Oh What A Feeling: GenCon Report 1999

masthead-outofthebox

OUT OF THE BOX
1999-08-10

I spent last weekend with a few thousand of my closest friends, drinking and playing games. How did yours go? There’s almost no chance that you don’t know what I’m talking about, especially since I cleverly mentioned it in the header up there, but just in case — GenCon, baby, GenCon. Once again, Milwaukee, the Opal City of the Midwest, lit up like the pleasant little metrop that it is and welcomed us freaks and geeks into its collective civic bosom. Once again, I got piles of new review games, lots of drinking and/or business done, a sore throat, sore feet, and a big ol’ gaming contact high. Plus, although the weather was great, Milwaukee smelled extra-yeasty this year, even staggering back to the hotel from some drunken revel or other. And now, to pass it, somewhat journalistically-like, on to you, the home consumer. One warning, though — since there wasn’t a band this year following the really swell block party living room picnic thrown by Wizards of the Coast (thanks for the brats and Orange Crush, by the way, Peter), the paragraph headers will be sort of song titles picked at random. I wouldn’t want any of my thematically-obsessed readers to worry, after all.

Our House In The Middle Of Our Street

Construction on MWEC (the Midwest Express Convention Center, or “emweck” to the cognoscenti) proceeded apace, but not fast enough to provide us with a big, glorious con facility — again, much of the fun happened far away (well, two whole blocks away) in the old Arena building, thus insuring again that I never made it to the auction. Sad, but true. (Instead, I went used-book shopping with Bill Bridges of HDI, whose sleek-looking 2nd edition of Fading Suns was out at the con, and who is not just a gifted developer and designer, but a delight to pass time with, especially in Renaissance Books in downtown Milwaukee.) Next year, they say we’ll have the whole enchilada done and ready for our maddened hordes, which will be a good thing — even events I don’t play much (whether by inclination or by time) impact my con-going, and make it feel more gamerish when I can wander through their rooms and halls and gawp at the fun. I heard rumors about GenCon moving in two years, and about it being made “invitation only” and packed to the gills with computer games — I would be considerably worried if I thought either were really likely. (But, you never know…)

The MWEC building did have less escalator trouble than last year, and this even in the face of what looked like more gamers. I heard the number 22,000 bandied about in an authoritative tone — official numbers aren’t available yet, that I know of, but it’s around that. However many there were, the brand new Wizards of the Coast “Arabian fortress castle” — bigger and more looming (and worse on sight-lines) than the bad old TSR castle torn down with much fanfare last time — did tend to drive them out to the edges of the hall. Some retailers out there in boonieville did complain of poor business, but I saw a lot of walk-by traffic everywhere I went most times. All to the good, although not necessarily the same as “no bad space” as Andon claimed back when they jacked up the rates.

I Love A Man In Uniform

And that’s not the only thing Andon got wrong; although it managed to slightly improve in some areas. I think the registration process worked smoother than last year (I saw far fewer great horrible lines of frustrated gamers), but it could hardly have worked less smoothly, could it? As if to make up for that, the con guide booklet was even more opaque than normal. There was simply no way to find a game event location using it, even with a degree in ancient Akkadian cuneiform. (I asked.) This only compounded the problems of Andon simply omitting events requested, arranged, and applied for by many, many companies — companies, I might add, that paid extortionate booth rates partially as a marketing expense depending on those events. If it gets any worse, they’ll have to bind it and offer it as a new fantasy RPG. Maybe that’s the plan. Unlike this year’s (also Andon-run) Origins, I heard no tales of robbery and vandalism, but hall security seemed a little laxer, too. Autograph sessions worked slightly better, almost certainly entirely due to Precedence (which had Claudia Christian, Walter Koenig, and some minor Babylon 5 characters) holding them in a somewhat less obstructionist location, and to fewer people wanting Ms. Christian’s autograph than wanted Jeri Ryan’s last year. The corner autograph booth that nearly stifled last year’s event seemed deserted the times I passed it, although I think Lou Ferrigno (the official GenCon Guest of Honor) may have just been signing in his booth. (In honor of Lou Ferrigno, I thought about purchasing a used copy of Jeff Grubb’s Marvel Super Heroes game, but they were charging cover price, so I didn’t.)

(Let’s Make Lots Of Money)

Other people were not so shy with their dollars — most of the retailers I spoke to did very well indeed at the show, some even passing their 1998 fluke performance. Whether that’s a sign of more people at GenCon or continued problems on the distribution front, I couldn’t tell you. Actual game manufacturers were still less present than last year, much of the slack apparently taken up by used game stalls (and card stalls) and tchotchke-T-shirt-souvenir type stands. Computer games, again, increased, although they may have been asked to turn the volume down a couple of notches, because I could often hear myself think. (Not that that’s always such a great prize, but I’m kind of used to it.) Some of the aforementioned actual game manufacturers were still boycotting — Palladium (not there in any force), Dream Pod 9 (repped, apparently, by Alliance Distribution), Steve Jackson Games (repped by Atlas, and by their very own GURPS Line Developer, the dapper don of die modifiers, Sean “Dr. Kromm” Punch), and some companies just plain gone. New companies emerged, though; the Apophis Consortium had Obsidian (one guess what color the cover is), Aetherco had Continuum (a game of time travel), and Heraldic had Steeltown, to mention only a few of the new RPGs I’m looking forward to reviewing for you good folks.

My own sugar daddies, Last Unicorn, did okay at the show, Pagan and Chaosium and Pinnacle and Atlas did well, I didn’t talk to a lot of other folks, but some Sunday game trades (digression into Baugh’s Law: the entire gaming industry exists in order to trade free games with each other, any outside sales are epiphenomenal) were pretty thin on the ground, implying that hot new products like Chaosium’s Beyond the Mountains of Madness and Pagan’s Countdown (both new for Call of Cthulhu), the silver box edition of D&D, and others sold briskly.

Speaking of D&D, the Big News out of the show was the Friday noon announcement (which you should thank your lucky stars that you get to read about here, rather than having to suffer through the suety, unctuous, faux-talk-show, dog and pony act that Wizards put on) of the GenCon 2000 release date for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition. (On the other hand, I did get a T-shirt for attending, so there you go, bitter with the sweet, no rose but hath its thorn, yadda yadda yadda.) Said edition is designed by a crack team headed up by Super Genius Jonathan Tweet (ably assisted by the very gifted Monte “Modron March” Cook and Skip Williams), and will remove, among other things, level limits for demihumans and THAC0. On the other hand, it will restore half-orcs, assassins, and monks (to much murmuring and humming in the hall). It will keep classes and levels, rationalize die rolling (all 20s are good 20s in the New Era), and add an integrated skill system. Best of all, it’ll be three full color hardbacks (including a Monster Manual yes you read that right full of demons and devils, and yes you read that right, too) all for $19.95 each. Big news.

Games Without Frontiers

D&D3 Player’s Handbook will, no doubt be the smash hit of GenCon 2000, then. This year, although my own original series Star Trek Roleplaying Game emerged on Friday to glad cries, and sold out on Sunday, the hit of the show was Matt Forbeck’s Brave New World alternate-history-superhero-resistance game from Pinnacle. (In a characteristically class act, Matt got every fan in line to autograph his copy while he signed their books.) The biggest (literally) game of the show, of course, was the 438-page manifestation of Beyond the Mountains of Madness for Call of Cthulhu — the longest single campaign ever published. (And just a few short pages longer than Countdown for Delta Green.) Best new game of the show? Tough call, especially since I haven’t read all of Continuum — if it wasn’t my STRPG, it might have been Mark Arsenault’s Sengoku from Gold Rush Games. But watch this space; scores can really change. The best old game of the show was similarly fraught — either John Tynes’ Puppetland from Hogshead in New Style or Robin Laws’ Feng Shui rereleased from Atlas could claim the palm. Of course, I’m secretly most looking forward to cracking open my much-coveted (and hard-earned) Great War At Sea: Plan Black from Avalanche — naval alternate-history wargaming isn’t for the weak.

Everybody’s Working For The Weekend

Speaking of week, well, next week, well, it’s reviews and more reviews, and then maybe I’ll get to some more reviews. At some point, a more detailed plug for my brand new Star Trek Roleplaying Game baby, too — and possibly a Rich Dansky interview to fill any last-minute gaping voids. It’s the Summer Gaming Season at its most fevered, so drink plenty of fluids and rush right back here in seven!

I want more!

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