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Musings from Continuum 2014

Being a short collection of thoughts and recollections grown from my original Facebook posts at the convention itself.

Day 1 - Friday
Friday morning started with a pre-convention full English breakfast at the local deli (North Street Deli, Wetherby, recommended!) with Jill and the boys. Naturally, they were on form, and it was a good send-off.

Pre-Continuum Family
The family send me off with a good meal.

The drive down was pretty much as expected, the Highways Agency having managed to land roadworks on every possible variation of the route to Leicester. In the end I stuck with the A1 most of the way, which worked well except for the final approach to Leicester where it took thirty minutes to go about five miles!

Registration was a breeze, with no queues. It was a little confusing at first as the University was also holding an open day on the same day. I’m not sure what all the prospective students and their parents must have thought about the preponderance of mostly middle-aged gamer-shaped people on the site with geek T-Shirts and pints of beer.

Once I arrived, I caught up with a number of old friends very quickly, but most of them were already tied up playing a game of the new 5th Edition release of D&D. To name a few: Steve E, Tom Z, Graham S, Duncan R, Pete G, Julian H and many more. Sadly, the way of the convention was that I didn’t get enough time to catch up as I would have liked.

I saw Dave E and Mike B arrive in the Leisure Games van, and as I was at a bit of a loose end offered to help. I was a bit embarrassed when one of their plastic crates that I was carrying disintegrated, but fortunately none of the stock was damaged. Once unloaded, we retired for a pint and I was delighted to see that the convention was starting off with “Lancaster Bomber” and “Black Sheep Ale”. Over a pint, Dave tempted me to play his Space:1889 game, which I eventually succumbed to!

As we waited for the dinner and the next game slot, I played Port Royal with Tim G, Grant and Andy S. I loved it even though I lost! Sadly there were no copies at the con, so an instant sale was lost by the traders.
I’ve reviewed this separately.

After this, I had a quick game of
Coup (the Resistance version) outside with Graham S, Andy S, and Simon B, and I was quickly killed off! Clearly my bluffing wasn’t up to it. I’m not going to discuss this further as there is nothing more that I could add to Pookie’s review linked earlier.

Camera Roll-1006

On Friday evening, I hosted Durance which started off as a space-based analogy to the establishment of the British Colony in Sydney, Australia, and slowly morphed into Starship Troopers. The ending was very cinematic but strangely dissatisfying as I think we'd broken the system by then. However, fun was had, and Duncan R played an amusing foil to Shaun V’s Governor. Doctor Moose made an excellent planter and counterfeiter on our colonial hell hole, and Ivor a very smooth Dimber-Damber (head criminal). At this point I need to hang my head in shame as I have forgotten the name of the other player at the table.

Key thoughts from Durance

  • The overall setting and concept is sound, and has great opportunities for roleplaying.
  • Experienced role-players from a traditional background really want to drive a game in a different way to the storytelling discover-through-play model used by Durance and others. This can make them feel like a fish out of water.
  • As a result, a strong player who ‘gets it’ can easily dominate and drive a game’s direction.
  • Despite Durance being very structured, it can be broken. For example, in the climatic scene, four of the characters wanted to throw the other two off the building so they could have an act of ‘noble self sacrifice’. This was completely dependent on agreement between the two players who owned them, who can block the death of the characters. Narratively, it would not have made sense if they did, but it was touch-and-go for a minute on what was going to happen
  • However, despite this, the general feeling at the end seemed to be quite positive.

Once the game was over, I headed to the bar and had quick chats with Clare G, Nickey B, and David M in the bar. However, I was tired by then, so went back to bed at the somewhat warm student digs. I’m certainly not as good at staying up late since I was blessed with our two boys. It’s a shame, as I would have liked to catch up more with old friends.

John Foster Hall Facilities

  • If I was a student, I think I’d be disappointed with the standard of the Hall’s rooms. Yes, they have Ethernet and WiFi, but they are not built well to handle heat. The windows don’t open properly, and the central core/water system seems to generate huge amounts of heat. The toilet seat felt heated, and it was quite repressive. Now, I’ve stayed in these halls three or more times now so I know it isn’t the weather that is causing this, although being in the shadow of the trees does make a difference.
  • The WiFi is frustrating - the free service for guests is only in the common area, and if you have a device that disconnects momentarily and you have to accept the terms & conditions again every time you reconnect. Annoying, but at least there was free WiFi somewhere.
  • Maybe it’s because I’m used to living in the North of the UK, but the bar and food prices were at the high end (maybe normal for Southerners?) and the quality of the food was variable. Some of it was good, and some of it very poor for the price. The ‘green’ coloured options were generally good, but somewhat lacking.
  • However, the bar staff were very friendly and helpful. I was suffering from the complete lack of coffee (the £1.30 a cup machine was consistently not working and that was the only real option unless you used the two sachets back at the room) so they offered to rustle some up. Their attitude to service was excellent.
  • As an aside here, I think that Continuum could learn from Furnace here and arrange a free coffee and tea urn. But as part of the Furnace Triumvirate then I may be biased.

Day 2 - Saturday

In the morning, I signed up for a great game of Age of Arthur run buy Julian H, playing with Elaine Mc, Pookie Uk and others. Age of Arthur was written by Graham Spearing and Paul Mitchener, and I’ve wanted to try it since I had some great conversations on the Tavern and beyond about good source material for Arthurian settings.

Arthurian Source Material

  • I recommend that you take a look at Mary Stewart’s Merlin books (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment as starters) and also Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers (part of the original Eagle of the Ninth Trilogy). If you read this, don’t miss out on Frontier Wolf and Dawn Wind, which are also tied into the sequence.

The game uses the FATE engine (v1.5, not the recent Kickstartered version), which originally appeared with Spirit of the Century. It fades nice in the background, and seems to work well, but I don’t see what it does that Wordplay doesn’t do at least as well.

The adventure was quite a simple one in concept; we had to escort a noble-woman to meet a potential suitor. The quickest and safest (oh yeah!) way to get there seemed to be to cut thorough a Fey-enchanted forest. Along the way, we managed to charm a Dark Fey-Queen, saving a young messenger from her clutches, out-sneaked a sneaky Wizard comprehensively, and then ensured hat the Psychotic Drunken Champion was beaten by the future Warrior Queen of Lindum.

Julian's dice needed a stern talking to, and checking, after the game as they seemed to roll low all the time, while we rolled very, very high. I was challenged over my makeshift FUDGE(*) dice (which I had made by hand many years ago), but they passed muster.
*(FUDGE is the game engine that FATE evolved from. It also uses four dice with two + symbols, two - symbols and two blanks to resolve tasks. These were very scarce until FATE took off, and the website used to have make your own guidance for use with traditional dotty d6s.)

All in all, I had great fun and would love to try it again. FATE faded to the background and we very much got into the characters and background.

The afternoon found me playing Dave E’s fun Space: 1889 new edition game with Steff W amongst others. 1889 was one of the original games in the genre that picked up the name ‘steampunk’. The game came from GDW, and was a stable-mate of Traveller and 2300AD. The setting is - effectively - a mash up of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs. History has developed as usually except for the ability to travel between worlds has come along using Etherflyers. Naturally, Mars has Martians! 1889 disappeared when GDW died (sob), and was - for a while - rereleased as reprints with a few new books. A Savage Worlds version followed, and finally Angus Abranson got involved in bringing the German edition which had been expanded and meshed with a new game engine into the English speaking part of the RPG world in a successful kickstarter.

We were all handed out a character built around an archetype of the genre - for example The Naval Officer, The Army Office, The Explorer, and The Journalist (from The Times, you know) - which made it quite easy to get a good feel for how we should play. After some brief explanation, the game got underway. We started off securing lodgings and permissions in a Martian city state somewhere off the beaten track which we had reached by canal barge. This involved meetings with the local ruler, and the discovery that the Germans were also in town. Naturally, we were suspicious. We started to ponder what the next steps were, and they arrived in the form of a British vessel - The Demeter - that flew into the city and crashed spectacularly. As good citizens of Her Majesty, we were obliged to make good the damage and understand what had happened to the Demeter and just how the scheming Germans were involved.

The Ubiquity system works well, and we seemed to solve the mystery of the crash of the Demeter in the end, although I was quite worried that my British Officer was going to be eaten in some alien field on Mars as the adventure reached its climax.

Key thoughts from 1889

  • The new game system has elements to drive roleplaying within it, but they are very light touch and traditional in nature. For example, my character had a sense of ‘Duty’ which in game mechanic terms encouraged him to put himself forward if he felt he should be doing something as the honourable thing. If he did, he gained rewards back from the GM. However, these were small advantages rather than huge game changing ‘hero points’.

If I ever run Space: 1889 at a con, then I need to make sure that I add stinger inter-character backgrounds layered on top of the archetypes to support roleplaying by giving the players something to hang the characterisation on and to drive interaction. This has worked well in the past in Traveller for me. The Archetypes Dave used were really good, but I think that they would excel with that final but on top.

After the game, I had dinner, meeting up with John O and David M amongst others and then had some quiet time reading Kingdom, which I was running during the evening slot. I was incredibly nervous running the game as both Marcus Rowland and Phil Masters had signed up, probably as it was the only SF game on offer that evening. Being graced by two of the Great Old Ones of the UK RPG community made me nervous - these are the guys whose scenarios I grew up running and playing as a kid and I have great respect for them.

Pre-Continuum Breakfast
Perhaps if I’d had this before the game I’d have done better?

The game didn't go as well as I hoped, but I think that I learned some important lessons about running this kind of game.

Key thoughts from running Kingdom

  • In a discover-through-play game, it is key that someone ‘drives the scene’. If the players there aren’t, the host needs to help them to do so.
  • The host also needs to do some hand-holding and make the players realise that it’s okay for them to make up the details as we go along. My mistake here was that this was set in my Singularities setting and I was responding to questions on the background (natural in a hard SF setting) which was the wrong thing to have done. I should have asked the players what they wanted to be the case as they should be driving this through play.
  • The host needs to make sure that the players make a decision - I didn't ask this clearly enough and make sure that the scene had a conclusion that moved the plot along in some what. Too often, the plot was going around in circles.
  • Tied to this, I should have asked what the aim of the scene was to the players involved at the start of each scene.
  • I screwed up preparing this game, as my preparation was lacking. Work and real life had eaten up too much time and I had thought that bringing Kingdom would be an easy option as I had done it before at Furnace. Mistake. At Furnace, I had read and re-read the rules and guidance several times in the weeks before and I was much less tired. As a result, the previous game went much better.

After the game, I retired to the bar with Shaun V and Dave M (two of the players) and we played Love Letter followed by Coup. We also had some post-match analysis on Kingdom, which was very useful for getting my head straight. Then Shaun kicked off an improvised Baron Munchausen game which was great fun and involved crazy boasting war-story fun. Later Tim G joined us and we played the
Shadows of Camelot card game, which was good fun despite people starting to be so tired it made rules hard to grasp. And then it was way past bed time!

Yes, but...

  • The one bit of the post-match analysis that I didn’t agree with was a brief discussion where Jeff Richards (Glorantha supremo) got drawn into a conversation with us on whether I should have used a “Yes, but...” technique in dealing with the players’ questions. Having mused this over, I think that this missed the point of the issue with the game. “Yes, but...”, and “Yes, and...” are incredibly powerful tools, both in gaming and in real life, but I don’t think that they would have resolved the issue that we saw. The element that needed to be taken in hand was the player’s freedom and willingness to co-create. “Yes but...” doesn’t solve this. So in the spirit of the phrase: Yes, it’s a powerful tool, but in this case it doesn’t provide quite the resolution that we hoped for!

Day 3 - Sunday
Wanda the Waitress (Zombicide)
Wanda, my character

Braiiiins! (Zombicide)
Getting messy!

Early Sunday morning, I had decided that I didn’t want to role-play in the morning. This was partly as none of the games on offer floated my boat, and partly because I’d previously agreed with Dave M to try out Zombicide. Two years previously, Dave had a fun game of his copy of Last Night on Earth on the Sunday afternoon at Continuum 2012 and he was curious about the differences in the two games. Tim G, Steff W and Pete G joined in too. Despite my inadvertent attempts to sabotage the game by killing too many zombies and levelling up before the rest of the group and thus raising the threat level, we managed to beat the scenario. In fact, this was the smoothest running game of Zombicide that I had ever played. Because the players worked well together it never quite had the tension and feeling that we may have lost the game. This may have been more apparent to me as I have played this several times now, and I know just how much damage the players can do if they focus aggressively (I’ve
discussed this before in blog posts so won’t cover this here). In addition, we were very lucky as we drew the gasoline and glass bottle equipment cards at just the right time, meaning we could use a Molotov cocktail on the ‘Abominations’ when they appeared. All in all, it seemed to go well, although I didn’t have the chance to find out Dave’s opinion at the end.

Ivor the Engine

We followed up Zombicide with the recently released Ivor the Engine. Now, I had bought this when I heard about its release at UK Games Expo, as it was targeted at kids aged 8+ (which definitely includes gamers!) and I wanted to play it with Nathan. I’d read the review by Pookie and we were fortunate that he wanted to join in with us. Steff had to go and run a game, so our complement was myself, Dave, Tim, Pete and Pookie.

For a game aimed at 8 year olds upwards, it is surprisingly competitive and complicated. As a comparison, I have played Forbidden Island and Escape the Curse of the Temple with Nathan, and both felt much more simple in play. However, with some guided play I’m sure he’d cope.

The actual mechanics are quite simple; on your turn you move to a location on the beautifully illustrated map of Wales (art by Peter Firmin, the original artist for the TV series). When you are there, if there are stray sheep present, you can take one and put it in your pen. You can also play & draw an action card. Once locations are free of sheep, you can also complete errands shown on the card. These typically give you more sheep, gold or coal. The game stays very close in scoring (it’s very Eurogame in style), and is quite fun. We did have a number of queries and complications about the rules, but I think that these were as much about people being tired as a lack of clarity. All in all, a good game that I want to play with Nathan and Jill if I can.

Port Royal - almost too many cards

I finished the convention as I began, with two quick games of Port Royal. Halfway through the second game I was doing some quick searching on the internet to find a copy (using the
http://boardgameprices.co.uk/ recommended by Tim G, and combining that with a search of the other usual suspects (Leisure Games, Gameslore, Amazon and eBay) which resulted in an order being placed. The game arrived on Tuesday, and was packed to go on holiday as I think that it will be another that Nathan will enjoy.

And after that, home was the order of the day. I slipped away early and headed for the M1, A1 and the North.

General musings about the Con
Continuum remains one of my favourite conventions, and the new(ish) committee have done really well. I’m not a big fan of the venue (I much preferred Beaumont and Digby halls as they felt more intimate), but it is functional and works. The balance between free forms and tabletops seemed right, and the introduction of pre-signups for GMs is good.

The one thing I miss is the old focus. Continuum inherited Convulsion’s mantle as the Glorantha, and - later - Chaosium convention. This gave it a really unique feel (having never been to Tentacles in Germany, I can’t compare). I used to get strange looks (and a rush of players!) when I posted a Traveller game. This year, there was very little Glorantha (perhaps because it is now a coffee-table game?), and Chaosium was primarily represented by Call of Cthulhu. Pendragon was also present, but the old core of the con is gone, and in its place thousand new, smaller blooms have sprung up. It’s a great convention, but I’m not sure what makes it unique now. Perhaps the meshing of free forms and tabletop. Anyway, life is change, and if I can I will be there in 2016. Well done to the committee.