Save Against Fear 2018 Highlights

My fellow fanatics, October is a time for many things. Halloween decorations, pumpkin spiced…everything being stocked in food stores, and raking up the leaves to prepare for winter. For me, however, October has also been an opportunity to put my finger to the pulse of local board game and tabletop role-playing game developments and innovations. Thanks to Save Against Fear, held by the non-profit organization The Bodhana Group: a group all about promoting the therapeutic and healing properties of gaming.

Since the convention goes on for three days, and I am only one man powered by passion, orange juice, and bullheadedness, there is only so much I can cover in-depth. So this year, I am going to break down my experience at SAFe as a collection of highlights. Games, developers, and experiences I had at the convention that I hope will paint an encouraging picture of what the convention is about, and bring some interesting games and ideas to your attention.

So without further ado let’s start with….

Slaughterville 2 is Happening!

For those of you who remember my time at Save Against Fear last year, I immediately became fond of the co-op horror board game, Slaughterville. A surprisingly flexible game where you played as horror stock characters, explored locations for weapons and allies, and worked together to defeat some major villain; a villain whose very rules for victory and defeat radically alter the nature of the game. The Serial Killer turns the game into a race against the clock, The Zombie Horde continuously wrecks all the locations turning the game into a battle of resource attrition, the list goes on.

So it was a pleasant surprise to meet Christopher Brown once again promoting the game at the convention. It was an even bigger surprise when I saw he had a print and play prototype of Slaughterville 2 to show off. According to Brown, the sequel will feature eight brand new locations and four new villains to face, including Dracula and the dreaded Cult of Cthulhu. There will also be a completely optional weather system, because nothing says dire horror movie situation like having to handle an earthquake on top of everything else.

Obviously the game is still in a malleable beta state, but the good news is all the new content of Slaughterville 2 will be perfectly compatible with material from the first game, so feel free to mix and match stuff you like.

As for when the game will be available, it appears that Brown will be putting the game up on Kickstarter once things are in a more concrete form.

Affliction: Salem 1692

I’ve always been an advocate for gaming as a tool for education. Not just in the immediate immersive nature but in actual academia. Reading about history is one thing, but to be put in the role of someone from that point of history can be more salient and enduring in the mind if done right.

Which segues us to Affliction: Salem 1692, a board game about the Salem Witch Trials. The creator of the game, Dan Hundycz, put a considerable amount of research and thought into the game, and it shows here. Rather than play as a character in Salem in the middle of all the spectral evidence and finger-pointing, which honestly would have turned it into a reskinned period-drama version of Werewolf, you are in a slightly more detached role of leading a small social circle of townspeople. Each player has their own resource of workers and influence points, and each turn is spent using your resources to accuse townspeople of witchcraft, send them to jail, or bring them into your circle to help back up your accusations and actions.

And writing as someone who has vague memories of studying the trials at school and remembering bits and pieces of the play The Crucible, a lot of what I remember came flooding back once the game started in earnest. Not only were the various people from the trials credited by name, the slave Tituba, the Proctors, the Putnams, etc., but their various attitudes and roles in the trials translate pretty well to gameplay, albeit in a small but poignant “+1 to Accusations” kind of way. The puritanical “guilty until proven innocent” justice system also translates really well to an “engine building” experience. Keep accusing people, eventually public opinion wins out, the person you want gone is locked up, and you just happen to benefit from the accused in question losing out on property or commerce. Rinse and repeat until greater authority comes in and shuts the whole thing down…and you get away with all the profit.

I’m nowhere near an expert on the Salem witch trials or on 17th-century authenticity, which is why Dan gleefully mentioned that experts agree. Affliction: Salem 1692 is one of the best selling pieces of merchandise at the Salem Witch Museum, continuously selling out. Historians and experts of this bleak piece of history have looked over the game, in its word choice, systems and mechanics, and declare that this games does “get it” when it comes to the paranoia and conspiracy that went on during the trials.

Hearing Legends Talk

As mentioned before, Save Against Fear is a smaller, more humble convention experience, but sometimes a bone is thrown. This year got a really big bone.

I was able to attend a panel where several veteran developers and publishers were doing an open Q&A. The panel had Eddy Webb, a highly prolific TTRPG writer and developer whose work includes the adorable canine fantasy setting, Pugmire, and has helped adapt the likes of Firefly, Red Dwarf, and Sherlock Holmes to pen and paper systems. Barak Blackburn of Spectrum Games and Density Media, a studio known for making smaller, niche games to appeal to very specific ideas like Cartoon Action Hour or Slasher Flick. Onyx Path Publishing’s editor-in-chief Mike Hayes was also around, giving a sort of veteran’s perspective on not just game development but marketing and playtesting. And there was even some fresh blood with Doug Levandowski, an English teacher from New Jersey who also develops games on the side, and Joseph “Bear” Thompson, video game programmer and creator of the biopunk dystopian RPG Project Biomodus.

To recall everything that was covered at the panel would be exhaustive and damn near impossible, but it was endlessly joyous to see so many different ideas and thoughts on game development be discussed out in the open. Eddy continuously reiterated the idea of the one-sentence design philosophy. Figure out what your project aims to achieve, nail it down to one sentence, and if you have anything that doesn’t tie back to that goal, feel free to cut it. He even cited that was how he ultimately cut loot and random monster encounters from Pugmire because he wanted the focus to be on the setting of dogs following the Code of Man, not just Dungeons and Dragons with a slightly different paint job.

Doug Levandowski came at things from a more humanistic, inclusive perspective, bringing up various modular rules and ideas for how a campaign can confront, address, or even quietly sidestep possibly traumatic or troubling subject matter like identity, abuse, or gratuitous violence, something he adhered to with aplomb when it came to his own passion project.

Bear showcased how even in an age of video game prominence and the rise of social media, you can still allow such things to influence and better your craft. He cites the space ninja action game Warframe as being highly influential for Project Biomodus, appreciated the immediate player feedback he was getting while playtesting the experience, and even addresses what haunts all creatives in this information age: Imposter Syndrome. That your personal form of self-expression is truly worthless and everyone is just humoring you.

It was a truly fascinating panel to be a part of, both as a player, as an industry pundit, and as a lover of the medium.

Deities Domination

I am not one for overly complex experiences. 4X games like Civilization or Alpha Centauri are things I am fascinated by and enjoy fiddling around with on occasion, but the amount of planning and forethought that go into those games feel like a second job. Board game adaptations are no different, mostly because the type of people I play with are much more casual about it, enjoying simple and easy to understand beer and pretzels experiences.

I bring this up because somehow I was drawn to Deities Domination by Muffin Games. A deck-building 4X strategy game about playing as a god of one of four pantheons with the goal of establishing yourself as top dog. A lot of the familiar trappings of the genres are here. A map of hexagons full of resources that expand as you play, managing your resources to build monuments, raise Heroes to your cause, and confront opposing players on the board until you have victory points to establish the win.

But it’s the handling of the four pantheons that ultimately drew my attention. There are the popular and well known Greek and Norse mythologies – Odin, Zeus, Poseidon, Thor – but also the lesser known Celtic and Slavic pantheons. Honestly, aside from their small appearances in Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series American Gods, I couldn’t name any of the Celtic or Slavic deities. Yet there they were in a playtest rubbing shoulders with Gods who have been in popular movies and video games. Veles the warrior god, Morrigan Goddess of Fate, all with distinct powers ready to throw down.

Admittedly, I can’t comment on how the game evolves long-term. But the artwork for the gods and cards are really stunning, and the game did help me live out some pretty geeky fantasies on seeing who could cultivate a progressive fellowship faster between the Norse and Celtic cultures without it turning into a full blown holy war.

The fundamentals are utterly solid and the guys clearly did their homework when it came to portraying these respective mythologies. If it sounds like something you and your group will be interested in and you want to shake things up, the project will be going up on Kickstarter around the start of November so keep an eye out.

Kids on Bikes

Finally, a visit to Save Against Fear wouldn’t be complete without me picking up an RPG or seriously pining for an RPG that was shown at the tables. This year was no exception, and it came from the hands of Doug Levandowsky with a modestly created little RPG called Kids on Bikes. A game about playing as kids or teenagers in small towns that get into weird or supernatural goings on.

Basically, it’s Stranger Things: The RPG in all but name. Taking the surprisingly prominent storytelling tropes of Americana, local legends, and the halcyon days of youth and putting a light sci-fi or fantasy spin on everything.

From a mechanical perspective, the game is very light. You play as a character of one or two stereotypes like the Nerd, Jock, or Weird Kid, get some stats that determine what dice you roll for what check, and your group can put together your own small town of interesting characters and locations to completely upend with strange goings on.

There are no levels or equipment to obtain, with character development happening via character flaws and strengths changing in flow with the story. Scaredy cats might become brave by fighting off dimensional horrors, timid soft-spoken wallflowers might become more assertive and self-expressive after facing the horrors of a creepy hivemind. Or even someone who thought they had the world figured out devolves into existential panic after encountering alien beings. It’s a system that holds shades of the character-focused milestones of FATE but in a more malleable package.

But what is particularly admirable about Kids on Bikes is how much the book dedicates itself to player expression and on reinforcing an inclusive message of tolerance, even stating that it should supercede any ideas of the realism of the setting.. It doesn’t matter if the game is set in the 1980s, if weird psychic stuff can happen, your character can be as gay/non-cis/aneurotypical as you like! It’s a game that’s about the fantasy and the feeling of those stories more so than plausibility or number crunch.

In fact, the deluxe edition includes several modules for ideas that can be run with the system. A lot of them lean into the idea of the pop culture remix that Stranger Things helped bring to the forefront. Sources credited include NBC’s sitcom The Good Place, the Christopher Nolan film Inception, and even the indie horror game series Five Nights At Freddy’s. All full of story hooks and possibilities for groups of players to explore and expand upon.

Honestly, if there was another RPG that dealt with this particular flavor of fantasy, I have completely missed it. It’s a system that leans into the idea that tabletop gaming is a dialogue between players and that the players are the storytellers. Unless there are interesting characters in adverse situations, all of the charts, numbers, and polyhedral dice rolls are just going to amount to time wasted and arbitrary numbers rising.

And those were the highlights of my time at Save Against Fear. Here’s to more of this great stuff next year.

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