The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Dead of Winter, Mark 2

If you, kind reader, will permit me to talk hobbies for an entry, I want to plug a friend's event.

This last weekend, I attended the second annual Dead of Winter Horror Invitational, a role-playing game convention held in the Brookdale Lodge, an allegedly haunted hotel in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Last year's event was a blast, so I was eager for this years, and I have to say that the event didn't disappoint. The players were brought by invitation and chosen by Matt Steele who picked those who he felt would play a good game and entertain each other as well as themselves. If the people at the game tables that I attended are any indication, he chose well.

Matt shows off the tumor that he removed from a Venezuelan farmer's stomach using nothing by an Exact-o knife and a roll of "Fruit by the Foot".

Okay, for those unfamiliar with the term, a role playing game is best described as a type of interactive fiction or storytelling. It's a game in which one player (usually called the Game Master, although there are other titles as well) develops a rough story outline and populates it with minor characters. The other players play the parts of the story's central protagonasts (or, sometimes, antagonists) which are represented by both the player's performance and by a set of attributes (usually, though not always, numbers representing skills and abilities) on a characetr sheet. All site around a table and the Game Master narrates general events and the actions of the minor characters, and the players narrate the actions of their characters. When there is a conflict (the players want their characters to do something difficult, the players want their characters to do something in oppoisition to the Game Master-controlled characters, or the one player's character wants to do something against another player's character) then the rules of the game are invoked in order to settle the conflict, which usually involves comparison of attributes and/or dice rolling in order to determine the outcome. These games reflect genres of fiction, and as a result come in nearly every genre (though fantasy and science fiction are probably dominant, while genres such as romance and drama are present but uncommon). The genre reflected at this convention was horror, usually supernatural horror although other types were also represented.

The venue for such a convention could not have been better. As noted, the Brookdale Lodge is allegedly haunted, and is a damn creepy place even without the ghost stories. It is in the redwoods, along a mountain highway. Although the location is very accessible from both Santa Cruz and San Jose, the topography and the forest make it appear isolated. The hotel is in considerably better condition than it was last year, and therefore didn't seem to be actively trying to kill us but is still rather run-down and therefore a bit unnerving.

The victims gather in the hotel bar.

The first night, there were no games, but everyone met in the hotel bar and socialized. The first year, I found this a bit awkward, but this year, I knew more people (we all remembered each other from last year, and everyone was friendly and welcoming) and the first evening was alot of fun. We sat about, talking and joking, and feeling a sense of comeraderie that only a geeky hobby such as ours can bring.

Jack looks dapper, the rest of us schlubs didn't bother to change after work.

We played in the Log Cabin, which is, well, a log cabin connected to the rest of the hotel by means of a wodden hallway/tunnel next to the brook room. It is poorly insulated, but has a huge fireplace. Last year, the fireplace was malfunctioning, and so we were frequently unable to heat the room, and there was a major storm, meaning that we all had to be bundled up to play. This year, however, the weather was better AND the fireplace worked meaning that we were never cold, were usually quite comfortable, and on a couple of occasions were even uncomfortably warm.

The log cabin was rather cozy. Too bad it's floor and walls were coated in maple syrup residue

In all, the better hotel conditions and the nice weather were not the boon that they would be for most events. Given that this was a horror game convention, the spooky atmosphere was heightened by the storms and dilapidated hotel last year, and these set the stage perfectly for the ghost stories and monster tales that our games were based around. Weirdly, this was an event where the atmosphere benefited from what would be bad conditions for every other kind of event. However the organizer did everything that he could to create an appropriate atmosphere (set it during the darkest time of the year in an hotel with a reputation for creepiness, and invite Game Masters and players who have a proven record of being able to evoke good atmosphere from their games) and the weather was going to cooperate or not regardless of what he did. In other words, the organizer did good but the weather gods are bastards.

Okay, smart-ass comments aside, the fireplace was one of the best things for building atmosphere, and I was glad to have it.

The games were an interesting mix, and while some worked better than others, and based on what I saw and heard I don't think that there was a dud in the mix - the worst that can be said about any game was that it was well constructed and run, which at most events would be high praise. I played in three this year. The first was a game run by my friend Mike, who took what was essentially a super hero story and overlaid it with a tale of ghostly revenge for a good, creepy story. Our characters were able to effect the outcome, but against the threat that we faced, we were less powerful than characters of our sorts would generally be expected to be. The end result was a solid, well-paced, suspenseful game in which we were forced to think our way around problems that our characters would normally just pound their way through. Mike is a talented Game Master, and this fact was evident in his entry.

In keeping with the horror theme of the con, Mike explains that disruptive players will be dismembered and buried beneath the floorboards.

The next game in which I played was a science fiction/humor game called HOL (for Human Occupied Landfill). The game's setting establishes that the players are prisoners (for anything from being framed for minor infractions to actually being horrible depraved criminals) who have been sentenced to live on a planet that is also used as the galaxy's garbage dump. Robotic cameras wander the landscape broadcasting the character's misery to the rest of the galaxy for their amusement. The game master created "terrain" for the game miniatures (many games use small models to illustrated where characters are and what they are doing) by dumping a trash can out on the table. The players included myself, the organizer Matt Steele, two long-time Bay Area gaming convention players/game masters, and the designers of the game Cthullutech and a social-networking/gaming website (EDIT - it's up and running and looking for folks, so go here). The game was hysterically fun, each of us playing some sort of weird reject with next-to-useless equipment having to negotiate a truly weird setting. In the end, one character used his abilities to play rock music to lure monsters away from us, another used the giant hamster-ball in which his character was trapped to get close enough to investigate a mysterious substance and help deal with it, my character mocked the laws of physics into submission, another made heavy artillery out of a radio, and another surrendered to the evil force we faced in order to distract it while the rest of us blew it to where it came from. The game had what was clearly intended to be horror elements, but the out-right gonzo lunacy of the game diluted them to where the game was more slapstick comedy than anything else. Alot of fun, and good work by the Game Master, but possibly not what the event was intended to be about.

It started with just a bit of garbage.

But we added to it over the course of the evening.

And then it threatened to encroach on the rest of the event.

The third (and final) game in which I played was interesting, but disturbing. It was set during the Eastern Front of WWII (see here for information on why this was so disturbing). The Game Master used a game system that is designed to imitate George Romero-style zombie stories. He also dropped hints that the Russians had been doing experiments to resuscitate dead soldiers, and one of the player characters was given a background narrative that had him having seen these resuscitated soldiers. Our characters were soldiers fighting in the eastern war. In the end, the zombie sightings were revealed to be the product of a soldier suffering from mental breakdown, and the game master put us into situations where simply trying to reduce the harm to innocent civilians led our characters to become paranoid tools of a man with a vendetta. Afterwards, the Game Master explained that he wanted the players to be confronted with the fact that neither the Soviets nor the Germans were monsters, but were humans in a situations and living under political leadership that fed on and rewarded the worst human traits - in other words, were we unlucky enough to be born in Germany or russia in the 1920s, then by the 1940s we would have been the ones committing the acts that as 21st century people we can look on in disgust. The leadership of both Hitler and Stalin and their inner circles was, indeed, evil, but most soldiers were just trying to survive and were swept up in the chaos that ensued when Hitler and Stalin made eastern Europe their personal dueling grounds. All of the players left the session deeply disturbed and truly horrified. The Game Master put it this way: there is no horror worse than what humans can do to each other, because we all have the potential to be monsters if we are not careful.

This was a valid lesson regarding morality, and if you view these not as games but as forms of storytelling (which they arguably are), then to use it as an essentially educational tool in this way is valid. However, we had all come to use them as games, and while potentially valuable, this was heavier than anyone had anticipated. So, I don't know what to make of the experience. I do think, however, that should I ever teach history (which could happen), I may take a lesson from this in trying to teach about war and war crimes.

So, to wrap it up, the last gaming experience aside, it was a fun event. I am very glad that I went, and I plan on attending next year. Hopefully the weather will be a bit more hostile next time. Regardless, as I know a couple of the other attendees read this, it was good to see everyone, and I look forward to next time.

If the readers will grant me just a bit more patience, while everyone that I met was fantastic, my memory for names is poor, so I want to say that everyone was a pleasure to meet and game with. I would like to acknowledge a few specific people who returned from last years and who really made the con especially enjoyable for me: Mike Ripley, whose gaming group I was in and whose company I miss, it was good to see him; the always gracious Matt DeHayes, and his girlfriend Nicole, I hope to get to spend a bit more time talking with them next time around; Shannon MacNamara, who is quite possibly one of the friendliest people I have ever met; Jack Young, who injected a sense of class into whatever part of the proceedings he was near; Mr. Grau and Mr. Muldoon, who were pitch-perfect for the HOL game and a hell of a lot of fun; Kris Miller (new this year, but memorable) the physicist/professional telescope operator/game convention impresario, and really interesting, cool guy; and of course, the host, Matt Steele, who made the event a success two years running - here's looking at year 3.

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