So I attended KublaCon over Memorial Day weekend. For a one-day visit I thought it was among my most successful cons in recent years. I got to play a role-playing game (Dungeon Crawl Classics), a long-and-involved con game (Arkham Horror), a round of my current favorite game (Netrunner), and a new game I’d never tried before (Seasons).
Briefly, here’s how the board games went down:
- Arkham Horror – We played with a couple (Josh and Shannon) we met in passing who had played more recently than we had so they saved us a lot of Rules Lookup Phases and really just sort of greased the wheels so we could bang out a full game. One observation I had was that I’m coming to believe that AH is really a game that is a lot easier the more players you have. I know the mechanics are set up to accommodate varying player counts, but the thing is, as you play you find your characters begin to settle into various roles: monster control, gate closers, magical support, etc. With fewer players, any time one person who fills one of those roles starts to struggle whether from a curse or through a tough fight that leaves them needing stamina and sanity refreshes, the others suddenly have to try to fill the gaps and it can lead to a downward spiral. With more players (like the five we had), even if one or two people are sort of stuck or unable to contribute much for a few rounds, it’s not the beginning of the end. Which may just be a long way of saying, we ended up winning quite handily.
- Netrunner – I played corp against Aaron and randomly selected a Jinteki identity from one of the expansions. I think it would have been a pretty close game except I made a severe tactical error about midway through when I tapped out all my credits. I don’t know what I was thinking, but let’s just say Aaron noticed the mistake and took full advantage of me not being able to rez any of my ice. I was struggling for credits quite a bit the whole game (sort of unusual for corp), but it was an unnecessary move and I paid for it. Still loving this game, and wishing I had a more regular opponent so I could dive into deckbuilding a bit more.
- Seasons – Aaron and I played this with Geoff and Lisa. It’s a drafted deck building game with a pretty clever timing mechanism. I think the game box (and Geoff) drastically, woefully underestimated how long it would take to play, but I really enjoyed it quite a bit. I’d love to have a chance to play it again, but I agreed with Geoff that there needs to be an alternate scoring sheet/mechanism than the tiny cube-track the game provides. It’s pretty miserable.
I race through those in an effort to get to the part where I talk about Dungeon Crawl Classics. I only know about this system through Thom, who is super into it right now and I can really see why.
Before I get too down into it, let me just say that I actually love the heavily themed and richly personal experience many, if not most, modern role-playing games provide. Or, at least, facilitate. At least, I love them in theory because frankly I almost never get to play them. The time investment required to develop not just the campaign or individual adventures but the character and party is, and has been for years now, too much for me. As such I’ve grudgingly accepted the occasional one-shot, pregen’d con adventure, and even tried a PBEM campaign which—also it turns out—required too much time to keep up with.
The missing part, the in-between, is the casual role-playing experience with a focus on the role-playing mechanic without the overhead of the storytelling function. And maybe this is weird because I’m someone who loves stories—loves them. Story is part of the reason I play games, it informs the kinds of games I most enjoy. What I think playing DCC at KublaCon this year revealed to me is that there is an implication behind the desire to tell stories with role-playing games that often overshadows the bare fact itself which is that we (or maybe just I) tend to want to tell epic stories through role-playing. We tend to look for the full arc of the hero’s journey and in doing so we can miss the small story told by a short one-off. In the former sense, we need to finely tune and craft every element of our character, create in them a sense of personhood so that we can inhabit them the way a method actor might. We plan their progression, we build in them their history through the shared experiences of the encounter, the adventure, the episode, the campaign.
As I said, this is good. This is fun. This is, however, a lot of work.
The way Thom ran DCC, we each rolled up three characters. DCC characters can be made, down to the race and class and starting equipment, with die rolls on a series of tables. Random character generation is, in my opinion, even better than pregen. It’s fun in and of itself. Let me say this right here and now: DCC is awesome because it remembers that simply rolling polyhedral dice in and of itself is a blast. And DCC uses some crazy, off-counter dice. D24s, D3s, D30s, D17s. Why? Who cares? Why not? Awesome dice are awesome, that’s why. Do you remember the first time you rolled a D20? How cool it was that it had so many more sides than your typical box dice? That’s the reason for using funky dice.
The characters you generate this way are sketchy. It’s okay. They’re supposed to be. They have alignments and hit points and starting cash and a few saving throw modifiers, everything you need to execute during an adventure, but they don’t have much personality. It’s okay. Random zero levels are like cannon fodder. You run three of them because it lets you have a half a chance against low level monsters you may run up against. Two of mine died in the first fight our party of 12 got into. One died before the adventure even started because Aaron forgot and rolled up four. They give the game a computer RPG sensibility, and one that is exceptionally welcome in a cobbled-together environment like a convention game. Or a Saturday one-off.
The thing is, if your character lives, she goes to level one and then you can, if you want, form bonds with character, other PCs, NPCs and so on. If not, you’ve had a chance to play a collaborative, story-focused game that interacts with your imagination more than bits or chits, providing that unique experience only a tabletop RPG can provide.