GenCon 2013 Wrap-Up

Those of you who follow this blog ((I know there are a couple of you out there.)) 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.

The Pagan Publishing/Dagon Industries booth just before the doors open on the first day. Note the looming presence of Scott Glancy.


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 awesome ((Or at least interesting.)) 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 preorders ((Including offers to prebuy show exclusive books.)) 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.

One of the Kickstarter rewards I picked up at the show was the Travels book for Shadows of Esteren. I left the book at the booth when I picked it up on Thursday, and the good folks there said they'd get is signed by everyone. When I finally remembered to pick it up again (I left the show without getting it, and if I hadn't had to come back to drop off Scott's keys, I might not have remembered it at all), I found that Gawain, the artist, had done a sketch for me in the book, as well! Those Esteren folks rock!

One of the Kickstarter rewards I picked up at the show was the Travels book for Shadows of Esteren. I left the book at the booth when I picked it up on Thursday, and the good folks there said they’d get is signed by everyone. When I finally remembered to pick it up again (I left the show without getting it, and if I hadn’t had to come back to drop off Scott’s keys, I might not have remembered it at all), I found that Gawain, the artist, had done a sketch for me in the book, as well! Those Esteren folks rock!

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 to ((Or, in some cases, want to.)) 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 had ((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!)). 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.

About to play a game of Leverage at Games on Demand.

About to play a game of Leverage at Games on Demand.

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 invoke ((Possibly multiple times, if you roll well enough on the brainstorming.)) 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.

Here's a glimpse of the Atomic Robo character sheet. Note my poor attempt at drawing Robo's head on my little tent card.

Here’s a glimpse of the Atomic Robo character sheet. Note my poor attempt at drawing Robo’s head on my little tent card.

Firefly RPG

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 system ((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.)) was completely serviceable system, but it was somewhat bland and took a long time to prep for sessions ((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.)).

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.

I got to play Wash in the Firefly game. He survived! Also, he drove a boat. It was a life-changing experience.

I got to play Wash in the Firefly game. He survived! Also, he drove a boat. It was a life-changing experience.

The Noteboard

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 battlemap ((Just the Storm Point 4e game, right now.)), 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.

The Noteboard. Seriously, you folks need one of these. At least one.

The Noteboard. Seriously, you folks need one of these. At least one.

Saladin Ahmed

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 Twitter ((His handle is @saladinahmed. DO NOT follow him if you’re not interested in having your ideas about race, politics, and equality challenged.)), 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 gave ((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.)). 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.

As I said, Saladin Ahmed is a class act all the way. And the book is very good. Go buy it.

 Food Trucks

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 them ((Except at midnight. Then the crowds were only big, instead of huge.)), 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.


So, yeah. Turned off the interstate to get some gas. There was a big, pink elephant at the gas station, advertising the liquor store inside.

We’re back in the Crowne Plaza, the old train station hotel with the weird ghost statues. This one was odder than most, lying as it was on the roof of a train car. Found that the hotel is under renovation, and the two statues that stood beneath this one, reaching up to be hauled aboard, were temporarily taken out.

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.

Dot Warner, of the Animaniacs. Awesome.

Dot Warner, of the Animaniacs. Awesome.

Bob Ross, from The Joy of Painting. This costume thrilled me so much that I called Scott over to see it. Right in front of a very attractive, scantily clad woman who turned out to be a professional cosplayer. I felt that I had been very rude, afterwards, and I'm sorry about that. But still - Bob Ross cosplay! Right?

Bob Ross, from The Joy of Painting. This costume thrilled me so much that I called Scott over to see it. Right in front of a very attractive, scantily clad woman who turned out to be a professional cosplayer. I felt that I had been very rude, afterwards, and I’m sorry about that. But still – Bob Ross cosplay! Right?

Two generations of Rebel pilots. Welcome to the Geek Alliance, little space pilot!



Twittering Throne of the White Birds

I haven’t talked about books in a while, and now I have three that I want to tell you about, so I’m putting them all in one review.

The reason I’m doing this is Twitter. I found out about each of these books on Twitter, tracked them down, read them, and thoroughly enjoyed each one ((That’s the quick review.)). More and more, I’m using my Twitter feed to find out about good books and authors that I might not hear about otherwise. These three books are just the first that I’ve picked up this way – there are more that I’ve found and read ((Like John Scalzi’s Redshirts and John Horner Jacobs’s Southern Gods.)), and others ((Like Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son.)) that I’ve been teased with, but that aren’t yet released.

So. Yeah. Twitter is fast becoming my go-to book recommendation service.

Enough about that. Let’s talk books.

Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed

Throne is note-perfect sword-and-sorcery, in the tradition of Fritz Leiber and Robert E. Howard, but with a more modern sensibility to things like the inner lives of the characters, diversity, language, and the like. It takes the rollicking, swashbuckling, over-the-top action and adventure of the pulps, and adds character depth, ambiguity, and actual moral dilemma, creating a novel that is both exciting and rich in story.

It’s set in the pseudo-Arabic city of Dhamsawat. I say “pseudo-Arabic” because it’s not set in the real Middle East, even by cleverly changing the names, but in a fantasy world that combines the best of the 1001 Nights and real touches of history to create a place and time that is richly evocative of a fairy-tale Arabia. The main character, Adoulla, is a ghul-hunter – the last of a mystical order that hunts down and destroys the undead ghuls and the sorcerers who create them. He’s old, he’s fat, he’s cynical and irreverent, but still has the heart of a hero ((As well as the appetite.)), though he’s slowing down and thinking about retiring before he gets killed.

And so, of course, he gets dragged into one last case by an old flame ((Yeah, there are a few nice noir touches in there, too.)).

I loved this book ((So much so that I’ve used it as the loose basis for a D&D adventure.)), mainly because of all the ways it subverts genre tropes. First off, a non-European-based fantasy world is a treat. No clones of Arthur and his knights or the Fellowship of the Ring showing up. Characters of different races and cultures – sure, pseudo-British and pseudo-German cultures are fine and good, but we’ve seen a lot of that over the years, and it’s nice to get a different perspective on things. Faith is dealt with in an interesting, two-edged way, showing both admirably pious characters and villainous zealots. And a nice contrast of ages, as the older characters ((Including the main character.)) and younger characters each show very different strengths and weaknesses.

And every one of the heroes kicks ass. The aging ghul-hunter? Kicks ass. The pious and naive young dervish bodyguard? Kicks ass. The angry young nomad shapeshifter? Kicks ass. The old alchemist, worried about her husband’s failing health? Kicks ass. Her husband, the mage, who spends his own life-force to power his magic? Kicks ass.

The bad guys are suitably detestable, whether they are the shadow-jackal servant Mouw Awa ((Easily one of the best-written, creepiest bad guys I’ve read.)) or simple thugs in the street. Perspectives shift and change as the simple question of who is raising the ghuls evolves into a desperate race to save the entire city.

It’s a wonderful book, and you should read it. If you like sword-and-sorcery stuff, you’ll like the way it handles the genre. If you hate sword-and-sorcery stuff, you’ll like the way it subverts the genre. It’s clever, and dotted with little delights to keep you reading. Go buy it now.

White Horse, by Alex Adams

The only reason I found this book was because I butted into a conversation about chickens ((Evil, stupid creatures. Ambulatory plants motivated by pure malice.)) on Twitter, and Alex Adams was involved. We bantered, and she followed me, and I followed her, and then I checked out her page, and found that she was an author with this book coming out, and it sounded interesting, so I bought it ((Authors on Twitter take note: being a friendly, approachable human being is good marketing. You don’t always have to be hard-selling your stuff. That said, no one begrudges you a little self-marketing either. Mix the two – like the authors I’m reviewing here – and you’re golden.)).

The story is a little bleak. It tells the tale of Zoe, a young woman who survives a multi-stage end-of-the-world scenario, and is on a journey from the US to Greece. It flashes back to the time before and during the… well, Apocalypse, I guess… slowly building a very compelling, ground-level view of how the world ends. There’s scientific hubris and human fear and agression and sheer bad luck all mixed together in bringing things to the point where most people are dead, a lot of technology is trashed, and strange things are happening to the survivors. By showing it through Zoe’s eyes, the whole thing is personalized, and the impact of it is visceral. Chaos, confusion, fear, loss, and desperate hope all get some page time as we see the world fall apart.

In the midst of all this grimness, Alex Adams weaves some solid literary magic. She plays with you. She teases you with a couple of wonderful bait-and-switch-and-switch-again threads that follow Zoe through her journeys, both inner and outer, leading you to the edge of revelation before showing you that – again – things aren’t what they seem. I don’t want to give away what those threads are, or where they eventually lead; discovering and following them, thinking you’ve got them figured out and finding that the author is still a step ahead of you, that’s one of the great joys of this book.

I’m gonna be honest: I almost didn’t finish this book. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a fantastic book, with some great writing and compelling characters. And I’m not afraid of a bleak story.

What got to me, what almost made me stop reading, was the lack of any really likable male characters ((There was another, subtler issue, as well: the fact that Zoe was determined not to kill, even when her opponent was someone that I, as a reader, really felt should have been killed. But there’s another dynamic, only partially gender-based, at work there – in the bleak, post-apocalyptic world, we expect life to be cheap. But to Zoe, it wasn’t. It was the most precious thing there was, and I finally started to get that later in the book, and began to understand the strength it showed. Just a different kind of strength than we’re used to in the kind of book I expected this to be. Again, my expectations were confounded, and brilliantly so. Bravo.)). Well, okay, not really lack of them, but the nice guys were pretty quickly removed from play, and the male characters that took the centre stage were all unmitigated bastards. I hated them. They were vile, brutal men, and they made me want to throw the book across the room.

Why didn’t I stop? Well, because I’ve been reading a fair bit about privilege, and I thought it would be enlightening and good for me to read a book where I wasn’t given a character that I, as a straight white male, could identify with as my proxy in the story. I mean, I read a lot of books where I am given that character, but other readers – women, non-white, non-straight readers – aren’t. So I wanted to see how that made me feel, to raise my awareness of such issues.

That’s the end of my little political tirade, by the way.

I’m immensely glad that I didn’t stop reading the book because Alex Adams – and I picture her with a saucy, knowing smirk when I think about this – plays games with this, too. Expectations are both fulfilled and confounded, understanding dawns as the final tricks are exposed, and the issues are revealed as both subtler and more complex than they first appeared. And I am left marveling at the craftsmanship and beauty of the story, and the delicate, artful way that my emotions and reactions have been led to the end.

Normally, I read a book, enjoy the story, and move on to the next. White Horse lingers with me, making me think about how I read it, what it did to me, and how I reacted to that. It has shown me something new about myself and about the world. It wasn’t an easy journey, but it’s one that I’m immensely grateful I was able to take.

And I’m eagerly looking forward to Alex Adams’s next book.

Blackbirds, by Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig has written some of the most entertaining – and profane – writing advice I’ve ever read and enjoyed. So, I wanted to read his novel when it came out.

First things first: if you have a problem with coarse language, avoid this book. Because the language is coarse like a cheese grater rubbing on your most sensitive bits. But Chuck uses obscenity like the craftsman he is, building brilliant, dark images and situations with finely crafted expletives, each polished to perfection. He is deliberate and inventive in his cursing, understanding the rhythm and pace of each horrific bon-mot he includes. He is an artist in vulgarity, and worth reading just for that.

Anyway, with that caveat out of the way, on to the book.

This is the story of Miriam Black, a young, troubled woman who just happens to be able to tell when people are going to die. When she touches someone, she sees the time, place, method, and circumstances of their death. She can’t change anything about it, though; what she sees comes true, and if she tries to change things, she winds up contributing to the death she’s seen. This has, as you might imagine, messed her up some, and she currently wanders the highways and by-ways, hitching rides and living hand to mouth. She isn’t really a nice person, but she is someone you can root for.

Two things come into the picture that change things for her – the first is a vision of the death of someone that she doesn’t want to die, and the second is someone who has figured out her secret.

The book is fiercely focused, and quite short. There are no wasted words, no distractions, nothing to take you away from the story. It is a brutal trip through a pulpy charcoal sketch of bad people and nasty situations, and it drags you pretty aggressively through to the end at top speed. Along the way, you see how Miriam got to be the way she is, and what she’s really made of.

There’s a dark delight to the story, a nobility in the seediness of the situations and locations, and great heroism happens on very human scales, feeling more real and immediate than all the over-the-top thrillers. It’s a very human book, with messy, damaged characters, rife with good ((Or not so good.)) intentions and stupidity, fear and hope, desperation and resignation.

It’s not a happy book, but it is a hopeful one. And the darkness in it is wonderfully entertaining.

Word is that Miriam’s coming back, too. And that’s good.