Gencon

Man, the costume contest was intense this year*

Okay, here it is finally. Now that I’ve been able to catch up on sleep and unpack everything that happened, here’s my post about GenCon 2010. Let me preface this by saying that this is from my point of view, and I’m just some opinionated smartass with a ‘blog. I am, in no way, objective or unbiased and I implore you not to assume in any way that this is real journalism. If I miss stuff here, it’s because I missed stuff at GenCon, and I wasn’t going to pretend that I was a really real reporter with a fedora and a little card that read “press” in my hatband. So, keeping that in mind and without further ado, here’s my report!

Friday:
After a long and perilous ride from North Carolina to Indy, and a fitful night in a bed built for an eight year old girl at my man Zach Houghton’s place (yes, the Zach Houghton of RPGBlogII), I rolled into the convention center after a delicious breakfast at Patachou to get my press pass. The ladies in the press room were helpful and attentive, and after signing a whole bunch of paperwork I got my badge and I was off and running. Now, let me tell you, this was my first GenCon since ’08 when I was with Palladium. Back in ’08 the attendance seemed a little, I don’t know, anemic. Not this year, though. The dealer hall was packed. Packed I say! I heard that attendance was over 30,000 people, which is apparently a record for GenCon. I believe it, too.

Anyway, the dealer hall looked great. Seemed like everyone important was there. WotC seemed a bit subdued, with nothing major to release and a smaller booth than normal. Fantasy Flight’s booth was roughly eighteen square acres in the middle of the hall, where they had their retail part on one side of an aisle, and on the other was a huge game area where slaves smiling employees demoed FFG’s fine selection of board games all day. In the broiling heat. While chained to their tables. I sat in on a demo of Descent ran by my editor Sam, and it was hilariously awesome. It’s mainly this comic as a board game, which I whole-heartedly support. Privateer was hopping, their demo area is always packed since they’ve got great games. Instead of their steaming Iron Lich they had a giant monster out front in honor of Monsterpocalypse. Hopefully some day they’ll get back to the Iron Kingdoms RPG. That will be a great day. In all, the hall was great and there was tons to do and see save for one glaring exception, White Wolf.

White Wolf didn’t have a booth so much as they had a scene. Their tiny little corner tucked back by the heads was tarted up to look like the shabbier kind of New Orleans opium den. Supposedly this was in support of an upcoming product having to do with the Big Easy, but you could have fooled me since there wasn’t any product. Right, they didn’t have a single book for sale. Not one. They had a DJ though! And (shitty) beer! And a faux edgy, spooky ambiance that was ruined by the hall’s bright-ass lights and the neckbeards milling around in their utili-kilts breathing heavy on the gothy booth girls. Way to go, White Wolf. Seriously, I’ve seen better room sets in a LARP for crying out loud.

After lunch I sat on a panel with Sam discussing Rogue Trader, which was pretty cool. After that I met up with Matt Forbeck, who is a pretty cool guy and a great game writer. He was sitting on a panel called “Writing in the RPG Industry” and was joined by Bryan Tillman and his afro, Owen K.C. Stevens, and Jeff Tidball. Once the panel was over, I had to hurry to grab a snack and a coffee since I had a hot date to make. I’d been invited to the Ennies by the FFG guys! Now, I’d never been to the Ennies before, and I’ll admit that I’d heard some uncharitable things about them in the past. The ceremony itself was very nice, though. A guy came out on stage in nothing but a towel and did a riff on the Old Spice guy, which was hysterical. I have no idea how he fit his huge balls in that towel, I certainly wouldn’t have had the stones to do that, no matter how funny. There were some great celebrity presenters like Stan!, Margaret Weis, and Monte Cook (who looks about fifteen years old), and in all it was a fun night. The results of this year’s Ennie Awards have been discussed at length already, suffice it to say that Paizo swept with Pathfinder. However, many other very deserving games like Shadowrun, Diaspora, Eclipse Phase, and Victoriana won awards, and Fantasy Flight won silver for Fan Award for Best Publisher, so it wasn’t a total rout. 


Once the awards were all given out and there was sufficient milling around and congratulating everyone, Ross and Sam and I and a bunch of other great FFG writers and designers all decamped to Scotty’s Brew House for some late night burgers and beer. On the way, Ross asked me a seriously loaded question about what I’d do with Robotech if it were my property, and we got into this great discussion about high-concept, feral children, and giant robots. After a very nice time of talking games and drinking our faces off, we all split up and headed back to our respective hotels. I, having missed my ride back to Zach’s because he wanted to get home right after the Ennies, slept on the floor in an undisclosed location, but it was totally worth it.


Saturday
I got up surprisingly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for having slept on the floor, and made it to a pre-con meeting with Sam about some rewrites I have with time to spare. Saturday was busier than Friday of course, with the added greatness of the costume contest. Now, I’m not really what you’d call a fan of cosplay, but there were some great costumes there. A couple dressed as The Joker and Harley Quin (and she in a vinyl outfit), the requisite nubile young women in chainmail bikinis, a dude in a great Mad Max/Road Warrior costume, and a pair of siblings, both under four years old, who were rocking excellent Mario and Luigi costumes. My personal favorite, though, was a dude dressed as, I shit you not, the Duck Hunt dog. Seriously! My word is bond. He was coming down the elevator and as one part of my brain dismissed him for a goddamned furry, another more astute part said, “Wait a minute, what’s he got in his hand? A duck. A wood duck? Wait, two wood ducks? Hooooooooly shit!”  


So, yeah. Aside from the costumes, Saturday was more of the same. I spend the majority of the time talking games at booths with publishers, kissing hands and shaking babies and passing out business cards like crazy. I met some great people, like John Nguyen and Sean Callaway from Dream Pod 9. I didn’t get to make it to any panels, as my day was taken up with shmoozing and seeing old friends like Chris Perrin and Jim and Dianne Brown and Lonnie Langston. Speaking of Chris Perrin, his new awesome giant robot smash-em-up game Mecha is out and sold like crazy during GenCon. He and his partner Mark Reed even got a copy into the hands of Wil Wheaton, who seemed suitably impressed. You should ask Chris about that story, though. I don’t want to steal his thunder. I spent my meager dealer hall budget on a big pitcher of dice from the Chessex Booth, a copy of Cthulhu 101 by Ken Hite (which, by the way, won a well deserved Gold Ennie for Best RPG Related Product), and this here sticker for the Saturn.


Anyway, after a long day wherein I spent all my money and talked my voice out, I scooted back to Scotty’s with Jim, Dianne, Lonnie, and young Connor who was sporting an excellent Horton Hears Cthulhu t-shirt, which I will surely be getting for Katya. Now, Scotty’s seems like a typical meathead sports bar kind of place that I typically wouldn’t be caught dead in. During GenCon however, it’s a nerd-o-rama. They had a special GenCon menu and played nerdcore movies like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings on their huge flatscreen jumbotrons in the dining room. When we got there Saturday night, elements of the 501st Imperial Legion were there, with special appearances by Lord Vader and a sand person whose rifle was made out of an old Mosin-Nagant 91/30! We finally got sat after a long-ass wait listening to a frankly terrible wannabe nerdcore rap group singing awkward songs about D&D and Mega Man. Once inside, we were blessed with a showing of, and you’re not going to believe this Gentle Readers, Ice Pirates! I mean, holy crap Ice Pirates! I couldn’t have been happier. Finally, it was time to head back to Zach’s. I said goodbye to the Browns and Lonnie and his buddy, packed in the minivan and shipped back to Noblesville. 


Sunday
Welp, I don’t have a lot to say about Sunday. I got up and realized that I hadn’t slept in my own bed in 12 days and that I missed the hell out of The Wife and The Kid, so I decided to pack it in and head back to Detroit. After an incredibly surreal denouement to the story where I unexpectedly ran into John Nguyen from DP9 at a Panera in Noblesville and couldn’t string a coherent sentence together due to lack of sleep and want of coffee, I headed north out of Indiana and went home.


And that was that. In my opinion GenCon was a shattering success this year, both for GenCon, the publishers and merchants in the dealer hall, and for yours truly. It looked like everyone was having a blast, I got to meet a bunch of awesome people and make some further progress into the industry, and generally had a great time. I’d like to take the opportunity to thank the GenCon staff and volunteers for rolling out a pro convention this year and showing everyone a great time. Zach and Theresa Houghton for their hospitality at Chez Houghton. Michael Wolf from Stargazer’s World for putting up with me mentioning The War and being nerdy about the Fatherland. Matt Forbeck, John Nguyen, Jeff Tidball, Sean Callaway, and everyone else I met for being gracious and spending time talking to a stranger begging for work. And I’d especially like to thank the guys from Fantasy Flight for continuing to be awesome and showing me a good time like I was part of the team which, in all fairness, I guess I am. Thanks again, GenCon. I’ll see you next year.


*Image copyright Wizards of the Coast

Risk Assessment

I’ll take min/maxing for fifty, Trebek!

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat, I love it when bad shit happens to characters. Your character, my character, it doesn’t matter. When a cunning plan doesn’t survive first contact, when a die roll goes bad, when you role-play yourself into a corner, whenever something unfortunate happens in game it warms the cockles of my stainless-steel heart. Why? Because that threat, that jeopardy, it makes me tingle all over. In my opinion, a game that doesn’t punish as much as entertain, and doesn’t have an element of risk, isn’t much of a game at all.

Pretty bold statement, eh? See, now, your mileage may vary, but I like a game that’s hard. I like a game that, well, punishes bad or stupid behavior on the part of players and encourages them to think around corners either through setting (Iron Kingdoms) or rules (L5R), or both (Rogue Trader). It’s why I played EVE Online for so long, there were definite, expensive, often devastating  consequences for failure, and the risk entailed in throwing my multi-billion Isk ship into combat was exhilarating for just that reason. Now, I’m not talking about a system that’s hard for hard’s sake *coughRoleMastercough*, but a game that has built-in consequences. I like a game that makes a player stop and say, “You know what? Maybe we should talk/think our way out of this, ’cause shooting our way out isn’t going to go as well as we’d like.”

For example, combat in Shadowrun 3rd edition, at least the way we play it, is dangerous. Like, really dangerous. This is especially true in our Harn game, the middle-ages crime drama, where something as simple as a broken leg could have disastrous consequences for a character. See, with no magic and no really real medicine to speak of, a deep cut or a broken limb can kill a man in Harn. Granted, this is more a result of the setting than the rules, but my point stands. Brawling is perfectly acceptable, but if blades come out something has definitely gone wrong. Iron Kingdoms is the same way, right? Need a clerical healing? You better have a lot of money or a lot of luck because that cure light wounds spell will fill your body with ravenous maggots just as soon as it’ll heal you, and that’s awesome.

It’s why I don’t go for cinematic games. I like a game where damage goes through your armor, where you can’t dodge bullets, where you run out of ammo, and where a wrong step or a misplaced comment can ruin your night. My friends and I call this hilarity ensuing. I play games like this, I run my games like this, and I write my games like this. When I was writing Robotech, I kept trying to increase the lethality of the game, which of course was every bit as constructive as, well, something not very constructive. I wanted more damage output from my weapons, less damage capacity in my mechs and armor, more reason to use different kinds of munitions, and more threat. I realize that this runs counter to what a lot of people consider the spirit of Robotech, and honestly I didn’t care. I still don’t. Of course increasing jeopardy and forcing critical thinking was never going to fly in a system that was designed, essentially, to let a player win at RPGs. Oh well, c’est la vie, right?


I’ll finish with a story. When I was working on my first assignment for Rogue Trader, which was largely rules and game design, I had a long conversation with Sam about just this very thing. One rule I was writing hinged on the GM making a roll that directly affected the players and keeping the result secret from said players. Sam pitched me an alternate idea, which was easier on the players, then asked me, “So, from a game design point of view, which do you think is better?” I replied, “Mine. Things should always be hard for the players, and if they’re going to do X (where X is the rule that I still can’t talk about) they don’t get to know if something goes wrong until the wheels come off.” Sam laughed and said, “Awesome, do it.” and that rule ended up in the book largely untouched. That’s just the kind of bastard I am, I guess. When I’m a player, I ask for little mercy, and when I’m running or writing a game, I offer even less. So, you know, caveat ludius.

A Love Letter to the Iron Kingdoms, or, Why You Gotta Do Me Like That, Baby?

Hey Iron Kingdoms, it’s me Jason. How have you been? I know it’s been a while, but you’ve been on my mind lately. I was thinking about all the good times we had. Remember that? You were always so fun, so alive. I’ve seen your sisters Warmachine and Hordes around a lot lately, and I ran into your little brother Scrappers at the game store the other day, but none of them could really tell me how you were doing. I guess I just wanted to write to say I miss you. I miss what we had IK, can I still call you IK? I miss the fun and the adventure and your complicated personality. So I was wondering if we could, you know, get together sometime. Maybe have some coffee, catch up, nothing too serious. It’ll be just like old times…

So, let me tell you, gentle readers, that I’ve been preaching the gospel of the Iron Kingdoms for years now. For those of you who may not know about the Iron Kingdoms, and shame on you if you don’t, the IK is a setting created by Brian Snoddy and Matt Wilson and published by Privateer Press. Western Immoren, where the action takes place, is a high fantasy world that’s well into its industrial revolution and is about to plunge into World War I. Do I have your attention? No? Shall I tell you about the semi-sentient steam powered robots guided by a magical clockwork AI? Steam driven powered armor fielded by the crypto-Russian Khadorans that has just as good a chance of working as boiling its pilot alive? How about magic weapons that run on batteries, or the Bodger who has a class ability that lets the player squeeze a little more use out of a broken machine by whacking it with a wrench and cussing it?

That’s just a taste. Snoddy and Wilson took stale and played-out fantasy tropes, dying elves, dour dwarves alone in their mountain fastnesses, mighty dragons, fecund humans running rampant over the ancestral lands of the meta-human, and turned them right on their heads. Each culture, both human and meta-human, is a mash-up of different real life cultures (Khador is sort of Russia and northern, central and eastern Europe, Cygnar is sort of the UK, etc.) and filtered through a traditional fantasy RPG lens. Everything works differently in the Iron Kingdoms. Healing magic is uncommon, and just as liable to consume the healer in a fireball or fill their body with maggots as it is to heal someone (the gods frown upon healing magics), and traditional magical items are rare as hen’s teeth for the same reasons. There aren’t any gnomes or halflings or, God forbid, kender here. Instead they’re replaced by playable, civilized versions of goblins, ogres and trolls. Hell, dwarves don’t even commonly wear beards in this setting!

As for books, the Character Guide and the World Guide make up an 800 page opus of histories, calendars, peoples, gods, playable races and campaign hooks. The precious few expansions made for the game, like the Liber Mechanika and Five Fingers, expanded further on the already rich and fully realized setting laid out in the two main books. Each book is meticulously thought out, full of beautiful art and packed full of so much information that you can waste a week getting lost in the World Guide alone. All of this, the attention to detail, the messing around with traditional fantasy ideas, the steam powered robots, is what hooked me from the first time I read the Witchfire Trilogy.

Then, just as it was hitting its stride, the IK RPG was hung out to dry. I know that Warmachine and Hordes, tabletop wargames based in the IK setting, are essentially licenses to print money and I can understand them getting top billing.  I understand that there’s only so much money and so much time to go around, but, come on. Monsternomicon 2, the last published book for the IKRPG, was just a mess, and a sad note for a great game to go out on. IKRPG deserves better than that. I’d love to see Privateer Press reboot the Iron Kingdoms with their own game system (it was previously hitched to D20 3.5 which didn’t really suit it), and give it the support that it really deserves. So please Iron Kingdoms, I’m begging you, if you ever loved me you’ll go out with me again, just once, for old times sake.