So, this year I decided to attend Phenomenon 2017, a roleplaying convention held over the Queen’s Birthday long weekend. It’s strange, because I’ve been living in Canberra for a decade on and off, and can only remember going to one Pheno game previously. This was my first full Pheno experience, and I wanted to share my thoughts and feelings. As the title suggests, this post started as a Hot Wash Up, meaning that it was generated fairly soon after the event to capture initial thoughts. I’ve delayed publishing it based on some readings I’ve done about feedback (mainly in the Larp scene) suggesting that leaving a period being the event and feedback is useful to organisers and writers to divorce some of the emotional investment associated, aka the Week of Stories. For the life of me, I can’t seem to find that article now though, so my apologies (edit: it’s Claus Rastaad’s piece ‘If you went to my larp and didn’t like it, here’s what I’d like you to do’).
Organisation (Rego, Pack Up Etc.)
Registration was from 1800 on Friday, and organisers were very clear about expectations on arrival times. The rego desk was clearly labelled, organisers were identifiable, and the process was handled well. It surprised me that a lot of people seemed to have not pre-paid, but that might be due to the somewhat flexible nature of con registration. What was less clear to me as a Pheno attendee was the game character section. So each GM had a desk outside the rego area with their game, and after a little while I intuited that this was where you could pick up characters for Larps (ie you had pre-nominated in whatever methodology the Larp designer implemented). Tabletops had desks too, and perhaps for team registration (particularly for games like SHELLSHOCK which I’ll talk about more), it allowed for wholesale character distribution.
Pack up was around 1700 on Sunday, and everyone seemed to chip in. Organisers were quite good initially at directing and corraling the hordes of people wanting to help. As could be expected, after the initial put away chairs action the numbers of helpers petered off.
Overall, the organisation was good. It was clear, direct, and unintrusive as much as possible. The map and room locations provided were usable, and the Terms and Conditions were clear. If Pheno had some sort of code of conduct, this might be a good thing to include, as my readings from some of the more Nordic inspired conventions tend to have relatively clear Codes of Conduct. It could be argued that the community didn’t require one, but I’ll discuss that more in the later ‘Community’ section.
Moderated by David Hollingworth, with David James, Xole Karman, Jacinta Smith, David Hughes and Phillipa Hughes.
So this was a first for Pheno, and was a moderated panel discussion on the writing process for a game at Pheno. It seemed to be fairly ad-libbed but flowed naturally which was nice, and lasted for about an hour. It was recorded and apparently going to be Podcast at Professor Jimble’s Dice Bag. There was effectively two larp (or freeform) writers and three tabletop writers, and a lot of unstructured design. To me, it reflected a lot of the Pheno play style and the culture of the convention. Jacinta provided some frank words about the recognition factor of writers in game selection, and it was refreshingly honest. I was hoping to get some ideas for structure and templates for the actual writing, but apparently only Jacinta was a structural type person. I did get confirmation though that it is complicated to playtest larps, which was a suspicion of mine. I also got the feeling that there was an unspoken tension between running a game that you’re interested in, against running a game that can play in a convention. It seemed like interest outweighs marketability (for lack of a better term).
There was also little to no discussion of system, which highlighted to me Pheno’s tendancy for systemless games. Overall, a valuable contribution to the schedule as well as game design conversation, and I would attend such a panel in the future.
By Fi McConachie, Saturday 0900 to 1200
So this was the Jury game and a larp. I signed up for the jury experience noting my professional background and must have missed character selection at Rego. I played Kerrie Hong, a 24-year-old blogger and social justice warrior. It was an interesting premise that was handled with the appropriate gravity. The game started with the charges, and then you were sent into the deliberation room with the other jurors. I liked the fact that previous interactions were omitted, it was an interesting design choice that allowed for interpretation in play. The evidence was well done from an aesthetic sense and allowed for some interesting analysis. A lot of other information was provided when asked, and while I can understand the choice, I think I would have preferred the argument and consensus needed. I think closing arguments from the prosecution and defence (provided by the GMs) would have been supremely helpful and contextualised a lot of the information we were presented. The ending was engaging and seemed to cover the soap opera-ish nature of gaming, but also allowed for some interesting social commentary as well. This could have been a lot more in your face and down your throat, but I think the design choices made allowed players to come to their conclusions and thereby strengthened what I believe to be the designer’s message.
By Andrew Smith, Saturday 1245 to 1545
I’d never actually played Andrew’s game before, but his reputation had proceeded him. I played Danvers, the inheritor of the town and decision maker. The character sheet was insightful with a lot of hooks to play to. There were some questions on the sheet as well that allowed for some customisation but also left hooks for the GM to riff off later in the game. I’d call this a systemless game as there were no dice, no visible game economy and character actions seemed determined mainly through GM fiat. With Andrew’s style though, I didn’t notice it. His ability to describe and provide immersion was readily apparent and very enjoyable. The use of the whiteboard of character/player names, the map of the town and handouts were simple yet highly effective.
I was later awarded a certificate for one of the lines I dropped during the game, as seen below:
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting this at all, and it was quite a nice feeling to have made the GM’s day a little bit better. I figured Andrew would have a lot of players to choose from noting what I understood his reputation to be, so I’m a little chuffed about this one.
By Michael Hitchens, Saturday 1600 to 1900
A Fate game of French musketeer type characters, I signed up to play a Fate game. It was ‘Fate lite’, in the sense that it used Fate dice to track an emotional stress type mechanic. Essentially, one of the four Fate dice was different coloured, and any time it rolled a + or a -, you received a different coloured token. Your Fate points plus your ’emotional stress’ token could not exceed six, and you earned a Fate point in every scene. Your lost ’emotional stress’ through confrontation or another catharsis. It was an interesting mechanic, and I think it worked in encouraging players to explore a particular avenue of the game. Otherwise, I would struggle to call it a Fate game. Skills were Fate core but didn’t seem to follow the pyramid, the ladder was referenced but not used, and stress and aspects were on the sheet but barely or never used. Fate points were vanilla though, but conflict scenes were mostly reduced to overcome challenges with unknown opposition totals.
I played Henriette Rieux. The game seemed to struggle with pacing, which I suspect is due in large part to us as the players. I’m pretty sure I struggled with a fairly strongly gendered female character, plus we were a ‘pickup’ group, and so it’s hard to move through the game while trying to get a feel for the other players as well. It also went half an hour over time, which was a significant bugbear for me. Michael was good at attempting to drive the narrative and worked hard to get a thematically appropriate ending. It could have also used name tents with aspects printed, as we all spent about five to ten minutes fashioning them, meaning that most players didn’t have their aspects in front of them throughout the game.
By David Hollingworth, Saturday 2000 to 2300
This was the game I was most looking forward to, and it delivered. I played Admiral Toran Luret, a Bajoran Starfleet admiral. There was a bit of mix up before the game with character selection, but the appropriate qualifiers were given in advance, and I was able to make the purchases I had made work and work well into the character. I had a uniform which a Friday previous visit to Lindcraft ensured I had the right rank and modified my Bajoran earring prop so that a person with unpierced ears could play. I broke my ‘curse’ about playing female characters, in that I think I did alright. In all honesty, I think because the gender of the character was inconsequential really that I had little difficulty with it. The game had some simple mechanics, and I saw the GM implementing them, but I never had to test them so I can’t comment on their effectiveness or otherwise. David delivered an exceptional GM performance of a Larp, giving some apparently off the cuff narration that was moving, compelling and insightful. It was a Larp with a message that again delivered it without preaching. The character sheet I thought was well designed as I found I very rarely needed to refer to it once the game was going, but this might be due to the familiarity with the setting material. I felt like I got a real insight into an Admiral’s life, as my staff officer Captain Miller was running around furiously trying to execute my intent and Captain Carter was running around furiously trying to figure out the mystery on the planet, and I was a beacon of calm. I think my professional experience came in handy here, as for those in the know I executed a mission command style.
I’m pretty sure I would sign up for another of David’s Star Trek games sight unseen and fight to play Admiral Toran again.
By Penny Sullivan, Sunday 1600 to 1900
I know Penny pretty well, and I enjoyed Farscape, so this was a bit of a no-brainer for me. I think my character selection, Lieutenant Jak Andery though was a mistake for my playstyle. I cut my teeth in larping in the Cam, a long form larp campaign where the standard game was 4 hours or more, and at a convention, there was always two games plus hour long factional meetings. Pheno schedule was three hours, and I think I was plodding out of the gate compared to a lot of other players. As my character was an intelligence collection officer, I was fairly bad at collecting intelligence for the Peacekeepers. The mechanics were extremely light on, but each character had their special something they could. I used my power this time around and got an insight into the double-dealing of the game which was useful. There was some excellent characterisation in this game as well. I think however that the character sheet could have been clearer or easier to navigate. It might have been an unfamiliarity with the setting, but I spent a considerable amount of time with the character sheet trying to find people’s name and figure out who they were, what they did, and what I thought about them. I think some headings or perhaps another character list organised by faction as well as arranged alphabetically could have been useful, something to parse the characters into easy to assimilate blocks. I suspect this might be a personal preference though, as I couldn’t observe anyone else with similar problems. While I didn’t enjoy this game as much as Star Trek, I’m pretty sure that was due to my shortcomings and playstyle rather than a design choice. And to be clear, I did enjoy it.
Shepard’s Pie, rice, couscous, om nom nom nom.
I made a special effort to try and get to know some people and sat with two others that I had never met before along with an old cam mate who I hadn’t seen in years. I think the Banquet concept is sound, and the delivery was professional. For me, this was a lot better at fostering community and introducing people to each other, as you can hear people talk and you’re still in the environment of the con.
By Joe McNamara, Sunday 2000 to 2300
This was a Triptych, a feature game of the Convention and my only one. I know Joe from my Cam days, and I had heard about Wraith but never played it. I had forgotten how crunchy and lexicon filled White Wolf games can be. I played Lieutenant Finlay Hall. The shadow mechanic played well and was interesting to see in play. Joe did a good job of limiting the amount of rules knowledge needed, and his descriptions were evocative. It was a body horror style game, and to be honest, that’s not my cup of tea, but it was a good solid game with good pacing and interesting story.
By Nathan Lee, Monday 0900 to 1200
I selected this game for the Dungeon World system and learnt that the GM was a new designer according to Pheno. Character selection was fairly standard, with some interesting variation between somewhat similar character builds. I played a thief which I named Farley AKA Rat. The system was explained clearly with simple moves being made available, and I was able to pick it up quickly. Nathan provided some good NPC characterisation and tried to keep it from descending into murder hobos. Our player group was not as obliging. I ran into Nathan later and had a chat about the game; he was the only person throughout the con that seemed particularly interested in my immediate feedback. He appears to share my feelings to an extent regarding the Pheno culture and propensity for systemless games.
By Jim Riley and John Machin, Monday 1245 to 1545
Oh my god, this was a fantastic game. The premise was intriguing, and the luck of scheduling meant that I was the last crew, Crew 5 or the 6th Crew selected. The mechanics were simple but engaging, and the use of player artefacts was fantastic for depicting the mess that had gone before. My character Charles Wong had defied his parents to be with his love, and the day after their marriage they boarded the ship for the colony. My wife, Ida, was selected for the 1st crew or Crew 0, meaning about 300 years separated them. Then I learnt that Ida had no records of missing him at all. Man, I had never been hit that hard by bleed as in this game. I remember very clearly getting excited about a scrap of information from a player artefact and then dejected when I realised it wasn’t from Ida. I had resigned myself to a mechanical, automated existence, and as I said at the epilogue if this didn’t break Charles, having to defend his wife’s corpse from cannibalism against the four other crew members would have.
It was extremely heavy, very engaging, wonderfully ran and entirely worth the experience. I say this as a player primarily of escapist or power fantasy type games. The use of video, handwritten notes, messages and other communications between games was great, and I could tell from my limited conversations with some other players that it was a different but equally rewarding game for them as well.
Prize Giving, Post-Con Drinks and Community
Prizing giving is one of those weird convention rituals, where I feel conflicted. I am fortunate enough to be considered for awards on occasion and am touched by the recognition. At the same time though, I see the same people coming up again and again, while others sit there and act almost like a rent a crowd for the cool kids. I’m not sure what Prize Giving adds to the convention, and I think it would be safe to say that there is a portion of people that do not enjoy it at all. The speeches about community, about giving to the group, and about how much people meant to each other walloped me at Post Con Drinks.
I’m reminded of a song by The Offspring – Have you Ever:
Have you ever
Been at some place
Recognising everybody’s face
Until you realised that there was no one that you knew
Now, I’m an adult. I understand that meeting people and making connections requires effort (Why It’s So Hard To Make Friends After University (And What To Do About It))), but when you talk about Pheno’s tagline as the ‘Friendliest’ convention in Australia, you set some pretty high expectations for community engagement. I would like to have been an active participant in the after con discussions, but (and understandably so) many people had friends they hadn’t seen, or significant others, or children, or simply had other people to talk to. The people that I did have a chat to for a limited time were old Cam mates.
I’ve been a member of several organisations in multiple different areas that stressed the importance of engagement with newcomers, and so I know what it takes and what it brings. There was no evidence of any active process or procedure to welcome new players into the culture. The only question I got asked after I inserted myself into my second conversation of the night was ‘would I run next year’.
Honestly, I think the community would be fantastic, but I’m an outsider looking in. And it kind of sucks. Most of all, because the community was and continues to receive platitudes about its strength, and it just rubs up against my experience of isolation when I was trying to engage.
And I’m confident that other people did not make it to the pub. As a solo registration, I saw a few people floating around in the games and picked a few conspicuous absences at the after con event. Most of the post-con social media traffic is the same people chatting to the same individuals. I get the feeling that Pheno works for a section of its audience as an experience, and then the rest of its audience as a service which is potentially overlooked.
Or maybe it’s just me.
I’m trained to engage with people, to ask questions and get their story. I’ve got experience in meeting people and discussing with them. I got re-engaged with roleplaying years ago through just rocking up to a club and being engaged in an active process from the members. But it just seems at post-convention catch ups, particularly like Pheno, I have a crap record.
Five played, most enjoyed the Lottery. Better than average overall.
Three played, most enjoyed Star Trek. Very good standard of games run.
Smooth, practical and deliberate organisation of the con. Well provided and well supported.
Design & System
Games were on average acceptable in mechanics and their implementation. The lottery was innovative in its simplicity and elegance, but it was one of a few cases of strong mechanical design. Most of the games tended towards the Pheno norm of systemless or GM fiat.
Seems like a strong point, if I could break in.
So I’m glad I’m delayed this post, cause reading the Facebook posts gushing with praise, love and enthusiasm, I feel like this post is going to shit all over that. I know that Post Larp Depression /Post-Con Depression is a thing (even if I’m a little concerned about using the term depression in a manner that might detract from clinical diagnosis), and I think that is contributing to my view, but it’s not the whole story. Pheno sells itself having an active community, and if you’re invited in by one of the members, then it appears to be so. But there seems to be little effort culturally to seek out and engage with newer members. I’ve seen this at other conventions and other organisations, and none of them could be described as healthy or growing.
I know I could contribute to Pheno. I think I’d like to.
I could be an organiser, help with running the convention or even on the committee. I’ve been a President, Vice President and Treasurer of a national roleplaying club previously, and as I understand the first to do all three.
I have experience writing, and running larps at conventions for large groups. I have done the same with tabletop games. I get system, and can run it in a non-obtrusive way that might go some way to countering the system aversion at Pheno.
I’ve got my baby, Dominus 6, that could be a large political larp, a smaller cross function freeform or a collection of tabletop games.
But I just don’t trust Pheno to do any of it. Yet.
I’d like to think that I’m overreacting, or that I missed something. Maybe you could let me know?
And if i was a betting person, I’d put some money on me going back next year.