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Bridging the Gap: Scrum Con 2020 Summer Invitational





Pandemics. They're hell on one's social life and wargaming. Like so many folks, it has been months since I've seen friends in person. For the Second Saturday Scrum Club's members, we last met face to face on March 14 at Scrum Hall (a.k.a. my dining room).

Since then, we've all gathered a couple of times now for virtual happy hours just to get some face time with each other and shoot the shit about gaming and life in general. We've also managed to get together in different configurations to try our hands at gaming online, including Roll20 role-playing sessions (D&D, Middle Earth Role Playing, Tekumel), webcam streamed board games (my pimped out copy of the SPI classic Citadel of Blood and Monolith's Conan), Tabletop Simulator (Battletech), and most ambitiously some full-fledged tabletop miniature wargames set up in somebody's home and streamed to all of the players using webcams via Zoom (TSR's Battlesystem 2nd ed.). 

One of the things I think a lot of us have learned is that despite the inherent drawbacks, a fun time can still be had and that half the enjoyment is derived from the social aspect of gaming with your pals, even if that means via the electronic ether and from the safe confines of our separate abodes.

A majority of the Scrum Club usually attends the HMGS conventions, and though everybody in the group absolutely thinks it was the right call for the organization to cancel Historicon this year, it did leave a giant void where our favorite wargame convention had dependably been in July every summer. I had actually booked my hotel room a whole year in advance this time to ensure I got to stay in the same hotel as the convention itself for the first time. And I had my new gladiator game all ready to run. All for naught, alas.

Given the circumstances, it didn't take much for fellow Scrummer Steve Braun to persuade us that we needed to schedule our own virtual mini-con for the very same weekend that many of us had already blocked out for gaming at Historicon. We ended up calling it the Scrum Con 2020 Summer Invitational because grandiloquent titles are sort of my thing. We wanted to keep it intimate and manageable enough to allow our game club and some of the circle of folks who have supported us over the past couple of years to join us in some gaming when they may have otherwise been attending Historicon. After the Scrum Club members had the opportunity to sign up for the games we were hosting, we then extended invitations to our Scrum Con 2020 game masters, and when a couple of seats were still left, we widened the circle to invite anybody who had joined our Friends of the Scrum Club Facebook group (hint: there are benefits to joining that group besides the witty repartee, so consider signing up today).  

We scheduled four games total: one on Friday night after work, two back to back on Saturday, and another for Sunday afternoon. All of them were fully subscribed (or near so). Unfortunately, the Sunday afternoon game--which at one point had a total of eight people signed up to participate--saw a rash of players have to drop out at the last minute (illnesses, family obligations), and so we decided to postpone that game until our club's next virtual gathering in August. That said, we did manage to get three truly enjoyable games in over the weekend.

"A STORM BREWED BELOW"
Saturday July 11, 6:00-10:00 pm
Type: Small-unit wargame
Rules: Dragon Rampant (modified)
GM: Joe Procopio
Players: 4

Description: Some foolhardy adventurers in search of loot and fame have stirred up quite a mess with their recent exploits. The architect of the tomb the adventurers plundered is unhappy that these surface dwellers have trespassed on her domain, and so the Lich Queen has dispatched her minions to destroy the nearby village of Holmesdale, which had earlier provided them a safe haven en route to the tomb. Meanwhile, the battered-but-victorious adventurers are attempting to return to the village with their newfound treasure, and had the foresight to hire a group of dwarven freebooters ahead of time to escort them safely back across the mountains. It's too bad those dwarves didn't notice the orc brigands who started trailing them at the last pass, looking for the chance to ambush them and their obviously loot-laden companions. The winds of fate have blown up quite a storm in this quiet valley, a tempest that started abrewing a dozen leagues back in that dark dungeon tomb below.

I spent a few weeks ruminating over what rules I wanted to use for the game I volunteered to run at our Summer Invitational. In my limited experience playing wargames via streaming webcam, I knew that any rules I chose should be simple and not include mechanics that required a lot of precision on the table. A game like Kill Team, for instance, in which so much of the experience involves moving individual figures around on the battlefield looking for cover and lining up very careful shots would be a disaster given all of the limitations of streaming tabletop gaming via webcam.

Here are the criteria I thought would make for the ideal game in this context:
  • I knew I wanted to keep the play area "flat" (no levels of elevation that would be hard to discern via webcam, such as hills or rooftops).
  • I wanted the forces to be on a small skirmish scale, that is, a game with clumps of figures in units that would easily be seen via streaming webcam. (This criteria was also important because I don't have great numbers of troops in my collection, so I was only going to be able to field smaller units.)
  • I also wanted a game in which players didn't need to have a precise sense of things like unit facing for combat or tricky movement arcs.
  • Finally, I wanted a game with mechanics that had players rolling against a target number rather than making opposed rolls of any sort, again for simplicity's sake.
I eventually landed on Dragon Rampant, a game I had only played once before with John Sears and a couple of other fellas back in 2017. It checked all of the boxes above, and I streamlined it even more to make it play better via streaming video (e.g., created 3" round movement trays with fat numbers in the center to help easily identify the various units, and other refinements). 

My gaming style is always narrative based, even if it's a simple skirmish game, and part of the fun for me was crafting a story premise that dovetailed with the scenario John Sears had come up with for his game earlier that afternoon. When John gave me the outline of the premise for his dungeon crawl, it allowed me to come up with a framing narrative and motivation for the four groups of forces in my game, which story-wise is set in the immediate aftermath of his game.

A minor but common criticism of Dragon Rampant is that, despite being the fantasy iteration of the Lion Rampant rules by the same designer, it doesn't include as many fantasy elements as it could (the rule book contains only a few spells, fantastical traits, monster profiles, etc.). This left me to make up most of the spells and special traits that I wanted different units to possess. Coming up with spells for units like the cultists and special traits for the hill giant or dwarven freebooters definitely appealed to the game tinkerer in me, but I do wish the game as presented had included much more of that kind of material, especially given how much time all of my other game prep was chewing up.

A fair amount of that prep time was devoted to figuring out the best possible technical set up for presenting the game to my players. I ended up investing in a lot of extra hardware, such as a higher-end HD webcam, flexible extension arms,  USB extender cables, etc. I also had signed up for a Zoom subscription a couple of months ago, but I was still learning the ins and outs of getting it configured exactly how I wanted for gaming purposes. In the end I was running really short on time, and even though I had done a brief technical dry run by myself the night before, I still ended up having some technical frustrations at the beginning of the game that had me sweating it for the first 20 minutes until I got everything resolved and on track.

In the end, I was generally pleased with how I was able to set things up for my players, with one streaming camera mounted directly over the play area, providing everyone with a "bird's eye" view of the entire battlefield, as well as a roving iPhone on a small tripod that streamed a second image that gave players a close-in view of battles and other action on the table. 

(Side note: The one tech issue I think still needs attention is my wi-fi signal: my modem/router is in our second floor studio, which is a bit too far away from the computer in our dining room on the first floor that provides the bird's eye webcam view. A couple of times throughout the evening we got a "low bandwidth" warning from Zoom on that feed. I tried to address this a few year's ago with a wi-fi extender that hasn't done much to boost the signal in that part of the house. Short of rewiring the house with ethernet cable, I'd love to hear anybody else's ideas for getting the signal boosted.)

As for the scenario itself, here are the "warbands" I assigned to each of the four players. 

Cult of the Lich Queen (Attacker) (player: John Sears)
They have been sent by their mistress to burn the village to the ground. They will receive 25 Victory Points for every building in the village they burn down. They will also receive 15 points for every unit they kill that was sent by the local Lord Frothington to protect the village, and 10 for any other players’ unit killed (they’re a death cult, after all). Any unit can attempt to set fire to a village building by being in base contact and rolling an Activation of 7+.

Adventurers and Dwarven Escorts (Defender) (player: Jared Smith)
If the Adventurers unit can get back to the village and half the village’s buildings remain standing at game's end, they receive 75 points (they will, of course have to use some of their hard-earned loot and stick around to help the villagers rebuild what was lost). This warband receives 15 points for every additional dwarf unit that makes it to the village by game’s end. They also receive 15 points for any enemy unit they kill.

Orc Brigands (Attacker) (player: Nate Bruinooge)
They’ve been tracking the dwarves and their companions for two days now, long enough to know that they are all laden with loot. They make the Hill Giant member of their gang follow behind the rest of them a few hundred yards to keep him from accidentally giving away their presence (he enters on round 2). The Orcs will receive 75 points for killing the Adventurers unit (thus stealing their treasure), 25 points for every escorting dwarf unit they kill, and 15 points for any other players’ units killed.

Lord Frothington's Militia (Defender) (player: Steve Braun)
The only way Lord Frothington can continue to collect taxes for his king is by keeping the peasantry alive in the villages under his purview. When a peasant dashed breathless into the keep’s courtyard pleading for assistance against the undead horde spotted marching on his village, Lord Frothington sent his sheriff and some soldiers to help stave off the dark threat. Frothington’s men score 25 points for each village building that remains standing at the end of the game. They also receive 20 points for every unit of the lich queen's cult that gets destroyed, and 15 points for killing off any of those belligerent Orc units.

Again in a nod toward narrative, I deliberately devised different paths to victory for each player, and though alliances were strongly hinted at in their individual stories and victory point structure, I left the door open for some players to score victory points for things like killing the units of any other player (e.g., the cultists could have attacked the orcs if they wanted to). These differing ways of scoring points were shared individually with each player rather than made known to the whole group, hopefully leaving players to organically determine each other's goals and motivations through observation (though, granted, much of it is strongly hinted at in the game's general description at the top).

I kept one surprise for myself to play: a group of migratory lizardmen swimming up river to their mating grounds. When the horny lizardmen see all of the forces converging in the area, they decided to hide under the bridge hoping the kerfuffle passes. As the game master, I sprung the lizardmen on the first player to try to cross the bridge, plopping a unit of them in the river next to it.







Here's a short video of the set up as I put everybody's units on the table.





Computer set up for the overhead web cam, and an iPhone on a tripod to move around for close ups on the battlefield. I used the cellular network service for the iPhone to conserve the wi-fi bandwidth for the computer, and I also kept the iPhone charging with an extra-long cable so that it wouldn't die on me while streaming live video via Zoom for four hours.

New web cam adhered with sticky tack to a bendable boom that is mounted on the ceiling fan. I also bought an extra USB extension cable to get the length I needed to drape it out of the view of the camera.





Although I spent most of the game running around the table measuring distances and moving everybody's troops, it was really nice for me as game master to still  see the faces of all of the players on the large monitor I set up on one end of the dining room table.







The next few photos are screen captures one of the players, Jared Smith, shared with me after the game. I'm glad he did because my Zoom account, unbeknownst to me, was maxed out on cloud storage from the two earlier games I had recorded that weekend.


The pit worm about to destroy one of the village buildings.



The adventurers and the dwarves race for the river's edge in their dash to swim to the comparative safety of the village on the other side.

The orcs start crossing the bridge to enter the fray.


Preparing for my own game, I had readied all of my figures on the dining room table with their roster sheets in the morning before logging on to Zoom to play in John's noon game. Ellen saw that as an opportunity to snap all of the below photos of my figures arrayed for my evening game.
















I only painted a handful of figures as a teenager, and this was one of them from over 30 years ago. Nothing great, but I enjoyed finding a game to sneak him into.



























































"Level Five"
Friday July 10, 7:00-11:00 pm
Type: Role-Playing Game
Rules: D&D 5e
GM: Jared Smith
Players: 6

Description: The monsters spewing out from the dungeons beneath the city have gotten worse over the last few months, and your party has slowly been making its way deeper and deeper, clearing them out level by level. (You can keep any treasure you find, minus the city's 10% tax, plus you get a 1,000 gold piece bonus for each complete level map you bring back for the city mayor.) Now you have discovered the staircase to... Level Five! (Ninth level pre-generated characters will be provided, but feel free to bring your own.) 

We actually ended up with seven players, when Scott McKinley (friend to many in the club) asked if we could squeeze him in. 

Fellow Scrummer Jared ran a fun, allusion-filled dungeon romp that had us meeting a variety of thinly veiled versions of characters from other genres, including a group of explorers obviously modeled on Kirk, Spock, and McCoy from the original Star Trek series, a gnome running off with a gold idol ala Indiana Jones, and a battle royal with a number of Marvel Universe characters, including a Stone Golem (Ben Grimm), a Fire Elemental (Human Torch), and a really annoying teenage Drider (Spider-Man, uhm, I mean Drider-Man). 

The adventure gave Jared the chance to play to one of his real strengths as a GM, and that's conveying character, replete with colorful voices. One of my favorite adventures with him was a birthday present to me a few years back in which he ran The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl. Jared played the part of my boisterous, blood-thirsty intelligent sword that was constantly cajoling me into unwise combats whenever it was drawn from its scabbard.

It ended up being a smart choice to kick off the Summer Invitational with Jared's game, which struck a much needed gonzo tone in these depressing days. One of the highlights for me was getting to game with old pal Steve Conley, who I rarely get to see now that he has relocated to Florida.


DM extraordinaire Jared Smith.

Steve Conley, the paladin.

Scott McKinley, the wizard with a magical "Rope of Not-Falling-and-Breaking-Your-Leg."

Adventurers Assemble! When the not-Marvel superheroes started showing up, I switched my virtual background out again.

Sometime during the session Steve and I started playing dueling old school D&D virtual backgrounds, switching them up every half hour or so.

Steve Braun, the Ranger, of course.

Walt O'Hara, the druid.

Steve Conley demonstrates how one swings a vorpal sword...snicker-snack!


"Dungeon Scrum"
Saturday July 11, 12:00-4:00
Type: Miniatures wargame
Rules: Dungeon Scrum (home-brew)
Type: Wargame
GM: John Sears
Players: 6 (maybe more)
Description: Beyond the thatched roofs and stacked stone walls of pleasant villages lie the untamed wilds of fog shrouded thickets, murkwater bogs, and the clutching boughs of sinister trees. The root of all this ruin lies beneath those haunted moors in the sepuchural vaults and subterranean passages where lair the creatures with hungering maws and malevolent intent. The  only salvation from their predations men can hope for is a good, old fashioned Dungeon Scrum.

Fellow Scrummer John Sears dusted off a game of his own devising that has been his traditional New Year's eve game for his old gaming group. He made some adjustments to the rules to make it play a bit smoother via webcam streaming.

Unsurprisingly to me, it was a big hit with the five players who participated (including me), none of whom had played before. The players took on the roles of stock D&D characters (Paladin, Druid, Thief, etc.), and set about plundering a nearby tomb. 

John has a real talent for creating his own rule sets (it has been great play-testing and watching him refine over the past couple of years a game he calls Star Schlock), and this game is no exception. He set out to create a dungeon delve that would mimic the progression of an entire campaign in a single night, and we got to see our heroes grow from mere adventurers to epic heroes over the course of the four-hour game.

John's game design is smart and intuitive, and his style as a game master is engaging (he certainly wasn't rooting for us against the dungeon dwellers, which added a nice little competitive edge to our battles). And if you follow his wonderful blog, 1,000 Foot General, you'll already know that he excels at the crafting side of the hobby. Playing with his miniatures and terrain is always a treat and an inspiration.

My Saturday game (described above) followed John's afternoon game, and it was fun trying to create a narrative that built upon what he devised in his game. In fact, because I was a player in John's game and was trying to avoid knowing any spoilers in his game, I was left changing the narrative details of my own game all the way up to the last minute. 

One of the pleasures of conventions like Historicon is getting to play with new players and find some kindred spirits. We had the good fortune of doing just that in John's game, which included fellow Marylanders Eric Hoffman and Indy Kochte. They were both a lot of fun at the virtual table, and I truly hope we get to game together again, online and in person.  

 
Spiders...why did it have to be spiders?


These cultists made a follow-up appearance in my Dragon Rampant game later that Saturday evening.




Purple worm!

The lair of the Lich Queen!
 



FINAL THOUGHTS AND PARTING SHOTS
I'm pretty proud of my game club. We bridged the gap and came up with a way to still play a lot of enjoyable games this weekend despite cancelled conventions and physical distances. We all had to stretch in new ways, and the results were actually better than I anticipated. If anything, I feel like we've proven to our own satisfaction that we can indeed get in some fun tabletop gaming with a little extra effort and patience. None of these games replaced being in the same room with friends, or ogling in person somebody's latest miniature or terrain handiwork, but I did leave the weekend with some freshly minted fond memories, and that’s not as common as it used to be. Everything went well enough that maybe we'll try another little "invitational" in the fall. Short of a vaccine or COVID treatment regimen, it might have to serve until we get on the other side of this pandemic. 

If we stage one of these again, I hope to raise the bar: Next time, by god, we're making t-shirts!

But Wait! There's More!

Fellow Scrummer Walt O'Hara provided his own post-con report on his blog. Check it out at Third Point of Singularity.

To sign up for announcements regarding future Scrum Con-related events, go to our home page and sign up to our mailing list.

...and the Scrum Con 2020 Summer Invitational made the roundup on Little Wars TV.



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Comments

  1. Great write up Joe! I had a lot of fun playing in your Dragon Rampant game as well as running my dungeon scrum. Thanks for posting some photos and a write up as I my camera was occupied streaming the "adventurer's eye view" during the game.

    I think the weekend's game were a big success and hope we can give it a try again in the future.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad you had a good time, too, John. I agree, I hope we adopt it as our approach to getting our regular Second Saturday games on track, and it was certainly easy enough to plan as a "mini-con," of sorts. I'm game to give it another spin in the fall.

      Delete
  2. So you're emboldening me to try something like this myself... I have Dragon Rampant, but have never tried it. Maybe it's time? What online system did you use to allow players to see each other, as well as have the overhead cam up? Can you (ie, the "game master") dial in to Zoom or Google Meet the the overhead cam, the close up cam, and maybe one more, to show you? I'm trying to think through the logistics here... Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. After trying a few different video conference services, I found Zoom was the easiest to use and configure. The only downside is that if you only sign up for the free membership level, I think your meetings cannot be any longer than 40 minutes. I went ahead and subscribed to their base plan which gives you unlimited meeting length, and some cloud storage for saving videos of the meeting. With Zoom, you simply schedule a meeting and email everybody the link and password with whoever you'd like to attend. This allows you to basically log in with as many attendees as you want (up to something live 500), so that I logged into/attended the meeting with my computer and its webcam to stream one view of the table, and I logged into/attended the same Zoom meeting with my iPhone to provide another angle on the action. As the meeting's host, you can dictate the dominant window that everyone sees, but we found that it is better not to, so that the players themselves can choose a dominant window by "pinning it." This in essence allows the players to toggle back and forth between my bird's eye webcam view of the table or my "on the ground" iPhone view of the action (though technically they could make any meeting participant's window the dominant one). When any attendee chooses one dominant window, they still get to see everybody else in a reduced size row or column of the participants' streams running alongside the main/pinned. If the host doesn't choose )"showcase") a particular view and the attendees don't pin one for themselves, the default is that whoever is speaking temporarily gets the largest window. Look at some of my photos above and that should give you a sense of how you can configure the display.

      Does that help?

      Delete
    2. Hi Joe! Yes, very much. My work has a paid account for Zoom, and I didn't realize that you can tell it which window to pin - I'd thought that the speaker always became the dominant window, so your friends would pop up over the main battle map and whatnot. I was guessing (until I took a closer look) that maybe you were livestreaming to youtube or something, and running a Zoom meeting alongside. I'll investigate more on how to choose a window to be 'dominant'. I presume folks just rolled their own dice, and reported results? I haven't found a great dice roller to use with friends. Most are kinda clunky or just not very nice looking. Thanks again.

      Delete
    3. Definitely have everybody roll their own dice. That's part of the fun! And you want to give the player's something tangible/tactile to do...helps make the experience more real for them. Let me know how it goes if you decide to take the plunge. Happy to answer more questions as you explore it further. A big part of me writing this post was a hope that it would inspire others to try their hand at tabletop gaming via webcam.

      Delete
  3. ...And regarding internet: I recently went from a wireless router with a signal booster to a mesh network (my ISP, Sonic, uses Eero) and it works great. Strong signal everywhere, and devices will seamlessly swap from the main router to the satellite router automatically as you move into that part of the house. It's still not perfect, but it was a very large improvement. Call your ISP and see what they recommend. It came with a modest increase in cost ($5?), but a vast improvement in service

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the tip. I actually called my internet service provider (Verizon Fios) tonight to ask them about mesh networks and extenders.

      Delete
  4. Great stuff Joe! Congrats on a successful virtual con 😀

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good to hear from you, Ivor. If you think of it, drop me an email and catch me up on how you're doing. I've been wondering about you, and hope all is well. If we do something like a Fall Invitational, I'll be sure to reach out? Take care, friend!

      Delete
  5. Well done on putting on a successful virtual conn! It all looks great to me! I like lion Rampant and have got dragon Rampant in case I want to use my fantasy figures for anything other than frostgrave!
    Best Iain

    ReplyDelete

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