The Shiny, the Weird, and the Neoclassic: Role-playing at Gen Con 2014

I scheduled a trio of role-playing sessions for my trip to Gen Con this year: a custom Firefly adventure, Monte Cook Games’ “Into the Violet Vale,” a Numenera convention event, and a one-hour Dungeons & Dragons encounter, “Defiance in Phlan.”

The Shiny: Firefly

GCPFirefly

This was my introduction to Margaret Weis Productions’ Cortex Plus System, as well as the first time I’ve participated in a game where the players all took on the roles of existing characters in a well-established fictional universe. For me – playing River Tam – the latter definitely eased the former, since it meant I could use familiarity with the character to shape my decisions and dialogue first, and worry about game mechanics second.

Paul, our GM, created a nicely compact and chapter-driven adventure incorporating a saloon brawl, infiltration of a starship impound lot, and a dramatic mining facility showdown. In addition to using Firefly characters and locations, he also tied parts of the plot to past events on the show – the game itself is set prior to the events of the movie Serenity – which really made the game feel like we were smack in the middle of a long-lost episode.

We had a six-person group, so we played without Simon, Inara, and Shepherd Book. And although they weren’t in on the shenanigans, we were given leeway to include them if we had a plan specifically requiring their talents.

Because we were playing the roles of Mal, Zoe, Wash, Jayne, Kaylee, and River, we didn’t go through character creation, although we did look over our various skills and attributes to learn about how they’d be put to use.

Cortex Plus action outcomes – from combat to stealth to social interaction – are determined by a roll-and-keep system. Players get to roll dice of varying size and quantity depending on their particular skills and distinctions, keeping the two highest numbers to compare against the difficulty of the task.

It’s a system designed to facilitate storytelling, while keeping things unpredictable and creative for both players and the GM. Swerves in the story take the form of assets, complications, and plot points.

Rolling a 1 in your dice pool can generate a GM-determined negative consequence – whether you succeed with your two highest dice or not – that adds a new wrinkle to the situation. Could be that you’re suddenly out of grenades, could be that you ticked off a hired gun who’s now going to focus her wrath specifically on you. These consequences then affect subsequent die rolls.

Plot points are given to players as a reward for things like dealing with these new troubles or acting in-character even when it’s risky from a traditional RPG success standpoint. You can then spend plot points do do something like create a situationally-plausible asset that boosts your dice pool or allows a re-roll when it’s needed most.

It’s kind of a difficult system to explain, but I now more fully understand what people mean when they talk about a system that leans hard on storytelling and creates an arena where a die rolls aren’t necessarily the final arbiters of fate. In some ways, I guess it felt like the Firefly RPG asks its players and GMs to really explore the “why” of its settings and characters than the “how” of the mechanics.

For instance, as River, I earned a plot point for drawing attention to myself in a less-than-ideal situation – a tense firefight. Later, I was spotted behind a mining facility shed, so I spent a plot point to say that she was crouching next to a sand blaster, which could conceivably be used as a weapon. Now, from a strictly game-mechanics point of view, all I was really doing was reducing one stat (my plot points) to bolster another (adding 1d6 to my dice pool). But the spirit of the game was really about coming up with why: Hence, the sand blaster.

It took between four and five hours for the seven of us to see our Firefly adventure to its conclusion, and I loved every minute of it. I did feel like the game would be a real challenge for a first-time GM, given the need to come up with complications on the fly, and to properly educate and encourage the players in their use of plot points and assets, but in the hands of someone who’s familiar with the art of collaborative storytelling, the Firefly RPG played just as shiny as they come.

The Weird: Numenera

GCPNumenera

Numenera is meant to be weird. The Ninth World is built on the bones of prior civilizations that not only created technologies that surpass understanding but also lived in cultures and carried out activities that cannot be imagined by the current inhabitants…Weird is a combination of frightening and interesting. It’s a combination of disturbing and fascinating….Weird is sustained by mystery, and mystery comes from the unknown and the unexplained. This means that in Numenera, no player should ever truly feel like he understands everything around him.
– Numenera core rulebook, Chapter 23

There’s a reason Numenera won several Ennie Awards – including the Gold medal for Product of the Year – during Gen Con: It’s a fantastically-realized world and system, and honestly, even if I’d never gotten the chance to play it, the core rulebook and its extensive worldbuilding is an inspiring imagination-sparker in its own right.

I was incredibly excited to get a seat at one of Monte Cook Games’ “Into the Violet Vale” sessions, and I wasn’t disappointed. Although this four-hour adventure was designed with beginning players in mind and included a selection of pre-generated characters to choose from, I still spent some time before Gen Con re-reading sections of my Numenera core rule book and creating a character, just to get myself in that weird frame of mind.

Because MCG continues to run Into the Violet Vale as a convention adventure – last I checked, there were still some seats available during Dragon Con – I’ll refrain from detailing the plot and conflicts. Suffice to say it was a pretty quick and straightforward scenario that included a nice mix of combat and mystery, and served as a fine introduction the Ninth World and the Numenera gaming system.

As I noted, we didn’t create our characters for this session, but to offer a bit of background, Numenera characters are shaped by filling in the blanks of the sentence “I am a (Descriptor) (Type) who (Focus).” It’s a deceptively simple idea that hides an incredible range of possibilities: There are three main character types – Glaives (warriors), Nanos (“mages” who derive their power from the Ninth World’s omnipresent nanotechnology), and Jacks (multi-talented adventurers who dabble in many areas of expertise). Descriptors are adjectives like Intelligent, Stealthy, and Learned, which each bring different advantages and liabilities to a character, and Focus attributes make that character unique, helping establish connections with other characters and providing strange powers and skills.

For instance, I played the character of Leve, a strong-willed nano who wields power with precision. In approximate D&D terms, think of me as a magic-user with a really high intelligence and special knowledge of magic items.

Game play is built on the Cypher System, which boils down to a single mechanic: A player says what they want to do; the GM determines how difficult that task is on a scale of 1 to 10; the player rolls a d20 against the target number, which is three times the difficulty, to see whether they succeed. So, something simple – difficulty level 1 – requires rolling a 3 or greater, while a difficulty level 10 task (which would require rolling a 30) can only be accomplished by applying various skills and extra efforts to lower the level of difficulty.

The greeblies in the game are all in those skills and efforts and nifty pieces of equipment you find lying around the Ninth World, but it really is a pretty basic system that encourages a lot of storytelling freedom.

One major difference between Numenera and D&D-style games is the use of Experience Points, which in this setting are much more akin to the Plot Points of the aforementioned Firefly. They’re awarded one at a time when the GM “intrudes” with an unexpected challenge, or when the party makes an important discovery, and can be “spent” to address such challenges, in addition to being used to advance a character in between adventures.

Our GM that Friday morning at Gen Con was Andrew Cady, the guy behind the Ninth World Chronicles podcast. He did a great job bringing our group immediately into the setting and getting things rolling while explaining the basics of the game and our characters, and in establishing an atmosphere where I felt comfortable getting into character with a bunch of people I hadn’t known at breakfast.

In fact, Andrew excelled: A little more than three hours into our scheduled four-hour adventure, we took a short break. At this point, he let us know that we had actually completed the final prepared stage of the adventure, but we were all working and playing together so well that he had crafted a custom ending just for our characters, and that if we didn’t have anyplace to rush off to, he was happy to see us through to the finish.

None of us opted to leave early.

I haven’t sat behind the GM screen since middle school, but playing Numenera at Gen Con has me itching to run a Ninth World adventure, and seeing the system in action has me thinking I could pull it off.

The Neoclassic: Dungeons & Dragons – “Defiance in Phlan”

Adventurers League

I’ve been playing the newest D&D since the Starter Set was released, so the one-hour session Dave Banks and I played at Gen Con wasn’t my introduction to the game’s fifth edition. It did, though, provide a nice window into the Tyranny of Dragons story arc, and even at half the length of last year’s D&D Gen Con mini-adventures, it showcased 5e’s throwback flavor and adaptability.

Dave and I joined our friends Paul and Wendy, along with two other players and our GM , Jason Flowers at a six-person table for “Defiance in Phlan” on Saturday morning. We each chose a pre-generated character – one of the other players had a level two character from an earlier session, which I’ll get to in a minute – and selected an affiliation with one of the five societal factions helping drive the storyline. (The Harpers, Order of the Gauntlet, Emerald Enclave, Lords’ Alliance, and Zhentarim.)

See, this adventure actually consisted of five separate missions, each tied to the goals of one of the factions. Every one-hour session covered one of these encounters, so if you wanted to experience “Defiance in Phlan” in its entirety, you had to buy tickets to five sessions, and you’d need to tell the organizers which ones you’d played already, so they could put you in an appropriate group. (This is how we wound up with that second-level party member: He’d already played a couple sessions with his character.)

At just 60 minutes, this mission zipped by quickly, but again, some differences between the new and previous D&D iterations were clear from the start. There were no maps or minis on the table. Combat visualization was in our imaginations and through the old-fashioned use of pencils, paper and dice sitting on the table. The new system supports minis, of course, but encounters feel much less reliant on the use of figures and grids to work out movement and fighting.

Jason was a good GM, and I enjoyed the session, although if I had known about the five different encounters ahead of time, I probably would have tried to play Defiance in Phlan at least one more time to experience one of the other factions’ missions.

So: I spent one part of Gen Con 2014 as a high elf wizard, another as a techno-magic user a billion years in the future, and another as a mind-scrambled-but-brilliant teenage girl who can kill you with her brain.

And while I didn’t want to go into the show with too many scheduled events on my plate, I’m already thinking that next year I’d like to work more small-group role-playing sessions into my Gen Con weekend.

 

Writer John Booth lives in northeast Ohio with his wife and daughter. He is the author of the book "Collect All 21! Memoirs of a Star Wars Geek – The First 30 Years."