Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Ravaging Philcon

This past Saturday, I demoed Ravaged Earth at Philcon, a science fiction convention based in Philadelphia but now held in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

I first ran Ravaged Earth at Philcon back in 2006, when the game was mired in development hell with a fledgling publisher who couldn’t get it off the ground.

Since then, two editions of the game were released. I spent four panels at this Philcon promoting the hell out of the second revised edition. Grasping my copy of the game like a mouthy infomercial pitchman, I attended every panel and plugged the book, the publisher (Reality Blurs), and explained to strangers in a conference room at the Crowne Plaza Hotel everything I could think of about the luxurious and ever profitable world of game design.

     The infamous sign-up sheet, taped to the game suite door. Names have been painstakingly redacted to protect everyone's identity.

For my demo, which I was
scheduled to run from 8 p.m. until midnight, I wouldn’t be caught off guard. Like any good Boy Scout, I understood preparation is key. Before the convention, I busied myself gathering the essential tools every Game Master should possess. I fashioned a GM screen from two binders and fastener clips, bought a BattleMat, printed and cut out Disposable Heroes line of paper miniatures.

If I ran an RPG, I’d go in with both barrels fully loaded and triggers cocked. I’d blow the kneecaps off the players with my awesome pre-made character sheets, and dazzle them with my brain-shattering GM skills.

In short, I’d be an indestructible Teflon-coated game mastering juggernaut, a polyhedral dice-throwing stud.

However grandiose my ambitions, reality widely diverged from my Walter Mittyesque fantasies. At that point, I was running on fumes, as I’d attended a staggering four panels that day, starting with an early one at 9 a.m. Four panels, each separated by one hour increments, doesn't give you time to rest. If I wanted to unleash the fury, I'd have to recharge my spent geek batteries.

By the time 8 p.m. rolled around, I had taken a brief afternoon nap and was refreshed, invigorated and rarin’ to go. Earlier that day, I noticed the sign-up sheet for Ravaged Earth was filled. Players were coming. All I had to do was deliver.

As 8 p.m. rolled around, I set up in the gaming suite at a large table. It would serve as the arena for my carefully woven pulpy tale.

There’d be action, thrills and heart-pounding adventure.

Oh, yes.

There’d be adventure.

However, as 8 p.m. turned into 8:10 p.m., no gamers showed up. Would I have to cancel the demo and slink back home, head hung low in defeat? What happened to all of the players who signed up? Did they get cold feet? Grow bored? Latched on to a decadent private party elsewhere in the hotel and were doing bodyshots off an 18-year old elf princess in a chainmail bikini?

What happened?

If I was going to run the game just for my girlfriend, so be it. She showed infinite patience with me and supported my writing endeavors. Girlfriend played Ravaged Earth in the con games I’d run before and excitedly recounted her exploits from the gaming sessions. This time, she even came dressed as her character, Fun Yi, a.k.a. The Black Lotus, fabled avenger from Shanghai. She ordered a red silk cheongsam adorned with peacocks. The dress was a little too tight, but she squeezed into it for the convention.

Fun Yi would not be denied her night of glory!

Fortunately, Fun Yi wouldn’t be alone. Other players arrived and joined the game, much to my relief. Heroes included the aforementioned Fun Yi; Dr. Blake Cutler the gadgeteer; Captain Lightning, a superhero; and Mr. Automatix, a robot butler. A fifth player who portrayed the Amazing Renaldo, a magician, briefly joined and cut out early. More on this dude later. 

The heroes began in New York City in the summer of 1936. A mysterious red light erupted in the night sky several weeks before, suspended in the atmosphere over the city. As the days pass, New Yorkers have grown accustomed to the object, which the newspapers dub “the Red Star”. One night as the heroes are out, they witness a bright flash of light burst from the Red Star and plummet earthward, crash landing somewhere in the city. The heroes decide to investigate and inquire about the object. A newspaper vendor tells them the object fell somewhere in the Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Following up leads, they arrive at Paterno Castle just in time to hear a woman screaming. The heroes knock on the door and a weary-eyed butler greets them. Mr. Automatix finagles his way past the butler and the others follow. The heroes search the house while the robot keeps the butler busy. They stumble upon the maid’s body in an upstairs closet, then see a Martian probe digging in the garden. They confront the Martian probe and destroy it. Captain Lightning summons his contacts at the New York City Police Department, who arrive on the scene. The heroes learn the Martian probe was digging in the garden, possibly searching for something. Grabbing shovels from the garden shed, the heroes start digging and find a small piece of Aetherium buried deep in the soil. Dr. Cutler takes the metal back to his laboratory for further study.

A peculiar advertisement runs in the newspaper the following day, seeking anyone who witnessed the strange object fall from the sky the previous night. Inquiring about the ad, the heroes travel to Colombia University and find Dr. Dunphy, an eccentric professor interviewing the witnesses. The heroes recount their tale to Dunphy, who tells them about a dreadful cult of Martian worshippers called the Children of Phobos. Dunphy suspects the cult is behind a recent spate of murders occurring after the Red Star first appeared. He tasks the heroes with finding his contact, Officer Simmons of the NYPD. Simmons had been investigating strange Martian glyphs found in the New York City sewer tunnels underneath Manhattan when he vanished.

Armed with their wits (and a few flashlights) the heroes descend into the dank sewers. After dealing with a swarm of sewer rats Captain Lightning quickly dispatches by slinging lightning at them, the heroes encounter Officer Simmons’ battered cadaver.       

Without giving too much away, the heroes meet a femme fatale, discover the cultist’s lair, and manage arresting the ringleader in one huge boss battle involving robed cultists and mutated superheroes. When the battle ended, the players wanted to quit.

Yet more of the tale remained, additional adventurous tidbits I’d yet to entice them with. I started explaining the police found additional information in the cultist’s lair pointing to Dr. Richard Pierson of Princeton University.

At the mention of that, one player perked up.

“That’s the guy from War of the Worlds,” he said. “Let’s keep playing and see where this is going.”

With that hook, I launched into the second act, where the intrepid heroes met Pierson in his observatory doing what academic astronomers do best: peering through a telescope at the heavens. Pierson notices jets of blue flame bursting from Mars’ surface. He attributes them to natural weather phenomenon on the Red Planet, until the radio program of orchestral music is halted abruptly and an emergency news report reveals an object crash-landed in the small farming community of Grover’s Mill nearby.

Sound familiar? 

Orson Welles’ rendition of War of the Worlds is a playable scenario in Ravaged Earth!

Pierson takes the heroes in his car to Grover’s Mill, with Captain Lightning flying above. On the road, the Children of Phobos attack Pierson’s car and a chase ensues. Fun Yi, Mr. Automatix and Dr. Cutler manage to shoot the tires on the cultist’s vehicle. Captain Lightning swoops down, lands on the cultist’s car and crashes through the window, terrifying the hapless mooks.

In Grover’s Mill, Martian tripods assault the small farming community. The trundling fighting machines surround the old mill as the State Police arrive. I used the BattleMat and minis for the climactic battle. Captain Lightning entered the mill, found the millstone and pried it loose. Grasping the millstone, he flew through the roof and soared over one of the fighting machines. Making a flawless Agility roll, he dropped the millstone on one of the tripods, crushing it. Dr. Cutler used his telekinesis helmet to jostle loose the bolts on one fighting machine’s spindly leg. The tripod whirled before tumbling onto a house. Meanwhile, the remaining fighting machines incinerated half the cordon of State Troopers. Mr. Automatix fired his zapgun and scored tremendously insane damage, which fried one of the fighting machines, sending it toppling into Grover’s Mill Pond. Fun Yi used her martial arts skill to shimmy up one of the tripods and vault onto its hood. The Martians fired their heat ray and Fun Yi suffered two wounds and fell shaken. Captain Lightning flew to her rescue, seizing the avenger from the tripod, just as a combined flurry of Mr. Automatix’ zapgun and Dr. Cutler’s telekinesis helmet crippled the fighting machine. A bombardment by the heroes and State Troopers felled the final mechanical horror onto a parked car.

The Battle of Grover’s Mill ended with scorched earth, widespread ruination and crushed Martian tripods.

The players were overjoyed, and I felt reinvigorated. Pulling off a good game is one thing. Keeping people hooked and interested requires a unique talent. From their reaction, they enjoyed Ravaged Earth and their new pulpy personas. They investigated murders, scuffled with cultists and took on Martian invaders, all in the span of four hours, my allotted game time.

Onlookers who wandered into the gaming suite gathered around the table throughout the night to observe. They were likewise enthralled with the game and asked about it afterwards.

The player who assumed the guise of the magician returned following the game. He apologized for cutting out early and said that was his first tabletop role-playing experience. He peppered me with questions about the game and I told him where to find it. Pretty cool of him to let me know that. Kudos, mystery man, wherever you are. 

After a day of shilling the game and finally running a demo, I was ready for a little rest. My girlfriend and I played a game of Cards Against Humanity for an hour with about ten people, and had a profanity-laced good time.

I’ve run Ravaged Earth before at Gen Con and Philcon, and in a local game store. I’ve explained it to gamers, game designers, fellow writers and the uninitiated multitudes I work with. This was one of the best gaming sessions I’ve ever had. Chalk it up to the intimacy, the relaxed atmosphere or the late hours.

Despite being in a near state of zombielike catatonia, I forged ahead and ran the game. For that determination, I should at least get a medal/steak dinner/back rub. 

Thanks to the players who showed up and played Ravaged Earth at Philcon this year. You were a very enthusiastic and fun group. An additional thanks goes out to the Philcon staff who worked with me in the gaming suite.

I’d like to do it again, say next year?

What other exciting tales of adventure and intrigue await?

Tune in to find out!