Clouds for Mapping 5: Double!

Cloud for Gaming 5, sample cloud imageApologies for again taking so long between posts. Real Life continues to assert itself in ways that mean no time for posting here. In lieu of a content-ful post, here are even more clouds for mapping purposes: Clouds for Mapping 5. An extra-long time since my last post means extra clouds in the zip file: eight this time, instead of the usual four. As usual, I’m releasing these into the public domain, but I’d appreciate a credit and notification if you use them.

Minicon 50, part 1: Pre-con, and The Art & Business of Gaming

The Minicon blimpMinicon started well before the con itself for me. I’m on the programming staff, and have been for about the past decade, so I was partly involved in thinking up the panels and other events. I’ve also been doing the pocket program for about the same amount of time, so the weekend before the con I was up to my eyeballs in schedules and desktop publishing. The end product only had one true typo that I could find, so all in all, pretty successful.

Monday night — full three days before the con officially started — I ended up playing a nice game of Star Traders with Emily, Aaron and Joe. I don’t remember the specifics, but there was a lot of the usual Star Traders goofiness. And it was good to have the game before the con, because it’s gotten increasingly difficult to organize longer games at the con. Even medium-length games such as Moneyduck are getting hard to schedule.

There was a flurry of preparations for the con, including a Tuesday night work party, and then Minicon 50 had begun. Thursday night was good fun but not much to report about here.

Friday was my first panel, The Art & Business of Gaming. I was moderating this, but I ended up committing the faux pas of being late for my own panel. Especially bad as moderator. The reason was good — I noticed that there was no good list of moderators available at the con, so I printed one up and put it in the Green Room — but still, not cool to be late to one’s own panel, especially one that I was moderating. It meant that we didn’t really have time to pre-discuss anything, and that I was doing a poor job of modeling approved panelist behavior.

Still, the panel ended up being pretty good. Lindsay Nohl was great, as always. It was good to be on a panel with her again. She’s all the kinds of things you want in a panelist: she has insightful, interesting and fun things to say; she’s conversationally generous; she asks great questions. Christine Mitzuk also added a lot of cool perspectives and insights from her work as an artist and teacher.

It was clear from what Christine and Lindsay said that artists, like almost anyone these days, need multiple income streams. They do a mix of commissions, long-term projects, teaching, personal projects, curation, etc. etc. And having multiple projects also keeps the creative ideas flowing, as different images cross-pollinate through your mind.

We had an interesting discussion about artistic range. There’s a tension between wanting to be available for lots of kinds of work, and wanting to be known for a distinctive style. It’s possible to be typecast as “the artist who’s just good at demons” or “the one with the cute dragons” or “the one who does really good hands”, and art directors often want to find a particular artist for a particular job. This becomes especially fraught when the things you’re good at cease to be so in demand.

The panel suffered slightly from having a few guys in the audience who wouldn’t raise their hands before talking, and who liked to mansplain. If I’d been more on time, I probably could’ve set the tone a bit better and stopped that kind of behavior before it started. And it would’ve been good to pre-discuss things in the Green Room, so I had a better sense of what my fellow panelists wanted to talk about and not talk about. Really, Lindsay probably did a better job moderating than I did.

Also, we never really talked about what the related topic that most interests me: ways for tiny game publishers with nearly no money for decent art, and the annoyance of having our games judged on aesthetic grounds when that privileges big, established publishers with, y’know, actual budgets. But this never really seemed germane to the conversational thread, so I didn’t force it into the discussion.

And finally, Lindsay and I never got the chance to geek out about Darklands! But maybe next year.

Still, I thought this panel was a worthy successor to last year’s item, with a lot of interesting conversation and some good insights.

Clouds for Mapping 4

Clouds for Gaming 4, selection of larger imageIt’s been another hectic week here, so that means another batch of four beautiful, all-natural, free-range clouds for your mapping uses. As before, I’m putting these into the public domain, but I appreciate credit and notice if you use them for something.

I’m still working on a backlog of Minicon posts; hopefully I’ll be able to start posting them soon.

Minicon 50, briefly

Minicon 50 was mostly great, with lots of good panels, gaming and generally hanging out with cool people. I’m now mostly exhausted. Still catching up on sleep, so catching up here will have to wait a few days. I have another half-dozen or so posts about Minicon 50 planned. Stay tuned!

Minicon 50 this weekend!

The Minicon blimpAs so often seems to be the case, with all of Con of the North written up, I already have another con coming. Minicon 50 is this weekend.

This isn’t the 50th anniversary of Minicon, because in early years the Mnstf fallcon was often called Minicon and there were therefore a fair number of years with two Minicons. But it’s still a nice big round number. We are going to have twice the usual number of Guests of Honor, the con will start officially on Thursday, and projected attendance is about double what it usually is — currently, we’re predicting somewhere around 1000 members.

I spent most of this last weekend creating the pocket program, and documenting the process on the Mnstf wiki, and then a part of last night getting it printed. M50 promises to be a great weekend of geeky fun. You can already see the full programming schedule on the Minicon website.

Here’s my full programming schedule:

The Art & Business of Gaming

There are many manufacturers of games, small and large. What are their art directors looking for, and how do they choose the art for their products?

Friday, 2:30 PM, Veranda 3/4

Lindsey was superb on a similar panel last year. I’m quite looking forward to this one.

My First Time

Many of us (obviously) were not at Minicon 1, but we all have our “first” Minicon – what was yours? What was it like? How has the con changed, how is it still the same?
Saturday, 5:30 PM, Veranda 3/4

It’ll be fun sharing stories of how we started with Minicon. I’m hoping it doesn’t become either “you young whippersnappers” or “regurgitating old fannish arguments part seven million and two”, but I also don’t think there’s much real danger of that.

Build a World!

Starting with some general categories (atmosphere, geography, economics, etc.), we’ll take our ideas — loopy or logical — then brainstorm an amazing world together, in just 75 minutes. Come see what materializes!
Saturday, 10:00pm Veranda 3/4

This continues to be a lot of fun. I still want to see if Build a World can be non-gonzo, but of course it’s also all about audience contributions, so I’ll go with whatever the folks there actually want.

IAIN (m) BANKS

Need we say more? An appreciation of the under-appreciated British writer we lost last year.
Sunday, 1:00pm, Krushenko’s

Why wasn’t Banks more famous in the US? He’s quite huge in the UK, from what I can tell. Maybe because he refused to come to the US, post-Iraq War. Maybe because his societies didn’t appeal to US tastes. Maybe because giant, weirdly daring space opera doesn’t appeal so much to US audiences these days. Not sure. In any case, I wish more people in US fandom were into his work. I’m not sure exactly what we’ll end up talking about on this panel, but Greg is always a great panelist, with lots of insight. I’m sure we’ll find some aspect of Banks’ work that we haven’t explored yet.

There are lots of other things I’m looking forward to at the con, including many other cool-sounding panels, some great movies and the usual gaming fun. I’ve already gotten in a game of Star Traders. Hopefully there’ll be some good Moneyducking, and there’s the aforementioned Build a World, and I’m sure there will be more unplanned stuff.

Mostly, Minicon is about hanging out with a bunch of cool folks and making our own fun. Going to Minicon isn’t about buying a “ticket”; it’s about membership. Minicon is not a place where you get passively spoon-fed entertainment by big companies and famous people. It’s a community gathering, based around the amazingness that already exists in fandom, even before media conglomerates and “content producers” decide that we are worthy of giving them money. Oops, did I rant there? Sorry.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to Minicon. Maybe see you there?

Con of the North 2015, part 8: Wrap-up

A compass roseFollowing Lady Blackbird, I finally met up with Adam of the Side Project Podcast. We’d been trying to get together all con, but the con’s schedule grid — four hour sessions with no transit time — doesn’t allow for much socializing except within games. Once we got together, it was good to chat about our various projects.

Then I wandered around to enjoy the last remnants of the con: some folks tearing down the front desk, others playing CCGs at it, a gathering of players all still engrossed in some long historical boardgame in the main hall, some people carting out trolleys full of supplies. I checked out the Artemis room, sans computer equipment. I also tried to get a little better oriented to the hotel. Then I headed out and home.

Divider illustration of a sword

A few general observations about this year’s Con of the North:

  • John and I ate at the hotel restaurant Sunday night. The food was decent, but the service was pretty confused, like they were all operating on too little sleep or too few people on shift. Seems like I’ve seen this sort of thing before: hotel restaurants desperately unprepared for the onslaught that is a fannish convention. Do hotels and convention center managers ever schedule enough staff for conventions? Do they even know how many people are going to be in for a given convention? Seems like the management often doesn’t plan well for this kind of thing. Or there are other factors I don’t understand.
  • I was still feeling under the weather Saturday and Sunday. I brought hand sanitizer and tried to use it frequently. Hopefully no con crud was spread!
  • This is a secret I hesitate to reveal, but… The chili at the concession stand was really quite good. It isn’t that runny chili dog stuff, but rather hearty and filling. A bowl of it completely hit the spot.
  • The ceiling above the main corridor is this slatted thing that goes at a 45° angle and produces headaches upon sight. It’s like Azathoth’s own pinstripe suit. And, I noticed this year, the front desk directly faces it. I wonder if front desk staff get hazard pay?
  • I somehow ended up with five drinks tokens, through generosity of others and forgetfulness on my part (I kept buying drinks and forgetting to get them from the Con). Well, hopefully I’ll be able to use them again next year!
  • For only being at the con two days, I met a lot of really cool people. It was nice to chat with Adam, it was also great to re-meet Kailey, and I got to play a game with Melissa, whom I first met in high school. Neato!

It was a shortened con for me, but still a great one.

Con of the North 2015, part 7: Sunday night and Lady Blackbird

Sunday evening, I had dinner with John, who then headed out. The con was winding down and lots of people were already gone. I decided to stick around a bit longer, to soak up a bit more Con atmosphere, and I’m glad I did. I ended up meeting with Adam from the Side Project Podcast, and playing a whole new game.

Hopefully you know about the Games On Demand folks. They’re one of the two groups who make it a point of running indie games at Con of the North1. They’ve been running games at Con of the North for a couple years now, and they run a huge variety of cool indie games: Fiasco, The Quiet Year, lots of others that I can’t even remember. And they do it pretty much the entire con. A lot of the people running the room forgo such desirables as joining other games and eating, all in order to keep Games On Demand going.

By Sunday night, the Games On Demand crew were very tired, but were still going — among the last at the con. And I hadn’t gotten to talk to any of them, nor to play anything with them, so I hung out for a bit. Someone suggested playing a game, and next thing I knew, we were playing Lady Blackbird.

Steam enginesLady Blackbird is a short game (16 pages) that implies a lot. It has a brief sketch of a setting that looks entirely like a steampunk version of Joss Whedon’s Firefly: a crew of semi-legal adventurers, all trying to evade the Imperial forces in their free trading ship. The characters are even more specifically tied to Firefly, with the hard-as-nails fighting woman who’s bent on revenge against the Imperials, the captain who’s an ex-Imperial, the engineer who’s also intensely loyal to the captain, etc. There are some significant differences: Lady Blackbird herself, obviously inspired by Inara, is capable of magic; and there’s a goblin who could be read as a combination of River, Wash and Jayne, or as a fairly new character. Still, if you only have two words to summarize Lady Blackbird, “steampunk Firefly” is the way to go.

An aside: I know the game is very brief, and heavily based on Firefly. Still, it’d be nice if the characters weren’t so set. Only two of the characters are women, and there’s an explicit heterosexual attraction between the captain and Lady Blackbird. I don’t really see any reason this has to be the case, unless the game is deliberately trying to resemble Firefly. It would be easy enough to give all the characters gender-neutral names, or even no names. I kind of wish the game had been designed that way.

The mechanics remind me heavily of Danger Patrol, where you generate a pool by appealing to particular aspects of your action. In Danger Patrol, it’s by laying out all the ways in which your action is dangerous. In Lady Blackbird, it’s by appealing to aspects of your character. “Well, I’m trying to clothesline a bunch of Imperial soldiers to protect Snargle, so my ‘Combat Tested’, ‘Living Weapon’, ‘Brutal’, ‘Fast’, ‘Hard’ and ‘Strong’ tags should all apply.” The more tags from your Trait you can apply, the more dice you get.

In Danger Patrol, the dice pool can start to become almost repetitious when you’re listing off dangers that you’ve said in a previous round. “Okay, so, just like last time, I’m facing lava, my low sense of self-esteem and Martian wave-guns.” In Lady Blackbird, listing the same personal aspects through multiple actions can start to feel a bit repetitious. “Yep, I’m still ‘Fast’, ‘Hard’ and ‘Strong’.”

Still, the mechanics play quickly and do a good job of getting everyone immersed in their roles. You get direct mechanical benefits for playing in character. It’s a nice, elegant design.

Playing it Sunday night was great. We only barely got out of the brig, but we had a lot of fun doing it. There was a lot of goofy action that I now don’t remember very well. At one point, Lady Blackbird’s spell misfired and everyone near her ended up looking like my character. This caused some great nigh-Shakespearean identity comedy, with various Naomi Bishops running around fighting with other Naomi Bishops. A great last game of the con. I’m very glad I stuck around to check in with the Games on Demand folks — well worth while.

In fact, the game was so much fun that I tried it with my weekly group. The first session was full of barked orders, a tyrannical NPC reduced to a vomiting mess, the sounds of groaning metal, and many gouts of steam. I’m looking forward to the second session!

Footnote: The other group who run indie stuff at Con of the North is House of Indie Games, which I’m a part of. When you’re deciding what to register for, keep an eye out for our events!

Con of the North 2015, part 6: Microscope

Following InSpectres, this was the second game I ran at CotN 2015. After last year’s game, I thought a longer, more in-depth palette would help clarify things somewhat, so I let the declarations go on until everyone was satisfied, not just until the end of a round where someone had passed. So our palette did indeed end up longer:

Palette from Microscope at Con of the North 2015

Unfortunately, I think the longer palette didn’t really help much. There were still a lot of definitional questions left hanging: what did “computers fail” mean? What did “jokes must be tragic” mean? What did “no dictators” mean? (One character eventually declared themself to be a dictator, in spite of this ban, and the tension between the factors of “player declaration = truth”, a possible unreliable narrator, and Minnesota nice made the whole situation almost unbearably vague.) There were also a lot of crucial terms left dangling, necessary but frustratingly vague, by that palette. It was unclear what “magic” even meant, for example. (New age woo-woo, D&D style fireballs, a general sense of the connectedness of all things? Still not sure.) It felt like starting grad school, where the first thing you get hit with is the difficulty in pinning down what exactly we mean by all these concepts that are so central to our pursuit. And unlike grad school, we only had a few hours to create our dissertation.

We created a future history of the world where computers fail, but we eventually work towards a Great Equality where everything is basically hunky-dory. Interestingly, cards towards the end of the history were almost entirely positive.

History from Microscope at Con of the North 2015

We had some pretty good scenes, with a lot of good roleplaying in council debates. Somehow our history ended up mostly being about the programmers, who were a cult of people devoted to their now-failed computers, and the mages, whom not many people trusted. Sentient whales played a major part in the conflict, eventually teaching humanity the power of song in bringing unification.

However, looking back over that history, I’m reminded of how disoriented I was by so much of it. There’s a lot of it that implicitly, though not explicitly, contradicts stuff already established. The biggest example: the Programmers and Mages apparently reached an early agreement of principles that was deep and lasting, yet they continued to disagree later on about the things they’d already agreed on. Also, there’s that Event card, “The Programmers’ Dilemma”, that I simply never understood. What was it? Some programmers were shaken to their cores by existential questions (which questions?), or they didn’t know what to have for lunch?

There were, in spite of the longer palette time, some strong disagreements in tone and purpose. Some players kept wanting to make it a goofy, gonzo, punning-til-pain comedy; others wanted it to be an epic history of profound Meaning. Some players wanted it to be crystal clear history as written by documentarians; others wanted everything to be Subject To Interpretation. That last, especially, kept veering the game towards vagueness, and ended up frustrating me a lot.

If I run Microscope at Con of the North again, I think I may just have to dictate a few things: general attitude (serious or silly), how specific our cards have to be (maybe a rule that if anyone at the table is unclear, we need to define it better?), what genre we’re playing in. It might be good to solidify the social contract more, through direct means. I might, in fact, just step out of my collaborative role and enter my role as event judge more, and simply state things such as “Sorry, no, that’s confusing. This needs to be better defined.”

Microscope is a great game with deep and amazing potential. However, sharing narrative control with a group of (mostly) strangers is difficult. It requires a huge amount of player agreement before play can begin — and that is very hard, when you haven’t even established fundamental things like what genre the game is.

Con of the North 2015, part 5: InSpectres

Cover of InSpectres gameMy first game of Sunday, and well worth getting up a little early for. I was in one of Heather’s InSpectres games last year, so I was enthusiastic about getting another chance to play.

Heather again did a great job of GMing. The story seed was that a family’s domestic bliss was being disrupted by some nasty hauntings. I don’t think she had much of a story planned out beyond that; most of the rest was determined by her skillful ability to weave player improvisation into a hilarious, dramatic whole.

Pretty early on, I directly asked Heather what level of realism and narrative control we were operating at. She made it clear that the level of realism was basically, well, pretty realistic — our game was set in Richfield, if that tells you anything — but Heather also made it clear that we players had a ton of narrative control. This helped a lot.

InSpectres has a ‘confessional’ mechanic, drawn from ‘reality TV’ shows, where one PC gets to step out of the action and reveal an additional wrinkle to the plot. In last year’s game, this barely got used at all. This year, though, I think three of us ended up using it, and all to good effect. I used mine to save two of the team from potential breaking and entering charges by having a mummy burst through a window instead.

The game ended up being about a pretty average family who’d buried emotional conflicts about their long-lost child in dangerous eldritch magic and ancient relics. Also featured: a CareBear turned into an electrical tape mummy, an iPhone app to communicate with ghosts, the Book of the Dead as wallpaper, a Groupon for cult training, and performance reviews. We finally confronted the 3½’ mummy, who turned out to be the family’s long-lost son. Domestic bliss was preserved, the day was saved, the franchise managed to avoid prosecution for any felonies!

This session, like the Hârn game, also had a large number of players: I think there were eight of us. But Heather encouraged us to work together, and appreciated and reinforced player inventiveness. Also, it didn’t hurt that the overwhelming majority of us players were women; players didn’t get talked over or ignored nearly so much as in that Hârn game. So even with a large table of players, I think we all felt like we got to contribute and share the spotlight, and like we had a good time. I know I did.

Overall, this was a great way to start my Sunday. I highly recommend playing in one of Heather’s InSpectres games, if you get the chance.

Con of the North 2015, part 4: Artemis

artemis_icon11_0_150Unfortunately, after that disappointing HârnMaster game, this was disappointing, too.

I’ve raved about Artemis plenty of times here before. I still think it’s a completely new kind of game, one that we’re still just beginning to explore. And I still think the game is blessed with amazing possibilities.

However, the game itself seems to have become bloated with poorly implemented features, and the setup this year was (in my opinion) lacking in execution. Hmm, where do I start?

  1. The team running it seems to have assumed that everyone who signed up knew all the ins and outs of the current state of the game. As a result, when I said I knew the basics of how to play, I was given no further instructions. And I do know the general principles of the game, but there were so many new bits and bobs since last year — two starships playing simultaneously, new controls, a headset-based communication system for talking to the other ship including a mute button that I didn’t know how to operate — that I needed significant updates. Rather than asking “Do you know how to play?”, they should’ve asked “When was the last time you played?”
  2. There was simply too much noise and activity in the room. They were, as I mentioned above, running two different starships at the same time, in the same room. There were big dividers between the two sides, but these dividers did little to stop noise spillover. So it quickly became that escalating game where side A projects louder to talk over side B, then side B gets louder to be heard over side A, then A gets louder, then it keeps getting louder until everyone’s eardrums burst. And the game itself has added a bunch of little fiddly things to do within the interface that made it take way too much attention, constantly.
  3. I was the communications officer, because I’d had so much fun with it the first time I played. Well, they have found a way to make it just as pointless and redundant as Gwen Marco complained in GalaxyQuest. There were two teams of us playing in the same room, and the comms officers on the two ships were supposed to keep communications going between the two ships. However, no one introduced us or gave us time to figure out a protocol, so how to do it was pretty murky. Plus, with the inadequate noise blocking, both ships’ crews could just hear each other anyway! As a comms officer, it’s hard to feel useful when it’s your job to relay a message that the captain can just hear directly. So while I think that the comms position could be amazing, and the idea of having two teams working together in the same room is also pretty dang cool, this year’s implementation of it made it a dud.
  4. The program itself seems to be in a “bloat + poor UI” phase. It was hard to visually, instantly tell who had issued a comms order, for example. This could easily have been solved with a “this color for orders you issued, this other distinct color for orders issued by other ships, and different colors for orders from other teams”, but it wasn’t. I had to rely on the name of the issuing ship being given in tiny type — especially hard when many of the NPC ships had inspiring names like “G33″ and “X09″, and when there’s all the other noise going on. And the system seems to have suffered from some bandwidth problems, as our screens (main and personal) would sometimes glitch or hang. Not sure if that’s the game or the particular setup that was running at CotN.

There was some fun: I got quite a few enemy ships to surrender, for example. But overall, this game wasn’t nearly as much fun as Artemis has been in the past.

Hopefully, the problems this time are just a passing phase. It’d be easy to both make the comms position useful and make the noise problem nonexistent, for example, by the simple fix of having the two teams in two actually separate rooms. And hopefully as the people developing the game work more on it, they’ll get rid of some bloat and implement better UI design. Overall, I’m still looking forward to my next opportunity to play.