Gen Con 2001: Gen Con Thoughts
"True, I talk of dreams,"
I guess that going out drinking the night before leaving for GenCon was a bad decision. Some friends who would not be going asked me to stop by for a quick beer. I remember the bar closing, and I remember being pushed out of a moving car near my house. I thank God I can sleep until one because my flight leaves at 15:45.
I wake up at 13:00 to a pounding on the door. Kimmy is here to drive me to the airport. Bleary eyed, I realize I have not packed. I pack and shave while I brush my teeth and dress. After three harried stops I get to the airport at 15:15. There are 300 people in line at the counter. I decide to just check in at the gate. I board at 15:40 and fall blissfully back to sleep.
I headed for Los Angeles International airport just like anyone else. I took a taxi to the Delta terminal. I carried my backpack with some personal effects; commonplace black, wheeled luggage that I could check in or carry in the plane; a duffel bag with a golden mask, an expensive leathery mask, and a carnaval-styled mask I made a few years for Rio de Janeiro. Oh, and a gazebo pelt. I planned to use it at the Living City Interactive. It would be my last hurrah as Coordinator of the. Naturally, the Bards Guild has to be prominent both visually and emotionally. No one was going to miss our booth at the LARP. TW and I waited for Neal to show up and then we boarded our plane for Atlanta.
Oh, my aching feet. Our flight out of Los Angeles left about 45 minutes late, and despite heroic efforts by the flight crew we got in to Atlanta with about 20 minutes to make our connection. Five of those were wasted waiting for people to pry their steamer trunks out of the overhead bins and get out of our damn way, which gave us a little less than a quarter-hour to run through the terminal.
It was going to be a long trip. In order to get ridiculously low fares, we flew Delta to Atlanta, Georgia, and from there to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Normally, I prefer Midwest Express, but... Did I mention the fare was low low low?
I awake in Cincinnati and find I can actually smoke in the airport! I make my connection with time to spare and am snoring before the wheels leave the ground.
The flight out was straightforward. As usual, Team Chimera and Team Messiah made sure they were informed on the proper evacuation of the plane, in case of emergency. Reading that manual is the last thing you want to do while the cabin is filling with smoke. Landing in Atlanta was a little different. I dubbed our pilot Captain Skippy, for his interesting way of making the plane skip many times on landing before taxing to the runway. The shocks on those planes must wear out quickly.
As we found our seats on the MD-80 bound for Milwaukee I felt doubly old -- because I was totally winded, and because no one gets out of my way any more. I guess I've lost the aura of menace I used to carry around, probably due to too much time spent living the middle-class life in LA-LA land. I did hear "Sorry, sir, no rocket launchers allowed on the aircraft" from a gate agent as I hustled past...
We were near the end of the terminal, of course, and we raced to catch a Cyberpunk-style robot train to our gate, two terminals away. By the time we got there, we were sweating and panting. But we made it, so I was happy. Unfortunately, our new pilot went to the Buck Rogers Institute of Flying, and takes off almost perpendicularly to the ground, as if we were on a space-bound rocket. He apparently also got secondary degree from Captain Skippy's, if anything could be told by the way he landed in rain-soaked Milwaukee.
Billy Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee is the same. I made a beeline immediately for Renaissance Books. I am pretty sure it is the only used bookstore in any airport in the USA. They always have something I want. I lose myself for an hour in the stacks and come out with a new lending copy of Pat Cadigan's Synners (One of the best books I have ever read in the cyberpunk genre), as well as an old copy of Anais Nin's Spy in the House of Love. I am depressed however, because in two years of looking, I cannot find an unabridged copy of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.
Surprisingly, we arrived on time in Milwaukee. I was surprised because we had to maneuver around a huge-ass thunderstorm hovering near the Illinois-Indiana border. Those things sure look cool from the air, a combination of power and beauty. I realized that we take flying for granted, like so many technological wonders. Tom Olam was right -- we've gained the ability to do miraculous things, but possibly given up something important in the process.
Neal, Robert, and the incomparable Mademoiselle Tatyanna deplane and we get a whole lot of stuff, including my gazebo pelt, and grab a cab.
I'm always thrown by how much the residents of Milwaukee know about our obscure little industry. After an interminable wait for our luggage (only one carousel was working; bad weekend for that to happen) we got a skycap to help us to a cab. He asked me what we made, guessing (correctly) that we were manufacturers. For the umpteenth time I ran into my inability to concisely explain our strange hobby to normals, mumbling something incoherent about Risk and Dungeons & Dragons. This guy took it in stride, and seemed to understand anyway.
All kidding aside, I will miss Milwaukee. Gen Con moves to Indianapolis in 2003, so that means we will only have one more year to crawl about the Safe House. If you have never been to the Safe House, or to Milwaukee you may not realize what a big deal this really is.
After dropping stuff off at the hotel, it was off to the Safe House, my usual nightly hangout at Gen Con. The rest of the industry (aside from Marcelo) seems to have left it behind in favor of more happening places like Velvet, but I guess I'm just stodgy and traditional.
The Safe House opened at the pinnacle of secret agent chic. Inspired by characters like Our Man Flint, Matt Helm and the incomparable James Bond. The Safe House is a restaurant and bar with a clandestine twist. You have to know the password, or you don't get in. Well, you may get in, but only after considerable negotiations. Sometimes they tell you the password after these negotiations, sometimes they don't.
I managed to flub the passphrase (which I've known for more than five years now), so up against the wall for me, and the night degenerated from there.
My good friend Neal, a veteran of some ten Gen Con shows, and an experienced pub-crawler in his own right, somehow, forgot the password.
The kind gentleman behind the old roll-top desk was not amused. Neal was asked to assume the position. Now I may or may not have ever been arrested. I may or may not have ever been arraigned. I may or may not have even been acquitted on technicalities time and time again. However, in all of my personal experience I have never seen anyone drop into the position as casually and matter-of-factly as Neal did. Palms flat against the wall. Arms and legs spread, shoulder width. He quietly waited. Over the course of the next twenty minutes or so he was joined by two other hapless souls. Neither of them looked like they had ever been arrested, or ever been anything for that matter. A fourth hapless soul was commandeered to frisk the gentlemen Neal included. To make sure they were carrying no contraband I suppose. I heard Neal say two things. "Wow, you have really firm hands" and "gee, most of the guys are a lot rougher, can I have your number?"
Of course it could have been the liquor talking.
The lovely waitress came to our table and offered us one dollar shots of something that looked like brake fluid -- orange-red, and with a cinnamonny kick. Naturally, I bought our little table a round. TW and Ross were able to discern there was at least Tequila in there. They also said they were strong shots. I was oblivious.
Some hours later we left through the secret exit in the phone booth.
We had to stop in at the infamous all night diner George Webb's to ask where Velvet was, only to discover to our chagrin that we'd somehow missed both the neon "Velvet" sign and the two-story mural next to it. Fortunately, our hotel is only three doors down, so we were able to stumble on home.
Again I wake up at friggin' early in the morning! There is no justice! Remember when you were a kid your parents and grandparents just woke up every morning. I guess I am officially getting old... Breakfast at Maxie's was impossible, but across the street is the Pill & Puff. I do not remember it ever being there before, but I was refreshed after purchasing trail mix, Dr. Pepper, and Winston Lights. The place looked like the shopping mall from Day of the Dead. Gamers in tight black t-shirts everywhere; mindlessly stumbling over each other in search of sugar, caffeine, and nicotine. Over the next few days I would spend a lot of money, and time, at the Pill & Puff.
Slept pretty badly last night. The slow clockwise angular moment on the room didn't help. Whatever was in those "special" shots at the Safe House was pretty damn special, that's for sure. I have to remember to drink in reaction to a disastrous con experience, not in anticipation of one. Otherwise, it becomes self-fulfilling.
No one is at the designated meeting place to give me my badge. After 45 minutes of waiting I convinced a volunteer to seek out Gold Rush Games and get me my badge. Patrick Sweeney finally introduces himself to me and I finally have my stinking badges! The crowd was really cool for Thursday morning. I remember distinctly thinking "Let the Games begin!"
I preregistered for Gen Con at the end of last year's show. I even got my T-shirt in the mail. So I was apprehensive when I was the only one in our group without a letter from WotC. I got on the line for pre-registered badges, went for the letter "P". I've been anxious about Gen Con. I look forward to such a great show that I might be disappointed by my expectation. Luckily, I got my badge quickly. Unlike previous years (and just like Origins) the badges don't have names anymore. That's okay. I've prepared for that.
The Boardgaming staff really came through this year. For once, I have only myself to blame for my misfortunes, having totally screwed up demo space arrangements in the Exhibit Hall. But despite my last-minute panic, Pete and the rest managed to find me a nice visible place to hang my shingle. Thanks, guys.
Ed Bolme, an old friend, introduced me to Magi Nation, a cool little card game that may also have additional role-playing elements.
TW was going to play an early slot of Call of Cthulhu but the room scheme was not exactly self explanatory so we had to ask Information Services where the Chaos room was. We were told in The Arena, in the building next door, but that was all they knew. The helpful RPGA volunteers at the Arena pointed us to the Chaosium area, in the basement, in the back. Tatyanna's spirits lifted upon seeing that got to her game in time, and the waiting table of gamers cheered at the arrival of another victim. I then turned back to start my report on the con.
I spoke too soon -- my shingle's been moved twice, first to make room for Agents of Gaming's immense Babylon 5 Wars demo setup, then to clear Reaper's CAV tables. But five meters one way or the other shouldn't matter all that much, so I don't make a fuss. Team Frog tries to move me again, but we find an adjacent area for them to set up instead.
Gareth and Sara introduced me to The Last Exodus, a very cool looking RPG with avatars and hot chicks! I digress.
As of 12:10 I've already had my first customer, a guy named John who was playing Axis & Allies Pacific until the AoG kicked him off. Instead of getting annoyed, he ambled over to try Insecta, which reminded me why I like gamers.
I say hello to Dr. Kromm and resist the urge to hold him down and shave his head. I like Sean, but I blame Canada. GURPS Atlantis ROCKS!!!
As usual, the Newton attracted more attention by far than the bugs do. I've always been amused by this effect, and irritated as well -- I could have sold five or six of these things by now if they hadn't been Steved back in 1998.
I decide as I am getting lunch that next year I am going to sell t-shirts that say Right Outfit, Wrong Woman! I then decide to skip lunch. Costumes are cool, and gamers are cool, but not all gamers in costumes are cool. There are amazing exceptions. The Dark Angel Melissa has outdone herself for several years running. Her peacock-feathered wings are amazing. All the damned fairies are getting pixie dust everywhere. The stormtroopers kept a lot of people in line. The Crunchy Frog Guys have an orange doomed kitty. C looks great in a kimono, a cyberpunk trench, and a fabulous Spanish dress on different days. I am getting ahead of myself but there were some great Vulcan costumes, and some deserved special notes. Remarkably absent was Sailor Bubba
As the afternoon ends, I've played four games of Insecta (all one-on-one bug duels, not very interesting but a good intro to the system) and met some Italian guys who make a bug combat game using tiddlywinks (!) as the movement system. A fine first day, and I close up shop before it gets a chance to go sour for some reason.
Stayed up until 3:00 last night trying to get yesterday's photos up, vanquishing weird hotel phone systems, bad lines, and a very busy local access number. Now I just hope the email robot that Michael built will be able to do its thing.
Trying to sleep late is at this point futile. I again awaken at 8:00 and mentally scream! I consider screaming out loud, but have pity on Neal. He is sleeping, and so soundly I bet he didn't even see me stealing all the money out of his wallet.
I enjoy an ice-cold shower, and pray for a short wait at the cafe. Maxie's is packed again, so it looks like George Webb. If you haven't ever eaten at George Webb I can describe it as "like a Denny's but not as nice." Thankfully there are few ways to render eggs and toast inedible. I really think Crush from Crunchy Frog is very funny. I am no special fan of furry games, but I am reading through Crush and giggling at the counter.
Scheduling demos at 11 AM was a great idea, allowing me to do incredibly stupid things (like webdinking until the wee hours) and still avoid being frighteningly grumpy at the demo table. Unfortunately, the only interest I've had in Hard Vacuum today has been from the guy who publishes something called Aerospace Command. He was interested because he had met Von Braun once, and we talked about space stuff for a while. He's convinced that it's not possible to achieve a stable orbit without computers, but I disagree. (Especially since all our pilots are Heinlein heroes with their slipsticks ready at hand.)
The first thing I see today is Ironclaw. Very cool looking game. Again, it is a furry game, but it has some cool fantasy elements as well. I like some of the system elements, and the art is well reproduced.
The guys next to me were playing Risk 2210. Since I didn't have any players anyway, I checked it out. It's pretty cool -- lots of the little plastic figs we've come to assocate with any AH/Hasbro game, and enough alterations to the basic Risk mechanics to make it a very different game while still retaining the overall feel. I hope the Avalon Hill division is making enough of a profit to stay viable in the New Hasbro. Despite my annoyance at the notion that 90% of the AH backlist will never see print again, it's good to see games like Cosmic Encounter come back. And the big-box-o-toys model may serve as a decent recruitment tool to bring people into the more wargamey side of things. God knows it could use it -- besides AH, the only hope is Avalanche.
I was waiting to talk to one of the girls at the WotC Castle. She turned to me and said "This is Josh". So I looked and recognized him, and I said "I know Josh! How's it going?" She took this opportunity to make a quick getaway. "I guess she didn't want to talk to me," I said. "Me neither." said Josh. We joked about it every time we met for the rest of the convention. Sometimes I'd run away, sometimes he'd run away.
I venture into the WotC Castle for the first time today. It seems very empty to me, even with the amazing number of people within. People buying, and selling, but something is missing. D&D 3e is a great game, however. I first played almost 25 years ago that month. The worlds that have been compiled and created are pretty staggering; Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Mystara, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Hollow World, Dark Sun, Ravenloft, and more. Wandering across Crazy Egor's I am overcome with the sheer amount of Dungeons & Dragons Material presented, past as well as present.
The lack of interest in Hard Vacuum is troubling. It's one thing for the game to fail because no one knows about it (we haven't done much advertising, after all, and it's been ignored even by magazines which got press releases and review copies). But for people at a convention to just walk by without interest seems to signal that it just doesn't have the drawing power we thought it did. (If those of you reading this think I'm wrong, I'd love to hear it.)
So many people, and so much fun.
Soon it would be time for the RPGA's Living City Interactive. I have been looking forward to this event for weeks. I gathered up my costume and props, including the Gazebo pelt, and rolled out of my hotel towards the Arena. As I walked out, I ran into one of the Viceroyals of the Bards Guild. She was heading back to her hotel room to change into costume. She had not been able to get a cab, so in true New Yorker style, I spotted a taxi and summoned it to me. Once she was safely in, I continued my short walk to the Arena, with pelt in tow.
Well, the day wasn't a total loss -- I played Hard Vacuum a grand total of once to justify my existence here. Getting back to the hotel, I discovered that the photos were up. Excellent work from our Senior Logician (Emeritus) has enabled us to post in near-real-time without carrying a laptop around or running a single FTP session.
The Interactive, "Game of Masks", was a blast. The Bards Guild was out in force, with about a dozen Viceroyals present. This was the best Living City LARP I have ever attended, and it was only the first night! The second and last night would be on Saturday. I even got to do something I've wanted to do at an Interactive for a long time. Since we are the Bards Guild, music and dancing are part of the job. We had a CD player, and when there was lull, I got to dance to one song -- Salsa, the famous dance from the Renaissance Caribbean.
I gave up my usual Safe House run to watch Mike Pondsmith run Cyberpunk v3, and it was well worth it. It's going to be a cool product, and a good comeback from the company that redefined roleplaying in the '90s. After all, what's d20 besides Interlock with twenty-siders?
There was a reunion of sorts on Friday night. Many of us associated with RTG were treated to a preview of Cyberpunk v3. Our GM was the incomparable Mike Pondsmith. Needless to say I was the old edgerunner, and it was moving day. I hope v3 is as good as 2020. We shall see, and soon it seems.
Ross (the Fat Messiah Body Model) got up at 6:30 AM, but mercifully managed to keep from waking me until two hours later. I haven't gotten enough sleep since late July, but that's just part of the convention experience.
Crunch Time. THE BIG DAY! A year ago 3e was released, and now we hear rumors confirmed of a new D&D Oriental Adventures book. So my prediction is somewhat based in fact. I just hope the new Oriental Adventures book is not so completely insulting to every Asian American I have ever known. Keeping myself in the Asian frame of mind I also watched a demo of Tenjo, a very cool wargame.
The silver lining to waking up at such a godawful hour on a weekend is that I was able to transmit last night's photos before going in to demo stuff, continuing our near-real-time coverage of the show. It's not Virtual Gen Con, but I bet our budget's three orders of magnitude lower than theirs.
I ran into Tom Wham at the bar in the Hyatt as I edited my quickly scribbled notes on my Newton. Tom's one of my favorite designers, so I asked him if I could get a picture. He said "Sure", and put his two companions in the shot. I asked if I could put the picture up in Chimera Magazine, and all three says yes. Then they hand me their biz cards: the companions were Kim Mohan and Pamela Mohan, of D&D fame. I sat back down, dazed. I love Gen Con.
Saturday is the biggest day of the show, and it's clear that a company the size of FMG is just lost in the noise band here. Even people actually looking for us (and I have to believe there are some attendees who fit that description, or suffer a fatal blow to my ego) would have had a hard time locating my little demo. It looks so big at the regional shows...
At Gold Rush Sengoku Revised was a hot seller, as was Shinobi, its ninja supplement. For those of you who want an amazingly detailed historically accurate Japanese sword and sorcery game Sengoku is the real deal. Usagi Yojimbo is a simpler version of the same game licensed from Stan Sakai's comic of the same name.
The Surreal Experience Award for the show goes to my trip to the bathroom after packing up. Here I am going about my business, and right next to me is a six-foot Klingon in full battle regalia -- flawless makeup, beautiful costumery, and an overall impression that he just beamed down for a quick visit because the commander of his D-7 was taking too long in the 'fresher. Weird.
I gather things got weirder after I left, because the Klingons were running a "Jail for Bail" charity thing, and managed to get a guy dressed up as Bender locked in the can.
The license trend in RPGs is really starting to take off. Not only are there great licensed backgrounds, but a great deal of them used licensed mechanics. The new Legend of the Five Rings RPG will be d20, the new Prime Directive will be GURPS Powered. Plus Fuzion games like Sengoku, Dragonball Z, and Shards of the Stone. For those of you who don't know, Prime Directive is the RPG of the Star Fleet Battles Universe.
As the afternoon ground on, I decided it was time to take down the FMG flag, because no one seemed to be saluting. My one customer for the day turned out to be another silver lining. His name was Kevin Smith (no relation) and he was one of my favorite kinds of Insecta players, an old-style grognard. I always have to modify my standard game-teaching patter when they ask about Zones of Control and stacking limits, knowing that the wargamers will pick up the tactical nuances without being forewarned. Meeting this guy made my day, because we hung out talking about Insecta, the third world tier, and the state of the hobby for guys like us. He's got an auto-racing game he's trying to get published, based on cards and little toy cars. If you're reading this, Kevin, good luck to you.
With the Living City Interactive over, at least for me, I said good bye to the of the Bards Guild. It was the last (and for some, first) time we worked together with me as Coordinator. I bid good bye to my role and, while I was sad, I was also glad. I would not leave if I did not know in my heart that there was a top-notch group taking care of the Bards. My job was done. It was time to let the next wave come in.
R. Talsorian Games announced Saturday that they have secured the license to produce the Mobile Suit Gundam RPG. This is no small feat in the license negotiation department.
I had some trouble retrieving part of my costume from red-haired Bianca but eventually I got it. Daniel Perez, Tatyanna, and I headed for a few hours of dancing and partying at the Safe House. On our way out of the Arena, I spotted Sarah. She looked depressed but she also looked like she really wanted to be alone, so I waved good bye and headed out with my small band.
I was primed for some serious medicinal drinking, so it was off to the Safe House again. By this time the doorman knew me by sight, and waved me right through. We ended up closing the place, but not before doing shots of what looked and tasted like Windex with Mark Rein*Hagen and his crew, and dancing to music so loud it impaired my sense of balance.
At the Safe House, Daniel had already become a regular. This was his first Gen Con and they just waved him through, no password required. Way to go, Daniel!
I finally manage to sleep in until 10:30!!! Woo-hoo!!!
This was the last day of the show. We'd be abandoning Milwaukee before sunset. I always know I had a great convention experience if I am very sad it is ending. Today I did a last photo sweep of the show, and sad good bye to some of the RPGA people.
I cancelled the "Player's Choice" demo session for today, as Saturday's response was so lame that the prospect of spending four more hours miserably waiting for nonexistent players was too daunting. Instead, I joined Robert for a dealer room sweep.
The quote of the day came from Marcelo: "Third Reich, from Avalanche Press: playable in less time that the war actually took"
Packing up the swag and the many glasses from the Safe House I remember why I brought an extra bag packed inside my suitcase. Neal also showed me his copy of the collectible hygiene game. With real soap, toothpaste, and toothbrush. I laughed until I cried. Then I realized someone was probably saving their alpha copy and just cried.
Two hours later I've blown entirely too much money on anime CDs and DVDs. I've also tried a game of Journeyman's upcoming Zombies, which was fun but somehow unsatisfying compared to the old SPI Dawn of the Dead. Maybe we'll have to do a Chimera dueling banjos review when it finally comes out next month. I think my reaction to it sums up my feeling about the industry as a whole, in that Zombies is fun, but not something I'd skip sleep to play. In fact, aside from Zorro, there wasn't anything in the hall that really got me charged up the way Mekton Zeta or Delta Green or Throwing Stones did. Avalanche's Imperium is incredibly cool-looking, but I'm reserving judgement on it until I actually play the thing.
There are many people I only see at Gen Con. I see them for such a short time, and we have such a great time, I always look forward to the next year.
At 11:00 I saunter down to Maxie's and have a cuppa' coffee with the LA contingent before the swing off to the airport. It was a great show, and wonderful to see all of the new products and choices in the marketplace. After an amazing brunch at the Pfister Hotel I am off to the airport as well.
We're off to grab a cab and blow this town until next year. You might not think it from the tone of this report, but I'm looking forward to it. Gen Con is still the centerpiece of the industry, where I get to say hello to old friends and see what's new. If you can make it, you should.
What luck! Graduates from Captain Skippy's flew both planes on the return trip. Not only that, they double-majored from Buck Rogers Institute of Flying. Joy. We intend to go back to our favorite airline, Midwest Express, next year. Did I mention how cheap the fare was on Delta?
Snoring before the plane leaves the ground...