Those of you who follow this blog1 may have noticed that I kinda pooped out on posting during GenCon this year. The fact of the matter is that I just got too tired, and too busy, to keep it up regularly. So, I figure that I owe you folks a wrap-up post, talking about what I saw and did at GenCon this year.
Overall, it was a fun show. I got see a lot of my GenCon friends, and see a lot of neat games, and eat some good food, and stuff like that. There are a few things I want to call out specifically as being awesome2 at the show, though:
Kickstarters and Preorders
I have said previously that some of the joy of GenCon has evaporated now that game companies don’t feel the need to launch their big, cool stuff at the show. With the advent of web sales and preorders and Kickstarter, it’s not as vital a push for a company to have the new hotness launching during GenCon. Last year, I already owned pretty much everything I was interested in getting before the show.
This year started to seem to be the same, but then a number of companies started sending out e-mail, offering the option of picking up preorders3 and Kickstarter rewards at GenCon. I jumped on board with that idea, and the first day of shopping, I wound up with a respectable stack of books and games that I had already paid for – it was like a free shopping spree.
This did a surprising amount to redeem the feelings of excitement and expectation that had been cooling over previous years. I really hope the trend works out well for the various publishers who did this, because I really liked it.
Games on Demand
I talked a bit about this last year, but I’m going to talk about it some more this year. I think this may be the single greatest thing on offer at GenCon, for a variety of reasons, but mainly because it gives folks a chance to try a bite-sized piece of games that they ordinarily wouldn’t get to4 play. I spent Thrusday, Friday, and Saturday evening hanging out there, playing some great games, and the folks running it did yeoman duty in the face of high demand, confused participants, and the whining of entitled gamers. I cannot praise them highly enough for keeping things running, and keeping their spirits up.
They had a new priority system in place this year, where people could stop by a little early to pick up a boarding pass, then come back just before the session started and pick their preferred game from the offerings in the order of the boarding pass they had5. Then you find your table and you play.
Demand was much higher this year than last year, and there was always a crowd around the table long before the boarding passes started getting called. Only once did I make it into my first choice of game, but there was always something interesting and fun to try, and even right at the end, there were a couple of choices open to most folks.
Atomic Robo RPG
My first night at Games on Demand, I got to play in a session of Atomic Robo The Roleplaying Game, run by Morgan Ellis, one of the designers. He offered us two choices of scenario, and we chose the 1950s scenario, whose title was something like The Abominations That Ate Albuquerque ((The other scenario sounded pretty cool, too, set in modern Japan, where we would play Science Team Super Five)). I actually got to play Atomic Robo himself, and it was pretty awesome.
Edit: I received word from Morgan Ellis that he is NOT one of the designers of ARRPG. He is listed on the product page because he produced some of the stat blocks used in the game. I apologize for misunderstanding. Still, getting stat blocks in the game is not nothing, and he did run a great game.
The game is Fate-based, but tweaked to emulate the action science and comedy of the comic books. We had pregen characters, but looking at the sheets, character generation seems pretty quick, picking a number of roles – like Action, Science, and Banter – and prioritizing them on your sheet, which then grants you ranks in various skills. There are, of course, aspects and stunts involved, too – this is a Fate-based game, after all.
Now, I’ve run an awful lot of Fate games, but this was actually my first time playing one, and it was great. The system nicely captures the mix of comedy and action that drives the comic book, and gives the same importance to science that makes the comic stand out in that regard. I got to use my Fancy Robot Eyes to analyze cow carcasses, wrestle with giant wasp larvae, crack wise with the ranchers, ride a horse, and blow up a Buick dealership to kill the queen wasp.
One especially neat innovation of this game is the brainstorming mechanic. This often happens in concert with other scenes, and is where the scientists try to figure out what is going on. It is, in essence, an extended declaration, where players get a chance to spin a theory based on evidence gathered, and roll to see if it’s true. It cycles through this idea a few times, allowing you to refine your theory and build a plan based upon it, and, in the end, you wind up with an aspect based on your theories that you can invoke6 when you put your plan into action.
This means that, though the GM will have a default plan for what’s going on, the brainstorming session by the scientists may, in fact, change what’s true. And I think that’s awesome, both as GM and as player.
The show saw the release of Gaming in the ‘Verse: Firefly Gen Con 2013 Exclusive. This is a teaser product, giving people who are too excited to wait for February a chance to try the new Firefly RPG early. I picked a copy up, and got to play in a game on Saturday night, run by Rob Wieland, the line developer on the Echoes of War series of adventures for the Firefly RPG.
The book is very well done for its purpose. You get enough rules and material not only to run the two adventures included in the book, but also to create your own characters and run a campaign. There aren’t as many resources and options as are going to be in the core book, but there literally is enough here that you could play for an extended time without needing anything else. Balancing that is the fact that, the way things are presented, the exclusive makes you want the core book, not because the exclusive is lacking stuff, but because the cool stuff in the exclusive promises even more cool stuff in the core book.
And that’s the way to hook a customer with a teaser product.
As far as gameplay goes, this game rocks. Several years ago, I ran a short campaign using the Serenity RPG which, while fun, kind of petered out. Part of that was the size of the group, and part of it was the system. The original Cortex system7 was completely serviceable system, but it was somewhat bland and took a long time to prep for sessions89.
The Cortex Plus incarnation of gaming in the ‘Verse is tighter and cleaner, while at the same time being more open and freeform. If you’ve played games like Marvel Heroic Roleplaying or Leverage RPG, you know what I’m talking about. It’s easy to build scenarios and it’s easy to improvise in play. The game setup is fluid enough to incorporate character actions and whacky schemes almost effortlessly. And everything flows pretty quick.
I had a blast playing the game, and chatting about it with Rob afterwards. And, now that I’m home, several of the folks in my home group are interested in giving it a try. So, that’s a win in my book.
Okay. Go take a look at the Noteboard.
I had no interest in this product. I mean, I’m running fewer and fewer games that require a battlemap10, and I already have my Tac-Tiles and Dungeon Tiles for that. So, when I was picking things up at the Pelgrane booth, the incomparable Beth Lewis practically had to browbeat me into buying one. And, when I came back a couple of days later to buy four more of the things, she sat behind the cash table, mocking me with her knowing smirk.
In the time between when I reluctantly bought one Noteboard and when I came back to eagerly buy four more, I had seen them used for so many things at the gaming table. My favourite function was using it to substitute for sticky notes or index cards in Fate and Cortex Plus games, both of which generate a lot of extra little paper bits with stuff written on them. So, extra aspects or distinctions or assets or complications can all be written on the Noteboard, rather than on a bunch of sticky notes that get thrown away.
And you can use the bag to erase it. Then fold it up and put it in your pocket.
I decided that I needed a spare or two, and that the other GMs in my group needed one, as well.
Seriously. For a simple, inexpensive little accessory, it has so many applications. You need one. At least one.
Saladin Ahmed is one of my favourite authors. His first novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, is a marvelous sword-and-sorcery story set in a middle-eastern-derived culture, and is a ton of fun. His short story collection, Engraved on the Eye, is full of fun short stories, sprinkled with a couple of stories that really made me think about some things. Following him on Twitter11, he’s been friendly and gracious, and has helped me really expand my reading of non-white, non-male authors.
I also used Throne as fodder for part of my Storm Point game, which seemed to tickle him.
Mr. Ahmed was attending the GenCon Writers’ Symposium, and I had the chance to sit in on a reading he gave1213. Afterwards, he signed my copy of his book, and took some time to chat with me one-on-one.
This is, I think, the mark of an author who appreciates his audience. He was tired, he was hungry, and he had a bunch of stuff he still had to do that day, but he took the better part of a half-hour being friendly, welcoming, and gracious to a fanboy. Authors don’t owe us that – they have lives and are people and need food and sleep and all that stuff. Mr. Ahmed’s took his time to talk with me, and that makes him a class act in my book.
If you haven’t read his stuff, you should do so. Now.
I think they started showing up last year, but this year there were tons of food trucks just outside the main exhibitor hall. And they were there until late at night. This meant that I had the chance to try a few of them, though the pickings were pretty slim when I was heading back to the hotel after gaming until midnight. Still, I got to eat some good perogies, a nice pulled chicken sandwich, and a Cuban sub. The food was awesomely good and terribly unhealthy, and that’s not even touching on the four or five cupcake trucks that were in the mix.
It looked to me like the trucks had time slots they were booked for, and had to leave after a few hours to let someone else in. Given the huge crowds lined up in front of EVERY SINGLE ONE of them14, I imagine they were going through their stock pretty quick, anyway. The downside of this is that I didn’t make it to some of my favourite eating establishments this year. I will have to budget my meal consumption more carefully next year.
There was a lot of good cosplay at the con, as usual. Most of the costumes, though very nice, don’t really get me excited. But there were a few that caught my eye for various reasons.
- I know there are a couple of you out there. [↩]
- Or at least interesting. [↩]
- Including offers to prebuy show exclusive books. [↩]
- Or, in some cases, want to. [↩]
- I think it’s a perfectly functional system, but this is where most of the whining came in. “But the game I want is full!” “But I’ve got actual tickets for this slot, so I should get to pick my game before the people who have been waiting here for two hours!” I never had a boarding pass in the top half of the range, and you don’t hear me complaining. Suck it up! [↩]
- Possibly multiple times, if you roll well enough on the brainstorming. [↩]
- Though I don’t believe it had a name back then – I think the name Cortex was applied some time around either the BSG or Supernatural licensed games. And now it’s Cortex Classic. [↩]
- Well, part of that is the weird way I was trying to run the game, and the less said about that, the better. But the system certainly didn’t speed things up. [↩]
- The campaign also wound up going to a really, really dark place, which was not what I wanted, despite it being totally my fault. [↩]
- Just the Storm Point 4e game, right now. [↩]
- His handle is @saladinahmed. DO NOT follow him if you’re not interested in having your ideas about race, politics, and equality challenged. [↩]
- Though not on the world-building panel he was part of. I regret that – his insights into building a non-European-centric world would have been interesting to hear. [↩]
- Also present at the reading was Joel Shepherd. I hadn’t heard of his books before, but his reading convinced me to go pick up the first book in his Cassandra Kresnov trilogy. [↩]
- Except at midnight. Then the crowds were only big, instead of huge. [↩]