UK Games Expo 2019 – Thoughts from a one day visit

After many years of not quite making it 2019 was the year that I finally attended UK Games Expo, the largest gaming convention here in the UK. Having made the decision at the last minute I attended for only the Saturday, with a focus on surveying the trade halls and demoing games.

The scale of that task was quickly apparent, my casual stroll to get my bearings and see what was on offer took over an hour and a half! Rather than ramble on I thought I’d do a quick hots and nots but first my haul:

A rather modest one given everything that was on offer. A physical copy of The Cthulhu Hack is something that I have been wanting to pick up since acquiring the PDFs while the dry erase character sheets are a perfect idea for quick games or the innevitable character death. Villagers was a game I’d never heard of before but was able to demo and I knew pretty quickly I wanted to pick it up. We’ve played a few games since I got it home and while it is a little complicated to explain it plays quickly is a lot of fun once you know what you are doing. Finally the Legend of the Five Rings 5th Edition Starter Set. As a big fan of the 4th Edition this new, wildly different take on the samurai staple has been on my radar ever since the beta test. While I’ve not had a chance to fully read over it my intial impressions are decidedly mixed, expect a full post soon once I’ve had a chance to do a thorough read through.

Hots

So many games. To say the expo is big is an understatement, it’s massive and it was great to see the games hobby in such a vibrant state. There was a healthy mix of big and small publishers, independents and even component manufacturers present. While RPGs comprised only a small portion of this all of the stalls were doing a healthy trade and I heard a few publishers say that they’d quickly sold out of some lines.

Catching up with people. Like much of the community I find that most of my gaming interactions these days are online rather than in person so Expo offered a rare chance to catch up with people and put some faces to the various people that I have met through twitter, podcasts and other communities. There were some that I didn’t get a chance to see, hopefully next year I’ll be around for longer and able to arrange for a post game pint somewhere.

Games On Demand. Having only decided to attend at the last minute and wanting to focus on the trade hall I made the decision to pop down to Games on Demand for a quick two hour game. I should have spent more time there, as in retrospect, I enjoy the actual gaming experience far more than I do looking at games. The GMs were great, running a complete game in a 2 hour time slot is not easy and each of them appeared to have multiple systems on offer! The ultimate credit though must go to the organiser Lloyd for putting it together and running one of the most organised spaces I’ve seen at a convention.

Food options. Expecting limited options and long queues I’d brought food with me but realistically I needn’t have worried as the NEC had numerous vendors and there was even a collection of food trucks setup outside the Hilton.

Nots

Lack of water fountains. With thousands of people crammed into what is essentially a giant warehouse it was always going to be hot, compounded by the fact that outside it was a hot day building towards thunderstorm weather. That combination made the atmosphere inside rather oppressive, with little airflow and more than once I found myself having to step outside to get some fresh air. While those factors are out of the control of Expo something that they could have done with was more water fountains. As I was carrying a water bottle I was keeping an eye out for them but only found one during the course of the day (I suspect there were more, but if there were they weren’t obvious). Given the conditions and number of visitors I was both surprised and disappointed by that.

Me. If I’m honest I wasn’t 100% in the right headspace for the Expo. I was tired and found myself a little overwhelmed by the crowds. That led to me not engaging with stalls as much as I wanted to (something I find difficult at the best of times) and avoiding a few particularly busy demo areas because I couldn’t really face waiting around in a crowded area until a space became available.

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My Top 6 Influencial RPGs

This is another quick topic that is doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment, but I wanted to elaborate a little on why I picked each of them.

1) Torg – My very first tabletop RPG with an amazing GM that quickly inspired me to run my own games. Yes, the early 90s system is clunky by modern standards (and was so even when I first played it in 2006) but it was Torg that made me fall in love with this hobby. It’s also the game that taught me how much went on unseen behind the screen or in the GMs head, the GM of that campaign made it flow so smoothly that as a newbie I naively assumed it was easy. My subsequent first forays into GMing taught me otherwise.

2) Cortex (Classic, Plus, Prime) – I could easily fill four of the 6 spots here with Cortex games (Serenity, Demon Hunters, Smallville, Firefly) thanks to the impact the line has had on me over the years. Instead, I’m going to list it once, with a separate entry for Demon Hunters for reasons that will become apparent. For this entry, I’m focusing specifically on the system. Cortex was the first game that I discovered for myself, back with the original Serenity. At that point, I’d played only a handful of systems but mostly Torg. Mechanically and thematically the two were so different it was almost overwhelming. I dove into it, roped players into a game… and then ran a disaster of a session as a rookie GM. It was an experience that somehow didn’t put me off GMing.

Since then Cortex has continued to influence me thanks to its continued iteration. Demon Hunters gave me the first glimpse of how a game could be adapted to a new setting with only a few small tweaks. Then along came Cortex Plus, which demonstrated how to take the central DNA of a system and heavily adapt it to mesh with radically different genres. Smallville introduced me to the potential for constant player vs player conflict actively supported by the mechanics while Firefly introduced me to a smooth rules set that is pretty much perfect (in my opinion) for convention play. The in-development Cortex Prime is set to take it even further, providing a full toolkit to build future games on and I can’t wait to see where the system goes next.

3) Demon Hunters (1st/2nd editions) – What can I say about Demon Hunters that I haven’t already said before? It’s a setting that I love for so many reasons, see my recent self-interview for the long list. But the biggest way that it has influenced me? By providing an open world that allows for me to publish my own material. I’ve released two adventure starters (Missionary Opposition and Lockdown) for the most recent edition inspired by the Slice of Life web series and Channel Surfing, an adventure starter drawn from one of my own campaigns and that Dead Gentlemen made available to their GenCon GMs. How cool is that.

4) Hell 4 Leather – One of my first introductions to indie games, Hell 4 Leather bills itself as a Role-Playing Game of Vengeance inspired by tales such as Hamlet and Kill Bill. It’s an inspired game with minimal yet tight mechanics that come together to tell of the repercussions of making a deal with the devil. I’ve played it across a variety of genres, Westerns, Sci-fi, Urban Fantasy and it hasn’t let me down. As influences go it opened my eyes to the possibilities afforded by non-traditional mechanics and tales, supported by the flourishing indie scene in Scotland at the time. While I still tend towards traditional games it was this game that sparked my continued interest in the wider aspects of TTRPGs.

5) Lady Blackbird – This was, in many respects, a turning point for me as it was one of the original inspirations behind Project Cassandra. While the two bear little resemblance thematically the underlying system once did. Yup, Project Cassandra started off as a hack of Lady Blackbird. The system used is, in my opinion, extremely elegant and the whole idea of being able to wield powers in the same way as any other skill (and with few limits) really spoke to me. As I worked on the concept the systems diverged but that was where my interest in game design began.

6) Legend of the Five Rings (4th Edition) – A game that has influenced me in many ways but the biggest was providing me with the chance to join a long term, online campaign. My introduction to playing in the setting came via an online campaign run by Sir Guido and organised through the Happy Jacks Podcast community. It was the first time I’d really played an online campaign and the first where I was gaming with people across the world (we had people from Alaska through to Turkey). While I no longer regularly game online the experience was great and allowed me to step outside of the relatively small bubble that I was gaming in up to that point. It’s something that I’d like to do more of, especially when I get to the point of restarting playtests of Project Cassandra.

My #RPGStruck4

The latest gaming tag to do the rounds on Twitter is that of #RPGStruck4, where people post up images for 4 games that define them, my own post for it was this:

and while most people have been posting without explanation I wanted to briefly dig into why these four games are personally significant.

  1. Torg – Long after it had gone out of print this was my introduction to tabletop gaming. I’d LARPed before, I’d participated in freeform play by posts but had never rolled dice or filled in a traditional character sheet. As an introduction to ttRPGs I couldn’t have asked for more. I was hooked and before long was itching to run my own game, largely thanks to how well Snap, our amazing GM, had run that first campaign.
  2. Serenity – My first foray into GMing was… disastrous. A massive Firefly fan I’d eagerly picked up the game on its release and dived into learning the system which was very different from what I’d experienced up to that point. I’d prepped heavily, with a focus squarely on all the wrong things and the first session was a catalogue of errors. Somehow it didn’t put me off running games and Cortex quickly cemented itself into one of my go to systems, which neatly leads me on to…
  3. Demon Hunters – As is evidenced by the plethora of posts about it you could say I’m a bit of a fan. While I knew of The Gamers it was the original Demon Hunters that made me a true fan of Dead Gentlemen Productions. It’s my go to light hearted setting, perfect for both one off sessions between campaigns as well as campaigns themselves. The setting can handle over the top chaotic slapstick as or serious urban fantasy (I tend to drift toward the former) and the writing is just as fun, to the extent that it’s almost as good to read as it is run. The second edition builds on the first with a new system, refreshed lore and brand new comic book look based on the short lived webcomic. Oh and a few adventures by yours truly.
  4. Legend of the Five Rings – When it comes to games with hefty reputations few can compete with the world of Rokugan and it’s samurai society. The setting clearly defines not only the role of PCs within that society but sets out clear expectations for their behaviour and consequences for going against those very expectations. Framed by the tenets of Bushido and an honourable ideal it’s a world where doing the right thing almost always has consequences, in stark contrast to the kill, loot, profit style espoused by many D&D games. It’s not only a world that I love returning to but once that has influenced my wider thinking on the positioning of PCs within wider settings and idea of lasting consequences.

RPGaDay 12th August

12th) Which RPG has the most inspiring interior art?

Like the cover art question difficult to answer, when it comes to art I tend to appreciate its inclusion as a whole but rarely pick it out individually. Tales from the Loop gets an honourable mention once again but I think I’ll actually go with Legend of the Five Rings. The books are, in general, gorgeous and really give a feel for the setting as a whole. I’d actually say that I think they may be up amongst the best looking RPG books I’ve had the chance to own. One of the most striking aspects is the consistency of the artwork. All high quality and in styles that mesh well with one another. Unfortunately with the transition to kickstarter I’ve come across too many games where the artwork is a mix of styles that don’t mesh or are completely different from one another due to the need to spread the load around multiple artists. It’s an unfortunately reality of being a small publisher but does (to me) stand out more than I’d have expected it would.

RPGaDay 2017 7th August

7th) What was your most impactful RPG session?

Once again another difficult question to answer as while I can think of numerous impactful games many of those came from looking back after a campaign and seeing how the story arcs had come together. I could mention my first campaign of Torg which saw my bitter ex-cop descend into darkness to become the very thing that had broken him in the first place. Or I could talk about the excellent Smallville campaign by Stephen of Step into RPGs where my ordinary, boring and completely un-powered sidekick character ended up having to step up because those who should have been saving the day were too distracted with their own messy relationships (seriously, Smallville is amazing and such an underrated system). Or I might discuss my introduction to Legend of the Five Rings where my samurai went from having everything he could have dreamed of to a tragic tale worthy of the pillow books of Rokugan.

But those are campaigns and the question was session. Which goes to a game where I was GM rather than players. A Demon Hunters adventure where the players decided to metaphorically turn left instead of right. We hadn’t even started the adventure but were in what was the transition period from the previous mission. One PC was recuperating, having recently been turned into a vampire. The rest decided they wanted to get flowers for her and being a rookie GM I made an offhand comment that that section of the Warehouse (an interdimensional essentially infinite storage space) had been declared off limits for some reason or another. I’d been trying to redirect them back to the job at hand (I’d yet to come across the idea of “Yes and…”), instead they ventured off into the unknown assuming the comment was a plot hook.

We’d not even started the adventure and they’d already managed to break it. I was flummoxed. I could handle players getting creative in solving puzzles or side stepping encounters but bypassing the entire adventure? That was new and from the look on my face they knew how much they’d thrown me.

So I did the only thing that was fair, I literally screwed up my notes, admitted how much they’d evaded my prep and called a 10 minute beer break. Looking back I can’t remember the details of what I’d planned but I can tell you that the adventure we ended up with was far more creative and entertaining. It eventually led to the Chapter imploding in on itself with the vampire PC giving in to her hunger for blood and turning not one but two of the other characters after having been attacked. We ended on an epic fade out with the Chapter fighting amongst themselves in a grand library while trying to rules lawyer their way out of a Demonic contract.

It was amazing and taught me a lot of vital lessons about GMing.

The Fallen Mountains: Campaign Retrospective

The Fallen Mountains campaign I was running wrapped up a couple of months ago and having gained some distance from it I thought it was time to reflect on the ups and downs of the campaign. All in all I would classify it as a success but I wanted to focus on a few individual bits that went well and a couple where I felt I was especially lacking.

Happy

The players. Dear god were the players a highlight. None of them had ever played Legend of the Five Rings or had me GM for them before but they each dived into the game and got it. They understood the role of honour but also that samurai are just human. They let themselves mess up and say the wrong thing while striving to be honourable. They also embraced both the strengths and the flaws of their clans, especially the Scorpion players who both refused to fall into the stereotype of a dishonourable ninja. Being samurai is about walking the knife edge of what is necessary and what is right, what is easy and what is polite. The players got that and the game was better for it.

Character backgrounds. Across the 11 sessions we managed to cover 3 distinct short arcs while also hitting upon at least one element of backstory for each of the five characters. The balance between them wasn’t perfect but each of them had a moment to shine and develop their characters in ways that I hadn’t anticipated at the start. I think 11 sessions was too short to give each their own arc but I’m glad we did manage to incorporate something for each of them into the wider campaign. Which brings us to…

The setting. While I always had an idea as to the mysteries lurking in The Fallen Mountains I’d never really fleshed them out, preferring to deal with it in play. Across the course of the campaign we managed to do so and in a way that really worked. The players seemed to buy into the story of the Lost Legion but didn’t chase it until they started uncovering clues. Until then they treated it as the characters would, a tale from the history books and used to scare children. It made the setting feel like what it was meant to be, a legend, and not just a simple plot hook.

Ending. We finished the campaign and in a manner that was satisfying. Like many people (I assume) that’s pretty rare for me so it’s always satisfying when it happens. I’m also coming to the opinion that those mid length campaigns suit my GMing style. It gives enough time to learn the characters, have multiple adventures and showcase a metaplot. 11 sessions is probably the minimum for this sort of campaign and I feel like it could stretch up to around 20 without feeling like I was pushing it too far.

Not so happy

The second arc. Shugeki’s wedding, the second of our three arcs, was inspired by the introductory adventure from the 4th edition rulebook. For those not familiar with it the adventure is a murder mystery that occurs during a series of inter Clan courtly challenges. The former is the backbone to the adventure while the latter provides an introduction to the system and Rokugani culture. Taking place at court it is very heavy on NPCs and in the end I just wasn’t happy with my portrayal of them. The NPCs were introduced too quickly to get a feel for them or build proper relationships with them. Likewise I didn’t feel like I’d introduced enough characters to really widen the suspect pool. Maybe that’s the best way to go, it works in TV shows where only the prime suspects ever get any real screen time but it felt forced here and isn’t an adventure I would feel comfortable running as a one shot or opening arc. I think it could work well as part of a longer campaign with a cast of established NPCs. Despite my misgivings about the overall structure of this arc it did introduce one of the best moments of the campaign, with one player fully diving into the role of being a Kolat sleeper agent and then having to commit Jigai to atone for her sins.

Combat. At the outset I’d been expecting a combat heavy game and things just didn’t go that way. Partially because of the players circumventing it (which I’m all in favour of) and partially because of how the plot progressed. When it came to the final adventure there was combat but I failed to adjust it to take into account the rapid advancement of the characters (we went from rank 1 to 4 over the 11 sessions). In doing so I failed to provide any meaningful challenge, an issue for a game with a reputation for being deadly. To compound this error I feel like I failed to properly pace the final combat, which was meant to cut back and forth with events occurring elsewhere. A lesson to learn from and I think in future I would keep the game at a low power level, likely Insight Rank 3 or below.

Generic NPCs for Legend of the Five Rings

When it comes to GMing I have to admit that quite often I cheat with NPCs and enemies. Not with their dice rolls but with their stats. Most of the NPCs and monsters in my games consist of only a fraction of the detail that would be found in a complete write up.

A lot of the time I lean towards the bare minimum, noting attributes and skills on the fly as required. I’ll often have an idea of their competencies in my head but until they come into play they’re just that, ideas. Doing so requires a level of system mastery that I don’t currently have with Legend of the Five Rings, especially given it’s a system where antagonists can easily out-rank the PCs. To help with that I’ve put together a generic NPC cheat sheet, which covers all of the essential components other than the school specific abilities. It’s geared primarily towards bushi and courtiers. For shugenja rings will be slightly higher, skills slightly lower. It’s already proven useful in my current Fallen Mountains campaign, hopefully it’ll be of use to other GMs out there.