Forge Midwest was this past weekend, and if you follow me you’ll know that I was there playing games. It’s three days of small-con fun — mostly small-press RPGs, but not exclusively — held in Madison, WI.

TL;DR — Forge Midwest is awesome and you should go. I played great games with great people and miss them all already. It is my favorite con of all cons.

Velvet Glove, a PbtA game about ‘70s girl gangs GM’ed by Joe Beason, was the highlight of the con for me. I almost jumped into a different game, but the subject matter plus Joe was just too good to pass up.

This game was extremely uncomfortable for me, in a good way. PCs are all girls in the gang, and part of the GM’s agenda is to show how hard their lives are, a big portion of which revolves around how they are treated by men. Joe was masterful in playing out all kinds of micro (and macro) aggressions — the assistant principal’s hand on a PC’s hip for one beat too long, a PC’s dad offering another PC a beer. Joe had me and the other man at the table just squicking out, and had the two women playing both squicking and nodding their heads. I don’t feel like playing a woman PC has ever mattered as much as it did in this game.

This is a very tight design that brings the serous feels; if you dig PbtA games, take a look at this one. Sarah Richardson knocked it out of the park.

Trouble For Hire almost tied with the above for con highlight (sorry Nathan Paoletta, but you were really close!). I backed the KS for this, but wasn’t totally grabbed by the premise. Having played it, however, I am now completely sold. (Nathan told me that this is not an uncommon experience.)

It’s GM-less/full game built around constructing a “road movie” about Ruben Carlos Ruiz, the Southwestern grindhouse hero tasked with odd jobs that probably won’t end well. The game assigns the players different roles — Ruben, The Editor, the road itself, the antagonists, etc. — that rotate from turn to turn. There’s an economy of tokens called “RPM” that are spent to manipulate play in a manner appropriate to the player’s role, and Ruben’s player rolls 2d6 on a set of tables (much cooler than it sounds) when the rubber hits the road.

Our movie involved the search for a lost cache of whiskey and gold, a collection of counterfeit rabbit-skin maps to said cache, the Rider, some mystics, some armed dime-store cowboys, the Arizona Ranger, Ruben’s near-totaled Corvette, and a plucky little girl-slash-con-artist. I had a blast.

Honestly, I think this is the perfect convention game. 100% serious. I am boggled both by how simple and how brilliant it is.

Follow was the one game that I facilitated. I’ve had great success with Ben Robbins other games at FMW, so I figured this was a good choice. It’s zero-prep and focused on a fellowship of characters working together to achieve a goal, two of my favorite things.

We ended up creating a Shackletonmeets-Carpenter’sThe Thing story about turn-of-the-20th-century polar explorers trapped by cultists and the kraken they worship. It started as a big-budget action piece, but, given the luck of the stone-drawing system at the core of the game, turned into abject indie horror as almost everyone died or went insane at the end.

I had a great time and almost ended up offering the game again in the following slot, but then Joe had to go and say he was running Masks. But first let me say that whatever the heck it is that Ben is doing with his games is obviously working for me, Czege Principle be damned. I consistently have highly addictive fun with them.

Masks… So, as I said, Joe ran this. I can’t resist supers, especially supers with feels. I played, essentially, Kid Thor, a hammer-wielding teen with god-like beauty who started the game hanging out in a stretch SUV with Kendrick Lamarr.

I was surprised how much more supers and less feels there were than I expected. I really liked all of our characters, and the teen supers color was there in spades, but most of the session seemed to revolve around rolling Unleash Your Power and trying to down the bad guys.I think it may’ve been a consequence of con fatigue, lack of deep system knowledge, and the fact that the game seems more geared for campaign play than one-shots. I absolutely had fun, but now would really like to get the game to a table over at least 3-4 sessions and with a smaller group.

Caravans and Swords Without Master were the two other RPGs I played, both sharing the dubious honor of being games I just couldn’t wrap my head around, despite being fun sessions with great players.

Caravans used a blind bidding system with different colored stones and lots of various character bits. It may have been the late (for me) hour, but I simply could not grok the bidding economy. I was playing a powerful wizard and mostly just let everyone else tell me what to do system-wise.

Swords Without Master is a game I’ve played once before, but still haven’t read the actual text. Jon Cole helped our little group create a great story of epic-level awesomeness, no doubt, but the core of the game still feels opaque to me. Again, this was Sunday morning, so my own fuzziness is probably very much to blame. I also tend to feel that the result of play is a group of stories happening at the same time rather than a single story with multiple protagonists. Again, could be the morning fuzzies. At the bare minimum, I finally got to play a game with +Aaron Griffin, a longtime G+ acquaintance.

Lastly, I played a wonderful game of Cat Lady with Eric Farmer, his wife (not sure if she is on here), and Dave Michalak. I’m not a big card/board gamer, but I had a blast and will probably buy a copy. (My wife: “Is there a dog version?”)

I am already thinking about what I can run next year.

#ForgeMidwest2018

Forge Midwest 2018 After Action Report

This year was truly a great con for me- one of the best, which is saying something. All the games I played were consistently good- there were no games that were simply ‘okay,’ or felt like they had been time poorly spent. It was three full days of adrenaline, which I am still riding as I write this.

As con organizer, a few notables this year: we extended the dinner break a half hour, which I think proved to be a good decision, giving people some extra wiggle room to not have to rush, get a sit-down meal if they want it, or extend the afternoon games. There’s not really a time buffer needed between the evening and late-night slots, so there didn’t seem to be a noticeable negative effect on the evening games.

Attendance was down this year, which was actually a relief. Last year we were beginning to meet our capacity, crowding the space, increasing the noise level and stressing the limits of the pitches system. I was worried that continued growth would force changes to the con that would drastically change its character, and we are fortunate to not have to face those potentially difficult choices yet. I do a rough head count during the pitch sessions (more people drift in afterwards of course), and would estimate attendance at being between 40-50 people.

We funded for the convention, and came out a bit ahead to help cover some of the beverages, food, and incidentals we provided, so thanks to everyone for your generous support. I still have to do the final tally, but I believe we actually raised more money with less people than last year.

For the crowdfunding activity, I had a poster sheet of 1 inch squares, and each dollar donated let you fill in 1 square. In the past I have relied upon counting squares to track money donated, but some people don’t like to fill in their squares right away, so I think we have raised less money than we have and get anxious. This year Tim Jensen and I made the sensible decision to actually count the money at the end of the day, so we knew where we actually were instead of eyeballing a dubious indicator. In the past I had run very silly last-day scenarios with these crowd-made maps, usually using the Itras By system, however in recent years I have lost enthusiasm for this. If someone else wants to pick up the torch and reignite this tradition, by all means please do so.

I think the hotel staff really went above and beyond this year to take care of us, filling up water frequently, cleaning up garbage, and on Saturday and Sunday they even set out index cards and pens at all the tables! (I’m not sure why they did this- I think there may have been some game instructions lying out that said everyone needs an index card, or maybe the only thing they knew about us is that we really love our index cards, which is not wrong.) I will be sending them a thank you note, and encourage you to do so if you feel similarly.

One of my regrets is not getting to play all the games- there were so many evocative and provocative pitches for games that I wished I could play, and some hard choices had to be made about what to play in, which is a really good problem to have. My other regret is not getting to meet and interact with more people, which sadly is a restriction of time and space.

As always, if you have any concerns about the convention, have an experience to share, or just want to say thanks, you can contact me, publicly or privately.

Ok, onto the fun stuff. Apologies if I forgot your name, or got it wrong.

Friday:

Game #0- Jump Drive, with Tim Jensen
Race for the Galaxy is one of those games that is intense, strategic, fast-playing… and utterly opaque to newcomers. Jump Drive is the rules light version, which plays in half the time (or less). You play one or two cards from your hand, discarding other cards to pay for the costs, getting a discount or refund if you only played one card. Each of your cards gives you income, either in points or drawing more cards, which may depend on making combinations with other cards that you have played. First person to fifty points wins. It is simultaneous solitaire, much less interactive than Race- there’s pretty much nothing you can do to slow someone else down, and it’s a brutal, unforgiving race to get a better engine faster. Tim is good, but I’m usually a turn ahead of him, which is all it takes. Its a good game to introduce people to the concepts of Race for the Galaxy, so you can graduate them up to it, and it plays in ten minutes so it makes a great filler game. And yes, I crushed him.

Game #1- Tyrants of the Underdark, with David Rothfeder, Sabe Jones, and one more.
Friday morning is the first official slot, and I like to use it as an opportunity for a nice moderately-meaty board game. I chose Tyrants of the Underdark, a D&D inspired game where you play Drow houses competing for territory in the Underdark. You have a deckbuilder portion where you recruit characters, then the board element where you fill the map with your units. Direct conflict is expensive, so it involves picking key units to assassinate so you can send in your own troops. As I was explaining the game, Sabe came in late, and we were able to seat him at our table. Everyone did pretty well- scores tend to be close in this game, the spread from top score to bottom score being around 10 points in this one, with David edging me out by a single point.

Game #2- Qivittok: The Fell Walker, ran by Tayler Stokes, with Shari Corey, and two more
Qivittok is a game about four people going on a polar bear hunt in Greenland in 1985, but like the eponymous Mountain Witch, it’s not really about that, it’s about the personal demons of the characters. Unlike The Mountain Witch, it is not a game about interpersonal conflict, but about sacrifice and hardship, and how far you are willing to go to confront those demons.
One of the interesting things is the cultural expectation that social problems be ignored, so we spent a lot of time ignoring a lot of very obvious problems. There was a moment, where I felt that this is where reasonable people would turn back, the effective point of no return, where we all looked at each other and basically silently agreed we would go on.
I found this game to be very introspective, which can be difficult in a roleplaying game because the medium is inherently social, so a game where you feel deep feels and then do not talk about them means that they bottle up until something forces them out, at which point your character probably dies gloriously.
Also, Greenlandic native folklore is seriously interesting.

Game #3 Dialect, ran by Jon Cole, with Shari, Brendan Day, and one more
Dialect is a game about linguistic drift. You play characters cut off from the rest of society (in our case, a Mars colony), dealing with their own social issues and cultural challenges, plus the technical challenge of being on a planet that just is not set up for life to do its thing. You take turns playing cards that suggest a type of word, define it, then play a short scene featuring that word. For example, you might define “Sina”’ (an abbreviation of ‘Senior’) as a suffix that’s technically an honorific when talking about someone higher than you in the colony hierarchy, but which in practice is a sarcastic insult, implying that their job is not inherently more important than yours, an implicit rejection of the harsh technocratic caste structure imposed by colony leadership (‘Director-Sina, I brought you those TPS reports.’) In later rounds, cards shift and change the meanings of words, as they broaden or narrow in scope, or pick up additional subtext.

The scenes are really only supposed to be about using the word in conversation (and incorporating other words), but being the hardcore story gamers we are, we weaved a tale of social unrest and shifting social hierarchies as we all tried to do the best we could. I was Director of Strategic Operations Fiona Wu, self-appointed protector of the colony. Shari played the ‘magician’ a social-engineer who uses back channels to try to get people what they need, who functioned as the colony’s bartender and counselor. Director Wu was all about strict programs and adherence to technocratic ideals in face of staggering natural adversity, and basically despised Shari’s character, which I’m not sure Shari picked up on until later in the game. (She framed several scenes ‘in the bar’ where anyone could hang out and chime in. Director Wu does not ‘hang out’ in the bar.)

In the end, we all died. Did Wu’s rigidity doom the colony? Was I the antagonist? Those are sure some tenure questions, as they might say on Ares Base.

Saturday:

Game #4 Tribunal, facilitated by Tayler Stokes, plus many people
Tribunal is a Nordic Larp where you play soldiers in the military of a corrupt regime, faced with a Catch-22: two members of your unit have been accused of a crime they did not commit, and will probably be executed. If you testify the truth, you may be punished. What do you do? Also, everyone has animal names that inspire their personality. I was vain Peacock, strutting about, trying to be the center of attention, telling long moralistic fables and trying to upstage everyone else. I did not care about the justice of this situation so much as I did about appearing to be an important person in the decision making process. I especially enjoyed my interactions with Tim Koppang’s loyal Dog, who just wanted the best for everyone and for everyone to get along and for someone to tell him what to do, who, after I came up with a plan, would say “hey everybody, let’s just do what Peacock says,” which was music to my ears, and Matt Strickling clever and conniving Raven, who had a good plan that seemed to get most of us out alive, but almost as important, made for a good story that I could tell everyone again and again.
Some interesting things- Tribunal was originally the first larp event ran at Forge Midwest, and is responsible for bringing a lot of people into the Nordic Larp ‘scene.’ And speaking of Tim Koppang, this was his first Larp, and I think he killed it.
Many people seem to be skeptical of Larp, for a variety of reasons- perhaps bad association with toxic larp environments they may have heard of (such as the stereotypical dysfunctional Vampire Larp social snake pit), disgust (‘ugh, larp is lame’), or fear (larp can be very emotionally intense), however my experience seems to be that for most people, once they try it, they want more. There are exceptions of course, and it is not for everyone, but if you have not tried a larp event, especially a self-contained ‘Nordic’ or ‘American Freeform’ Larp, I suggest you give it a try.
Our facilitator, Tayler, did something very interesting- after explaining and setting up the game, he did not play- he left the room, and came back an hour later to end the game. I asked him about this and he said he had played so many times he did not want to influence our experience, and also felt that if he stayed in the room to watch it might have been uncomfortable. He said he still enjoyed the experience, listening to us later and basking vicariously in our energy, and he led a great debrief session, prompting us to all talk about favorite moments of the other characters.

Interlude: Shari ordered a gigantic party sub for the convention, which I think many people greatly appreciate- I certainly enjoyed being able to not have to worry about lunch plans, or set time aside to leave the con. It gave me more time to chat with folks and also set up things for Game #5. However while setting things out, Shari managed to cut herself quite badly on the thumb and needed her daughter to drive her to urgent care. Seven stitches, and missing out on the afternoon session.

Game #5 Diplomacy, with Ralph Mazza, Nathan Paoletta, Clyde Rhoer, Jason Dettman, Colin Regan, and other Jason

I’m going to do a whole after action report for just this single game, but in short it was one of my favorite games of the con. Colin Regan had been talking a few months ago about wanting to try it, so I decided to set it up. We almost didn’t get to play, but Clyde came in late and I was able to rope him in. Everyone had a good time (I think). I think my stab of Colin was the highlight play of the game, made ever the more sweeter by the fact that he was the one reading my orders off, and the extent of my treachery became increasingly clear to him as he did so.
Diplomacy has a bad reputation as a friendship-ender, but I think we all played in good faith and recognized that it was just a game. It went a tad long (we played pretty fast rounds and clocked in at about four and a half hours, ending the game at a mutually agreed upon time), and I think fatigue was starting to set in for many of us. I checked in with Colin afterwards, and he said that he indeed get the Diplomacy experience that he was after, so no hard feelings… unless he’s setting me up for an even greater betrayal.
Anyway, despite it’s reputation, I think this game is the ultimate challenge of strategy (what is your long term conquest goal? Who can you work with as an ally? Who is the greatest threat?) and of tactics (just because you have more units does not mean that you win, if your opponent can anticipate your movements- and vice versa, just because you have less, does not mean that you cannot strike at vulnerable areas). It is elegant in its simplicity, but shows amazing complexity- every move on the board potentially affects every other one, so France and Turkey, for example, even though they may never be adjacent or even be fighting the same enemy at the same time, may still have many interesting things to talk about. I think it’s important to be pragmatic enough to recognize that even though someone has betrayed you, you still may need their help, and navigating the shifting web of alliances and enemies is like being at the center of a Game of Thrones episode. For my money, there’s nothing like the adrenaline rush of writing a set of particularly devious orders, then the anticipation of wondering what happens next- WILL IT WORK? How will my enemy choose to issue supports? Will my allies remain allies? Did I correctly read Colin’s intentions? And when a carefully executed plan comes to fruition? Pure bliss.
And actually winning Diplomacy? Nothing like it.

Game #6 Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Third Edition, with Sabe, Jason Grabau, and one more.
Warhammer Three is a weird game- it was the first RPG that Fantasy Flight put out, and boy howdy does it go full Fantasy Flight- decks of cards with abilities on them, tokens, weird dice, more tokens, and even more, smaller cards. It’s like playing a game of Arkham Horror and being like ‘I want an RPG with this many components.’ If you’ve played Edge of Empire or Genesys you’ve seen the streamlined, non-token-fest versions of the game, but there’s something endearing about the sheer component-mania. Rules-wise you get a bunch of dice with various symbols, some good, some bad, different symbols cancel each other out, and you’ve got either a success/fail, but also the potential for good or bad side effects, so each die roll is much more informative than a simple binary result, and the special ability cards get even more granular.
In Warhammer, there are basically two-scenarios: the cultists did it, or the Skaven did it. In this one, our intrepid band of murder-hobos in training took a job to investigate a manor house where some weird stuff was going on, and surprise- cultists did it!
As an investigation scenario, it incorporated an interesting mechanic I quite liked- a scenario tracker (made of interlocking puzzle piece chits, no less), where success in a scene moved up the good token, and failure or wasting time moved up the bad token. At certain intervals, something good or bad would happen- an answer of kinds to the problem of what happens if the players do not find the clue, to reward them with it after enough tangential successes, or escalate the badness if they don’t.
Since we were pressed for time, after the first encounter and a round of scenes, I did some aggressive scene framing so we could hit the high notes of the adventure- finding the creepy painting, giving the Dilettante a chance to find the banned books in the library (he failed), following up on the drugged dinner meal, and then right up to the summoning of the demon itself. Two out of the three characters got away, which seemed like a satisfying conclusion to the whole clusterfuck.

Sunday

Game #6 ½ Dear Leader- with Brendan and Tim
Played BEST GAME Dear Leader with Brendanin hotel breakfast area. Brendan made SMART moves as Dear Leader to make American potato farmers great again, but was not as great at Dear Leader as I was, because I may be the greatest player of it (and all other games) of all time.

Interlude: Tim and I, along with Kelley Vanda, were invited to record a Jank Cast episode with Joe Beason and Megan Pedersen regarding running small conventions. (Kelley, if you did not know, organized Minnesota Longcon with her husband Arnold Cassell ). It was nice to sit down for an hour and just talk about the logistics and challenges of running a convention, especially with people who have faced those same challenges. Hopefully you’ll be able to hear this soon.

Game #6 ¾ Jump Drive Redux- with Jason Dettman, Eric Farmer, and one more.
I taught this to two new players. This is one of those games that the mechanics are pretty simple, but the card combinations can be complex, and I absolutely blitzed through to victory- I wasn’t just a turn ahead, I was probably three or four. But people liked the game. There was general agreement that Race for the Galaxy (and Roll) are better games, but for a ten-minute pick up game it served admirably.

Game #7 Magnum Opus- by Tayler Stokes, with Tasha, and one more.
This is a game about making a bad movie, but you actually make the bad movie and have it as an artifact of play. Sort of the thing a tortured writer/director/producer/actor might make, like Manos: Hands of Fate or The Room. Everyone gets to take turns being said deluded director, and also has a character profile of the bad actor. There’s some prep to brainstorm ideas and components for the movie, which basically means cramming in too many themes and genres, and some strange directorial quirks. We played in the hotel lobby for some of our planning, and filmed in and around the hotel. (Our ‘woods’ set was three pine trees across the street.) I was bent over with laughter at several points at the antics. We did a premiere showing afterwards (the movie is thirteen minutes long). Hopefully, the movie will soon be sharable on Youtube/facebook for your entertainment.

Game #8 Caravan. Ran by Mike Holmes, with Tim, Nat, and Tasha.
Caravan was Mike’s new project, a semi-longcon persistent world game, and he ran a table almost every time slot. I was originally not at all interested- it sounded like a pretty bland concept, following a trading caravan along, but what he didn’t mention is that it’s a Swords and Sorcery Road Trip, every session seeming to climax in an In-a-Wicked-Age style Xanatos Pile-Up, with everyone’s dirty laundry coming to a head and making trouble for the Caravan. After hearing some of the tales that were being told of the Caravan’s exploits, I decided I had to give it a try. I’m glad I did.
There’s a lot of interesting systems interacting with each other here, but one of the most compelling for me was the character creation system. There are background cards you get- a ‘background’ a profession, a homeland, and a motivation. You’re dealt two of each and pick one. Unlike many other games that are ‘open information’, character backgrounds and abilities are secret until revealed in play- and abilities can be purchased right before they are used, retroactively establishing facts about your character! This means that everyone is mysterious and has an exciting backstory, which is revealed during play as it becomes relevant.
I started by picking the background cards of ‘Ancient’ and coming from a Boring place- I imagined a homeland that is boring because it was ground to dust ages ago, and my character was the only survivor of her race. I gave her blue skin to highlight her otherness, and a penchant for painting her face with white spots. For motivation, I gave her Studying Cultures, which made a lot of sense for a wandering immortal from a long-gone civilization. This left me with two choices for profession: Scholar, or Brigand. Scholar seemed too obvious, too boring, so I went with Brigand, a choice I probably would not have otherwise made, so I created Quoz, a wandering immortal philosopher-brigand.
Conflicts are performed with a rather evocative bidding system- different pools of tokens are used in different ways, and spending many tokens ensures success now, but you will not have resources later. The economy was somewhat functional for the games we played, but clearly needs tuning for future play- there is a strategy that clever players could exploit to make sure they win all conflicts after a certain point.
Our session featured two returning characters- Nat’s earth-magic shaman, and Tim’s… well I’m not really sure what Tim was playing, other than that Nat and Tim had some serious bad blood between them, and Tim was being pursued by a ghost-bandit army. Tasha created some sort of storyteller/charlatan.
We had a few scenes that were combinations of roleplay and random events- the characters simply talking to each other about things, then slavers showed up, a good grabby random event, because it’s something that a lot of people react very strongly to. It’s also an ethical dilemma- you have to decide how your character feels about slavery, which in the bronze age was pretty much a fact of life. As it happened, Quoz the wandering immortal philosopher-brigand had not heard of slavery, at least not as how it was practiced here, and had many curious questions.
What followed next was an amazing series of scenes. We all wanted to mess with the slavers for various reasons- Nat and Tasha had some very standard anti-slavery motives, Tim was pretty inscrutable, and I figured if nobody else liked them we should just kill them and take their stuff*, since I was a wandering immortal brigand-philosopher.
(*Note it was a matter of some debate, currently unresolved, of whether or not slaves count as stuff.)
Nat had a very convoluted plan, perhaps so ingenious that even clever Quoz could not ascertain all its benefits, that he would use his earth magic to bind the chains of the slaves to boulders, and in the morning he would ransom the slaves back to the slavers for all their gold, and then buy the slaves from them with the gold he had just gotten.
My plan was to simply murder the slavers in the night, at which point we could take the gold and the slaves. There were some objections to this plan, which were lost on my character.
Tasha’s plan was to give one of the slaves a key, so they could free themselves once the guards were not looking. As she pointed out wisely, her plan had the advantage that she had already done it.
Tim had a plan, but it was so clever that he refused to tell us what it was, which is really too bad, because it was to summon a bunch of undead bandits and send them after the chief slavers, but I had already killed the slavers by the time the undead bandits got there, so now they were mad at Tim.
So it came to pass that Nat enchanted all the chains with earth, which was really too bad because that interfered with Tasha’s plan of an escape attempt, then Quoz went and killed all the slavers, (turns out that she was really really good at it- I invested the majority of my tokens in Fighting, making her perhaps the greatest fighter in the entire world!), then Tim arrived with Skull King and ghost army in tow.

Even though it was all Tim’s fault, Quoz was sympathetic, and offered two of the slaves as payment for the debt that Tim had accrued. Apparently Nat and Tasha both felt strongly that somehow the slaves had magically turned into not-slaves, and that even though I had killed the slavers I was not allowed to take their stuff, even though no one minded when I had taken their gold. Indeed, the ways in this land are very strange.
Alas, before we had finished this fascinating debate the Skull King ran out of patience and we had to kill him. (Mike was completely out of resources by this point, so all of us throwing our tokens at him was like thirty to zero.) And the slaves finally managed to free themselves, using the key provided by Tasha. She had taken them from me by guile and said the magic words of power to turn them into not-slaves. No hard feelings. Would play again.

#Forgemidwest

Another player skill for Paul Beakley’s Good Player Handbook™️:

The skill of knowing when you’re in a con event with more-than-the-ideal number of players and consequently dialing down your input — regardless of how great it is — so that play can move around the table a little faster so more gets done and more people get to participate.

I.e., use your brilliance to give me better, not more. Ain’t nobody at the table got time for more.