OUT OF THE BOX
This year, Indianapolis’ weather offered GenCon attendees foul-smelling, blood-warm dampness. Sweets for the sweet and all that, but it made leaving the hotels or the convention center inordinately unpleasant. Fortunately there was a lot to do indoors. Indoors is also where they keep the bars in Indianapolis, which was convenient — now, if some of them would stay open past midnight, seasoned gaming professionals wouldn’t lead their columns by dissing the weather. Just saying, is all.
A Town Called Gamer
Outside the bars and the outside, I did my usual routine of incisive panel commentary, ably flanked on all three of my seminars by Robin Laws and Justin Achilli. We unleashed our stern judgement on issues of campaign design, GM tips, and worldbuilding. If you didn’t hear about Gary the bard and Lamont the barbarian there, you won’t hear about them anywhere. I also helped out at the Gamer Olympics, sponsored by Edhellen Armoury, the veritable Skoda Works of foam swords. (Note to gamers: People will read your character names out loud. You might try “Gary” or “Lamont” instead.) And last but far from least, I cat-footed around the show absorbing what vibe I could — GenCon has officially gotten Too Big For One Man, even (especially) a doughy game reviewing man.
As someone pointed out, the population of a medium-sized town drops into Indianapolis and stays up for four days straight playing elfs-and-Yodas until all hours. GenCon LLC CEO Peter Adkison, essentially becomes mayor of Dorkville, population 40,000, for a long weekend. And this was a good weekend, as far as I could tell. Attendance was up (I’m not sure how sharply), sales were way up (thanks to continued degradation of the distribution and retail channels), and lines were thankfully down. Not zero, but reasonable for anything trying to rotate 40,000 people through a thousand events, during some of which they may be pelted with foam swords. By contrast, both FanPro and White Wolf had release parties for their new books, but they were much lower-key events than the big Wolf party last year, and the Wolf party had to compete with the Colts game getting out Saturday night. And when your crowd is pudgier than Colts fans, you know there’s trouble.
The Diana Jones Award for 2005 went to Alan Moon’s Ticket to Ride, from Days of Wonder, which has already won, as presenter Matt Forbeck said “every other award out there.” Well, there’s a reason for that — it’s very good. However, a word of warning; if you and four of your good game industry buddies get together to play it right after a long, long GenCon, its meditative qualities may well overwhelm you into a light trance.
Although Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard was edged out of the Diana Jones Award, it won the Indie RPG Award walking away, with almost double the votes of its closest competitor. The Indies are a juried award, voted on by 80 or so game designers (which may outnumber the members of the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design who theoretically run the Origins Awards, at this point) and announced at GenCon. The fun thing about this award is that the administrator, Andy Kitkowski, solicits a line or two explaining the jurors’ votes and posts them on the awards page. It’s like an indie review column and an award posting in one!
The wily ones at Green Ronin were the big ENnie Award winners (counting their Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay books, which technically went to Games Workshop’s Black Library imprint) with four gold ENnies and six silvers, including golds for Best Publisher (silver went to Paizo), Best Adversary or Monster Product (for Old World Bestiary), and Best Production Values and Best Game (both of which went to Warhammer FRP). Second place was Paizo (four gold, one silver), which cleaned up in Best Cartography (World Map of Greyhawk), Best Aid or Accessory (Dungeon magazine), and Best Adventure and Free Product, this last despite Erik Mona’s accidental disparagement of PDF sales during one of his acceptance speeches. Give the guy a break — he had the bends from going up on stage so often. The other big winners were Malhavoc with three golds, including both Best Art categories and the Best d20 Game win for Arcana Evolved and White Wolf with one gold for Best Supplement for Vampire: the Requiem and four powerful silvers, including a Best Writing award for the World of Darkness corebook. Privateer Press’ Iron Kingdoms World Guide: Full Metal Fantasy Vol. 2 won two golds, for Best Writing, and Best Campaign Supplement — I haven’t seen it, but maybe you should check it out with that kind of one-two punch endorsement. In the last major category, Atlas Games won a delightful Best Rules award for David Chart’s revamp of Ars Magica 5th Edition, beating out Steve Kenson’s Blue Rose from Green Ronin. The ceremony was even better than last year, held in a banquet room above the very old-school Indianapolis Repertory Theater. Despite a hiccup with the PowerPoint and a rambly script, the ENnies have come a very long and impressive way since they were given out in a hallway. Let’s hope the Origins Awards can come back that way some day, too — but right now, the ENnies are by default and by hard work the premier mass award in the RPG field. Good for them.
Everything Old Is New In August
The big hits of the show would have been Mage: the Awakening from White Wolf or Shadowrun 4th Edition from FanPro, or possibly Green Ronin’s Mutants & Masterminds 2nd Edition if any of those companies had gotten more than 300 or so copies of those games to the show. (Guardians of Order had even fewer copies of the Game of Thrones RPG, and Eden Studios’ Army of Darkness RPG didn’t make it at all.) In White Wolf’s case, they blamed the last-minute decision to stick in 80 more pages; I’m not sure what anyone else’s excuse was, although “the printer” has always worked before. It all kind of smelled like some publishers’ nervous flinching in the face of retailer whining that GenCon sales of big debut products cut into their profits, which is a bit rich considering what a mediocre job many of them do tracking (much less growing) said profits themselves. But that is negativity and carping, and is beneath me. Instead, I’ll make fun of Legend of the Five Rings 3rd Edition, Sovereign Stone 3.5, Torg Revised, Savage Worlds Revised, Ultimate Rifts and so on and endlessly on. The new Dungeon Master’s Guide II is technically a sequel, not a revision, so I guess it doesn’t count, but it should. The Fiery Dragon folks did allow that Tunnels & Trolls 30th Anniversary Edition is “the kind of thing they try to do every 20 or so years,” which was a pretty good gag, I have to admit. I’m not going to make fun of Patrick Kapera’s Spycraft 2.0, though, because it gets my official Nod of the Show — it’s a tremendous piece of work, improving on Spycraft as much as that excellent book improved on the basic OGL system. Everything in it has been reintegrated into the premier example of d20-based whole-game system design in my experience. I’m not sure if it’s a “third generation d20” book, but it’s at least two-and-a-halfth generation.
Even the news is old; WizKids has a Battlestar Galactica CCG underway, based on the revised edition of the TV show. Upper Deck announced a Worlds of Warcraft TCG license, which should delight those people whose problem with Worlds of Warcraft was that the screen was too large and bright, and the images kept moving around. Good luck with that. Of licensed things actually at the show, the big deal was the Serenity RPG from Margaret Weis Productions based on the upcoming Joss Whedon Firefly movie. That moved pretty well, as did Steve Long’s Pulp Hero and Mike Mearls’ Iron Heroes. Also big sellers, albeit not RPGs, were Wizards’ new Hecatomb card game and Axis & Allies Minis which had the best display area imaginable — a Gothic-horror cathedral on the Hecatomb side which became a ruined church suitable for WWII defense (complete with mannequins and model tanks) on the b>Axis & Allies Minis side. All done with lighting and clever architecture — kudos to whoever did that set design.
Let’s see, what else. There were only two other worthy new d20 products I saw at the show: Atlas Games’ Northern Crown set in a fantasy version of colonial America and Expeditious Retreat Press’ Beast Builder. Shane Hensley’s Savage Worlds had a couple of new worldbooks out: Rippers (Victorian horror) and Necessary Evil (supervillains save the world), both of which look interesting. Morrigan Press expands its Talislanta-based Omni System into history both real (High Medieval) and pseudo (Atlantis), while Riddle of Steel has given us a couple of new sourcebooks about which more, surely, anon.
Indie, Meet Indy
And with that, we steam into the rapids of small-press game design, as exemplified by the fine folks at the Forge booth, especially Timothy Kleinert’s The Mountain Witch, which focuses an entire RPG on one beautifully presented story, as does Clinton R. Nixon’s City of Brass, an Iron Game Chef 2005 entry. Likewise Paul Czege’s absolutely dumbfounding Bacchanal and Jason Morningstar’s The Shab-al-Hiri Roach, which may be the best Lovecraftian RPG I’ve seen in several years. (In fairness, I read the Roach on the ride home, and didn’t see it at the show.) I also picked up a copy of Luke Crane’s newest Burning Wheel supplement, Jihad: Burning Sands, which is essentially Dune: The Indie Supplement. The other big buzzes (no pun intended) of the Forge booth were Ben Lehman’s Polaris (distributed narration at the beginning of the end of the world) and especially Emily Care Boss’ Breaking the Ice, a storytelling game about those First Three Dates.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t note that Jared Sorensen and John Wick’s Wicked Dead sold out of virtually everything at the show, including Thirty, Discordia, and Against the Reich. Sadly, there were no sale copies of Jared’s amazing new Farm dark horror prison-break RPG — you had to get them “on tap,” which was a clever device by which you bought burned CDs of whichever games you wanted instead of boring old printed booklets. Other new indie games I ran into included Sanguine Productions’ new Usagi Yojimbo RPG, Nathan Hill’s Eldritch Ass Kicking, and Mark Smylie’s adaptation of his high fantasy military comic Artesia to the Fuzion system of all things. But it gets stranger still. For those of you who thought the roulette-wheel mechanics of Fastlane were a little too accessible, try the Jenga-based engine of Dread. Kind of makes you want those d20s back, eh?
Meanwhile, Next Month
The next column will likely begin with a Con Report from ConQuest SF, where I am going to Special Guest things up, and then swing into a Big Review Column for Mage: the Awakening, Shadowrun 4th, Spycraft 2.0 and whatever else looks Big enough. The next column will be the Indie Games Roundup, and then the remaining Must-See RPG reviews from GenCon. By which time it will be October, and time to write another of these little blurbs.