Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Morgan's Dead of Winter 2016 Excellent Adventures

Dead of Winter Horror Invitational 2016

This year's DoW was the 2nd best DoW; the best being the first one I attended in 2009 where I was introduced to Dread by Kristin S. and had the legendary way-over-the-top game with Matt A., Matt D., Matt G., Mike M., Shannon M., and I. As a side thought, the first DoW happened before I was blogging about my RPG adventures and it was such a memorable experience, I should write it up before old age sets in and I forget everything. DoW? What? Who? Eh? What that you say?

This year, I didn't run a game, but decided to try for the Player lottery. DoW GMs automatically get a seat, but the remaining seats are filled in a first-come, first-served basis and are generally filled right after registration opens in the first day, if not the first few hours. All the games I was in this year were excellent, not good, or fair, or bad, but excellent, like three Michelin stars excellent, a gourmet gaming experience bonanza. So, in this article, I'm going to focus on the GM chef tricks of the trade that I noticed which contributed to the experience.

I hide spoiler sections with JavaScript. If you have JavaScript turned off, you can skip the spoiler sections I have marked. 

Dec 10, Saturday 11am
Game System: Call of Cthulhu 7th ed.
Scenario Title: And For My Next Trick
GM: Aaron Vanek
Number of Players: 6 (Mike G. / Alexis G. / Bill L. / Josh C. / Shannon M. / Morgan H.)
Characters Provided: Yes
Description: In the 1920's, Scientific American magazine offered a reward of $2500 to anyone who could definitively prove they possessed psychic abilities. Their investigative team included: Dr. William McDougall, a founder of modern psychology; Dr. Daniel Comstock, the inventor of Technicolor film; Dr. Walter Franklin Prince, an Episcopalian minister; and Harry Houdini.

The magazine rescinded the offer after internal strife regarding “The Margery Incident” and the team went their separate ways. But the managing editor of SA, J. Malcolm Bird, is putting the group back together for one more investigation. Pre-generated characters are these historical figures, including Houdini.

I really enjoyed this game due to the interaction between the players and the nice buildup of tension and action.

Trick 1: Do research, but use it as a jumping off point, not as the template for the game.

This game was very well researched. But the research material is only the jumping off point for the game. Some GMs make the mistake of using real history as the template for the whole game and try to railroad the players into playing out the historical events. That is a big mistake. Instead, Aaron started with the historical events having already happened and the game starting afterwards. The other thing Aaron did was to tell us, that though the characters are historical, once the players get their hands on them, we can do as we want and ahistorical events could happen. e.g. Houdini can die early.

The famous historical event that already happened before the game started was Houdini and Margery. You can read about it in the links below (I dug this up after the game):
Trick 2. Randomize hidden die rolls.

Matt S. uses a technique for hidden die rolls. He has players roll a series of 1d100 for hidden rolls and have them written down on a sheet of paper. For instance, instead of asking a player to roll a Spot Hidden, he just looks it up on the sheet and crosses it out. This prevents the players from meta-gaming a roll when they fail a roll. How many times has a GM asked a player to roll a Spot Hidden and after a failure, the other players ask to make a Spot Hidden also? Well, Aaron has a nice variation on this. He had each of us roll a series of ten 1d100 and have us write it down on a single shared sheet of paper that's handed to the GM. Then instead of going through the pre-rolled numbers top-down, he rolls 1d10 and selects that pre-rolled number, so if a player had memorized their rolls, it's now randomized. Nice.

Trick 3. The third technique he used which I want to talk about is in the Spoiler section.

Dec 10, Saturday 7pm
Game System: Call of Cthulhu 7th ed.
Scenario Title: The Road
GM: Aaron Teixeira
Power Level: US Army Engineers
Number of Players: 6 (Bill L. / Morgan H. / Matt R. / Mike E. / Chris O. / Skylar W.)
Characters Provided: Yes
Description: February 6th, 1942, the US Army, with authorization from Congress and President Roosevelt, approved plans to build a road from the Dawson Creek, British Columbia through the Yukon to Delta Junction, Alaska. Ten thousand men are cutting their way through the frozen North where the muck and mire reach up to swallow their tractors and eyes watch them from the darkened forest.

Again really good research into the dark history of WW2 - pun intended. The character interactions were great and there was a really good buildup to the spectacular ending. A minor spoiler, but it's a reveal in the first ten seconds of the game, the engineering group we're playing belongs to an all black battalion.

Here are links to the historical event that I found after the game:
Trick 1: If you want to build camaraderie, put them in a situation that they must work together.

Aaron was able to create camaraderie between the characters through shared hardship. It all started with man vs nature, not man vs man, so we had to band together to beat nature and our initial man vs man issues.

Trick 2: Know when to ignore game system rules.

Aaron doesn't play by the rules. One of the main rules of most RPGs is that the GM decides which rules to apply and which to ignore. A lot of GMs forget this number one rule. Aaron lets players push and burn luck at the same time to avoid critical failures (a big no-no in CoC 7th rules), just so they can survive and be a band of brothers to face the finale together.

Trick 3: Understand your game and what serves it best. Not all games must run in real time.

Between set pieces, Aaron was willing to let days if not weeks go by for the characters. More about this in the spoiler section.

Trick 4: When a PC is going to die, give them a choice as to how they want it to end.

Sometimes PC death is unavoidable. But when my character was going to bite the big one, Aaron gave me a choice of Everywhere, Down, or Up.  I picked Up. So, instead of just dying in some horrible way and just becoming a blood splattered corpse which I expected to happen, I got to choose, which was very cool.

Dec 11, Sun 11am
Game System: Nemesis | ORE
Scenario Name: The House that Jaeger Built
GM: Jack Young
Variations: Modern day, no Madness Meter, minor hacks
Power Level: Experienced special agents and consultants
Number of Players: 6  (Jill S. / Matt A. / Aaron V. / John C. / Jason M. / Morgan H.)
Characters Provided: Of course
New York occult author Lucy Kane is missing.  The Psychological Crimes Division of the FBI handles cases of an occult, serial, or unusual nature and your team has been called in to aid in the investigation.  Will a decrepit Bronx hotel give up its secrets . . . or its dead?

I'm a big fan of Jack's games and I had heard great things about this game, so I was excited about playing in it. The thing about Jack's games is that they never finish on time. They always run long. So, this time, Jack worked on speeding things up and kept the meat of the game. Afterwards, someone who had played in this game before told me this game should really be a 9 hour game. But kudos to Jack, we finished in 6.5 hours.

Trick 1: Don't be afraid to tell players things and emphasize it is not a GM trick.

To cut various investigative leads out and to save time, Jack told us, these things were already done and by trusted people. Just to give us a flavor, the asked us what we would look at and just narrated the fruitless dead ends that we ourselves ran into. So, we shortcut to the House that Jaeger Built where our adventure really begins - and it's no secret since it's in the game title and game description.

Trick 2: Don't be afraid to shorten combat to save time for more important scenes.

At one point, Jack was going to let one of the major bad guys get away and extend the combat, but we were already short on time, so he was brave enough to ret-con himself (which a lot of GMs are afraid to do) and said, "Let me change this. You actually shoot him in the head and he's dead." Which was ok since the PC did do a head shot, but it was a tie between the bad guy and the PC. Initially, Jack was going to rule that the bad guy got away (probably with some reduced damage), but changed his mind. There was still going to be more major action to come, so it was a trade off between lessening the events at this point, but allowing time for the finale.  What would be worse would be running out of time and having to narrate the finale.

Dec 11, Sun 7pm
Game System: The Veil (Evolved)
Scenario Title: Meat
GM: Matthew Grau
Variations: Splatterpunk
Power Level: Transhuman (of a sort)
Number of Players: 6 (Aaron T. / Lis H. / Morgan H. / Frank F.)
Characters Provided: Yes
Description: Fall in the Midwest. What a wonderful time to go camping with your friends! The leaves are just starting to turn, the crisp air is invigorating, and the summer bugs are gone. You’ve got your tent, your flashlight, and a cooler stocked with cheap beer and meat for the fire. The venison burgers are already smelling good. Yup, this is just about as good as it gets.

This is a Body Horror Splatterpunk-style game, which means lots of violence and gore. I’ll do terrible things to you, and you’ll do terrible things to others. I’ll be making custom characters based on who is playing, so that the horror can be a little more personal. This game is also diceless, so you’ll be actively participating in crafting the narrative. Just want to be up-front in case any of this isn’t your cup of tea.

OMG, I laughed through all 6 hours of this game.  Lis and Aaron were amaze balls in this. I don't think I can describe any part of this game without getting into trouble (I'll put some of the more tame stuff in the spoiler section), so the only thing I can say is that it was definitely xXx-Rated for sexual content. Lis and Aaron carried most of this game and I was happy to watch the most amazing game ever.

Trick 1: When great scenes eat up your time, let them run, don't cut them short, but steal time from follow-on scenes or throw scenes out and only keep the essential ones.

Matt had a lot of scenes and encounters and I think he threw out at least half of what he had for us and only kept the bare bones.  We finished in time and had a great time. I think letting the narrative flow go until a natural stopping point worked very well. Instead of cutting a scene short, Matt just threw away scenes he probably spent a lot of time working on to adjust for the time we were taking in each scene.

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