Gen Con 2015 is now almost seven weeks in my rear-view mirror. Besides all the new-to-me games played over the four days in Indianapolis, there were several other personal firsts on this, my third trip to the convention: First time driving down Wednesday afternoon rather than Thursday morning; first time attending the Diana Jones Award presentation; first time meeting fellow GeekDads James Floyd Kelly and Gerry Tolbert (and several other very cool non-GeekDad folks); and first time running an RPG! (That’s going to get its own post.)
Fantastic – as always – gaming and geeking out with Jonathan Liu and Dave Banks; and also with Brian Stillman, who got in touch with me several years ago for Plastic Galaxy and was making his first trip to Gen Con.
Seventeen games played (sixteen uniques) and twelve first-times during my 90-some hours in Indianapolis. I also came home with a game to review: Munchkin Gloom.
Here’s a bit from my contribution to the “Our Most Favorite Things About Gen Con, 2015 Edition” post at GeekDad:
Three Gen Cons in, it has become very clear where my core time-balancing struggle lies: I absolutely love the free hours (often late) spent at the table with fellow GeekDads and friends, playing new game after new game after new game. That said, with each passing summer trip to Indianapolis, I’ve spent more time sitting down with dice and pencils and character sheets for role-playing adventures.
I did three organized RPGs this year:
After last year’s first visit to the Ninth World in Monte Cook Games’ Numenera, I returned this year for another ticketed small-group adventure, “The Hideous Game.” GM Ryan Chaddock led our party through an increasingly creepy mystery and a fun climactic face-off (for real: someone’s face came off. Numenera’s weird.), and the four-hour session zipped by. It also added to my knowledge and appreciation of the Cypher System developed for the game, which came in handy less than 48 hours later, on day three of Gen Con, when, for the first time, I sat in the GM chair and ran an adventure.
I also tried out Monte Cook’s second Cypher System game, The Strange, which is set in the modern world, with the core premise that the collected myths, legends, and fiction of humanity have spawned small pocket dimensions called “recursions.” This means adventures can take place in pretty much any setting imaginable, and bizarre stuff is way more likely than not. The adventure we played was called “Mastodon,” and there were velociraptors and cyborgs and something called a Wonder Gun, I think. Our GM, Dan Guderian, had a nice flair for cinematic storytelling that was put to good use in our final showdown. There’s definitely a Numenera flavor to The Strange, not just in the game system, but in the use of one-shot odd items called cyphers, and the chaotic undercurrent that means what’s behind that next door is probably never what you’re thinking.
After playing one-hour Dungeons & Dragons sessions my first two Gen Cons, we went for one of the three-hour D&D Epic adventures this time. After a bit of a rushed, confusing party muster just prior to game time, our party of seven settled in for “Mulmaster Undone.” As part of this year’s D&D Adventurers League events, this meant that as we took our place amidst dozens of other tables and parties, we were a small part of a large, single story event, and our table’s success (or failure) contributed to the overall story arc for the entire group. We had a fun mix of players and characters, levels one through three, and despite losing a quarter of my hit points in literally the first two minutes of the game – which is what happens when you’re a first-level deep gnome rogue facing a panicked stampede and YOU ROLL A ONE – I survived to the end of the night and had a ton of fun bringing down some nasty Elemental Evil cultists. Full credit to our dungeon master Ashley Oswald for keeping things moving and ensuring everyone at the table got to contribute significantly to the play. Her enthusiasm was contagious.
Add those three sessions to the three-hour adventure I GMed, and all told, I spent about 15 hours of my Gen Con playing or prepping for RPGs. I’m not sure how much more I could squeeze in without feeling like I was missing out on other things I love to do.
Here’s my game run-down. Asterisks denote games I played for the first time:
Camel Up* (Another of my Gen Con favorites.)
Dungeons & Dragons
Numenera (twice – one as a player, one as a GM)
Roll For It
Codenames* (Also a personal favorite.)
Riftwalker* (prototype – mentioned in Jonathan’s post here.)
There was also walking the exhibit hall, marveling at cosplay, enjoying good food and a few beers, catching up with great people I don’t get to see often enough, and all the stuff that makes this particular convention so physically exhausting and mentally energizing.
I got home from Gen Con fifty-some days ago (Yes, it was – as expected – another completely fantastic trip.), and I’m pretty sure I’m finally caught up on all my game-related writing.
I played 16 games at Gen Con this year, 11 of them for the first time, plus I came home with one more game to review.
So, here’s our series of GeekDad Gen Con collaborative posts, to which I contributed:
From that “Best of” post:
Pretty sure I’m not alone in this, but since being re-introduced to D&D a few years ago, I get such a kick out of picking up new dice. They’ve become not just part of my game-playing, but little souvenirs and memory triggers, too, since I have generally only added dice to my (relatively small) collection when I’m visiting a convention, or playing in a local game store.
And when it comes to dice, if you can’t find the ones you’re looking for at Gen Con, then those dice just don’t exist in this ‘verse.
With my recent fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set purchase, I needed a new dice bag, and Gen Con was the perfect place to find one. I also bought a set of oversized dice, a CritSuccess d20 spinner ring as a surprise for my wife, and added a couple free d6s courtesy of Crystal Caste (which provides an official Gen Con die every year) and Stonehaven Miniatures.
Gen Con’s non-stop nature remains one of the reasons I love it so much. I love this picture that Jonathan Liu took when we were playing Machi Koro. If memory serves, it was well past midnight, and we were far from the only people hanging out and playing games in that hotel lobby.
While the exhibitor’s floor at Gen Con closes every evening, several of the massive open gaming halls stay open so you can meet up for late-night Lords of Waterdeep or Lewis and Clark. And after-hours gaming at the hotels or the convention center can mean a chance to cross paths with the game designers themselves, since most of them tend to be busy during the day. We had one of the Wizards of the Coast creators stop by our table as we were playing his game at last year’s Gen Con, and this year, we wound up playing some nifty as-yet-unreleased games, simply because we were in the hall late, and Jonathan happened to see a few game designers he knew.
And here’s what I played at Gen Con:
Dungeons & Dragons
(I did a GeekDad write-up on all three, “The Shiny, The Weird, and the Neoclassic.”)
Roll For It
Golem Arcana (demo)
D&D Attack Wing (demo)
Steve Jackson Games also sent me home with a copy of Munchkin Adventure Time, which I just wrote up for GeekDad.
Dang, do I love Gen Con. Let’s do it again sometime.
(Oh, hey – Here’s a picture I forgot to post from Saturday the 17th:
– those structures? They’re all made of gaming cards. Yeah.)
Eight a.m. Sunday arrived all too quickly, since I’d just gone to bed five hours earlier. No, I did not drag myself down to the treadmill. I got up, showered, had breakfast, and hauled all my stuff – packed into one suitcase and one messenger bag – down to the hotel lobby. They let me check my suitcase with the concierge, since I wasn’t going to be leaving until mid-afternoon, but check-out time was 11 a.m., at which time I would be re-immersed in True Dungeon.
Dave and I met up around 9:30 and went into Hall B early so we could claim our characters and maybe help equip other players as they arrived.
This time through, we chose the combat-oriented storyline – again, there are more details in our GeekDad post on the True Dungeon experience. Different from Friday night’s puzzle-focused run – not just for that, but also because we were with eight people we’d never met – but the two hours flew by again. (Although if I do True Dungeon again, from here on out, I think I’ll stick with the puzzle quests.)
That was my last game of Gen Con 2013.
It was just past noon when we got out – yes, already afternoon on the last day of the convention, where everything starts to feel washed out by a sense of closing time and a bit of sadness, even though it’s hardly mid-day. Dave and I met up with Jonathan, who was heading back to the airport, and the three of us parted ways.
Texting Kato and Wendy, I found out they were close by, so I met up with them, and we made arrangements for gathering in a couple hours for the drive home. I think they were going to head out to the food trucks for some lunch, but I had just eaten another of my trusty peanut butter sandwiches, so I decided to go to the exhibit hall and pick up some T-shirts for Jenn and Kelsey and me. (For Jenn, a design with the TARDIS and the Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey quote. For Kels, John Kovalic’s CthulWho. And for me, one of these:
I spent awhile then just strolling the corridors and the exhibit hall, taking in one more time all the things that I love about these conventions.
Don’t blink, indeed. Where had the previous four days gone? How could it be over already?
Here’s my excerpt of the collective post Jonathan and Dave and I wrote for GeekDad afterward:
My short answer to “How was Gen Con?” can be condensed to four words: Physically exhausting, mentally invigorating.
I’ve been to four Star Wars Celebrations and the inaugural PAX East, so I’m familiar with the grin-inducing atmosphere and energy of large geek conventions, and the thrill of being in a crowd of people who share your excitement.
What I was unprepared for, though, was the different feel of Gen Con. I think I realized it somewhere around Saturday morning, when, despite the late nights, early mornings, and the amount of walking, standing, and hauling around a messenger bag, I was really energized.
I think it came down to this: Generally, the big conventions I’ve attended have offered tons of cool things to see and hear — panels or Q&A sessions featuring producers and model-builders and actors; presentations on toy prototypes or special effects; interviews and sneak peeks and art exhibits. And these things have been amazing and fun and mind-blowing, and I love them.
But while you can find similar offerings at Gen Con, the overall vibe of the place was one not of seeing and hearing, but of doing. People packing the exhibit hall not just to look and shop and get autographs, but to learn new games or play updated versions of old favorites, and share their discoveries with both friends and total strangers. Rows and rows and rows of occupied tables in the open gaming hall. The corridors still lined with dozens of people long after dark, sitting on the floors and just gaming together.
I played 15 games during Gen Con, 12 of which were completely new to me. They included everything from stacking/coordination games to memory-based challenges to deck-builders and role-playing games. And there’s not a doubt in my mind that this near-constant shifting of games and fellow players and strategies and goals played a big part in not just keeping me going, but eager to do more.
Wendy and Kato picked me up outside my hotel around 3 p.m. The drive home was uneventful, and I was glad for the chance to unwind and talk about the weekend with them. (And as we recalled Friday night’s True Dungeon run, Wendy totally solved the final puzzle which had doomed our party.)
So: A long weekend packed with unforgettable, enriching experiences shared with friends old and new?
No bigger win than that.
Woke up early enough to make myself go do another treadmill run. Only had enough in the tank for two miles, so I at least pushed myself and came in at under eight minutes per mile – barely.
Our first day at Gen Con, Dave had said something to the effect of, “We gotta play some D&D this weekend.”
We’d planned to line up with Kato at 9 a.m. to try and get a 10 a.m. session of Confrontation at Candlekeep, but just after eight, during another hearty hotel breakfast (seriously: I really enjoyed the morning menu), I got a text from Dave: “Just got over here. Line is out the door, erm, gate already.”
I got there a few minutes later, and Kato was there by about 8:45. I think we did wind up sitting down at our table to play a little more than an hour later.
I chose the pre-generated dwarf fighter as my character, since it’s a role I had no experience playing.
We had a great DM – Erica King – guiding our adventure, and I really enjoyed myself. (I don’t have enough comparative multi-edition experience to offer a good opinion on the D&D Next play. I know I had fun.) The only downside was that our party, through some odd quirk of the playtest logistics, didn’t actually get to do battle with the final monster. Erica did a great job of thinking on her feet and throwing new enemies at us so we weren’t just sitting there waiting. Still, again – FUN.
And hey: Sweet new free set of dice from Wizards of the Coast!
These are all my free dice from Gen Con – the blue and white set is from Wizards, the purple one was a Crystal Caste giveaway, and the green one was from ordering off the Pathfinder menu at Scotty’s Brewhouse, which is where Kato and Wendy and I went for lunch. (Love the effort that went into creating the art and copy for this menu. The descriptions are fun and amazing. And if you’re interested, we split an order of Goblin Ears, and I had a Squealy Nord.)
After lunch, I met up with Dave at the convention center again, then tried to catch Jim Hines for his 3 p.m. book signing. Then I double-checked the schedule and saw that it had been an 11 a.m. signing, and I’d gotten my days confused. Dang.
So Dave & I stopped by the Steve Jackson Games booth, where both Steve Jackson himself and John Kovalic happened to be sitting and signing. And I’d brought along my much-loved copy of Munchkin Bites for just such an occasion:
The third signature there is Andrew Hackard. Kelsey and I met Andrew at Penguicon – where he taught us how to play Munchkin – in 2009, and I’d been looking forward to catching up with him at Gen Con. The SJ Games booth was really busy, of course, but we got to chat for a couple minutes. Then he looked at his watch and said, “Hey: You should throw your name in the drawing for dinner at the Munchkin Tavern tonight – I’m hosting.” I filled out an entry card, and then Dave and I went to meet up with Jonathan.
The three of us played Paizo’s demo of its Pathfinder Card Game. At the time, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, but in retrospect, I’d like to see how a full game plays out, since it’s an interesting combination of role-playing rules and deck-building strategy.
Not long after, the three of us headed off in different directions, and then I got a text from an unknown number: I’d landed one of the Munchkin Tavern dinner seats!
Via text, Kato suggested that we could fill the time until I headed to dinner with a game of Lords of Waterdeep, so Dave and I met him in one of his hotel common areas. I’d never played the game, but I liked it from the start. Easy to learn and a fun theme. Also, I won. (Though with an asterisk – we cut the game short by a couple rounds at 6:50 so I could head over to dinner.)
Dinner at the Munchkin Tavern was a blast. Six of us Munchkin / SJGames fans and Andrew, just geeking out for hours, and enjoying some seriously excellent food and drink. At one point, with his actual Red Pen of Doom, Andrew began creating custom (and Munchkin-legal!) “Go Up A Level” cards. As he’s doing this, he looks at me and says, “Is it ‘E-L-S-E-Y?” Realizing he was personalizing a card for my daughter, I said, “Yep. And you’re awesome.”
His response was to grin and say, “You haven’t seen the card yet.”
It reads, “Beat Dad – Again. Go Up A Level. KELSEY ONLY.”
“Hackaaaaaaaaaaaaard!” (No, seriously: Awesome.)
It was past 10 p.m. when we all left, and the time had flown.
Even though Dave and I were doing another True Dungeon run at 10 a.m., it was the last night of Gen Con, so I wanted to keep riding the adrenaline. “Still up?” I texted Kato.
About 20 minutes later, I got a response: He was heading down to the lobby to meet a couple friends for another Lords of Waterdeep game, and invited me over.
We set up at a table in the bar with Kato’s buddies, who were ordering a late dinner. After they ate, we ordered some drinks and got the game going.
After a bit, a guy came over and said something along the lines of “Hey, I don’t mean to interrupt your game, but…are you having fun?”
It was almost 2 a.m. by the time we wrapped things up, and even though I knew it was going to be hard getting up at eight o’clock, I kept thinking, “Yep. This is how you do the last night of a con.”
So I’m heading back to the room, walking east on Maryland Avenue, and there are still a fair amount of people out and about. And I’m thinking about how I’m going to have to pack all my stuff in the morning before heading over to True Dungeon, because checkout time is 11 a.m., and that means getting up even earlier than I’d planned, because at this hour, I can’t pack when I get back to the room without waking up Jonathan, and –
– and there’s Jonathan, standing on the next street corner talking with someone, because he has also spent the last night of Gen Con gaming into the early hours of Sunday. We see each other and crack up with the absurdity of being up this late playing games and having so much fun.
Back at the hotel, I pack up everything I can, and fall asleep around 3 a.m.
(In which John, having reached Indianapolis for Gen Con, unsurprisingly goes to Gen Con.)
Finishing up breakfast with Jonathan and Dave just after 8 a.m., it felt like it should have been much later in the day, since I’d been up most of the night. But I was ready to get The Best Four Days in Gaming under way.
Jonathan and I checked our luggage – we couldn’t check into the hotel until Thursday afternoon – and after short walk to the Indiana Convention Center later, we had checked into the press room made our way to the main exhibit hall.
Dave & Jonathan are really enthusiastic gamers, and it was fun seeing the two of them walk into this massive space packed with games… and practically freeze with overload.
Before playing anything, I made sure to pick up my first free swag of the con – this sweet DungeonMorph die:
So, here’s what I remember playing that morning:
Roll For It! – Hey! I won the first GeekDad-played game of Gen Con 2013! (Thanks to a bit of luck – it’s a dice game, after all – and, I’d like to think, some lessons learned from playing too much Tali.)
Walk the Plank – I won this one, too, thus racking up two-thirds of my gaming victories that weekend in the first hour or so.
WeyKick – Jonathan’s Gen Con photo set at GeekDad includes a picture of Dave and me playing this tabletop soccer game.
Ooga Booga – Silly, silly fun.
Jonathan and Dave wanted to check out Robinson Crusoe – Jonathan included his thoughts on the game in his GeekDad gaming round-up) so I went along and watched for awhile, thinking ahead to lunch and a 1 p.m. appointment in Gamma World.
I was starting to take damage from the lack of sleep, so I excused myself from the Crusoe game table and headed out to find the food trucks that Kato & Wendy had mentioned were nearby.
A couple observations on post-2005 changes to the Indiana Convention Center:
- The additional convention space that now occupies what used to be the RCA Dome was most welcome, and made a huge difference in the crowds and traffic compared to Star Wars Celebration III. While there were occasional bottlenecks in spots, for the most part, walking around Gen Con, I spent very little time in those zombie-shuffling shoulder-to-shoulder packs that seemed to fill the main SWC3 corridors.
- The rise of the food truck industry has done wonders. One of my huge gripes about conventions is the lack of access to food other than the unremarkable and overpriced offerings within convention centers themselves. While I remember the Indy convention center having decent – if not quick – dining options within walking distance, there was nothing in 2005 to compare to the couple dozen food trucks that lined the neighboring streets this time around.
Right across the road, I found a truck offering bowls of homemade mac-and-cheese ladled over a scoop of pulled pork BBQ, and then baked for just a few minutes to get that nice golden brown top. That and a Coke did me up just right, and I felt much better heading over to Kato & Wendy’s hotel for our scheduled Gamma World adventure.
I’ve written before about Kato’s DM skills, so when he invited me to play in a GW adventure he was creating specifically for Gen Con, he didn’t have to ask twice. I met up with him and Wendy, and we set up at a table in one of their hotel’s public gathering areas. Three of their other friends joined us, and a four-hour post-apocalyptic quest ensued.
My random character generation? A highly dexterous felinoid demon. Naturally, I named him Cattygrumpus.
It was so meta, and so fun, and Kato’s attention to detail and planning were on full display. The setting was Indianapolis itself, in the ruins of the convention center. After Gen Con, Kato explained it himself via Twitter, and shared some of the cool original art one of his friends – @symatt – contributed.
I collected Kato’s Twitter descriptions and other art in this Storify piece.
And when the whole thing was over, we each got a couple custom Gamma World cards – again, worth reading for the detail.
So, having gotten my third wind, I headed off to check into the hotel and take a shower before attending A Night with Dungeons & Dragons.
I met up with Kato & Wendy outside the Indiana Roof Ballroom, the interior of which was designed to evoke Baldur’s Gate. And while there was a big puzzle/murder mystery activity you could participate in, the three of us spent most of the evening eating, drinking, talking, and enjoying the surroundings and talking to several nifty game creators.
Shortly after 10 p.m., I caught up with Jonathan and Dave in Hall D of the convention center – the main open gaming venue. They introduced me to The Great Heartland Hauling Co., and we played a game before calling it a day. (The game’s inventor, Jason Kotarski, happened to be at the next table over, and posted this picture to Twitter.)
And that was it: Having been on the go since roughly 5:30 a.m. the day before, I slept well back at the hotel.
Until this summer, the last time I visited Indianapolis was eight years ago, when Jim Carchidi and I covered Star Wars Celebration III for the Tribune Co. At the time, the Star Wars conventions were being run by Gen Con’s parent organization, and I remember the press room coordinator telling us, “This was a lot of fun – but you really should come back for Gen Con sometime.”
To the 2005 version of me, this didn’t sound incredibly appealing. Four days of Star Wars geekery was awesome – but a long weekend of, what? Games? I hadn’t touched a Dungeons & Dragons character sheet in decades, and for tabletop gaming, why would I drive all the way to Indianapolis?
I’m happy to say my horizons have expanded a bit since then, fueled by fantastic friends who’ve re-introduced me to role-playing games over the past several years, and gotten me into a range of tabletop and card games.
I was supposed to go to Gen Con in 2011, but that trip fell through, and last year, a big, family summer trip pretty much knocked everything else off the board.
Summer 2013: Achievement Unlocked. It’s been a week since I got back from Gen Con, where I spent a lot of excellent time with GeekDads Jonathan Liu and Dave Banks – neither of whom I’d seen since 2010 – and my friends Kato & Wendy, who were making their third trip to Gen Con.
It was four straight days of sheer amazing fun, and I’ve been looking forward to sitting down and writing about it.
So: Wednesday Aug. 14, I worked from home, so that Jenn could get me to the bus station on time.
Yep – the bus station. Several reasons, the details of which aren’t really important, but it basically boils down to the fact that my one-way bus ticket was far cheaper than either a single tank of gas or a couple days’ parking in Indianapolis. And since Kato & Wendy had offered me a spot in their car on the way home, that was really all I needed. The negatives? Just two: More time on the road than the roughly five hours it would take to drive myself, and reaching the Indianapolis bus station at 2:30 a.m. Thursday.
Still, Jonathan was due to reach Indianapolis around 6 a.m., and I knew Dave was going to be hitting downtown early, so I planned on just killing a few hours at Union Station, then making the short walk to the hotel once it was light and Jonathan was on the way.
Did I expect to sleep well on the trip? Of course not. Did I fully expect to kick off my first Gen Con trip with a rousing game of Sleep Deprivation vs. Geek Adrenaline? Of course I did. As Clark Griswold says, It’s All Part of the Experience, Honey.
Three legs on the bus trip, then. First up – Interstate 77 southbound, Canton to Cambridge, on a Barons Bus. Extremely cushy, nice ride, quiet and calm. Just about an hour. Dozed lightly.
Bit of a surprise to find that the transfer “station” to the Greyhound line in Cambridge was, in fact, a Marathon station*. Interesting. Four plastic seats available inside, but I opted to stay on the bench out front, since it was a nice evening.
The Greyhound was about a half-hour late, and by the time it arrived, there were maybe 8-10 of us waiting to board. It was a pretty full ride to Columbus. Made small talk with the Amish guy who sat next to me for a bit, then snoozed until we reached the next stop. (For the record: Not as nice a bus as the Barons coach. Little less cushy, little more creaky.)
It was around 11-ish when we hit Columbus. A longer stopover: Everyone had to clear out, even those of us getting back on board to Indy. (Or points farther west: Two of my fellow travelers were headed to Denver and Las Vegas. Yoicks.) On the bright side, when we re-boarded, the bus was maybe half-full, so I had room to stretch across the seat next to me, and I actually got probably 90 minutes of decent sleep over the next 175 miles. Arrived right on time, 2:30 a.m. local time.
I resisted the urge to walk across the street to the White Castle, found a seat away from the busier parts of the station, and settled in for about four hours of sporadic napping, reading, internet-based timekilling, and watching bits and pieces of The Goonies and From Russia with Love on my Kindle.
Got a message from Jonathan shortly after 6 a.m., and headed off to meet him at the hotel. It was light outside, just before sunup, and the early risers were starting to hit the streets wearing their Gen Con admission badges.
Seeing the badges and this table topper in the hotel lobby were reminders of what I love about going to conventions: They’re signs of the collective enthusiasm that reaches beyond the walls of an auditorium or exhibit hall and permeates everything around for a couple days.
Hadn’t seen Jonathan since my cross-country road trip. He sent Dave a quick message letting him know where we were, and the three of us had a hot breakfast at the hotel before walking down the street to the Indiana Convention Center.
* Post-trip footnote: The Google Street view of this station reveals the station’s makeover from a BP to a marathon, through an interesting quirk of photos taken about year apart. Here’s a super-short video.