Monthly Archives: June 2011

Another Origins Find

I became more sympathetic to the people with the rolling luggage at Origins after I started down the boardgame path. The simple reality is that if you’re carrying more than one full sized boardgame, you’re going to be hard pressed to find an efficient solution for carrying them. This became apparent after I picked up Ascension and the other awesome boardgame of the con (more on that in a second) and I tried to carry both around. My backpack was no use, and while I made use of my Reddoxx CPA Briefcase (which is freaking immense) one day, it was sufficiently full that there was no room for additional purchases.

So, with that in mind, I’m willing to change my stance on rolling luggage at conventions. You still need to steer clear of crowded areas (like the dealers room) with it, but if you are board-game or wargame focused, I concede the necessity. However, I offer an important caveat – don’t overload them. If you’re using a clever arrangement of bungie cords to try to hold two stacks of games side-by-side then you’re asking for trouble. One game is going to come loose, and then it’s all going to go to hell. Unless you are literally stocking a booth, stick to a single stack.

All of this also has reminded me of the importance of after-market repackaging, which is a really fancy way of saying “Putting a game in a smaller box”. I love that games are getting these great organizing trays, but that’s only really used to me if I play the game at home. If I ever want to take the game anywhere (like a convention or a friend’s house) then it’s worth my while to try to compress it down into something more portable. A few game-makers have caught onto this. The ascension bundle I got came with a box for just this purchase, and I know that AEG makes the boxes for it’s game expansions with compact storage in mind.

Which comes to the other great find of the convention, Seven Wonders. This is a development game that feels a bit like the slimmed down love child of Civilization and Race for the Galaxy, which puts it precisely in my sweet spot. Still, as I mentioned regarding Ascension, merely being a good game is not enough anymore, and 7W delivered on two particular vectors.

The first is that it’s fast. Gameplay is listed as a half hour, and even with learning, our first games were done in under 40 minutes. Fast is a big deal for me, and would probably have been enough, but it was driven home by the second point: That time doesn’t change as you add more players. It’s just as fast (or nearly so) with 7 people as it is with 3 (technically, it also supports 2, but I haven’t tried the 2 player rules yet). This is accomplished by changing the deck size based on the number of people, which in turn keeps the number of turns constant. Since turns are simultaneous, the only thing that really slows down play is that guy who takes forever to make decisions. Sadly, there is only so much you can do about that, except perhaps keep playing until he feels comfortable enough to play fast.

Setup and breakdown could be a little more efficient, and to be totally frank, will probably be helped by shifting it to a custom box, but that’s a small detail. Apparently the first expansion is about to hit the market (Asmodee had them at Origins, but weren’t selling them when I talked to them) but there’s some worry it’s going to change the game too drastically. I’m willing to hold out and see before picking it up.

Anyway, it was a good purchase, and you can apparently get it for as little as $35, which is a good price. at $40 I felt ok with it, though at $50 I might have hesitated. Your yardstick may vary of course, but if you get a chance, it’s worth a play.


I go to Origins for the conversations, and the winner was one of the big ad hoc roundtables on Sunday night. Great talk for lots of great reasons, but the thing that really struck me came afterwards, on the way back to the hotel. Amanda Valentine, editor to the stars, remarked on how much she had enjoyed the conversation and, notably, how much she had felt a part of it rather than excluded because she was a woman. Now, on the face of it, this was great – I’m really glad that was the case, and I can safely say that it was not because anyone made any special effort to accommodate her. It was just the sort of conversation where people are thoughtful and respectful and topics wander the map, and that’s kind of as it should be.

But my heart sank some. Not because she was wrong – she wasn’t – and not even because in this hobby it was something that merited mention. Rather, it made me think about the makeup of the conversation. It included over a dozen people at various points, only two of which were women.

This is a little disturbing to me because, up to that point, it had been a pretty much perfect conversation in my eyes. Noting that gap called out two things. The first was a blind spot on my part, and while that’s always jarring, that’s just something to live with and learn from. The second, and perhaps more interesting and actionable item, was my asking of myself who else should have been there.

See, the rub is that I actually know a number of female game designers, writers and the like, and they’re pretty awesome (and despite appearances, only _some_ of them are named Emily). Of those I know, very few were at Origins, so it would have been hard for them to get in on the conversation, which is a decent intellectual answer, but emotionally leaves me wondering if I’m just facing another blind spot. I met a lot of guys at Origins, but I can only think of three women (Amanda, who came with Evil Hat, an editor from Outrider Studios whose name escapes me and who I met in the context of speaking to her husband, and Miranda Horner, who has a list of RPG credits as long as my arm) I spent any time talking to.

It is entirely possible to write this off as a function of the gender ratio at the convention, which I presume to skew male without any real evidence to back that up. The temptation to do so is rooted firmly in the squoodgy uncertainty that dwelling on this evokes. If I think about this in terms of bringing women into gaming, it’s this huge, impossible problem.

But thankfully, that’s not it.

See, the reality is I’m a selfish bastard, and I’m in this for cool ass conversations with cool ass people. I WANT Emily Care Boss, Jess Hartley, Filamena Young, Julia Ellingbone, Elizabeth Shoemaker Sampat, Amy Garcia and many, many, many, many, others to be in on these conversations because they make it more awesome. I don’t worry about the absence of women in this conversations for some abstract reason, I worry because I fear there are awesome people out there who I’m not dragging into the circle because I don’t know about them! (I worry about it with guys too, of course, but when it comes to guys, let’s just say I have a very wide shot selection.)

So, help me sate my selfishness. Who should I be following? Who should I be looking forward to dragging into crazy ass conversations at cons? Who should be on my radar but isn’t (possibly because I’m a dumbass).

Cool Things at Origins

This was my first big convention in memory with no responsibilities, which made it weird. The biggest obvious effect was that my sense of time got absolutely shot. Summer sunlight plus being further west (plus a light right outside my hotel window) meant all my cues for telling the time were shot. This was a little problematic, and I missed one of my evening video calls home to the kid as a result, but once I became aware of it, I compensated.

I didn’t play a single RPG while I was at the con. This hadn’t been the plan, but it was a result of my really enthusiastically diving into the card and boardgame side of things this year, enough so that I shelled out for a board room pass to be able to try different games form their library. This lead to one of the real finds of the con, Ascension.

Ascension is a card game in the general Dominion/Thunderstone family, where a lot of the play revolves around accruing cards and then using them to win. I’ve heard them called deck building games, and it’s not a great term but it will do. Ascension was getting some decent push on the floor as they were premiering their first expansion at Origins, so I was curious. I tried it, and I promptly walked to the floor and bought the whole set, so safe to say I liked it.

But here’s the thing: it’s a great game, but that wasn’t enough. There are LOTS of great, fun, well designed games out there, so many that it has become the minimum I look for in a game. It needs to be a great game, but it also needs to do something else, and Ascension pulled that off. Specifically, it’s got a lot of the fun of Dominion or Thuderstone without being nearly as much of a pain in the ass. Setup and breakdown (which are my biggest annoyance with those other games) is quick and easy, meaning it’s a game that I can actually _play_ with a minimum of friction, and that’s fantastic.

Not to say it’s flawless. The art on the cards is uneven, and unfortunately some of the worst art is on the most common cards. They also clearly changed card printers between the initial game and the expansion, and the expansion cards are a tiny bit smaller and not necessarily perfectly color matched. Both problems go away when you sleeve the cards (which i did, since they don’t feel like they can take as much abuse as I’d dish out) but it’s a bit annoying that it makes sleeves a very near necessity rather than just a nice to have.

Still, I’m glad I got it, and I look forward to playing it more in the future.

So That Happened

I usually skip the actual Origins awards ceremony. I’d pretend that this is some hipster douchebag, too cool for the event sort of thing but the reality is that in past years I have never been able to actually find the ceremony, and directions didn’t seem to help. This was the first year i actually found it (and the beer garden), so that was a good reason to go.

Even so, I was mostly just there to cheer on Fred, who was inducting Erick Wujick into the Origins Hall of Fame (and rightly so). I sat in the back and had brought along my copy of Ascension and a big stack of card sleeves – an awards ceremony seemed exactly the right opportunity to sleeve up all those cards. And it was. Things started reasonably on time, and James Earnest lives up to his reputation as a great MC, and I was cheerfully ripping through those cards, and then the Damndest thing happened: we won.
The Dresden files RPG was up for the Origins award for best RPG and best RPG supplement. The competitions in both categories was crazy fierce, and I was pretty sure we had no chance – in fact, I had a high level of confidence in who we would lose too in each category. Pathfinder was just going to crush is in Best Supplement, and Best RPG was a toss up: DC adventures, unless Green Ronin split their vote between that and Dragon Age, in which case, Gamma World would take it. I was so very, very wrong.
So, now I have two statues, or at least two I share with Fred, Lenny, Clark, Amanda, Ken, Ryan, Chad, Genevieve and of course, Jim. This is pretty fantastic. I have no ideas what it _means_ – Origins award provides no useful predictor on how the other awards of the season will fall out, and I have no idea if it means a sales bump, but i don’t really *need* to know those things. This crazy idea that started with a trio of friends running Amber LARPs and a long drive to Tahoe managed to do this thing, and if you asked the people on that trip if they could have ever imagined this, they would have laughed and laughed. This is something that happens to other people.
But, I guess maybe it isn’t. Might be a lesson in that.

Bad Business

So, I was standing at an Origins booth and noticed they had some Osprey books for $15 each, a mild discount. Osprey books are cool little military-focused history resources, so I starter looking, and saw an interesting looking one on the fortifications of the Incas, so I pick it up and wait to pay the man. He’s busily playing a mini’s game, so I decide to be patient, and look over the bookshelf and find another book I want to get, so I pick it up and wait some more.
Guy keeps playing his game. That’s cool, I’m patient, and while I’m waiting, I succumb to impulse and pick up two more books. So there I am, standing there with $60 of product in my hands, and the guy keeps playing.
I wait, and after a while I’m a little bit less in the sweep of “oh cool” and I put back the two extra books I picked up. He’s still playing.
After a bit longer, I decide, ok, I only really need one, so I set aside the second. He’s still playing.
So I wait a while longer, at which point I decide “To hell with this”, put down the book and wander off.
Origins has been overall quite fantastic, but that example was pretty much going to stick with me.
Or so I thought. That bit of lighthearted bad-business ended up feeling very small late in the day when word hit the bars about the WOTC layoffs. It’s way to early to say anything more than it’s disturbing, and that I wish the best for all those affected. Good luck to you all.

Building the Conspiracy

As I mentioned conspiracies the other day, I figured I’d share a trick for constructing them which makes them easy to construct yet consistent enough to maintain a “The Truth Is Out There” vibe.
Start off with a secret – If your familiar with the Shock RPG, consider this a single shock. It’s some thing or event which changes everything and upends all previous assumptions. Good examples include Aliens having landed, people developing psychic powers, time travel being possible, demons being real or something like that. If it’s a big enough deal that it could be a premise for a game all by itself, that’s probably a good secret.
Write it down in the middle of a piece of paper or on it’s own index card. That’s your premise, now comes the tricky part. Think of three or four new secrets that derive from that first one. They might be extrapolation (If demons are real, then maybe some magic is real and vampires are real). They might be consequence (Telepaths run the spy agencies and telekinetics control gambling and sports). They might be limitations (it’s only possible to view through time, or it’s only possible to travel with organic material). Whatever. Come up with a handful of these.
These seed secrets are your real baseline. You want to use each one as the truth that you build a conspiracy around. Based on this seed, some group is doing something. Vampires hunt in the shadows, treasure hunters are searching through time for secrets and so on.
Once you’ve got a spread, pick one of them and present it to the players as “the secret” and construct a game around that. You’ll go into play with a handful of related secrets and a truth that players can eventually dig down to reach.
Given that, here are three more tweaks,
First, as proposed, I imagine the GM is doing this in secret because the players want to be surprised. This is not the only way to do it. If the group likes having meta-knowledge, then they may want to be in on it. Alternately, if the group wants more of a “Faction War” kind of game (like Feng Shui) this can do the job.
Second, complicated secrets can be cool, and sometimes a seed secret is interesting enough that you might want to make it the central secret. As an example, in the Terminator franchise, the base secret might be that Time Travel is possibe, but the real secret is that there’s an AI in the future sending machines back in time to try to keep itself from being destroyed.
Third, which is related – you can actually repeat this process as many times as you like to create more complicated secrets. If you do this, not every secret needs to be its own conspiracy. Some may be shared secrets or otherwise part of the landscape (like time travel in Terminator) that may need to be discovered, but not necessarily unraveled.

Why Can’t You Change The World?

Wednesday morning at Origins is not an exciting time. The sad people who failed to file their paperwork online (like me) get to stand in line a lot (and, as ever, convention lines are such a perfect microcosm of the hobby) but once that’s done, it’s all “Ok, time for breakfast and wondering what to do today”. That’s about where I am. I’ve sat down in the Origins Food Court (which is probably the best food court I’ve ever seen – it’s at least 50% real food) with an omelette and coffee and about 65 minutes before this is supposed to post. So, not much convention to write about yet, but thankfully, something’s been niggling at me.

I enjoyed the recent BBC series “Sherlock”, a modern re-imaging of Sherlock Holmes. It’s only 3 episodes (whose quality I would sequentially characterize as fantastic-ok-great) and available on netflix streaming. I strongly recommend it, for a variety of reasons.

One element in particular has stuck with me though, that of conspiracy. It is clear over the course of the episodes that there is something bigger, just out of sight, and while that something is predictable to any Holmes fan, it’s handling is excellent. What particularly grabs me is that Holmes feels like his awesomeness has elevated him, but in doing so has brought him close enough to something that had previously been too high to see. It’s an idea I love: that reaching the apex of awesome reveals to you the next mountain to climb.

This idea is relevant to any game with super-competent PCs (Leverage, for example) and it’s an extension of a classic questions pressed through a strange lens. If these guys are this good (and by this good I mean cinematically good, which is another way to say “explainable super powers”) then why haven’t they changed the world?

One answer – one that makes for a specific but very interesting style of play – is that other people of similar competence got there first with the same idea. That is to say, cinematic competence can be fuel for a conspiracy game just as surely as any supernatural element can be.

What’s fun about this is that it’s very easy to flesh out the NPCs and their capabilities, because you just have to ask yourself the simple question of what your characters would need to do to change the world, then assume these guys have already done it. Your character might be badass enough to build up vast wealth and a personal spy organization – and those are great goals – but it gets complicated when there’s somebody out there who has already done this.

And it gets doubly interesting when the fact that you’re doing this means that you’re drawing their attention.

This mode works fantastically for “high level” play in a reasonably mundane setting (like the real world) because it solves the two big problems that comes with that. First, it introduces challenges which _don’t_ undercut the awesomeness of the players, and in fact, reinforce it. Moriarty’s not terrifying because he’s smarter than Holmes, he’s terrifying because he’s _as smart_. Same for your PCs.

Second, it addresses the XP issue. There comes a point where just buying up skills feels like throwing points away because everything important is maxed out. This model give the opportunity to start investing XP in the world (building up your resources, base, followers or the like).

Anyway, there is obviously more to this in a good conspiracy game, but for the time being just think about what it means to have other people in the world who are as good as your PCs – just a few of them – and what that means for the world and for your group.

Off to Origins

Hitting the road this morning, and in the flurry of packing, blogging got misplaced. Looks liek I’ll be writing from the con!

Just to follow up on the bag things, I’m going to call out a few essentials that I try to bring, both to the con and to the floor.

Power Strip and Ethernet Cable – Both for the hotel room. Power outlets are often in short supply and wireless is often unreliable (or expensive). Coming prepared for both saves many headaches.

Throat drops – I tend to bring one bag of cough drops, one bag of vitamin c drops, and mix it up. By day 3 of talking over crowds, they’re something you’re very grateful for.

Water Bottle – Pick one your bag can handle – a big bottle may last you longer on a refill, but it’s not worth it if it’s just a hassle to tote.

Quarters – Hotel laundry Machines. Lockers. Lots of random stuff out there uses quarters, so I keep a few on hand.

Gas-X – Look, reality is you’re going to be eating different food than you’re used to, and it’s going to take an intestinal toll. Take steps not to share your pain. This is over and above the usual rules about essential con hygiene.

Index Cards – After Dice and Pencils, these are the most useful thing you can have for any game. Write characters on them, fold them and use them as name cards, tear them up to make tokens – whatever. They’re a fantastic all-purpose fallback.

Gadgets – There are few specific gadgets you need at the con, but a few needs that gadgets can meet. Some way to get information, communicate with people and maybe take pictures is enough. A smartphone can do this, though so can a laptop and regular phone, or a camera and an ipad or god knows what else. Don’t pack gadgets to pack gadgets, figure out your needs, then pack the tools that address them.

Speaking of which, I should note that I won’t be watching twitter for the week. I’ll keep an eye out for @mentions and direct messages, but anything in the main twitter stream is going to be a loss. But I will check comments here, so if there’s a questions about Origins you’d like me to answer, then feel free to ask!

The Con Bag

Someone asked, and that’s all the excuse I need for some unrestrained bag nerdery. The topic of what to carry at a convention and how to carry is is one that I have given utterly unreasonable amounts of thought to, and I share some of the fruits of it here. If you’re about to go to a convention (like, say, Origins) and are considering what you’re going to carry around, then hopefully this might help.

The first question to ask yourself is whether you need a bag at all. If you don’t intend to run any games (including pickup ones) and you don’t intend to buy anything, then the reality is you probably won’t need to. Stick a notebook, pen & Pencil, phone and maybe a few dice in your pocket and you’re good to go. If you can get one of those cool badge holders with pockets (they might have them with the Origins Merchandise, they might not) then that can even make it easier. This is, honestly a nice way to go if you can pull it off.

One tip that may help at Gencon but not at Origins – if you can get one of the pay-lockers on site, that can allow you to get by with a very minimal carry since you can drop your purchases off at a locker rather than tote them around.

Ok, for the rest of us, there tend to be two big reasons to carry a bag: to be prepared, and to shop.

Shopping is the simpler scenario. For all that a bag may feel awkward, I promise you it feels worlds better than a cheap plastic grocery bag carrying a heavy load of books or boardgames, especially given the certainty that a sharp corner is going to poke through sooner or later. If you’ve always got a bag, life gets much easier, though there are alternatives. If you plan your shopping (for example, knowing you’ll only shop on the first or last day of the convention) then you might be able to forgo the bag except on that day.

You’ll want to pick a bag that matches your shopping interests. If you’re just looking for CCGs and maybe a book or two, as small bag will be fine. If you’re looking for boardgames or planning to make a lot of purchases, then plan for something bigger. More on that in a minute.

Being prepared is a much fuzzier thing, and I will wager that most of us carrying bags are doing it for this reason.

Now, first and foremost, if you have a fixed kit, then you already know what you need. If you’re going to be running a game, then you need certain supplies. If you absolutely must have your iPad, you need a bag that can handle it. If you have needs you explicitly must meet, then those obviously supersede any advice I can give.

But for those of you with a less fixed set of needs, let me run through some options.

First off, try to use as small a bag as you can get away with. Big bags a great, but they get heavy as you spend your time walking around. If you’re packing several games “just in case” then you might want to consider packing only one or two, and rotating them out on a daily basis.

To my mind, the perfect con bag is vertical satchel style, just big enough to hold a D&D book. Something like the Ducti Utility Messenger, the Duluth Field Bag, or the Tom Bihn Cafe Bag or Risretto. They’re big enough to hold the essentials for a game, but small enough that even if you stuff them to the gills, they’ll only get so full. However, there is a problem.

One of the advantages of a bag like that is that it can be hung at the shoulder or cross body. This is very important if you’re going to walk around a lot – a cross-body carry means that you’re not constantly readjusting the strap. The problem is that this simply won’t work for everyone. Specifically, large men (like myself) and many women will encounter issues with the strap going across the chest. Even if it’s comfortable, it can look very awkward. Now, you can mitigate this by getting a bag with a “grippy” shoulder strap (the Redoxx Gator is fantastic for this) so you can have a stable one-shoulder carry, but it’s not quite the same.

Now, I should also add that I’m biased in favor of the vertical bags because they hang better, and for the guys, they are less likely to look like a purse (a silly but very real concern). Horizontal bags can work just fine, but they tend to be bigger, and that can be an issue.

There are definitely some great messenger style bags – I’d be remiss not to mention the entire Timbuk2 line, and the remarkably spacious Bag of Holding – but I can’t recommend them as con bags in good conscience.

I can hear some protests there, so let me step back a minute. These are great bags. I have several and I love them, and part of what I love is how much crap they can hold. The danger with any such bag is that it’s really easy to overload yourself. Even carried messenger style, they get really heavy over the course of a day. If you’re confident that you can maintain bag discipline or that you REALLY need the space, then go for it, but otherwise, I’d steer clear unless you want days full of back pain.

One aside about this – a lot of “messenger bags” are really just laptop cases. That’s fine day to day, but really think about whether you need your laptop on the convention floor, and if you don’t, that might be a good excuse to trim down your bag.

Now, this is where I have to admit something – one reason people choose messenger bags is that they just look cooler than backpacks or rolling carts. I can’t argue with that. That timbuk2 slung across your back suggests your about to jaunt off on your mountain bike to jump off a cliff while pounding an energy drink. The backpack suggests you packed a lunch.

If this is really your hangup, then you really have two options. Option 1: just embrace it, and use a bag you think is awesome. Your back may hurt, but it’s a fair trade. Option 2: just get over it and accept this is a convention, not a fashion show.

Now, I’m going to steer you away from rollers in general. I recognize they’re necessary sometimes, either for physical reasons or because you’re carrying miniature armies, but otherwise they’re problematic. They’re hard to handle on stairs and escalators, they’re problematic if you need to leave the convention floor. Only do it if you must.

For the rest of us, the boring, reliable backpack is often the best choice. It doesn’t get in your way when walking, you need to be a little mindful of it in crowds, but not too much so, and if you foolishly overfill it, it’s not going to suck as much as it would to be carrying it any other way.

Lot of comments there, so let me boil it down. Use the smallest bag you can get away with and still comfortably carry, but if you need to have a more-than-small bag, I strongly suggest using a backpack.

Given that I hit the road tomorrow, I think I may follow this up with a bit of a discussion of what’s worth putting in that bag. But in the meantime, what’s your con bag? I’m not worried if it contradicts my suggestion – I know a well loved bag trumps all – but I’m curious what works well for people.