Sunday, June 24, 2018

My Origins After-Action Report

I have the good fortune of having a big games convention right in my hometown--Origins Game Fair, commonly known simply as "Origins."  I've been going for the last few years since I got back into the hobby.  This year, I ended up going in the evenings on the weekdays plus a full day on Saturday (I wanted to do a full day on Friday, but various work commitments got in the way.  Next year).  With the convention over, I wanted to give my thoughts on the convention and what I played.

1.  The convention itself.  Origins might be the perfect size for a convention.  It is, by all metrics, a big convention--one of the top five every year.  But it is not nearly as big and chaotic as Gencon, which is a couple orders of magnitude bigger.  I've been to Gencon twice, and it is so large as to be kind of exhausting.  Origins is much more manageable, but yet has a wide variety of events and experiences such that you get the "big con" feeling.  In the last two years, it has had a very Wizards of the Coast/5e presence and focus, but Paizo brought out the full show (including the Pathfinder 2nd Edition demo--more on that in a bit and in a subsequent post), as well as a number of small and medium-sized publishers with a presence (not to mention all of the board game and miniatures folks).

The one major problem, and this has been an issue for the last couple of years, is that the registration system is bad and unreliable, leading to a number of system crashes.  I wasn't focused on 5e particularly (I tend to use cons to play things I wouldn't/can't play in other contexts), but those events were weirdly not available to register for when I logged on the first day to register, freezing out lots of people from the D&D Open and other big name events.  Plus, the system apparently doesn't let even the event organizers see how many people are signed up for the event, which prevents people putting on multiple events from organizing themselves more efficiently.

They really need to fix this.  There is no reason why it should be like this.

2.  GMs not showing up.  While I am in complaint mode, I was really excited to play a Midgard event that was (or at least, appeared to be) sponsored by Kobold Press.  Cool, Midgard is awesome, Kobold Press is awesome.  So, 9 am on Saturday rolls around, and no GM.  Turns out, according to the people in the room, that he hadn't been there for any of the prior scheduled sessions as well.

This is extremely uncool, and really screws up people's cons.  If you volunteer to GM, you need to be there.  And if someone can't make it for true emergency reasons, the folks organizing the event need to work to find someone, or at least tell people that the event is cancelled ahead of time.  Kobold Press did not, as far as I could tell, have a presence at Origins, making it hard for them to react when someone didn't show up.  I get that, but I feel like if they are sponsoring events they should have a contact person at the event to be able to respond to situations like this.  Don't make people scramble at the time of the event.

Enough about the event.  On to the games.

3.  Torg: Eternity (GMing 2 4 hour sessions).  This was my GMing turn, running Torg under the auspices of the Ulisses Spiele's (technically I guess, Ulisses North America is the official name) demo team.  The groups were smaller than I was hoping, I think in large measure because of the time slot (4 pm, which is sort of in-between sessions--next year, if UNA wants to run demos, I'm going to push for mornings and evenings only).  But I feel like they went well, especially the second session.

One of the things that came across running Torg in a convention setting is that Torg is an easy system to teach noobs.  Torg is not exactly "rules light," but I think the rules are mostly intuitive, and that makes it easier to pick up on the fly.  My worry with Torg is that the card play would cause too much task loading on new players, but people took to the cards quickly.

Anyway, it was fun.  Torg is great.  Go play more Torg.

4.  Pathfinder 2nd Edition (2 hour demo).  I've got a separate post coming in a bit that goes through my thoughts on the demo.  My basic take is that I am far more interested in Pathfinder 2nd Editon than I was prior to the demo.

5.  Starfinder short adventures (2 1-hour sessions).  This was my biggest surprise.  I signed up for the first of these sessions simply because it was the only thing that looked remotely interesting in the time slot I had after I ran Torg, so expectations were decidedly modest.  I went from minimally interested to slotting in a second session and buying the book.

The critics will say that it is Pathfinder in space, and it is impossible to ignore the family resemblance, which is why I was initially lukewarm on the game.  But two things jumped out at me and, to my surprise, grabbed my attention.  First, while I would have to dig in to see exactly why this is so, it does seem to be simpler and move faster than Pathfinder.  No one will mistake it for Numenera or a PbtA game, but combat moved quickly, there were not 40 skills to juggle, and class abilities were straight forward.

But the big thing was that the setting grabbed me.  It's weird science fantasy, with all sorts of brand new races (I was playing a Kasatha, basically a four-armed, grey skinned Conehead).  The central point of the campaign is a giant space station a la Babylon 5 or Deep Space Nine or the Citadel from Mass Effect.  You have sort-of clerics and sort-of sorcerers and the sort-of monk that I was playing, but also gadget based characters and other sci-fi archetypes.  It's nothing close to hard sci-fi--no one will mistake this for Traveller--but it was interesting and fun and it kind of hooked me.  Honestly, the best comparison I can think of is Guardians of the Galaxy, the RPG.

As I said, I went from no interest to looking around for a Starfinder Society game.  I will probably do a Starfinder review in a week or so.

6.  The Dark Eye (2 hour demo).  The Dark Eye is #1 German fantasy RPG, with a 30+ year history and deep lore.  It's published by the Ulisses Spiele folks.  I own the book and have done a read-through, but had never played until Origins.  My basic take is that there is a reason that national stereotypes exist, as this game is very German.  My character sheet was six pages in length, not including a four page cheat sheet providing the descriptions of special abilities and spells.   The skills systems is completely logical--all tasks engage multiple attributes, and so each skill check consists of three sequential attribute checks, which can be manipulated with skill points, and then any left over skill points determine levels of success.  Each successful attack always a dodge or parry roll to try to avoid the blow.  Many spells seemed to take multiple rounds to cast.  And so on.

Now, the world seems very cool--like Midgard, its inspirations are (surprise, surprise) very German and central European.  And it has been a living campaign world since the 80s, with ongoing events that change things up.  The Ulisses Spiele folks want me to run some demos and I want to help out my crew.  But, I mean, a six page character sheet.  That seems like a big ask for a demo situation.

7.  Numenera 2nd Edition (4 hour session).  Also a sneak peak at a 2nd edition (though, Numenera 2nd edition is supposed to be 100% compatible with 1st edition), also really encouraging.  The new stuff, in the form of three new types (i.e. classes) are an explorer type, a tinkerer type, and a face type, fills out the world and adds new dimensions to play.  That's needed, because my #1 problem with Numenera is that it throws a torrent of weird and unique ideas at players and GMs, but doesn't give them a good sense of what to do with all of that stuff.  It seems like they are leaning into a settlement and base-building dimension to play--all the players are set in a town, and they go out and get stuff to help the town grow and prosper.  I like that, though we only saw glimpses of it in the convention adventure.

The bottom line is that Numenera is a great game--it's a breeze to run in the moment to moment, it's easy and fun to play, and the quality of the material you get from Monte Cook Games is uniformly strong.  Great GM, too (whose name, embarrassingly, I can't remember).

8.  Adventurer's League [5e] (2 hour session).  I have not had good experiences with Adventurers' League. A couple times I have had bad GMs.  This time, I had a great GM, but I felt like the adventure was pretty meh, and my fellow players were pretty meh as well.   I don't know what else to say--people love Adventurers' League, and I'm not suggesting they are making it up, but my experiences have not been good.

9.  War of the Cross [boardgame] (dealer's area demo).  New from the 7th Sea folks.  It's basically Diplomacy, with individual faction powers and changing objectives like Twilight Imperium.  Yes please. They will be Kickstarting soon, and I will be backing.

10.  The Ninth World [boardgame] (dealer's area demo).  I bought this game, which is set in the world of Numenera.  It's similar to those "adventure card games" such as the Pathfinder one, in that you play a character that has abilities, complete quests or gather equipment in the form of cards, etc.  One thing I really liked about this game is that it can be played both in a cooperative mode and in a competitive mode, without radically changing the gameplay involved.  I think it will be accessible to people who are not tabletop RPG players or already engaged with Numenera.  It's also beautiful as a physical artifact. 

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