Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Event - Gen Con, August 14th-18th, 2013: Wednesday and Thursday

So, after years of putting it off, I went to Gen Con for the first time last week, a convention that is billed as the best four days in gaming, and it more than lived up to expectations. The four days I and Angela were there were gloriously fun, delightfully geeky, and incredibly exhausting. Gen Con is a huge convention, even larger at this point than Dragon Con, so no one person will ever be able to experience it all. I can't do justice to the whole event, and I don't intend to try. This post is about my Gen Con experience, and for the most part, Angela's Gen Con experience, with a little bit of second hand knowledge thrown in after being gleaned from talking with friends who were also at the convention.

Five Year Mission
Wednesday: After driving for about nine hours from Virginia with our friend Alex in tow, we pulled into Indianapolis mid-afternoon. We dropped our stuff at our hotel and picked up our friend Kristine from Fanboy Comics at the airport. Then we headed to the convention center to hear Five Year Mission play a free concert for the Sun King Brewing Company who was having a tasting event outside. The band played a fantastic set, featuring all of their great songs from their Year 1 CD such as The Cage, The Corbomite Maneuver, their live-only shandy version of The Menagerie, Part Two, and several songs from their Year 2 CD such as Space Seed and The Squire of Gothos. The band also played a couple of their Trouble with Tribbles songs including Mike Rittenhouse's hilarious Klingon rap song,  as well as some new material that is slated to be released on their upcoming Year 3 CD including I, Mudd and The Doomsday Machine. The band once again showed me why they are my favorite Star Trek themed band, and one of the best sources of fantastic nerdy music this side of Jonathan Coulton and The Doubleclicks. We were also able to pick up our tickets at the will-call booth late on Wednesday, which I highly recommend as the line was not very long.

Thursday: Thursday was my most gaming heavy day. Actually, because Angela and I had the exact same schedule, it was our most gaming heavy day. The day started early, partially because we had a game session that was scheduled to start at nine, and partially because Kristine needed to be at the convention by eight to get her game session set up.

A side note about accommodations: The hotels next to the Indiana Convention Center are expensive. To save money, we booked a hotel about fifteen minutes away from the convention center and reserved a parking spot in a lot a little less than a half a mile walk from the convention center. This meant that we spent about half as much as we would have if we had booked a room in one of the designated convention hotels. I don't necessarily recommend this for everyone, but I did notice that we weren't the only Gen Con attendees at our hotel. If you do decide to book a hotel far enough away that you have to drive to and from the convention, I highly recommend reserving a parking spot in one of the nearby lots. We didn't reserve a spot on one of the days we were there, and parking was difficult to find and much more expensive. One drawback is that if you are with a group, the length of your day at the Con is largely dictated by the schedules of the other people. In our case, our schedule was essentially dictated by Kristine, whose schedule began every day at eight in the morning and ended at midnight.

Our first game of the convention was "Defenders of the Empire" a Victorian themed Steampunk adventure using the Ubiquity system, a rules-light dice pool role-playing game. Most of the pregenerated characters were historical or literary characters - our party included Professor Moriarty, Doctor Watson, Sebastian Moran, Aleister Crowley, and a robotic Richard Burton. I played Professor Bainbridge, a decidedly egotistical mad scientist with a penchant for naming his inventions after himself, and Angela played Emma Deerfield, a woman fed up with the restrictions placed on her by Victorian society who invented a potion that allowed her to transform into a hulking version of herself. The adventure had our group tracking down the mysterious disappearances of British ships in the Mediterranean near Sardinia. Our party lured the pirates out of hiding with a decoy merchant ship and then used the Banbridge submersible to fire the Bainbridge steam-powered torpedoes and cripple the pirates before Moran took to the deck armed with the Banbridge repeating speargun to fight off boarders. Burton, with his powerful robotic body powered by a Bainbridge battery, was able to smash his way through several pirates as well. Of all the adventures we played over the course of Gen Con, this one was probably the most fun in terms of the adventure, although the system was a little bit too light for our tastes. In addition, many of the pregenerated characters had conflicting personal goals, resulting in some party infighting, which is a style of play that Angela hates. Whether this was a result of the Ubiquity system itself, or simply the adventure set up wasn't clear, but it did detract a little bit from her enjoyment of the session.

For our second game, we played through the adventure "Fafnir's Treasure" using the Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok game system with the game's designer Andrew Valkauskas as the GM. Of all the games we played at Gen Con, both Angela and I agree that this was our favorite combination of a good adventure using a fun game system that was overseen by a good GM. The setting for the game is the worlds of Norse mythology during the twilight of the gods leading to Ragnarok and the game system itself is interesting in that it doesn't use dice in its mechanics, but rather resolves actions using Futhark runes drawn from each player's bag, which gives the game a very "Norse" feel. I played Jokull the runecaster and Angela played Sigyn the shield-maiden death dancer. Our group also included Fjori the skald and Vanadis the witch. After sailing in to an icy bay and finding a town seemingly overrun by strange forces, we ended up siding with the forces of Muspelheim (to the extent that it mattered in a single session game like this) and going on a quest for the Ring of the Nieblungs. The blend of a atmospheric setting supported by a perfectly attuned game system, a fun adventure, and a GM who was both good at running a session and knew the rules inside and out made for a great session. Of all the games that we played at Gen Con that I had not played before, Fate of the Norns is the one I am most likely to acquire and use to run a campaign.

At the end of the session Valkauskas also handed me a card for another project he is involved in called Biome Blox, which is currently in the Kickstarter phase of its development. The basic idea for Biome Blox is to create LEGO compatible blocks that gamers can use to build scenery for their game sessions. In addition to trees, waterfalls, arches, doors, and walls, the Biome Blox will have "cover" pieces to put over the tops of LEGO pieces and transform them into terrain usable with miniatures. As the owner of large piles of LEGO and LEGO compatible blocks, the idea of a modular set that would allow me to use my existing collection to augment my role-playing sessions is very enticing. I plan on contributing at least something to their Kickstarter so this project can get off the ground.

Our final session of the night was our only real misstep of the entire convention, and it was only a tiny one. The session was a fusion of 3.5e D&D and Call of Cthulhu. Although the game information provided said that it was suitable for people with no experience with the system, it required twentieth level D&D characters, which the players were expected to provide. To a certain extent, the misstep was our fault, Angela signed us up for the game and didn't realize that we were supposed to provide our own characters, and I didn't check to see that a link was provided in the session description where this was spelled out. On the other hand, I simply cannot see how one can bill a twentieth level game session as being suitable for beginners with no experience with the system. In any event, we showed up without characters, which would have been a problem except that one of the other players had created two characters for the session, and allowed Angela to play one of them - a twentieth level halfling rogue, which suited her perfectly. The DM had a pregenerated arcane archer that I could play, so we sat down and started. The party consisted of a fighter, a thaumaturge, a mystic theurge, Angela's rogue, my arcane archer, a monk, and two paladin/clerics who had been specifically created with fighting Cthulhu's minions in mind.

As we played, I was reminded just how awful the arcane archer prestige class is, and this particular character was poorly designed making him both a terrible spell-caster and an ineffective archer. Most of my time was spent firing arrows at enemies that usually missed, or if they hit did minimal damage, and because I was a sorcerer, looking through my rather unimpressive collection of low level spells and deciding casting one of them would be even less useful than firing Styrofoam arrows at enemies. Because we had an eight member party, my lack of punch didn't really hurt us much, but I did quickly redesign the character during our first game break, after which he was marginally more useful, although still hampered by the fact that the arcane archer prestige class is quite simply a terribly designed class.

I was also somewhat annoyed by the DM, who didn't tell anyone about how the Sanity mechanics worked in conjunction with the d20 system. We were given a sanity score based upon our Wisdom, and made periodic sanity checks through the session. But even though we had two characters who had spent a couple dozen skill points on occult knowledge about Cthulhu, and a couple of twentieth level spell casters, he didn't inform anyone that some spells could restore sanity until someone complained about their dropping sanity in the last half hour of the session. Unfortunately, early in the session, when we were confronted with an NPC who had gone insane, he told us that no magical help would do anything for this person, leading everyone to believe that sanity loss was irreversible. And then when he fessed up that some spells could restore sanity, he had to consult a DM at the neighboring table to figure out how the mechanics worked. This sort of disorganization is bad enough, but hiding the ball from the players by withholding information that characters would know (even if the players would not) until the players intone certain magic words is simply bad DMing.

Cthulhu showed up. We all went insane.
The world ended.
However, all was not lost, despite some sloppy DMing, mostly resulting from the DM having a spotty knowledge of the actual rules (and if you are going to DM a twentieth level D&D game well, your knowledge of the rules has to be rock solid and this DM's knowledge was far from that), because the adventure was somewhat interesting and the d20 system is robust enough to deliver a decent play experience even if the Dungeon Master isn't at the top of his game. In the end, Cthulhu was summoned to our world and we all were killed or went insane, which is about par for the course for this sort of game. For the most part, the other players at the table made the game good, as they all got into the adventure and were all very kind toward Angela as she struggled to play a high level game for the first time. Her entire previous experience with D&D had been a handful of low-level sessions, so making the leap to twentieth level play was quite a feat. After being a bit overwhelmed at first, Angela ended up having a great time and now insists that I must finish my campaign preparations and run a 3.5e D&D game for our home group.

Gen Con, August 14th-18th, 2013: Friday

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  1. Crap, I was at GenCon too! I forgot to see if any other bloggers were going D: Are you thinking of going next year??

  2. @Anya: We definitely are planning on going to Gen Con next year. We've already got a place to stay for the 2014 con.

    Right now we are getting ready for CapClave in DC.

  3. Sounds very fun. I'm jealous! Hey, my son fixed my computer so when I click on a blogger site it no longer freezes!

    1. @Julia Rachel Barrett: It was a lot of fun, and I haven't even got to the best part yet - on Friday we helped set a world record, and on Saturday we went to see both The Doubleclicks and Five Year Mission.

      Also, good to hear about your computer being fixed. Hope you drop by more often now!

  4. I want to go to GenCon next year, but I'm more of a boardgamer, not really into D&D or RPG. is there board gaming and euro-gaming there?

    1. There are 100-150 board game events starting every hour for 16 hours a day. There are entire enormous rooms dedicated to open board gaming, and groups littering the halls with board games on every available table, every bench, every floor space.

    2. @redhead: There are tons of board games at Gen Con. We played mostly RPGs, because Angela wanted to sample a lot of different games and we get to play board games a lot at home. But on Friday we participated in a huge Settlers of Catan game, and there were plenty of other organized board game events. And the dealer's hall was filled with board game companies demoing games. We played Star Trek Catan as a demo, and saw the new Firefly board game beings played as well.

    3. @JR: Exactly. If you like a particular form of gaming, it is probably going on at Gen Con, because Gen Con is huge. I think that the official attendance at this year's event topped 49,000, meaning that gamers of every possible stripe were there.

  5. If you liked FOTN, check out:

    1. Those look very cool. One of my favorite parts of the game was the fact that it used Futhark runes to resolve game play instead of dice. Thank you for pointing the Kickstarter out to me.