Metatopia 2014 Report – Part 1

Beginnings are always a challenge, and I'd been thinking a lot on what would be an appropriate way to start off this blog.  I've been into tabletop role-playing games since the mid-80s, and while it's been some number of years since my gaming heyday, I like to think that even without regular games to attend that I've been doing a decent job of keeping up with developments in the hobby.  More recently, though (say, in the past few years), the explosion of small-press games and narrative-focused systems have thoroughly reinvigorated my interest, and my somewhat reluctant attempts to get involved in more social media have connected me with game designers, industry professionals, and other fans in a way that I have found to be extremely cool.  The culmination of all these changes came to a head last week in my attendance of this year's Metatopia, a gaming convention geared toward designers and the projects that they are currently developing.  What I want to do for this report (and hopefully more reports to come!) is go over some highlights of the games I played and other experiences I enjoyed.

Metatopia is helmed by Double Exposure, the same people who head up DexCon, Dreamation, and other RPG cons and events.  (They are also, incidentally, also behind Envoy, an organization dedicated to bringing together game companies, cons, gaming groups, and GMs.)  I was a semi-regular attendee of DexCon for many years, since it was held in Morristown, NJ and was in such close striking distance from New York.  (DexCon and ConnCon were my go-to "local" cons back in the day.)  Being familiar with the people involved, I expected a well-run con, and I certainly wasn't disappointed in that regard.  The way Metatopia differs from other cons, though, is that instead of attendees filling their schedules with various games run by volunteer GMs, attendees to Metatopia fill their schedules with playtests run by the various games' designers and a wide selection of panels and discussions on various topics of interest to the game design industry.  It is a unique and wonderful con experience, especially if you're interested in the nuts and bolts of what fuels role-playing game systems, which I very much am.

I'll say overall that I had an amazing time at Metatopia.  I met some great people that I've been admiring from afar for a while, met some other great people for the first time, learned a lot about the game development process and what a designer has to go through before a game goes to market, and found it a personally fulfilling experience to get back to a con and take advantage of the opportunity to stretch my gaming legs.  What follow are some of the bigger highlights of my weekend.

Disclaimer: The games mentioned here are currently in development, and so everything I describe about them is subject to change.  It also means that as of this writing, none of them are yet on the market.  If anything here interests you, I highly recommend that you keep an eye on the designers' media outlets to keep up-to-date with the latest news.

James D'Amato 
and Kat Murphy (
I spend a lot of my time these days with podcasts, and RPG podcasts in particular.  In the "actual play" genre, my hands-down favorite is One Shot (alongside its recently-added sister show, Campaign).  The hosts of those shows, James and Kat, ran some alpha playtests of a game they're designing called Epiphany.  The concept of the game is to tell the story of a flawed individual who is saved or improved through some kind of "magical realism" scenario, like in the movies Groundhog Day or Freaky Friday.  The game seems geared toward self-contained, single-session scenarios, in the mold of things like Fiasco and Psi*Run.  The system is heavily narrative-focused, in that while dice are used as a resolution mechanic, it is not so much for success/failure task resolution as it is for deciding narrative direction and control.  The single-protagonist model is very interesting, as it casts one player as the individual undergoing these experiences and the other players as something akin to co-GMs who manage the external influences.  I say "akin" because it differs from traditional co-GMing in that the "Fates" (as they're called in the game) do not confer or conspire before the game, except insofar as the entire group confers to decide the nature of the scenario.  The play style therefore relies heavily on improv play, which is no surprise given James' and Kat's backgrounds in improv.  There are currency mechanics in the game as well as sliding power scales which can tilt the scales of narrative control between the protagonist's player and the Fates.  Each "side" has their own goal for various acts of the story, but in broad strokes, the group as a whole is working toward the same general plot, so this scans as a cooperative story game above all else, in my opinion.

This game was a blast to play.  I don't get that many chances these days to enjoy story games like this, so the experience was both desired and novel for me, and I enjoyed it immensely.  James and Kat both introduced and presented the game.  James participated in the playtest as a Fate, and Kat observed, answered questions, and took notes.  My fellow attendee-players were both One Shot fans as well, and they were both outstanding to have in the game.  Meeting James and Kat face-to-face for the first time was a little overwhelming and a lot surreal.  Because I listen to them for what amounts to a few hours every week, their voices are intimately familiar to me, so it was pretty weird for my eyes to tell my brain "stranger" and my ears to tell my brain "friend."  That said, they are both as delightful and fun in person as they are to listen to on the podcasts, and while I did manage to act the fool a bit when fanboying over them, I still feel like I didn't get to express half of how I felt about meeting them.  So the combined experience of meeting those two and playing in their game was one of the major highlights of the convention for me.

Project: Dark and DarkNet
Will Hindmarch
I consider myself a Will Hindmarch fan.  He's a game designer and writer, which, since I'm pretty much a game player and reader, is basically where most of my fandom goes anyway.  I could talk about stuff like Things We Think About Games or Always/Never/Now or Odyssey: Journey and Change, but that's just the regular level of my fanhood.  I could talk about the alchemical magic of Storium and what a life-changer that is, but even that doesn't fully capture my admiration.  Will is definitely a doer, but he is also a thinker and a talker and a...feeler, I guess, if that's a thing besides an antenna.  It's difficult for me to put into words how I respect not only the man's work, but his process, his presentation.  Meeting him was another pretty big deal for me, and again I feel that I was unable to convey the weight of that for me at the time, though I stammered through a kind of half-baked attempt.  (Fun fact: one of the players from the Epiphany game was also an observer at this DarkNet game, and that was my only contact with that person at this con, so somewhere out there is someone who thinks I am just a nutty game design fanboy.  Which I guess is fair enough, but I don't ordinarily wear it on my sleeve like that.)

Project: Dark is a game that Will Hindmarch crowdfunded through Kickstarter.  (Full disclosure: I am a proud backer.  Do I even need to do full disclosure here?  This isn't an objective review.  I'm an unabashed fan.)  The game centers on the exploits of...well, let's not mince words...thieves.  Which is to say that the entire game is geared toward stealth, infiltration, deception, trickery, and other hallmarks of the thieving trade.  The system is card-based instead of dice-based, which is always an interesting change of pace.  This card-based task resolution is interesting to me since it's more an issue of resource management than playing the odds; it's like if you were playing a dice-based mechanic, but you knew ahead of time what your rolls would be.  It also bears mentioning that the system uses ordinary playing cards, but instead of everyone just using a deck of cards as a randomizer, the contents of each player's deck is customized based on their character sheet.  Because the game is so heavily interested in stealth and infiltration, characters are dealing with their environment as much as inter-personal conflict, and the system reflects this well.  (For example, the harder your surroundings or circumstances make it to be stealthy, the fewer cards you can hold in your hand.)  This game's mechanics also make good use of the cards both as a value marker and as tokens; when taking an action, you can play cards to either add value to your "roll" or affect the scale of the result, but not both.  Like I said: resource management.  The suits of cards are also mechanically significant, which in turn makes them narratively significant.  To go back to the dice-based analogy, it's not only like knowing what your next roll will be, it's like knowing your next roll can be either a good "fighting" roll or a good "diplomacy" roll, but not a good "hiding" roll; as a player, you would probably direct your character's actions differently than you normally would.

The default setting of Project: Dark is familiar fantasy ground.  DarkNet is the near future sci-fi incarnation of the setting, bringing in more hacker-like elements to the game.  The computer systems in DarkNet, unlike the usual cyberpunk fare, are more AR than VR ("augmented reality" as opposed to "virtual reality").  This subtle difference allows for more seamless in- and out-of-computer play, both in transitioning between the two as well as playing both simultaneously.  I'll also note that this playtest session was followed by a lengthy impromptu discussion afterward, which demonstrates both what Metatopia is all about and also the richness of the ideas in this setting.

The playtest was quite fun.  In a group of thieves, I played a "bruiser" type, so during the actual infiltration, I felt like as long as things were going right for us, my character didn't have to exercise his particular talents.  This meant that I didn't get a lot of firsthand experience with using the system, but I had a mighty fine time in the game regardless, and I got to absorb by watching others how the thing plays.  One effect of the hand-of-cards mechanic is that, because I drew a quite strong starting hand for my character, I was able to go through the game completely confident that I could handle any physical conflict that arose.  (I also was aware that, once said conflict was handled, I was unlikely to draw another hand so strong until the deck was reshuffled.)  So the randomness of the cards dictates not directly whether your character succeeds or fails, but more drives how he acts and the decisions he makes.  I think it will take some getting used to by people accustomed to dice, and it came out during testing that it's not an easy mechanic to teach or describe; it needs a demonstration to really click.  It strikes me as a difficult game to run well; there's a lot to juggle and keep in mind (see earlier comments about PCs vs. environment as well as PCs vs. NPCs).  I should also mentioned that the GM does not have cards, but does appear to use dice rolls, so that's a thing.  Oh, and there are jokers in the deck.  When jokers come out, it basically signals that some complication or so is going to arise, and it goes into the GMs arsenal.  I like this mechanic, as the players become aware of the mounting possibility of something going wrong as they take more actions.  I believe the GM dice rolls and joker mechanic are there to sort of keep the GM honest, as it were, and show that they can't just screw with the players on a whim.

To be continued...
That seems like enough for now.  More Metatopia wrap-up coming soon in Part 2!

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