Where to begin? Having published a smallpress RPG, there seemed only one place to launch it, GenCon. Combining it with a holiday and visiting some friends seemed the way to go. We flew out a circuitous route from Birmingham to Amsterdam, Memphis and finally to Indianapolis. **Never, ever, do this.**Not if you want sanity and luggage to arrive with you, at any rate.
We put a brave face on and found our way to the hotel, the rather spiffy Hilton Garden Inn. It's a nicely plush place right in the centre of Indianapolis. I can thoroughly recommend it (though I was slightly disturbed by the Magic : The Gathering promo on my room key).
Full of jetlag and in need of the beer, my obvious choice was to drop off my meagre hand luggage and go in search of drink and the Diana Jones Award. I managed to hook up with the rest of the UK smallpress guys and the Indie RPGs crowd. I drank a toast to Irish Gaming Conventions Charity Auctions, who won the award this year, well deserved. Joe Prince in his awesomeness offered me a snazzy Contenders T-Shirt, so I had something to wear that wasn't an airline T-shirt the size of a tent or one that's been worn for 20 hours none stop.
By happy co-incidence I met up with the Flames Rising folks who were off in search of food. We went to Steak and Shake. It's a simple concept, meat, bread, uber-milkshake of death, but sometimes it's exactly what you need. We talked about random RPG stuff (differences in UK and US LARP culture) and our plans for the convention.
Thursday morning I entered the hall via the awesome power of my exhibitor badge and made my way to the Forge Booth, where folks were busily putting the last few things in place. There was a swell of people who I've only ever chatted to online before, but everybody was friendly and enthusiastic.
The day went well, the initial rush of crowd arrived to pick up their pre-planned purchases. I played in many demos, including an excellent court of the chinese emperor version of Best Friends, several repeats of Cold City(Monster hunting in cold war berlin), Mob Justice (gangsters in a parallel america), Mountain Witch (excellent samurai game), and Contenders (Boxing, like Rocky - the RPG). The Covenant demo works wonderfully. I ran it 8 or so times, each with radically different outcome. People bought my game.
It's fascinating to watch a 15 minute demo and how effective it is. Play, hit the interesting points, get to a good bit and then end. There's nothing like watching somebody play, hit the "oh, right..." moment, then pick up your game and rush for the counter. It's quite the contrast from the rest of the dealer room, where everybody else is showing books, talking up their game and maybe running a few 4 four demos over the course of the event.
In between demos I chatted to assorted small press designers, too many to list.
I did a bit of mooching round the dealer hall. Two things that attract my interest are Qin – the warring states, which is a lavishly presented game where Chinese history and myth mix. Oddly from a French company, I often wonder why we don't get European history re-imagined by an Asian publisher to balance this out. Second on my list is Hollow Earth Expedition, which looks pulpy and amusing. Sadly it looked a bit old-school design for my current tastes, but the stall was nicely decked out in an expedition look and feel.
In the evening we decamp for food at Alcatraz, where I discover a rather pleasant American style IPA and my girlfriend was nearly defeated by the US definition of "Salad". Following this I visited Embassy suites for after hours gaming. Iain McAllaister ran a fun playtest of his B Movie card game. Afterwards I joined Brennan Taylor's Mortal Coil game. Mortal coil is a game about magic, as defined by the group. We define a weird setting of surreal (in the Dali sense) magic, drugs and psychedelia. The game is most memorable for Joe's character's band trying to mollify a police raid by singing their new song "Come on Bacon, let's get shakin'" and for a plan involving custard as an anti-establishment weapon.
Friday I left early for the Con and quickly got caught up in the demoing. It was busy and tables are hard to come by. I played a demo of Shock:, which is a real attempt to do literary sci-fi and works amazingly well. Pick your social issue and your sci-fi concept and go play. A shame the demo featuring organ farming and class struggle was cut short. I also played Capes, a fun game of GM-less superheroes that I was a little vague on the rules of, and 1001 Nights, a game of tales told in an Arabian Nights style.
One event that's worth attending is the Indie game design seminars. I went with Iain, who went the year before and wanted to go back and show the crowd a success story. Luke and Jared put on a show, chatted with the audience about their ideas, advised and were generally critical but supportive. They showed off Mob Justice and let Iain answer those dreaded questions: What is your game about? How is it about it? What behaviours does it reward? There's a lot of energy at these workshops, which those in need of assistance can harness. This year's were ably recorded by Keith Senkowski,download the video.
I tried Don't Rest Your Head and Perfect on Saturday. These two were my out of left field purchases for the Con (a lot of purchases were pre-decided). Don't Rest Your Head is a game of people who gain superpowers due to insomnia. Like Neverwhere or Dark City in tone, you become really awake and realise the world is a weirder place. Perfect is “like Emily Bronte and Franz Kafka had kids and they made the Matrix”. A pseudo-Victorian society where the prudishness is ramped up and creativity and change banned. You play somebody who is a criminal, simply because they show a certain human trait. This leads to some cool drama.
In the evening a group of us joined the Scottish crew at McNivern's, a Scottish pub, ate Haggis and drank beer (Hobgoblin!). I met Steve fromPtgptb.Afterwards we headed to the Embassy Suites where we ended up talking with Jeff from Sons of Kryos and John Wick. This was a fanboy moment for me, as I'm player of 7th Sea and Legend of the 5 Rings from back in the day. John is a nice guy, and has many amusing anecdotes. Eventually we returned to our hotel, drank whiskey and discussed future plans for the UK Indie RPG scene.
Sunday was a slower day, since I was getting tired. I took a break to go and buy a few oddments, including a couple of decks of the amusing Villainy card game from Human Head. I was also drawn into a Street Fighter card game demo. It's not going to get me back into CCGs. The guys at Chronicles of Ramlar deserve a mention, if only for their over the top sales technique “the best game at the show!”, which had little in the way of substance to back it up. It's a real shame listening to somebody put their heart into trying to sell something that is no way as original as they think it is.
In the evening I went for Chinese food with Fanboy 3 's crowd, Angus from Leisure Games and some Chaosium guys. A final visit to the Embassy Suites proved that I suck at Junglespeed. But it is a great game. Must buy and practice.
So what did I think of GenCon? Well, I mainly saw the exhibitor's side and that really dominates your time. I enjoyed the social side, but I can't tell you if the scheduled games are worth it, or the card tournaments are worthwhile. There's a lot of choice and if you don't go in with a gameplan you can be swamped. If I go again, I'll make time for trying out Games on Demand or a LARP.
It's an certainly an event to visit at least once (and I may go again if I can rustle up some cash). As a small publisher I could offset some costs, which was nice. It's expensive if you only go for the Con, but worth it if you do the tourist thing before or after.