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.

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).

#RPGaDay2019 4th August: ‘Share’

August has come around once again which means it’s time for RPGaDay 2019. In a shift from the questions format of previous years this year is characterised by a series of prompts, which I’ll be attempting to answer each day with a short post, with the prompt word highlighted in bold each day.

Day 4: Share

During the initial development of Project Cassandra I was posting material fairly regularly but then took it all down after the messy Dragonmeet playtest. I’m only now rectifying that error and starting to share it again. I should have left it all up but the more I put off working the problem the less I wanted it out there. So in the spirit developing in the open here are the current character sheets, two of which are brand new and were written for the recent BurritoCon in Manchester. Included with that is a small GM pack, covering a basic rules cheat-sheet, summary of each characters skills and the all important opening questions for ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’, the scenario I created specifically for the convention.

So here it is, the first playtest packet for the latest iteration of the game:

State of the Conspiracy: Character update

While I was unable to get a full update of Project Cassandra finished in time for the RPG Live UK event I was able to make significant progress. The character sheets have been updated to reflect the rules changes and I’ve identified all the edits required in the main text. Next up is getting them down on paper and adjusting the layout to suit.

Changing the text should also allow for a few additions. First up is a mechanic to allow for premonitions to be replenished, something raised during that disastrous DragonMeet playtest. Secondly additional advice for challenges and threats, again in response to the playtest feedback.

I’m hopeful that this set of edits will resolve the issues raised, especially with regards failure. I don’t know if I’ll make it to DragonMeet this year but I’m setting it as a tentative deadline regardless.

State of the Conspiracy: Major Feedback from Dragonmeet

I posted a quick collection of thoughts regarding Dragomeet 2016 over on my G+ page but I wanted to give the Project Cassandra feedback a post to itself.

What happened

The setup for the game was the same basic questions that I used during the Stratigicon playtest, that Apollo 11 had discovered something and President Nixon was due to be assasinated prior to announcing the discovery. The discovery this time, shapeshifting aliens on the moon who had already infiltrated the USSR and were now trying to take over the US government. The assasin was non other than the vice President who had already been replaced. Thrown into the mix was a Soviet Null, immune to the powers of the party (but not, as it would turn out, regular bullets).

The adventure went by fast. Too fast, as the players blew through every challenge with ease thanks to a combination of difficulties that were too low, great teamwork and some amazingly inventive use of Powers.

Feedback

The primary feedback was pretty unambiguous, actions weren’t challenging enough, which resulted in the group not failing for the first two thirds of the game. This had a knock on effect in that it prevented other mechanics from coming into play, namely conditions and spending premonitions on re-rolls. It was only towards the end of the game that I started raising the difficulty that we started using all of the mechanics but by then it was too late to have a major impact.

The second negative was with the skills themselves and compounded my GM error with the difficulties. Essentially the players found that they either had too high a skill level for a given task or were lacking the skills entirely (and therefore didn’t attempt actions). This is something that has come up in playtests before and I had hoped that the current skill list addressed it. Unfortunately this does not appear to be the case.

It’s a blow to get this close to having the game finished before running into a major issue but on the other hand I’m glad it went badly. It’s the first major catastrophe I’ve had but it also feels like it is workable rather than an impassable issue.
Beyond this the feedback was quite positive. The players enjoyed the scenario and being able to influence it through the questions plus liked the fact that the powers weren’t mechanically constrained to prevent them being overpowered. As these are all aspects I’d put thought into I’m glad that the players picked up on my design aims. Following the game I’m also convinced that the single scenario design (of saving the President) was the right approach. Once the game is finished I may add a bonus sheet on running additional highly defined bonus scenarios (I already have ideas for one based around the Berlin Airlift).

Going forward

I’ve been pondering how to change the skills since Dragonmeet but before I dive too deeply into it I thought it important to look again at the probability tables, the results of which are plotted below. The x-axis plots the number of successes and the y-axis the percentage chance of rolling at least that many successes for a given skill level.

2016-12-06

Looking at those numbers it’s clear how off my perception of the difficulties was. With a skill level of 3, which the players were regularly achieving, there is still a 66% chance of rolling 3 or more successes. In my head 3 successes should have been difficult and definitely not in their favour so often. Those odds rises to a staggering 90% at a skill level of 4 and drops to 32% for a character with a moderate skill level of 2.

It’s clear therefore that the first thing I need to do is adjust my idea of difficulty levels and then add explicit descriptions to the game. My current working template is:

1 – Trivial – Only worth rolling if the individual is unskilled
2 – Normal
3 – Challenging (with intention of this being a typical roll for the game)
4 – Hard
5 – Heroic
6 – Impossible

The second approach is a limit on the maximum skill level of a character. The players at Dragonmeet suggested setting it at 3, which I’m thinking of implementing. At this level a skilled individual will pass a Challenging roll most of the time but still fail at a noticeable rate.

The biggest change, which I’m still working on, are the skills themselves. Under the current design players add up related specialities to get their skill level and tend to either end up with a high level or none at all. If I keep the current system the specialities need completely rewritten to provide a wider breadth skills with only a small number that overlap enough to give a high skill level.

The alternative is simply list a set it skills with a rank by each of them. That has the advantage of simplicity and also makes it easier to deal with edge cases as I can give each skill group a rank for when no specialities apply. For example using brute strength might just fall under the general umbrella of the Physical skill set at rank of 2 for the strongest and 0 for the weakest. The downsides of this approach are flavour and rigidity so more thought will have to go into it before I settle on one over the other. I may also split the skill groups further by adding Social to the existing mix of Mental, Physical and Specialist.

All in all I’ve got a lot to think about and a valuable learning experience for future projects.