Review - Metatopia 2019

Metatopia 2019 Report

Metatopia is the game design festival run by Double Exposure.

I was able to visit Metatopia again this year, with a different game in a different state of development. It wasn’t as scary this time, being a second-timer, but as ever I’m particularly grateful to Kevin Kulp for arranging stuff and chauffering me around!

The event was as interesting, welcoming and fun as before, and I was very pleased to be able to attend. Because it is a game design festival, designers bring along their board games, tabletop rpgs and LARPS. The games might be in a very rough alpha stage, or a more fully finished beta stage, and the purpose is to test things out and receive feedback.

So in this review, I’d like to reflect on all the playtests I had the opportunity to participate in. Each title is followed by a quote which comes from the metatopia schedule, my recollections of the game and some of the design conversations that I recall.

R113 Wrath of Nature (alpha test)

“Wrath of Nature” presented by Isaac Wynzel. An RPG using a card based system set in a sci-fi world where animals are seeking revenge on humans for the environmental disasters they caused.

So this was a card game where each of the players was an animal attempting to escape from a lab. We had a lion, a polar bear, a python and a rhino. The gameplay was very simple, and it was correctly labelled as an alpha test. I like the idea of intelligent lab animals seeking to escape and after a short play through of the game we had a nice long chat with Isaac about things that he could consider to bring more choices into the game, more differentiation between the character types, more of a visual representation of what is going on. I think that he found the experience valuable, and was good at taking on board feedback (and everyone was very kind and generous with their feedback too, as you would expect).

If I think back to what I was like at his age, I would never have dared to come along to an event like this! I’m so pleased that he felt able to come along, and able to bring along his game design. I hope that this will be the first of many things that he works on.

R301 A Space Between (beta test)

“A Space Between” by Stop, Hack, and Roll Podcast Network; presented by James Malloy. You’ve just met the person of your dreams and fallen madly in love. It is an intense and unexpected love. Unfortunately one of you has a contract with a major ice hauling corporation. They’ll have to venture out into the dangers of deep space to fulfill the contract before you can spend the rest of your lives together. This game for two to four players follows the relationship and lives of people who have to spend much of their time apart. Through a series of debriefing sessions, you will reconnect with your loved one, share experiences, and make up for lost time.

This was probably my favourite game that I played at metatopia this year. The idea is straightforward, but the implementation has some neat twists that come from the setting. One of the couple stays on earth, one goes out with the ice hauling corporation. Because space travel takes place at relativistic speeds, more time passes on earth than is experienced by the traveller. In this way it takes the separation that might be experienced by, say, armed forces families, and then amplifies it.

Each of the parties has their own deck of cards to draw from, one per (subjective) year of the separation. The ice hauler has all kinds of exciting space travel related things. The person at home has a mixture of mundane, personal and societal changes.

The cards are imaginative prompts, and as a player you can take these in different ways and build quite different stories from them. I was the earth dweller when I played, and my partner came back with stories about space filled with horrific alien menaces, and he feared to go back even though our contract demanded it. Meanwhile at the end of the first trip I had to break the news that I had suffered a home invasion two years ago and the gang had taken both our savings and our son… and our son was now running with the gang and wanted by the police. I blamed my partner for not being here.

After his second trip (two years for him, six years for me on earth) the ice hauler came back to find me speaking Japanese because of huge economic changes that had taken place. I’d also sold up the house and moved into a commune and wanted to introduce him to our new extended family…

As the years went past (slower for me than for him) we found ourselves driven further apart, until eventually the contract was ended, we bought our dream home but I was now fifteen years older than my partner and real or imagined betrayals over the years doomed us to a loveless life together in our ‘perfect home’.

Really enjoyed this game. Sometimes the cards that we drew contained something completely inconsequential (“you have a new puppy!”) alongside major life changing events (“You cheated on your partner with someone”) and although sometimes it was possible to bring these together, at other times they seemed irreconcilable. A suggestion that was made for consideration was to have separate piles for minor events, major personal events and major world events, so that players could decide how emotionally heavy they wanted their story to be by choosing which piles to draw from. The other bit of feedback we were able to give was that the list of contracts was very easy to calculate optimum routes to give more money for least time. It would be interesting to give more reason for selecting different routes - whether by jiggling the numbers, or providing for some randomisation of the contracts available.

Whatever James chooses to do with the feedback, I think this is a neat idea for a game and a lot of fun to play. You are world building at the same time as working through personal relationships between two people who are in love (at least at the start). It is creative and dramatic. Great job!

R498 Immortal Coil (alpha test)

“Immortal Coil” presented by Julian Butcher. A Forged in the Dark roleplaying game about a crew of rogues in a cyberpunk setting of high-tech reincarnation. Players portray transgressors and malcontents trying to build something-a community, a revolution, a criminal enterprise-while contending with street gangs, mercenary hackers, ubiquitous surveillance, predatory AIs, and undying plutocrats.

This alpha test only covered the character creation and community creation side of the game. This was a slight disappointment but only because I really liked the character I created, and wanted to play in an adventure with them! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This is a ‘Forged in the Dark’ game and the closest analogy I can think of is the book and TV series “Altered Carbon” - except that instead of re-sleeving into new bodies only being readily available for the wealthy, this is a future where it is possible for everybody.

In terms of game mechanics, a really innovative concept here is that your character sheet is in two parts. The major part is your characters personality, trauma, background, actions etc. Then you have an additional smaller sheet which is your characters current skin. This contains your appearance, gender, physical characteristics and wounds. If your skin gets too badly wounded you can just swap it for a new one! Because the player characters are at the bottom of the barrel you can decide how much of your limited funds you want to spend on your skin and how much you want to leave to random chance.

There are a range of character types - I chose the ‘Hellion’, a two-fisted brawler and fearsome combatant. The character had relationships with a fight club that tried to keep drawing them in, and challengers who kept trying to call them out to establish dominance, even though frankly the character had been happy just working their farm. When the time came to choose and/or roll for a skin, I thought it would be fun to take full advantages of the opportunities available so rather than choose bionic upgrades and roll for appearance I deliberately chose to appear as an elderly woman. Considering the fiction that had already been agreed about the character, I found this idea very appealing, in the whole ‘you are not your body’ vibe which the setting has.

Setting up your teams ‘community’ felt as though it was not as well developed as the character side of things. Unlike Blades or Scum & Villainy there were not some obvious paths or choices that guide the way your community looks. I think we all felt a little bit lost as we were deciding what ‘territories’ we wanted our community to have. I’m sure that this was just a function of this being an alpha test though, and that more work is going to flesh this area out and provide clearer guidance about just what kind of cyberpunk rogues the community is going to be. At the moment the game includes stress tracks on the skin sheet rather than the character sheet, but I hope that Julian decides to move stress onto the main character sheet, as it feels to me more like a psychological aspect rather than a physical aspect of the character.

R622 Trapped - A Role Playing Game Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

“Trapped - A Role Playing Game Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory” presented by Avraham Yosef Baez. In fifteen minutes, 146 people died because of greed. Those who perished, in one of the most horrific industrial disasters in America, were some of the most vulnerable and unprotected individuals. The dead left behind families they supported, dreams of a better life, and the hope to finally escape from poverty and oppression. Where these workers came from, what they aspired for, and what kept them physically and socially trapped is what this game comes to explore. You will play as an employee for a company, dealing with juggling your job, your own dreams, and the day to day struggles.

This is a game which I think has tremendous potential, but would benefit from engaging more directly with its source material. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is set up as a background context, but the game is played not in that situation but a more modern workplace with a background of some capital vs labour struggles as some people are trying to start a union but the bosses are against it.

In the full game there would be three main sets of scenes if I remember correctly - the first based around attempted unionisation and union busting, the second around the fire disaster and the third around the court cases were the bosses are exonerated (boo!).

I quite like physical elements to games, and as part of each turn you select a piece of cloth and sew it into an ongoing patchwork as the game progresses. If you were successful you sew a nice piece, if you were unlucky you sew a small ripped piece. You also each have buttons which represent solidarity - the opportunity to step in and help someone else in their struggle; these also would be sewn into the patchwork.

For me, the fact that we were playing as people in a news organisation who had unionisation problems lacked any teeth. The prompts based upon the original source were harrowing, but we didn’t have any equivalent threats to face as the characters we were playing and that robbed it of any emotional impact during the play of the game. I know that Avraham has been concerned about potential impact of running a game around a real life incident, of whom some family members may be alive. However, I think that sensitively shining a light on tragic times in history can be a very valid way of honouring and remembering people. A game can be good at bringing you feelings right now that help both remembering people back then and considering similarly situations which might be going on right now.

During the game, the bosses were offscreen much of the time, and so the game became mostly an issue of relationships between the characters who were all workers. It seemed as if the aim of the game was to highlight the challenges between workers and bosses, but the structure didn’t support that quite so well right at the moment.

As Avraham continues to develop this game, I’d be very interested to see whether he embraces fully the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, and whether he comes up with a way to make the story elements of the game reflect more on workers vs the bosses rather than workers sniping against each other.

Please don’t get me wrong - I love the idea behind this game and I think that there is real potential here. I mention the things above which I brought up after the game because I care about it, and want to see it succeed. This is definitely one to watch out for.

R691 Palanquin (beta test)

“Palanquin” by Genesis of Legend Publishing; presented by Jason Pitre. The Heir to the throne escaped the palace coup and escaped to the safety of her Aunt’s castle. This is the story of the disreputable crew of powerfully flawed adults who escorted her to safety, and whether they can earn the Heir’s trust. This is a one-shot story game inspired by Archipelago and Kagematsu.

This is a really interesting concept. One of the players was the ‘heir’, the others are masters of their respective domains of power and expertise - whether religious, military, magical, scholarly, nature, thievery or whatever. The castle has been overthrown and you all have to escape, leading the heir onwards to safety. Along the way questions get asked which help to flesh out the world which you are in. Also along the way threats get raised - posed by the master of each domain, and attempted resolution comes from the other masters. If they all fail, the actual master puts down the problem in a terrifying way.

At the end of the journey, the heir decides who amongst her retinue are good servants, who she is scared of, who may have betrayed her, and metes out judgement appropriately. Disclaimer, my wizard was summarily executed by a dozen crossbow men at the end of the game, and quite rightly so. I ended up behaving in a terrifying fashion because nobody else handled the magical threat I had announced. To be fair, I think each of the masters has enough information in their backstory to make them pretty horrible along the way if it is necessary.

The material in the rulebook had lots of suggestions to give each chapter of the adventure a unique feel to it, although it is easy for that to be overlooked as the heir (or whoever) is narrating the entry into those scenes. I wish we had taken more note of that so that we could have instantiated the suggested emotions and stories better in each chapter - that would have given better differentiation to each of the chapters. In the two hours we only had the chance to play out three of many scenes, the full game would naturally be more engaging and would flesh out the world more.

One of the things that I was concerned about is that the characters with magical powers (the priest and magister) can address any of the possible problems which were brought up with magic - but if the priest or magister bring up magical problems (like a terrible magical earthquake) some of the non magical characters like the scholar or the thief would have great difficulty in coming up with a credible solution to the problem. I’m not saying that its impossible, but it is much harder and that imbalance between the masters isn’t obvious at first. Of course, that is why this is a beta test - it is an opportunity to identify what wants refining. I didn’t read the rules for the Heir, so I’m not sure how much guidance the player of that character was given about assessing the various escorts. Jason was watching the game and I’m sure that along the way he was making plenty of notes himself about the elements which he wants to refine or explain so that even dunderheads like me get it correct!

R726 Blightrealms (beta test)

“Blightrealms” by Golden Dragon Studio; presented by Tom Toynton. An easy to learn tabletop RPG set in a dark fantasy world being invaded by creatures of the nether.

I think that it is a sign that I don’t play so many RPGs these days that I had to wrestle a bit with an ‘easy to learn’ RPG that had quite a complicated character sheet and quite a few reference sheets to get to grips with!

The game setting is interesting, covering a fairly common fantasy trope of spreading evil taking over the land but adding a neat twist in that several of the character classes can choose to embrace the evil blight to a greater or lesser degree in order to fight it. The blight is a bit like a radioactive hazard because the more time you spend there, the worse you get. It is also a little bit like the dark side, because there is a temptation to take and use some ‘free’ blight dice to help you roll better results, but you might get more tainted as a result.

It was really interesting having Rob Donoghue as part of the playtest group, as he had a laser-focus on what we were testing at a particular time, and quickly moving us on to the next thing that wanted to be put to the test. So we concentrated first on an investigation scene to find out who had kidnapped an important person, and once we realised that they had been spirited away to the depths of the blight we handwaved everything else and had the big fight with the bad guy (Bad bird?) at the end.

It’s a game with big dice pools, and a satisfying clatter while rolling them all. All the classes have special abilities which are powered by magic points, some obviously magical and some not.

The vaguely Druidic character which I was playing had some synergies which were highly abusable and which I took full advantage off - first setting up an area buff which gave +6 dice to the dice pool when using my magic (that is a huge bonus) and then learning that I could pour extra magic points into my magical blast on a 1 for 1 basis, so I added another +10 dice (and I could have gone for +20 dice). End result my magic attack was rolling not the 7 dice which were on my character sheet, but a total of 23 dice! I think that some tweaks to prevent nova attacks might be worth considering. The conflict was played out on a battlemat, but it didn’t rely much on positioning. The action economy which the characters had was a little confusing and some suggestions for simplifying that were made by people at the table. Rob also suggested that it might be worth looking at the “mission + downtime” structure which Blades in the Dark has, as that might prove a useful game mechanic to structure alternating forays into the blight and building your relationships between missions.

Off-book games

There were a bunch of additional games that I was able to play with friends at odd times over the weekend and before I had to return back home.

For the Queen

I’ve heard of it, you’ve heard of it, and now I got to play it. There were four of us and it was wonderful fun. We chose a picture of the queen that was young and innocent. After the first couple of cards each we knew that one of us was the queens wizard (whose magic was powered by human souls. Perhaps he is evil?), one was her spymaster (his father, the previous spymaster, had his soul banished somewhere), one was her late-teens page and one was her horse (who was a human who had been banished into a horse for some crime).

We all eventually discovered reasons why we might have a grievance against the queen (it turns out that I, the page, was not being summoned every other night to the queens chambers to put out spiders. Nor was it for the romantic interludes gossip thought it was. It was actually because the queen was feeding on my vitality to keep herself young…) Despite that, when the queen was attacked three of us stayed steadfast beside her, and she survived. The horse, on the other hand, having bucked her, was never seen again.

Super fun, zero prep, I think it would work as a party game for people who had never played any kind of role playing game before.

Swords without Master

I learned where you could find Swords without Master (Swords without Master can be found in Worlds without Master issue 3), and we told an epic fantasy story of the kind that reeked of Beowulf. While hunting whales, we were attacked by the giant sea monster who was seeking revenge because one of his bones had been taken as a dagger by one of our group. Defeating the leviathan we ended up sinking deep underwater into the kingdom of the mermen, avoiding being consumed by the departing spirit of the leviathan who was their god. We found a cave with air we could breath and a witch-queen of the mermen who wanted to capture us, but it turns out this was all a ploy of the many-angled godling who dwelt inside the soul of one of us and who wanted to capture her.

It all turned out happily ever after; our procession of glum and jovial scenes ended up with us celebrated on land with the treasure of a hundred sunken galleys ours to enjoy.

Until the next story.

Ten Candles: mysteries

I hope you have heard of Ten Candles? The brilliant horror game devised by Stephen Dewey? If you haven’t, take a quick look at my review of it over here: (Ten Candles Review) It’s a 3 minute read, I’ll wait.

Back again? Great. So the twisted and fertile mind of Stephen thought about what might happen if you ran the mechanics for ten candles in reverse - as a game progresses more light is revealed, more information comes into play and the players gain increasingly more control of the narrative as the game progresses. It’s a murder mystery!

This reversal of the mechanics works SO well for this. Our game played out like a typical police procedural on TV - there is the grizzled captain, the eager and stupid intern, the exasperated CSI and the crime writer Dick Bishop who thinks he is the star of the TV show (Reader, he isn’t).

It started with a murder at the opera house, and as we unearthed more and more of the mystery (and lit more and more candles through success in early stages) we found a haberdasher, gemstones instead of rhinestones in the opera curtains, arguments between the haberdasher and a fisherman, connections with the mob out at the vagabond motel and eventually tracked down the murderer themselves who was captured after a daring car chase!

it was very late at night (early in the morning?) and we drank deeply of the humour well (my vice was sloth. When I went to the newspapers to dig up information I mimed introducing them to my pet sloth. The CSIs vice was taking shortcuts. She took a shortcut in the final car chase!)

I think this has the guts of a really novel kind of game. Keep your eyes peeled for what Stephen does with it!

My games

Awakenings (beta test adventure)

“Awakenings” by Plane Sailing Games; presented by Alex White. We are playtesting part of a space opera noir adventure where illegal psychic adventurers want to infiltrate and overcome a barons plans for creating an army of psionic addicts. The emphasis of the playtest is on the failure modes of psychic powers when they are being pushed for effect. A d20 based system. Content Warning: Telepathic interrogation.

I ran this test twice, and it turned out quite differently on each occasion. I have playtested these psionic rules a lot in ‘pulp’ mode, for rip-roaring psychic adventures. In this case I wanted to test the rules in ‘gritty’ mode where psychic powers are much more low key, harder, and even painful to use.

I was pleased with how the adventures ran - mostly social interaction with uses of psychic powers where it seemed suitable and there were plenty of nosebleeds or damaged ear drums as players intentionally pushed themselves too far. The prebuilt characters are designed with some dark secrets which can be revealed at dramatic moments for additional benefits (‘conviction’ which can be spent to improve rolls) and in the second adventure in the final scene things went very badly off the rails and it blew up into major inter-party conflict. This is not a terribly unusual situation in Starguild one-shots, and the rules still covered things pretty well. One of the players would have preferred to have been playing in pulp mode, and I can understand that, but it was gritty mode that I wanted to test here.

Jigsaw People (beta test adventure)

“Jigsaw People” by Plane Sailing Games; presented by Alex White. We are playtesting part of a space opera horror adventure where illegal cybernetic adventurers venture into the badlands to overthrow the mad scientist called ‘sculptress of flesh’. The emphasis of the playtest is on the failure modes of cybernetic equipment under stress. A d20 based system. Content Warning: Body Horror.

Again I ran this playtest twice, and I wanted to test a situation with experimental grade cybernetics (think pistons and hydraulic fluid) which fail early and often and have to be repaired, while facing a range of horrific creations brought to life by a mad scientist in a Wild West frontier town on a desert planet.

One of the game elements that I was most pleased with was that any player can regain lost conviction by telling short anecdotes about their past or their home world. Some of the players really leaned into this, and it encouraged everyone else to as well.

The fundamental game system is d20 (Or more like true20 to be specific) and I have to admit that it felt a little on the clunky side compared to other games that I play nowadays. It definitely has an early 2000’s tactical play vibe, rather than a fast and furious approach which is common with some more contemporary systems.

The adventure itself went as well as I had hoped, but I wasn’t satisfied with exactly how the malfunctions were handled - I think there was too much die rolling for too little benefit, so I’m going to readdress that. There was also a request to be able to push ones cybernetics for extra benefit at extra risk, and it’s an interesting idea that I’m going to see if I can fold into the game better.

As an additional learning point, although I was testing elements of the adventure as well, it would have been useful to have skipped some elements and had more big fights as they would have been ongoing opportunities for cybernetic equipment to break.

I was going to prepare an additional ‘cybernetic’ character sheet for each of the characters but ran out of prep time. I regret not having done that, because I think it would have worked out a little better. Also one of the players felt that his character was lacking in terms of options, so I’m going to ensure I address that going forwards.

In Conclusion

Once again Metatopia has proved to be an astonishingly powerful emotional investment. It’s not cheap when I include flying across the Atlantic to get there, but the input from other game designers into my work is just not available in any other way. Furthermore, I really enjoy the opportunity to see what other talented designers are working on, and having a chance to offer suggestions which might be valuable to them in turn.

If you’ve read this far, and are interested to find out more about the games I was running, or any of my other games, please take a look round this site where I include information about my games, reviews of books and games, and blog posts about the design process and other things that come to mind. Or contact me on twitter @NAlexWhite.

Thanks for reading!

Cover Photo by Christopher Paul High on Unsplash