Other Games Grand Tribunal 2018

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TLDR: "Grand" Tribunal Ars Magica Convention is far from Grand. Tiny, friendly convention offering far more than just Ars Magica. In terms of actual RPG gaming offers individual players a lot of bang for their buck. A hidden gem.

Grand tribunal is the official convention of the Ars Magica TTRPG. It has been running for 12 years in Cheltenham Spa.

All of this belies a slightly different picture. As Ars Magica - a magnificent game based around a highly detailed magic system and a quirky, fascinating world that grows out of it - has drifted into a backwater of popularity with a few highly vociferous supporters, this is actually a very, very small convention - possibly the smallest I attend - in a Community centre. I mean really small, less than thirty people I'd guess, dropping to 17 at one point during the weekend.

But this brings benefits and opportunities. It is massively welcoming and friendly. It's very accessible. There's a significant Norwegian attendance. It's no longer devoted solely to Ars Magica. There is at least one incredibly creative AM game offered in each game slot for the die hards, but other game systems are now offered. And though there are few games offered in each slot - 3 or 4 - the player experience is exactly the same as any other convention. Full tables of friendly creative players and experienced referees.

The convention is organised via personal contact, a mailing group and a massively informative and easy to use wiki-based web-site. Tickets are inexpensive. Cheltenham Spa has good transport links. Accommodation, whilst not the cheapest, is easy to find with a range of options.

The convention starts with an organised social meet-up, meal and optional board games on Friday night. I opt to arrive Saturday morning so that I only have to pay a single night's accomodation. The venue is a 20 minute walk from the rail station. There's a massive Tesco near the venue. You're advised to bring a packed lunch. So I arrived early, dropped in to Tesco, bought some supplies and whiled away my time in Costs coffee doing my RPGaDAY on my phone.

The first and last time I'd visited Grand Tribunal was in 2016. In 2017 it conflicted with my wedding anniversary - one of the very few things which trump RPG conventions. In 2016, the convention started with a bonding exercise where attendees got in a circle and held hands etc. Whilst this had a quirky appeal, thank god it didn't happen this time around. The convention started, as it always does, with a LARP/FreeForm game.

This is mandatory. All attendees are encouraged to take part. No other games are
scheduled for this slot. Clearly many attendees look forward to this game and come fully attired (or appropriately otherwise in the case of the wode-painted Briton). It is well planned and organised with roles distributed well in advance. I was a Georgian leather worker so my usual convention outfit of waistcoat and flat cap functioned as my outfit.

The story was creative, massively historically well researched, and based around the 17th Century spa developments in Cheltenham and proposals to dig a canal through nearby hills. This apparently disturbed the giant White Wyrm sleeping there which caused a rift in time. Cue the appearance of various medieval knights and wizards.

I was a local leatherworker concerned about the effect of developments on local businesses. I took full part. I poisoned the spas with tanning chemicals. Got the local Priest on side by promising to produce wrote erotic leather undies (his idea not mine). Became the bodyguard of a knight. Took part in the angry mob sacking the mayors office. Tried to be invited into the past where my superior leatherworking skills would earn me a fortune. Was banned. (Apparently blowing up the Mayor's office gets you a reputation.) Tried to redeem myself by betraying my firebrand cohort and trapping him in a fire he was setting at the local race course, got trapped myself and burnt to death. All in two hours.

Whilst I see the appeal of FreeForms, they're not for me and I've finally realised why. In a TTRPG, every player sees the whole story. It's just like watching a film or reading a book. In a FreeForm you're following your own storyline whilst others pursue theirs. No one sees the whole picture. It's more like real life. I like to know what's happening.

After the FreeForm the conventions officially started with introductions and a few words from myself and the other "special guest" Scott Dorward. Then there was a short, half hour, break for lunch. That's why you were advised to bring a packed lunch. There's a kitchen in the community centre and the organisers provide tea, coffee, doughnuts etc. Over lunch you have the option to order Fish and Chips for tea. Recommended.

There are two three hour game slots in the afternoon. The first slot had four games with allocation via limited presigns and numbers written on lolly pop sticks.

I finally got to run my Fireball XL5 game - though most players had never seen the series. (Apparently Norway never even got Thunderbirds. Criminal!) I had 6 players, and so had to co-opt an additional character in with the five "canon" crew of the XL5. He turned out to be a secret Space Fleet auditor reporting on the crew's performance. (I just LOVE the way my systems interact with player creativity to create unexpected storylines.)

The game was a blast. Huge, alien robot fleet heading to Earth with XL5 the "only ship in the sector". Chasing space criminals across space city in search of the only known sample of the mineral the robots were vulnerable to. Designing mechanisms to enhance the effect of that limited supply over a large area. A desperate race across space to acquire more. Battles with and inside robot battleships. A final climatic battle where a battered XL5 is forced to flee leaving their comrades aboard the captured robot battleship to be blown out of space. And the entire XL space fleet rising majestically through the rings of Saturn just in time. The option to have the cavalry ride over the hill had always been in my games but this is first time it's actually been used. And so very well.

I then played and was lucky enough to get into Scott Dorward's pulp Cthulhu game. I've never played in one of Scott's games. TBH I think I'd feel discomforted playing in some. He was offering "Lamposts in Bloom" at this convention. I think that one might mess with my mind - or I might undermine it by not brining the right attitude.

But Pulp Cthulhu is how Games of Cthulhu always seem to go when I run them, so it seemed worth a punt. And it was. The scenario was a simple "typical" Cthulhu scenario - scientist demonstrating his new wierd science machine at a cocktail party. Then the blizzard hits, you're all trapped and the buzzing starts......

But Scott, of course, know his stuff. Well prepared, good pregenerated characters. Starts off playing with simple elements but slowly sucks you into darker avenues. The "his head explodes" moment even caught me by surprise.

The system is "Basic Roleplaying" percentage based but seems to have fixed many of that system's problems. Characters who are "good" at stuff have 70-80% chances and you have the ability to push your luck or retry rolls with consequences. Fast moving, challenging and satisfying. It's easy to forget that this is a master Referee and expect it to be the standard all other convention referees should be held to.

After the second game, there is an hour's break for tea. Chips have arrived. I had to leave to check into my B&B but one of the organisers kindly gave me a lift so this didn't take long or cost me a taxi fare.

During the tea break was the bloody raffle. As usual there were more prizes than attendees. Some of them "quirky". The White Wyrm puppet from the FreeForm for example. Lots of European chocolate. As usual no-one had prepared for this and though they were told to draw the next ticket before choosing their prize, they chose to spend ages perusing the table and often forgotting to draw the nest ticket. Those of you who know me can probably guess that I was heckling. I'm here to PLAY.

After tea I ran my Blakes Seven game. Again I had six players. Jenna, Gan, Tarrant, Cally, Avon and Villa. Throw in Orac and Zen and it was really Blakes Eight. In the second most gonzo twist of the weekend, one of the players introduced a storyline which meant Jenna was really secretly Blake in disguise.

Because we had six players all chewing the scenery - especially Cally's player revelling in the character and playing her really (really) effectively, - the simple "vs criminals" prologue - where the characters discover the actual plot - expanded significantly, and could almost have formed the basis of the whole session. But eventually I got the players to Mars. I had to drop lots of elements but, fortunately, this group had a direct approach and teleported straight into the Mars corporation headquarters. Throw in rolls where I was forced to keep introducing new plot elements to mess with them and they were virtually chased into the final location to avoid the missiles of the invading Federation fleet. With an appropriate combination of all of their abilities (including a "camera cuts away" scene involving corpses and Cally's TK abilities) they accessed the ancient alien installation. Cue Travis and Servellan appearing to reveal their evil plot and gloat appropriately. Of course the characters' only hope of escape rested on activating the ancient alien machine. Which turned out to be a planetary FTL system. Moving Mars. Space 1999 on steroids.

Basically, they traded in Liberator for a whole flipping planet.

Local taxis were all busy so I opted for the walk to my B&B. Trying to follow google Maps at night meant this took half an hour but I was in my room by midnight. It had been a great day.

Sunday was timetabled to start at 9:00am. In the daylight the walk up only took 20 minutes I so arrived early. Apparently EVERYONE else knew the early start was just a ploy to encourage people to arrive before 10:00am so I had some waiting to do.

When 17 people had trickled in, we started 3 games. One of these was my standard Code of Warriors and Wizardry adventure. After we started playing, more people began trickling in. This, of course, causes issues for the organisers but everyone is very co-operative. Whether the airy fairy lassez faire attitude of some attendees is result of the convention's coping mechanisms or not is a discussion for another time. However, we all coped. For me, I had six players but one had to leave early and just made a character to pass over to a late comer. Eventually I was asked if I could take a seventh player, which I did.

So we had an Orc noble with a magic halberd, a Human hunter (with a secret tail), Krunk (a Conan clone), a goblin burglar with magnetic powers, a fire wizard and small smelly Troll with power over the elements of the earth. They here joined, eventually, by s pregenerated burglar.

The first battle on the slavers' was crazy. I'll admit I virtually lost track of what was going on, what with most of the group being in the water at some point and swapping opponents all over the place. Both the rudder and anchor were broken.

To solve this, one player introduced the most gonzo plot element of the weekend. An old Pirate turned up, riding on sea turtle using his long white beard as reins. The hunter tried to lasoo his turtle so he holed their ship before having a change of heart. He guided their longboats to the nearest island.

During the Beach battle with the goblin "Coastal Clan" my die rolling meant, again, that I was forced to bring in more plot elements to challenge the players so the "forest clan" joined the battle followed, shortly, by a giant gobs sea serpent. Another battle where I virtually lost control of all the twists and turns.

Eventually, the characters were called to testify at a conclave of the Clans. Of course they tried to disrupt this with unwarranted violence, incensing the goblins and the island's volcano God. I was able to chase them to the scene of the scenario' climax.

Another short lunch break - bring a packed lunch.

In the afternoon I played in a Sci fi game. We were a salvage crew shot down on our way to assess a failed colony world. This used an adapted version of Basic Role Playing. Unlike Pulp Cthulhu the previous day, however, this had all the old failings of that system. If you were "good" at something, you only had 40% of succeeding at it. So most of your shots missed. And even when they did hit, the opponent had a chance to dodge. And there was no way to push things influence the result. This slowed the game down. Which was a shame because the referee, though young and inexperienced, was massively enthusiastic and had created a great world of ancient technology perceived as Magic.

The convention closes at 4:00pm. Most people chip in to help clear the hall. Any left is them invited out for more socialising and an Italian meal, but I opted to talk to the station.

Viewed from the outside, Ars Magica might not seem worth taking a punt on, being so small. But if you view it from the player perspective, it's just the same as any other convention. 5 games (plus a FreeForm) over two days, all games with full tables of enthusiastic players. The only drawback is the limited range of choices. If you're looking to play specific or popular systems, you won't find them here. If you just want to roleplay at a well organised and friendly convention where everybody knows your name, it really delivers. A bit of a hidden gem.
 
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