GenCon 2014 Recap

I went to my seventh GenCon this past week and had a blast. It was a different beast from previous years but it was still an utter delight. As always, I learned a number of things about myself as a gamer and as a person. Here follows the recap and lessons learned.

Wednesday

My companions this year were two good friends from college. We all live in Chicago and made the trek together. Erin drove and it was her first time going to a convention; she’d been so excited by the photos I’d posted last year that she immediately started making plans to go this year. Short Dave had come to GenCon with me from 2009-2011 but took a few years off because weddings are expensive. We left Chicago around 10:00 and got in about 14:30 local Indy time. No stop for lunch so we headed to The RAM for a late lunch after checking in. I texted Monica and detoured over to the Ex Hall to pick up my exhibitor’s badge, courtesy of Margaret Weis Productions. The Fantasy Flight Games booth was set up by the time I got there so I swung by to get a sneak peak at the display. I was able to confirm that Rebel Aces and Force & Destiny were at the con but there were a number of table tents in the Star Wars section that said “Product not available yet, to be announced Friday afternoon” or some such. My interest was piqued.

After our late lunch/early dinner, I sidled over to the RAM sidewalk area where the Gamerstable crew had assembled. It was good to see them again. They were the first of my “GenCon friends” I ran into at the con. I got to meet Gamerstable Greg and some of the grunts he served with in the army. Naturally, they did what old soldiers always do: swapped war stories. That was a hoot to watch and really gave me an idea for a storytelling/role-playing game about telling and retelling war stories.

The Indie Game Developers Network had a mixer that evening at 19:00 so I headed that way. The people I met there were excellent, including Steve Radabaugh, Shoshana Kessock, Marissa Kelly, and Andrew Medeiros. I also ran into Ron Edwards and Mark Diaz Truman which is always nice. The inestimable Rob Wieland gave me an ARC of Rebel Dawn by John Jackson Miller that he got at SDCC last month. Thanks, Rob!

While the company was good, the venue was less than stellar. The event had drink tickets and I asked the bartender what I could get with one. He said, “Pretty much anything.” So I called a mid-shelf Manhattan and the bartender responded with, “You fucking people.” Pro tip: if your bar does drink tickets, you get to say what drinks can be ordered with a ticket. Want people to order draft beer and well drinks? Say so. That’s fine. But don’t make it an open bar and get shitty when people order the drinks they actually enjoy. It’s not my fault you didn’t do your economics homework. Either charge the hosts more for tickets or limit your drink selection.

The Diana Jones Awards were after the IDGN mixer so I joined the flow of designers wandering that way. My expectations for the event were completely dialed wrong. It wasn’t the small gathering of people I was expecting but a bar party with an awards ceremony no one could hear thrown in at the end. This wasn’t all bad as I got to meet a number of industry people face to face, including Chris Hanrahan of Evil Hat Productions, Shane Hensley of Pinnacle Entertainment, and the hosts of the One Shot Podcast. I walked away with a number of business cards and a solid buzz. I may wind up running Firefly and some Fate for One Shot. Time will tell.

Thursday

I woke up bright and early, shook off the budding hangover and started GMing Firefly at 09:00. One of the things I love about GenCon is that the community is actually fairly small and you will continually run into people you’ve met in years past. Jeff, one of the hosts of the Roo Sack Gamers podcast, was in that first Firefly game. I’d met him a few years ago running Marvel Heroic when six of the Roo Sack Gamers were my table. We’ve run into each other each year since and have kept in touch. Last year I had the pleasure of telling them I’d been hire for Firefly and they were incredibly supportive. It meant a lot to me that I could run the game for one of them after it came out.

My Firefly games were a tall order: character creation and a full adventure in three hours. But I did it each and every time. That first game saw the most vindictive crew of the convention. They ran a compelling con job on the owner of the mine and rescued the sheriff’s daughter from captivity. Then, for good measure, they blew up the owner’s house. All the players dropped into character super easily and the game went very smoothly. We had an Asteroid Miner, High Stakes Gambler, Blue Sun Corporate Assassin, Triad Enforcer, Career Lawdog, and Retired Outlaw in the group.

After my game I managed to squeeze in some lunch at Panera with friends I don’t see often, Daniel and David Feldman; father-son gamers I met back in 2008. Daniel has since moved to California and David lives in the suburbs of Chicago. Booth duties awaited me and I ran short, 5 minute demos of Firefly until 16:30. The booth demo is the easiest thing in the world to run. I start by handing the player Jayne’s character sheet and then launch into this introduction: “Jayne, you are sitting at the bar enjoying a nice, quiet drink while wearing that rather cunning cap your mother knit you. Mal is in a booth behind you negotiating a job. Some drunk local walks up and in no uncertain terms tells you that the hat you’re wearing is the ugliest in the verse and you are an idiot for wearing it. What do you do?” Ninety percent of players punch the guy. Nine percent will try to intimidate the local and try to get him to piss off. One percent, those glorious bastards, will haul out Vera and shoot him.

My friend Scott swung by the booth while I was there and I saw that the YT-2400 and VT-49 were in his swag bag. When my shift was over I hopped in line at the FFG booth to pick up the majority of my swag for the convention: two Rebel Aces, Force & Destiny, Far Horizons, Onslaught at Arda I, and the final Force pack in the Echoes of the Force cycle Darkness and Light. The Decimator and Outrider were sold out for the day. Drat.

Dinner that night was with the Gamerstable guys at St. Elmo’s for their “Gamerstable Appreciation Awards.” You can find pictures in the link, including some rare images of me without a hat. The food was phenomenal, quite possibly the best steak I have ever had and easily the best shrimp cocktail of my life. The company was wonderful. Everyone in the Gamerstable crew makes an effort to be friendly and welcoming to friends of the show.

I was feeling worn out from all the interaction and the hangover hadn’t left me with much energy in the first place. Met up with Erin and Short Dave and relaxed with them for the rest of the night.

Friday

Day 2 of GenCon started off excellent. I was scheduled to work the booth from hall open at 10:00 to noon. So I used my exhibitor badge to slip in fifteen minutes early and hit the FFG booth for my YT-2400 and VT-49. Booth demos happened much like the day before. Lunch was a hasty trip back to my room for a peanut butter sandwich.

That afternoon I ran another game of Firefly this time for what seemed to be a trio of father-daughter pairs. One of the girls cracked me up because she was the most vicious, bloodthirsty player I’ve come across in years. She played a Battle-Worn Bounty Hunter and the rest of the group played a Career Lawdog, an Academy Dropout, Alliance Engineer, Minor League Hustler, and Alliance Black Ops. This was the most challenging game I ran because of the social dynamic at the table. The dads were constantly trying to wrangle the girls back on task while the bounty hunter just wanted to shoot people and/or blow stuff up.

Erin was feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the madness that is GenCon so the three of us went to see Guardians of the Galaxy and decompress. Short Dave and I had seen it before, it was Erin’s first time. The movie does not fail to deliver even after multiple viewings.

Dinner was at CPK and then Short Dave went to do some Magic drafts while Erin and I headed to the Embassy Suites to meet up with people. Meghan and Eric of the Jank Cast were demoing Green Light, an Apples to Apples-esque game where you pretend to be Hollywood producers pitching movies (or TV shows or Broadway shows or whatever) to a studio head.  The studio head flips over a property and each team has a hand full of style cards. I teamed up with Meghan, friend-of-the-Jank-Cast Dave teamed up with Kevin of The Walking Eye, and Allegra from The Walking Eye paired up with Erin. It was a hoot. My favorite pitches that I made were for a Thunderbirds/Team America marionette show Comedy Central reboot of Showgirls and a Muppet Babies-esque Saturday morning cartoon take on Watchmen. The game is a huge amount of fun and I think it’s my favorite take on the Apples to Apples formula. It requires more creativity and investment than Apples to Apples but doesn’t rely on social transgression the way Cards Against Humanity does. I also got to run into Josh Jordan and talk to him in person, which is good because we host a podcast together and interfacing in reality rather than over electron flow is good for building rapport.

Walking back to our hotel from that game Erin told me I was a “total gaming celebrity.” I attempted to refute this multiple times but kept getting interrupted by Ennies winners saying hi to me as we walked. It was hilarious in its frustration and beautiful timing.

Saturday

My only late morning, I skipped breakfast and met up with Eric, Dan, and Jayson of Gamerstable because they wanted to talk to me about some ideas for an upcoming actual play series. I won’t go into the details here but it sounds absolutely awesome and I am pumped to be working with them on it.

I ran a small table of four for Firefly that afternoon. Turns out that my table was a regular play group who all got tickets for the same event. I love running these sorts of games because the players bring their own dynamics to the table and usually aren’t shy about busting one another’s chops. We had an Alliance Engineer, a Small-Time Trader, Natural Reader, and a Security Professional. I had a moment of designer squee when the Natural Reader used the Two Heads are Better Than One trigger in the Brain Leech Distinction to borrow the trader’s flying skill for the climactic scene. Having one of my weird triggers get used in a game I was running was super exciting.

That evening I played in a giant game of FFG Star Wars run by Keith Kappel, one of the freelance writers for the series. He used the pregens from the Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion boxed sets for the player characters. Only we weren’t whatever species was listed: we were stormtroopers, elite members of the 501st to be specific. The scenario he presented is that we were assaulting the Tantive IV in an attempt to find the stolen Death Star plans and redeem the squad after failing to stop the plans’ theft on Raltiir. As I had taken the Wookiee Hired Gun with a vibro-axe, I volunteered to assault the bridge through the forward hatch while the rest of the squad came in through the escape pod bay. My rolls were on fire. It was so satisfying. In the end, we were unable to recall the plans but we were able to get proof (from log files) that the plans had been on board before the Rebel scum deleted them.

Sunday

Early morning breakfast, followed by hauling my crap to the car so Erin and Short Dave can check out while I’m running Firefly. The game itself went really well, the biggest challenge was one player was already very familiar with the rules and kept interrupting to ask me questions about GMing because he’s on a quest to become a better GM of Firefly. We had to rush toward the end but that was only because the players were getting such perverse delight out of planning their elaborate heist that I let them go longer than most groups. We had a Retired Outlaw, a hippie Natural Reader, Small-Time Trader, Security Professional, Battle-Worn Bounty Hunter, and Academy Dropout. Lots of hacking, lots flying, lots of using Influence to annoy people. The best moment was at the very end, after they successfully steal the ore from orbit, the Retired Outlaw broadcasts on an open channel, “The package has been obtained, Mr. du Bujac” and then spent a Plot Point to use his Too Old for This trigger to hit du Bujac with a d8 Wanted by the Law Complication.

After the game I managed to hit a food truck before my shift at the booth for more demos. I worked the hall until it closed and then we trekked home.

Lessons Learned

I’m an introvert and I really need to take time to recharge. The exception to this is in social situations where I have a drink in hand; my inhibitions are lowered sufficiently that it’s not as draining to be around people.

I need to try harder to get a hotel connected to the convention center. Too much time was wasted getting to and from the hotel and really complicated some things.

Make more time to play games. Friday and Saturday nights were awesome and I only got to play a little bit.

When setting up game and booth schedules, give myself one full day off.

About PK

PK Sullivan is a game designer and writer living in Chicago.
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