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Metatopia 2018



During the first week of November, I was lucky enough to attend Metatopia, a gathering of tabletop gaming professionals from around the country and beyond, who come together to talk about the industry and gather feedback on their games. I want to give a brief overview of how my games were received, and what I thought of the games I played.

MY GAMES


Alter Arms is a tabletop roleplaying game (RPG) that I am designing themed around Japanese super heroes. Players are able to take on different forms with a variety of powers in order to solve problems and defeat enemies. It got the most exposure at the convention, with one hi-test (where only other developers played with the intention of dissecting mechanics) and one lo-test (where casual players and other developers can try out games). Both went well, with the hi-test giving me feedback on how mechanics can be abused and some of the character Powers need clarification in their rules. 

One mechanic that was noticed to have a loophole was the Drama reset system. Players take Drama when they are hurt or use powerful abilities. If they take too much, they are defeated and suffer consequences. This can be mitigated by the Drama reset system, where characters can reset their current Drama value to a predetermined amount, effectively healing them.

A player used this to heal every turn by shifting between forms to pretty much keep their Drama value static throughout the session. On their suggestion, I think I will change the rules so that this reset would only occur once per encounter, hopefully preventing such an abuse in the future.

  
From my Lo-Test for BLOCKBUSTER! Player response was highly positive, and makes me reconsider my priorities with the game.

My other game was BLOCKBUSTER! a smaller role playing story game where players take the role of actors, and compete for creative control of a movie they are making up as they go. The idea for this game comes from behind the scenes stories of egos and production issues that lead to odd and confusing choices in films. The podcast How Did This Get Made? was a major influence.

I run BLOCKBUSTER! Very rarely, and have always intended it to be a small project to work on when I need a break from a more complex RPG. I’ve noticed lately that when I do run it, the response gets more and more ecstatic. This last playtest had players asking if there was a version of the game they could run with their friends (There is an early version available for download here).

I believe I should put a focus on putting out BLOCKBUSTER before Alter Arms, because the sheer enthusiasm for the game, as well as how close it is to completion, means that it could increase my exposure and build good will for future games like Alter Arms.

Aside from my own playtests, I had a chance to try out several great games while at Metatopia.

PREAMBLE


I feel it bears mentioning when giving my thoughts on games in development that I do not know all the details that went into designing these games. As a designer myself, I know that the way mechanics interact with one another, and the choices I make, are all done with an express purpose to make the best game possible. With my experiences playing other games at Metatopia, I only had two hours of exposure to these games, and worked with the express breakdown of the rules that the creator was able to give me that allowed them to test out their game. These are just my surface level understandings and thoughts on these games, and I hope I am able to accurately represent them and was able to understand them enough to provide useful feedback to the creators.

Also note that I am working from memory and my limited notes, so this might not be a perfect representation of the games.

REST IN PIECES


Rest in Pieces uses a tower of blocks as arbitration; the type of action you are taking, and how you are taking it, determines what color blocks you pull, and how many attempts you have to do so.

The first game I played was Rest in Pieces by Imagining Games; presented by Pete Petrusha. In this light RPG, Five other people and I played as the down-on-their luck roommates of the deadbeat son of the personification of Death. Over the course of two acts, we needed to quickly gather enough money to make the rent, or otherwise our landlord, Death, would try to kill us in circuitous fashion not dissimilar to the Final Destination films.

We attempted to make money by using our careers, hobbies and items, to perform different actions, which were abstracted in the game with a tower of colored blocks we had to remove and place on top without causing the tower to collapse. Depending on the actions we took, the game master dictated what color block we pulled. The skill applicable to that action - having a number we associated with it at the beginning of character creation - determined how many times we could touch blocks on the tower before we had to pull one. We wanted to pull three black blocks total, with each block representing an action that earned us a portion of our rent. Actions that were more flavorful and did not lead to earning money needed red blocks to be pulled to be successful. There are two acts, both of which end when the tower collapses.

I played as a data entry clerk and cooking show fan who attempted to get a job at a fancy restaurant to make some fast cash (this game plays it pretty loose with the logic). Another roommate, a sandwich artist, accompanied me in hopes of getting access to the restaurant’s kitchen so they could make food and sell it out the back. Due to interference from an annoying ex-roommate non-player character (NPC), we ended up killing the restaurant owner and taking over the restaurant. At the same time, our roommates tried to set up a fancy pop-up puppet show that led to our apartment almost burning down.

I liked how open the system was to allowing for crazy actions, and the arbitration system of the tower of blocks made it clear what our chances of success were. The use of our careers, hobbies, and items and the flavor of how they applied to the scene, along with the numerical value we associated with them, felt like a nice blend of story and mechanics that made me feel very involved.

I did feel that the block system was a little underdeveloped though. Other players and I felt that we were directing their actions towards exclusively getting money, which made our characters feel dull, especially when interesting things happened in the environment. Another player suggested that possibly giving our players personal goals not associated with financial gain, might remedy this. For example, if my character wanted to reconnect with a dying loved one, it might be neat if I could choose to pull red blocks to pursue this at the expense of not getting money.

I also thought that Death’s kid as a roommate was also a bit superfluous. At the beginning of the game we had to characterize them, but also an ex-roommate. Both NPCs impeded player progress in some way, but despite being the landlord’s kid, Death Jr. didn’t have as much to do. I think that their role could be eliminated, and instead have either similar roommates or neighbors fill antagonistic or impeding roles for the players. Maybe even have Death as a Mr. Furley type character who is always dropping in on the player characters.

HRPG


HRPG has players choose a character class (the card) and create a randomly generated tower dungeon for them to explore.
HRPG (Human Resources RPG) was presented by Ian Moss, and is a single-player RPG where players take on the role of an employee at an HR firm who discovers that the company turns its retirees into fuel to power the building. They must climb a randomly generated office building that acts as a dungeon, and collect their paycheck before their hour points (which fill in for health points) run out.

Everything in this game has an office-themed pun name, from the monsters to the player character classes (I played as a Chainmail Clerk character class). The other testers and I chose a character class and saw how far we could get in the building before we were killed. In a lot of ways, this was a roguelike game, where we were not expected to progress far due to difficulty, and multiple playthroughs were intended.

We generated the rooms of the tower based on a chart of room configurations and a random business card (the kind you might get from a coworker or at a conference). The rooms that could make up the tower were each associated with a letter of the alphabet. Words on the business cards represented vectors, a resource to generate the room and the monster within. When we generated a room, we compared the different room layouts to the letters in the vectors, always starting with the first letter in the vector. We would choose which room and monsters within would be the most advantageous for us, and cross those associated letters off of the business cards, showing that we can’t use them anymore to generate content.

On top of generating rooms and monsters, we also had a sheet of encounters that occur. Rolling a 20 sided dice (d20) we randomly got an encounter we would have to deal with in the room. Once the encounter and monsters were dealt with, we could search the room for items, extra hours, or memos that could be used to level up.

I liked my time with the game. It was addicting, choosing how to generate rooms and see what was next. My only concern is that the game can become stale after a while as players experience all the different room, monster and encounters. There needs to be something else like permanent equipment, or some other variable that can make each run through the building memorable. This doesn’t seem to be a game for extended play, but would be a good time sink. The format of the game also makes it seem like it would work well as a mobile phone game, with the device either scanning business cards or generating random words to use, and connecting the rooms itself. According to Ian, this might be the plan.

DYING IS EASY


Dying is Easy was developed by Consensus games, and presented by Bill White. One of the people who worked on this game also playtested BLOCKBUSTER!

Inspired by early film comedy duos, this light RPG has characters navigating a randomly generated haunted house as simply defined comedic characters. At character generation, we pick and name and a schtick that defines us. For example, my character’s name was Bort, and I was an alien that was really bad at trying to come off as human.

Working with other characters, we would be given a prompt to start the scenario, taken from a board made of hexagonal tiles. Each tile had a prompt as well as numbered sides ranging from 1 to 6. For this test we started on, “Wow, what a creepy looking house!” We would then riff off of this prompt, with one character playing the “straight” who is serious, while other characters play “sillys” who act ludicrous and true to their name. Players act out the scene for 60 seconds, and on completion decide as a group if they were true to their character’s premise and kept the scene going. For each one of these requirements met, players were given given tokens called “clues.”

From there, a player would roll a six sided dice (d6) and would move on to the next prompt for the scene based off of what tile the side matched with the number that came up on the dice, touched.

We moved on to other prompts like “Boy, the butler sure is a stiff,” and “They sure laid out a lot of food.” We went through prompts on the tiles till we reached the end tile, and tallied up the number of clues we had. We would then roll the d6 to determine if our characters ended up alive or dead, or happy or sad based on the results, modifying the number with what clues we had.

I enjoyed this game, and its use of improv and classic comedy trappings. It would work well as a small party game. The concerns discussed during the playtest were how to handle games with more than two players. The initial idea was that scenes could only work with groups of two players, mimicking straight and silly pairings of of the likes of Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello. But we tried another format with a group of four and it seemed to work. It might be possible to run a game with just one group of all players, or even have different teams exploring the house, and switching off between scenes. I am excited to see where it goes next.

APOLLO 47



Tim with the manual for Apollo 47. I wish someone could have caught the look of fear on my face when he first showed it to me. The game's rules are actually only about 15 pages. The rest of the book is made of pieces of NASA manuals and transcripts, all meant to inspire technical chatter. I appreciate the amount of effort that goes into this sight-gag.
Apollo 47 was presented by Tim Hutchings and is a light RPG where players take on the role of astronauts and mission control as they explore scenarios inspired by the mundanity of real-world space travel. Players pass around the role of astronaut as they attempt to do a routine procedure while in constant contact with people either back in their lander or on Earth. The fun of the game comes from the absurd amount of work that goes into doing anything, and the complex terminology that is used to describe it.

One of the things I appreciated was the simple joke that set the tone for the playtest: Tim brought out an encyclopedia-sized book saying it was the rules. That is, only the first 15 pages were rules to play the game, the rest of it was made of reprintings of old NASA manuals in order to provide inspiration.

There’s no official scoring or timing, but a “round” of the game has the players decide who will play as the astronaut while the rest play operator roles. The astronaut starts with a prompt piece of dialogue, either taken from a card drawn from a deck or using the rule book as inspiration, and begins explaining what their character is doing, taking care to be as verbose and technical with their language as possible. The other players chime in as they feel is appropriate. This goes on till the players feel there’s no way to further the scenario (about one to two minutes).

For example, my character, Major Austin, was performing scheduled maintenance on a G-18 regulator coupling (making up names of things was encouraged) and narrated the steps they were taking back to mission control. Mission control would walk through the process, inserting corrections when they thought appropriate. For example, one mission control would chime in to explain that I had to use the X-clamp found in the Chatanooga-Blue satchel found in the back-right pocket of my buggy’s passenger-side seat. From there, players all went back and forth discussing in detailed minutiae the many steps needed to perform the tasks.

The whole game is about players setting one another up to create technical jargon.

I really, really liked this game, and think it could have a life as a one-shot system for players. The rules are very simple and easy to use to spawn an entertaining story where players can all flex their creative muscles. This seems to be Tim’s intention, which I fully support.

My only thoughts are ways it could be streamlined. One player pointed out that the astronaut can get overwhelmed by multiple mission control people talking to them at once, and suggested a kind of “switchboard” set up where the astronaut could turn their communication with different controls off and on in order to focus. I think this could be built upon by using index cards to create an actual switch to identify which players have channels open and which have them closed. Like color an index card green on one side and red on the other, so the astronaut can flip it to signify if a channel is open.

It might also be useful to have two name tags for players, one for their astronaut and another for their mission control character, that they can switch depending on the role they are playing for a round. It was difficult to remember who was who between rounds.

I also think it might be neat to build some sort of connected narrative between the rounds as players switch off who is playing the astronaut. They could all be at different locations, each talking through their tasks with mission control, but maybe theme it around a central issue like an oxygen leak in the habitat, a downed satellite, or a malfunctioning buggy that is speeding around the moon of its own accord. Tim mentioned he wants to keep it plausible to real-life space exploration because of how the mundanity informs the humor, and i think it’s possible to include this while having a consistent narrative.

PASION DE LAS PASIONES


Pasion de las Pasiones was presented by Brandon Leon-Gambetta and is a Powered by the Apocalypse game themed around Latin American telenovelas. Unlike the other games I played, this is available to purchase. I believe this test was to get other designers’ views for a larger release. Players take on different roles you would find in serial dramas, such as the powerful authority figure, the innocent with a secret, the seducer, or the secret identical twin. Players run through a scenario that’s created at the same time as character creation, allowing for characters’ personal lives to influence the plot.

Powered by the Apocalypse is a RPG system where players have a shared list of the kinds of moves they can perform to influence the story, as well as unique moves specific to their characters. Moves have specific results based on the result of a two d6 dice roll. Depending on the sum of the dice roll, either an action fails, succeeds, or succeeds with a condition.

I played as the Jefe character class, which is the role of the character who holds authority and tends to abuse it to get what they want. In this particular case, We were all characters on a telenovela based around a resort hotel, and the owner just went missing. My character was the owner’s lawyer, and trying to wrestle control of the hotel from the person who inherited it.

Our session had cases of mistaken identity, deception, and eavesdropping in pursuit of our own unique goals, resulting in all sorts of captivating melodrama.

I liked how this take on the Apocalypse system didn’t give the players have any stats that affected rolls for moves. Instead, moves that players did could have effects on other players’ future rolls. Like how another character used a move to win an argument with me, and was able to put an “enraged” condition on me, that made moves that required me to be calm more difficult. Other conditions could be beneficial instead, and all depended on what the person putting this condition on me thought it should do.

Another neat mechanic I appreciated was how the system had a built-in trajectory for characters; each class had a list of prompts that would inform how they behaved at the beginning of a play session, or “episode” of the telenovela. Each prompt can only be used once, so they are crossed out after the episode. This limits how long a season of the show can go on, and means that there must be a climax for the characters. Too often players will play the same characters for too long and they lose all sense of identity as their motivations fall away. I think having this limit means players will be more attached to their characters, since they know that the relationship is fleeting.

I don’t really have any criticisms for this one. I thought the way the system used the Apocalypse framework was engaging and fun, and the way it encouraged melodrama was very engaging.

I really enjoyed the games I got to try out at Metatopia, and I appreciate the feedback that other developers were able to give me on my own work. I hope to attend next year as well with more developed (and published) games!

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