High Programmer > Alan De Smet > Games > Role-Playing Games > Gaming Conventions > Trip Reports > Gen Con Indy 2010

Gen Con Indy 2010

Gen Con Indy 2010 was great, and totally worth it. Lots of fun games, a healthy feeling in the exhibit hall, and a record setting 30,000 attendees. There were some rough patches, but the good outweighed the bad.

The Good

I got into one of the few Leverage (Margaret Weis Productions), and it is brilliant. In three hours we staged a complex heist/con-job. Everyone was involved and excited. We didn't get trapped in a loop of paranoid planning, the game encouraged us to take risks and rewarded us for doing so. While built on the Cortex system, it has been torn apart and rebuilt to make you feel like an awesome specialist. In the end it felt like an episode of the show. Absolutely worth checking out. The Saturday morning slot sold out of the 12 tickets, but only 7 people showed up; 5 people missed out on some exceptional gaming. I'm eagerly await its release!

I've now played Don't Rest Your Head and enjoyed it. It's a role-playing game of insomniacs who gain access to another world, one that is largely trying to kill them. Their sleeplessness gives them strange powers, but they are constantly grappling with madness and collapsing of exhaustion. Falling asleep is dangerous, because the things hunting you can easily kill you. As expected, it's very easy to enter a spiral where you push yourself too hard, making your character tired or a bit crazy, which makes you push yourself and eventually die. One weakness in the game is that that the rules didn't really convey to me what an actual game would be like, so I was happy to see one GM's interpretation.

I played an entertaining Hollow Earth Expedition game. The rules are good enough, but not exceptional. We survived a pirate attack, tangled with lizard people, and escaped from Nazis. All in a pulp adventurer's day's work. But it was run by a GM whose work I really like. At the risk of denying myself seats, if you like story and character heavy tabletop games, I recommend Todd Furler's games.

Todd also ran a great Unknown Armies game in which a group of high schoolers coped with angry ghosts. It was a good setup with plenty of opportunities for tough character decisions. It might be a bit large at 6 or 7 players. While the official setting for Unknown Armies doesn't do anything for me, I like the rules, especially the sanity system.

An extended demo of Heroes' Banner, an RPG for telling coming of age stories for young adults of notably birth in a fantasy world. The mechanics are simultaneously simple and confusing; at one point the game designer and I had to recheck out math several times to find a point we'd misplaced. I have no idea why the mechanics work, but they do capture the element of a young adult grappling with choices and lurching back and forth between possible destinies. I should pick up a copy; sadly none were available at the con.

I played a short game of Zombie Cinema. It was short because we all fell to the zombies relatively early in. It's extremely lightweight, to the point that the rules really just provide a pacing mechanic for telling a shared story. Interesting, and possibly a good filler game.

True Dungeon set a new bar last year for good puzzle design. Sadly this year was a slight step back. On the up side, True Dungeon improved the combat, adding interesting complications including a gelatinous cube with someone inside you had to avoid and an ice demon with a protective barrier. And while the puzzles weren't quite as good, there were some good "everyone has to get involved" physical puzzles.

I played demos of and purchased Perry Rhodan: The Cosmic League and Space Hulk: Death Angel: The Card Game. Rhodan is a simple but satisfying two-player space trading game. You haul cargo from planet to planet for profit, trying to grab particularly profitable loads before your opponent. It's been described as a simplified Merchant of Venus, but I've never played it so I can't say.

Death Angel is a baroque cooperative card game set in Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000 universe. A group of heavily armed and armored space marines fight their way through a hulk of welded together starships filled with genestealer aliens. After one full game, it seems a bit easy, but I'm keen to give it another go. I fear my judgment may be impaired, as I love the old Space Hulk board game and parts of the 40,000 universe.

Steak 'n' Shake continues to be a great place to eat. After a rough first year with Gen Con they learned to bring all hands on deck. They turn tables over quickly, the food reasonably priced, and the staff polite. If there is a line heading out to the door, don't worry too much, that's about ten to twenty minutes of wait.

The Omni Severin hotel continues to be a good compromise for proximity to the hotel, price, and ease of getting rooms. The rooms are nice and well kept, if a bit small. The staff are friendly and professional. Wifi is free if you sign up for their free rewards program. The breakfast is very good, but extremely expensive, although the attached cafe is quite reasonably priced. The two bars (one allows smoking) is a good place to hang out and game.

The last few years the exhibit hall has felt a little empty. It looks like that trend is reversing, as the exhibit hall seems very lively this year, full of attendees and exhibitors. The room was buzzing with people.

The So-so

I got in a game of Godlike. I like the setting. I like the One-Roll-Engine. I liked the plot of the event. But I realized that everything I find problematic about Shadowrun is present here. In particular, deadly combat makes players extremely cautious and prone to over-analyzing situations and rejecting all proposed plans as too risky. That lethality also makes small differences in world-model between the players and GM potentially game ruining. For example, the GM and our team's talker had different ideas about how one would bribe a checkpoint guard, leading to our covert team almost getting searched twice. This was hard to justify since in our back story we had crossed through that checkpoint repeatedly. Godlike can be a good game, but I suspect you need a very good GM and strong communication. We had a good GM and okay communication, and I did enjoy the game, but it wasn't everything I might have hoped. In the process I learned that it's probably not the game I want to play often.

Bounty Head Bebop's art and setting capture the feel of Cowboy Bebop, but the game system doesn't. It's a forgettable D&D derived system interested in trying to simulate the physics of the world. Unfortunately creating the feeling of Cowboy Bebop requires more than weapon and price tables. The resulting game, run by the designer, lacked the fluidity and style of the source material. Counting squares on a battlemat doesn't match the excitement of seeing Spike spar with a target. A D&D player may find it an easier transition something more unusual, but even then they would probably find d20 Modern/d20 Future easier yet.

The swag bag is the saddest it's been in many years. The yearly Chessex dice was there, which was nice, but beyond that it was fliers and an issue of the decidedly mediocre D&D comic. Obviously I'm not owed anything, but as a result the swag bag wasn't fun and felt more like a chore to sort through.

The Bad

Gen Con sent out dire warnings that if you had your badge and event tickets mailed to you, and they didn't arrive, you were out of luck. Unsurprisingly, lots of people did Will Call. Unfortunately Gen Con wasn't ready for this. Four of my friends spent an hour or so waiting in line Wednesday evening to pick up things they had paid for month earlier. Gen Con needs to work on this.

Gen Con staff were out checking badges in force. I understand the need, but checking badges of people in the hallways of public hotels crosses the line. Some of the badge checking staff were quite polite, but a few were invasive and disrupted games to check. Many RPGs are struggling to fit a satisfying experience into 4 hours, typically less if players have another game immediate after, and even less when players need to leave for other buildings. Any interruption is a big deal.

Room noise was pretty bad this year. I don't know if it was just bad luck compared to last year, but rooms seemed unusually packed.

The Embassy Suites is a terrible convention space. Good luck finding your way in; there are no logos on the outside near the pedestrian entrance. When you find the entrance there are still no logos; you need to walk through a small mall area past several restaurants, a hair salon, and an off-track betting counter (classy!) to get to the hotel itself. In two visits to their bathroom on two different days I found myself drying my hands on my pants. It's also the furthest gaming space from the convention center; I would recommend allocating at least 20 minutes to get there for an event. Hopefully with the expanded convention center space Gen Con can stop using the Embassy Suites.

True Dungeon's treasure tokens is its metal-filled, plastic-coated ball-and-chain. You end up with piles of mundane equipment like backpacks and rope, but they're never used in play. Someone who has been playing for years will typically have good equipment, making the fights range from easy to kinda hard. Someone who is new the game will typically have garbage; without help from someone with more tokens fights will range from hard to impossible. I'm left in the unfortunate position of telling potential new players to not play unless they have help from someone with tokens to share. The greed of the True Adventures team that they would give new players a bad experience just to sell more tokens is shameful. (I'm also bitter that the clues given to successful rogues are almost always crap. In about five years of playing my wife has recovered almost every clue, perhaps 20 or so. Of those 20, only 1 told us something we didn't already know.)

The Weird

Where was White Wolf/CCP? To someone who only pays a passing interest, it looked like White Wolf had disappeared. The last few years White Wolf has had a multi-booth area in the exhibit hall, showcasing their current releases with a wide variety of products for sale. This year their fielded a single booth and decorated it like a teenage goth's fantasy of a vampire club. There was absolutely no evidence that White Wolf published games; no displays, nothing for sale. The entire booth was dedicated to promoting The Grand Masquerade, a convention/LARP in New Orleans. While neat, the complete lack of product made them look like they were dying. Some research reveals that in a poorly posted announcement, they are in fact no longer publishing books, but are moving to a PDF/Print on Demand model. Odd that this little detail was announced in an out of the way blog, and not on their front page. They are strange days when indie companies can justify print runs but a company as big as White Wolf can. Given at at around 3,000 copies it's more cost effective to print traditionally to print on demand, I can suspect that White Wolf is doing very poorly indeed.

Dungeons & Dragons appears to be in a similar boat. Dark Sun is due out imminently, but there wasn't any sign of it in Wizards of the Coast's booth. Ravenloft (the setting) was announced, but also had no presence in the booth. The Ravenloft board game is due out soon, but again had no publicly visible presence in the booth. The Wizards booth appeared to consist of lots of Magic: the Gathering, a single table demonstrating D&D, and a few unloved computers demoing D&D Insider. (Notably not being demoed were the character visualizer or online game table. After much ballyhoo and promises both have been quietly axed.) I was eager to see Dark Sun, to ideally take a new book home but to at least learn some more about it and they missed their opportunity. This, combined with what appears to be increasingly cynical and mercenary product decisions leads me to the conclusion that Dungeons & Dragons isn't doing well enough to make Hasbro happy. That's the peril of selling out: I bet D&D is making money, but the parent company isn't satisfied and is now strangling the goose as it tries to push more golden apples out. I think the D&D team is doing the best they can to make a genuinely good game given the circumstances, but they can't work corporate miracles.

The Future

Next year construction should be done, opening up a bunch of space in the convention center proper. This will allow a lot of events to move back from the less convenient hotel space. This will make booking back-to-back games easier, making finding games at the last minute easier, and generally help us feel like a single convention. I'm looking forward to it.

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