Archive for June, 2016

Picking Characters

Selecting pre-gen characters is a bit tricky, especially in games like Cthulhu.  For D&D I usually bring at least twice the number of characters required, so there’s always a nice stack to choose from and even the last person at the table gets a good number of options.  For Cthulhu though, usually you’ve got exactly enough characters, and they may even have some secret info attached to the sheet that should only be read by the person who’s actually going to play that character.  I’ve both GMed and played games where the GM describes the characters, then leaves it up to the players to figure out how to divvy them up.  This never goes well.  Usually it starts with an awkward silent hesitation, with everyone wondering who will lead the group into some magical equitable system of selecting characters.  Finally someone grabs the bull by the horns and just says “I really want to play X” and grabs up the sheet.  Then it’s a free-for-all, and polite players are rewarded with having to just play whatever is left over at the end.

I saw two things at Origins at two different games, both of which I think I’d like to steal for my next Cthulhu game.  The first is kind of minor – the GM of my first Cthulhu game began by putting out little name tents for each character that listed just the name of the character and their profession, then said “OK, select your characters.”  Name tents are a pretty common practice, often done on the fly with whatever scrap paper is lying around.  I like that the GM pre-made them, as they were of good quality: printed on stiff paper that did not droop and using a nice big legible font.  But also I thought it was clever to have players select based on this minimal information, and not deal with character sheets until all characters had been assigned using just the tents.

The second one occurred in our Star Trek themed game.  After listing off which characters were available, the GM told us all to roll percentile dice.  He then gave first pick to the highest roll, and choice then passed down the line from there.  Rolling dice to determine choice priority is not a particularly novel idea, but I liked that the GM just instituted it immediately.  There was no discussion, no hesitation, he just said this is the way we’re doing it and off we went.  It’s a reasonably fair way of handling things, and having the GM who is basically in charge anyway dictate it meant there was no dissension and the whole thing proceeded quickly and efficiently.

So I think I’d like to institute both of these at my next game.  I will pre-print some nice character name tents, put them out on the table for everyone to see, then demand they roll dice and have them choose from the tents in the order they rolled.  Nothing really revolutionary here, just a couple solid ideas that I think will remove all awkwardness and delay from this first step of the game.


Recently I’ve found myself playing a lot of Call of Cthulhu at conventions.  I suspect perhaps the Old School fad is simmering down, and there are some cons I attend that simply don’t have anything old school at all.  The one stand-by that appears at every convention that does appeal to me though is Cthulhu.

I’ve played enough by this point to know that I’m not terribly impressed by the official system.  And I’ve certainly played in several games that use a totally different system or invent their own.  When I think Cthulhu, I think more of tone and content than any specific rules system.  It seems the point really is to find a system minimalist enough to get out of the way of the roleplaying and story telling.

In my opinion, a Cthulhu game is only successful if I go insane or die horribly by the end.  I only play it at conventions or as one-offs, so I don’t really understand the idea of a Cthulhu campaign, and convention games that don’t end in one extreme or the other feel a bit tepid to me.  My goal in playing is therefore to watch my character confront horrors unknown to man, and delight in how it causes him to either un-hinge and/or jump head first into doomed heroics.  Thinking of the game analytically, I came to the realization that Cthulhu is probably the most demanding style of roleplaying in terms of pacing.  Assuming all players at the table have the same desire for their characters, the GM must very carefully pace out the content to allow each player to have a satisfying arc.  For this to work for even 4 players, never mind 6 or 8 seems impossible.

insanity_cardsThis problem was percolating in my head during the drive home from the last Carnage on the Mountain, and I started to devise an idea for an insanity mechanic that would put more power into the player’s hands to pace out their decline themselves.  What I came up with is the deck of cards pictured here.  There are only five different cards in the deck: Anger, Obsession, Paranoia, Delusions, and Fear.  They describe broad reactions a character might have to confronting unspeakable horrors.  Each card then lists five levels of the particular reaction, in order of ascending severity.  For example, here’s the first three levels for Paranoia:

1. What Was That? – You have a vague feeling like something is watching you. Sometimes you glance over your shoulder and think you see or hear something when nothing is really there.

2. My Things! – Pick a small object in your possession to misplace. Discover it is missing and assume someone stole it. Start asking probing questions to try and ferret out who took your missing possession.

3. Not Sure About That Guy – Pick one player or NPC that you suspect is working against the group’s best interests. Subtly try to convince others of his guilt.

You’ll notice each level tries to list some specific examples of behavior a player can evoke in his roleplay.  I also made an effort to encourage players to involve others at the table in their insanity, as you can see in #3 above.  The point is to give some solid direction to the player so they feel like they’re losing control, while leaving it open enough for them to take it whatever direction they find inspiring.

So here are the mechanics on how the deck works.  Each player starts with a hand of 2 or 3 cards, I’ve tried both, I’m not sure which is better yet.  When the GM decides a player should take some sanity damage, he instructs the player to draw cards from the deck.  Maybe 1 card for a sort of normal but horrible experience, like witnessing extreme violence, or 2 to 3 cards for witnessing supernatural horrors.  The player must then play cards onto the table in front of him until his hand is back to the original starting size.  Cards can be played in one of two ways:

  1.  If you have no face-up card of the specific type, you may play the card face-up.  Thus you can really only play this way 5 times, once for each card.  You are not suffering the specific insanity yet, but perhaps you’ve just given your neighboring players a little tell about what direction you’re thinking of taking your character.
  2. You may at any time play any card face down in a stack beneath a face up card.  See how the backs of the cards have a “1” printed in the bottom right corner?  You should play the face-down cards in a vertical spread so you can quickly see exactly how many cards are in a stack.  Add up all the 1’s – this indicates the level of the insanity you are currently suffering.  So in the above picture, you can see the player is suffering from level 2 Paranoia, level 1 Anger, and does not yet have an Obsession, but maybe it’s not that far off.

The idea should be that players can pace their progression towards insanity themselves.  They can strive to get all 5 cards face-up and spread out their face-down cards amongst them, thus absorbing the damage and keeping their sanity relative in-tact, save for a few minor odd behaviors.  Or they can go all in right away and just dump cards into a single stack to go off the deep end.  Or maybe they start by spreading it out, and as they see the evening is coming to a close they switch to dumping cards underneath their favorite insanity.  The GM then controls the pacing at a coarser level, just keeping an eye on how many cards each player has and trying to find opportunities to hand out more.

I’ve run this a couple of times and I think it works pretty well.  I use Savage Worlds for an underlying system to give me stats, skills, and combat mechanics, but I rip out a lot of standard Savage World stuff to keep it as simple as possible.  (For those that know the system, I ditch bennies entirely, as well as the Shaken status, just moving on directly to wounds.)  I chose Savage Worlds mostly because I wanted something I’ve used a lot that would be very easy for me to rule off the cuff without looking up anything in a book.  The funny thing is originally I also ditched exploding dice, but later I added those back in.  I actually kind of like the idea that the system allows for wild success in mundane tasks.  Oh, you’ll still quickly become overwhelmed by things far too powerful for you, and die horribly or go insane, but hey, why not enjoy those couple early successes before we get there?

The other thing I found I really like about this mechanic is that I don’t have to break into play to resolve an insanity.  It’s all on the table right in front of the players, and they probably even had a little time to plan how they would roleplay out the specific insanity they are working towards.  And frankly, I’m often surprised myself at the result, as I don’t really pay attention to whose playing which cards, until suddenly someone starts asking me what the voices say, or where they can find a deadly weapon.

If anyone reading this has played in one of my games, I would love to hear your opinions on how it worked.  Or if anyone tries this themselves please do report back.  I’m including the PDF below for the cards, so have at it.  The PDF includes a page full of cards for each of the 5 types, plus one page that is the universal back.  I printed 12 copies of each card for a deck of 60, which is almost enough for a table of 8 players, though my opinion now is that 8 players is really too many for Cthulhu.

Here is the PDF for the Insanity Cards

Origins Numbers

Found this on Origin’s official Facebook page:

What an great Origins! We want to say a huge thank you to the fans who come out and support us each year. So from the staff, volunteers, exhibitors and our show co-sponsor, Mayfair Games, THANK YOU!

· Unique attendance 15,480

· Turnstile attendance was 52,561

The article I linked a couple days ago counts Origins 2015 attendance at 15,938, which means this year attendance actually dropped a small amount (~ 3%).  Personally, I see this as very good news.  A small but steady growth would probably be better, but maintaining the current size is vastly preferable to the explosive growth GenCon has seen in the last 5 years (GenCon has literally doubled in size between 2010 and 2015 [src]).

One more game

Somewhere in the mix of things I forgot to mention that Jenn and I sat down and played the unfortunately named Spectaculum.  There was a booth in the exhibit hall that had a bit Wheel of Fortune style wheel you could spin and win a prize, and wouldn’t you know it Jenn went and hit the jackpot and got a full game.  That evening as we were sitting at the hotel bar waiting for the guys to get out of their games, we sat down and played.

It’s actually a pretty good game.  I don’t think I would have thought to pick it up otherwise, but we both rather enjoyed it.  It plays reasonably well with 2 players, fits in about an hour, and it turns out it has absolutely nothing to do with gynecology.

Sick Convention

Origins was sick, and so was I.  It was only a mild-head cold but the timing was as bad as it possibly could be.  I felt it coming on the day before we left, and spent the entirety of Origins with a scratchy throat, clogged up ears, and an inability to scrape myself out of bed any time before 9 AM (which meant I missed every single morning game).  Never-the-less, I pumped myself full vitamins and decongestant, filled my pockets with aspirin and cough drops, and soldiered on.  Ultimately it wasn’t so bad, I only hope I managed not to infect all my fellow gamers.

The good news is that I didn’t have to run anything.  Not knowing Origins I decided to just go and play this year and get a feel for the convention.  I bought tons of tickets to events that sounded interesting, and also a few extra generics just in case.  I probably missed at least half of what I signed up for, but almost always because I got pulled into something else (or just needed more sleep).

So, here’s how the convention rolled out for me:


Our plane was heavily delayed, so we were the last of the group to arrive.  Jenn and I met up with Mike and John at the hotel after checking in, picked up our badges, and went out to dinner.  I had been prepared to play some Fiasco that night, but between Jenn being hopped up on “I ‘aint gettin on no plane, foo” drugs and the rest of us being road weary, we decided to play something lighter.  Luckily I also brought along some of the “Boss Fight Breakfast” D&D modules I ran at Total Con, which are pretty simple 2-hour games, and we played one of those in our hotel room to warm ourselves up for the convention.  It was probably just right for our mood, and I’m glad we got to play a quiet private game together before the convention whisked us all away in different directions.


I was supposed to play in a Paranoia game using the new KickStarter rules, but I slept too late to make it.  Instead, Jenn and I roamed the main game room and exhibit hall, and just got a feel for the layout of the place, which was probably for the best.  We did this several times throughout the convention, and actually ended up playing a fair number of demos, and I really don’t recall when we played each one, but here’s the complete list of what we played during the entire weekend:

After lunch I went up to play Bloody Lane, a Call of Cthulhu game run by the Rogue Cthulhu group.  They had a reasonably large ballroom reserved for them which they made very moody with fancy lighting, large inflatable Cthulhu type monsters, and a curtain across the entrance to block out the light.  The game itself was pretty enjoyable, but I think our group was a bit over-large and the end felt just a tad rushed.  Our GM was very cool though, and amazingly she was on the second of a 16-hour 4 game streak, with barely 10 minutes between games to scarf some food and clear the table.  I have no idea how (or why) she managed it, but I am impressed.

I met back up with everyone for dinner, and then we all returned as a group to the Cthulhu room for my second scheduled game: Dead Light, a TOS Star Trek themed Call of Cthulhu game.  Mike’s Mr. Sulu was spot on, rivaled only by John’s Bones McCoy.  They shared the prize at the end, though I did my best to ham it up as Captain Kirk (and yes, I did manage to get my shirt off before the end of the game.)

Oh, but before I forget, that game wasn’t to start until 9 PM so we had a couple extra hours.  Jenn had played a game of Star Trek: Five Year Mission, a co-op Star Trek card game that she liked well enough to purchase, so we spent a little time at the bar in the Hyatt playing that.  It was a really good game, and a nice primer to get us into the Star Trek mood.

Two out of three games on Thursday is probably the best I managed to stay on my pre-reg schedule.


Friday morning I actually had nothing scheduled, so again took to roaming the main game hall and exhibitor hall.  At noon I had a scheduled demo of Knuckle Sammich, a Kobolds Ate My Baby themed card game.  We played with ridiculously over-sized cards and cleverly home-built cardboard sandwiches.  The energy of our host Heather was infectious and I had a great time.  During the game she mentioned they had a huge Kobolds Ate My Baby game scheduled to run that night at 8 PM, called the “Midnight Massacre”, when they try to kill as many kobolds they can in a single session.  In the past apparently they’ve had over 100 participants.  I had a ticket for another game from 7-11, but it sounded so enticing…

Jenn and I were supposed to be in a game called Baker Street that afternoon, but we were both a bit tired (I suspect she’s also got this cold), so instead we hopped over to the Reaper booth and did a paint-and-take.  I chose a nice simple zombie-like hulking monster, with lots of muscle and few scraps of clothing.  Jenn chose a female pirate/adventurer complete with multiple little bags and a spyglass hanging off her belt, two swords, streamers from her headband whipping through her hair… so guess who walked away with a completely painted mini and who only got halfway done?

Once again we got together with everyone for dinner, and I’m so glad that we got to do that basically every night.  Getting to hang with John and Mike is a big draw for even going to these things, and I think if we do it again next year we’d all like to try and coordinate our schedules a bit more.

In the evening I unsurprisingly took two of my generics down to the first floor of the Hyatt for the Midnight Massacre.  Sorry schedule.  The room easily had 8-10 tables full of players, excitedly chanting “All Hail King Torg!” every ten minutes or so.  My cough drop supply was sorely taxed that night.  Unfortunately, my table suffered from two setbacks – first, we were assigned a GM who was doing his best but was clearly not really prepared to run this game.  I suspect they had more tables than anticipated and our GM was roped in to fill the gap.  He had to pause the action a few times to read ahead, and in several cases didn’t quite know how the rules were supposed to work.  But no worries there, the guy sitting next to him was one of those very special gamers eager to take charge, quote rules, and aggressively take center stage with little regard to the fact that there are other people at the table.  Oh, did I mention that pretty much everyone else at our table had never played before, and several of them didn’t even realize what they walked into?  They thought this was a D&D game…

I feel bad for the four kids who were at the table when I sat down.  They looked surprised but kind of excited about the whole thing.  They were a little overwhelmed, but ready to be whisked up into it.  Unfortunately, the double-whammy of a struggling GM and an obnoxious player just dragged all the energy away, and halfway through the game two of them bailed.  In fact, our table of eight players was down to 5 by the end of the night.  The energy in the room was amazing, and it was clear most of the other tables were having a great time.  Our game was, well, OK.  I think next year I really want to go to this again, and bring as many people with me as possible.  Maybe if I prime the pump with gamers I know will be awesome (and maybe try to grab a table closer to where the GMs are congregating so we get an early fresh pick rather than a we-need-one-more pick), I think this event could be the best of the convention.


I had a ticket to a 10 AM game of Robo Rally run with real robots, but I think you know how this goes.  After being up until midnight in a room of screaming kobolds, and still nursing that head cold, it just wasn’t in the cards.  Oh well.  A little more time wandering the halls and playing stray demos was just fine.

We met the guys for lunch, which was exciting to get to, as it turns out in the street right in front of the convention was Columbus’s Pride Parade.  I’ve been to GenCon when there were other simultaneous events – I remember a roaming streets full of football fans once, and another time when we were kept up all night by motorcycle rally attendees revving their engines outside our hotel to all hours.  If anything, I think the paraders meshed best with a convention full of gamers.  We found a sky-walk to another hotel to use to get across the street, and from there saw a car go by made up to look like the Ghostbusters car with folks in costume parading around it that could have just as easily fit in the convention hall as the parade.

My 1 PM ticket was for another Cthulhu game, but it was a second run of the same game John had played and his review was not shining.  On the other hand, I had been eager all convention to go check out the Indie Games on Demand room, where you just show up with some generics and play in a random Indie RPG.  Unfortunately it was very popular, so the “on demand” part actually turned out to be a regular schedule of 9 AM, 2 PM, and 8 PM, with a line forming at least an hour before each game.  I decided to risk it and got in line around 12:30, and was about #13 or so in line a good hour and a half early.  I needn’t have bothered, despite the long lines they had enough slots to seat everyone, so the only reason to be early in line is to get dibs on a specific game you really want to play, and I went in with no expectations and willing to play anything.

The game did not get off to a great start.  When we poked our heads in this room earlier the guy was telling us about Fall of Magic, which sounded pretty cool, so it was in my head to try that if I could.  The guy in front of me got the last spot.  As I started to look over the other games the fellow behind the desk says I should hold on, as they might be able to run a second table of Fall of Magic, so then I stand there as others stream by taking up spots in other games wondering if I’m going to get my first choice, or be stuck with whatever is left over.  The guy tells me there’s a young player in line and as Fall of Magic is the only game appropriate for young players (man, what kind of other crazy stuff are they playing?), I could have a spot in that game if I don’t mind playing with a young player.  No problem I say, and he sends me off to an empty table to await the others.

Eventually a woman and her 13-year-old daughter show up.  Great, as far as young players go, that’s about as good as it gets.  As long as I don’t swear like a sailor or fill the game with sexual innuendo I should be fine, right?  Then a guy joins the table, and it turns out to be dad.  Oh, so, it’s me and a family, huh.  Kind of weird, but OK.  Then we wait.  And wait.  The GM is still sitting with the other table and almost an hour has gone by.  I’ve now been waiting for this game for almost 2 and a half hours, and I’m starting to get grumpy.  The family seems happy to wait — I’m guessing they feel beholden for having the spots at this game held for them, so it’s just me left wondering what the heck is going on.

Finally the guy shows up.  The game is GM-less, so he’s just going to teach and facilitate for the first hour and then let us go on our way.  And just so I can get the last bit of complaining out of the way — at one point I mentioned I had to leave by 6 to meet friends for dinner.  Dad says no problem, he’s sure they’ll get us out of there by then.  They have a game at 7 and are worried about finding time for dinner what with the extra crowd for the parade outside, shall we try to end a little early?  Suddenly we’re agreeing to end by 5, because that’s what the family seems to want, and since there’s 3 of them and just 1 of me, what am I supposed to say?  So we really only get about 2 hours of gaming in.

All that said, what a fantastic game that is.  The components are beautiful, and the mechanics are structured enough to really help anyone who isn’t used to story-gaming to get up and running, while still being open to interpretation enough that I can imagine it being taken in quite a variety of directions.  And the family, it turns out, are all pretty darn good role players.  It was a great game, worth the 2.5 hour wait, and I only wish we got to play more of it.  But knowing when we were going to end perhaps helped us aim for that goal, and what started as a moody, somewhat bitter-sweet feeling story, ended in a crescendo of action and and a really satisfying cliff-hanger that felt like just how the author of our imaginary trilogy would end the first book.

So back to the crew for dinner, and sadly we realize it’s our good-bye meal as the others have early flights out on Sunday.  Jenn and I don’t leave until 5 PM, because it was that or super early flights for us as well.  My next scheduled game is 8-12 for Wegs Old Skool Dunge-o-Doom.

Now I’ve been aware of Wegs for some time, I saw their events at GenCons past, and always assumed it was another retro-clone or perhaps similar to a game like Dungeon Crawl Classics.  Inspired by old school D&D, but with our own twist, is how I read it.  Origins for whatever reason had a complete dearth of old school D&D games, so this I thought was my only chance.

The game was actually quite fun, but not at all the kind of fun I was expecting.  Wegs is pretty out-there, and I think bears very little resemblance to any thing I would classify as an “old school RPG”.  First of all, the vocabulary is entirely different.  I have a deck of cards for my spells that say things like “do SPS damage each inning for SPS +1 spante”.  Huh?

And the oddest bit though is that the DM is basically our opponent.  We’re trying to escape the dungeon, and he’s trying to stop us.  We decide what level to explore (1-8), and he then uses that number plus a deck of cards to build an encounter.  And that’s the game – encounter after encounter.  There’s no real exploration, each level is just a single room with a big fight in it.  Our characters are built to have lots of interesting options for quick and exciting combat.

And it was exciting, there were lots of high energy moments and amazing dice rolls that turned the combat on its ear.  We had four players and I was the only newb.  I caught on pretty quick though, and I think we did pretty well as a team.  We ended up playing past midnight, and it was a lot of fun.  But if I hadn’t been willing to let go of my preconceptions, I could have easily been really disappointed by this game.  Would I play it again?  Maybe.  I don’t think I’d go seeking it out, but if I wanted a couple hours of interesting tactical battle-mat combat, I’d say Wegs is a pretty darn good choice.


Alas, by Sunday morning things are wrapping up.  Our traveling companions were probably already in the air as we made our final laps through the exhibit hall.  I had one more ticket for a noon demo of a card game, but I ended up skipping it in favor of just wandering about and picking up a last few items I had been waffling on.  I got myself a copy of Kobolds Ate My Baby, and had a real nice chat with one of the creators.  I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing them publish the module we played on Friday.  I haven’t posted much detail here, as I’m kind of thinking I might bring it to the next HelgaCon if it’s available by then.

All said, it was a really good convention.  I could have done without the cold, and I think next year I’ll probably buy a few more generics and a few less official tickets to games I’m likely to just end up skipping anyway.  I also sent out an email to Mike and John, suggesting next year we try to sync up our schedules more.  The ultimate curse of the convention is that even with a great game and great GM, you can end up with people at your table that totally torpedo the energy and ruin the game.  The best defense to that seems to me to stack the deck with people you know are great role-players.  It once seemed silly to me to go to a convention to play games with folks you know outside the convention, but the fact is these guys now live across the country, so Ohio is a pretty good mid-way point and the convention is as good an excuse as any to get together and play some games.


Here I sit in the Port Columbus International Airport, about to return home after four lightning fast days playing games at the 2016 Origins Game Fair.  As you guys know I’ve been attending GenCon off and on for half of its existence, and though I was aware of Origins, two trips to the middle of the country for a half-week gaming glut was just never in the cards for me.  And who would choose the scrappy little red-headed brother to the glory of the world’s biggest gaming convention?

Well, the beast that is GenCon has simply become too much for me.  With attendance over 60,000, events spread across several city blocks, and a narrow 1-hour window six months in advance in which to pray that the gods of the internet favor you long enough to snatch up a hotel room in walking distance to the convention center, it just wasn’t worth it anymore.  Jenn and I liked going to a big convention, liked meeting up with pals from the opposite coast willing to travel to the half-way point for a couple days of gaming, but just couldn’t bring ourselves to book the trip again.

Then we started looking into Origins.  It turns out last year Origins had attendance of almost 16,000 people, tiny compared to GenCon, but still pretty sizable in the grand scheme of things.  In fact, in a strange coincidence, that’s almost the same attendance size GenCon had the first year I attended back in 1992 (about 18k, according to Wikipedia).  Hm, GenCon seemed huge back then, could Origins be the same?

In fact, I’d say there was a strange nostalgic feel for me attending Origins this year.  It kind of felt like GenCon of the early 90’s.  Gone were the crowds so dense you have to shuffle down the hall of the dealer’s room.  Gone were the giant displays, statues, banners across the ceilings, etc.  The dealer’s room, which couldn’t be more than a quarter the size of GenCon’s, once again contained the odd booth manned by a guy probably hoping to break into the industry with stacks of his self-published RPG.  I saw Lou Zocchi hawking his dice.  I saw Ken St. Andre grinning behind a table full of T&T modules and a stack of Nuclear War boxes.  Everything I wanted to go to was either in the convention center, or in the attached hotel where I was staying, and I didn’t need more than 15 minutes to make it from my room to any given event.

Well, if I fell into a time warp, I’m sure glad I did.  I had a blast.  It was great to see some old friends, great to play a lot of cool games, and great to see a huge gathering of my fellow gaming enthusiasts (but not so huge I didn’t have room to breathe).  Will it stay this way?  The article that quotes the 16k attendance figure also claims that was a 23% increase over 2014, which in turn was 19% up from the previous year.  Prior to that, it looks like the convention has been pretty consistently at around 10k with a few spikes and valleys since 2002 (according to wikipedia).

Despite the recent surge, I would say based on what I observed Origins still has plenty of room to grow.  But I also kind of hope it doesn’t.  Or at least if it does, that it does not grow in the same way GenCon did, quickly reaching a point where it’s straining the capacity of its location, and without regard to the impact that has on the individual attendee.

But who knows what the future holds?  For now, I can only prognosticate as far as June 2017, which looks likely to include a trip for yours truly out to Columbus Ohio once again.