Thursday, August 29, 2013

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

Exterminate! Exterminate!
Friday: During our time at Gen Con, Angela and I participated in five RPG events, and after the first two excellent sessions on Thursday, I was looking forward to more great gaming. The let down of the somewhat mediocre experience of the Thursday night game dampened my spirits a bit, but since it was overall a reasonably solid game, only a bit. Unfortunately, Thursday morning turned out to be the high point for role-playing sessions for the two of us. Turning to Friday morning, we were scheduled to play in another session using the Ubiquity system. This time, instead of Victorian Steampunk literary characters, we were a 1920's Hollywood movie crew in the Belgian Congo there to film a movie, clearly intended to be an Indiana Jones type adventure mixed in with a little bit of King Kong sensibility. The problem with this game wasn't the system - the Ubiquity system is a perfectly serviceable, albeit extremely rules-light RPG system - but rather that the GM didn't know the time period or the place very well. And when you are using a rules-light system, the setting and the story become the most important elements of the game, because the mechanics don't offer much to hold the interest of a group of players.

The first problem occurred when someone asked the GM what year the game was set in, and he hemmed and hawed for a second and announced that it was 1927. There is nothing wrong with setting a game in 1927 per se, but if you are running a game focused on Hollywood actors and directors and you don't realize that this was the year that The Jazz Singer, the first major theatrical talking movie was released, then you're missing an opportunity to give the characters in the game some personal motivations. If you also decide to have the main villains in your 1927 adventure be Nazis when Hitler didn't rise to power until 1933, anyone with any knowledge of history is going to be jarred out of their ability to suspend disbelief. The other problem with the session is that the group had no real defined goal. My character was a Belgian expatriate living in the Congo and working as a jungle guide while secretly serving as an agent for Belgian intelligence. Supposedly I was on a mission to find the legendary spider temple and prevent it from falling into the hands of the Germans, but we more or less stumbled across both the temple and the Germans without doing much of anything, and then no one else really cared very much about the Nazi's in King Leopold's domains.

And this brings us to the other of the failings of the GM - the game was set in the Belgian Congo, but he didn't know much of anything about Belgian colonialism, Belgium's odd and unique relationship with the Belgian Congo, or, most grievously, Tintin. One of the rules of the Ubiquity system is that characters are given "style points" for doing things that are "in character" for them. My character was supposed to name his whip to get a style point, and I took this as a quirk that meant he should name other possessions that he valued. Given the oddity of having the game set in 1927, I mentally moved the game to roughly 1936 and began making Tintin references, since Tintin was such a huge influence on Belgian popular culture of the era. But the GM knew absolutely nothing about Tintin, so naming my whip Captain Haddock and naming a machine gun I acquired later Professor Calculus essentially fell on deaf ears.

We eventually ended up in a huge melee against a small squad of Germans in the bowels of the spider temple as pony-sized spiders hatched and feasted upon tied up natives. And at this point all of the various competing character objectives came into play, as our party members betrayed one another while dodging German submachine gun fire. And this internecine element really ruined the game for Angela, especially when the GM revealed that all of the goals she had had her character working towards through the entire session were based upon a lie, and all her effort was essentially wasted. While we got to shoot a bunch of Germans and giant spiders and drive away in a truck while the temple exploded, the weak GMing coupled with the somewhat forced player versus player struggles made the adventure simply unsatisfying.

The UnderGopher
After lunch the day got better, but that was because instead of participating in another RPG session we were scheduled to attend a panel titled "So You Want to Start a Podcast" featuring the members of the RPG oriented podcast Under Discussion. Dustin (also known as 8one6) and Brady (also known as WDR), who are the two regular hosts of the podcast, did most of the talking, and gave lots of useful advice for aspiring podcasters running the gamut of topics including tips on how to plan and organize your podcast, how many regular hosts to have, what kinds of recording equipment and editing software to use (and why it is probably a good idea to use relatively inexpensive options at first), how to choose and focus your content to appeal to an audience, and even some tips on how to edit your episodes once you have recorded them. Because we've been considering starting a podcast (and after listening to the panel, we realized that we really need to start two podcasts to do what we want), Angela and I took copious notes, and if we do get a podcast (or two) of our own off the ground we will owe the UnderGopher crew a very big, colossal thank you.

Of course, the panel would not have been interesting and enjoyable if Derek and Brady had not been funny and engaging when they presented their material, and much of the content was delivered in the form of humorous anecdotes from their own missteps in the development and production life of Under Discussion. There is a reason why they have recorded more than one hundred and thirty episodes of their podcast when most podcasts have a lifespan of less than four, and in part this is because they are hilarious both on their show and in person. I have to admit that prior to attending this panel at Gen Con, not only had I never listened to a single episode of Under Discussion, I had no idea who either Derek of Brady were. During the panel, Angela realized that she followed Derek on Twitter and had had conversations with him via that medium, meaning that for one brief, shining moment, she was a more well-informed RPG gamer than I was. Since returning from Gen Con, I have been busy rectifying my ignorance and listening to hours and hours of Under Discussion. You can find the complete set of Under Discussion episodes on their website UnderGopher, and you can follow Dustin on twitter under the name 8one6, and Kevin on twitter under the name Hooligan.

Setting up for the Big Game.
After sucking in as much information as we could from the Under Discussion panel, Angela and I went to our final event of the day, which was also the largest event we participated in at Gen Con: The Big Game. Mayfair Games, the publisher of Settler of Catan, decided that they wanted to try to set a world record for the most people playing a single board game. And this event was that attempt. Mayfair Games had a thousand people scheduled to participate in the event, and we were all going to play one giant game of Settlers of Catan. Well, a slightly modified version of the game anyway. All of the players were seated on either side of long tables, with map boards in between us that overlapped and formed one long continuous board. Each pair of players facing one another shared a single island, with a small sea of water in between "your" island and the islands of your neighbors to the left and right. Every player had their own set of wood pieces that included settlements, cities, roads, and ships plus their own set of resource and development cards, and each pair of players facing one another played "head to head" for purposes such as the "Longest Road" and "Largest Army" achievements. Play went back and forth between each air of players, so essentially every other turn was your turn. You could trade resources with the player across the table, and the players at the boards immediately to your left and right. We all had predetermined starting positions, and every player in the room used the same die rolls on each turn, which were projected on a pair of large screens.

The board is set up and ready to play.
Other than that, the game was pretty much like any other game of Settlers of Catan in which you are playing in a room with nine hundred and twenty-two other players and are overseen by a collection of employees of Mayfair Games and a representative from the Guinness Book of World Records. Neither Angela or I won the game, although we did both win our "head to head" matches. The official score required for winning was 25 points, and when that happened I was sitting on 16 points and Angela was at 17, and most of the players near us were in that range of scores. After the game we were able to keep the wood pieces we used, and since the pieces were all in nonstandard colors for Catan pieces, this was a nice gift. We ended up with a set of black pieces and a set of dark green pieces. We also got to keep the cards we used in our games, and the map boards we played on. The Mayfair Games people made sure everyone was taken care of and gave duplicate map boards to all of the "losing" players so no one walked away without a cool souvenir of the experience. The event was a lot of fun and we were told that the Guinness representative confirmed that the game qualified for, and set the world record.

Angela and Savannah playing Star Trek Catan. Also, me.
After the Big Game, we met up with Savannah and were soon sitting on the floor of the lobby of the Indiana Convention Center eating hot wings and playing Cards Against Humanity with her and a number of other people, including three members of Five Year Mission (specifically, P.J., Chris, and Mike). In addition to the obvious opportunities to participate in organized convention activities, one of the great things about Gen Con is that with so many gamers in attendance, there are lots of opportunities to play pick up games with people you don't get to see very often. Because we scheduled organized events for most of every day, we didn't play very many informal games, although we did manage to knock out a round of Forbidden Island and play Star Trek Catan a couple times during the course of the Con in addition to our extended Friday night Cards Against Humanity round. Our friend Alex, on the other hand, was mostly at Gen Con to play pick up games, and even spent one day walking around the Con lugging about a bulky container full of Malifaux miniatures hoping he'd run into someone else who happened to bring his box of miniatures and they'd be able to find a place to set up and have a game. Needless to say, we gave him a little bit of ribbing for this level of wild optimism.

In any event, during our group's enjoyment of Cards Against Humanity we were approached by someone promoting their Kickstarter in a manner that I would hold up as an example of how not to promote your project. First off, he decided to interrupt a group of people in the middle of playing a game. It is never a good idea to promote your product by jumping in the middle of a group of people who are having fun and going into a marketing spiel. We were playing a game. Interrupting us was not a good way to get us to look upon you favorably. Second, his game was intended to be a replacement game for Cards Against Humanity, and to encourage everyone to support his project, he started by telling us how much he liked Cards Against Humanity but then went on to tell us everything he through was wrong with the game. But we had chosen to play this game. Telling us everything you think is wrong with the game that we were in the middle of playing and enjoying is also not a good way to get people to be well-disposed towards your ambitions. Third, he droned on for far longer than he needed to, repeating himself a couple times, and covering every single detail of his new game design. A thirty second sales pitch probably would have been acceptable. Five or ten minutes is inordinately long. Needless to say, I have no intention of supporting his Kickstarter, or even telling anyone what it is. But if you are reading this and happen to have a brilliant game idea that you are trying to get people to support, consider this as a case study in exactly the wrong way to go about that.

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

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