Friday, July 26, 2019

Origins 2019 Recap: Roleplaying Games Edition

Well, it's just about a full month later, but I'm finally getting the second half of my Origins 2019 recap online! While I got to demo a few boardgames, where the core of my time went was the Games on Demand room, where I played a potpourri of tabletop RPGs for hours. If you're unfamiliar with the event, it features a large number of GMs and facilitators who run various tabletop RPGs that they want to see played. Players sign up, show up for a slot, and pick a game off of a menu offered by the GMs. It's a great way to try out some games you've heard of, but never gotten to the table, and I took full advantage of that. From Inception-esque therapy to a zombie drama that felt straight out of The Walking Dead, here's the adventures I had at this Origins...


One Child's Heart

Gamemaster: Camdon Wright
Character: Dr. Sid Moran, therapist (he/him)

One Child's Heart was the one game I played on Thursday, as things began winding up. (This isn't counting the improv games that Karen Twelves and Jason Morningstar ran after the kickoff meeting on Wednesday night. Those were fun, too!) Ever since hearing about it, I'd been intrigued by the premise: a team of professionals using memory-entry technology to help troubled children recontextualize the memories at the root of their present trauma. And it was a very unique experience. The game mechanics on the player's end were fairly light and a bit chaotic, but where the game really shone through was in the structure of the session. We progressively stepped through memories across the child's timeline, and each memory unfolded a new detail about his issues and trauma, how themes and motifs appeared over time.

It was highly directed even while we had freedom--the freedom wasn't in our ability to take action, but in our ability to find ways to connect with the child. While I didn't necessarily feel strongly connected to the therapist I was playing (although he took the time to comfort a fellow teammate who kept botching attempts to connect with the child), there were amazing moments of connection to the patient, as we toured their memories and came to an understanding of who they were. That was wondrous.


Swords Without Master

Gamemaster: Me!!

I ran Swords Without Master as my first slot of the day, and as always, it was an absolute blast. We had a bunch of different characters, including a beast-riding Rogue, a master of the winds, and a pirate captain! The story unfolded with a great elemental titan menacing the countryside, and it eventually led to a climactic confrontation against an evil wizard who raised the armies of the dead against the Rogues! In a particularly memorable moment, the pirate's companion was killed and then raised as a zombie later.

I love Swords. Every time, it seems to produce a magical story, and once people lean into the spirit of the game, they have an immense amount of fun, which I love seeing. All of the players were accustomed to more typical flows of play, and I loved exposing them to something new while also letting them craft epic battle scenes. (One of these days, I'll write up a post about how and why Swords works well for me...)

Dungeon World

Gamemaster: Also me!!

My second game for Games on Demand was a bit of a comfort pick, that being Dungeon World. I decided to write up my own scenario, a sort of reverse Indiana Jones where the party was being hired to retrieve precious relics that were stolen from the temple of a dead god. It was fun to write things up, and I think the players generally enjoyed it. I cooked up a bunch of questions that I cut out and laid out on strips of paper, asking each player to pick one to answer, just to tie them into the scenario. It went alright.

Dungeon World, it turns out, isn't really a game that clicks well with me, mostly because I like other PbtA games better, and I felt like it drew players who were more accustomed to D&D action. It was still fun, don't get me wrong, I just had a harder time coming up with interesting moves from the GM side, maybe because I have a limited view of the fantasy genre. I've played plenty of it, but I just like other games better.


Facilitators: Alex Roberts, Jenn Martin, Steve Segedy
Character: Mig, farmworld girl in the big space city (she/her)

aaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAA okay so I wrote a more substantial blog talking about my experiences with Star-Crossed, so I'll focus more on this specific session. I got to play a tough-as-nails space farmgirl who was hustling and bustling on a cosmopolitan space station when she fell in with a sly space smuggler. What an absolute joy, what an absolute nail-biter. I didn't want to go, he didn't want to stay, but when the blocks fell, our hearts couldn't resist, and we decided to make it work by finding a different space station as our home base.

Star-Crossed is my new One True Love in gaming. The mechanics are tightly-built, and there's all sorts of clever little bits that drive a growing intimacy between the characters. I found a great deal of giddy joy in finding excuses for my character to unintentionally initiate physical contact (SERIOUSLY THIS IS A GAME ABOUT FINDING WAYS TO BE PRECIOUSLY CUTE). I also found great glee in inserting awkward moments at all the "wrong" moments and cutting scenes short to leave the tension smoldering. Good freaking stuff. Five out of five arrow-impaled hearts.


Under the Glare of a Vengeful Sky

Gamemaster: Todd Nicholas
Character: Sylvia, young rebellious leader (she/her)

Under the Glare of a Vengeful Sky is a currently-in-development game from Wheel Tree Press about community-building after an ecological apocalypse. I totally didn't build "Chloe Price, but ten years older" as a character. I don't clearly remember much of the mechanics, other than a looming, slowly-filling cup of water that represented the potential for chaotic environmental devastation. That said, the story we told was still powerful; as I created my character, I was encouraged to mark down the things that defined Sylvia, to think about her history, and to imagine what had transpired since the initial beginning of the ecopocalypse.

The constraints of the setting were, to my mind, the most interesting part of the game, and the most powerful. Your characters have survived several years of this post-apocalypse, but they're still able to remember, vaguely, what life was like before it. That's a deeply interesting transition to play with, and I loved exploring that, thinking about how my character's past life merged with her present life. Things like her rising to responsibility as a young government leader, or her coping with reminders of the loss of her parents during flooding. I loved seeing my character wrestle with and come to grips with the trauma of total devastation, and she even underwent small bits of transformation.

Hearts of Wulin

Gamemaster: Lowell Francis
Character: Perfect Mist, master of the Aspect of the Blind Spider (she/her)

I've been wanting to actually play Hearts of Wulin for quite a while, since I'd backed the Kickstarter! There was deep drama, dramatic martial arts confrontations, and a dark, tragic ending. I loved it. My wulin hero, Perfect Mist, specialized in a strange wire-based style focused around ensnaring her opponents, and she radiated a strange personality of precision and control, masking her desires and wishes. It was a fun concept to embody, and I loved the way the mechanics fed into it.

Honestly, this is a game that I wish I'd had the ability to explore over multiple sessions. In a single convention slot, it felt like we didn't have time to prod at and explore all of the relationships on my sheet, but I suppose that's to be expected. And I got to play off of my character's desired love (who wound up getting married off to a suitable husband by her father, leaving Perfect Mist to exact chilling revenge), so it worked out fairly well. What I enjoyed the most was twofold: the effective, colorful way of handling combat-as-aesthetics, and the "Inner Turmoil" move, which I actually wound up leaning on and calling for myself as a way to signal when my character was being pushed!

Zombie World

Gamemaster: Mark Diaz Truman
Character: Madge, elderly scientist of zombieology (she/her)

Now, Zombie World is a game I've had loosely on my radar for a while, and I finally got a chance to play it! It. Was. Excellent. I played Madge, a woman in her 60s who'd taken up studying the undead in order to find a cure. When I botched my start-of-session move, my carefully-reinforced pen of zombie test subjects sprung a busted rivet, letting them out...right as the tension started ratcheting up on the farm we were staying at! The entire session started unraveling into chaos and confrontation like a tense season premiere for The Walking Dead, and it worked absolutely beautifully. We learned secrets about characters, different characters stepped up and took decisive action, and Madge laid down a brutal beatdown.

What surprised me the most was the fluid way that character dynamics worked. The Help/Hinder move seemed absolutely central in this game, and that same mechanic is tied directly into the secrecy mechanic of the game: the more of yourself you reveal, the easier it is to help or to hinder your actions. I played my cards really close to my chest, and wound up squeaking out of some tight situations. I also loved how the game interjected a plot element (the zombie pen) which created suspicion and mistrust even at the start of the session, as we built up relationships around it. Also, I love, love, love how the entire setup is based around cards, and how you just deal out random cards to people for character creation. Makes things fast, simple, and textured.

And as a bonus round, Mark chatted afterwards about MC techniques in Powered by the Apocalypse games, and how to aggressively frame scenes and make strong MC Moves that demand responses and snowball the situation. Absolutely fantastic, he knows his stuff, and my own Masks game at home is already benefiting from it.

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