Written by André La Roche
Cestina Saga is a deep fantasy setting using the Fate Core mechanics. Akin to Game of Thrones, this is a world where the power rests in the hands of aristocratic houses. Unlike GoT, the fantasy elements are more prevalent with centaur-like Khorsa, vegetative fey, and wolf people intermingled with humans.My game was by Mark Diaz Truman, co-founder of Magpie Games and co-author of Urban Shadows, Cartel, and co-author on a seemingly endless stream of great gaming content. I’d played Cartel and Magpie’s still in development Zombie World with Mark before and knew this would be a fun experience.
Cestina Saga was the game I used my front of the line pass on and I chose it purely because I had no idea what it was. There comes a point in Games on Demand where the experience is more about the GM running the table than the game being offered. I was also curious to see how Mark ran Fate Core, a system I have struggled with since it came onto the scene in 2012. Many times in those early years forum discussions online made it sound as if Fate was a catch-all for running a scenario when you didn’t have a system in mind. “It is light” was a typical explanation about why it was a good fit. At this point I would most definitely argue that Fate is no way a “light” system. It is as crunchy as any d20 system could be, it just places it’s crunch in the storytelling rather than the conflict resolution/combat.
In the Cestina Saga game we were given pre-gens, as Fate demands a hell of a lot of creative thinking in character creation and could quickly eat up the whole four hours. From the character sheets I chose Cillian Cuculan, a Faneri (werewolf) who specialized in all things Rogue. Our party was attached to the Contini Family and we had traveled to a distant port city to become embroiled in highly complicated series of events that I struggle to remember so many days out. The crux of the adventure was the accusation of murder of a contact in a local temple and thus the game became an investigation into this death.
Mark did an excellent job of making the game flow despite Fate having some annoying pointy bits can turn the narrative into a series of spinning gears. Much of this also hinges on having a table of players that are with their GM in making sure the story is interesting, not necessarily that your character is succeeding at everything. Having not come from a dungeon crawl background myself, I love when my character fails in a game because it is an opportunity for a complication that makes the story more interesting. One reason I do like Fate is that there’s a strong belief in only killing off a PC being the least interesting thing that can happen. It’s Stress mechanic still has some issues, in my opinion, but it does typically help create interesting stories.
The murder in our Cestina Saga was eventually solved by our party. My wolven rogue managed to provide a severed tongue in the courtroom that served as great proof that the charged individual was not guilty and the actual murderer was in the room with us. A fight ensued, and this chapter of our party’s story came to a close. And also, my Games on Demand time for Origins 2017 as well.
My wife and I first attended Origins in 2015 and came to the convention primarily as tabletop roleplayers. I enjoy board and card games, and reviews for those will be trickling in over the next month as I play all my new games. However, sitting around a table and engaging in collective storytelling is a hell of a lot of fun when you have the right crew. And, I am happy to say I have never sat down at a table in Origins GoD and had a bad experience.
The first thing we played in 2015 was an off the books playtest of Mark Diaz Truman’s Cartel. It was in this game I met him, Brendan Conway, and Jahmal Brown. Three people who have since become good friends. My wife is even working with Mark as part of his 7th Sea 2nd Edition Explorer’s Guild adventure series. Mark exuberantly welcomed us into the Games on Demand space not because he had to but because that is his nature, he is a welcoming inclusive person. He wants everyone to have fun around the game table and feel like they belong there.
With this not being my first rodeo, I knew the GoD drill and gravitated towards those GMs I enjoyed playing with. But, I couldn’t help quietly observe some things that have left me with a less than stellar outlook on Games on Demand. One significant element missing was some welcoming warm faces of the last two years. There were members of the GoD crew who felt like the cheerleaders of the organization and every type of game being presented there. They were a smiling face or a welcoming word that brought you into that space if you were new.
As I stood to wait for boarding passes to be called or for a table to fill and the game to start, I’d keep an eye on the table at the entry and noticed when people entered. It’s easy to tell newcomers because they have that look of trying to absorb the contents of the table, to figure out what “Games on Demand” means. What I noticed was that they weren’t being welcomed right away, they weren’t having the queries on their faces answered. I later found out that some GMs struggled to know when they needed to signup and submit their games, with closed social media circles being used to distribute that information. So these GMs came in under the wire with their content and this, in turn, left a sense of frustration in them, a feeling of unwelcomeness.
It doesn’t help that a lot of GMs in this situation were people of color, of which there is a marked deficit in both Origins and sadly, Games on Demand. GoD has done a beyond exemplary job of reaching out to and including members of the LGBTQ+ community as it strives to be a diverse venue. However, its Origins presence (I cannot speak for GenCon) feels anemic in its representation. Now, this is easily missed by most attendees as white people probably don’t notice when you are surrounded by a sea of white players and white GMs. It’s not a condemnation, it’s just a fact that white people, of which I am one, aren’t really out of their comfort zones in this convention settings.
In my rather passive observations of social media in the last handful of years, I have noticed that as forward thinking as the story gamers scene wants to be, traditional games/OSR still has a significantly better representation of people of color. This fact is made even worse when I perceive an almost active movement going on to push a significant number of gamers/designers of color out of the story gamers community. But like I said, if you are white then you probably don’t notice this. It’s only in conversation with gamers and designers of color that I have come to find this out. From a distance, it looks like a middle school clique in the making at times.
My wife and I are on the fence about another Origins excursion anytime soon. The city of Columbus is fantastic, and we planned our trip so that we had a couple extra days to enjoy it beyond the three blocks surrounding the convention center. My big recommendation after these extra days is Katalina’s for breakfast. So damn good.
We ended up sharing a bed and breakfast space with Jahmal Brown and the crew from Magpie Games, which was probably the best choice we made in regards to Origins 2017. Spending time with friends ended up being the highlight of the week, better than a single game I played and everything I played was fun. While my sleep took a hit from late night’s sitting up in conversation I don’t regret a moment. While the frenzied consumption of conventions wears on me, I think in future a smaller house con would better suit what it is I’m looking for in a gaming experience.
On a sadder note though, I came out of Origins 2017 with a lack of enthusiasm about running a game in future. The past two Origins have been inspirational and had be chomping at the bit to GM a game online. I think about five consecutive years of primarily being a GM over a player I feel worn out. Being a player for awhile sounds better to me, though this weekend I already have ideas swirling in my brain for Cthulhu Dark. I know I’m not giving up tabletop roleplaying games, I just think the way I experience them needs to change and batteries need to recharge.