“The Best Four Days in Gaming” only ended last week, and I already want to go back.
Addison Recorder editor Karen Martin and I (along with many others) attended this year’s Gen Con, the biggest tabletop gaming convention on this side of the Atlantic. The difficulty in doing a recap of such a huge con is that each attendee will have a unique experience; with over 56,000 people attending four days that pack almost 400 vendors and over 14,000 events into a few city blocks, you almost need to read an aggregate of recaps (including this one from Shut Up & Sit Down) to get the full picture.
Here is one such recap: My recounting of Gen Con 2014.
Welcome to Downtown Indy
Many attendees arrive on Wednesday, before Gen Con officially starts. Early arrivers know that: it’s easier to pick up your packet; you have plenty of time to get your bearings & meet up with friends; and Indianapolis is such a great host, the extra half day allows you to sample what the city has to offer. Nearly every veteran attendee has a favorite or old standby for food and drinks. I try to hit up Tavern on South, not just because it turns itself into the “Munchkin Tavern” every Gen Con, but also because its cocktail and beer menu are amazing.
Another daily stop for me is Bee Coffee Roasters, which makes some damn fine coffee and really gets into the spirit ofbeing Gen Con’s neighbor. They put out dice for players to roll while they wait for their espresso, baristas dress up in costume, and the board offers special drinks around nerdy themes. Waiting patrons can also discover random geeky items lurking around the cafe, like a Darth Vader helmet resting on top of a Doctor Who scarf.
Local beer-maker Sun King Brewing gets in on the action, kicking off pre-con festivities with the tapping of their Gen Con-exclusive beer Wednesday night. This year’s offering was the Froth of Khan, a coffee stout, which was an enjoyable way to wash down the offerings from local food trucks. I love the food trucks that line up next to the convention center, serving up options for every possible palate (if you can get there when the lines aren’t awful). Some folks might get tired of five days of food truck fare, but not me. I love ’em.
The Exhibit Hall
For the casual attendee, Gen Con centers around the Exhibit Hall, where vendors display and demo new art, games, writing, and accessories. Gen Con has become the target date for releasing new games (or selling pre-release copies), or turning a successful Kickstarter into a big hit at the con. There were nearly 300 new board games at this year’s Gen Con, whether as new releases, pre-releases, or available for demonstrations and preview plays. And that was just board games — new accessories, roleplaying games, and stories also premiere in the Exhibit Hall.
There were so many shiny things, I didn’t even get a chance to buy or even try out most of them. I missed out on Imperial Settlers, Asmadi Games ran out of pre-release copies of Red before I could grab one, and I discovered Kingsport Festival (which wasn’t on my radar). I got to look at the miniatures for Cthulhu Wars (unspeakably gorgeous), learned to play Five Tribes and Hyperborea (the latter of which has become a new favorite), picked up Samurai Spirit and won an auction for the RPG books Midgard Bestiary and 13th Age. I also got to play Golem Arcana, a miniatures game that uses bluetooth technology and your smartphone or tablet to streamline the rules and stats.
If I had to pick a favorite from this year, it would probably be one of the new board games from Bruno Cathala, Abyss. The artwork is what initially caught my eye — it’s absolutely stunning, and really helps sell the theme of playing leaders of an underwater kingdom, trying to shore up enough influence from sea creatures and other lords & ladies of the deep to become king or queen. The game mechanics are easy to grasp after a couple turns, the art is lush, and the game is deeply satisfying — and gameplay takes only 30-45 minutes.
Everything To Do
Beyond the Exhibit Hall is a whole catalog of stuff to do, games to play, and seminars to attend. Literally, there is a thick printed catalog of events, and an even bigger online catalog — there were over 14,000 events gamers could attend this year. I’m always on board for the seminars from the guys behind Delta Green, and this year our group took in fictional cartography and geography, listened to Jim Butcher, learned basic Italian longsword techniques, played board games with Geek & Sundry, and got to take Oculus Rift for a spin.
The biggest group of events, however, are the RPG sessions. Karen played in games of Star Wars and Night’s Black Agents. I wrote and ran (GM‘d) two games over the weekend, one for Delta Green, and another for Night’s Black Agents. RPG sessions are the bread-and-butter of Gen Con events, and can be very hit or miss. I had players tell me about GMs who never showed up to run their games; I heard reactions from GMs about the lateness and brevity of some pre-generated games they were tasked to run. Such instances were uncommon, but can be frustrating.
For my own part, however, I had an utter blast. The players in both my games were engaged, creative, and collaborative in their storytelling and gaming. The unexploded flash-bang that an agent failed his roll to ignite came back later that scene to momentarily stun a vampire. A veteran supernatural investigator lost his mind and charged in (bare-handed) to wrestle an angry, hulking hodag. Away from the main throng of attendees, a thousand stories were being crafted, telling of the heroic and tragic exploits of tens of thousands of player-characters.
The events section of Gen Con is less visible than the Exhibit Hall, but so much time and effort is put in by publishers, writers, GMs, and players that they really make the convention. And then there’s the Games On Demand area, where indie and in-development RPGs are play-as-you-come throughout all four days. It’s the chance to play games that may become award-winning books and fan favorites while they’re still in development, often GM’d by the men and women who created them.
The ENnies: Silver & Gold
Speaking of awards, one of the big events of Gen Con is the ENnies, annual awards given out to the best and most favorite RPG releases in the previous year. The process has a panel of judges who select nominess, which are then voted on by the general RPG-playing public. This dynamic means that when a publisher or game attracts a devoted fanbase (re: Pathfinder*), it will win gold in every category in which it is nominated. Thankfully, the ENnies created a silver award for each category, so that awards can be about more than whatever Paizo Publishing puts out.
(*This isn’t meant as a knock on Pathfinder. It’s just the truth that a nomination = gold for them. The only exception was the miniatures category, where a Pathfinder minature took silver. The gold went to a different Pathfinder mini. Naturally.)
The (other) big winners of the night were Monte Cook’s Numenera setting, and the Fate system books from Evil Hat Productions. Both of these systems have been wowing gamers over the past year, and their well-earned dominance surprised nobody. Pelgrane Press also had a good night, as: their primary writers (Robin D. Laws and Chicago-based Kenneth Hite) took home a gold in the ‘Best Podcast’ category; the publisher’s take on d20-style fantasy RPGs (13th Age) won silver for ‘Best Rules’; and Pelgrane won gold AND silver for Trail of Cthulhu: Eternal Lies (‘Best Adventure,’ ‘Best Production Values’), a decade-spanning campagin written by Chicago-based writers Will Hindmarch and Jeff Tidball.
Meet & Play
Gen Con is the kind of gathering that about gathering and interacting. It’s hard to have a tabletop gaming convention without loads of social interaction; no matter the level of introversion amongst the 56,000+ attendees, interaction is required for gaming. When talking to the Golem Arcana emissaries, for example, it turns out that the Chicago rep was a good friend of one of the other editors for the Recorder. One of our group members ran into an old GM from college he hadn’t talked to in forever. And I had people I met at previous Gen Cons who couldn’t attend this one following along with our exploits via Facebook or Twitter.
The creators get in on this, as well. The folks behind Storium, for example, ran an amazing meetup during Gen Con. Stephen Hood, Elsa Henry, and the aforementioned Will Hindmarch were gracious with their time and answered a plethora of questions about the game, currently in its beta release. I only wish I didn’t have to leave the meetup early to run a game, though I found out that Karen won an upgrade to her Storium account during the event.
That said, when I ran off to run a game (Night’s Black Agents), I recognized the GM at the table next to me. He turned out to be the GM who ran an event for that game last year — the game I had played in, enjoyed, and decided to pick up and run myself.
The ‘obligatory Gen Con haul pic’ is a standard post-con expectation. It’s a visible representation of what moved you and what you were moved to pick up at the con. It also reinforces the concept that everyone has a different Gen Con: “This is what I had the time, money, and desire to pick up / play… what about you?”
Interestingly, the picture above is smaller than expected, partially due to the role that Kickstarter is playing in the tabletop gaming industry. I don’t have stuff from Cthulhu Wars or Golem Arcana because they’re arriving later as Kickstarter rewards. I don’t have new stuff from Asmadi Games because I already have the print & play versions as I wait for the published editions. I did stop by the Storium meetup, which is a game I learned of through Kickstarter. Two of the biggest winners at the ENnies, Monte Cook and Evil Hat, published their award-winning core books via Kickstarter.
If the trend were to hold, we may see RPGs like Dark, Atomic Robo, TimeWatch, and Iron Edda: War of Metal and Bone showing up in more RPG events and on nomination lists next year. Only 50 weeks until Gen Con 2015…