Convention Report: MarsCon 2011

I’ve had the misfortune of not getting around to much in the way of gaming lately.  I started a new job which changed my schedule pretty dramatically.  I run and play in a few play by post games, but my in person games went on hiatus for a while and are only now starting back to their regular schedule.  I’ve been absent from the blog both because I have been tired adjusting to my new lifestyle and workload, and because I’ve simply lacked the inspiration and muse to carry on writing about gaming when I hadn’t been doing much of it.  At least not as much as I’d like to be doing.

And in that regard, MarsCon was my perfect fix.

What is MarsCon?

The little Sci-fi convention is hosted in Williamsburg, Va (not to be confused with Bloomington, Minnesota’s convention of the same name) and has been running since 1990.  With a quick bit of research (thanks Wikipedia!) I actually found that MarsCon began as what the founders were calling a “relaxicon”, a laid back convention follow-up for the folks who put on Sci-Con in Virginia Beach, Virginia.  Over the years it has grown into its own as a popular local con featuring authors and artists of the area, as well as maintaining its niche’ purpose as a simple event to gather and celebrate camaraderie amongst members of our culture.  This was my first visit to MarsCon, but I expect this was one of their largest years, thanks to Guest of Honor Jim Butcher, author of The Dresden Files series.

Panels and Such

The panels at MarsCon covered a wide variety of topics from real science with an actual NASA representative present discussing the latest in Mars research, to a drag out, tooth and nail debate on which Sci-fi is the best and which is the worst.  At another local convention recently, I spent most of my time in panel discussions or workshops.  At MarsCon, I went a different route and tried to game as much as possible, so I didn’t see much outside of the game room.

My girlfriend, who did make it to the panels, enjoyed a selection of discussions on web comics, costuming (of which there were some great ones), puppeteers, television, books, and more.  I managed to crawl away from the tables of dice and character sheets long enough to catch Jim Butcher speak, and the man has charisma.  He comes across as a well read and well rounded individual with a lot of wit, and he gave some great responses in both his interview and a panel he participated on discussing the process of building an “epic” saga over several novels.  There can be no doubt that he owned the show throughout the convention.  If you ever get the chance to hear him talk and are a fan of the Dresden Files books, I cannot suggest enough that you take that opportunity.

I did get a moment to speak with Jim, and express how sad I was that he cut his hair.  I was really hoping to attend the con as “that guy” that looks like the Guest of Honor.

Me & Butcher
I'm just sayin'.

Before I dig into the final section and discuss gaming, I also wanted to thank MarsCon for the excellent Con Suite they provided throughout the weekend.  The convention kept an army of very hungry gamers, cosplayers, artists, and fanboys (and girls) full from morning ’til night and did it by prepping actual meals rather than just chips and drinks.  I was impressed with the spread, and nobody can complain about the price.

The Games

So, this is a games blog and I’ve already boasted that I spent more time gaming than anything else, so I clearly have a great deal to say in that regard.  Oddly enough, I didn’t get a chance to play anything new during my time at MarsCon, but there were some great games that have been around a while now I was able to join in and some of them were new to me.

Savage Worlds Rippers:  No reader of Troll in the Corner will be surprised that I made sure to get in a Savage Worlds game over this past weekend.  The Rippers setting puts the players in the roles of 1800’s era monster hunters on a pulp action adventure track to face the nastiest of nasty creatures.  My character was a big and brooding Russian with a massive axe chasing shape shifters through Cairo.  The adventure culminated with a battle at the back of a train, in a storage car with a case of dynamite.  Though I did get to utter the words, “I will break you!” to the final encounter in my best Ivan Drago voice, my character did not survive the explosion caused by one of my own teammates.  Granted, my fellow monster hunter didn’t take a particularly necessary course of action in choosing to blow me up, it didn’t stop the table from cheering and laughing at the end.  Con games are great for that sort of high action game, when its a one-shot, who cares if you live or die?  More information on Rippers can be found on Pinnacle’s website.

Exalted:  Exalted takes place in either a far future of the World of Darkness so far back nobody remembers the way things were, a far past so far back no relics exist from it in the present day, or an alternate universe that has nothing to do with it.  Everyone always likes to keep that bit vague.  Regardless, each player takes the role of a demigod with extreme levels of power.  Our group faced a mission to investigate a dungeon, where in we found five tombs filled with portals related to each of our power sources.  Each portal held a challenge, and only with our combined efforts could we claim the treasures each portal protected.  It was a very cool if very basic sort of story, but did well to showcase the world at large and the different power types.  That said, I’ve played Exalted before and always had the same issue with it, some players can enjoy rolling 33 dice all at once to make an action, but I’m not particularly into that.  Exalted’s mechanics start simple like any World of Darkness setting, but quickly move to the obscene with handfuls of dice scattering across the tabletop.  White-Wolf’s Exalted page can be found here.

Call of Cthulhu:  The d100 system set in H.P Lovecraft’s 1920’s performed well as it always does.  It isn’t my favorite system for battling the mind numbing horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos, but it is a darn good one.  Our characters met with an artist who showed off a rather strange and mystifying painting inspired by her dreams.  By chance the artist’s strokes managed to recreate her dream just a bit too well, creating a gate to an alien world or dimension through the canvas and transporting us all to a realm inhabited by hideous fishmen and other terrors.  Sadly, we ran out of time to finish the adventure and were never heard from again.  Chaosium Inc. currently publishes the latest d100 version of Call of Cthulhu.

A Touch of Evil:  Continuing to hunt monsters, I got in a session of the supernatural Flying Frog Productions board game.  I was particularly pleased to play this game and find that it didn’t feel like a re-purposing of the Last Night on Earth board game (the only other Flying Frog game I’ve played), but really stood on its own as an entirely different play system.  During play, I kept finding myself likening the game to something like a hybrid child of Talisman and Arkham Horror, both games from other companies that I love, but much faster to play, even when we added the Something Wicked expansion.  I’m going to have to buy this game, so expect a full review in the near future.  Flying Frog Production’s A Touch of Evil page can be found here.

Delta Green and Pathfinder Society:  I’ve chosen to put both of these games together because they both encompassed a particularly different kind of gaming than my norm.  The local convention regulars participate in a few “living campaigns”.  Players rejoin several times a year at conventions to carry on characters from adventure to adventure, forming super large groups, but forgoing any sort of between adventure development or continuity.  This was a big change for how I approach games, which are typically one-shot adventures or long-term campaigns investing heavily in character depth.

In Delta Green, the players are members of a top secret organization investigating more Lovecraftian phenomenon, expanding the rules the Call of Cthulhu d100 system for the present day.  The living campaign is managed, run, and written by a local group, and they call the campaign Delta Files.  In Pathfinder Society, players make a tomb-raider-for-hire that participates in sessions that are tracked by the game’s publisher Paizo, running players through pre-written Pathfinder Society modules with specific objectives for various character factions.

While I’m sure many Pathfinder Society games do invest themselves in role play, I feel like the Game Master might feel constrained to rule bend too far because they report back game statistics to Paizo on successes or failures.  For all of the criticism D&D 4e gets over comparisons to World of Warcraft, I’ve honestly never played a game that felt more like a massively multiplayer game than this.  Our adventure orders were straight forward with no role play or preliminary investigation, and our objectives were simple and required only that we make one skill check to achieve each.  After completing an objective there was no sense of impact to the game world outside of a treasure reward.   The players at the table seemed particularly jaded with this sort of game play, falling into the repetitive swings, hit, damage patterns with no flavor or description.  They were just there to get credit for the module and level up yet another character.  I’d really love to hear some Pathfinder Society member’s speak up, because I’m curious to see if I had an experience typical of these kinds of games, or if I just got in an off group.

Delta Green, on the other hand, I found very rewarding.  There was still an element of stat grinding at the table, but because the group is managed by local Game Masters who write the adventures themselves and run it, they remain open to react and modify on the fly.  The Delta Files group seems to put a very strong effort to emulate the kinds of stories Lovecraft wrote, which often means danger that is both unrelenting and  incomprehensible.  Survival is more important than the mission at large.  I was very impressed both by the adventure I played in, and what I heard from the other table running nearby concurrently.

I think a big problem I have with something like Patfhinder Society’s setup is that players join in adventures catered to their level with missions catered to their faction, the scenario is designed for success.  At no point in our five man group did the level appropriate adventure feel challenging, but even if it did I would know that it was a challenge intended for me to overcome.  In something like Delta Files, there is no group character level to meet.  We didn’t say, “Ok everyone, you need a level 2 adventurer to participate in this one”, but instead we sat down, I made a character and others brought out their characters which had been leveling from con to con for years in some cases, months in others, and we played the adventure ignorant of how difficult it might be.  That’s where gaining skill points mattered.  In a game where the challenge meets you, the points are just a way to feel like something has changed, but in Delta Files those points might make the difference between life or death at some point down the road.  Characters also have life changing and deep experiences as a reaction to the Mythos, and can change or degrade (most likely degrade) as a direct result.

The following links can get you some more information on these campaigns:

Delta Green

Delta Files

Pathfinder Society

The Closing of the Con

Come Sunday afternoon when the last game I played in was packed up, I felt invigorated.  Both because I hadn’t really gamed in so long, and also because I had seen so many different play styles in such a short span.  I was able to really think about my own play format and pick out what I liked about it.  I loved this weekend, and I can’t wait to find out who the guests will be next year.  If I do return, I will probably pay more attention to the available panels and try to take more of that in, but the lure of a game-filled weekend was too much to resist.

[tags]MarsCon, Conventions, RPG, role playing, games, Jim Butcher, Dresden Files[/tags]

10 thoughts on “Convention Report: MarsCon 2011

Add yours

  1. Nice write up Nick….I wish I could have been there. LOL…I totally feel for you in dealing with a new job and how that can alter the amount of time you can spend gaming.

    Thanks for the recap…hoping to hit this CON next year.


  2. You played on Sunday morning, didn’t you? I was the blonde at the other end of the table. Bluntly, that was not one of the better tables. That GM tries hard, but I’ve had better. I’ve had games that were very roleplay intensive and some that you just slog through.


  3. Sewicked, that’s awesome, I didn’t know you were a local! I’m definitely curious enough to give another try, but as it stood that just wasn’t my kind of gaming on Sunday.

    How did you find out about the blog? I know you’ve been on here for a while making comments and such.


  4. I’ve really liked the bit of Call of Cthulhu that I’ve played, and the adventure you were in sounds pretty interesting. I haven’t played World of Darkness, but your issue with it is my apprehension about it.

    Man, I really to game at a con.


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