Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Event - Gen Con, August 13th-17th, 2014: Wednesday and Thursday

The redhead and I both love gaming. Therefore, attending Gen Con every year is a priority for us. So we packed up our very new, very small car and made our way from Virginia to Indiana for the best four days in gaming. Well, actually, it is more like the best three days in gaming framed by two half-days on each end, but I'm not going to quibble. I have noted before that Gen Con is a huge convention, with over fifty thousand attendees and a large portion of the convention is conducted in role-playing or board game sessions involving small groups of six to eight people or so. As a result my experience is not even close to representative of what the event is like overall. The only thing I can say with confidence is that this was what the redhead and I were up to during Gen Con.

Wednesday: Because we were able to schedule the drive to Indianapolis to take place over two days, we arrived at the convention center mid-afternoon on Wednesday. Even though Gen Con doesn't officially start until Thursday, the quasi-official warm-up events have spilled over to Wednesday evening, mostly centered around the Sun King Brewery's annual geek themed beer, which was named "The Froth of Khan" this year. I didn't make it over to try the brew, but I have been reliably informed that it tasted like a smooth combination of coffee and beer. I'm not sure what to make of that, but that's all the information I have.

Sarah Donner
But what we were really on Georgia Street for was the music, and we were treated to performances by Sarah Donner and Five Year Mission, both of whom were amazing as usual. Sarah was up first and she delivered a great set that included The Rebuttal of Schrödinger's Cat, All My Guns, and With Pride. She also sang a very recently completed song about Settlers of Catan (and revealed that she is obsessed with getting the "Longest Road" achievement in every game she plays)  and a song that will appear on her upcoming album that will consist entirely of songs about cats. Donner's music is beautiful, her lyrics range from heartbreaking to comically nerdy, and her voice is angelic. Needless to say, her set was excellent and if you ever get a chance to see her perform, I recommend that you do so.

After Sarah's performance, Five Year Mission took the stage. I have said it before, and I'll say it again: Five Year Mission is, hands down, the best Star Trek themed band I've ever heard, and one of the best "nerd" bands of any kind. The band delivered an great first set that included (among other songs) The Naked Time, and the hilarious non-love ballad I, Mudd. The band took a break after their excellent first set, and then disaster struck, as Chris Spurgin was laid low by a recurring health issue that required him to be taken away in an ambulance. The rest of the band forged on despite being a man down, and with a little help from the audience, they were able to complete a second set. While the event was scary, the good thing is that Chris was thoroughly checked out and given a conditionally clean bill of health.

In addition to attending the two performances, the redhead and I picked up our badges and tickets at the will-call booth on Wednesday. Although the line looked intimidatingly long, it moved quite quickly and we were able to get everything we needed for the convention in relatively short order. If you are picking something up at the convention (as opposed to having it mailed to you) I suggest doing it on Wednesday, because it seems that the lines are shorter and move quicker.

  Thursday: As in 2013, Thursday was our most gaming heavy day. It was also our earliest day, starting at 8:00 AM, and our latest day as well, not ending until close to midnight. Because I have been gaming since about 1979, and the redhead has only been gaming for a couple of years, I let her pick most of our schedule for Gen Con, so that she can play all of the games she wants to play. Usually this works perfectly, but sometimes her lack of experience creates some modestly humorous situations, like our first game of the convention, an introductory session of the brand new 5th edition D&D system titled Defiance in Phlan. This was humorous because when she signed us up for the game, the redhead didn't realize what a big deal 5th edition is, and so she was slightly shocked by the volume of people waiting in line to get to the tables. After some mild confusion that included us having forgotten the characters we had made specifically for this session, the game got underway. Because Wizards of the Coast seem to have wanted to run as many players through this session as possible. the game only lasted for an hour, and as a result, the adventure more or less just dropped us into a scene and had us jump to combat pretty quickly. The redhead played a halfling rogue, and I played a tiefling sorcerer. The system seemed okay, more or less like going back to a slightly more fiddly version of 3rd edition D&D, although I did get to have demonic tentacles drag a thug to the pits of Hell, so there was that. On the whole, there was just enough time to get an itty bitty taste of the new system and not much more.

Our second game of the day was a Hero system based game titled The Resistance - Let's End This in which the players portrayed members of the human resistance against the magical invasion of the denizens of the faerie realm. Apparently, at some point in the past, the gates between our realm and the fairy realm had been opened and the denizens of fairy had invaded, taking over the world and imposing a regime of magic where humans were second-class citizens at best. The scenario we played out was apparently the third in a three part series of adventures, which made the game somewhat less than compelling. I understand the desire to create a series of adventures for role-playing sessions. After all, most role-playing games work best in a campaign format in which the players build upon their previous experiences from session to session. But the key is that the players have to be invested in the story arc, not the characters, and in a game session in a convention, many, if not most, of the players in the adventure won't have played in previous sessions in the adventure arc, and won't play in future ones. The result is that you have players who aren't emotionally invested in the outcome playing through a truncated part of a story, and in many cases, not caring as much as they would have if the adventure was self-contained into this one session.

The other problem with the game was the pregenerated characters provided for the session. There were eight players, and nine pregenerated characters, which seems reasonable at first. But then the GM suggested that the "linguist" character was the one that wouldn't be missed by the party and we should choose from the remainder. This, to me, is a warning sign. The GM had complete control over both the adventure and the pregenerated characters made for the adventure, so why would one character be not particularly well-suited for the scenario? After we got into the adventure, it became apparent that several of the characters were less than well-suited to the scenario, which made it somewhat frustrating to play. Even the characters, like mine, a Native American Shaman, who had a "critical" role to play in the climatic conflict of the session, were somewhat dull to play, as my role turned out to be to simply keep chanting a magical counter-chant to prevent the faerie queens (and king) from accessing magic while some of the other characters did the fun stuff. On the other hand, the redhead got to play a sneaky Egyptian spy who was good at stabbing things, so she had lots of fun things to do.

But the real problem with the session was a couple of the other players who simply had to have a micromanaged plan for every possible contingency. Granted, some planning is necessary, but in a game in which you only have four hours to play, spending more than an hour coming up with a plan for every single "what if" you can come up with seems to me to be a waste of valuable time. The only thing that allowed us to actually complete the adventure despite this self-inflicted delaying action is that (according to the GM) we apparently unraveled the mystery of what were were supposed to do quite swiftly - although to be honest, it seemed rather apparent to me from the outset that we were supposed to use the three magic daggers to kill the two faerie queens and one faerie king. In any event, we made our way to the inner sanctum of the faerie lords and surprised them mid-ritual at which point I chanted and the redhead stabbed, and along with the rest of the party we triumphed. This wasn't a great session, but despite the niggling problems, it was enjoyable.

The heroes are menaced by plant tentacles
on the International Space Station
Our final game session of the day was Manhunters, Inc., using the Ubiquity system produced by Exile Game Studio, a system we had played twice before at the 2013 Gen Con and enjoyed quite a bit. Although the Ubiquity system is normally used for pulpy adventure gaming in the vein of Doc Savage or Tarzan, the GM for this session had done some work to adapt the system for use for super-hero role-playing, and it worked marvelously. The players were a group of super powered humans organized by displaced alien law officer Lone Star to track down and bring to justice prisoners from a Galactic prison who had escaped to Earth. I played Lone Star, while the redhead played Titan, who was more or less Henry Pym in his Giant-Man incarnation with the serial numbers filed off. The group also included a speedster, a swashbuckler with a sword made of black meteorite iron, a guy with fire and ice powers, a character who was basically Plastic Man by another name, and a few other heroes.

The adventure itself was something of a space romp. The big news of the day was that the previously unknown (and manned) Voyager III space probe had returned and docked with the International Space Station. At the start of the session, Voyager III's lone crewman was flying back to Earth accompanied by two of the Space Station's crew when they were diverted from their original flight path to our location. Upon arrival, it turned out that they had been infected with some sort of alien virus that warped their minds and gave them all super-powers. As this was a super-hero adventure, we had to punch, slash, and shoot them into submission in a thrilling action sequence. Once the fracas had ended, there was nothing for us to do but fly Lone Star's spaceship up to the ISS and investigate. We quickly found more mutated humans with super-powers and bad attitudes, and once again we were in a fray. Eventually, we discovered the source of the infection - a giant pile of bacteria wandering around the cargo bay of the ISS dressed in most of a space suit. We had to figure out what to do with this ambulatory pile of goo, and our solution consisted of ejecting it out the air lock. Manhunters, Inc. was, in my opinion, the best role-playing session we had at this year's Gen Con with a fun self-contained story, lots of action, and enough mystery to break up the fighting.

Gen Con, August 13th-17th, 2014: Friday

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