PAX Unplugged 2019: Day 3 Log

Well, I have a moment before things might be getting hectic, so I wanted to share some overall impressions and observations about the totality of PAX Unplugged so far. First, I want to say that overall I see a vast improvement in organization from last year. Lines are shorter, and there are more options and backups to keep people happy. The decision to keep one main entrance seems to be paying off dividends, in that people are processed a lot faster to get in the action. Do I miss being able to pop out exits for a bite at a local market without walking all the way back around? Maybe a little, but the overall wait time is shorter, and the end result means that I am hanging around the con and exploring more.

I’ve chatted up fellow con-goers, and while I don’t think anyone has said that their experience has been perfect, I think everyone has said that there are marked improvements over last year. Furthermore, it is even more important to note that, according to some of the vendors I’ve talked to, the size of the con has increased year to year. The fact that things have gone smoother with more people speaks very well to the con’s potential longevity, as does the fact that there seems to be a wide variety of things to do to match a large group of interests.

I think there’s a very good chance that PAX Unplugged is here to stay, and that it’s only going to get bigger. Fortunately, I don’t think that they’ve outgrown their space, as there are still parts of the Philadelphia Convention Center that they are not occupying, so they still somehow have room to grow. I look forward to seeing what happens in the coming years!

I’m going to end that summation there, because after I finish my log entry I am going to rather suddenly stop for reasons that will become apparent.

8:30

Well, things changed a little bit this morning. The doors were open before 8 AM this morning, though people were not let through security until the magic witching hour. Even bigger, registration took a big departure. Signups began just a little past 8, meaning that by 8:30 the registration line was empty and a number of games were filled up. I can’t say that I minded avoiding an hour of waiting in line, but man, there are going to be some very surprised and disappointed people at 9.

My initial plan was to sign up for Vampire 5th edition, having recently reviewed it. However, I saw that a session of Bluebeard’s Bride was open, and I had an irresistible impulse.

In the meanwhile, I wandered around the hall and ran into the people from Gehenna Gaming. While the name lends itself to Vampire: The Masquerade, (the name of the incoming vampiric apocalpyse) they have positioned themselves as a resource and affiliate for people interested in horror gaming in general, including Call of Cthulu, Zweihander and even some D&D. Coincidence had their tables placed next to the Bluebeard’s Bride setup, and chatting with some of their members they want to add that to their roster in the future. (Spoiler Alert: It’s a rather good fit), so they might be adding that in the future.

I am not a huge fan of how Magpie is organizing their sessions. We were asked to show up 15 minutes early, and other games have had a GM set up in advance and we would be free to sit, put out stuff down and prepare. Instead, they are calling out the games and tables and setting up groups first. While I get why, this means that you have people who are by themselves as the last to pick roles, borrow gaming materials and get themselves prepped. It’s a minor annoyance, and I know I’ll be in the minority because I absolutely get why groups would want to sit together.

10 – 4

Well, I really shouldn’t have been surprised. Bluebeard’s Bride was everything that had been promised, and I knew what I was getting myself into. I knew that the game was one of intimate horror. The GM made sure that we knew what the game was about, asked about areas of horror and violence that were off limits and we all agreed as a compact as to what we were ok with. That still didn’t make the ending less of a gut punch, and even for the rest of the day my mind is reframing scenarios that make things more horrifying. To frame it, it’s the moment of a thriller when things click, and suddenly strange but previously unresolved events snap into focus. This is one of my favorite storytelling tools and the payoff when done well is enormous. It’s the audience finding out the true purpose of the Red Room in the Haunting of Hill House, or the twists in Fight Club or Chinatown, pivotal moments that wind up defining the fiction. From a storytelling perspective, this was done darn near perfect in game, but that still meant that the events stuck with me from the end to session and still haven’t quite let me go. After the resolution of the game, I was done. I did a little more shopping at the Expo, went out and got a bite for lunch, and told myself that I could stop by again. But in my bones I knew I was done.

For those unfamiliar with the game, the title comes from the legend of Bluebeard. Bluebeard is a wealthy noble who marries a bride from a modest family. He gives her the keys to every room in the manor, and says that she may enter any room but one…but curiosity gets the better of her, and she opens it to discover horror within. Magpie’s game runs off this concept, though it can be be subbed into the more recent past or even modern day. Players take on fragments of the Bride’s self, each a part of the “traditional” responsibilities of what a Bridge is expected to be for her husband (Virgin, Mother, Fatale, Animus and Witch) and these fragments take turns investigating the rooms of the manor before deciding whether to be loyal or disloyal…and getting some kind of resolution based on what you found. The game leans heavily into players suggesting their own worst fears about what is happening, and the GM encourages this and makes it worse. Endings are not meant to be saccharine sweet.

So, for those reading, I knew all this going in. I am a fan of horror, and the storytelling of horror. So when I say that I was deeply affected in the aftermath, take that into account. In fact, I would say that the vast majority of players sat in silence for a moment when the game ended. I am not saying this is a bad thing. Storytelling games can, and arguably should, challenge players. In this, Magpie Games and the GM they had running absolutely accomplished this, and looking back as an example of narrative and storytelling, there was an excellent confluence of game mechanics, invested players and a responsive GM, which is almost always a recipe for success. For people who like pushing themselves, and who really like the horror genre I think it’s an excellent game, albiet one which should be undertaken when everyone knows the stakes and has mapped out the boundaries ahead of time and ideally played with a GM who you trust.

With that, I would like to briefly detail the events, but first…

Content Warning

The following including references to domestic abuse, child abuse and implied pedophilia. You have been warned.

The game opened with the players awakening to the manor completely empty, devoid of any servants, with a note from Bluebeard saying that he would return in the morning. In the first room, the dining room, we could hear the sounds of sobbing. It was Hurley, one of the servants, a girl about half your age (13 and 25/26 respectively) who had come from the same village you had. She had welts and marks from being beaten, and we could see visions of something that looked like an older version of her with similar markings. It seemed that our husband had been displeased with how little we had been eating, and had been taking it out on Hurley. We asked what we could do to help, but all Hurley would say was “You have it too.”

Next, we were shown the study, where we were shown “our place” in the room, where we were expected to sit. We had another vision, this one of our husband with another woman, one we didn’t recognize, but was engaged…intimately with. Our attempts to break it up were thwarted, shoved back to the chair the Bride was supposed to sit.

At this point, the group was feeling very “disloyal” and the writing was on the wall, and we were preparing to defy Bluebeard. But the last room…was the afterparty of the wedding. We were encouraged to “get everything done fast” by the groom’s father, while our parents ignored our plight. We ran into Hurley again, and asking “Who takes care of you?” we were told, “Only you.” When we asked, “Why do you stay if you’re treated like this” we were told “Only for you”.

Suddenly, things began to click: why we had seen an older version of Hurley with near identical marks. How similar she was to us in build. A 12 year age difference. Why she was only cared by us, and only stayed for us. The truth that all the players seemed to simultaneously stumble upon was that the wedding wasn’t recent, it had been some time ago. Hurley was our daughter, and she was being groomed as our successor. The players all decided to try to run rather than take the evidence to the townspeople, who all seemed to know, and to try to take Hurley with us. But as the GM began to wrap up, he informed us that while Bluebeard might, might allow the old Bride to leave, there was no way we would take our child with us. The ending line was “You hear Bluebeard plans to marry again soon. You know the bride. You know her well.”

End of game

 

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