Gen Con Indy 2007 Trip Report
The group of us heading out meet up for breakcast at the Pancake Cafe. As with two years ago, the food is good, but very slow to arrive. We were a large group, 13 strong, but an hour to get your food is a a bit long for breakfast food. I made reservations several days in advance to help ensure they would be ready. Ah well.
The drive out goes well. The strange hole in a wall we stop at for lunch is good; sadly no one is brave enough to try the Flaming Greek Cheese appetiser. The waitress admits that in her several years of working there, she's never seen anyone order it.
We arrive with a little time to spare before our reservations at Buca di Beppo. This year we're only dropping people off at two hotels, which simplifies things. Buca di Beppo is, as always, really good. Having reservations made several weeks in advance means we're seated almost immediately, skipping the long line of hungry gamers. We make the mistake of actually ordering too-little food, a neat trick given the large, family-style platters Buca serves. We order a second course and some dessert and all is well. Buca is impressive. It's distinctive, tasty, and manages to pull of the weird kitsch look without looking like corporate sellouts. Indeed, if I didn't know better I would have said it wasn't a chain (but it is).
After dinner we briefly met up with a friend who is a journalist. He had to skip dinner with us for a press briefing. He let us know the news: 4th edition D&D.
After dinner it's back to the hotel, the Westin Indianapolis. Unfortunately I didn't pay close enough attention when I booked the room: Internet access is $10 a day. Lame. Furthermore the faucet drips (never fixed), the television reception is fuzzy (fixed Friday), and the door's peephole is so blurry as to be unusuable (also fixed Friday). Not an auspicious start.
Sorcerer: Well Being
Most of the tabletop RPGs are in the Hyatt. There seems to be plenty of space and I never see a single room full. At this hour, we have the large room to our own for most of our slot so it's nice and quiet.
The game is interesting and fun. One PC, a power hungry businessman, kills another PC, a regretful priest, and siezes the priest's demon. Another PC, a grade school kid, uses his demon to terrorize and eventually murder his bully. Unfortunately my character, a teacher, doesn't have much incentive to get involved in all the mess; never a good start. Still it was fun. On the down side, the game reinforces my belief that Sorcerer can easily head down the road of the PCs stories never intersecting, and willfully avoiding each other if they do. Given the minimal external threats in this game, this makes it easy to have a zero conflict game. The kid and the businessman really pushed to create some conflict, but if the PCs aren't designed to want that it's easy for nothing to happen. I'm not sure what Edwards is thinking; I haven't read the full book.
As with last year the game is in the Marriott. They have plenty of space. Marshalling is a typical confused mess, just like previous years. First, as with previous years, they stupidly say, "Start time for this event is 1:12 PM, but you must arrive 10 minutes earlier!" Stupid, stupid, stupid. If I must arrive at 1:02, that means the start time is 1:02, not 1:12. They would dramatically reduce late arrivals by listing the real start time. If they think people will complain about not entering the dungeon immediately, they can say, "The 1:02 event will enter the dungeon at 1:12."
Of course, the insistance that we be there at 1:02 for a 1:12 game would be more believable, except we didn't start setup until about 1:20 and we enter around 1:35. I have no idea why they were running so late, but it sucked.
True Dungeon has many crippling flaws, but fundamentally crawling around through the cool looking maze is fun. When you figure out the puzzles they're satisfying. But the problems are so fundamental.
The token-based equipment system is a complete crock. Adventurers do not go into adventures with random equipment. By level 4 or so they should have the optimal non-magical equipment for their class. Fighters should not be scrounging for plate mail. But with the token system you end up with bunches of garbage. Trash that no one wants like small shields are common, while gear actual adventurers would have is rare. This leads to a disfunctional economy where the majority of objects are worthless. They tried one year to have stores, but this just caused everyone to quickly trade their worthless garbage for the small number of valuable items. By the middle of the first day the stores only had garbage left. The game has tokens for money and gems, but there is nowhere to spend them. The game also has tokens for a number of utility objects that I'm confident will never be used. For example, there are scroll cases that protect scrolls. However, given that people paid $1 for each token, I'm confident that True Dungeon will never include something that destroys a player's scroll tokens.
New players who don't buy extra tokens will be coping with a random selection of 10 tokens. Adding to the complexity, that group of new players will only have about 10 minutes (assuming True Dungeon is on schedule) to divide up characters, figure out what they can use, and rapidly trade between them to create better sets. It would be very easy to end up unarmed or with garbage equipment, making all of the combat encounters harder. Not fun. Conversely, a team with the optimal equipment acquired with money or luck has a much easier time of it.
I especially pity those people who played the combat oriented version (possibly because those were the only tickets available) but only had the freebie equipment; they probably had a very hard time of it.
The token problem can't fixed without radical changes, changes that may very well destroy the value of older tokens. Since True Dungeon makes a lot of money selling tokens in this dysfunctional system, they have no incentive to take such a drastic step. I expect this to continue sucking for years to come.
The other key part of True Dungeon is the puzzles. When you can solve them, they're fun, but when you don't they can be walls of frustration you beat your head against. This year we solved almost none of the puzzles. The puzzles we did solve, we mostly solved by brute force or luck. All in all, this was a very frustrating game. The puzzles tend to be all-or-nothing; you either understand it, or you don't. The cost of experimenting is very high. Here are the specific puzzles and solutions for 2007.
Exhibit Hall Crawling
I squeezed in some exhibit hall crawling in the afternoon. It's always fun, and I got a new photo of Gary Gygax for his Wikipedia article. There are lots of tempting toys, but nothing convinces me to buy it yet.
Fantasy Flight's Tannhäuser looks cool and has a neat line of sight system. They realized that by and large line-of-sight is bi-directional and that people in an indoor "area" can usually see everyone else in the area. They then just color the circles with the colors matching areas that an occupant can so or be seen by. Simple, obvious, and effective. However, the actual gameplay of occult Nazi and American forces skirmishing bored me.
Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition Announcement
Lacking anything to do between the exhibit hall closing and my next game, I head off to the D&D announcement, if only for a place to sit for a while. Turns out they were giving away free USB drives and t-shirts branded with the D&D logo. Score. The announcement is about as expected. They make lots of good general promises, including fixing the level 7-15 sweet spot, making all levels more fun, but we don't get concrete details. It turns out they ripped Dungeon and Dragon away from Paizo so they could make them online magazines part of "D&D Insider." D&D Insider will include content, online tools, online copies of all the books, and an online game table. Interesting stuff. On the down side, there will be a monthly fee. They don't mention if there will be Mac support (I'm betting no), or Linux support (I'm heavily betting no).
They don't mention if they'll still release under the Open Gaming License. That's important for me. First, the System Reference Document is just really handy. Second, it is a strong signal of how short sighted and money grubbing Wizards of the Coast is getting. Shutting down the OGL will be a sign that Wizards is entering the customer fearing, competition fearing death cycle at TSR did at the end. Fortunately my journalist friend confirmed later that they will release under the OGL. That's a good sign.
By the Stars: The Illyrian Crisis
I played The Illyrian Crisis on a lark. I knew nothing about the game, but a promise of "space opera at its finest" drew me in. The design has a promising goal: to create Star Wars-esque games. I like that. I like the idea of cards representing power that players traded off. The core idea I plan on pinching for future use and abuse. And the host is a part of the indie gaming scene and writer of at least one interesting RPG. All promising things.
Each character has two sets of cards, representing various aspects and powers. You have 9 of each set. As the Jedi-like character, I had "Mysterious Powers" and "Loyal Apprentices." One of the hot-shot pilot's was "War Hero" while one of the space pirate's was "Fierce Reputation." (I'm probably getting the exact names wrong, but I believe I'm capturing the spirit.) At the start of the game you start with all of your own cards, but need to give away most of them in a trading system. You pick other characters, announce some connection, being it positive ("You helped me escape from a Imperial patrol") or negative ("You've been hunting me unsuccessfully for years."), then give them some of your cards. There is a system in place to ensure that people all end up with the same number of cards in the end.
Actual gameplay revolved around setting up challenges. I'd approach someone and announce I was doing something they didn't like, perhaps breaking into their office and stealing some computer records. Presumably they wouldn't want this, so they'd resist. We'd each secretly bid a number of cards. The larger bid wins and takes a random card from the loser. The two sides then swap the cards they bid. When you bid a card, you and your opponent went back and forth explaining how the card applied. So I might have the card representing the Empire's soldiers, and at one point I used them explaining that they were cracking down on rebels, creating a diversion I needed, despite the fact I disliked the Empire. All in all a hopeful system.
Ultimately each character had two goals. These goals were always to acquire 8 of the 9 of a single type of their own cards, or 7 of the 9 in a set of their targets cards. These sets represented accomplishing some major goal.
That's the core of gameplay and a promising start. Unfortunately I don't think it works.
Within the previous month, the designer had been changing the game, saying one change "makes the game feel more of a table-top and less of a LARP." Not good, since people signed up for a LARP. The game requires space for players to mingle and separate, so it may need what Gen Con considers a LARP space, but it's very weak as LARP. Future event descriptions might benefit from explicitly noting this.
Setup is a minor hiccup. The idea of players creating inter-character connections on the fly is appealing. Unfortunately it chews up play time. Worse, players at a convention are hopping from game to game, dealing with dozens of characters a day. It's hard enough remembering other characters details when you refresh your memory using your character sheet. Remembering details invented on the fly is harder and those cool connections are likely to be lost. Pre-mixing the cards and writing a single sentence explanation of who had your cards and why would speed things up and ensure the information was lost due to forgetfulness.
A more serious problem is that the in-game challenges don't have any impact on the game mechanics. You can make a challenge that will move the story forward toward one of your goals, accomplish the challenge, but actually fail to have actually made any progress. Players were not supposed to directly trade, so friendly characters ended up concocting strange challenges and making meta-game thinking bids to actually trade cards. For actual hostile challenges, you had no way of ensuring that you would get the cards you were looking for. A player could horde 4 cards in a given set, refusing to bid them, to effectively take that entire set out of circulation. By refusing to accept a challenge (letting the challenge succeed), he could be certain the set would not enter circulation. Ultimately one's best chance for overall success were to challenge people, make sure the challenge is something they'll want to resist, them bid the minimum number of cards, hoping to end up with more cards after the swap. Furthermore, since the real game mechanics were about the cards, conversations quickly turned to them, with only thin attempts at role-playing. "I'm looking for any dirt you might have on the pilot's status as a 'War Hero.' Know anything?" It was hard to not have those conversations feel contrived as you attempted to learn who had the cards you needed.
The game is still in development, and there are promising ideas there, but as it stands it's not ready. It certainly isn't a LARP, it's more of a storytelling style RPG that requires LARP-like space. Even as a storytelling RPG, the game's core mechanics need to better reinforce the storytelling. Right now the mechanics feel weirdly detached.
Breakfast at the Westin's restaurant, Shula's. The food itself is good, but unexceptional. However, the prices are typical business-class hotel rip-offs. My eggs benedict were good, but they weren't $14 good. Worse, my decaf coffee tasted awful. The coffee had a sort of acrid and bitter flavor. I complained, and the manager explained that it was Starbucks, and it was always sort of bitter. Nevertheless, I sent it back, and they make a new pot. The replacement was just fine (admittedly a little bitter, but within the range of acceptable coffee).
Exhibit Hawl Crawling
I finish my initial crawl. Campaing Coins are really sharp looking, but at $60 for a basic set I can justify it for a game. I'm also not sure how practical it is. To allow players to divide coins between them however you'll like, you'd need one set per player, plus one set for the GM. You'll also spend a fair amount of time making change.
I appreciate the idea behind Dr. Wizard's Patented Elevation Indicator, but it's harder to read than just stackable chips.
I spend some more time haunting around the Indie Press Revolution booth. There are lots of tempting things. Unfortunately the small print runs mean they're expensive compared to more mainstream so I won't be able to pick up everything I might want.
Eva and I demo Fae Noir. The cover is awesome. The premise is cool. Fairies came back during World War I expecting to dominate a humanity that had devolved into a dark ages without fairies. Instead they discover that humanity did just fine and are now quite dangerous. So now fairies are integrating into society. Ultimately I don't care for the demo; the system feels like the d20/D&D design slightly tweaked. A game focusing on attributes, rolling to hit, and damage rolls, doesn't feel like a good match for modern fairy stories. Eva sees an appeal however and will end up buying a copy before the convention is over.
Lunch: Indiana GrilleI grab a quick bite at the Indiana Grille, one of the fast food places in the convention center. It's a little expensive, but not too bad. The burgers are reasonably big for fast food, meaty, and well done. They're as satisfying a a burger from a greasy spoon. I've eaten there in years past and the burgers are reasonably consistent.
Against the Reich!: Reign of Blood
I'm a big fan of the games Todd Furler runs. I signed up for "Reign of Blood" entirely based on the description and Todd's name. I should have checked out the rules system in advance to have a better sense of what to expect. Based on Todd's previous games, I expected more horror, but Against the Reich! is more pulp action. Fortunately I'm up for pulp action and had a great game. It was also an interesting twist in that Against the Reich! (and octaNe, on which it is based) is very much a storytelling game. Dice don't determine success and failure, they determine who has more control over the story: the player or the GM. As a storytelling game it worked really well. If you prefer more simulation and thinking as your character, it will probably be frustrating. I found it an enjoyable change of pace. In the first half of the game we chase a German archeological team as they seek out powerful artificats. In the second, we sneak into a German research engaged in dark experiments.
Dread: In Hallowed Halls
I've been intrigued by Dread for a long time. The use of Jenga as a resolution mechanic in a horror intrigues me. When faced with a risk, you pull a block. If you don't knock the stack over, you succeed. If you knock the stack over, your character leaves play, probably by dieing. The third option is to refuse the pull; your character stays in play, but fails at the task. It's so simple and elegant. I particularly appreciate the way in which the mechanic so visually represents the rising tension and, well, dread. I bought a copy a few months ago, but I really wanted to get a sense of how it plays before running it myself. Fortunately the game was great. In, "In Hallowed Halls" a snowed-in medieval monastary is having mysterious deaths and at least one murder. Kinraide ran a great game and got me excited about possibly running it myself. In the end there was only one death, my own characters, and my character willingly sacrificed himself (for the wrong reason, it turned out, but it was still fun).
d20: Return to Redmountain Hills
To finish off the day, an Order of the Stick role-playing game, "Return to Redmountain Hills." They list the rules as "Order of the Stick d20," which is a neat trick, since I'm pretty sure there is no OotS RPG. I assume they mean D&D. Unfortunately I'll never know, the GM never showed up. They announced it online (You're looking for the 8/14/2007 post; their archive system doesn't allow a stable link to it.). Unfortunately I didn't know about it. Worse, neither did Gen Con. When I reported the GM no-show, they said they expected the GM. The web site claims they tried to tell Gen Con. Gen Con needs to be able to handle last minute GM drops. It would removed some of the sting of the no-show if the hall captain had shown up and let us know.
Dinner: Steak 'n ShakeSteak 'n' Shake. Despite the crush of gamers, we're seated pretty quickly. Steak 'n' Shake is great. The food is solid and very reasonably priced. Highly recommended. That they are open 24-hours is just a bonus. A little tip: if there are only one or two people in your party, there is often counter space available without waiting in line.
Against my better judgement, but constrained by both time and a desire for a sit-down breakfast, we try Shula's again. Again the food is good but overpriced. More noteworthy, the first cup of decaf is awful just like the previous day. I send it back again, they make another pot, and the new cup is just fine. I'm pretty sure what I was tasting was burnt coffee, the sort you get if leave a pot of coffee on a warming plate for much too long. My best guess is that they sell almost no decaf in the morning, so it sits on the warming plate for hours at a time. This is why places that care about their coffee either use large thermos containers, or discard coffee that has been sitting on a heater for too long. That Shula's would allow this to happen is a sign of a really sloppy restaurant. Maybe their other meals are better, but with the signs of sloppiness and massive overprising, I recommend strongly against Shula's for breakfast.
Exhibit Hall Crawling
I've got just a little time before my first game, so I get a little exhibit hall crawling. I demo Bliss Stage over at Indie Press Revolution. It's an intriguing premise. In the future aliens from our dreams invade. Their key weapon is a sort of virus that kills all of the adults. It's now several years later and the children are starting to fight back. They can travel into their dreams in sort of mechanized armor and strike directly. Things are complicated because the children's relationships with each other form their mech and weapons. Failures in the dream work can actually hurt the characters relationships. An intriguing concept supported with a neat resolution system where the player decides which relationship suffers damage. I like it, although I'm not sure I can picture running it. We'll see.
ULARP: Firefly - Won't Be Fooled Again
My first game of the day is Firefly - Won't Be Fooled Again. Mark has positive things to say about the group, and I seem to recall enjoying other games they've run. The premise is interesting; governors and trade representatives from a number of outer planets in the Fireflyuniverse are meeting to discuss the possibility of going to war against the Alliance after the events in Serenity. A good premise. Unfortunately like a lot of LARPs, this one suffers for lacking binding details for what happens after the game. Almost all of the participants wanted things that would happen after, not at, the conference, but all they got were promises from each other, promises that might be meaningless. I was a governor looking for bribes so he can retire early. Several characters made big promises, but they couldn't do anything on the necessary scale in game. It was a bit frustrating. Sure, the small business trade association's representative promised good for free, which I could then sell for profit, but I can't know if that was a real contract, or a promise she planned to reneg on. They gave us some in-game money, but on the scale of a few hundred credits, roughly a few hundred dollars. For the governors, that was simply the wrong scale; a governor isn't going to be bribed for $200. There was a subplot about an infection, but most of the characters ignored it. All in all the game was okay, but not exceptional.
Cthulhu Live: Object of Desire
I signed up for Object of Desire based on my previous good experiences with the group. The event listing completely failed to mention that it was a western, but that's okay. They used black plastic sheeting to good effect to divide the room into several railroad cars. Exciting things happened, unfortunately they happened to other people. The luggage car was blown off the train and there were several gunfights. I didn't see much of any of them. I was assigned a character heading back east, having made his fortune selling cure-all elixers. My character wanted to just get home safe, sound, and with his wealth. My character wasn't armed. Add in that to my knowledge no other character knew or cared about my character and I didn't have much reason to be involved with the exciting things.
My only real goal beyond that was to sell what I had left of my elixir. After a half hour of pushing it, I found a buyer. I offered him a bottle for $5, which seemed a fortune given the era. Unfortunately he and I only had $100s. He generously bought my entire supply of 4 for $100, so I figure I accomplished my goal, but it was a good lesson: if you have currency in your game, ensure you have small enough bills for reasonable purchases.
There was some fun to be had, but all in all it was only okay.
Dinner: Steak 'n' Shake
After the game, Mark and I had dinner at the Steak 'n' Shake and talked about the Firefly and Cthulhu games. He has played several games by the group that ran Firefly and said they were very good; in his mind that game was a fluke. He didn't really find what he was looking for in the Cthulhu game. The Cthulhu Live system has a pretty strong tabletop basis, and I don't think it works with Mark's more freeform LARP preferences. I told him it was a bit weak, but still representative of the group's style.
Dinner was good, quick, and reasonably priced, as always. Because we were willing to sit at the counter, we were seated almost immediately.
Eva generously arranged a bunch of people with nothing else to do to do some board gaming. While waiting, I bumped into an old friend from high school, Francois. It was good to see him; we've been out of touch.
Much of the group takes a while to arrive; they're at a Greek restaurant a few blocks away that apparently features flaming cheese, dancers, and great gfood.
While the first group of people there waited for people to arrive, a fellow we met there taught us Russian Fish, an interesting Go Fish variant. It adds teams and an interesting trick taking system. It's lots of fun, but unfortunately requires exactly six players. I've put the rules to Russian Fish online if you're interested.
Mystery of the Abbey
When everyone showed up, we rented two games from the board games library. The library had a good stock of relatively new games. Some previous years it's seemed a bit thin.
We picked up Mystery of the Abbey and another game I don't remember the name of. I ended up playing Mystery of the Abbey. It's sort of Clue meets Brother Cadfel. There has been a murder in the Abbey, and the monks try to solve the case. Cards represent the monks. All but one of the cards are dealt to the players. The last card is the killer. Each monk has a description and matching illustration. Monks are divided into three orders (Templar, Franciscan, Benedictine), three titles (Father, Brother, Novice), and if they wear a hood, are clean shaven, or are fat. Each monk has a unique name.
You wander the Abbey. Some of the rooms provide special abilities, especially the ability to look at cards other players have. If you meet another player/monk, you can ask them any single question. They can either honestly reply and then ask a question in response which you must answer, or they can "take a vow of silence."
An interesting element is that you can ask any question you like. Obvious questions would include, "How many Benedictines have you eliminated as suspects?" More unusual questions include "Do you think you've identified the killer?" or "Does anyone you still suspect have an 'e' in their name?"
If you think you know something concrete about the killer ("He is fat"), you can announce it in a special room. These guesses are written down. At the end of the game you get points for correct guesses and penalized for incorrect guesses. When you guess the killer, you get points for a correct guess and a penalty for an incorrect one. Thus, it's possible if you contribute lots of correct facts but fail to find the killer, you can still win by points.
All in all a great game. I saw it at the con several years ago and was tempted, but it's a bit pricy at $50. If it was $30 I'd already own it, but at $50 it's a bit much.
By simple luck, I run into Peter Adkison on my way to the convention center. He kindly lets me take a photo for his Wikipedia article. Unforunately I screw up the shot and it's a bit blurry. On the up side, it's better than the existing photo, which is nice, but is very small.
Breakfast: American Deli
Another place in the convention center is the American Deli. They make a good, if unexceptional, chicken caeser wrap with fries.
Exhibit Hall Crawling
I did my final crawling and bought a small pile of games, including:
- Bliss Stage, the anime inspired game of children fighting aliens in their dreams.
- Dogs in the Vineyard, because I've been thinking about it for a while.
- Fear Itself, a horror game by Robin Laws, because an investigation based game by Laws intrigues me.
- Seven Leagues, a fairy tale game, largely because it was the last fairy tale game at Indie Press Revolution neither Eva nor I had.
- Spirit of the Century, so I don't have to keep bumming Eva's copy.
- Truth & Justice, a superhero game using the same core rules as Zo.
- Zorcerer of Zo, a promising fairy tale game I'm thinking Eva might like.
Og: You, Me, Go Fire!
My final game of the convention, and another GM no-show. Frustrating.
While already ticked that my GM didn't show, a Hyatt hotel employee wanders in and announces that we need to clear out in a few minutes, they have another event soon. We're scheduled to start a game and two others are already running, and we're being kicked out. We complain, but the employee insists that Gen Con knows all about it. When I go see the hall captain to report the GM no-show, I tell them about this. Unsurprisingly the hall captain knows nothing about this. Someone screwed up badly to be evicting the convention too early, I hope someone got chewed out for this.
Lunch: Steak 'n' Shake
Lacking a game, I met up with Eva again. We crawl the exhibit hall for a bit more. She buys a cool gryphon statue thing. I catch Lou Zocchi and Kaja Foglio for Wikipedia photos. The only photo I really wanted but didn't get was of Dave Arneson, so it's been pretty successful. She hadn't eaten yet, so off to Steak 'n' Shake again for another satisfying meal. During the meal the rest of our car called up and we arranged to head out of town.
The Trip Home
Meeting up with the rest of our group, we learned that three of them, who had formed half of a D&D Open team, had taken third place. Their prize: copies of 4th edition D&D when it's released, as well as invitations into the playtest. Awesome! The trip home went smoothly. We stop somewhere for dinner that is so inoffensive that I don't remember it.