Whenever a convention is coming up I get this excited feeling in my stomach which is a mix of exhilaration and trepidation. It’s not often in my regular gaming group that I get to experiment with and really explore the possibilities that a lot of game systems offer, and the convention setting is the perfect place to do this. I’m also intrigued by other people’s play styles. I learn a lot at convention games, from how people approach roleplaying to how different and new games work. So that feeling in my stomach? That’s me signing up to run some games, and anxiously hoping they’re as awesome as I want that four hours of my life to be.
This past weekend I had the opportunity to run Jeremy Keller’s game Technoir at MARCON, the annual sci-fi convention in Columbus, Ohio. Mostly populated by costumers and genre enthusiasts, the game room is in the basement of the Hyatt with a small but dedicated group of roleplayers. I felt right at home when I approached the sign-in table manned by goths. We complimented each other on our excellent wardrobe sense, and then I headed into the game room. What, it’s a sci-fi convention, who doesn’t want to look like they just walked out of William Gibson’s sprawl?
Turned out I was playing with people I mostly knew but usually just see at the conventions. At a convention, this often makes all the difference. Things are instantly less awkward because everyone knows more or less what to expect from everyone else at the table. Sitting in a circle of people you don’t know creates a much different game play experience. Not bad, mind you, just different. It was 9am, and the game room had 3 other tables full. There was even another woman GMing just next to me! It still gets me irrationally excited when I see other lady gamers as geeky as me.
Which leads me to somewhat of a divergence of thought. I’ve been going to lots of conventions over the course of… hm, about 15 years of my current 31. I’ve always had the experience of playing with other women, but not everyone has (the old where’s the wominz at conventionz argument). I have a bunch of theories about why I’ve had this experience: that in my teens I mostly played Vampire LARPs which were more welcoming to women at the time, that I never really played D&D or wargames that were not, that I’ve perhaps had a more unique experience in gaming than others have, that I’m kind of gender-blind most of the time anyway. I know that women are statistically the minority at conventions, but I’ve never really held the “role playing games are a man’s arena” opinion because I’ve always gamed around women. Contentious, I know. Still, the difference between the rumor and the truth of this intrigues me.
Anyway, back on topic. Technoir is a really fun convention or one-shot game. Mostly because, to me, the convention game is about the players, and therefore the characters. When I sit down to a convention game I want to get into four solid hours of hardcore immersion, I want to be whisked away to that alternate reality much the same way that a really intense movie will in a similar period of time. I’ve found that I prefer the make characters in the first hour, game the other three method of convention game running. Somewhere in there will be the rules learning curve, but after that brief speed bump we’ll really start rolling. Technoir’s premise, and system, are nearly perfect for this method.
The game itself is set in the high-tech hard-boiled near future, and encourages players to engage the setting via relationships with NPCs who can give them stuff they need as they wheel and deal their way through plot lines and money making schemes. Character creation is really straightforward and fun in Technoir. Player handbooks can be passed out to each player, and they follow the instructions in the book, picking stats via training programs that range from Criminal to Escort. The process is really fluid, and takes a lot of heavy lifting off the GM while simultaneously handing the players agency. This happens with such gratifying ease every time I run this game… people start talking about the characters they want to make, look at the training programs, find a common thread, and suddenly I have a table of male players who want to start an all male escort service, themselves being the escorts, of course. (I had no hand in that, at all, and it’s just the sort of gender role reversal that I love! Disclaimer: this game was slightly goofier than others I’ve played in Technoir, but it was all in good fun.) Players also pick adjectives that describe their characters, and relationships with NPCs and PCs in the Transmission (setting), and cool tech that they can afford to get based on what the NPCs can give them, which often has players starting the game in debt to NPCs.
While the players are detailing the ins and outs of their characters, I’m taking notes. I have no game planned thus far aside from what I’ve rolled off my random plot seed generator from the Transmission we’ve picked. The Transmission was the Indy Conplex, designed for Gencon I can only presume, and having not read it over before I discover it’s the perfect con game! Indianapolis has become a massive sprawl of convention center expo entertainment, and everyone works for the Conplex unless you eek by a sad living in the ghettos surrounding it. With the intriguing plot triangle of 1) exoskeleton mech stolen for a joyride 2) sci-fi/fantasy themed pub and 3) a monster truck gang of ex-jock lacrosse players called The Bros, I pretty much had all I needed. When people became importantly connected to the Chop Shop NPC in the Transmission, I linked her up to the sci-fi pub and made it have a chop shop in the back. Clearly The Bros will steal the Mech from the sci-fi pub that all the characters are connected to via the NPC. That’s how stories happen in Technoir.
My players took a bit longer than normal doing character creation (about 2 hours of enjoying what tech they wanted to get, and what specific adjectives they wanted, and general 9am 2nd day of con hungoverness) so we only got two hours of play, which mostly consisted of combat with The Bros and then the fallout afterward with various connections they had in town. The push dice economy in this game, while clever, is much trickier than it at first seems, and even I had trouble keeping up with some of the nuance of the rules during the combat. Once we got into our second round though, things were running smoothly, and giant spiked monster trucks were being strafed with fire from one character’s armed medi-helicopter, while another character’s hello kitty style hot rod was trying to take out that menacing mech. Grenade’s were thrown, lacrosse sticks were thwarted, and everyone came out of the game with a pretty good sense of how it worked. We had a brief discussion about the difference between indie games and traditional games that posited in indie games, you almost always have to intentionally try to fail in order to advance your character. I thought that was an interesting observation from a table of mostly traditional game playing con players.
What did I learn? That it’s fun to play different games with different people from time to time. That I want to play Technoir more. That conventions exist in this magical liminal space of play, where experimentation is welcome, rules are interesting and novel, and game play can be a pretty satisfying experience.