Monday, July 12, 2010

Confessions of a Game Convention Newbie

I call myself the resurrected gamer because for all intents and purposes my gaming life had truly flat-lined. Not long ago after a lengthy hiatus—and much to my shock—I discovered that my love of gaming had not died completely. The path back has been long and twisting but I’ve slowly nursed that initial spark of life into a steady flame. Bearing this torch of gaming desire I continue on my journey seeking gaming nirvana. I knew that any real gaming revival would be incomplete without a visit to a gaming convention— the mecca of all true gamers.
I felt it was important to start with a smaller con, I’ve heard about the masses of gamers that attend GenCon and Origins and how it makes those cons into less intimate affairs. I knew this was not for me; I did not want to get lost in the crowd, I wanted my first con to be a more personal gaming experience. I was originally aiming to attend two very small cons: MEPAcon and then Fear The Con 3. In both cases scheduling conflicts kept me away. It looked like I was going to be out of luck again when another July con approached but at the last minute my schedule cleared up and the way was paved for me to get some time off.
This past week I attended DexCon 13 held at the Hyatt hotel in Morristown New Jersey on July 7th through the 12th. I had done a little anecdotal research about cons and prepared myself for the worst case scenarios: toxic body odor, poorly air conditioned rooms packed with gamers, throngs of black t-shirt clad elitist gaming system fanboys, poorly scheduled or over-crowded events, loud boisterous hammerheads and, dare I say it…..over-zealous LARPers!
The convention started on a Wednesday but my adventure began that Thursday. I packed up myself and my eldest daughter, Emily, and we made the commute upstate to see what we might see. I planned this initial excursion as a scouting mission; I wanted to test the waters and see if this was really something I wanted to invest my gaming time in. We arrived around noon and after struggling to find a parking spot we tentatively entered the lower lobby of the hotel. We were immediately surrounded by conference rooms filled with miniatures war gaming tables and I felt giddy at the sight. My daughter looked over at me and grinned. We were at a con! Thumbs up!
We rushed upstairs to the main lobby to register. I expected a long line but there was almost none. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to attend for just a day or the full week but when I got there I made a spur of the moment decision and decided to buy week long passes. Donning our freshly printed convention badges, we grabbed an event guide and began flipping through them. We were like kids in a candy store, pages full of so many events we wanted to try and disappointed when we saw timing conflicts.
I believe there are tons of gamers like me that have shelves full of gaming books and board games that they’ve never even played. Well I was determined to fix that. There were two RPG gaming systems I had my heart set on trying: Shadowrun and CthulhuTech. There were others, like Burning Wheel and Dog’s in the Vineyard, but those were the two I was dead set on experiencing. In miniatures gaming, I wanted to try Flames of War, Firestorm Armada and Malifaux. As for board games, there were a ton of them that I was looking forward to playing like: Tannhauser, Descent, Battlestar Galactica, Wings of War, Horus Heresy, Shadows over Camelot and Battlelore.
As luck would have it, there was a Malifaux demo scheduled for that very afternoon. We rushed downstairs to the wargaming section and after being helped by several courteous and friendly gamers we made our way to the gaming table. There we met Matt and Tyler Steele (a very cool name, we joked about whether he was a super hero or a porn star). For our demo match, the Guild faction would be taking on the Neverborn faction. Initially, there was a lot to take in regarding the fluff of the game. The characters are very unique and there is really no cookie-cutter faction to make it easier to start with. After some initial hiccups we started to get the hang of the game and when the final turn came we ended in a draw. I’m not sure if I like the card flipping mechanic of the game, but we both had a good time trying it out.
After that we decided to have a look around while we waited for the next block of events to start. We visited the vendor room and ogled all the merchandise on display before we headed back out to the main areas. We grabbed a quick bite to eat and I have to say that was one of the downers for me. The food provided by the hotel catering was horrible and way over-priced. I know next time I will go outside of the building for food, but we were starving and naïve and so it was what it was.
Our next event was a Tannhauser board game demo presented by Stephen Rogers. This man was very prepared and after some initial setup and rules explanation had us fighting through Hellboy-esque World War II action sequences. I was soundly beaten by Emily and at that point we decided to call it a night. We had an hour and a half commute back home full of excited geek chatter about what we had seen and the possibilities for the rest of the con.
We arrived home and regrouped and I decided that my fourteen year old soon would be right at home at the con. He had already flipped through the event guide and had his heart set on playing in a Star Wars Saga edition session. He owns most of the RPG books and has read through them several times. We had earlier noted that several of the Star Wars sessions looked full, but we decided to wait and see how it would work out.
By this time I had decided I should get a hotel room instead of heading back home each night. Unfortunately, only Friday night was available at the Hyatt and I had no wish to stay in another hotel. So I made the reservation and we headed back the next morning three strong!
We arrived in the afternoon and missed the morning schedule of events, but I saw that a Firestorm Armada demo was scheduled to begin and we hurried down to find it. Much to my disappointment, the event was overbooked but a friendly guy by the name of Chris offered to demo Warmachine for us. We gladly accepted and he quickly ran Emily and Devin through a game of Khador versus Protectorate of Menoth. We have all been painting up Warmachine armies but haven’t had a chance to play through a game yet, so it was nice to get a feel for the rules. Devin made us laugh when he turned to us and asked, “How do I move the guys?” You see he was looking for a grid. He’s only played in the current d20 system or board games and he had no idea what the tape measure was for.
After this we headed back to our hotel room for snacks and a quick power nap. Then we set out for the next round of gaming. At this point we split up. Emily and I heading for a Mage:The Ascension campaign and Devin happily making his way to a Star Wars Saga Edition game. I have to say I was surprised to find we were using the old edition of the Mage rules and I found them a bit clunky to use. It’s my fault for not noting the “Ascension” part of the title in the game listing. I own most of the new White Wolf game books and was hoping we were going to use that system. Still we had an entertaining time and finished our game with nary a party member death!
We headed over to Devin’s table but his group had not yet finished their session. I brought along Monty Python Fluxx for just such an occasion and Emily and I played a round while we waited. Things worked out in my favor and I pulled off a last minute upset victory, driving my daughter crazy. I seem to be unusually lucky when it comes to Fluxx and my whole family usually teams up against me when we play. They don’t care who wins as long as it’s not me!
Devin’s game ended and we decided not to try and catch any of the later games and headed back to our room to crash. We had to be up bright and early the next morning because Emily had signed up for a Firefly LARP.
The next morning Devin and I decided to tag along with Emily since we hadn’t found anything on the schedule yet. As were passing by another LARP room, Devin saw they were conducting a Boffer tournament and his eyes lit up. He looked up at me and I nodded and he took off for the room with a grin. I spent the next few hours traveling back and forth between the two LARP areas and was having so much fun watching them I decided not to try and find an event myself.
While I was waiting for them to finish I happened to be passing by a table and I saw all of the CthulhuTech RPG books laid out on it. Then I saw a sign-up list for demos! This was one of the games I badly wanted to take for a spin. So I went ahead and put all three of our names down and I’m glad I did (more on that later.)
I caught up with Devin and Emily as their sessions ended and as we were heading back to the signup area Devin caught sight of what looked like another LARP in progress. It turns out that Mystic Realms was running a demo of their sci-fi themed LARP. Devin and Emily were approached by one of the LARPers and they were immediately hooked. She gave them a quick rules run-down and they spent the next couple of hours fighting their way through an alien infested ship, escorted by androids and shock troopers. They both had a great time and were sad to leave but we had to make an early departure because I did not want to miss out on the CthulhuTech demo.
Next we met with a gentleman by the name of Bob Arens who would be running the demo for us. He quickly gave us some background on the CthulhuTech universe and handed out character sheets and we were soon fighting our way through Esoteric Order of Dagon mechs in our very cool bio-mechanical Engel mechs. Bob was hands down the best GM that I gamed with at this con. He knew his stuff inside and out and knew what to leave out and what to include while still delivering a thrilling and compelling game experience. I would later find out that this was none other than the infamous Martian Bob I had heard about on many Fear The Boot podcasts. I can see why there is always a clamor for games run by him. I am going to make it my goal to find his games whenever I can at future cons. Bob even showed us some very cool artwork on his signed copy of one of the books. The unique artwork and interesting concepts are what drew me to purchase a copy of the main RPG book and now that I’ve played through the rules I am very interested in starting or joining a CthulhuTech campaign. I have to say this was the highlight of the con for me.
Having no hotel room for Saturday night, we knew our con experience was coming to a close. We made one last pass through the dealer’s room and purchased some t-shirts and souvenirs for family left behind and headed off for the next round of gaming. Devin had signed up for another Star Wars Saga session and Emily and I headed off to a game of Rogue Trader.
Our Rogue Trader group was a great one and we had a blast. The GM knew several of the players already so maybe this contributed to the lighter atmosphere but I don’t think I laughed more in any other group than this one. There was a lot of good natured banter going on the whole night and when the game came to a close I left the building wishing I had a gaming group like that one a regular basis. We were all sad we had to leave and I missed out on a Flames of War demo scheduled for Sunday but it was time to call it a con.
It was my first time experiencing a gaming convention and not knowing what to expect I have to say that I was very satisfied with the whole event. Much to my relief, I have to say that I encountered almost none of the terrible things I had heard about at other cons. Sure I caught the occasional whiff of some foul body funk, but in most cases the rooms were very well ventilated and the temperature remained very cool. There were a few loud boisterous convention goers but they seemed to be in the minority. In general, everyone was kind and courteous and it appeared that they all shared the common goal of just having a great time gaming.
I would have to say that for my first con experience I had a tremendous time, in fact, my son and daughter gave it a hearty thumbs up and I would have to agree! Who has two thumbs and enjoyed DexCon 13? This guy!