Save Against Fear 2019 Highlights

My fellow fanatics, October is here yet again, so you know what that means. Yes, another feature about the cool stuff I experienced at the local Safe Against Fear convention, hosted by the brilliant people of The Bodhana Group.

This was my third year attending the event and writing these up, so if you need a refresher on what the Bodhana Group stands for, feel free to check out the highlights from the last two years I attended.

As before, Save Against Fear has only become larger and more ambitious this year, and I am only one man attending what I can, so this highlight feature can only cover so much. For example, industry legend Edy Webb was in attendance again running versions of his (now successfully) crowdfunded RPG, Pirates of Pugmire and spoke at several panels, but I wound up missing him every single day of the con. Long story short, schedules were handled digitally, my smart devices decided to die, and things went all helter skelter. Plus once again, I am only one man and even at modestly small conventions like these I can’t see everything.

So without further ado, let’s shine the spotlight and illuminate some amazing experiences in these dark and spooky times, starting with….

Urban Manhunt

Spectrum Games are a company that really deserve more love and recognition than they get in the field of tabletop gaming. While a lot of the big names in the business, Dungeons and Dragons, World of Darkness, etc., focus on large kitchen sink-style fantasy settings and experiences, Spectrum’s projects are a lot more specific. Sure, Onyx Path Publishing’s urban fantasy setting is rich with mythology spanning millennia of vampire politics, reality-warping wizards, and dark gods just ripe with storytelling possibilities, in fact we’re due for our third video game adaptation of that material sometime in 2020, but that kind of scale can’t exactly be made to fit something as pure and straightforward. Like wanting to play a game where the players are in a cheesy 1980s cartoon complete with rules on how to market your various heroes’ play sets and accessories. Or playing as a bunch of stupid teenagers in a campy slasher movie, one where you are rewarded points for playing into silly tropes and cliches like investigating strange noises alone or not calling the police, or drinking and doing drugs while a killer is loose.

Spectrum has found their very particular niche with these experiences, and they always manage to be more affordable and accessible than the multitude of supplements and expansions that other big names parade around with.

Now, their latest project seems to push this ambition even further with an affordable miniatures war game that apes and aesthetic feel of dystopian near-future bloodsport, Urban Manhunt.

I was able to sit down and check out a demo of Urban Manhunt with the President of Spectrum Games, the endearing Cynthia Celeste Miller, and got right into the carnage. The idea is that each player takes on the role of a supersoldier with some outlandish gimmick like a cyborg gorilla, an executioner in super armor, or a horrific mutant. The objective of the game isn’t to hurt each other, but to rack up points by killing various forms of criminals thrown into the arena to face martial justice. There’s a system for how stylishly you kill these convicts, power-ups, and even a ticking clock mechanic in the form of a deck of cards that dole out sweeping changes to the arena.

In other words, it’s an unofficial miniatures game adaptation of The Running Man, a fact that Cynthia immediately admitted to with no shame at all.

The entire match went by in no time at all. People were cheering as our monsters shot and slashed up everything from psycho cowboys to shady lawyers, bad jokes were had when multiple gun battles went on for several turns without a single confirmed bit of damage, and the whole thing ended with a distinct winner at north of forty points….with everyone else tied for second place with sixteen. It was a weird but hilarious time.

What really stood out to me after playing was how appealingly affordable the game was. I’ve always been fascinated by war gaming, but never got into it due to just how much of an investment it is. Seriously, trying to get into something like Warhammer 40,000 can cost you north of a hundred dollars, and that’s just for the absolute basics, if you want to actually invest in any of the game’s many many many factions be prepared to pay even more. Urban Manhunt by comparison allows you to play with simple printable paper pieces and papercraft props, all available at no extra charge at Spectrum’s website. The game even supports creating your very own unique warriors for the game, which you can then represent by your own customizable figure if you want. All you need is the book, a big enough table, and maybe some cups or cans for terrain, and you are ready to go.

I can’t say the rules reach the headcrushing depth as some of the more high-profile miniature games out there, but Urban Manhunt makes a strong impression by retaining the strengths of Spectrum’s past work. A tight focus on genre emulation and verisimilitude, and making sure that playing their games don’t break the bank.

Part-Time Gods

When I first heard the very name of this RPG, it sounded like the premise of a quirky comedy. Congratulations, you have become a divine being over some fundamental force of the universe…but you still gotta pay rent and go to school for your degree. Seriously, it wouldn’t surprise me if Taika Waititi has a draft for this somewhere ready to pitch.

And sadly I wasn’t as aware of the lead designer of the game, Eloy Lesanta, until I saw him on panels at this year’s event. Simply put, the guy knows the craft of making interesting games, his work spanning from the evocative children’s fantasy experience of Camp Myth to the pseudohistorical richness of Tibet. His most recent work includes Apocalypse Prevention Inc., and Mermaid Adventures. In short, he’s worked on everything from the fun to the serious to the campy, even winning an award for his design.

So naturally, he was an absolute ball as a GM for my introduction to his world, and it is exactly how I described it in the beginning. The old gods from our familiar pantheons are either dead or have fallen off of the cosmic world stage and thanks to some mysterious universal power known only as The Source, new divine sparks have begun igniting in seemingly average people. Becoming Gods of things as understandable as cold or travel to things as abstract as death and beauty. But power doesn’t get rid of problems, it just makes more of them. If you have any fondness for Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (comics or TV show) you should be able to grasp the appeal here.

That whole, “you’re a god but you still got mortal problems” premise is a lot more potent than I first realized while playing. In Part-Time Gods, your very free time is as precious to you as your spending money, and how you choose to spend it can mean the difference between you losing powerful relationships with friends or losing precious influence over your part of the world. It leads to a more economically and socially conscious experience, one full of potent role-playing and storytelling packed right in.

For example, the module I played focused around a collection of mysterious murders happening in one character’s territory, and the guy I was playing as was a well-off executive with extreme control anxiety. Everyone else had to juggle things like college or work, but I just kept burning wealth to move around and figure things out, stressing relationships with associates of power to solve the mystery as soon as possible. Yet I kept treating the fellow PCs like mere commodities, things only to serve me directly or indirectly, since their limited actions made it easier to gauge their deliberate movements. Which all tied back to the characters’ distinct traits and quirks. Naturally, it lead to conflict and social tension on top of all the intrigue, magic spells, and ancient Egyptian killer robots.

It seriously lead to multiple times where I had to break out laughing while repeatedly saying that it wasn’t me being the asshole, but the character I was playing.

In a lot of ways, the game’s systems reminded me of the best elements from World of Darkness’ Storyteller system and the abstract concepts introduced in Scion, but with a lot more refinement and structure.

H.H. Holmes’ Murder Castle

Finally, the last big game I had a chance to check out at Save Against Fear wasn’t a fully released experience, but a prototype by some talented guys, the aptly titled H. H. Holmes’ Murder Castle.

Truth be told, the initial hook for this game wasn’t so much the mechanics or a central gameplay gimmick but the history behind it. For those who don’t know, H. H. Holmes is considered by many historians as the USA’s first official serial killer. His crimes involving killing his victims in an elaborate apartment complex he owned, complete with death traps and dead ends, then getting rich off of their disappearances through life insurance fraud. This infamous Murder Castle as it came to be known became notorious for its collection of victims during the Chicago 1893 World’s Fair.

I bring all of this up because the developers saw this bit of odd history, that may or may not have spiraled into full-blown whimsical American Folklore, and thought that there was a legitimately compelling board game to be found here. And after enjoying an extended session with them and picking their brains, I can say that while the prototype was rough and in need of polish, I am inclined to agree.

On the surface, Murder Castle plays out like a standard map-generating board game. The players spend their turns exploring various rooms, looking for various forms of evidence of Holmes’ criminal activities, all while keeping an eye out for the dastardly killer himself. Effectively similar to games like House on Haunted Hill but with a more direct immediately dangerous antagonist.

But what’s particularly fascinating about his game is how actions are taken. Rather than have each player act independently with simple actions like explore, collect, or wait, there are six tiles placed in the middle of the play area with these actions. These include things like moving, discovering new rooms, or even moving the murderous Holmes himself. Once you choose one of these tiles and act, everyone else gets a chance to act as well, albeit in a lesser manner. For example, if you choose to move, you can move up to three rooms, then everyone can move up to two rooms. Once all of the tiles are selected, a complication is added to proceedings via the Holmes’ deck, then the tiles are dished out again for another rotation of play.

It’s a deviously simple yet potent form of play since not only does it allow you to control the pace of the game, but the very aggressiveness of Holmes’ himself for some well-mannered trolling of your fellow players. Sure there are special abilities and power-ups you can pick up to throw teammates into trap doors or stealing evidence from them, but there is something impish about having a sense of control over the guy who can give everyone a really bad time.

I do have some constructive nitpicks for the game in its current state, and while I was gracious to give that feedback to the devs, I don’t exactly feel comfortable sharing such feedback here. This is a work in progress after all, and once the game officially debuts on Kickstarter – hopefully by January of 2020 – I do heartily recommend it.

Overall, this year at Save Against Fear felt a lot more contemplative than it did last year. Meditative on the good that gaming can do, and the logistics about ensuring that good can be made available to the rest of the world. Sure, there were still great games to play, fun to be had, and inclusive warmth to be shared, but there was also a tangible sense of social activism this time around. A cause I think can only lead to more healing and strength for those in need of such things. Here’s to next year, my fellow fanatics.

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