Christian’s Gen Con 2014 Recap – The Experience

gen-con-logoAs I mentioned last week in the first part of this article, Gen Con is not just a gaming convention.  Sure, there are hundreds of opportunities to sit down and play any manner of tabletop game, but it offers many other unique experiences as well.  I already talked about the new board games I played, so here’s just a taste of the other activities that occupied my weekend…

A somewhat blurry photo of the Goon meetup at Colts Grille.

A somewhat blurry photo of the Goon meetup at Colts Grille.

SomethingAwful Meetup

You’ve probably heard stories about the SomethingAwful “Goons”.  They’re scourge of the Internet: Their forums are full of tasteless garbage and horrible pictures, and they troll online games incessantly. They ruin everything.  As someone who has been posting on these forums for over a decade, I’ve found that the reputation is (mostly) undeserved.

Throughout Gen Con weekend, the SA community used the GroupMe mobile app to coordinate several meetups, including a massive pub crawl.  Not being much of a drinker, I passed on the night of drunken revelry, but I did get a chance to attend a pre-con meetup at Colts Grille.  The restaurant featured a hilarious nerd-themed menu, and they were running a “bar trivia” contest throughout the night.  Goons being goons, we did come up with a team name so filthy that the trivia announcer couldn’t read most of it over the PA system.  Other than that, everyone was pretty tame and we had a fantastic time talking about games and Gen Con experiences past and future.

It was great to be able to put faces to names that I’ve known online for so long.  And as much as the SA Goons may revel in their reputation, don’t let them fool you — they’re just like everyone else.

Our stalwart Dungeon World party

Our stalwart Dungeon World party.

Dungeon World

MeepleTown is primarily a site about board games.  However, the inner nerd in me still remembers my Dungeons & Dragons roots.  I’ve largely abandoned the Critical Hit tables and Monster Manuals of yore in favor of Euro-gaming’s more streamlined experience, but the yearning to smash my way through a dungeon with some good friends never quite disappears.

This is where Dungeon World comes in; it’s a story-based roleplaying game system that eliminates the need for large tomes of rules and charts.  Everything the players need is printed on their character sheets, and everything that happens comes from the GameMaster’s summarized scenario notes and — more importantly — from his mind.  It’s not a strict storytelling game, in that there are rules and systems; it’s just that they’re secondary to the fiction.  A lot of old-school RPG grognards dismiss this type of game as “D&D for Dummies”, but it takes an imaginative group of players and a skilled GameMaster to really make Dungeon World shine.

At Gen Con, our talented GM ran us through his version of Lair of the Minotaur, a quick “one-shot” adventure that would fit into our assigned time slot.  My character was a Mage with an affinity for movement and freedom, which often ended with hilarious results.  One of Dungeon World’s core mechanics is the idea of partial failure: you get what you wanted, but also something you didn’t plan for.  In the case of my character, it was frequently my magic going crazy and doing much more than I intended.  In trying to create magical armor around our Druid’s bear pet (conveniently named “Bear”), I accidentally outfitted everyone in invulnerable armor — including our enemies.  Later, while trying to create the illusion of a bonfire, I conjured an enormous, blazing wall of very real flames that split up our party.

You may have already read Hillary’s account of the bone-chilling Crabopotamus, and that was the kind of imagination-fueled experience that is Dungeon World at its best.  In the end, we conquered the titular minotaur, but only at great cost — our Slayer sacrificed himself to end the minotaur’s curse.  It was one of my favorite activities of the weekend. If you can find a skilled GM, I’d recommend trying Dungeon World to anyone, even if you have no prior roleplaying experience.

Happy players after Flight of the Zephyr.  Not shown: Angry players after Viper's Pit.

Happy players after Flight of the Zephyr. Not shown: Angry players after Viper’s Pit.

True Dungeon Adventures

While I’ve enjoyed Gen Con since I started attending, last year’s True Dungeon experience was the primary factor in deciding to return this year.  We had an incredible amount of fun fighting and puzzling our way through last year’s dungeon, and this time was going to be even better: We had a large group of friends who were all going to run through the dungeons together!

If you’re not familiar with True Dungeon, it’s an attempt to bring tabletop roleplaying games to life.  Each year, they take over an entire exhibit hall at Gen Con and build an actual, real, life-sized dungeon.  There are well-crafted props, customized lighting and sound effects, and costumed actors.  Players choose one of a variety of standard fantasy character classes (I played a Wizard, while Hillary split her time between Cleric and Druid).  Those that survive the dungeon are rewarded with “loot” — poker chip shaped items that represent armor, weapons, potions, and other items that can be used in future adventures.  This year featured two distinct dungeons to run, so we booked our party for a session in each.

Flight of the Zephyr was an excursion through a crashed (and oddly abandoned) Gnomish airship.  This dungeon was fairly well-designed, with lots of panels, consoles, and blinking lights to play with.  The puzzles revolved around getting the airship’s systems back online: in one case we had to reroute reactor power using physical tubes that slotted into the walls, and later we had to calibrate the guidance system by cooperatively activating a series of linked switches.  The final encounter took place aboard the bridge of the airship as it took to the skies.  Most of the party engaged a pack of wyverns that were assaulting the airship, while a few of us solved real-time puzzles to keep the ship flying and evading attacks.  We emerged victorious and were rewarded with treasure tokens.

Sounds fun, right?  Well, it wasn’t quite as glorious as it sounded.  Our first adventure was barely a day into the convention, and several of the rooms were already having technical problems.  On the switch puzzle, some of the lights weren’t working correctly, and the staff member in our room said something to the effect of, “Uhh… your Bard tells you he heard something about Panels 2 and 4 not working, so ignore them.”  Not exactly what we wanted to hear, considering how expensive these sessions are.  Other areas suffered from poor puzzle design; in one room we were punished for making a wrong decision, while a subsequent puzzle (with a very similar theme) could only be solved via trial and error, with no penalty for wrong guesses.  And the combat encounters were disappointing as well; the previous year featured actors in elaborate costumes and a huge animatronic treant.  In this adventure we fought an “invisible” air elemental that the designers didn’t bother to add any effects for — not even a cheap fan to blow some air around!  Still, my party enjoyed Flight of the Zephyr for all its rough spots, and we looked forward to tackling the other dungeon later that evening.

Which leads me to Into the Viper’s Pit, in which our party fought their way through an evil serpent god’s temple, trying to close a mystical portal before a group of cultists could summon their deity.  And here’s where everything fell apart.  The puzzles were much more difficult than any we’ve encountered in the past, and it seemed like there was never enough time to implement a solution.  Our Rogue was regularly discovering clues, which were supposed to help solve the puzzles, but in most cases they were misleading or poorly worded.

Professional costumes at the D&D castle. Maybe True Dungeon should have hired them.

Professional costumes at the D&D castle. Maybe True Dungeon should have hired them.

One of the rooms required the characters to trace runes in a sand pit and then “bleed” into the grooves using a ceremonial dagger.  The creators designed a Kinect-based system that actually detected the distance to the sand, and it projected colored lighting effects where the runes were drawn, even causing digital “blood” to appear and fill up the grooves.  The problem is, the system didn’t work correctly at all.  The camera often completely failed to detect where we had dug out the sand, even in cases where we cleared all the way to the bottom of the “pit”.  The GM who was supposed to be guiding us through the room was unnecessarily strict; despite the fact that we had obviously figured out the puzzle and were performing exactly the right steps, he wouldn’t allow us to proceed until the defective camera system figured out what we were doing.  We ran out of time and failed the room.

In fact, we failed almost all of the rooms in this second adventure.  In most cases, we had the solution figured out, but there just wasn’t time to execute.  I feel like most of the designers’ time went into the Zephyr adventure, and Viper’s Pit felt like an afterthought.  Even the set-pieces were extremely disappointing; most of the rooms resembled a big black cloth box with one or two rubber snakes laying around.  My party was extremely disappointed, and despite actually surviving the dungeon, several of my companions were angrily taking to social media to vent their frustration as they exited the True Dungeon hall.

Based on this year’s experience, I can’t recommend True Dungeon.  Despite raising the price this year (to $48 a person for a two-hour adventure), the new dungeons felt like a step back, both in design and production values.  There were far fewer costumes, no animatronics, and even the most impressive props suffered from technical issues.  The puzzle design wasn’t great, and a jerk GM did his best to ruin our experience.  The first adventure was mildly disappointing, but the second one left us feeling ripped off.

Cardhalla, a build-and-destroy card castle for charity.

Cardhalla, a build-and-destroy card castle for charity.

…And the rest…

Those were the highlights (and lowlights?) of my weekend, but I did so much more!  Here are a few other things that caught my interest:

Shut Up and Sit Down – These wildly popular game reviewers from Britain were on hand to record a live podcast.  While nothing particularly crazy happened at the panel, the SUSD cast was entertaining and engaging, mixing stories about their Gen Con experience with chatter about their favorite games.  The cast handed out Jenga blocks to the first few rows of the audience to write questions on.  They then played “Q&A Jenga”; whoever pulled a block from the tower also had to answer the question written on the block.

Professor Shyguy – The good Professor always puts on an amazing performance, and this year’s Gen Con was no exception.  Even if you’re not into his style of music (chiptune/electro-pop songs, mostly about gaming and being a nerd), you can’t help but to be drawn in by his charisma and stage presence.  I’ve known Professor Shyguy since he first played at Play On Con a few years ago, and in addition to being a great stage performer, he’s also a super-nice guy and a hardcore gamer — we even played a round of Space Alert during a rare moment of downtime.  He works a fairly heavy convention schedule, so if you missed him at Gen Con, be sure to catch him at another event near you.

D20 Burlesque – MeepleTown is a family-friendly site, so I won’t go into this one too much.  This is one of the rare Gen Con events that allows grown-ups to be grown-ups.  The performers put on a great stage show, and they knew their audience well: routines ranged from the titillating assembly of a MouseTrap board game to a very… confusing… Cthulhu-themed… uh… dance.  Yeah.

The stampede to get in the doors on Thursday morning.

The stampede to get in the doors on Thursday morning.

It was recently announced that Gen Con set a new attendance record with over 56,000 attendees this year.

I worry somewhat about continued growth.  The Vendor’s Hall remained packed for most of the weekend, and the food trucks outside the convention center were struggling to keep up with demand.  There were hours-long waits at many of the bars and restaurants in the area.  Nearby hotels sell out within minutes of the housing block opening, and tickets for popular events can be very difficult to obtain.  These problems will only worsen as Gen Con’s popularity increases.

Still, Gen Con has handled its growth better than any other large convention I’ve experienced.  For anyone who has stood in DragonCon’s epic badge pick-up line for three hours, or wasted half a day waiting for a ComicCon panel and then failing to get in, Gen Con will be a refreshing change.  Event tickets are all booked online in advance, so there’s no waiting in line for shows or panels, and you know before you arrive whether you’ll get to attend.  And the Will Call line flows with an unlikely efficiency — despite the queue stretching halfway across the convention center, it only took about 25 minutes to pick up my tickets.  This is a well-planned and well-implemented convention, but accommodating more attendees may take some seriously difficult decisions on the part of the organizers.

I had an amazing time at Gen Con 2014, and hopefully my articles have given you a taste of the games, the sights, and the experiences of this massive event.

If you want to see the rest of my photos, check out my gallery on Google+!


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