KantCon, in Overland Park, KS, is my hometown convention. It was my first tabletop con four years ago, and is the only nerd event in town that I will absolutely plan around. This was its 10th year and had a big jump in attendance. The major effect of such high attendance was multiple games filling up, waitlists, and my playtests getting more attention than usual. Given that I was pretty excited to share Heist at this con (and had new buttons!), this was great news for me.
I’ll discuss the playtests in detail soon, but will briefly say I got great feedback and plenty of information for the next printing. Also had a lot of questions about my other projects, so that’s great, too.
My first session as a player was Red Markets, a zombie post-apocalypse game built around hustling for resources. The dice mechanic is clean and fits the theme: A red d10 subtracted from a black d10, plus skill modifiers, is the core mechanic. Any positive result is a success (or “stays in the black”), and any even doubles are critical success. Any odd doubles are a critical failure. A stat called Will allows you to spend a point and flip the two dice. That’s all we got in the session for mechanics.
There’s also a negotiation mini-game that has a couple characters in the room with the client, roleplaying a tense negotiation, interspersed with the rest of the team running scams in flashback to provide bonuses to the negotiators in the “present”. It’s a cool concept and delivers on the Ocean’s 11 style of “do the job/flashback the prep” that helps build the reveal of big surprises and twists in the narrative. We honestly don’t know going into the negotiation, as players or as the “audience”, if the scams will work and if they will turn the tide of the negotiation. I think if we had played the game before or read the book, we’d have been better prepared to embrace the unique opportunity of that negotiation. Definitely worth taking a second look at, if just for that concept.
The rest of the book, as I understand it, is an extensive metaphor for subsistence living and poverty with zombies as the primary metaphor. Your Taker teams are living mission to mission (paycheck to paycheck) with the impossible goal of crossing the fence to the non-zombified parts of the United States (retirement) while spending all your income on the very tools and advantages that make it possible to make money in the first place. The session we played was a little light on party interaction, but we all had interesting enough backgrounds that a campaign of it would be enjoyable. The Upkeep and dependents angle would make it more than just your usual murder-hobo routine, and the constant wear-and-tear on your gear makes you a little stingier than normal on using equipment, particularly things that would be hard to replace. For my money, Mutant Year Zero does a very similar thing in terms of degrading equipment and a “we may not like each other, but we have to work together” dynamic, but puts the community-building aspect further forward and has some more interesting ways of interacting with its surroundings. Both are good games and fairly recently printed, so check out either if you like your post-apocalypse more hand-to-mouth and constantly hustling for survival.
Our session saw our party of Takers looking for a job deep in zombie territory (essentially anywhere west of the Mississippi River). The mechanics of the game encourage players to be proactive about work, hustling for leads, calling in favors, or even starting their own jobs and seeking whatever haul they can find in the wild. Since this was our first and only session, some of this was done for us by the GM and we checked out the possible plotlines. We ended up negotiating with a Paula Deen-esque cooking show maven who wanted us to collect some things from the family farm. The scams during the negotiation revealed some of her weak traits (or various Points in the game’s parlance) that would remain as facts we knew about this possible client for the rest of our campaign. Had we continued, Ms. Barnes could always be manipulated by leaning on those traits, which is a cool way of rewarding the players for doing their homework and remembering some of the folks they’ve dealt with already. The rest of the adventure was pretty standard post-apocalyptica, with a zipline over a minefield, a collapsing grocery store, and a farmhouse surrounded by dozing zombies and beehives gone wild in the five years since the Outbreak. Our GM set up a tense encounter with the walkers shambling toward us and the panicky realization that they were about to topple all the bees, possibly ruining the valuable hives and definitely filling the area with a cloud of agitated honeybees.
The final sequence saw us hacking a long-dead electric lock with our drone pilot’s dwindling laptop power supply and facing some zombies in the doomsday-prepper root cellar, with the final reveal that Ma and Pa Barnes had holed up in there just to get trapped in their modern bomb shelter when the power failed. We didn’t have to fight them, as they had passed peacefully together, but it was a bittersweet ending to a game where we had decided it was a foregone conclusion that we were going to have to shoot her grandparent’s zombies in their respective heads. The party made a lot of money, which we didn’t spend since it was a con session, and we all had a chat about it afterwards.
Games like this suffer in the con environment, IMO, because building off the client’s traits is never going to happen, nor is the dwindling high of that first big score and settling our expectations back to smaller wins throughout the campaign, coupled with the occasional loss. The game seems determined to tell the long story of our attempted retirements, and loses some oomph if we just play the game once and walk away. In my opinion, a satisfying con game has a definite arc and tells a singular story. Maybe that advice is ill-suited to games like this one, or to Mutant Year Zero‘s community building mechanic. I am very glad that GMs have shared these games with me, because there is no convenient way to check out a game from a library and borrow an experienced GM to run it for you. This is the only way for me to taste these games and decide if they are worth investing in, but that makes each session a sales pitch, too. How do you best show the strengths of the product? What questions do the players have about the world or the system that this session can help teach them? Does it ultimately matter if a larger story resolves or if the players feel like they caught an episode in the middle of the season from a show they’ve heard a lot about, but haven’t sat down to watch?
More from KantCon 2018 in the days to come, including the difficulties of being a starship captain when you never set foot on the ship, being the physical avatar of a mining ship’s computer lost in time, and the time I died. Also, con game prep, selling comedy at the game table, and what to do when something needs to catch on fire. Feel free to tell me I’m wrong about Red Markets or share your experiences from gaming at conventions.