Saturday, May 18, 2013

Fire and Ice Roundup: 2012 and 2013

Today I put to rest another post that's been lingering for far too long. Last year, just after going to Fire and Ice 2012, I pledged to give a more detailed discussion of the convention... later that week.

Well, frak. That sure as heck didn't happen.

So now, having been haunted by that particular failure for over a year, I've added another victim to my unfinished business: Fire and Ice 2013. This actually works out pretty well, as in 2013 much of my time at the con revolved around the games that I'd volunteered to host. Since I didn't do this the first year, it makes for a good comprehensive perspective of the small gaming convention.

This review I'll break up into the types of games I've played at Fire and Ice, and a brief run-down of my specific experiences.

Role-Playing Games

I've mentioned in the past that I love being able to play several RPGs in one weekend. It's a great way to try out different game systems and with players of diverse role-playing styles. This second part is really fun and unique. You can always play a new game with your same old gaming group, but forming a whole new group of role-players is slow at best and at worst it's more agonizing than the first season of Star Trek Next Generation. Of course, playing with new people presents its own difficulties, too. You need to spend a lot of game time feeling out the others' play styles and expectations of the game, and it's easy to fall back more on humor than you would otherwise do in a typical session.

"Well, frak. That sure as heck didn't happen."

What first brought me to Fire and Ice 2012 was a conversation with Kurt Wilken on the GURPS forums at Steve Jackson Games' website about running a one-shot GURPS Thundercats game for a local convention. My enthusiasm for both GURPS and the Thundercats led me to bring my wife and son to the small Wisconsin convention in search of games, and Kurt's GURPS Thundercats happened to be in the first slot for that Friday, too, making for an easy integration into the event. His game was GURPS lite, which is pretty essential for a con (remember my intro to GURPS), and he had a lot of fun with the cartoon characters that made it enjoyable. So much so that the next day I had to join his GURPS Justice League game as well, which was probably even more fun despite my distaste for the DC Universe--and it was probably helped by the fact that the Justice League game had five players who were a bit more into the game than the two others who sat in on the Thundercats game. The one minor note of disappointment, however, is that I was looking forward to seeing how another GM tackles the complexity of GURPS, since I've never played the system as PC before. Much to my chagrin, Kurt's style was largely the same as mine--thanks a lot! That teaches me sooo much.

The past two Fire and Ice cons also gave me a chance to try a number of new RPGs, too. Last year I'd also played a game of Deadlands, which felt to me like a compromise between the Serenity Cortex system and D&D. The setting is fantasy-steampunk-western, where Jules Vernian devices can be used by divinely-blessed gunslingers to fight off Apache werewolves. Yeah, it's that crazy. And I don't think a stranger has ever made me laugh harder in my life. The Deadlands game was played during the last slot of the night, and as such we got pretty crazy flogging our characters through the climax of our zombie-infested vampire ghost town. Literally, in the case of one of our players, who played an older preacher who could literally call down brimstone from on high. In order to bring his six-barrelled shotgun to the enemy, he had to whip his mule-spirited horse into a frenzy that was punctuated by hoarse-drawled homiles screeched in a perfectly evocative and ridiculous pitch. The game itself wasn't  interesting enough for me to seek it out, and the setting felt like a cliche pot-pouri, but it was magic hour with our improbable crew that night.

"You can always play a new game with your same old gaming group, but forming a whole new group of role-players is slow at best and at worst it's more agonizing than the first season of Star Trek Next Generation."

One of my favorite games from last year was a session of Mistrunner, which remains the most capably run RPG I've played in anywhere. Mistrunner is actually a small independent RPG system and unique setting that was released this past year, and at Fire and Ice 2012 we were being led by the game's designer, Glenn Buettner. Set in a future, devastated version of Earth where magical races suddenly entered the world and destroyed everything familiar, this game avoided the traps of a typical fantasy RPG. There were no humans, and the limited amounts of steam and old tech meant that it had a little more refinement than a medieval RPG without the unrestrained insanity of the Deadlands game. The game system itself was interesting and easy enough to get a handle on, but the pre-made PCs were so well done it's hard to tell how much control players have over character creation. Pretty much all of the game's characters were magic users and/or casters, which is not something I like, but that worked in this system. Magic in the game basically revolved around tapping into pools of magical influence over your specific element--fire or water, etc. You watched Captain Planet, right? Except in here Mr. Buettner really rewarded creativity, and our magical improvisation was key to resolving the different fights. I opted to play a troll mistrunner--the Ma-Ti of these Planeteers. I know--I got stuck with heart? When I don't even like being a magic user? Well, this particular troll was awesome. As a mistrunner, I was the guide for our group through the magical fog that dominates the setting, and I had physical control over it as well as an astral ability to tap into the mist realms connected. Or something. I just loved that Mr. Buettner gave us a chance to buy gear in the beginning of the session and let my troll pick up a perfume  bottle with an atomizer, which I used to materialize steps in the air, projected like shotgun blasts, and used to detonate a giant spider's head from the inside out. It's just too bad that we weren't supposed to kill that spider--but that's the kind of crap that goes down when a troll is calling the shots, dog.

This past year, at Fire and Ice 2013, the only RPG I played was a game called Microscope, which is a super quirky anti-RPG. You don't assume the roles of characters, there's no dice-rolling or stats, and there's no one GM. Instead, armed with note cards, pencils, and in an exercise that reminded me of my fondest memories of theater at school, you take turns fleshing out a timeline. It's very much a high concept game that is designed to help brainstorm settings and chain of events for proper RPGs, but if you're like me and too anal to consider giving up your GM reins to let the players collectively create your setting, it might just be a fun novelty instead.

Board Games

The board game scene at Fire and Ice is great. There are tons of tables devoted to games of all types, and if not there's a big library of games that they loan out to people looking to try out something specific that isn't part of a scheduled event. They even have little "looking for players" signs that you can set up on a table beside your game to let people know that you don't have any friends want to beat some new people have available seats. At Fire and Ice 2013, I dropped in on a pickup game of Axis & Allies (where I led the Soviet forces to resounding victory and much mocking of the high schooler commanders of the Axis powers), and I used a sign to get a five player game of Marvel Legendary started--which was frakkin' sweet.

"...that's the kind of crap that goes down when a troll is calling the shots, dog."

And the con is a great place to play new board games. There's no better way to learn a board game than to simply sit down and play it under the direction of a player who loves the game. At Fire and Ice 2012 I played the massively popular game Eclipse when it was sold out in most of America, and that was a fun stretch for me. A Euro-style board game with its sights set on Twilight Imperium's throne, Eclipse put us in command of sci-fi human empires looking for a reason to sponge out our fellow players from amongst the stars. I liked the fleet customization aspect which let us change our ship's abilities as the game progressed, but I wasn't a fan of getting rolled over by a girl's dreadnought fleet of nuke-dom. I'll stick with my good old Twilight Imperium, but it was a might fun game to play.

Similarly, I'd never gotten to play a game of Memoir '44 Overlord before Fire and Ice 2012. I have Memoir '44, and recommended it in my Memorial Day post, but the Overlord variation of the game is epically prohibitive to set up spontaneously. You need two sets of the game, a lot of space, and exactly four people on both sides of the table--three players each commanding the left, right, and center sections of their side's forces, and one honcho calling the shots for all three. I got to play as the grand marshal of the German forces in our epic game, and I'm proud to say I got my Jerry subordinates butchered terribly. All in terrible fun.

Miniatures Games

For 2012, I played only two short miniatures games, even though a full third of the game floor was devoted to Heroclix, Warhammer, and Warhammer 40,000 tournaments. Not wanting to miss out on the clix action, but not yet into it myself, I played a fun small intro scenario of the out-of-print Mechwarrior Heroclix game, which was an intuitive but difficult-to-master variation on the core clix system that added a second clicker. For those of you who don't know, the clix system is basically a model on top of a decoder-ring type setup the size of a bottlecap with character stats on it. As your characters take damage, you click the decoder towards their death, and the stats change to reflect diminished abilities or building desperation. The Mechwarrior game was fun, and the appeal of getting into a fully fleshed out game appealed, but I just wasn't that into the figures and scale that I felt conflicted a bit with the system. But, by the time The Avengers came out three months later, I was totally primed to start collecting Marvel Heroclix. So boo-yah for guerrilla marketing.

"I wasn't a fan of getting rolled over by a girl's dreadnought fleet of nuke-dom."

For Fire and Ice 2013, I actually led three games of space fleet battles in the miniatures gaming section. Playing a personal variation on Colonial Battlefleet, I let players command the ships of the show Battlestar Galactica against each other in scenarios modeling the Battle of the Tylium Asteroid, the Attack on the Resurrection Ship, and the Rescue on New Caprica. I love Colonial Battlefleet and hope to talk more about it, but for me the highlight was busting out my painted models and impressing people with a really good looking game, even if the rules are virtually unknown.

Well, that's it for a very late addition to my blog. One more plodding step towards being up-to-date and ever-timely.

Psssh. Like that's ever going to happen.

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