As it happens, it’s a lot easier to drone on and on about the logistics of a convention (see Conventionally Speaking, Part 1) than the games you play at a convention. At least, it’s easier for me. In Part 1, all I had to do was tell you what happened: how I got there, what I saw, what it was like. All of that is extremely subjective, and I can be wildly inaccurate while servicing the needs of the narrative. Nobody can say, “That’s not what really happened!” or “That’s not the order it happened in!”, since nobody was there experiencing it from my point of view.
But now I want to talk about the games I actually played in, games with rules, rules that you people can look up and say, “No, you’re wrong, that’s not the way this game works!” It’s far too easy to share way too much about the game (“Drogonilithuz Smorgle-Borgle, a Zed-Alpha level half-troll splatterpunk elementalyte, played by Ernest K. Bindlehopper, a 26-year old database modulator who was sitting on my right, picked up his scarlet 30-sided dice, shook it four times, rolled a 13, applied his Specialty Convergence, his Tantric Positioning, and his Mortgage Prime Rating, for a total of 27.459, and compared that against the rigger pirate clown clone’s Life Protection Soaking Score, adjusted for the heights of all players at the table, and then…”), or share way too little (“Played cool game it was good I liked it”).
Confronted with these daunting challenges, I elected not to do anything, and time passed and Editor-in-Chief Mr. Chris seethed and silently plotted my death. Unfortunately, my strategy of inaction didn’t make the writing job any easier or more finished, so I’ve elected to apply Nose A to Grindstone B and just write the bloody article. We’ll see if that works.
[editor’s note: Mr. Chris was not seething; he was waiting with +5 patience…]
What Dice Do I Roll?
As I mentioned in Part 1, I had never really played any of these games, and I loved them all. I say “never really played” because I had already dipped my toe into the D&D Next waters, and had, along with countless other gamers, submitted one or two opinions on the whole endeavor. Of course, this was before its Creators had received, processed, and instituted those opinions, resulting in many, many changes to the system. This was my first time playing the fer-realz D&D 5E, which meant that this particular savant (who had been playing Dungeons & Dragons since puberty) was transformed into a total noob, with no clear idea of what was going on, in this or any of the games.
My befuddlement can’t be blamed on the game systems or the Game Masters or the other players or the convention setting or the dice I rolled or even the chair I was sitting in. The reason I never knew what was going on is entirely my own fault. I have grown complacent in my RPG life, resistant to new systems for the single simple sin of being new. Instead of coming to any of these tables with a freshly formatted brain, I tend to view every game through the cloudy filter of GAMES-I-ALREADY-KNOW. This has proven to be a severe disability with every new game I’ve played, including the games below and my other forays into Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, Savage Worlds, Eclipse Phase, and Death Race Z.
The Games in Common
As different as my three convention games were constructed, there were a few notable and delightful similarities. First of all, there was nary a grid to be found in any of the three. I have been spoiled / ruined by 1” square battle maps, leaving my “theater of the mind” abandoned, rundown, and very dusty. I had actually come to believe that I was unable to play games that lacked a scaled map, a million miniatures, and lots of space counting (“I’m going to move over here… 1, 2, 3—no wait, I’m going to move over here… 1, 2, 3, 4—hold on, I’m going to move over here…”). Playing inside a shared imagination resulted in more vivid memories instead of fewer, as I was forced to picture the settings, and wound up filling in parts that a flat map could never convey: the swish-swash of ocean waves, the sugary aroma of a mug full of honey mead, the agony of my bard’s skin cooking and cracking in roiling fire.
Secondly, all three games featured Game Masters of the “say yes” variety, which means that no matter how ludicrous our character’s plans or plots were, these GMs rolled along with them. To be sure, this was typically a “yes but” situation, allowing us to perform our silly heroics, but with a complication or two thrown in for flavor. If you’ve never heard of this style of gamemastering before, it’s probably because your GM sounds like this: “Can I—?” NO. “What if I—?” NO. “I’d like to—“ NO. I’m about to make a wildly unfounded generalization, so please buckle your seatbelts. I believe these newer games are being specifically created to encourage, if not actively enforce, these “say yes” GMs, and that is a very good thing.
The Games, in Practice
Without question, doubt, or feather torturing, ICONS was my favorite of all three games, and that’s not just because it was run by the guy who freaking wrote it, Steve Kenson (who also, by the way, wrote Mutants & Masterminds). ICONS is a superhero game, requiring a couple 6-sided dice and a great heaving pile of imagination. We five players created our characters right at the table (magnificently randomized, similar to Gamma World but with capes), got a crash course in the way the game runs (roll 1d6, add stuff to it, and beat a target number for success), and were off and playing in about half an hour.
Built right into the body of the game is a mechanic called Qualities, which are three descriptive phrases that define and describe your character. You can call upon these Qualities to accomplish something particularly cool and superhero-ey, but be careful, because the GM can call upon these Qualities as well, to bring a little trouble your way.
For example, in our game, one character had the quality “Arrogant son of a god.” When we players were confronted with an obvious danger, we quite naturally hung back, evaluating and considering. The GM suggested that Mr. Arrogance should probably charge straight ahead, so that’s exactly what he did, and by the way, what he HAD to do. A game mechanic that enforces roleplaying, how cool is that?
Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo were booted from Wizards of the Coast during consecutive Christmas layoffs (Tweet in ’08, Heinsoo in ’09), a cheery Wizards’ tradition, and they decided to channel their inner Bender and declare, “We’ll go build our own game, with blackjack and hookers. In fact, forget the game and the blackjack. Ahh, screw the whole thing!” Only they didn’t screw the whole thing, they actually wrote it, and it’s really good. It’s what happens when two people who are very passionate about different versions of the same game get together without engaging in a stupid slap-fight about “whose is better.”
It has ability scores and classes and races and rolling dice and adding numbers and just enough bits that you’re familiar with that the violently unfamiliar bits—specifically the Icons and Icon Relationships—don’t cause your brain to abruptly leak out of your ears. At least, it didn’t have that effect on anyone else at the table. I had no idea what was going on. I probably should have read some more or asked some questions.
Even so, I experienced enough in the game to 1) have a lot fun, even with a fairly complex character, and 2) want to play again. And again. And again.
It’s immediately clear that the game is a result of its creators playing it and other games, and then asking the one question you’re never supposed to ask: “You know what really sucks about RPGs?” 13th Age is packed with answers to this question, but my two favorite answers are the following:
- Escalation Die. Instead of letting battles drag on endlessly and needlessly in a series of miss-miss-miss-miss-miss-misses, this mechanic makes the characters (and sometimes the monsters, oh no!) more dangerous as the fight progresses. This turned the cleric in our party into an UNSTOPPABLE GODBLADE OF VENGEANCE, which really started to annoy the barbarian.
- Fight in Spirit. You know what’s great? A thrilling, roller-coaster of a battle. You know what’s not great? When this fight happened, your character happened to be at the library reading. As a player, you have to sit there and watch of all your so-called friends have a great time. Jerks. But this “fight in spirit” actually lets you participate! It’s not automatic; you do have to roleplay yourself into the moment, explaining how you’re boosting morale. But you do get to play.
For a more thorough take on D&D 5E, please see Jonathan Baldwin’s article, “What Comes Next: The Future of D&D,” which has covered many of the things I was already thinking about. Still, I have all this white space, so I probably should say something.
I absolutely love what they’ve done with Advantage / Disadvantage. Someone deserve a kiss full on the lips for coming up with this, though probably from a person more attractive than me. It is one of those rare rules that covers nearly every circumstance, but is single-celled organism simple. If you’re in a good spot (enemy is blinded, you are blessed, DM likes the cut of your jib), you have advantage and so you roll twice and take the better roll. If you’re in a bad spot (sneaking in heavy armor, you’re cursed, DM just found out what you did to his dog), you have disadvantage and so you roll twice and take the worse roll.
While I was initially concerned about the significant shrinkage in numbers across the game (bonuses are down, defenses are down, hit points are way, WAY down), I only recently realized that I had fallen for the trick of the Millionaire Monopoly game, that by adding zeroes to everything increases the enjoyment by an order of magnitude. In fact, it just makes the math harder (“Okay, I rolled an 8, I have a +35, so that’s… wait… uh… okay, 43! Hit! Now I roll six 12-sided dice, add 26, and it’s… hmmm… a really big number.”).
These were three very different games, with very different rules and mechanics, but they resulted in 12 hours of lotza joy, and not a single moment of my checking the time and wondering when we’d be done. I got caught up in the games, in the story and excitement of them, and yes, credit goes to the GMs and to the setting and to my fellow players, but I don’t dare forget about the games themselves. I would recommend each of them. Go, spend money. The creators deserve it. Tell them I sent you. Don’t be surprised if their immediate response is, “Who?”