Thursday, August 25, 2016

My Gen Con: Fears, Fails, and Five Sessions

So I went to Gen Con. And having had a good time there before, I wanted to really pitch in for Games on Demand. While Gene had offered us space if he went down as a guest, Gen Con opted to trim the comic track after last year’s fiasco. That meant Sherri wouldn’t be able to come. I’d seen that a couple of regulars wouldn’t be helping out (including the redoubtable Jeremy Friesen). So prior to the convention I worked on the map, helped out with the menu images, did contacting, and designed & printed cool table tents (at my cost, but with unobtrusive ads). I’d be sharing a hotel room and I’d laid in a supply of Soylent for the con. Steve Sigety gave me a ride down and up since he ran for Pelgrane. That saved me a ton of hassle.

That’s the big picture: now on to the details. I’ve broken this up into two parts. The latter talks about what I ran and how that went. You can jump down to that. The former covers the oddities of my experience and clearer realizations about how bad I am at socializing. This is feelings stuff. I don’t usually talk about that on the blog;  I just mention my shyness and anxiety in passing. I don’t write about it because I’m not comfortable with how much it runs and ruins my interactions. I don’t like talking about it. In fact I usually skip these kinds of posts in other people’s threads because a) I’m a hypocrite and b) I honestly don’t want to think too much about it.

WHAT I RAN AWAY FROM 
But Gen Con really highlighted my limitations. So anyway…

As background, I got sick the Friday before Gen Con. My assumed allergy attack turned into a full-blown head cold. Often a cold drains you, but you can still get things done. Not this one. I had to park my disgusting, nose-running self on the couch all the way through Monday. Until Tuesday I didn’t know if I’d be strong and non-contagious enough to go. I pulled it together, but I napped/rested every opportunity I got on Wednesday and Thursday.

That then provided a convenient excuse to avoid seriously interacting with anyone. Mind you, the Games on Demand group contained many people I’d met or interacted with online. Did I go and introduce myself or even just say hello? Nope. My brain fiction told me I didn’t want to intrude, to impose, to be that guy who wedges himself into someone else’s personal space. Sherri says that for introverts, we realize how much work other people can be and don’t want to be that burden on another person.  So I did my work, ran my games, wandered the dealer hall, and went back to my room. I watched alot of Law & Order. So dumb.

But I ran five sessions: four two-hour and one four-hour. Two other four-hour sessions didn’t fill. That’s always disconcerting and disappointing. In both cases several other tables went empty, which you think would be some solace. But there’s no real bonding among cut GMs at that point; we’re all trying to figure out what we did wrong with the presentation.

Despite good sessions, my specific stupid sticks with me though:
  • I skipped the Wednesday evening Indie gamers gathering. People I knew went, but I couldn’t kick my head into gear to walk over there. 
  • We had an all-hands meeting for Games on Demand Thursday evening. At one point Steve Segedy asked all the organizers to stand up. My brain said “You didn’t do that much, you just assisted others…”. So I didn’t stand up. I’d done real work and helped set things up, but my stupid anxiety brain told me others would think “jeez, who does he think he is…” or something. I don’t know.
  • After the all-hands meeting split up groups did small board games. I love these kinds of things. James Stuart offered A Fake Artist Goes to New York. I went to that table because there no one else had sat there yet. After a few rounds we were supposed to swap and perhaps go to other tables to play with other people. I couldn’t bring myself to do that, to intrude into an existing group, so I left. Despite there being people I knew at the other tables.
  • I had an interaction with one of the GoD hosts where I’d misheard something. They seemed absolutely frustrated and pissed at me, or at least that’s how my brain read it. I’m sure they weren’t, I’m sure they had no idea who I was, I’m sure it was their reaction to the challenge of getting the games up and running. But dumb brain got super tense. I ended up not going back to play any more GoD sessions during the gaps in my schedule. I used that as an excuse to avoid actually doing something fun.
  • Along with a couple of other GMs, my Friday night game didn’t fill. Renee Knipe, who’d I’d helped with the menus and who’d run my amazing Warren session last year, was running a Conan game. A couple of the other GMs joined that, one of them even said “hey, you come join us” but I didn’t go. I didn’t want to impose. Plus James Stuart was playing and I’d inserted myself at the board game table with him and I didn’t want to seem like I was creepily following him. Instead I went back to my room and watched TV.

…and that’s the one that really made me go “WTF is going on with your brain?”. You’re a grown-ass adult, where does that shit come from?

Here’s the thing: once I’m in a social transaction with someone, I’m good. If I’m running a game and you sit down at my table, I’ll engage with you. If we sit at the same table for a meal, I’ll start peppering you with questions about how your convention’s going. I honestly want to know. I like listening to people talk about their enthusiasms and projects. When I sit down to play, I’m good: I work hard to be generous and supportive. Get me into that mode and I’m usually solid. But getting to there, breaking the ice, whatever, that’s my block.

I find it super frustrating when I can’t quite break through to say hi and engage, especially with GMs and designers I’ve met before. I saw several that I couldn’t bring myself to start even the briefest convo with. There’s a gamer who moved into our area several months ago. At Origins and Gen Con I avoided even going up and introducing myself face to face.

It’s not all bad: I did had a great time talking with the people I managed to actually interact with, especially my two roomies Bill White and Nick Wedig. But again that’s an established transaction. I got to have dinner with Melissa Gay and Brian Cooksey. I walked around for a couple of hours with my sister, Cat Rambo. I made myself go and play in a game run by Anna Kreider. I ran for Phil Vecchione.

So why go on at length about this? I’m not sure. I don’t talk about it much and maybe that’s not a good thing. I take anti-anxiety meds and they’re otherwise great (confirmed by my wife). But while I had a good time at Gen Con, I could have had an awesome time. I need to find some strategies to get to that point. The obvious one is to have Sherri with me all the time, but that’s not entirely practical. I’m going to go again next year. I’m going to help out with organizing GoD if they’ll let me. I’m going to wrestle with my anxiety. And maybe this time I’ll stand up when they call out organizers for special mention.

/end feels

WHAT I RAN
I should explain how Games on Demand Gen Con works for those who don’t know it or have only seen it at other conventions (like Origins). GoDGC has to manage a ton of players while keeping the through-traffic space clear. It offers both 2 and 4 hours session, so games start every two hours. If you’d want to play, you come by before that slot and get a boarding pass (like “D for Dragon”). Then, about ten minutes before the session starts, the hosts call out letters (after handling anyone with special needs or mobility limitations). When they call your pass, you come forward and look at the choices on display.

You’ll see a gallery of menus, illustrated with an images and a quick blurbs. Generally each GM submits two options for what they can run. The first person to choose that GM selects which game they want. The hosts then cross out the other one. So if I get up there and Everyone’s a Suspect’s crossed out, I have a choice of Dog Eat Dog instead or another GM. Each slot has has plenty of choices, with some GMs running four-hour and some two-hour. Plus GoD offers LARPs. I helped type up the GoD stats recent and noticed a trend. While a significant number of the four-hour games didn’t make, all but one of the two-hour games did. The one that didn’t was a LARP and they may have simply folded the two on offer together. If you sign up for a game that doesn’t get the minimum # of players, the hosts will quickly reseat you where there’s space or offer a pass for a future session.

A couple of years ago I ran two-hour sessions for Games on Demand GC, but not from choice. One of the hosts split my four-hour session into two two-hours by mistake. Both ran fine, with complete arcs. I’m good at keeping tempo and speed at the table. I congratulated myself on my skill. On a recent Gauntlet episode I spoke about the limitations of the two-hour format. I thought it’d be too tight. But having run several sessions, I realize I’m wrong.

I’d forgotten that most of my online sessions are two hours, less if you exclude the BSing. Even with longer sessions, you lose time to technical stuff, waiting on everyone, and goofing around. At the table I do that fast: set up and cc should take at most 30 minutes. That time should ease everyone into the premise before you kick the throttle. You can even cut that with easier systems and completely pre-gen’d characters. I saw folks running games I’d never considered doing in such a short span (Hollowpoint for example). Next year I may only run two-hour sessions with an alternate menu sub-in menu if I get burned out.

Of course all of this may be my way of compensating for not getting picked for the four-hour team twice. Maybe I have to look at what I’m running and how I’ve written up my blurbs. I also didn’t do something I’d meant to: go out and sell my games to the hosts so they could sell them to others, so that’s a problem.

In any case I brought four games with me to run. In particular I wanted to make sure I offered some games written by women. I had a ton of awesome choices across the board, making narrowing it down tough. For my four-hour I took my Neo Shinobi Vendetta scenario, the one I’d run at Origins. I wanted to offer my Action Cards game for at least one session. I paired that with Before the Storm, Joanna Piancastelli’s game from Seven Wonders. For my two-hour sessions, I put together a Fate Core version of Magic, INC and took the demo kit for Threadbare by Stephanie Bryant.

As I said, only one of my four-hour slots went off, with the group picking Before the Storm. We had four players (including myself) for this collaborative story game. Before the con I’d played it once f2f. That revealed some facets I wanted to emphasize when I taught it at Gen Con. Before the Storm can jump around in time which had gotten us lost a couple of times in our home game. So for the con I asked everyone to be clear about location and era when they narrated. I also made clearer how the end battle would work rather than springing it on them. But the choice with the greatest impact was making clear you could dictate your character’s flashbacks to reveal truths. In the game you can play out scenes- drawing in other PCs as themselves or NPCs—or dictate. In our home game, we’d almost exclusively done scenes and it had been a tangle with some of them locking up.

My emphasis swung things the other way. We ended up doing dictated scenes for most of our exchanges. That’s isn’t a bad thing, but it does change the tempo of the game. Joanna suggests a mechanism to speed up con games: putting two event cards down in front of everyone. These mark round and adding them here cuts down the play length. Because we moved quickly, we didn’t need that. We ended up doing an extra cycle, disregarding the impact of those additional cards.

James Stuart asked me about how Before the Storm ran at the table. He had it on offer as a LARP. I suspect, at least the way I did it, is that the tabletop version offers more storytelling time and control for the players. At a LARP I’d feel compelled to play out the scenes, rather than dictating.

Anyway, I had a good time and learned a lot in play. I had a good group with interesting character picks.

My two-hour games ended up being one session of Fate Core and three of Threadbare. I’d converted Magic, INC over from Action Cards for the Fate game, trimming the character creation choices. I might need to cut even further. The session went well, with a completely different approach from the other three times I’d run it. They took a fairly straightforward approach, but did a nice job of indulging in their characters’ appetites and drawbacks. I like Fate, but I’m not entirely certain it’s the right approach for Magic, INC. Still thinking about that.

Threadbare ended up being crazy fun. I’ll admit I hesitated about the semi-post-apocalyptic toy concept when I first heard it. But between Sherri’s enthusiasm for it and Bryant’s appearance on +1 Forward, I backed it. It’s goofy fun with a slightly dark edge to it, which you can more or less emphasize. That fits with my style. You only have three playbooks with quick choices so it’s easy to pick up and play. That meant we had more time to do some Q&A at the table.

The demo scenario—“Furry Road”—has an incredibly open premise. On a mission to travel from point A to point B the PCs have gotten off course. As a group they make up their vehicle, who seeks them, what they’re transporting, etc. Then I improvise completely off of those answers. I’d done up a list of concepts and details as a reference page, but once we got going I hardly looked at it. The first group found themselves pursued by a group of monster trucks and ended with a Godzilla PC knocking down a Playmobil castle defended by Decepticons. The second began navigating the darkness to an inn run by wrestler figures and ending with them escaping Baby Nazghul. The third had to outrun a storm and ended up Spartacusing a Barbie-chariot arena and deposing Emperor Eeyore.

So good times. I dug all of the sessions, with some standout moments from the enthusiastic Xmas sock to the self-sacrificing homemade doll to the voodoo softie determined to make Troll Dolls hip again. All that plus a Ninja Turtle Pizza Van, Refugee “Barrel of Monkeys,” the sock dance-off, and more stick with me. The interactions between the voodoo doll character and the naïve teddy bear may be my favorite moments from among all the games.

WHAT I PLAYED
I only played in two games. The first, Swords without Master, was interesting. We had a couple of players- solid and fun-- I wish I could have gamed with more over the weekend. But we also had one player who was a little off. The game clearly did click for them. At  one point I wished we’d had the X-Card in play because I would have used it. So overall I’m not sure this was the best demonstration of Swords. The flow of play stopped and started abruptly. I couldn’t tell how much of that was the game and how much the table. I’ll have to try it again, given the love I hear about it.

The other game was the Shab al Hiri Roach at Hogwarts. I’d skimmed the SaHR rules but never played it. Anna Krieder created and ran this great hack. She’s a solid convention GM: setting up the premise, establishing boundaries, giving us tools for feedback, and explaining the rules. She kept the pace up and helped shift things so we ended up with a complete story. I really, really enjoyed this session. One of the best games I’ve played at any convention.

WHAT I BOUGHT
RPG-wise I picked up Velvet Glove, Headspace, and the Fate Codex Anthology from the Magpie (IGDN) booth. That’s it. I’d already bought the electronic versions of the latter two items, but in the case of Headspace I wanted to support the designer because he’d had such a terrible run with the printer. Much of the other stuff I would have bought, I’d purchased through KS. For board games I picked up Legendary Big Trouble in Little China and the Marvel Legendary Civil War expansion. I got those Sunday and really only bought them because I was surprised they still had them in stock. Finally I bought some accessories: specialized meeples for Imperial Settlers (one of my favorite bgs), some Totoro meeples, and some writable fantasy maps from Arc Knight. That’s it.

NEXT YEAR
1. Get all my games to run.
2. Talk to people.
3. Get Sherri to go.
4. No, really actually introduce myself to people.
5. Play more games.
6. Actually check my email during the con.
7. Game with Renee Knipe and Hans Messersmith (my two big missed-them regrets)
8. Not watch Law & Order