Friday, August 31, 2012

GenCon 2011 Report Card

Hi all. What follows is my very candid and honest review of my experiences at GenCon. There may be things said that aren’t entirely flattering, and for that I am not sorry. I apologize if anyone is greatly bothered, but I will go ahead and speak my peace anyways. It is all said out of love for gaming, in the hopes that anyone who receives a harsh critique will take it to heart and be able to improve for next time. I welcome and encourage anyone playing in my games to please do the same. If you think I did a bad job, please tell me so I can do better next time. I will not however mention any names unless I have good things to say. I don’t want to embarrass anyone publicly by name.


GM Workshop
This was the first time I had ever run a seminar at GenCon, and I can say with no reservations, WOW, what a great experience. I do a lot of public speaking and quasi-educating as part of my job as an Engineer working for a networking company, so I am no stranger to presenting to crowds. This was different in many ways though than my usual experience, and I have to declare that I loved it. My intent was to create more of a Jam session of GM’s than anything else, with a single person (me in this case) acting as a sort of moderator and guide through the group discussions. I have attended many GM seminars at GenCon, and with only a single exception, they have been fantastic, but always a predominantly one way conversation. That’s not a slight against them, just a fact of the nature of that kind of session. So I set out to do something that involved a lot of back and forth between presenter and the group and amongst the group as well. I would bring up a topic, riff on it for a bit, then open the floor for discussion. When that would either start to drag, or tangent too much, I would rein it back in, and move to another topic. I had a broad outline, but tried to keep the conversation moving as organically as possible. If anyone reading this attended, I sincerely wish to thank you, and would love to see you again next year. I will most definitely be running something similar.
Grade: A+ (Yes, I am willing to concede that it is more than a little narcissistic to give your own event a high grade like that, but hell, I had a great time, and I think everyone else did as well, so there! :P)

This was another event that I “ran”. However, Fiasco is a GM-less game, so I acted as a player and facilitator to teach the game. We had a great time, in typical Fiasco fashion. We used the Dragon Slayers playset by Logan Bonner, and ended up with my evil necromancer being killed and resurrected several times, an orphan alcohol peddler being sold into slavery, finding out his adoptive mother was really his biological mother, and a couple of barbarians becoming “hooch moguls” cornering the market on cheap booze in all the tribal lands. Fun times had by all.
Grade: A

This event was interesting, and I have some mixed feelings. The scenario pitted us as characters who were gamers who had just played GURPS at GenCon. Upon returning to the Ram for dinner, all hell breaks loose: zombies, ogres, the damn Drizzt Statue coming to life, etc. In the end I ended up wielding a light saber plucked from the dead body of one of the Darth Vaders at the con, and cutting up zombie colt fans outside Victory Field.
The downside here is that the GM paced things very slow. There were times that really dragged, despite the scenario being very entertaining. I don’t think the person running this was a bad GM, not at all. They were competent in the system, told a decent story, and interacted well with the players. Just needed to work on pushing the game along and pacing.
Grade: B+ (If the pacing were better I would go A- or A. Very solid session overall)


This is the one game I wanted to play above all others at the con. However, there were none on the schedule, so I kept my ears open. When @DavetheGame from tweeted out that he was about to run a session, I regrettably ditched the session I had planned for that slot (My apologies to the GM of that game, for no-showing. I swung by later and it looks like a generic got in in my place, so that was good news for them) I headed over to Games on Demand for the session. To my dismay, I was the only one there besides Dave and Phil, the ChattyDM. Phil had to leave, and honestly, a 1 player leverage game, no matter how good a GM Dave is wasn’t exactly promising. So I went and hijacked some players in the hallway and put the hard sell on them. They bit, and joined us. What followed was an incredibly fun caper against a rip off artist trying to steal the collective moneys tied up in online poker games. We took him down, got him branded as a terrorist, and lived happily ever after. RPG-Win. Great fun, great players at the table, and a great GM.
Grade: A+

Alpha Omega
I ran a 4 hour session of AO which started shaky, but panned out OK. I had 1 player who was a handful, and I worried he was going to trash the game for the others. Fortunately, the other players were great, and rolled with it with an admirable sense of humor. In the end, they derailed the module’s plot, and decided to incite a slave rebellion. That worked for me, and seemed like a hell of a fun idea to go with, so I whipped up some mass combat rules, and we went along. Turned the very crunch heavy Alpha Omega into a more narrative game, but what the hell. As I like to say, if everyone’s having a good time, you are doing it right.
Grade: A- (Biased self-grading. I would love to hear what the players thought)


The Laundry
This session was my heartbreaker of the con. I am a huge fan of Charlie Stross’ Laundry Archives series, and was immensely looking forward to playing an RPG based on them. I’ve never been into the whole Cthulu mythos, but I love Charlie’s books, and this game would probably be my gateway into that genre (Albeit with a Laundry dark humor twist). A series of factors turned this potential fun into a *** endurance contest of pain and suffering. Here we go.
The room was so loud I could barely hear. 2 of the players insisted on not speaking above a very low tone, and had to lean into the GM just so he could hear them even though they were right next to him. The GM was so stingy with information and clues that we as a group more or less mindlessly stumbled around the adventure areas with no idea what we were doing, what we were looking for, or what to do if we found something. I refuse to believe that this adventure module was so poorly written, and have decided in my mind that the GM was out of his element or league, and had no real concept of how to pace a story, build a mood, or manage a table.
I bear no ill will to the GM, but he really needs to work on reading the table and pushing the story forward. It was boring, confusing, and aggravating. Unfortunately I have to classify this as one of the worst sessions of any game that I had played in. It’s not the lowest ranking, since the GM actually knew how to play the game, but it is pretty god awful in its own right. The GM has obviously run games before, I can tell, but I certainly wouldn’t want to take part in any more of his games.
As we began the final countdown, we apparently saved the world. No one had any idea why our actions did anything, but for some random reason we were in the right place and our actions saved the day. I have to call bullshit. The tragedy of all of this is that I _think_ I like the system, and am fairly sure I like the genre.
(edit: I have since conversed with the GM of the event, and he has let me know of some additional circumstances involved. As such I will revise my initial grading)

Grade: Initially an F-. Broken down as follows: GM: B, System & Theme: A, Module as Presented: F-
Notes on my revised review:
I have since conversed with the GM of this event in private, and reviewed the module that he was given to run for this event. Some modifications to my review are now in order. My overall grade concerning the experience must still stand, since regardless of mitigating circumstances, It was not enjoyable at all, and left me quite ready to drink heavily or some other ill advised activity. However, I will now revise my assessment of the GMing and the module itself. The module is not very well written, has some fairly sizable holes in the plot where clues are needed. In short, there isn't enough information doled out in the adventure for anyone but a precognitive psychic to actually solve the mystery, or even understand what the hell is happening for that matter. I cannot fault the GM for the writing in this case, since he did not write the module. Nor can I completely let him off the hook either, since as GM, responsibility for the way it is presented, and the quality of said presentation still rests on his shoulders. With that in mind, I have to complement him on the quality of the hand outs, the character sheets, and what came across as honest effort on his part to run the game. It just didn't click, and he certainly didn't have much ammo to fall back in terms of the module itself.

Presentation / Handouts: A
Story: F- (At times incoherent, and that's after I read the damn thing)
My previous statement of not being willing to play with this GM again is retracted. I honestly got a bad read from him at the con, and our correspondence since my review has been nothing but positive. The guy cares about running a good game, and took the criticism to heart, and as it was intended: honest, no holds barred feedback. I would expect no less from myself, and can expect no more from a GM I've never met before.

I did the puzzle run this year, and had all 1st run people, who hadn’t done this year’s yet, or people who had never done true dungeon. This is a great start. Nobody to spoil the puzzles because they want to go beat up the monster quick quick. Anyways, the puzzles were good. We solved all of them, and the final puzzle was figured out by the biggest “newbie” in the group. Great ending. I’m not that Into TD, and if I hadn’t had a first timer with me I wouldn’t have gone. Just can’t get all worked up about the tokens and all that. I do enjoy the puzzles though.
I have heard many people complaining about the dinner party room, and I guess I can see why they found it difficult. For some reason, I quickly came to the DISENCHANT conclusion, within a couple minutes. Not sure why, but aside from the random inspiration there, I can agree on difficulty level. An additional side note, that especially for the puzzle side, needing to have tokens to act is straight up bullshit to encourage purchase of packs of tokens.
Grade: A- (Could be an A, but TD doesn’t tickle my fancy that much. If you like TD, then you’d probably give an A)

Dungeons & Dragons Neverwinter Gameday
This was my first year acting as a judge for the RPGA. Given the sheer number of events, judges, and players it is a miracle that any gaming gets done. I suppose miracles happen, because I got my group and a table very quickly and set to work. This scenario had character creation as a part of the session. The first task was for each player to pull the character sheet out of the swag bag they received from WoTC for playing, and set to work making their PC. The first wrinkle showed here. 4 of the players at my table had never played 4e D&D before, 3 of those never played any D&D and 1 of those had never played an RPG, period. OK, no problem I thought. I’ve done this before.
So I look at the table and see that I’ve only got 2 rulebooks to have 6 people make characters with. Ugh. I’ll save you the details, but it took 2 hours to make the PCs, and that was with the other 2 players at the table helping me out with the newbies. By the end of it, 2 of the new guys looked pissed or bored, and one of them was sleeping I think. Not a good start. I suggested we take 5, grab drinks, freshen up, and come back ready to go.
I grabbed a coffee and tried to psyche myself up. I said, hey, if it sucks, I’m going out in a blaze of glory. So I came back to the table in MegaGM™ Mode, ready to kick ass and rock their worlds. To my absolutely delighted surprise, each and every one of the players responded to this and upped the game themselves. The dove into the characters, roleplaying right out of the gate. I was really getting excited now. We RP’ed the opening scene instead on me monologue-ing it, and they seemed to be into it. Rolling through the first combat, they rocked out like Fantasy Heroes should.  Next came the dreaded skill challenge. I don’t like to spell it out and make it seem like they are in official “skill challenge” mode so we continued with narration and role-play, with all the players still kicking serious ass in the role-play department. They succeeded in the challenge and moved to the big end guy fight with an advantage. Needless to say they hit that last encounter like a hurricane, and at one point the teenager who had never played an RPG before shouted “F*&^ video games, this is AWEsome!”. That’s the best compliment I have ever received as a GM.
When we finished, the players were very gracious and were helping me clean up, when along comes one of the marshals, and with very little tact, orders the players to leave because the room needed to be closed up. It was not yet midnight, and they were being really cool and helpful. I don’t care that it was his job to clear people out. You don’t do it like that. This is not what we’re all about people. His violation of Wheaton’s Law has earned him a spot on “The List” in my book.  Minus 100 internets to him, and a pox upon his house.
Grade: Could have been an F. Players turned it into an A (Biased self-grading. I would love to hear what the players thought)
 Side note: I have heard many complaints about RPGA GMs, and have had many bad experiences myself with them in the past. As a judge this year I made it my mission to ensure the players at my table had a great time. I think I accomplished that mission. To the judges out there that think that by being a super bad-ass that you are somehow running a great game, I say pull your head out of your ass. You are just being a jackass. A TPK doesn't make you a great GM. Sure it can happen, but bragging about it at a convention when it was a non competitive non tournament game as though it shows off your 'skills' is just sad. Shame on you.

It was a great convention with very little negative experiences. I met so many people from the twitter-verse and forums that I have been chatting woth all year. Hope to hear about all of your experiences as well!

Linus (aka Bob, aka @e4mafia)

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