Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Gen Con 2015

My oldest son and I just returned from Gen Con 2015 in Indianapolis. Overall, it was a really good time and a great experience. This was my third Gen Con as I attended in 2000 and in 2002, back when the event was still held in Milwaukee. It was his first con of any kind (as he was a baby back in 2002). Here’s the good and not-so-good of my time experiencing the “best for days in gaming”.

Goodman Games Con
I joked to my son that we should have called it Goodman Games Con, since we spent most of our time doing stuff with the Goodman Games folks. I bought something from their booth on day one, found myself back there on day two to pick up something I’d forgotten, and then returned on day four to make an impulse purchase. They were very free with the extra swag with each purchase, which my son really loved. Teenagers love Hugh the Barbarian buttons, apparently.

Just a sampling of the DCC extras
We attended the “What’s New with Goodman Games” seminar and enjoyed that experience as well. I’m not interested in everything that Goodman puts out, but I really love how big a fan Joseph Goodman seems to be of the old gaming industry luminaries. In addition to his own stuff, Joseph is working with Flying Buffalo to put out Grimtooth products, producing new Metamorphosis Alpha books with Jim Ward, and reprinting Judges Guild books. He seems to be doing all of this simply because he’s a fan of those works and would like to see them available again.

He even brought Colonel Lou Zocchi up and just let him regale the audience with silly jokes and nostalgia. I’m not sure that Lou knew exactly what Joseph wanted him to do up there, but he seemed to really enjoy the moment in the spotlight. I think that Joseph Goodman honestly just respects Zocchi and wanted to share him with the crowd. I might not be interested in everything that Goodman Games is doing, but I really respect them for doing it.

Live Games
One of the games I own that I’ve never been able to actually play is Torchbearer. I backed it on Kickstarter and I love the look and feel of the physical book, but it was always too different from D&D for me to really wrap my brain around it. At Gen Con, I got the opportunity to play the game with one of its designers, Thor Olavsrud. Man, was that ever a load of fun! Torchbearer handles the traps and exploration aspect of old-school D&D really well, getting the whole group involved. The combat system is a little odd, but I think I’d enjoy it if I could get a better handle on it. Plus, when I later dropped by the Burning Wheel booth to buy a supplement for the game, Thor introduced me to Luke Crane as “that guy I was telling you about who used the Celestial Music spell to take out two-thirds of the enemies.” Talk about a geeky moment for me.

I also steered the group over to Indie Press Revolution to try out one of the independent games they had on tap. Alas, the games I was familiar with were either full or 18+ (my son is not yet 18), so I had to basically pick a game at random. I overheard one of the guys say that the game Trash Planet was an OSR game and my brain decided that it thought we’d heard of it, so off we went.

Alas, that guy (and my brain) was wrong and Trash Planet was not an OSR-type game by any stretch. It was a super-indie rules light affair in which you play whatever random thing you can think of while trying to survive in a zany dystopian future full of junk. It’s basically Wall-E the roleplaying game. I played a safety-conscious janitor named Stan. My son played an intelligent Monkey Doctor named Dr. Eek. We were trying to gas up our ship at a partially ruined fueling station that was suspiciously void of people. 
Not Pictured: My Son's Character

If that sounds really neat to you, let me tell you that it was not as madcap fun in real life as it appears on paper. If, on the other hand, that sounds totally stupid, then I’m here to assure you that it was actually an okay time. I mean, it was kind of fun but a little confusing and a little too abstract to be really up my alley. The GM was the game’s author, a woman named Shoe…I think? Sorry, I looked everywhere online and couldn’t find her. She was very positive and accommodating and I have nothing bad to say about the experience. It’s not her fault that the Dungeon World game was cancelled. If she puts her game on RPGNow for a few bucks, I’ll buy it.

We also played in an Intro to D&D game put on by Baldman Games because my buddy has yet to play 5E. That event was my least favorite. The convention area was really loud, the other players were completely random, and I had no frame of reference or vested interest in the scenario presented. In other words, typical RPGA experience (now it’s called D&D Adventurers League or something, but whatever). It wasn’t terrible, but it really wasn’t worth the time or the generic tickets.

Finally, we managed to find a pickup game of Dungeon Crawl Classics after hours at the hotel where a bunch of the Goodman Games staff was all staying. I was feeling pretty tired by this point and would have probably just given up and gone back to the hotel, but my son really wanted to play DCC. Thank goodness for his motivation, because it was a really fun experience. It began when I called a phone number listed on a postcard I’d gotten from one of the Goodman Games staff to find out the secret gaming location. A cheesy dramatic voice (with background sound effects) informed us where to go and when. We showed up, feeling timid, and hung back for a bit before I caught the attention of artist Doug Kovaks.

Doug Kovaks strikes me as... kind of crazy. Seriously, you can tell he’s an artist just by spending a few moments talking to him. He’s sort of the Chaos to Joseph Goodman’s Law, if that makes any sense. I don’t know the man personally, but that’s my impression. In other words, a great guy to run a pickup game of DCC.

Doug welcomed us in to play, strong-armed Tim Callahan to be the actual Judge, and explained the premise behind the event. We were all playing teenagers who, while riding an amusement park ride based on an infamous 1980s fad product, found ourselves transported to a magical world of monsters and magic.

Sounds...familiar somehow.

Each of us was handed a bookmark-sized character sheet with random stats and a random starting occupation. Each occupation was a high school archetype like “jock”, “pyro kid”, or “adult chaperone.” As the adventure began, our characters found themselves standing in the presence of an impish little man (Doug held up a painted illustration who looked like a twisted version of suspiciously familiar character) who was there to hand out our totem magic items and assign our professions. I was a “shapemancer” and had a magic vest. Another guy was a “space marine” and the dude at the end of the table was a demon with a tongue attack and an ax that spit fireballs.

Behold! The greatest magic item known to mankind!
The Judge ran a partially impromptu adventure mostly from memory, while we did our utmost to defeat his various monsters and traps. Whenever someone died, he or she became a ghost who could try and influence dice rolls or potentially possess monsters or player characters. The player of the aforementioned demon saved my bacon when he possessed a 12-foot tall ape shaman that was trying to kill me. From that point onward, we had a giant monkey with a staff of power on our team.

Seriously, it was awesome.

There Were a LOT of People
Overall, we had the most fun whenever we were able to actually play a game, as opposed to wandering around trying to locate an event we’d signed up for or searching for a pickup game. Gen Con was really, really tiring. More tiring than I remember, although I am 13 years older than the last time I attended, so that might be part of it.

I read online that attendance has doubled since 2010. Back in 2002, there were almost 30,000 people at the con. This year, that number had climbed to over 61,000. That’s a LOT of people. The Exhibit Hall, where I would have loved to spend even more time, was an absolute madhouse of people. I feel like there were a few gems that I missed out on as a result of the sheer mass of crowds.

Gen Con has obviously grown a lot from its humble beginnings back in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Sadly, it’s probably outgrowing Indianapolis as well. I don’t envy the people who have to organize and run something this massive, but you could see the cracks in the system. Finding the various attached hotels was more confusing than it needed to be. The games library was very hard to get into. The dealer room could have been seriously expanded to make it less of a mob experience.

Getting a decent hotel was a lot harder than it should have been and the stupid Gen Con housing system cost me an unnecessary $50. I could go on.

Things Have Changed Since 2002
There were a lot more board games on display this year than I recall seeing in 2002. One of the big common purchases seemed to be XenoShyft: Onslaught, a game I’ve played and enjoyed. Settlers of Catan also had a very large presence. Even Jenga was happening in at least a few corners of the convention. These past few months, as my return to college and various summer activities have eaten up my free time, my gaming has been almost entirely of the board game variety. There are a lot of fun titles out there to be sure and Gen Con certainly reflected that.

The RPG market, on the other hand, has changed a lot. D20 was the big thing back in the day. Actually, for a while, it was the only thing. Now, it seems, everyone and their brother has just come out with a new fantasy heartbreaker or multi-genre system. The thing is, it was hard for me to get excited about buying any of them at Gen Con. Before I left for Indy, I did a bit of research on the Gen Con big releases. None of it grabbed me as something I needed to buy at the Con. Part of that is the fact that I’ve already got a half dozen RPGs on the back burner that I’ve never gotten to play, but even if I was interested in, say, Numenera, why in the world would I buy it for full price at Gen Con when I could get it from Amazon, with free two-day shipping, for $16 cheaper? I’m all for supporting the games, but that doesn’t make any kind of economic sense. Amazon and the growth of the internet in general has really changed the way products are distributed. Without a quality gaming store nearby, Gen Con used to be a good way to pick up hard to find gaming stuff. Not so much anymore.

Cosplay also seemed much more prevalent. At least, I don’t remember seeing nearly as many costumes in Milwaukee. The audience as a whole seemed less…geeky, I guess. With the success of things like Comic Con and the deluge of comic book movies in recent years, it’s pretty clear that big nerd conventions are way less fringe than they once were. If not mainstream, certainly more accepted. I was still a bit bemused by one huge poster that the city of Indianapolis hung on the street near the convention center. It showed a guy with a joystick in his hand, his face illuminated by a computer screen. In bold, white lettering it said “Welcome Gamers.”

Not completely mainstream yet.

The Gaming Bug
What Gen Con did accomplish, the thing the experience did best, was reviving my gaming bug. I got to play about a dozen different board games and RPGs in 3 ½ days. I’m now itching to wrap up a Pathfinder campaign that has been in limbo so that I can move on to Edge of the Empire, XCrawl, DCC, and, of course, Dwimmermount and ACKS.

I don’t think I’ll be going back to Gen Con anytime soon, but Gary Con and some of the other smaller cons might be worth checking out. I’ve also got vague plans of renting a cabin in the woods, turning off my cell phone, and inviting three or four close friends to a long weekend of nothing but gaming.

Overall, this trip to Indy was a neat experience to share with my (now DCC obsessed) son. I’m glad I went.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Finally, Gen Con Event Luck (Torchbearer RPG)

My oldest son and I are attending Gen Con together this year. It's pretty cool in that it will be the first time I've been in the United States during Gen Con in about 7 years. Without the Army to send me somewhere else during the big convention, I thought it might be neat to take my son. This will be my third Gen Con (I went in 2000 and 2002) and his first.

The first year that I went, I barely did anything but wander around the dealer room, bleary-eyed and overwhelmed. My second Gen Con was a little more successful as my friends and I played in the D&D Open Tournament that year. Unfortunately, that event took up most of our available gaming time.

This year, my goal was to sign up for a few different events that not only featured my favorite games, but also gave me a chance to game with some of the designers whose work I enjoy. I'm not a fan of gamer celebrities, but I do see the value in having the author of a module running his or her work for you right there at the table.

Alas, I underestimated how quickly this stuff would sell out. I was on the Gen Con site just as soon as the event registration opened up, but everything I wanted to do was gone way before my wishlist ever hit the queuing process.

Mutant Crawl Classics with Jim Wampler? GONE

Anything DCC from Goodman Games at all? GONE

Fortunately, thanks to some events that only recently became live on the site, I managed to snag tickets to an author-run game.

I've had Torchbearer sitting on my shelf ever since its Kickstarter campaign. I love the physical book, but I am NOT an indy RPG guy. Every time I read through the rules, I come away feeling like this game is very cool, but also way outside my wheelhouse.

A month or so ago, my son expressed similar feelings. Leafing through the book, he said to me "Dad, we really should figure out how to play this game. It just looks cool!"

Well, request granted, son. He and I are now signed up to play the Torchbearer RPG with the guy who came up with the concept and helped write it, Thor Olavsrud. If I can't learn the game under one of its co-authors, then I'm a lost cause.

Plus, I'm going to see if he'll sign my book.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Petty Gods Is Now A Real Thing

Yeah, I'm a bit late to the party here, compared to other bloggers. However, since I originally posted to complain about one of my two contributions not appearing in the temporary version of the book that Greg Gorgonmilk was putting together, I thought it only fair that I officially announce this:

Petty Gods in now a real thing that you can download (for free) from RPG Now. It's pretty gonzo, but chances are you can find a deity in here to inspire your D&D or D&D-like game.

At 378 pages for free? You pretty much can't go wrong.

As for highlights (beyond my own two submissions), I thought that the inclusion of the Barsoomian Gods was cool. It's presence reminded me of the Cthulian Mythos that appeared in the early printings of Deities and Demigods. Speaking of the mythos, the Petty God most likely to see use in my home games is the Yellow King. Whisper Will has a little cool flavor that could easily be dropped into most campaigns, with the occasional leashed dog showing up at crossroads to temp the superstitious.

On a less serious note, I'll give a nod to Yessir. I was a Soldier, after all. Many is the time I've grinned and bared my fate while carrying out some very stupid instructions.

Kids Dwimmermount Session 3.5: The Adventurers of Bael the Henchman

[Author’s Note: This is a recap of the very last session of the Dwimmermount Kids Campaign. As it occurred many months ago and is no longer fresh in my memory, I’m doing it from a slightly different perspective. ]

“See Ialgo safely back to Muntburg, Bael. Find a healer who can treat the centipede poison and then get him someplace he can rest until he recovers. Wait for us in town. We’ll return to you, hopefully with enough treasure to pay off your debts and then some. Don’t come looking for us.”

Those were the last things that the wizard told Bael before he left Dwimmermount. He’d done as instructed, finding welcome help in the form of Emelisse, a cleric of Tyche who agreed to tend to Ialgo’s wounds and give him a place to sleep until he recovered. Best of all (for Bael’s shrinking purse), Emelisse offered her help in exchange for nothing more than a few days manual labor and a promise of a future donation to the Church of Tyche.

As the days passed, Bael’s initial concern for his employers grew. After a week had passed and he’d still heard nothing from them, Bael became convinced that they were dead. Frustratingly, there was little he could do to help them. Ialgo was still bedridden from the centipede poison and, although he was showing steady improvement, there was no way he’d be in fighting shape for at least another week. Bael knew that Dwimmermount was too dangerous to enter alone and he didn’t have the money to hire anyone else to accompany him. No, if he was to find out what happened to his friends, he’d need someone skilled enough to survive the ancient fortress, but foolish enough to work for nothing more than the promise of potential wealth.

He’d need more adventurers.

Bael’s first thought was to try and ally with Typhon’s Fists, the group of zealots from Adamas that Zazik and Marcus had encountered in the Flask and Scroll tavern. The Fists, however, were also missing. Rumor had it they’d departed for Dwimmermount shortly after Bael and his companions. By all logic, they should have returned by now, and their absence didn’t bode well for their fate. On the other hand, Bael recalled that Fists’ leader, Jehan, seemed irked that others groups were interested in exploring Dwimmermount. Perhaps the Fists were just staying clear of Muntburg for the time being?

In the interim, Bael hung a few “Adventurers Wanted” notices and waited for Ialgo to recover. He spent his days practicing fencing skills with a spare short sword that Ialgo carried [Bael’s last adventure brought him up to 105 experience points, meaning that he became a 1st level fighter!] and his nights drinking away his last few coins at the Flask and Scroll. As Bael’s money dwindled, so did his hopes of ever seeing his fellow adventurers alive again.

* * *

It was the twelfth day, nearly two weeks after leaving Dwimmermount, and Ialgo was completely recovered. Along with his strength, the Balashan swordsman had also recovered both his bravado and his habit of constantly bragging. It wasn’t long before Bael began to silently wish for another hearty dose of centipede poison to slip into the man’s drink. Even worse, they’d had no luck finding any locals willing to brave the dangers of the Dwimmermount fortress. Muntberg, it seemed, was all out of adventurers.

Just after nightfall, Bael was out posting a brand new batch of help wanted notices when he heard heavy footsteps approaching. Turning, Bael had just enough time to catch a glimpse of a very large man charging towards him before something struck him hard in the head and knocked him prone. Stunned, Bael’s vision swirled as he stared up at the hulking brute that stood over him. The man stared back, almost passively, as if this was all just another boring night’s work.

“Telon sends greetings,” the brute growled.

Suddenly, Bael knew exactly what this was all about. Telon was a debt-collector who worked for some of the seedier criminals in Adamas. If he was involved, it meant that Bael’s gambing debts were catching up with him. Still, it was a good sign that Telon himself hadn’t come to collect.

“Friend,” Bael began, struggling to regain his feet, “if you’ll give me a moment to gather my things, perhaps we can clear up what is obviously a misunderstanding.”

The big man answered by slamming a monstrous fist into Bael’s stomach. Doubled over, Bael fell to his knees.

“No talking. I’m supposed to teach you a lesson.”

The sound of drawn steel interrupted whatever the big man planned to do next. Through bleary eyes, Bael saw a turbaned man dressed in black and gold. He looked like the advisor to some foreign king or prince. Beside the turbaned man, an olive-skinned warrior carefully hefted a curved sword.

“You,” the man in the turban said, pointing a long finger at the hired thug, “Why trouble this man? Can you not see he has no money? Flee, thief, or I shall summon the watch.”

The big man considered the two intruders for a moment and then, giving Bael a parting shove, turned and left.

As the swordsman sheathed his weapon, the other man helped Bael to his feet.

“Who are you?” Bael asked him, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to seem ungrateful. Thank you for your help, but who are?”

“I am Hasamanes of the court of the Great Tyrant Hab-Atet of the Kingdom of Kephtet. This is my guard and traveling companion, Amon’tosh of the Red Lands. We have come to your land, across the sea, seeking fortunes. We followed a star, actually, an astrological sign, that led us here to Muntburg.”

Bael smiled. Stooping, he picked up the crumpled notice off the ground and smoothed it out, turning it so that Hasamanes could plainly see the words “Adventurers Wanted” written there.

“Seeking fortunes, you say? What if I could point you towards a literal mountain filled with treasure?”

Monday, June 29, 2015

Celebrity Dungeon Masters?

I find something very unappealing about viewing tabletop gaming (or any hobby in general) as if it’s some kind of important cultural identity. I don’t personally find a lot of value in tying my personal worth to a niche hobby, even one that I greatly enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bothered by taking the game seriously. I’m a pretty obsessive RPG fan myself. I know more about the history of Dungeons & Dragons than any person really needs to know. My hobby is pervasive, going beyond the actual play of the game. I spend a lot of my limited free time tweaking rules, home-brewing game systems, or working on campaign ideas. I’ve got my own campaign world that has existed (mostly in my head) since my buddies and I first explored its lands some 20 years ago.

You know, just like you.

And that’s the thing. There are casual gamers, to be sure, but the most vocal gamers, the ones you’re bound to notice online, share an interest in RPGs like one could call, dare I say, geeky. They are not, however, worthy of celebrity.

These folks I’m talking are almost exclusively professional game designers, but I’m not really writing about people who are well-known just because they write the books that you and I are buying. No, the gamer celebrities have a certain cult of personality about them, an aura of sorts that springs up whenever some blogger is speculating on an upcoming project or recounting some recent con experience.

The inspiration for this post came when I stumbled on an old blog post about the “Greatest Dungeon Masters in the World”. One particularly famous DM was praised for creating his own worlds, his math and cartography skills, and for the fact that he actively plays the game.

So, he’s basically just like every decent DM I’ve ever met?

I’m not trying to disparage anyone here. I’m not knocking on this particular person, as I’m sure he truly is a good DM. However, I find the gushing torrent of flattery to be a real turn-off. Do we need celebrities in our hobby? Is being a good DM even quantifiable to the point that one could be “the best in the world”? I’d take that phrase as hyperbole if it didn’t show up all over my Google search.

This is all fueled by a few pseudo-celebrities that seem to take all this make believe as very serious business. These are the types to get bent out of shape about “gamer issues” and their “contributions to the culture.” Maybe I’m getting too old for this or something, but I’m not part of any cultural movement related to playing games. I use my hobby as an escape and a distraction. I’m not interested in electing a Homecoming King of the Nerds.

I DO have my own favorite designers. I used to really dig Monte Cook and feel that his spearheading of PDF gaming products was a great innovation (his design has gone in a direction that doesn’t interest me). I’m also a fan of Gary Gygax as the “father” of D&D and RPGs. Were Gary alive today, I’d love a chance to play at his table, not because I think he’s some kind of uber-DM or something, but for the sheer novelty and nostalgia of it.

But pretending that all this is more than just a silly game we like to play? Creating a hierarchy of cool kids in the gaming world based on their ability to churn out common-sense DMing advice and run D&D games on Youtube*?

That’s just not for me.

* Who wants to watch other people play RPGs? I AM getting old, but that sounds utterly boring)

Coming Soon...A Return to Dwimmermount

It’s amazing how time consuming college can be. I had more time when I was in the Army than I do now. Granted, I’m not in class the equivalent of a full workday, but the combination of homework, studying, and regular father-of-four family stuff is a flat-out exhausting.

Part of it was getting used to the change. Spring classes turned into Summer classes, which will soon give way to Fall classes. The schedule changes every few months, but I’m getting used to the feel and flow of balancing the workload. Weekends, surprisingly enough, are relatively free (as long as I keep as busy as possible during the week).

In an effort to get back into things, I’m making a concentrated focus on this blog. It’s mostly an echo chamber, I know, but I didn’t start it so I’d get famous or even any followers. The writing is the important thing. Giving myself a goal of at least a weekly post helps keep me organized and productive. Yes, I’m organized and productive with regards to my classes, but this writing is different. This writing is an escape from all that and good for my soul.

To that end, I’m also breathing life into the kids Dwimmermount Campaign. It won’t likely be on Wednesdays anymore, but I’ll probably still keep that name just for convenience. This is more “good for the soul” type stuff, as my Pathfinder campaign with the grownups (which I’ve not talked about here much) has stalled out as well. I’m hoping that running the one will rekindle the other.

Up next, I wrote a bit of a rant, just to get something on the blog again.

Due stay tuned (he said to no one).