Last weekend, I went to my first science fiction convention ever. I know, I know, hard to believe coming from someone writing on a gaming blog. Nevertheless, Arisia 2019 was my first sci-fi con, and it certainly won’t be my last.
An offshoot from the Boston-based Boskone, Arisia took the Lensman references and ran, setting up the new convention in 1990. Arisia was founded to incorporate more new activities than the reading-based Boskone, and as such the gaming room and Masquerade are big parts of the event, in addition to panels, merchants, artists, and screenings. Perhaps emboldened by my two years of tenure here at Cannibal Halfling, I signed up as a program participant, and was invited to speak on six panels, four of which were on tabletop RPG subjects (the other two pertained to solar power and brewing, which related to my day job and another hobby respectively). These panels were a lot of fun, and I shared space with a number of fellow gamers and designers, including at least one I’ve covered here (Mark Sabalauskas wrote Return to the Stars, which was featured on Kickstarter Wonk in October).
During the day I spoke on panels and listened to other panels, and at night there were dances and movie screenings. But the pivotal moment for me came Saturday night, when I had the 9:30PM – 2:00AM slot to run a one-shot RPG in the gaming room.
I ran one game session at Arisia, but it was quite possibly the most memorable four hours of the con for me. The greatest irony of the game was that up to about an hour before, I didn’t want to run. My prep in games is often last minute, and this game was no exception- two of the six pregens I had I wrote only about five hours before I was scheduled to run, after my panel that day. I had spoken to a friend about the game in the afternoon, and when I went to check the signups around 7 or so, his was the only name on the list. I tried to not think about it, and went to dinner. Over dinner I expressed my misgivings about my prep, my characters, and interest in the system itself to my patient girlfriend. But when we returned from dinner, I checked the sign-up sheet again. 5 people. In an hour, my game had almost filled up. My mood changed instantly. People wanted me to run a game for them.
Before I continue the story, let me back up. I signed up to run Veil 2020, Fraser Simons’ distillation hack of his own PbtA game The Veil. Veil 2020 uses the core emotion-driven stats from The Veil, and uses techniques from The White Hack and World of Dungeons to simplify play. Most importantly and noticeably, there are no moves in Veil 2020. Instead, the game uses an advantage/disadvantage mechanic similar to that from D&D, which is used in any cases of favorable or unfavorable fictional positioning. The other game which influences Veil 2020 heavily is, if you couldn’t guess, Cyberpunk 2020. The gear lists and character classes are either inspired by or mildly lifted from 2020, and pretty much any Night City encounter you can imagine works very well here. Instead of the very specific classes in The Veil or Cyberpunk 2020, Veil 2020 has three classes: the Booster, which is a combat-focused character specialized in tank maneuvers and taking on multiple foes, the Ace, which is any class driven by a specialized skillset and special equipment, and the Pusher, a netrunner-alike which can have one of any number of specialties for interacting with The Veil. And that’s worth mentioning: while the setting is Cyberpunk 2020 at its core, The Veil is added in, along with all the setting implications it brings along regarding digital environments.
So to this game I brought six pregens: one Booster, three Aces, and two Pushers. This ended up being two specialists (a Medtech and a Techie), two hackers (a straight security/intrusion specialist and a Veil illusionist), and two combat characters (a Booster with a katana and an Ace Solo gunslinger). The scenario I brought to bear was not exactly original. In fact, it was a variant on advice that Mike Pondsmith has been giving for years:
“I’ll give you the best advice I have ever given to Cyberpunk Refs. Make It Personal. Forget about world spanning plots. Find out what the players love the most and take it away from them. Seriously. One of the best convention runs I typically do involves all the players living in a nice conapt block in Night City. Then a megacorp decides that they want to put up a sat net tower right there. Bloody chaos ensues.”
–Mike Pondsmith, from a December 2017 Reddit post
So here, I went a little lower. Considering the political swing of Veil 2020 (seriously, read the XP rules), I had the characters all living together in housing projects in East Boston. They all woke up to eviction notices with a little Arasaka logo in the corner.
While I had pre-genned the characters and even given them names, it was my players who really made their personalities pop. We had Shaw, former adrenaline junkie and drug enthusiast. Shaw had, early on in the game, produced a (as the player described it) “Fear and Loathing level suitcase of drugs” in case it would come in handy. Max was the solo. Handy with a gun and used to being kicked out of places, Max had already packed his scant belongings before joining up with the team to fight back. Angel was the infiltration specialist, a skilled but maybe not street-smart hacker who decided to hack into the local Arasaka branch (while the GM looked on in horror…but let him roll anyway). Charlie was the Booster, a potent merc who often had his memory wiped after jobs to preserve plausible deniability. His first move upon finding the eviction notice? Going to the one neighbor whom he knew worked for Arasaka, and, upon finding him already packed and ready to move, angrily trashing his apartment. And finally there was Robin. Robin was, in addition to being the Veil illusionist, a graffiti artist and inveterate body modder, sporting synth hair and a body full of programmable tattoos. His tag? ‘Red Robin’, a bird caricature, which was commemorated in a tattoo on his shoulder.
The plans started small. Charlie and Robin dressed down the building super to find out why they were being evicted. The original owner, a privatized version of the Boston Housing Authority, had run on hard times and sold the four buildings in the housing project to a slick “revitalization” firm called Street Level Developments. Arasaka was just a subcontractor, as SLD was not a local operation. While this was happening, Angel made his ill-considered but ultimately successful hack against the local Arasaka branch, which revealed that Arasaka had a team of 16 mercs ready for the eviction push in roughly 36 hours. Not able to go up against a trained and well-equipped security team, the group thought about their next move. The first part came easy: have a huge party. The next part was more lateral, but inspiration struck: since no one cares about the state of utilities in this poor section of town, it should be easy to mess up the network switches and therefore The Veil itself so badly that it would hamper Street Level’s plans.
Shaw got the building residents together and started to spread the word. Using security footage from the night before, Robin and Angel committed some light credit card fraud on two Arasaka interns who were out pasting up the eviction notices. Using these trust fund kids’ credit cards, they acquired booze, food, armor, and some more weapons. Charlie and Max scoped out the local Comcast switch-house, figuring out how to gain access to the fiber lines via the sewer. When everything was all set, Robin started the alteration of The Veil in grand style: with an 80-foot tall red robin floating in the air between the four buildings of their project. As the booze arrived via drone, the party was on.
The party was raging, and Arasaka had taken notice. One security van showed up at first, which Robin couldn’t help but tag. Soon there were three. While none of the Arasaka guards were dumb enough to use force against such a large party (there was music and alcohol from the ground floor all the way up to a sky lobby on the 17th floor), they were watching closely. When Robin decided to talk to a news crew that showed up, they were watching even more closely. It was time to make a move. Charlie, Angel, and Shaw headed to the Comcast switch-house, and got ready for the hack. Max stayed back with Robin to protect him from his exposed position with the local media.
When Angel tapped into the fiber trunkline, things started to get real. Angel basically turned all the network switches to ‘full on’, causing an incredible, nearly hallucinogenic display in the local Veil as the equipment overloaded. The towers were draped in psychological feedback from everyone in the building, a hypnotic blend of the fear and anxiety of eviction and housing anxiety with the euphoria of the party. This was when the Arasaka teams spread out. Wearing Veil goggles to dim the effect of the hack, the security troops quickly established a perimeter. As the hacking team escaped through the sewer, there was now a problem: the team was split, with half inside the security perimeter, and half outside. But it was the third act, and Max and Robin were going to shoot the Chekhov’s gun: Shaw’s suitcase full of drugs.
It’s not surprising at this point that the suitcase of drugs allowed the two characters to escape in a crowd of hallucinating partygoers. But there’s a note here about the extremely ambitious end: these guys had hot dice. Both the roll to tap into the fiber trunkline and the roll for the composition of the drug suitcase were places where things could have, given the fiction, gotten extremely complicated if something went wrong. Instead, the dice came out very high…a natural 11 and natural 12 on 2d6, and thanks to their attuned emotional states, two critical successes. The group adapted very well to the complications from 7-9 rolls all night, but when it counted, the dice helped them…I don’t believe there were any straight failures rolled during the game.
What’s hard to capture here is how much thought these players put into their characters and the situations at hand. Everyone at the table was creative and engaged, and put forth great characterizations that don’t always happen with handpicked characters, let alone pre-gens where someone else wrote the name and attribute spread. What really drove this home was the epilogue. Charlie’s player had revealed early on that Charlie often had his memory wiped after gigs. What happened later was a revelation that Charlie had started to remember his most recent gig…an operation against the CEO of the Public Housing Benefit Corporation, the privatized Boston Housing Authority. The very last scene of the game was the team on a bus to New York to face down Street Level Developments, when Charlie said “guys, there’s something I need to tell you. All of this is my fault.” Ominous ending? Hook into a non-existent next session? Giving life to the corporations I put on the table? It was a cherry on top of an excellent night. The game was three hours of laughs, drama, and great gameplay.
Arisia was a great experience. In addition to being able to share my GMing experience in both game and panel form, I was surrounded by friends all weekend, both people I knew and some new people I met. If you’re a nerd and there’s a local con within a reasonable drive of you, I’d suggest you look into it. Arisia made a good effort to be supportive of nerds of all stripes, and a good effort to make it safe to celebrate your nerddom, no matter the flavor. Diverse con-goers playing diverse games is now one of my favorite ways to bring games and gamers together.
Special thanks to Fraser Simons, who answered my DM and gave me permission to print a couple copies of Veil 2020 for this event. Thanks also to my fantastic players, who came in excited, made me excited, and then raved about the game on Twitter when it was over! You can get your own copy of Veil 2020 in Codex: Chrome 2, available on DrivethruRPG.