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.

No comments:

Post a Comment