Tuesday, 14 March 2017

BreakOut 2017 Convention Debrief

Whew. After a long weekend of gaming, we're back in Merrie Olde London Towne. And BreakOut Con Toronto, even for a Canadian convention only in its second year of operation, did not disappoint.

Megan and I travelled up to Toronto on Thursday with our friends Amanda and Mike, so that we had a little time to enjoy Toronto and visit some friends before the con proper got started. That was awfully nice. We had been planning to spend a few days in Toronto last year, as an anniversary getaway, but were thwarted by a last-minute financial crunch brought on by a cascading series of veterinary crises. This time, we got a chance to spend a few hours in the Royal Ontario Museum admiring artifacts in their cultural collections for China, Japan, Egypt, Rome, and Greece. That made a nice start to the weekend, although it did mean our feet were sore the next day.

The con itself started on a bit of a sour note for us, because two of the guests who we'd most been looking forward to -- Emily Care Boss and Epidiah Ravachol -- were not able to come because of illness. That sort of thing is completely out of the control of the con organizers, but it put us in a wary mood as the first day of the con started, with us trying to arrange a new game for Friday night. This was particularly difficult because we'd arranged to share our first game with Matt, a friend from Toronto who we very rarely get an opportunity to game with. We talked over the possibilities of having Megan run a game of Urban Shadows in our hotel room, but eventually settled on trying to slip into the Friday night game of THE VEIL, a Powered-by-the-Apocalypse cyberpunk game. It happened that THE VEIL was also the game that Amanda and Mike had signed up for that night, so completely by serendipity we were able to make our first game of the con one where we were surrounded by friends.

THE VEIL was run by Fraser Simons, the game's designer, a very nice man from Alberta who also happened to be there for his first convention experience. His game is a very unusual one which avoids a lot of the common cyberpunk tropes found in roleplaying -- I was very happy to see that there were exactly zero playbooks that focused on "leather-clad dude in mirrorshades who shoots people in the face" -- and we ended up with a group of very fresh characters with tight connections in a short span of time. (Keep an eye out for a full review of THE VEIL here soon.)

Saturday morning we rose as early as we could, after gaming until midnight, and had a hearty breakfast from the hotel buffet before scuttling off to the first panel. We caught three panels altogether, including one on how to be a great player (something I encourage, because it's never talked about as much as GMing), one on GM troubleshooting techniques, and one on sex and romance in roleplaying games. The GM troubleshooting panel was a thrill because it included the witty and erudite Robin Laws, who kindly signed my copy of HILLFOLK, and was not put off visibly by my embarrassing fanboy-ing. The sex and romance panel was right in our wheelhouse as far as gaming interests go, and it really reinforced for Megan and I the need to get involved in LARP gaming. A lot -- all? -- of the panelists seemed to hail from that segment of the hobby, and I am more convinced than ever that if we want to push our game farther at the table, we need to grow our skills by learning from that community.

The next game was the high point of the convention for us, THE WATCH, a fabulous Powered-by-the-Apocalypse game about a fantasy world at war with an evil force called The Shadow, and the women who must work together to fight it. It's a cousin of Jason Morningstar's campaign-structured NIGHT WITCHES, but has its own unique things to say about gender and violence, and I can't recommend it enough. (As of this writing, it's in its final few days on Kickstarter. Go back it. NOW.) The game's creators Anna Kreider and Andrew Medeiros were both at BreakOut, and we were in a single session run by Ms. Kreider. For those with the mettle, a "long con" run of THE WATCH was available, with several sessions over the length of the con to create a short campaign. We opted not to go this way, so we could try more things, but one of our fellow players, Duan, was so in love with the game that he got in as many sessions as he could manage. Anna Kreider was a great GM, and we got to some real powerful, emotional moments in a short session. I was tearing up by the end, and that doesn't always happen for me.

We had a quick dinner and a beer, then rushed off to our evening game WE USED TO BE FRIENDS. This was a collaborative, GM-less Powered-by-the-Apocalypse game (yes, we played a lot of these) inspired by Veronica Mars run by its creator, Jonathan Lavallee. This was probably the perfect game to decompress after the emotional demands of THE WATCH, allowing us to get a little silly and solve a mystery as meddling teens. I got to enjoy playing the Dick Casablancas of the group, so I was only incidentally involved in the actual gumshoe-ing and more actively involved in getting shot down by various female characters and ending up in the police station. Big fun.

Sunday morning, I was feeling a little tapped out, so it was nice that I ended up in a game like YOUNG AT HEART, a storygame by Fraser Simons (who also wrote and ran The Veil). I was the only person registered for the game, so I didn't especially expect it would go ahead, but Fraser was nice enough to run it for just me, and it worked quite well with just two players. YOUNG AT HEART is a game that's more about collaborative storytelling than roleplaying, focusing on telling the story of a skilled baseball player at the end of his career through scenes in the present and via flashbacks. The mechanics are focused on whether he'll follow his heart or be undone by pride, and we found they led us to a satisfying conclusion that we hadn't expected.

Megan's Sunday morning was spent playing CIRCLES OF POWER with Jason Pitre, and she had lots of nice things to say about it, but all I can say is that it's a game coming soon to Kickstarter (I think) that has to do with magicians battling a society rife with racial inequality. That sounds pretty tasty to me!

Oh yes -- the swag.

I bought a lot of games this weekend. A lot. More than I probably should have. Not as many as I wanted to. You know how that is.

I picked up copies of THE VEIL, YOUNG AT HEART, HEADSPACE by Mark Richardson (another PbtA cyberpunk epic), REST by Emily Griggs, the WAR BIRDS LARP Anthology by Moyra Turkington et al, and a hard copy of URBAN SHADOWS by Andrew Medeiros and Mark Diaz Truman. Oh, and a pile of older stuff from the Hairy Tarantula's close-out sale from their downtown location, including Greg Stolze's early work USAGI YOJIMBO.

Overall, it was a terrific weekend. We played great games, met great people, and generally came away from BreakOut feeling energized and exhausted. Thank you to all the organizers who worked so hard to make it a great experience for everybody, and one that people felt was inclusive and safe. Thank you to the hard-working designers who ran games all weekend, possibly on too little sleep.

We will be back next year!