Monday, September 2, 2013

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

Great Cthulhu watched over Gen Con. Waiting.
Saturday: Saturday was both the best day and the worst day of the convention for us. It was the best day because we got to see both the Doubleclicks and Five Year Mission perform live. It was the worst day because the day started with what was, by any measure, the worst role playing session we had at the convention.

On Saturday morning we went to attend what was to be our final role-playing session of the convention, which was a Steampunk oriented fantasy game using the Edara game system. Every part of this role-playing session was weak, from the game system, to the game mastering, to the adventure itself. This was not helped by having a group of relatively uninspired seeming players at the table - although whether this was because they were just inexperienced, bad roll-players, or simply worn out after the previous days of gaming was not entirely clear. No matter the specific cause, the general passivity of some of the players at the table didn't help.

The game system used the d12 system, a die choice that seems to have been made almost at random by the game designers. In many ways, the basic mechanic of the game seemed almost identical to the d20 system: Roll a die and add your bonuses to attempt to beat a target number, with the only difference being that in the Edara system you rolled a d12 instead of a d20. That part of the game was serviceable, although not particularly imaginative. The problem with the game system is that it was incredibly fiddly in the details. There were numerous damage types - slashing, piercing, crushing, ballistic, magic, toxic, elemental, and a couple of other damage types I'm probably forgetting. And every piece of equipment on your character sheet had how it interacted with these various damage types spelled out, so your armor might offer you protection against crushing damage, but not ballistic damage, or more protection against magic damage than slashing damage, and so on. Like most game systems that go into this kind of detail, most of this was more or less pointless detail obsession. But then every character also had all kinds of powers that had various circumstantial triggers. If you were in a particular combat stance, that affected your attacks, or your damage.  If you had a particular spell, it would affect your attacks or damage. If you were standing in a particular place, or in a particular way, that would affect your skills, or your attacks, or your damage. And so on. Every time a character attacked or was attacked, there seemed to be a dozen modifiers that needed to be checked to see if they applied. Every time. Because one might apply one modifier when they were standing on one foot, but not on the other.

Perhaps it was just a problem with how the character sheets were laid out, and if the various modifiers were made clearer on a better designed character sheet the game would have seemed less over detailed. But given the myriad of damage types, that seems unlikely. The character sheets did seem poorly designed though. Some of the character bonuses were factored in to other stat totals, and some were not, with almost no discernible pattern as to which were and which were not. The game seems to use cascading skills, where certain skills fall under broader skills, so your general knowledge skill would have one particular value and then any specializations would fall under that. But the way the character sheet was laid out, the general skill would be listed, with its attendant bonus, while the subskill would be listed underneath it with its own bonus. What was not clear (and which was not explained at the outset of the game session) was that when using the subskill one was supposed to add the bonus from the general skill and the bonus from the subskill to your die roll. And as a result, my character spent much of the game thinking his diplomacy bonus was +6, when in reality it was actually +10 (or something like that). As one might guess, this made a huge difference in how people played the game once this was clarified about two hours into the four hour game session.

When we arrived, we were told that characters in the game world were members of various color categorized "bands", ranging from black, to red, to white, and so on. We were told that these were important divisions between characters and that members of these orders worked together a lot and trusted one another and so on. Our GM had a red stripe painted on his face, which was supposed to emphasize the importance that these color coded groups had in the game world. And then we were told that we were working for a multi-color mercenary company and from that point on none of the color coding mattered at all except to the extent that being from different color backgrounds gave us different character abilities. Each character was drawn from a different color and we were all thrown into a melting pot of adventurers and told to work together. I played a "blue" elven warrior with magical powers, and Angela played a "green" mountain ogre barbarian with a bear companion. We were joined by a "black" half-orc assassin, a "red" gun mage, and a pirate, although I don't remember what color he was (it may have also been red).

The problem was that this explanation came after we had spent about forty-five minutes or so having the rules explained to us. And reexplained to us. And then reexplained again. Not because we didn't understand the rules, but rather because the GM for the session wanted to explain the game several times. I'm not sure why, and I'm not sure how he managed to leave out some rules wrinkles even though he explained the game to use at least three times. But he did. And in a four hour game session, spending the better part of the first hour explaining the rules over and over again seems like a poor use of time. At the time I recall thinking that there would never be a reason for me to actually get the game, since I can't think of anything I could do with the system that I couldn't already do with my d20 books. And after playing through the session, I am still of that opinion. In addition, attempting to build up your own game by talking about the things you dislike about other game systems is generally not the best marketing plan, and that seemed to be a large part of our GM's mission.

So we finally get our adventure going and it is a standard rescue the princess quest, with the tiny wrinkle that the princess was being held in a hospital that had been taken over by a rival mercenary company. So we head over the the hospital by airship, and land a bit off to sneak over to it. . .and the entire adventure bogs down. No one suggested a plan, and those that did were ignored. Eventually, after an extended period of inactivity and dithering, the assassin snuck to the hospital and climbed to the roof to assassinate the guards. Meanwhile, the gun mage engineer set about unlocking the back door we found, while Angela's ogre climbed to the roof to help out the assassin who had bitten off a bit more than she could chew. After more indecision, I got tired of waiting for others to agree with any plans, and so I just walked into the complex and acted like I belonged. I figured that I was playing a retired elven general, so I would act like I owned the place. This worked well enough for a while until we found an operation about to start on an unwilling patient and stormed in to kill the doctor and his guards. We freed the patient who told us about the basement, whereupon we trooped down the stairs, but not before noticing that all the patients in the cafeteria had died from chest explosions. We got to the basement and found the princess, who immediately died when we tried to heal her. Then her brother (who had originally hired us) summoned a demon and fled. We defeated the demon and went to return to our company headquarters. On the way, we were stopped by the head of our company who, with the prince and the patient we had freed, accused us of killing the princess, at which point we fought our way to the airship and fled. The adventure then ended.

Needless to say, this was a terrible resolution to a convention adventure. Angela asked the GM if there was any way to save the princess, to which he said no. This sort of no-win adventure annoys Angela no end, and while I think this sort of scenario is sometimes acceptable as part of a larger campaign, it is an awful way to try to introduce players to your game. A convention adventure should, ideally, be more or less self-contained, and not merely a set-up to send players on the run as outlaws for later sessions. I am highly unlikely to ever play another session of Edara, and one of the reasons for that is that this adventure ended so badly, and as our GM noted, this was the official adventure that will start the "official" Edara set of published adventures. I should probably mention that our GM is also the primary author of the Edara adventure modules. So, we had a fairly bland adventure involving wandering around a hospital shanking guards that culminated in our characters failing completely in an unchangeable pre-scripted event and then being chased off as outlaws. It was, in short, an unsatisfying end to an unsatisfying game experience, and a truly awful way to market a game.

Once the role-playing was done, the day got considerably better. In the afternoon we went to see the Doubleclicks perform, and they were fantastic. We were joined by our friend Alex, who we had introduced to the band earlier, and also by Savannah and P.J., who attended essentially on the strength of our recommendation alone. I have said this many times before, but the Doubleclicks are, in my opinion, one of the best nerd oriented bands out there. Scratch that, they are simply one of the best bands out there, nerd oriented or otherwise. Comprised of sisters Angela and Aubrey Weber, the band performs nerdy folk songs using cello, ukulele, guitar, and keyboard cat as accompaniment. They appeared in the Grand Ballroom at the Westin, and although this is quite a large room, the audience pretty much filled it up. Given their reaction, I think that this was one of the largest audiences that the band had ever played before to that point.

The bands that performed at Gen Con all seem to have been limited to one hour performances, so that they could then clear off the stage and let the next band set up for their performance. As a result, the Doubleclicks played what appeared to me to be a somewhat truncated version of their normal set. They did, however, hit all of their usual highlights, playing Oh! Mr. Darcy, Clever Girl, Impostor, The Guy Who Yelled Freebird, Nothing to Prove, and This Fantasy World as well as several of their other brilliant, witty, and incisive songs. Most of the audience joined in signing about the Worst Superpower Ever, and most of the following songs. As usual, Angela trolled Aubrey during Aubrey's performance of Something Else using the keyboard cat. On a side note, the ballroom didn't seem like a great venue for live music. Although it is big enough to hold a large crowd, it is a perfectly square room with poor acoustics. During the concert Angela remarked that they were playing without monitors, but that they didn't need them because of the echo reflecting off of the back of the room.

Sadly out of focus.
A couple of parents brought younger fans to the audience, which resulted in some interesting vignettes. A girl of about six or seven sat in front of us, and when we all let out a loud "RAAAWRRR!!" at the end of Clever Girl, her eyes got as big as saucers and she tried to hide under her seat. She pretty much did the same thing when we all tried to interfere with Angela's ability to sing during Spock Impersonator and joined Aubrey by letting out a loud "KHAAAANNN!" after the line "Oh, why did I come to this con?" The presence of younger attendees also led Angela to do a little self-censoring in performing the songs, but only a little. She didn't for example censor out calling Mr. Darcy an asshole in Oh! Mr. Darcy, or censor the scary parts of A Lullaby for Mr. Bear, but she did censor the references to "fucking nerds, with their fucking books, and their fucking dice" and reword them as "fracking" instead. After the concert, we went to meet the girls and check out their merchandise table. I already have my Doublecliques shirt, as well as all three of their released CDs, but they had something new that Angela had to get: DICE! They now have official Doubleclicks dice, three six siders, each replacing the "six" with a different graphic - a cello, a ukulele, and a velociraptor. So now we have the ability to say that we rolled a velociraptor for damage in an RPG. Savannah and P.J. loved the Doubleclicks, and Savannah quickly loaded up on everything they had on display. I love introducing new people to the band, and I am so happy that they had a full house for their show. By themselves, the Doublclicks made going to Gen Con worthwhile. They seem to be on a serious upward trajectory of success, and they deserve it.

After the Doubleclicks concert was over, it was time for dinner, so we shanghaied Savannah, P.J., and Alex and went to eat at the hotel restaurant, which had had its entire menu converted to dishes with fantasy themed names. While we were eating, Savannah pointed out that the turkey legs we were eating were probably emu, and we spotted a wild John Scalzi having a drink with some friends at the bar. Not wanting to be dicks, we didn't approach him and interrupt his dinner conversation, but I did do a fanboy double-take when I recognized him. Later, when Angela tweeted about it, she even got a response from Scalzi, which made her extraordinarily happy. I was also drafted by P.J. for some brute force roadie work, which is all I'm good for in such a context, as I have zero technical skills that would be applicable. Because Five Year Mission was playing in the same ballroom that the Doubleclicks had been in, after dinner we simply returned to where we had started. While we were waiting for the Five Year Mission concert, band fangirl and some time merchandise table guardian Stephanie showed up with her copy of Star Trek Catan, so we played a truncated game to pass the time. Angela and I were drafted yet again as roadies, this time by Savannah, so we could help move some chairs. Before too long, the time for the concert rolled around.

And then everything seemed to come apart at the seams when Five Year Mission's opening act took the stage. I don't know who booked Andy D to open up for Five Year Mission, but the choice was, in my opinion, terrible. Andy D was awful in just about every possible way it is to be awful. Imagine if Andrew Dice Clay decided to perform as a 1980s nostalgia rapper and remove all of the humor and class from Clay's usual performances, and you might have a picture in your mind of how terrible Andy D is on stage. Well, if you also have him be overweight, take off his shirt, wear a fanny pack, and cavort about "dancing" while he raps awful, allegedly "sexy", lyrics that amount to little more than bathroom humor that would be too juvenile for a seventh grader. Andy D's performance was, in a word, horrific. Angela and I, and a good chunk of the audience fled into the hallway after being assaulted by Andy D's crude, crass, unfunny, and unlistenable "music" and waited until his time on the stage was over. I was later told that some of Andy D's fans were offended that Five Year Mission's fans were so rude to their performer, and as a result, they left without listening to Five Year Mission. To this I can only say, "If you are a fan of a shitty act, you can't be upset if people think he's a shitty act, and by refusing to listen to a better act, the only person you are hurting is yourself." And Andy D is a shitty, shitty act.

But then Five Year Mission took the stage and things immediately got better. Just as I said about the Doubleclicks, by themselves, Five Year Mission made going to Gen Con worthwhile. Being able to see both bands made Gen Con excellent. Within the span of a single song, Five Year Mission had washed the stench of Andy D's performance away, and replaced it with nerdy Star Trek themed goodness. As with the Doubleclicks, the band had to play a somewhat truncated set, a limitation that was especially stringent because the Con's burlesque show was scheduled to follow them in the ballroom. Despite this limitation, and despite the lousy acoustics of the room, the band turned out a superb performance. They performed several of their popular songs, including Space Seed, The Corbomite Maneuver, and The Man Trap, and also previewed a number of songs from their upcoming Year 3 CD, including The Doomsday Machine and the hilariously funny I, Mudd. The boys figuratively doffed their Starfleet uniforms and took on their Klingon personas to perform Mike Rittenhouse's rap version of The Trouble With Tribbles. They also performed their birthday tribute Happy Birthday George Takei. The final song of their set was Amok Time, a performance done by special request and which culminated in Chris and Noah getting out their Lirpas and fighting to the death.

As an aside, while I was hauling chairs about before the performance, the band asked me to don a Gorm mask and wander about for part of the set, a request I happily agreed to. So, armed with a Gorm mask that was hot and almost impossible to see out of, I wandered the audience for a while. Being a Gorm is made easier by the fact that to play the part right, you only really have to move in slow motion, so my lack of vision wasn't that much of an impediment. I even got into a slow motion mock fight with a Kirk cosplayer that probably looked just as convincing as the fight that was filmed by William Shatner and the unknown costumed extra in Arena. Being unable to see did have some drawbacks, and to the girl on the dance floor that I accidentally smacked in the mouth while fighting Kirk, I can only say I'm sorry, I didn't see you there. At least it was a slow motion smack in the mouth.

Five Year Mission with Angela and Savannah
Once they were able to take the stage, Five Year Mission's performance was brilliant, although the ballroom's lousy acoustics made the room echo badly. The only real technical error that took place was the result of Five Year Mission projecting their videos during their performances, with the task of lining up the videos and getting them started apparently being handed to Andy Fark, who also does most of the talking between songs and, of course, plays the drums. As a result, several of the videos were not aligned with the music correctly, and they didn't really have the time or ability to correct this. I've seen a couple of Five Year Mission performances, and it seems to me that they need to have someone designated to do nothing but cue up the proper videos and get them started when the band begins performing the related songs. And by someone, I mean someone not in the band who isn't swamped with trying to play the drums and carry on witty banter to keep the audience entertained. The video miscues don't detract from their performances, because the music is more than enough to entertain people, but they are somewhat distracting. That said, if you aren't listening to Five Year Mission, what is wrong with you? They are, in my estimation, the best Star Trek oriented band there is, and one of my favorite bands period. If you are reading this blog, they will probably be one of your favorite bands as well.

After the band's superlative performance, they quickly broke down their equipment and vacated the stage. And with that, our organized events at Gen Con came to a close. All that remained was for us to wait until midnight, collect Kristine from GMing her last session of Edge of the Empire, and we could head back to our hotel room to collapse into sleep exhausted from three straight days of gaming and general nerdy fun. Except that when midnight rolled around, the fourth member of our group had gone missing, leaving only the cryptic text that he had somehow found his way to a dance. And that was the last we heard from him for the next hour or so. Apparently his phone had died, and he didn't receive our calls or texts and instead made a connection with a girl from somewhere in Indiana who was attending Gen Con. When Alex finally turned up, he regaled us with an extended version of the story of which almost none of which was actually important to his meeting the girl of his dreams, and which didn't make any of us feel particularly more well-disposed towards him at that particular time. A word to the wise: Never get between tired worn out gamers and sleep.

Sunday: Sunday was a very short day for us. We had packed most of our stuff up the night before, and after a round of early morning car Tetris, we checked out of the hotel and made one last run to the Convention Center. We were only able to stay for a short period of time, mostly just long enough to make a final cruise through the dealer's hall, because we had to drop Kristine off at the Indianapolis Airport and Alex off at the Louisville Airport later in the day before heading off to spend a few days with Angela's mother in Southern Indiana. As a tip for gamers from the Washington D.C. area intending to fly to Gen Con, flights to and from Louisville are apparently considerably cheaper than flights from Indianapolis, although you have to figure out how to get from Louisville to Indianapolis.

Due to the time constraints, we had just enough time to make one circuit around the dealer's hall, and we were mostly looking for a necklace of Angela. She wanted a d20 necklace without too much fussy bling and on a reasonably sturdy thong or chain. After passing by several jewelry booths that had necklaces with thongs that were deemed to flimsy, or too short, or which had too much extraneous detail, we found the perfect style of piece, quickly located a green one, and promptly bought it. We completed our run about the dealer's hall with Angela wearing her new jewelry, and wound up at the discounted games end of the hall, where I located a couple of d20 books that I did not think I had in my collection, and since they were on sale at a rate of "buy one get three free" we got those too. I wasn't even that annoyed when I got home and realized that two of the four books I had acquired were ones I already had. We even stopped off the get a mug of dice for Angela to fill out her collection, so now she has a whole bag of dice of her own.

And at that point, our time was up, and we had to leave. In retrospect, planning to leave the convention early Sunday morning was probably a mistake, as we missed out on some opportunities for gaming later in the day. Among other things, the Doubleclicks announced that they would play Smash Up with to lucky people on Sunday at noon, and we couldn't even enter the drawing because we knew we would be halfway to Louisville by then. Next year when we go, and we are planning on going next year, we will plan on staying all the way to the very end of the day on Sunday. With the exception of a couple of missteps and a couple of mixed experiences in game sessions, our Gen Con was fantastic. If you are a gamer and you haven't gone, you should try to go at least once. And my guess is, if you go once, you will be hooked, and you'll end up going back many more times.

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

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  1. Livin' the dream, honey. Livin' the dream...

    1. @Julia Rachel Barrett: So, will we see you at Gen Con next year?