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What I Saw At GenCon '99

by Matt Goodman

This year's GenCon was the first I'd attended, and I've only been to a couple of other gaming conventions before: this year's DunDraCon and Origins. Comparisons to Origins may be unfair but unavoidable: it was another huge Andon/WotC run show. While the exhibit hall was open, I spent the bulk of that time working at the Hogshead booth, so that skews my views as well.

Getting There Is Half The Fun
Midwest Express: The Big And Tall Airline

My associate Ron Johnson and I flew from Boston direct to Milwaukee on Midwest Express. ME is an odd airline... essentially the entire plane is first class: two rows of two leather seats, each designed to accommodate people of generous carriage. Being one of those people, air travel is frequently uncomfortable for me, but not on ME... plenty of seat, and plenty of legroom, too.

They also serve decent food, which appears to be a major selling point for some people. It was tasty, but I don't spend hundreds of dollars to get a tasty meal on a plane. The seats are great, though... if ME went more places I wanted to go (without going through Milwaukee first, alas), they'd be my first choice airline.

The No Gaming Wednesday

We arrived right after registration closed on Wednesday, and were herded out of the convention center. Someone asked a security person if there was all night gaming Wednesday, and they were told that there was not.

Elephants! Lions! Hotel!

So we went to our hotel. Thanks to my sloth on committing to GenCon, we were stuck out at the Airport Ramada. The nicest thing I can say about it was that they had a big stuffed Elephant head and a couple of stuffed lions in their lobby. They have some dirt strategically thrown on the plaque in the picture... it makes me wonder what's under there.
The Airport Ramada Elephant (Small) The Airport Ramada Lions (Small)
The Airport Ramada Elephant Head The Airport Ramada Lions


Driving into Milwaukee from the airport, you can't miss the strong yeasty smell which was coming from the Miller brewery... I'd hate to live around there.

Lines, Lines, and More Lines

We returned to GenCon on Thursday morning, well before 7 am (Ron had an 8 am game). We were faced with a huge line. The good news is that it ran through in about 15-20 minutes, and by 8:30 am there wasn't any line to speak of. I was in an odd situation (I registered, then got an Exhibitor Badge from Hogshead later), so I had to cycle through a few lines. The staff helping the exhibitors, especially Lisa Klinger, were very nice and helpful.

The Exhibit Hall

The Exhibit Hall was dominated by the Wizards of the Coast castle in the center, and had a special isle for international companies visiting GenCon. I don't think there were any really dead spots, but I could see where being in the far back of the room could be deadish. The castle itself was mostly empty space, but it had activities around the edges.

There were less... interesting looking people than I'd been led to believe, but Jason Johnson did his best to make up for it:

Got Dice?

That's the Wizards of the Coast castle in the background.

Misleading Maps and other organizational problems

At the Hogshead booth, we might have suffered from some of the organizational problems. While we were labled as booth 610, our spot on the map in the on-site program was labeled 310. I think everybody was able to find us anyway.

At Origins, the locations for almost all the events were listed in the on-site program. This was not the case at GenCon. While there was a supplementary book available in addition to the Con book, it didn't list rooms for everything either. I didn't find out until AFTER the con was over that there were computers with all the locations listed available.

My plan after Origins was to avoid registering for events at big cons, and just show up for games and see if there were open slots. At GenCon, I wouldn't have known where to show up.

When Giant Sourcebooks Ruled The Earth!

Two gigantic sourcebooks battled for the title of "largest sourcebook or adventure for an RPG ever", Chaosium's Return To The Mountains of Madness, and Pagan Publishing's Delta Green: Countdown. Chaosium's book narrowly nosed past Pagan's for length, but both are almost 500 pages long. Chaosium also has a GM's pack available for Mountains, and had T-Shirts and some extra expedition patches for the adventure. Both books had associated fiction: Chaosium has a collection of Antarctic Horror fiction, and Pagan had Delta Green: Rules of Engagement. The Delta Green novel is by John Tynes, and is hands down the best modern Cthulhu Mythos book I've read... it was literally a book I had trouble putting down. It was offered in a limited edition at the show, but I'm sure it'll see print in a larger printing. It's my pick of the show, hands down.

Plush Cthulhu

I also picked up a hand-sewn Cthulhu doll (in Black Watch!). This Cthulhu is the one made by hand, one-at-a-time, by the woman who's been making them for a few years. I didn't see the new "Beanie Baby" style Cthulhus offered by Chaosium at the show (I saw the prototype at Origins), but those are pretty neat too, and certainly made by Chinese slave labor to boot!

"We will not sell this game to anyone under 18 years of age who does not have $6.95"

I've never seen a RPG sold in a plain brown paper bag before. Now I've helped sell one. Violence: The Game of Egregious Bloodshed by "Designer X", violated so many of Andon/WotC's rules on content that James Wallis pitched the line that we weren't selling Violence at all, but instead high quality English brown paper bags: contents unknown.

At first, I thought it was just a pitch... but the game really is disturbing, and chock full of objectional material. Written by one of my all time favorite game designers (Star Wars, Toon, Paranoia, Creature Who Ate Sheboygan), it's not as much a RPG as a disturbing (and very funny) rant by a top-notch game designer. At $6.95, it's well worth having.

So THAT'S Why They Call It The Arena League

Here's the Pit of Gaming:

The Arena

As bad as it looks, it was actually much quieter than the RPG rooms in the convention center... and think of a stadium filled with people playing RPGs!

Run Out The Guns: Brotherhood of the Coast

My friend Ron actually got to play some games... this was one of them. Ron really enjoyed it. Run Out The Guns is ICE's historically accurate pirate game. Ron apparently joined in with a group that had been playing for most of the Con, and had played the same characters last year. Ron described it as more of a Patrick O'Brian pirate game (as opposed to 7th Sea, which he said was more like an Errol Flynn pirate movie).

Thursday! Friday! Saturday?

Thursday and Friday were very good days for the exhibitors at GenCon, but many were surprised by the light crowds on Saturday. I wasn't there for Sunday, so I don't know if it picked up.

The Hogshead booth was almost out of Violence on Saturday, and they did sell the last copy of their newest Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay book, Marienburg, Sold Down The River by Anthony Ragan. Lisa Stevens, the proud purchaser of the last copy of Marienburg, poses here with the plate stand James used to prop up the books.

Marvel Supers Run Amuck!

In a pretty neat demo, players of Marvel Super Heroes got to actually destroy buildings as they fought with their Marvel Heroes and Villians. Much rubble was bounced.

Marvel Super Heroes Destroy Property

The Timekillers: The Gathering

Of course, they MSH would have had an even better time destroying the huge card city built by Timekillers: The Gathering. I took a picture of the list of people involved on Friday... more may have joined in later. This pic links to a 137 kb image (but you can read the names):

List of Timekillers

People got together in between CCG games and started building giant card castles. These pics are from Friday night and Saturday night, well before they destruction took place (which I didn't witness). While I'm not sure how the card companies feel about their demo packs being used like this, I am sure this'll happen again next year. It was VERY sturdy, and I was impressed with how well it stood up to being bumped into by passersby.

Here's a pic from Friday to give you some scope:

City of Card Houses

And here's a pic from Saturday to show you how it blew up (before it was blown up):

Closeup of Cards on Saturday

Anime Room

The Anime Room was packed. I couldn't squeeze in with my ample frame. They should have this in a larger room next year.

Water, Water, Nowhere.

The thing I'd change first about GenCon is the lack of water that wasn't $2 a bottle. At DunDraCon and Origins, there was ample free water and cups everywhere... at GenCon, there was only the pricey water in the convention center. The Hilton had the usual pitcher of water. No one dehydrated (that I saw, anyway).

The Quote of the Show

On Saturday, there was a formal wedding going on at the Hilton, where many GenCo n events were scheduled. At one point, I was in an elevator with an elderly wed ding goer, and he asked:

"What kind of convention is this? You're all so poorly dressed!"

I told him it was a card and board game convention... one step below organized g ambling in respectability.

Broad Conclusions To My Rambling Narrative

Overall, it was a very useful business trip for me... I know what to do and what not to do next year at GenCon. I worry that people who're going there to game may be frustrated with the poor organization of the RPG events (I didn't hear anyone complain about the card games or board games), but it seemed like everyone there was having a good time.

Ron didn't work a booth, and he was able to play in two demos and at least four actual RPG sessions, three of which were really good (Blue Planet, Run Out The Guns, and Big Eyes, Small Mouth). His Thursday wasn't great, but he got to do other stuff Friday and Saturday that made up for it, including having dinner with the authors and GM groups for Blue Planet and 7th Sea.

I like DunDraCon and Origins better, and they're both in better, more user friendly venues (and less yeasty cities). Maybe when the rest of the convention center is finished being built, they'll be able to have all the events under one roof, which should save some wandering.

We will have a booth there next year, so if we don't catch you at DunDraCon or Origins, we'll see you there!

Posted Monday, 04-May-2009 19:52:34 EDT

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