Owlcon 2015! (Kind of a long post!)

February in Houston means OWLCON (amongst other things). And I even managed to get time off enough to make it for the full weekend, so you’re getting a whole-assed con report. Woo!

In any case, for those not in the know, Owlcon is a gaming convention held down at Rice University every February. It’s a small-ish con; there were just under 700 participants this year. It’s also straightforward; there’s not much in the way of guests, or panels, or cosplay, or room parties…you pretty much show up, sign up to play some games…and play them. I rather like this focus, as it gives you the chance to play a whole bunch of different games of different flavors (tabletop, board games, LARP, tactical minis, whatever) in a short period of time.

I’ve been going there for a couple of years now, and it’s consistently been fun. I was really looking forward to this year- not only did I get the whole weekend off to Do Stuff, but I also got ambitious and decided to run a game, for once. Given that I haven’t really run any tabletop games consistently since college, this was kind of an intimidating prospect.

Thankfully, I had at least one thing going for me, because I was running Adventure! (The exclamation point is part of the game’s title, and should be pronounced as such).

Adventure! is a White Wolf game from 2001, based on old pulps and serials. The Shadow, Doc Savage, Indiana Jones, that sort of thing. It’s one of the best things White Wolf has ever produced- it’s got a ton of great flavor, it has some rather elegant mechanics, and most importantly, it’s fun. Given White Wolf’s reputation for pretension, Adventure! came in as a breath of fresh air.

Adventure! is also a rather easy game to run. All you have to do is come up with some appropriately pulpy characters, and the plot can basically resolve itself as ‘go over here and punch the bad guys.’ The real key is to get into the spirit of things, and do it with style. For example, the title of the module I made up was “The Deadly Danger of Dinosaur Island!” There were also Nazis riding on dinosaurs. It’s that kind of game.

Luckily for me, I got a great set of players for both sessions I ran. It didn’t take them long to really ‘click’ with their chosen pre-genned characters, and then off they went! Interestingly enough, with two sets of players (who had no contact with each other, as far as I knew), I saw a couple of trends pop up.

      1. Of the six pre-genned pulp characters I made, the trick-shooting cowgirl and the mad scientist with a robot hand were always the first ones claimed. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by the cowgirl at least, because, you know, Texas.
      2. Conversely, nobody picked the Ace Reporter character, so now I’m gonna have to run Adventure! again sometime so someone is forced to take her. Or something. Seriously, there’s effort there that went to waste!
      3. In the scenario’s initial encounter with a dinosaur, both groups managed to capture the dinosaur alive, rather than kill it outright. The amount of scenery-using and problem-solving from both groups was really impressive- I was kind of expecting a little more of the traditional ‘hit it until it falls down’ hack and slash mindset, but was pleasantly surprised to see that wasn’t the case!
      4. Also, for the final battle on Dinosaur Island, both groups came up with the plan of “stampede dinosaurs into the bad guy base.” Though, to be fair, this is a good plan.

So yeah. Despite neither of my tabletop games filling all their slots, I’d list both sessions as rousing successes. I mean, I had fun, and the players had fun, so that’s the important part. Of course, now the GM-ing bug has bitten me, so I’m already cooking up new characters and adventures. HM.

So yeah. I started by running an Adventure! session on Friday night, as described above. Saturday morning, I didn’t see anything that really jumped out at me, so I slept in a little and came in later. I wound up falling into a random Munchkin game in the Steve Jackson Games room, which reminded me of something very important.

Munchkin is a great game to play with your friends. Preferably with beers, but I’ll say that about just about any game ever. The important part is, with a collection of semi-random strangers, Munchkin can be a bit of a grind. Then again, some people like that sense of cutthroat competition- but by the end of the Munchkin game I wasn’t really paying much attention to the board because I just wanted to get it over with so I could go get a burrito.

I did get that burrito, however. It was pretty tasty.

Thankfully, the next game I played certainly made up for the Munchkin grind. See, every year, the Houston Browncoats put on a Firefly-themed LARP. I played it first a couple years ago, and this was my first time since then to give it a go.

I went in prepared this time around, and dressed the part. I wonder if it says something about me that I can dig around in my closet and cobble together a vaguely space-cowboy-ish outfit. Really, the key to any LARP wardrobe is a vest. People don’t really wear vests nowadays, so by wearing one, you can look vaguely appropriate to whatever vaguely modern time period you’re supposed to be in.

I have a few vests.

I also have a custom-made leather holster for a nerf gun, so you can be sure as shit I’ll take any excuse to wear it.

So! I put on a vest and a tie and a blaster and some aviator shades, and hit up the Firefly LARP.

Again, I was really lucky, as I fell in with a great group of players. See, the 30+ people in the LARP were divided up by ship crews, and I wound up captaining the most cutthroat and devious of the lot. At least, that’s what the character sheets said. In practice, I think we were so devious and cutthroat that it went all the way around to being vaguely honest (at least to each other). Or something. Really, I think we were a little less “fearsome bad guys” and more “bumbling comic relief villains.”

But we got paid, dammit.

See, the whole gimmick of the Firefly LARP was you had a whole bunch of ships and their crews hooked up to a space station, at which point they were in competition to get a Big Score load of cargo. Several hours of anarchic mayhem ensued, in which the various crews threatened, bribed, sabotaged, and occasionally murdered each other in order to put themselves at the top of the running.

My crew got sidetracked, though. See, my ship was named the Passing Wind (I decided it was due to ‘Mighty Wind’ being already taken at the space-DMV’s ship registry). As a result, the smart-ass captain of one of the other spaceships thought it’d be funny to plant a stink bomb on my boat.

This would not stand.

I tracked the guy down, took a swing at him, missed- then guns were drawn and there was a bit of a standoff…until one of my crewmen shot the other dude in the back.

I really did have a great crew.

Some running from The Law(tm) ensued, and after a bit, we managed to get my back-shooty guy out of jail through fast talk and bribery, because we were a bunch of crooks. Though apparently, with the Captain of that other ship dead, his crew immediately jumped ship and started looting as much as they could. Awesome.

I kept busy enough, though, running back and forth, dealing with incompetent techs and radiation leaks and occasional threats (both given and received) not to mention bribery (both given and received). Again, I could barely tell you the half of what was going on- it was really more Coen Brothers than Joss Wheadon, if you ask me. And that’s awesome. Highlights include my somewhat drunk pilot (who we tried to pass off as our cook) getting caught breaking into one of the other ships- at which point I ransomed him for a load of hyperdrive parts that I conned out of the station engineer.

Eventually, I learned one of my crew was…besmirched by the pilot of one of the other ships. He even gave her space-fleas. Naturally, being kind of a bastard, I laughed at this…but I still pulled said crewwoman out of the line of fire when she quite justifiably shot down the besmircher in question. She took a bullet in the process, which the ship’s medic was able to fix…at which point we doped her up on morphine and hid her our ship so we could tell everyone else she died on the operating table.

We also hid her in a closet when the Space-Sheriff came chasing after some other random criminal who I would’ve recruited (probably) if she hadn’t grabbed herself a spacesuit and jumped off into the Black. Oops.

There was also a point where the ship’s pilot and I got into an argument in front of a dude over whether I should murder him or not. I opted on the ‘not’ side of things, possibly due to some sort of innate decency, or more likely due to the fact that I had enough trouble coming my way. I suppose it was one of those little ironies that my character was armed to the teeth, but he didn’t actually kill anybody.

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Then again, EVERYBODY was armed to the teeth. Look at that pile of props.

In any case, by that point, I’d managed to cut a deal where we’d start working for the crooked station manager, running contraband. Not as prestigious as the Big Score everyone else was worried about, but it would pay the bills, dammit. And by that point, with all the murder and crime and sabotage getting thrown about, the crew of the good ship Passing Wind collectively said “screw this noise” and settled for what they could get.

This turned out to be a wise move.

See, after all the hijinks had ensued, one of the other ships got the Big Score MacGuffin, and wrestled it over to their ship, and took off. Then they exploded. OOPS.

Now, I’m a bit torn on this. See, as fun and rollicking as the Firefly LARP can be, the guy running it has a rather…oldschool philosophy to gaming. As such, it seems like he falls back on the “rocks fall, everyone dies” ending a lot. At least, that’s how the first one I went to back in 2012 ended. It just seems like a cheap shot to pull the rug out from under your players and say “Oh, that thing you just spent the last few hours getting? IT BLOWS UP AND THEN YOU DIE.” It pisses all over whatever sense of accomplishment the players might’ve had otherwise. I understand that random plot twists and shitty things happening is very much in line with Wheadon’s style…but at the same time, if you keep going back to that “ha ha ha, YOU DIE BECAUSE PLOT TWIST!” schtick over and over again, it just seems like bad plotting.

Though really, I shouldn’t complain myself, because, as I mentioned before, I got paid. I’m kind of good at space piracy. I think it’s the vest.

Still, if I may get a little theoretical, I think this kind of boils down to philosophies of game-running. To be terribly reductive, I dare say that there are two generalized styles of game-mastering: “yes” or “no.” To elaborate, should a player come up with a crazy scheme (as they’re wont to do), it’s up to the GM to say “no, you can’t do that, and here’s why” OR to say “yes, you can do that, because it’s cool.”

Given how I run Adventure! I’m sure you can guess which side of things I fall on.

After the Firefly LARP, I went to another ‘yes’ style game- a session of Feng Shui 2.

Not Feng Shui 2nd edition, but Feng Shui 2. The number is important, like the exclamation point in Adventure!

In any case, Feng Shui 2 is the second version of Feng Shui, a tabletop RPG based on Hong Kong action movies. Lots of kung fu, crazy magic, gunplay, and so on. In the game I played at Owlcon, I played the Jackie Chan-esque supercop, teamed up with Not-Jack Burton, Not-Black Widow, Not-Indiana Jones, and a Japanese Magical Girl to fight time travelling cyborg cowboys in black hats.

It was quite a silly game.

I actually got on the kickstarter for Feng Shui 2, which hasn’t hit the shelves yet, so woo, playtesting! Feng Shui 2’s system is pretty similar to the original, with a few key tweaks to keep things going. Just from my perspective, the Supercop template has been changed a lot to make it a bit crunchier- it’s now got a lot of schticks that revolve around the character getting hurt, and then bouncing back to hit harder, which is a great way to emulate classic Jackie Chan movies. The other thing that struck me about Feng Shui 2 was how it branched out to a broader action movie base. I mean, to look at the player characters I mentioned above, only one of them is a HK archetype. I suppose a lot of this stems from the adaptation of Hong Kong style stuff in a lot of modern action movies, originating from The Matrix. If I wanted to get really academic about it, I could really dig into some game/cinema theory.

So now I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the new book!

Last thing I played over the weekend was an ICONS game ran my buddy Theron (of My Dice are Older than You). I first met Theron at an OwlCon several years ago, where I played in a Feng Shui game he ran- it was such a blast that I’ve made it a point to make it to his OwlCon games whenever possible. Well worth it.

In any case, ICONS is a fairly rules-light superheroes system (which I’ve played and enjoyed before). It’s another of those “yes, you can do that because it’s cool” kind of games. And on top of that, Theron used the characters and fluff from Sentinels of the Multiverse, a really fun cooperative card game that I’m also a huge fan of, so it was like triple bonus.

The adventure itself was a pretty straightforward superhero-y affair of “go over here and punch the bad guys!” And there’s nothing at all wrong with that! Theron’s a great GM, and he kept on throwing various genre-appropriate complications our way to keep things entertaining. I got to play Wraith, who is basically Lady Batman. Good times!

Unfortunately, “na na na na na na na na WRAITH!” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

I snapped a handful of pictures at OwlCon…but in reviewing them now, it looks like most of them were from games I didn’t play. Then again, most of the tabletop sessions would make for rather boring pictures- ‘character sheets around a table’ isn’t quite as dynamic as some of the cool board games that were being played.

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Some WWI Biplane Dogfighting game with pretty neat tracking counters.

004

The Game of Thrones board game…ON STEROIDS. I’d love to see what went into the making of this monster board.

001

Cthulhu Wars! It’s like Risk with Tentacles. I didn’t get the chance to play, but I’d love to give it a try sometime. I also understand the game goes for like 200 bucks, so I’m proooobably gonna wait ’til someone’s running it at a ‘con or something.

In any case, OwlCon this year was a blast, and it’s reminded me how fun it can be not just to play- but also to run a tabletop game. And now I’m cooking up new ideas and new characters for other one shots…maybe a supervillain caper, maybe hacking the ICONS system to run a Legend of Korra game, or maybe just more Adventure! Who knows?

And if I’m lucky, maybe I won’t have to wait a year to run them, either.

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