Wednesday, August 5, 2015

On The Fury Road: Notes from GenCon 2015

36 hours after trudging my suitcase back up my Bronx apartment, I find myself sitting at my laptop trying to process the trip I just went through. I've just come back from my first trip to GenCon, the four day convention in Indianapolis which showcased any and all forms of gaming. Video Games, Card Games, TableTops, War Games, and Larps. It was a celebration of all things games, and a meeting of the industry that creates them and the fans that play them (who are, most often than not, both).

My trip began last monday, July 27th. I crashed with the members of Phoenix Outlaw productions. Shoshana, Josh, Nico, Justin and Abigail had all been to GenCon before. They had tried to explain to me what I was going to. Now, I'm a veteran of New York Comic Con. I've done DexCon and most of the Double Exposure conventions this past year. I knew what they were saying, and I wasn't getting parts of it. Like the scope wasn't right in my head. 

Eventually, I told them that I was going to have to treat this like the Matrix: I couldn't be told what GenCon was. I'd  have to see it to believe it.

We left early tuesday morning. There were detours early in New Jersey, which delayed our entry into Pennsylvania until the early evening. I don't know if anyone has ever driven through Pennsylvania. As someone who has relatives in the center of that state, allow me to state a theory: Thomas Penn founded that state using Illuminati magic and the bones of the Great Old Ones. PA does not function in the Space/Time Continuum like normal places, and has been known to drive, quite literally, most motorists insane.

Hours of Non-Euclidean Road Tripping lead us to crash in a hotel outside of Pittsburgh, where we were then joined by the members of Clan Jaffe (of Nerdy City, the developers of Pacfiic Rim: Rise of Tiburon; and ExArcana: the Chronos Mage game). We knew as well, that somewhere out there, the members of Eschaton Media (Dystopia Rising, Chronos, and many others) were also close at hand in the vicinity.

It should be mentioned that this trip was littered by quotes from Mad Max: Fury Road. A bunch of eccentric geeks not unfamiliar with the End of the World driving through unending roads and adventures. And as the three gaming companies moved through the east coast and into the interior states in a demented form of Wacky Races, with the burning sun of an imminent August coming down on us, it felt appropriate.
And Now...the Weather.

Getting into Indianapolis early Wednesday afternoon, I was immediately struck by what I saw. Downtown Indianapolis, for blocks around the Convention Center and the hosting hotels, was taken over by gamers. The hotel we were in, which was a converted trainyard, was filled with staff and nerds. Our keycards were printed with Settlers of Catan images. They knew us, and they welcomed us. The pub we went to for the Indie Game Developer Network party was full of eccletic peoples all talking and networking and being there for games, as was the bar where I got to watch the Diana Jones Awards be announced. By the end of the week, 60,000 gamers were in Indianapolis for this event. NYCC doesn't get that level of takeover. The only other conventions I know of of that level is San Diego Comic Con and DragonCon in Atlanta.

As mentioned before, I was working with Phoenix Outlaw productions. My main job was on Friday. During most of the convention, I helped Shoshana get to her panels which ran from all the corners of the convention. I got to see an industry panel for Evil Hat Productions, panels of diversity in gaming and women in gaming post-gamergate. The rest of the time was spent on the vendors floor, or as a runner for errands that needed to get done before the Dresden game while other members of the team were running Smoke and Glass or Dreamdiver.

Dresden Lives was an interesting excercise. Many of the people who attended weren't just first time players of the game, but first time players of larps. This lead to a challenge that I think we accomplished, and I think we showed the accessibility of the system and the setting. At one point during the game, I realized that the The Dresden Files books had become a gateway for people to try larping, inspired by the want to be a character in a favorite and accessible world (thank you, Jim Butcher). Likewise, there were many people who after playing the game wanted to read the series if nothing more than to get a better feel for the setting we were running in.

We were a packed house that night, playing to 55 people. That number would scare me, but after running a game for 85 in the beginning of July, 55 just doesn't have the same zing as it used to. Every game sees the players and the staff up their games and come up with something new and dynamic. And while it is always tiring at the end, it is a thrill to experience and be a part of.
Though at one point, I had to make a call to the Caffeine Gods...

We also got to use tokens for Fate Points. One of the things about Dresden Lives is that it is powered by the Fate Core system, which relies on Fate Points to power character Aspects and other special skills. Campaign Coins (shameless plug) was selling brass tokens specifically for Fate, and we were lucky enough to sell Phoenix Outlaw a set of them for the players. I felt this kept using the points all the more real to the players, as they had physical reminders of the cost of their actions and the rewards of doing something that may cause them drama. 
Fate Tokens in the Center, Plus CC's numerous Fantasy Currency

After Dresden, the volume of the weekend seemed to die down. We were off the hook collectively and could get some leisure in. I managed to get in a game of Ex Arcana, run by Sean and Megan Jaffe of Eschaton Media and Nerdy City. I don't think I've talked of Ex Arcana much here, but it's a game of Victorian Mages finding themselves in modern days to train the new generation of magic users while finishing the war that forced them in exile. So, Steampunk Magic in Modern Day. Yes, I'm a fan. Especially when places like Lovecraft in New York City and the Union Station are considered setting appropriate.

Excuse Me. I'm having Feelings Again.

This game of ExA was very intimate, and actually allowed me to find my character more. My Character, Lin, is a bit of a cypher to every one including himself. He's a pragmatic rebel, a loyal opposition. He's someone who prefers to talk things out, while also trying to figure out the angles and the exits. He's not the best thief, he's not even the best mage. But he's someone who can see where one could use the other. For someone who has been playing this character for a year, it was nice to finally get him settled in with that.

The Game was also very well crafted and executed, which has become the norm for Nerdy City. While they always use the mechanics provided (the Chronos Cards) they also allow for challenges that must be done live. Having cards that could solve puzzles means nothing, you need to actually DO the puzzles. This leads to an interesting interaction between Craig and Lin. Craig is ambivalent about puzzles, Lin effing loves them. It comes from a history of picking locks and doing art. He likes to use his hands and he likes exploring designs. Lin's more of a pragmatist than I am. These puzzles also keep us engaged in the game, and not drifting off, especially with a deadline.

The quiet moments, what few there were, were spent talking and drinking and getting to know people better. It's fascinating seeing so many people at this place, talking about this. I got to learn about the business and the politics of gaming a little --which is a good and a bad thing, for those of you who follow those sorts of things. I ran into friends whom I haven't seen in years, and some whom I'd only known in cyberspace. I made a few connections and got introduced to people whom I would never have gotten to meet otherwise. I also had a group of friends I could hang with, which for someone with a raging cause of social anxiety is worth its weight in silver.

I've mentioned this before, but I never really had a place growing up where I could feel like I belonged. There was no real language for being a geek, even during college I'd never really been able to say "I'm a geek". I had to graduate for me to accept that. So coming to something on the scale of GenCon was a massive eye opener for me. Watching geeks and gamers of various shades, stripes and structures live in this town for a week to celebrate gaming and geek culture makes me feel like I'm actually a part of something.

The drive home was more subdued, driving head long into the night. After 18 hours, I asked myself if it was worth it and worth coming back to? Yes, and Yes. Next year, I want to meet more people, do more panels. I want to get my ideas out and get people to notice.

So I'll be back in Indianapolis next year, I hope to see you there.



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