Fear the Con: A Postmortem Part 2

Continued from Part One


This was the first game I signed up for this year. Nearly every year I go to Fear the Con there is a game system I really want to try just to see how it runs, and this year GUMSHOE was high on the list. While this was the first time I had ever gamed under Jeb Brack, he’s had a storied reputation as an excellent GM in the community, and I was in the mood for some investigative fun.

The opening premise was fairly simple. A noble lord (whose name escapes me now) that we had all had previous dealings with wanted to put together an expedition out to a strange burial mound he’d discovered out in the fells near his manor. This one, named Wyrmfell, was named such because it was in the shape of a serpent. He’d recovered some strange artifacts that pointed to the existence of a strange proto-human race on which legends of fae folk may have been based. I was playing a globe-trotting archeologist, and our group covered most of the best 20s pulp adventure tropes.

Wyrmfell was actually based on The Great Serpent Mound, and a edited version of this image was used as a map for our adventure.

The game was a bit more pulpy and dungeoneering than I expected, but still was an absolute blast. The system was very easy to pick up and after the con I immediately got on my computer and purchased a PDF copy of Trail of Cthulhu, and have recently backed a Kickstarter for another GUMSHOE game, The Yellow King. The rule book is laid out in a slightly clunky manner, but knowing now how the game is supposed to work, I really look forward to using it a toolkit for my own stories. I love mysteries, but they are often quite hard to make work well in tabletop games, and I welcome any system that enables me to tell those sorts of stories well.

The biggest feature of note, for those not familiar with GUMSHOE, is how the game makes everything about resource management. Investigative skills are never rolled, merely spent point by point, meaning there are never moments where everyone fails there rolls and no one knows where to go to progress. You do have to manage what you spend where, but overall it makes for a much less frustrating investigation.

Really my takeaways from this game were that I needed to run GUMSHOE sometime and that if Jeb is this good at running GUMSHOE, he may actually be able to turn me around on GURPS. I’ll have to see how next year’s con scheduling turns out.


This was a playtest for a game being worked on by the award winning game designer Chad Wattler of Morning Skye Studio and his compatriot and fellow Fear the Boot host Dan Repperger. Spiders of My Mind runs on a couple of base assumptions about the PCs. Everyone is a convicted murderer who’ve been sent to an insane asylum. Everyone is actually insane. Everyone did, in fact, commit murder. Now, given all that, something bad is going down in the asylum and it’s up to you all to do something about it, because no one in authority is going to believe you if you tell them that there is some grand conspiracy going down with the new head doctor and the Mexican mafia.

Anyone who has listened to Chad on Fear the Boot may well know that he’s an ardent supporter of tabletop rpgs as a storytelling medium first and foremost. That said, the Morning Skye oeuvre is not so much in opposition to game mechanics as they are to character-focused game mechanics, and this is true of SOMM as well.

What functions as your character sheet is written during the GM, Dan in our case, as he performs an interview on your character. The interview identifies your character, your initial diagnosis, three important people from your background, and three “manifestations” for your madness. Your character has no stats, no skills, no aspects, and no health track of any sort. Nothing about your character dictates what you are good at.

And yet somehow this game still managed to have a really engaging die roll mechanic.

During play, situations that would normally call for a die roll or skill check of some sort were handled by a roll of five FATE dice. For those unfamiliar, FATE dice, normally in sets of four, are six sided dice with two + signs, two – signs, and two blank faces. In FATE, you roll them to generate a number between +4 and -4, heavily bell curved.

Sometimes I think we just come up with new kinds of dice to give us an excuse to keep buying them.

In SOMM, these dice are used to an entirely different effect. The + and – results do not negate one another. Rather, they represent two present factors, narrative control and consequences.

Given that you manage to roll at least one +, your character succeeds at whatever it was they were trying to do. For every + beyond the first, you get a greater degree of narrative control over how the events unfold. You may have wanted to knock a guard unconscious, but with additional + results, you may be able to declare that not only did you succeed, but you did so silently, and/or that he has a full set of keys to your wing of the hospital on him.

This is important, because after you expend your narrative control, then the GM gets to unload consequences on you based on the number of – results you rolled. So, maybe you were silent and got those keys, but now you hear his radio squaking and someone on the other end is expecting a response. Also there’s all the blood. It’s all over him, the floor, and your clothes. How unfortunate it would be if someone saw that.

One super important element of this mechanic is that the player always gets to make their declarations first, and the GM *cannot contradict them*. It’s a very “yes and” game, with the pressure to keep up the “yes and” tone placed primarily on the GM.

I could write an entire blog about the full mechanics of this game, and I probably will once the game comes out proper. There are mechanics dealing with banking away negative results and how that pushes the PCs towards mental breakdowns and a day and night cycle system wherein during the night the PCs act like PCs in a tabletop RPG but during the day they are closely watched and have to behave like patients in a hospital, complete with group therapy during which the game switches over to a more free form, almost FIASCO like exploration of the PC’s backgrounds. It’s already an amazing game and I look forward to seeing it’s final incarnation.

The game was overall a blast. I played the worst person I have ever played in a tabletop RPG. I was quiet, obsessed with details, certain that everyone hated me, and in absolute denial over any wrongdoing I had ever done. I didn’t kill people. Accidents happen to people. It is just a coincidence that we had just had an argument. Maybe if she had listened to me she wouldn’t have fallen down the stairs onto that knife fourteen times.

Our group also had a conspiracy theorist pyromaniac, a Charles Manson-esque manipulator, and a vampire. He didn’t have any powers, but he did tear open throats on occasion. We had a jolly romp and uncovered a horrible conspiracy. Then the head doctor fell into the boiler. I don’t know how that happened. Terrible accident.

Truly regrettable.

That said, there were also some interesting wrinkles that came up. It was nothing big enough to disrupt the fun of the game, mind you, but it was interesting to see from a game design perspective.

First was an observation on the character generation system. Now, character generation went quite smoothly. Dan was clearly quite prepared and there was scarecly a moment’s hesistation between the end of the interviews and his presentation of our diagnosis and character writeup. That said, I have no idea how they are going to encapsulate that in document form for when the game is published. From the outside it looks like a combination of mental health related research and absolute GM magic. This isn’t so much a problem at the game table as much as a possible difficulty with the publication of the game that I cannot wait to see how they tackle.

Second was a phenomenon that came up in a couple diffferent games I played in but come up most often and most strongly in SOMM. On multiple occasions I noted players getting a deer in the headlights look when they realized they had narrative control and were expected to use it. To use the above example, a PC would attempt to knock out a guard, get a good roll, and the player would go “I knock him out real good!” Then, Chad would ask “Okay, what else?” and there would be this moment of bafflement as the player tried to come up with something. I don’t think this is a problem with the game, per se, nor, as I said before, was this the only game where I saw this happen.

I feel like this is a symptom of two major things. First, this kind of mechanic where players get this level of narrative control is still fairly novel in the grand landscape that is tabletop RPGs and many players have never encountered anything like it before. Secondly, and I can’t be sure of this, but I’d be willing to bet that most of the players who had difficulty with this mechanic were not often GMs, if they had ever gm’d before at all. This sort of off the cuff narration is a core part of running a tabletop rpg, but some people just never run.

Now, I’m of the opinion that everyone should take a turn at the GM seat at some point in their tabletop RPG career just to have a feel for what that side of the GM screen feels like. Oftentimes players tend to get a better feel for what behaviors make the game go smoother when they’ve been in the position of running and being expected to keep the game running. But, this opinion is not universal, and neither is the skill set one generally developes from GMing. I don’t think this problem is the SOMM’s fault, or even that big of a problem. I just found it an interesting phenomenon that SOMM seemed to shine a very bright light on.


Holy shit where do I begin.

“Your life is a fifty/fifty mix of avoiding The Man’s tyrannical hobnailed boot and roller derby. Hatchetation Nation is your team, your gang, your family. Things were cruising along just fine until the this years moot. Now you’re on the roll because the other gangs want your heads. This complete ripoff of the 1979 film The Warriors will use the patented Brodeur You Tell Me system. When you see the ocean, you figure you’re home.” -Brodeur the Younger

Yeah, pretty much that.

Now, if you think this already sounds like four of the best hours in gaming you’d be right, but you’d only be grasping the very tip of this iceberg of insanity.

This was not my first experience with the patented Brodeur You Tell Me system. That was Fear the Con 8, wherein we played members of GWAR cutting a swath of destruction across the globe. This was Brodeur’s first outing with his freshly minted You Tell Me system. The character sheets had no stats, only descriptive phrases similar to aspects from fate divided into different categories, along with three different resource pools each tied to one catagory of aspect. When asked what a given aspect meant, Brodeur’s response was typically “You tell me!” Rolls were done on a D12, the most metal of all dice.

Full disclosure, I played the fine gent on the far left, Balsac, the Jaws of Death. One of his aspects was “All the Venereal Diseases”

If my recollection of this bit seems fuzzy, it’s because most of it stopped mattering less than an hour into the game. None of those resource pools gave you rerolls, you see. They only gave you a small flat bonus if you spent one and used an aspect that would be beneficial, and if you are familiar with GWAR, you can probably imagine what kind of aspects our characters had. What did matter was that the game did, in fact, have a reroll mechanic. That was where the fifth of Jack Daniels sitting at the table was for.

One shot, one reroll. No limits, and you could drink for your friends. As time passed, the cruft fell away until the aspects became guidelines and everything was dice, whiskey, and ultraviolence. It was glorious.

From the beginning of this new chapter, the cruft was already trimmed. We had character sheets, and they had words on them, but it was up to us to tell Brodeur what they meant. There were rules for sustaining injury, in the form of addditional aspects on note cards, but I’m pretty sure I was the only one who took one in the form of “Flaming Shrapnel Based Non-Vital Brain Injury.” We were Hatchetation Nation. I played the only male character at the table, team skate mechanic/toady Lawrence Lickspittle. The team was headed by Victorious Vivian Voce, with “Zoom Zoom” Zoe Zooty serving as the Jammer and The MOAB Sweet Molly, Axel De Rosa, and Penny Wiseass serving as blockers and rounding out our team.

After being framed for murder at the gang/roller derby team moot, we had to make our way across town past the beret-sporting Che Gs, who largely perished in an unfortunate bus explosion, a Wizard of Oz themed gang whose name I’m fuzzy on now (Followers of Dorothy, I think) who we almost passed by peacefully until Molly had to point out that The Wiz was better, and the Baseball Furries, who really need no further introduction, all while our adventures were narrated by the silky smooth tones of the DJ Soulful White Boy.

Pictured: DJ Soulful White Boy

The whole thing culminated in a showdown with the actual murderers and our roller derby rival, The VVitches, in a simultaneous battle between our leaders for control of the all important Boardwalk Ferris Wheel and a full blown roller derby to the death in which, short a player, Hatchetation Nation promoted Lawrence to team captain and he took to the rink, complete with skirt and halter-top cut tool vest.

Given the paired down mechanics and the alcohol tolerance of some of the players at the table, the game was ultimately a drinking game with a narrative. Not a single roll was failed the entire game. This was doubly impressive given that Axel Rosa’s player was already hammered when he got to the table (love ya Ryan) and Zoom Zoom’s player both wasn’t a whiskey drinker and was having unfortunate luck when the dice. During the big roller derby match, whenever the Jammer’s turn would come around, half the table would have shots prepared and we’d go down the line one by one giving him rerolls.

While the game was not quite as, em, ostentatious as the GWAR game (during the opening minutes of which one player just up and disappeared from the table), it was an amazing gonzo booze-fueled romp. While there may be things about the game mechanically that might be worth tweaking, I don’t know that they really matter in the long run. What I do know that I am deeply looking forward to next year’s Brodeur You Tell Me game, which I’ve been told is going to be Blaxploitation Thundercats based.

The rest of my trip was a blur of social mixing with my fellow nerds and more drinking. The following morning we gathered for brunch at Pieces, a board game cafe in St. Louis where I proceeded to drink more (hey I wasn’t driving and mimosas barely count) and dine on breakfast fried rice. Me, my friend Kevin, and Chad, the guy who ran Spiders of My Mind sat around and reflected on the weekend. Also, I learned what a slinger was. I don’t know if my life is better or worse for that piece of knowledge. I’ll likely only be able to make that judgement for sure once I’ve tried one.

RIP whoever I’m riding with that year

Fear the Con isn’t the biggest con. There are a lot of things, like panels, cosplay, and guest signings, that Fear the Con just doesn’t really do. But, what Fear the Con does, it does better than any other con I’ve ever been to. What Fear the Con does is gaming. What Fear the Con does is community. What Fear the Con does, I’d argue it does better than cons ten times it’s size, and it doesn’t even charge you a fee at the door.

The organizers have already announced that they do intend to run a Fear the Con XI. It will be funded by kickstarter, just as this last one was. If you’re interested, I’d recommend going to the Fear the Boot forums and asking around. If you need to set up a room share when the time comes around that is where you will need to be. If you need a ride, people come from all over, and it is entirely possible that someone is passing through your area on the way into town. The Fear the Boot community wants nothing more than for more people to get to come and have a great time.

I want to say thanks to everyone I gamed with, everyone who played in a game I ran, and everyone who ran a game I played in. I’d like to thank Kevin, my good friend, who took a risk and took me at my word that this was going to be a good time. I want to thank the organizers, Adam Gottfried, Derek Knutson, and Bob Arens, and everyone who helped out. I want to thank the Fear the Boot hosts who have been at the core of this community, as well as the hosts of all of the other podcasts that have sprung up around the Fear the Boot forums and community.

I’m going to be there next year. You should consider being there, too.

Fear the Con: A Postmortem

Last month I attended Fear the Con X. It was a blast and there are so many things to be said about it that what began as a single blog post will probably end up being two or three. That said, I want to leave a broader discussion of Fear the Con and if you should attend for a later piece. Spoiler warning: if you like tabletop games, you should probably attend Fear the Con.

For the moment, I want to focus on my observations specific to Fear the Con X. I want to discuss what I did and what I learned as a result. Some of these details may seem a little muddy if you aren’t terribly familiar with Fear the Con, so for now I will give you this much; Fear the Con is a tabletop gaming focused convention held in St. Louis, Missouri by the hosts and/or community surrounding the tabletop gaming podcast Fear the Boot. Gaming is everywhere, the dealer’s room is small, panels are rare, and “guests” are nonexistent in the traditional con sense of the word.

With that out of the way, lets talk about the convention.


In previous years, the con’s official hotel and the con’s actual venue were in seperate buildings over a mile apart. The old convention center has been under renovation for a while now, forcing con organizers to reconsider their venue solution. This year’s con was in a larger Drury in with balroom and meeting space enough to host the event. I for one do not miss the old space. It was by no means *bad*, but the advantages of having your hotel room and the con in the same space I feel far outweigh the advantages of the old convention center.

My only concern going in was whether or not the ballrooms/meeting rooms in the Drury were going to be big enough, and I’m happy to be able to say that at no point during the con did space seem to be an issue. Though the con no longer provides free beer and a working kitchen to order from, between the con suite, the pizzas provided at a per slice, pay-on-your-honor, the VIP diner that ended up open to everyone for the excess of food there, the free hot hotel breakfast and dinner, and the many local eateries a short distance away, I was never hurting for food, and people, myself included, brought enough strong drink to share.

The lesson here? I appreciate the old convention center and all it did for us, but the con is going to be just fine. The Drury is taking good care of it, and has outright stated that it has enough room for more than double the turnout that we had this year, which was an all-time high.


The beard was not a part of my game, but it was for charity, and therefore awesome.

I usually try to avoid running games this early in a convention for fear that I may not be fully awake and present of mind enough to manage the task. That said, this year I found myself filling my schedule with games so fast that when time came to schedule my own I found that I had cornered myself into running my most mechanically intensive game during the first slot of the con.

Tales From The Loop is a tabletop RPG set in “an 80s that never was.” You play as children, ages ten to fifteen, typically tasked with dealing with some sort of weird-science related problem that none of the grown-ups are noticing or in a position to deal with. For the game I ran, I set the game in Russelville, Arkansas, home to the nuclear power plant Arkansas Nuclear One and, in the game, a set of secret labs attached to the power plant. I had not had time to familiarize myself with the settings in Tales from the Loop, but I was much more comfortable with using a setting a little closer to home.

The mystery at it’s core was a fairly simple one. The manager of the local Walmart is a not-terribly-bright, get-rich-quick-scheme sort of villain and, after learning of certain security deficiencies in the Nuclear One labs from a disgruntled former security guard now under his employ, decided to go take a look for himself to see if he could find anything that could secure him the fortune he felt he so obviously deserved. Inside he found and stole a device that looked like an early laptop that, though designed to make people smarter, could also make them easily controlled zombies. He tested it both on employees and on a high-school applicant, and discovers the brain-numbing effect, and decides it makes the perfect employees. It does not seem to work on adolescents, however. What he doesn’t realize is that, though the effect is slower, it actually inhibits inhibitions in adolescents, making them wild hooligans.

So, he starts bringing in more people and having them test his brand new device, slowly turning the town into his perfect workforce, not really thinking about the fact that he’s cannibalizing his customer base. Adults close to several of the kids have gone missing, and this prompts them to investigate.

My biggest worry going into this game was the fact that I had not had time to do any playtesting. I had not even had a chance to run the system. While the rules were not terribly complicated, I had no baseline for what players would do when exposed to them. More worrying was the fact that, as a mystery, the length of the game could vary wildly depending on how the group approached it.

Ultimately, the game was a great success. It did run slightly short, as I try to make my games at Fear the Con run at least 3 hours of the four hour slot, but everyone seemed to really enjoy themselves and at no point did the group get stuck in decision paralysis or find themselves wanting for a lead. It turns out that when you make the PCs children they tend to be less likely to get bogged down in worries over tactics and consequences. The physical handouts I used for the game, largely just physical copies of notes and journal entries that could be found in game, seemed to get everyone’s attention without being overly distracting or becoming red herrings. There was very little that I prepared that didn’t get used, but there was only one scene that happened where I had no notes prepared for the location or encounter, and it still turned out to be an amazing bit of character building as well as a nice down time before things really got tense.

If I had it to do over again, the one change I’d make to the game is that I’d go back and grab my poker chips from my room to give players physical tokens to represent their Luck and their Pride, the two expendable resources available to them to improve their rolls. I had considered this at some point during my game planning, but at some point the idea just sort of fell to the wayside. I’ve found that players are more likely to remember this sort of resource if they are holding some sort of physical token to represent it. Tales from the Loop is weighted in such a manner as to force players to use these resources often, as oftentimes success won’t happen on an average roll. Several times I would see a player attempt something, roll, and look downtrodden until I reminded them of those resources.

I also learned that, if anything, running in Slot 1 is an amazing way to wake myself up and invigorate myself for the con. I’m oftentimes a somewhat high-energy GM, and having an entire table engaging with me woke me up way faster than I would have expected. In previous years, I’d typically look for something relatively low difficulty for slot one presuming I was going to be tired from the trip the previous day. As a result, sometimes I’d take a back seat and not be super on the ball until halfway through the game. Starting off GMing got me engaged way faster because I couldn’t just let the game run on without my participation. I will probably look to run in first slot again next year unless something comes up that I absolutely cannot miss.


This is going to be difficult to describe to the uninitiated, as this game’s entire premise was by and large an inside joke from the podcast. InSpectres bills itself as a rules-light mystery game with supernatural and reality TV show elements. Though I understand where it is coming from, I feel like describing InSpectres as a mystery game is both inaccurate and doesn’t do the game credit. Inspectres sits in a very similar genre to where Fiasco does. It’s a hijinks game. Though each adventure is framed as a mystery, unlike mystery stories and games, the ending really doesn’t matter, so much so that the players literally dictate what the truth is behind the mystery as the game goes along. It’s not a game about discovering the truth, it’s a game about the journey and the poor life decisions made on it.

In this case, it was a game where I performed an exorcism with a .357 magnum and a bottle of Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbeque Sauce.

Accept No Substitutes

Dan, one of Fear the Boot’s hosts and GM of this game, played a little fast and loose with the rules, largely to the table’s favor, and I think the game was better for it. After the con, I finally picked up a pdf copy of Inspectres and read the rules myself. At first, I had a moment of “oh no, I shouldn’t have been able to get away with some of the things I did.” But thinking back, everyone had moments like that, and letting things fly in the face of the rules, particularly in this genre of game, made the game better overall.

If you happen to run into Pat Roper, ask him to do his Ted Kennedy impersonation.


This was the second game I ran, and the first game I signed up to run. It was the game I came in most confident about running and the game that I was least prepared for. It was the simplest game I ran and the most taxing.

I couldn’t have inflicted this game on a nicer group of players.

Action Castle and Action Castle 2 are both members of the Parsely family of games (which I would after the con find out are made by the same company that did InSpecters). The idea behind Parsely games is that the players are taking turns entering commands into a text parser adventure game, in which the GM plays the computer. Those of you familiar with this era of computer games might imagine where this is going.

The group had a wide age span, ranging from “old enough to remember these games” to “not old enough to drive.” Though this worried me at first, the younger players picked up on the idea quite quickly and it proved to be no problem.

My second worry came when, roughly a half hour into the slot, the group completed Action Castle. I had two more adventures printed out, but if they rode through them with the same ease they did Action Castle I was going to be out of printed material less than halfway through the slot. I had more on my tablet, but I had not done any pre-reading on them.

Fortunately, it seems Action Castle is easy in part to serve as an introduction. Action Castle 2 was far more devious and head-poundingly obtuse than part one, and it took the group most of the slot to complete.

There were some unforeseen difficulties, but they were mostly on my side of the GM screen. Because I was the arbiter of everything about the game, I had to track things like inventory, which proved to be more difficult than I originally thought given there isn’t a pre-made list of gatherable objects. I will probably prepare one for future use if I find myself running this again.

Far more taxing, though, was the stress this game put on my voice. While I did put on a slightly robotic tone during this game, that in-and-of itself was not a problem. What I had not considered ahead of time, however, was *how much* I was going to be talking. Now, when GMing, you are going to be talking a lot. Usually you will have more to say than any single player at the table, because you are going to be responding to actions from everyone at the table. That said, since everyone’s actions were given straight to me, often in short, text-parser-friendly form, I realized about 3 hours in that I was saying about 6 words for everyone else’s two, often with very little time to rest. An example.

Player: Cast Rod


Player: Spell List.


As a result, my voice was dying by the end of that game. It was fun, and I might do it again next year with one of the adventures I haven’t done yet, but I will make it a point to come to the table with several bottles of water handy and plan a break mid game.


So, I wasn’t originally planning to play in this, in part because I misunderstood when the game was happening. On conplanner, the website Fear the Con uses for event sign up, the charity game was given it’s own slot, which I misread as taking place over the course of slots 1-3. In reality, it took place from midnight to four am. I happened to be drinking and consorting in the room that the game was to take place in, and Derek and Adam, the GM’s and two of the con’s organizers, were short on players, so I was roped in.

I didn’t mind, really. The main reason I hadn’t considered the game earlier was because of my misunderstanding of when the game was happening. Had I realized sooner, I probably would have chipped in the extra money to be able to make my own character, but I was perfectly happy with the human fighter I got to play. It was late, I was drinking, and I just wanted to hit things a whole lot.

This is roughly how much I brought to drink to this game. We had a keg of local brew in our room that I felt needed to get shared.

The first half of the game I spent hanging back and drinking as most of the group put together a very elaborate plan to cause the downfall of the kingdom we were in so that we could overthrow it. Then things got amazingly weird. You see, a traditional part of the charity game is that people could donate to screw with the players, and I got to enjoy some amazingly creative screws in the form of some sort of fae royalty. Over the course of the game, I went from being a grizzled old warrior with an adamantine greatsword, to being a grizzled old warrior who thought he was a 10 year old girl with an adamantine greatsword, to being a grizzled old warrior who thought he was a 10 year old girl with a magical fairy wand, to being an ACTUAL 10 year old girl with a magical fairy wand. None of these changes significantly impacted my ability to murder. At the end of the game I took the throne and declared myself princess of the land. It was silly and amazing.

The one downside, of course, was the fact that I was up until the wee hours of the morning. Several of the players had planned for this and did not sign up for anything in slot 4, knowing they would need the sleep. I, however, really wanted to play in my slot 4 game. So, I spent the next day catching naps between each game session.

Continued in Part 2.