults who all stepped up to help make it a silly, family friendly game. To say it was chaotic would be an understatement and I found myself making numerous on the fly additions to the Missionary Opposition scenario, including a magically reanimated, vampire rabbit (inspired by a memorable scene from Dorkness Rising). I played fast and loose with the rules, knowing it was necessary to keep the kids interested and I hope that didn’t impact too much on the rest of the table. In the end the day was saved, pets were rescued and Albrecht even got to walk away with a big stick. I’m considering the possibility of simplifying the system as a way to offer it in a dedicated child friendly way without losing the flavour but that’s something for future me to think about.

Closing thoughts

It’s been a few years since I last attended Dragonmeet so it was great to see that in that time it has continued to grow but without sacrificing the welcoming feel it has always had. This isn’t a giant impersonal event like Expo – it still feels like a friendly, small convention despite being perhaps the biggest UK event focused primarily on RPGs. I don’t know the final numbers and didn’t explore the spaces dedicated to organised play or pre-booked games, I would guess in the 2-3000 over the course of the day, but it shows that the hobby is vibrant and alive. It was great to see an improved gender balance and increased visibility of queer creators but there are definitely still gains to be made, especially in drawing in non-white gamers but I also think that is (unfortunately) reflective of the UK RPG scene as a whole.

I’ve already answered the question of whether the excessively long day was worth it, which is a resounding yes. Dragonmeet remains a friendly convention that I will try and attend again next year. As I progress into this little adventure that is publishing I can see it becoming increasingly important for me as an opportunity to catch up with other indie developers. Even if that wasn’t the case the combination of gaming opportunities and chance to interact directly with traders in a relaxed space would make it worth it. In an ideal world I’d be able to make a full day of it rather than rushing off in the early evening but those sort of logistics are an issue for future me, right now I have loot to enjoy.

Dragonmeet: The Loot Report

I’m going to put out a separate con report later this week but wanted to quickly talk about my purchases from the convention first.

Goblin Quest by Grant Howitt

Did I intend to purchase this: Yes

I first came across this delightfully silly game of incompetent Goblins only recently at BurritoCon. Inspired by how much fun I’d had, and working completely from memory, I then hacked it to run a slasher inspired Halloween game that was just as much fun. Based on all that and plans to run a Christmas themed Elf Quest I knew I needed to pick this up and had purchased it less than half an hour after arriving. Skimming over the various hacks included with the game and its clear that this is one I’ll be coming back to on a regular basis.

Scum and Villainy from Evil Hat

Did I intend to purchase this: Yes

I’ve been looking to pick up a copy of this for quite a while. I love sci-fi games but own relatively few of them while the Happy Jacks mini-campaign earlier this year piqued my interest in the system, especially given I’d yet to pick up any other Forged in the Dark games. I’ve not opened it yet and don’t know when I’ll play it but suspect this game will be a great reference during development of The Dyson Eclipse.

The Sprawl by Ardens Ludere

Did I intend to purchase this: No

Given I’d released The Synth Convergence only the day before Dragonmeet you might be surprised that I didn’t already own a physical copy of this book. The simple reason behind this is that I’d never seen it in print in the UK before this weekend so I jumped at the chance when I spotted it. Great game and one that I really need to introduce more players to.

Alien RPG corebook by Free League

Did I intend to purchase this: No

Ok, confession time. I have never watched Alien. Or Aliens. Or any other entry in the wider franchise. Despite that I ended up regretting not buying this during the pre-order period. Why? Firstly, Fria Ligan have put out consistently great products since exploding onto the gaming scene. Secondly, I listened to the Idle Red Hands actual play and really enjoyed what I saw. Finally, I saw the book which is absolutely stunning. The artwork alone would have made it a worthwhile (but expensive) purchase even if the game hadn’t looked so awesome. I can’t wait to run this next year and to see how the line develops.

Crystal Heart Action & Adventure Deck by Up to Four Players

Did I intend to purchase this: Sort of

I’d ummed and ahhed about picking this up during the Crystal Heart Kickstarter but decided against it for some reason. Then I saw the final artwork in the PDF and knew I wanted it so dropped by the stall to pick it up. The material put out by Eran and Aviv has been consistently awesome and I can see myself acquiring quite the collection as they release more material for the setting.

Closing Thoughts: Wrapping up a D&D campaign

Earlier this month the D&D campaign I’ve been DMing for a group of work colleagues reached its conclusion. We’ve been playing for close to a year and for most of the players it was their first extended foray into the hobby. While it has been a slog at times overall I have enjoyed running my first campaign in any iteration of the “world’s greatest roleplaying game.”

I’m not, however, in any rush to repeat the experience.

The campaign has really reinforced my belief that the d20 system just isn’t for me. There are just too many elements where I feel like the mechanics are working against what I want to bring to the table. Can I work around them, or even accept why they’re there? Sure, but that doesn’t mean I’ll enjoy them.

Monsters & Mayhem

One of my biggest issues is D&Ds core focus – combat. The extent to which 5th edition revolves around it is both admirable and unbelievable. 4th edition may have a tighter combat system due to its design goals (I will forever think they should have released it under a separate line such as ‘D&D Tactics’) but it is still at the core of 5th edition.

So what were my issues? First off the attrition mechanic that is HP and how it scales. Shooting or stabbing somebody and then only knocking off 8 of their 50+ HP is boring and gets repetitive quickly. Yes, I’ve heard the argument that it’s meant to represent wearing down luck or a person’s stamina but honestly if that is the case it needs to be renamed and characters should have a small, separate wound track.

I found HP especially frustrating given the challenge rating of many monsters are increased simply by upping their it but without increasing anything else. Too many creatures have large HP values relative to their damage output. I got around this using two of the more common approaches – first off I halved the HP of pretty much every monster if it was above 20. Secondly for anything that should have been a proper threat they always hit with max damage (for everything else I used the average damage just to speed up combats). I also ported over the concept of minions from 4th edition – hard hitters that went down after 1 or 2 hits regardless of the damage.

My second issue with the combat heavy nature of the game is how much D&D leans on the use of monsters. Yes, they’re iconic and fit the established dungeon crawling that D&D is actually all about but I like to have intelligent NPCs that the players can interact with. Unfortunately the system doesn’t make it easy to create them and there aren’t a massive number of examples in the basic game. Time and time again I found myself reskinning monster stat blocks to be city guards and tavern owners. It helped that we’d established from the start that no race was inherently evil so it wasn’t unusual for the PCs to encounter goblins or orcs that weren’t automatically out to get them.

As with HP I understand why D&D uses monsters so often but honestly I feel like unless you’re playing a West Marches game or just focusing on dungeon crawling that it would benefit shifting to include more individuals and better rules for quickly statting them up. This is one aspect where I suspect the published adventures improve on the game but given I don’t use them I don’t have access to the repertoire of NPCs in their pages.

Epic Storytelling

Despite all my complaints about the system my aim was always to lean in to one key aspect – epic storytelling. By the end of the campaign the PCs had worked their way up to fighting against Fate itself, which in our storyline manifested in the form of a dragon. The characters had been unwillingly chosen to be its immortal heralds in the next age of the world – theirs would be power and control at the expense of progress. They chose to fight against those ties, toppling the previous immortals before turning against Fate in an epic showdown with the dragon Rivqah. They opted to forgo the stagnation of stability in favour of progress and ultimately won the fight to let the world move forward and forge its own path.

What they didn’t succeed in doing was severing the ties to their own souls, rendering them immortal in a world that was moving on. This wasn’t something I’d planned, it just came down to the PCs achieving their main goal without first completing a second objective during the heat of combat. What it does mean is that we have the opportunity to revisit the characters in a later game, so my mind is already considering the possibilities. Maybe a fantasy spin on Deadlands? Or a look at how the world progressed as it entered its modern era? The options are open and I’m looking forward to seeing what the characters have been up to.

But not yet, there’s plenty of other games to play first.

First look: Crystal Heart setting book for Savage Worlds (print edition)

Disclaimer: I wrote one of the stretch goal adventures for the Crystal Heart Kickstarter and had access to the draft material for the main book prior to publication. I purchased the print edition as a regular backer to the Kickstarter using my own money.

While the Kickstarter for Crystal Heart by Up to Four Players has already completed delivery of the PDF of the setting book and most of the stretch goals (as I write this I’ve just received an email with yet another PDF – printable character minis!) I’ve been eagerly awaiting delivery of the physical book. I got home from work yesterday to find it waiting for me and I have to say that it is absolutely gorgeous. 216 pages, full colour, amazingness that cover everything you’d need to run a game in the world. How to create Agents of Syn, using Crystals, the five lands that comprise the known world. This is a seriously impressive and detailed book at every level.

I’m going to hold off on a review until I get a chance to run a few sessions with my current group so for now here’s just a few pictures to whet your appetite. If you missed out on the Kickstarter you can buy the PDF on drivethruRPG while physical copies should (I believe) be coming to retail soon. Eran and Aviv will also be at Dragonmeet next week (30th November 2019) and will have the book on show there (Edit: Looks like they will have it for sale at the convention).

Hacking the Badness: New generic options for Demon Hunters

One of the most interesting mechanics in Demon Hunters from a GM perspective is the badness table, which allows the GM to trigger special effects by spending Demon Dice. It’s modelled after the Doom pool used by the Marvel Heroic iteration of Cortex Plus and, in my opinion, is one of the hardest parts of the game to use effectively. Pretty much every time I run the system I end up with a surplus of dice left at the end.

Why is it so hard to use? Firstly because it requires a shift in how a GM runs their game. In Demon Hunters you set up scenes like any traditional game but once the action starts any changes to that scene require spending Demon Dice. Want to introduce a complicating aspect? Demon Dice. Want to have a baddie suddenly appear? Demon Dice. No GM fiat of ‘it just happens’ like in most traditional games. Making that mental switch takes practice, hampered in my case by the fact I run the game intermittently between other sessions.

The second reason that I find the badness table hard to use effectively is because I don’t like the generic table, which I’ve posted below.

RollThe Badness
1+Create a new situation aspect and get a free invocation on it OR add another minion
4+The bad guy or one of their minions clears a condition OR one of the Demon Hunters must mark off a condition
8+Create a new situation aspect and get two free invocations on it OR add another bad guy to play
12+The bad guy and their minions clear all conditions OR the Demon Hunters must all mark off a condition

Let’s take a look at those numbers in closer detail.

1+ – This is your guaranteed result entry and is the easiest to use. It allows you to introduce a complication in the scene or a minor foe. The 8+ result is essentially a more powerful version of this and overall these two work for me. Add complications, add baddies.

4+ – Clear a condition or mark off a condition. Alongside the more powerful 12+ entries these don’t sit well with me. I struggle to find compelling narrative reasons to back up these options and generally don’t like the idea of baddies clearing conditions as it feels like I am cheating the players of their success. I would be okay with a werewolf being able to rapidly heal, but for most NPCs it doesn’t make sense. Likewise, just hitting a PC with unavoidable harm doesn’t feel fair.

The Amazing Velma’s custom table

For those reasons I tend to under use the badness table despite the fact that it is a central mechanic of the game. I am most comfortable using it when an adventure includes a mage as an antagonist. Why? Because I always include a custom badness table that highlights their magic (more on that some other time). For example The Amazing Velma’s table in Trick of the Light included a number of ways in which she might use illusions to confuse and waylay the Chapter.

During the recent playtest of Talentless Hacks I decided I wanted to go a step further by including some new options in the base table. I removed the 4+/12+ entries and added the following new entries:

4+ Interrupt the turn order. An NPC who has yet to act this round takes their action immediately.

6+ Zone attack (mobs only). A mob makes a single attack roll that targets everybody in the zone.

8+ Second action. A single NPC (no mobs) makes a second action at the end of the round. This option may be used multiple times in a round but increase the difficulty by 2 each time.

8+ Gain a discipline. An NPC or mob gains a new discipline at d8 (useful for when I realise I’ve underpowered them part way through an adventure!)

10+ Gain a stunt. An NPC or mob gains a new stunt for the duration of the scene (Again, this is useful for when I want to change up the opponents mid-scene)

16+ Escape! A major NPC escapes the scene and the Chapter are unable to prevent it.

Adapting the badness table is going to be an ongoing process, especially as I shift from running one-shots to a new campaign later this month. I’m aiming to introduce a direct replacement for the ‘PCs mark a condition’ that gives them a chance to defend but have yet to finalise the wording. The topic is also one that Don Early has been diving into recently as part of his Patreon, so give that a look if you want some insights from one of the creators of Demon Hunters.

Con Report: BurritoCon4

It feels like it was only yesterday that I was reporting on BurritoCon 3 (was it really all the way back in July?) yet I find myself back from BurritoCon 4, held once again at FanBoy 3 in Manchester. Organised by @OldScouserRPing I had another amazing day of gaming that just highlights what small events can achieve. Games were once again split into two three-hour slots with five tables a piece (though one morning game was unfortunately cancelled due to GM illness) and a host of systems on offer (none of which were D&D!).

For the morning slot I gravitated straight to Goblin Quest, a comedy, semi-narrative game of incompetent Goblins attempting to complete tasks that are beyond their feeble capabilities. It was an utter blast and I’ll be keeping an eye out for a copy of it in the future. Somehow, despite our many deaths (each player has a small contingent of goblins at their disposal) we completed our simple task of putting on a play and even avoided being fireballed by evil Wizards at the end.

The well-seasoned clutch of Yark, N’Gargh and Mesk. None of whom survived their mission.

For the afternoon slot I had volunteered to run a game and keeping with the comedy theme I went with Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors. I’ve been working on Talentless Hacks, the latest Slice of Life adventure starter, so this provided an excellent field test of the material.

With only 3 hours I chose to cut a number of the investigative elements, to the extent that I was worried about finishing early but we came in almost exactly on time. The game was great fun and all of the players really got into the characters and setting, culminating with the fight against REDACTED. There were definitely elements that could be improved and I don’t think the PCs were ever in any real danger (it is one of my consistent weaknesses as a GM) so I’ll be upping some of the threats during editing. Overall though the adventure works so it’ll be my priority once The Synth Convergence is released.

One of the nice touches of Fanboy 3 is their approach to supporting GMs, players pay £3 per session while the GM not only gets to run for free but receives £1 store credit per player! I’ve been consuming snippets of Cthulhu inspired material recently so my credit went towards the Mother’s Love hardback for The Cthulhu Hack, an excellent lightweight take on the genre. I don’t tend to run much in the way of prewritten material but flicking through the adventures in the book they grabbed my attention so hopefully I’ll get a chance to run some players through them soon.

While there are no immediate plans for the next BurritoCon I can say for sure that I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next one as the event and venue have been excellent each time. My next and final convention attendance of the year will be DragonMeet at the end of November, an event I’ve not been to since moving away from the South East. If you’re going to be there give me a shout.

The Synth Convergence – Missions for The Sprawl RPG [Coming soon]

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been slowly teasing an ongoing project over on Twitter – The Synth Convergence, a trilogy of missions for The Sprawl RPG.

Current draft of the cover mage

Like Gibson’s original Sprawl novels these stories are thematically rather than narratively connected. For our missions the focal point is Synths – artificial lifeforms that are pushing the boundaries of their programming and gaining sentience in a society that has come to rely on them as cheap, disposable labour. Through the course of the missions the team will have to infiltrate a self-aware luxury hotel, extract a synth DJ seeking to defect to a new Corporation and finally facilitate an act Corporate revenge that will have a lasting impact on the Sprawl.

Working on The Synth Trilogy has been a learning process. It’s my first collaboration with another designer, HyveMynd, who designed and blocked out two of the missions. It has also required that I significantly improve my graphic design skills, a fun challenge I’ve been giving 10-15 minutes to during lunch breaks. I think the results speak for themselves and I’ve learned a lot of lessons that I’ll be applying to future projects.

Working draft of the page layout

The trilogy is nearing completion. I’m in the process of editing the core text while working on the layout documents guided by the official Mission Files supplement. It’s slow going but moving forward and my aim is to have it all completed soon. Until then keep an eye on twitter for more updates.