Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Gen Con 2014 Report Card

Gen Con has come and gone. Once again, I find myself sitting down to collect my thoughts on what when down over the course of "The Best 4 Days in Gaming", and more importantly (to me) how it went down. If I have learned nothing else over the past 8 years going to Gen Con, it is that you have approximately 96 hours from when you land in Indianapolis until you leave. Subtracting an hour on the front side to get to your hotel, and another 3 to head back to the airport we are already down 4 hours. That's an entire RPG slot right there! If you are a complete game addict like me, you just don't have any time to waste on silly things like getting to the airport, or serious things like a bad game session.
So let's see just how my Gen Con went, shall we?
(As always, in the interest of fairness, I will not name drop GMs whose games I did not enjoy. It is entirely possible that others did have a good time, so take my opinions with a grain of salt. Perhaps an entire shaker of salt sometimes. My criticisms here are in the spirit of improving our games - I hope that if a GM reads a bad review from me that they do learn something from it, and that it helps them. I hope that people in my games feel that they can do the same. I am far from perfect, so if I'm screwing up, please call me on it.)

Wednesday Night
Outbreak Undead
Rather than go to the swanky steak dinner some of my friends were eating, I decided to head over to the Union Station rooms to see if any games were afoot. I found an Outbreak Undead game getting ready to kick off, themed after Resident Evil. So I jumped in. It seemed light and campy, and in general it was. Though for me, it stuck too much to the "you don't have that key, so you can't go into that door" model of video game design, which resulted in the group hunting for keys everywhere rather than engaging with a story. It was cute at first, but got old pretty quick. This is one of those things that is probably just a style issue for me. Might work for some people, but didn't for me.  The GM was very critical of himself, repeatedly apologizing for his map drawing skills being terrible. Once is fine, twice may be funny, but droning on and on about it. If you're reading this Mr. GM - Give yourself a break. You aren't bad at drawing maps. I found them perfectly serviceable for the game. The only other bit of complaint I have is that the game felt very impossible to do simple tasks. From my readings of the game system though, it seems that this is by design. Not really my cup of tea to fail at most things 75% of the time, whether they are difficult or not. Overall Grade: B-

My buddies and I sat down for a drink at the JW bar and played a game of Hacker, my favorite "card" game. Its out of print now, but it is a ton of fun in a little box, especially when you are playing it with other computer nerds. Yes its dated. It has that early 90's je nais se quoi of computer nerdery that it is a wonderful game.
Overall Grade: A

D&D: Shadows over Moonsea
Buckle up and grab a helmet because I feel the need to once again let loose with both barrels about the game experience quality with WoTC at large events. Let me state that I have yet to ever play in a good game of D&D run at a con by an 'official' D&D group. I haven't even had fun in a bad way either. This year's festival of misery came courtesy of a disruptive young teenager at the table, and a GM who either was unfamiliar with the module, or for whatever reason decided that we didn't need to understand anything that was going on. At first, not understanding how things could be so confusing, I chalked it up to bad luck and maybe my own lack of understanding. After discussing with some friends who did the adventure with a different GM, I have to take a completely different approach to my critique.
Major plot elements were not explained to us, even though we interacted with the right NPCs. The fact that we needed to go into the woods should have been explained to us by our interactions with at least 2 different NPCs (Thats how the other group I spoke to found out about it) - neither of which told us anything of the sort. Net result, in the big battle at the end, not a single person at the table had any idea what was going on. Pure frustration. Add to that a 13 year old who really needs to be the center of attention at a table full of adults and you've got a recipe for disaster. And to his dad, who dropped off a stinky steaming meatball sub at the table in the middle - thanks a lot guy!
My general impression is that this GM was more than likely not given the adventure materials until very late. I hope that is the case, otherwise I can't really determine anything other than lack of preparation and familiarity with the adventure.
Overall Grade: F
(This went poorly enough that we cancelled our follow on game of Official D&D later that night. Please note this had nothing to do with the game system. We are not hating on any edition of D&D, this was purely a table/GM experience issue)

Game Mastering 101 (GM)
This was the first of 3 seminars that I ran this year, and it was very well attended. I feel like I was on my game, and the audience had a lot of participation and seemed very engaged and eager. I had a great time, and many people indicated to me at the end that they enjoyed and appreciated it. <Borat> Great Success!
Overall Grade: A

GM Seminar (GM)
My second seminal was also well attended, and brought together a lot of people to talk about GMing in general. There was a ton of interaction back and forth, and I think a lot of great advice was both given and received to and from the audience. I was a little scattered in my approach, so while I think it was an overall success, I would rate my own performance a little lower.
Overall Grade: A-

Having been turned off by the morning's D&D event, we sat down next to another group of friends in an open play are at the JW, and I broke out another of my favorite card games. This one is called Crunch! It is a game in which the players are the CEOs of megabucks that are too big to fail. Their goal is to enrich themselves and their personal fortune at the expense of anything else. Cheating is not only allowed, but encouraged. The penalty for getting cost is the loss of a "trust" card. These cards represent Federal Government bailouts, so you don't want to run out of those. If your bank goes bankrupt, so what. The only thing that matters is your own personal fortune!
Overall Grade: A

Games on Demand - PSI*RUN (GM)
I ran a session of Psi*Run at Games on Demand.  I certainly had a good time, and it seems like the players did. Note to self, in a 2 hour session, 4 questions for the characters are too many (Read PSI*RUN and you'll understand what I mean)The players were running from a mixed group of chasers who all wore red scarves. The highlight for me was them smashing through a pair of ambulances and a riot team of EMTs (who were all bad guys) as the telekinetic running flung the ambulances several blocks away, crushing the EMTBadGuys into them. Maybe you had to be there, but trust me, it was pretty awesome.
Overall Grade: A

Improvisation for GMs (GM)
This was the third seminar that I ran, and if I am being honest, it was probably the worst seminar I have ever run. My apologies go to the attendees. If you were there, and you didn't enjoy it, I am sorry. I also pledge to you that I will do better next time. While I have done close to a dozen seminars at Gen Con, this was the first time I have focused on Improv as the sole topic. As such, I don't think that it flowed very well, or the way I had intended it to. On the plus side, while doing an improv exercise with some of the people in it, the laughter was so great that the seminar next door poked their heads in to see what the hell was going on. If you attended, and have any feedback for me, I would really appreciate it.
Overall Grade: C-

Games on Demand - Fiasco
A friend and I got into a game of Fiasco at GoD, and it was exactly what it says on the box. Fiasco at GoD. If you've never done it, you really should. It is a winning experience. (For Charlie Sheen values of winning) Awful characters doing awful things to one another and living or dying in awful ways.
Overall Grade: A

Trail Of Cthulhu
This is another game that I have been dying to play for many years. This session did not work out for me. I was there, and the game happened, but I just wasn't able to endure the session. While the scenario was compelling, the GMs manner was of such low energy that everything felt like it was 10 times longer. By the 2nd hour I had to excuse myself and go find something else. Harsh? Yes, but with only 92 hours there, I just can't abide sitting through something I am not enjoying out of a sense of politeness or manners. I think its better to just cut your losses and go than to stay and suffer. Nothing mean or rude intended by it, just cold logic. With that said, it still seems to me that the system itself is very good. I'm going to have to give it another try.
Grade: D

D&D with Friends
We recovered that evening and from about 10 to 2am we played some 5th edition - all friends, including the DM. We used an old school 1st edition module converted up (not much work at all) and had a great time. There was a very big WTF moment as an uninvited guest arrived, plopped down at the table and hung around in a very uncomfortable way, touching other peoples things, etc. It got pretty weird for a while, but such is the danger of the Open Gaming Area.
Overall Grade: A+

Games on Demand - Leverage (GM)
This time the group I was given wanted to play Leverage. I had worked out a skeleton of a plot on the plane ride out, loosely based on the plot of HBO's Silicon Valley. One of the players in the group was familiar with the show, and game a big smile when I gave them the name of their client and mark. Everyone at the table was more or less a fan of the show, which makes this game such a joy to run. If you know Leverage - you know how to play Leverage the RPG. The rules are the easy part after that. The game was a blast, and featured the mark getting run off stage at TechCrunch Disrupt by FBI officials and charged with assault and battery of a police officer.
Overall Grade: A

A great game and we had a great GM, who happened to be one of the contributing authors of the game. What a combination. A space age train heist of a kind was perpetrated by our scheming conniving heroes and justice restored to a backwater planet. A fun game fine tuned to fit its subject matter. If you enjoy Firefly and you enjoy RPGs, I'm going to promise you that you will like this game.
Overall Grade: A

Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator
Any game that results in the captain, upon suggestion from his engineer to command the crew to "Keep Firing Assholes!" a la Dark Helmet has got to be a guaranteed winner. Not sure what to say that would be different than my review of Artemis from last year, except for the same advice. Different / same? Who cares. Go out and BUY THIS GAME. Actually don't go anywhere. Stay at your computer and buy online and then download!
Overall Grade: A+

Games on Demand - Dungeon World
I convinced the group to come over to GoD for some night time fun, and they went along with it. We sat down for a game of Dungeon World. I Love Dungeon World. It has fundamentally changed the way I think about and run RPGs. Its that big of a deal. (For that matter so is the game on which it is based, Apocalypse World. Do yourself a favor and read both) - With that in mind, this session wasn't great. It was good, but could have been better. I think the GM needs to give the book a re-read, because so much of what makes DW so special is in the process of how it is run, and in my opinion, the GM wasn't using it to its potential. Too many easy throwaway moves by the GM, defaulting to damage, trying to go in a logical circle around the table all of the time - things that are the norm in lets say D&D, but are very much out of place in a game a DW.
Overall Grade: B+

Exhibit Hall Shopping
I took it easy this year, being well aware that I already have entirely too much stuff that I'm never going to get a chance to play. Instead I tried to focus in on some things that I know my kids will love to play with me, and that we can all play together. This is going to be the year that I really get them going on RPGs as well. I got my oldest a fancy leather journal that has the Tardis cover, like the one River Song uses in Doctor Who. Given that she's a HUGE Doctor Who fan, she was beyond excited when I gave it to her. I also picked up a print from a female artist, Lorraine Schleter - my oldest is an aspiring artist, and I like to find things to inspire her - For my middle daughter, I got an expansion to one of her favorite games, Space Cadets: Dice Duel - It is the Die Fighter expansion, adding in 2 small fighters for the players to dogfight with each other. I also got her, and my youngest a pair of Sonic Screwdrivers. They were jealous of the one their older sister got last year, so I tried to even out the Doctor Who toys. I also picked up a copy of Cthulhu Gloom for her, and a copy of the Doctor Who card game for my oldest. Hobbit Tales rounded out the game acquisitions as a family item, and I grabbed a copy of the old SpellJammer campaign setting in the auction.

I think in the future, I am going to be hesitant to go out of my way to schedule games with other friends who are attending. The Venn diagram of everyone's interest doesn't always make a huge overlap, and with such limited time, you can end up waiting around for someone to do an event or try and decide what everyone wants to eat, etc. It certainly didn't ruin anything for me, but I think I'm better off roaming on my own, and if the paths cross and stars align, we'll hook up and grab a bite or drink or game. Next year, I'm bringing my older two daughters, and we've got some plans to kick some serious ass together. They've been waiting for years to come, and I think now is the time. Well next year is the time, I mean!

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