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Metatopia 2016 Review

Posted by Jason Walters on

I had yet another fantastic year at the Metatopia Festival of Game Design in Morristown, New Jersey thanks to Vinny, Avonelle, Darren, and their staff. I got to spend time with friends old and new, playtest and help with unreleased roleplaying games, give seminars, open my mind to input from people different from myself, and generally be the puckish, contrarian gadfly of small-press roleplaying game distribution you all know and love. (Except when you don’t!)


Before I begin, however, I want to emphasize what a unique and special event the festival is. For those of you who don’t know of it, Metatopia is an event where people can playtest their unreleased tabletop games with industry professionals and uber-fans, who assist them in getting the “kinks” worked out before they are seen by the public. It’s extremely well-organized and thought out (or as much as any game event can be), and it’s staff put a lot of effort into matching new designers with fans and veteran ones. It would be a great loss to everyone who operates at any level of the tabletop game industry if it weren’t around anymore.


Which brings me to a point I wish to make before I begin my breakdown of seminars and games. For professional guests, Metatopia should be all about service to others. Everyone who has worked in the tabletop game industry has a first project (good or bad) that they worked on. Everyone has had to learn certain things the hard way, first hand. Thus, your roll at this event should be to help new people avoid these pitfalls wherever possible, and to encourage them to make the best game they can possibly make.


However, I’m concerned that a few (though certainly not the large majority) of those guests have lost sight of this. Remember: it’s not a normal game convention! People paid ca$h money to have professionals give them quality help them with their games. It’s all about them – and not about you. Thus, if I may give sage advice when none has been asked for or desired, a certain amount of being one’s “best self” seems warranted. Don’t get drunk. Do get lots of sleep. Eat well. Don’t try to make up for exhaustion with caffeine. Put on your Patience Hat, and then tie it down to your skull with some colorful, happy, +1 yarn of objectivity. Doing these things will cause you to accrue Reputation Points, which you can use at a later time to buy up your Wealth Perk and various Professional Skills. Trust me. It will be worth not mixing whiskey with energy drinks for three days straight!


Now that I’ve been a scold and a boor, on to my break down of Metatopia 2016!




Kickstarting and Crowdfunding 101 (Christopher Badell, Marie Poole, and myself) This went rather well, and was well-attended and informative – though Christopher and Marie work at a whole different level of crowdfunding than I do! (Me: $5,000 to $40,000 projects. Them: $150,000 to $500,00!) My thought afterward is that this should have been split into two seminars: one for “major league” board came projects, and one for “minor league” card and roleplaying game projects. However, I bumped into Marie on my way home, and she assured me that having someone on the panel with experience in smaller projects reflects what most of the attendees will actually do with their own projects, and thus should be on a single panel. I bow to Ms. Poole’s expertise.


Retail and Distribution 101 (Brian Dalyrmple, Jim Crocker, and myself) The three dread horsemen of retail reunite! Also very informative and well-attended IMO, though Brian and Jim have probably forgotten more on this topic than I shall ever know. Still, I continued this year in my role as the color commentator to their play-by-play announcer.


Packaging Games For Market (Mark Richardson, Christopher Badell, Melissa Lewis-Gentry, and myself) THIS this right here is the seminar most of you should have gone to, but few did. Only about six clever people showed up on how to take notes on the much neglected – but all important topic – of how NOT to destroy your games in shipping before your fans can get them. For shame, Metatopians, for shame! Next year show up and be enlightened by Melissa and the gang.




Heirloom (Focus group; Clark & Amanda Valentine) And we focus grouped the heck of of this really, really good idea for a storytelling game in which the tale of family heirloom is told backwards from the present to the past. Good input and ideas from all at the table! Very clever concept.


Corona: Autarchy’s End (Beta Test; Neal Stidham) This is an interesting project that attempts to combine strategy and storytelling using something like an Illuminati card-tree mechanic to produce a “Dune Meets Diplomacy” feel. It’s not all the way there yet, but Neal’s a veteran game designer, so I’m certain he’ll get it worked out in the end. Personally, I like the idea of turning this into a strategic storytelling game of justifying amoral political behavior through self-serving, cynical speeches… but maybe that’s what’s in the air right now.


Interstellar Interventions (Beta Test; Henry Ulrich) This sucker right here is ready for market IMO. You play rebel mech pilots for hire, each working for a different faction intervening in a planet-wide rebellion for different, often conflicting reasons. It’s crunchy, but eliminates hex maps in favor of “zone cards” you can play on the table to create maps, and captures a lot of the feeling of Battletech or Heavy Gear with dumping 80% of their crappy, cumbersome rules. And it has a kind of Cold City feel to it. I liked it a lot.


Blood Is Thick (Alpha Test; Kimberly Lam) This THIS right here is why I go to Metatopia. This! In Kimberly’s game you play four Cambodian women in 1989, dealing with the inter-family aftermath of the Killing Feels through memory, questions, and silences. It’s intensely moving and personal, interestingly structured, and pushes the boundaries of what an RPG can be outward into uncomfortable, crying-at-the-table territory. Maybe I’m jaded, but I can get cheap laughs anywhere; I want THESE emotions from a storytelling game. THESE! I want to be educated and emotionally broadened like the romantic Burner psychonaut I am. Bravo Kimberly! You’ve moved my ink-stained, RPG soaked soul.


Seven Minutes In Hell (Beta test; Doug Levandowski) This is an interesting game with very few problems. Basically, you are a group of Middle School children having a slumber party that degenerates into demonic possession. It’s built by the players using index cards (like a lot of good modern storytelling RPGs) and uses an interesting spin-the-bottle mechanic to determine narrative control and a random table to determine the general shape of the possession. Not really my thing (I’m generally not big on modern horror games or being a teenager again), but solidly designed. I think it could be commercially successful as a product as well.


Sticks Improv (Beta test; Brian Rogers) Brian has been working a problem similar to what Beth Rimmels and I have been working on (separately). Namely, how do you create a good “traditional” RPG using cards to create balanced, customized characters very quickly so you can get down to playing right away? In this case, you have five decks of cards that circulate around the table, allowing you to select a card, then assign it a point value by sliding it into the appropriate slot in one of those transparent 8.5” by 11” baseball card collector pouches. In practice, you end up being able to conceptualize and create a character really quickly that looks like it would work pretty well in play (we focused on character creation, not play). Combined with an interesting and fast group setting building mechanic somewhat reminiscent of The Quiet Year, I think Brian has created an effective but rules light RPG system with some real advantages. I look forward to seeing the final version.




A few random and scattered thoughts, arranged in no particular order


1) Jason Morningstar may be the best convention roommate ever. He’s clean, smells nice, and doesn’t snore (alas, all qualities I admire… in others). I only saw him awake once, at which point he gave me an English candy bar. So five stars for Jason!


2) The cheese platter at the restaurant in the Morristown Hyatt is by far their largest, tastiest, and best priced dish. Get that next time!


3) Ron Edwards sounds like me when he talks about US socio-economics. Only from the Mirror Universe… or possibly I am. In any case: don’t listen to either of us. You Can’t Handle The Truth.


4) One day I shall make it to the OTHER half of Metatopia where they are playing things other than roleplaying games. I swear.


5) I find myself rather liking New Yorkers. There. I said it.


- Jason Walters, Publisher


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