Now for my review of Gen Con 2015. It’s been several years since I’ve been able to attend Gen Con and it may be many more until I do again. So with that in mind, I tried to play the heck out of it.
As usual hotel and plane arrangements went smoothly. I booked early on the hotel and managed to secure a nice room a few blocks away from the convention center.
Registering for events was a different story. The wish list system they implemented this year seemed like a good idea. I remember wrestling with laggy servers in the past as I tried to chase down different events before they got snatched up. So getting to submit my whole schedule at once seemed like a nice change.
For some of us (like myself) it was. I was around the 1000th person to submit and managed to get into almost all of my events. My wife, on the other hand, had a browser glitch and ended up being 90 seconds later on submitting her wishlist. This also made her 4000 slots further down the line. All of that is to be expected. However it also meant she got into none of the games she wanted to. Which given that Gen Con has roughly 10 times that number of people indicates there may have been a large portion of people left out in the cold by this, perhaps a majority.
In recent years we’ve attended a number of other conventions and these (much) smaller conventions have much fairer and balanced registration systems that help ensure that people get into at least some of the game that they want: by weighting the odds of getting into later games based on how many of the earlier choices succeeded for instance.
Anyway, this seems to be a major failing on the part of Gen Con.
As I mentioned I made my hotel reservations well in advance. As so often happens, my credit card number then got stolen. At least this time it happened prior to the convention and I was merely down a credit card. I can’t be sure it was hotel staff but it happened the day after their pre-charge.
Our flight was a red-eye which would leave me conscious enough to make a 10 AM game Thursday morning. In that it succeeded. I could have dealt without the delay out of Sacramento that erased our 2 hour layover in LAX. Luckily our connection was also delayed enough for us to get on board.
Spoiler: This wasn’t the last of my intra-Californian flight difficulties.
Our hotel turned out to be nice but we ended up with a double instead of a single. I got some extra sleep and then left my wife to sort out the mess after her nap.
The first game of the convention was an Urban Shadows game: Ravenstown. Urban Shadows is an Apocalypse World based game system that roughly models urban fantasy horror. I helped kickstart the game and was excited to see how it played. We had a little scare when people weren’t showing up by 10 AM. In the end we got 4 players. I’ll give a full review of the game later but for now I’ll just cover the session itself. Our MC did a great job guiding character creation and blending our ideas together into some initial trouble. Events escalated quickly as my Tainted character Eman (a Muslim woman who sold her soul to the devil to avoid trouble with Homeland Security), the Wizard Merlowe, and Keiron, a former art thief turned ghost, fought over a suitcase containing an evil artifact. The Corruption mechanic was really fun in a convention game setting, allowing a way to easily gain new moves. I think avoiding that “easy road” would also be fun in long-term game. Even though my demonic character ended up “losing” the struggle (if avoiding an encounter with a deadly mummy is a loss), I had a blast. My only regret was that our Dresdon-verse vampire did not manage to get involved more.
Next up was a game for another system I hope to review soon: the Trail of Cthulhu game, Pertaining to the Property on Hill Street. Using the GUMSHOE system which I’ve been enjoying in my irregular Night’s Black Agent’s game (more on that later) and applying it to the Cthulhu Mythos, this particular game revolved around a number of people all seeking the same person at a mysterious house on Hill Street. A house everyone agrees doesn’t exist. I arrived a touch late (i.e. with 3 minutes to spare) and caused one of the crashes to be booted (sorry man).
I took over the mysterious teenaged school girl, thus continuing my female character trend. I won’t give away too much but there was lots of cool weirdness, conflicting agendas, and interesting social challenges. The game was well run and flowed quickly. I spent much of the game hiding my identity (to avoid tough existential questions) and manipulating others to solve the mystery and save Francis Burnell. As a group we sort of succeeded in all of our goals. Francis, or at least his body, survived while his mind perished. Others got their scientific breakthroughs and cash. Most of them probably got killed in the next few years by the cult for trying to profit from the Mythos.
After that it was time to rush off to meet David Brookshaw and some friends. We did some playtesting of Mage: the Awakening 2nd Edition. David ran a great game despite having to improvise everything. We had a Cryptology running Acanthus Thearch, a Mastigos and former street kid Arrow, two mathematician Mages, and a sleepwalker psychic all set in a town David knew nothing about. We fought a mysterious force eating numbers which almost began to devour the neighborhood. Eventually after several hilarious failures we manipulated (magically of course) the potent spirit now possessing the math professor to fix the problem. As to the system, it seems interesting though I’d probably understand it better with sleep. Spell casting involves lots of factors: potency, reach, working out dice pool, paradox. I suspect this is due to making the game even more flexible. I hope the final product organizes that information well. A flow chart might help.
Finally I was supposed to play Spark: Clash of Beliefs but I skipped it. Running on less than 4 hours of sleep, I decided going back to the hotel was the better choice.
My wife spent her day catching up on sleep, working out the trouble with the room, touring the dealers’ hall, and searching in vain for wi-fi. She did demo Nefarious which she enjoyed. She said it was extremely well-balanced with almost everyone crossing the victory threshold in the same turn.
With a good night’s rest in our new single and a nice breakfast, it was time to play more games.
First up was TimeWatch: The Misery Trumpet, the second game this convention that I helped kickstart. Another GUMSHOE game (notice a trend here?) , TimeWatch covers time travel in all of its many forms. I’ll try to give a fuller review of the game next month but we will need to wait until the end of the year for the finished version to be released. The Misery Trumpet deals with parallel realities, a framework which was not well developed when the kickstarter ran. My wife was able to crash the game and played the one member of the group fully in on what was going on. My character was the sullen teenager of the group and I enjoyed being the one to impulsively cause trouble. Our GM was the developer Kevin Kulp who ran a great fast paced game. We faced off against evil parallels of ourselves, stopping an evil drug company draining the dreams from other worlds like ours. I found the stich mechanic fun, though it might be harder to use in online games.
Next my afternoon of seminars! I love seminars almost as much as playing games. There was a wide range to choose from and I think if I had similar event registration difficulties as my wife, I’d still have a lot of fun.
I attended Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff Live first. I’m a big fan of this podcast and Kenneth Hite in particular. It was a lot of fun being there. It will drop in several weeks so there wasn’t much I feel to add here, except that it reminded me of the upcoming Bubblegumshoe, the GUMSHOE system adapted to the teenage detective genre. It is apparently coming soon.
Then it was time for Starting a Podcast & Sticking With It! by UnderDiscussion. I took copious notes for the No Ordinary Obsession gang. The material was very good though perhaps a bit more technical than I was looking for. A key bit of advice was if you suffer podcast fade and the podcast dies, let it die and start over as if it was new. That’s with the caveat that if you think you can retain your old audience you might hew closer to the original. Also don’t be afraid to chuck bad episodes and keep to your schedule.
What’s Up with New World of Darkness? was next. I’m sure everyone who cares knows already but the new line will be Deviant: the ???. From the basic description it sounds awesome. David Brookshaw will be developing it and from his inspiration sources (Akira, Sense8, Orphan Black) I can tell I will love it. We also learned about the Slasher Chronicle for Hunter: the Vigil 2nd edition. Rose Bailey hinted that we’ll probably see VASCU in that. A Hedge book, a Requiem Guidebook, and a Night Horrors book for Beast round out the newly revealed books. We also got to see the manuscripts for Mage 2nd edition, Beast, Promethean 2nd edition, and World of Darkness 2nd edition. The next few months should be exciting.
Finally I wrapped up with Swords, Spies & Shoggoths: The Pelgrane Press Panel. Talk of course was dominated by the Dracula Dossier. Things are on track and Ken gushed about the beauty of the extras. I also learned about the upcoming Trail of Cthulhu tie in with the Delta Green kickstarter later this year: Fall of Delta Green. Fearful Symmetry was also mentioned which focuses on a group of cultists and their struggle for power and humanity. They also announced a Story Game Anthology, collecting a diverse collection from European developers; Robin Writes About Stuff, the Gumshoe Compedium, and Bubblegumshoe. There was also a lot of 13th age material announced but I’m afraid I didn’t pay much attention to that. I know there was a demon book and a class expansion book.
After dinner at Panera (a break finally and without the crowds due to a lack of alcohol), I attended a Wraith: the Oblivion 20th Anniversary edition game: Accidents Will Happen. I’ve always been intrigued by Wraith and jumped at the chance to help kickstart the new edition. My wife was able to crash again as well. We built our characters as we played, generating a group of loosely connected people who had the misfortune of dying in the same place together. It was loads of fun watching how we each dealt with escaping our cauls and came to grips with our new existence. We defeated a slaver and some of us joined the legions. Others began to work outside of the system as their distrust of authority drove them away. My one regret was that the shadow mechanic wasn’t as good as I hoped. Perhaps the cause was the noise of the game hall or the unfamiliarity of the players, but I didn’t feel like we pushed as hard as we could have. All in all a great game and I would have loved to watch the characters develop with time.
Other than the games I played with her, my wife played a 13th age game. She had fun with her mage but said it felt very much like D&D with perhaps more characterization.
I slept poorly Friday night as the caffeine that got me through Wraith kept me up long enough for a leg spasm to ruin my night. I eeked out a few hours of sleep, had breakfast and then it was on to first game of my final day.
I started with the other half of Spark, the first half ironically. Building Worlds focused on collaborative world building and adds another quiver to my arsenal in that regard. The developer moderated the session and together with our huge crowd of players, we developed Flowers for Byzantine. The empire crumbles as the Turks reach the gates but the real danger comes from red poisonous flowers that remove any uncertainty from those who ingest them. As absolutionist cults spawn and build walls throughout the city, the steady stream of fae tourists get stuck within the city. All of this creates a massive headache for the Office of Outlander Visitation and Zoning as they try to keep the empire together in a world were it isn’t clear who is more insane the government or the rest of the empire.
Then I finally had some time to visit the dealer’s hall. I made an effort to visit the Onyx Path booth but it took a couple of tries to find the person I was looking for. In the meantime I bought a signed copy of Fear Itself from the Pelgrane Press booth as well as a nice fold-able whiteboard. At the Indie Press booths I got my hands on Dread, Spark and Our Last Best Hope. Then I chatted with David Brookshaw before realizing I forgot to meet up with my wife. After that apology, we looked at tables at Geek Chic together. We seem to be close to deciding on a table.
Next Gen Con I need to allocate more time to visiting the dealer’s hall.
After that it was time for some action. I played the Night’s Black Agents game The Slayer Elite. As I mentioned above this is another GUMSHOE game, this time with ex-spies verses vampires. I’ll review the full system soon but for now I’ll just let you know that can’t survive this particular story.
Spoilers: We were warned it was a meat grinder but despite some tense moments we actually made it to the end. It’s really three linked adventures: infiltrating a military supply depot, breaking up a deal between the Russians and MI6, and a suicidal infiltration of the Circus (MI6’s HQ). The first job went well with only a few explosions and gunshots. The second one we outsmarted the GM with knockout gas and cunning plans. We gradually encountered vampiric weirdness but ignored it. Our GM took it easy on us at the end as we were the first group to make it that far. So we escaped the Circus and personally were congratulated by our mysterious Romanian employer.
Then time for one last game after dinner. Headspace struck me as an odd and unfamiliar Apocalypse World game and I planned to play it. But instead I chose to play with some old friends instead.
We chose to play Fate and collaborated on an exciting setting: an impending apocalypse due to the awakening of the internet in the cybernetic filled year 20XX. Our heroic bloggers uncovered the horrific truth, faced off against a cyber zombie and hostile skeet shooter robot, delivering footage of decaying celebrity corpses to the world at large. It was hilarious and awesome at the same time. Or maybe that was the sleep deprivation speaking.
Other than the games she played with me, my wife occupied herself playing The Sprawl. It is another game I helped kickstart which uses the Apocalypse World system focusing on cyberpunk corporate espionage. She enjoyed the game a great deal and I’m happy to hear that the new version isn’t too complicated.
She also played a board game called Concept which she also enjoyed despite over-booking of players.
We had to leave early on Sunday to get back to our 1-year old and daily lives. Unfortunately the best flight available still left us with a 6 hour layover. It went smoothly though except for another hour long delay between LAX and Sacramento. Let that be a lesson to me: avoid Delta within California.
So in conclusion it was a great Gen Con. There was a ton of games and seminars to attend and that’s without mining the vastness of the dealers hall or any of the other entertainment options.
I’d also recommend our hotel (the Fairfield) to anyone planning on attending in the future. Expect no wi-fi outside the hotel however as thousands of attendees swamp the systems.
So I leave you with a picture of our swag: