Category Archives: Conventions

Post Pax

I am back from Pax Unplugged 2018 and I am exhausted. I had a really good time, but my thoughts are a bit of a jumble, so I’m going to try to pin them down.

  • I intended to attend several panels, but missed every single one that I had scheduled, usually because I was playing something. This is a good reason to miss things, but was a bit of a bummer.
  • In fact, all of my time was spent either walking the floor or playing games. I discovered in retrospect that there were entire parts of the convention (including the RPG area) because I had no idea they were there, and there was nothing in particular pushing me in that direction.
  • Since I didn’t see the actual RPG focused area, I put a pin in my sense that this is not a great RPG con. It’s got G.O.D. and stuff, so it’s not like it’s not an RPG con, but my experience was generally so crowded and loud that while playing boardgames was fine, I suspect I would go insane trying to roleplay. But it’s possible there’s some secret sauce I missed out on.
  • This was a terrible con for seeing and talking to people. I imagine it’s better for the folks who have the leeway to do late night hanging out, but during the day there is such a press of humanity in constant motion that the prospect of stopping to talk is daunting. Meals offer no respite in this – while not as bad as last year, you need to go some distance (or be willing to pay more) to find a usable social space.
  • There were some obvious improvements from last year: the aisles in the dealer hall were numbered, for one thing, and there was even more space to play. It felt like they kept pace with the growth, which is good, but I’m not sure it made for an overall improvement. There’s still a lot of cattle call to it, though.
  • It remains a line culture con. I do not criticize that, but I do need to make my peace with it.
  • It took a while to find the boardgame library, because the play area was so large, and we never ended up using it because we had games and it was constantly swamped. That maybe sounds like a complaint, but it’s not – there was a HUGE play area which was constantly at capacity with a constantly churning game library. There was SO MUCH PLAY. It was beautiful.
  • This may seem weird, but I kind of feel like I could have skipped Saturday. Friday was busy, but there was some NEW STUFF energy that was fun. Sunday was also busy, but less so, and it meant that there was actually time and space to get demos and try things out that had not really been an option. But Saturday was all knife fight. Walking the floor was slow and overcrowded, and finding any workable space was a chore. Thinking towards the future, I may see what I can do to route around it.
  • This is the second year of the con and the second year I brought my son. I am pretty sure that some of my experience was skewed by this – I probably would have seen more people if I was solo, for example, because I would have had a little more flex (and have been out later). He had an awesome time, but at least part of that is because my wife took him to The Franklin Institute for a big chunk of Saturday, sparing him the worst of the overstimulation. I honestly am not sure how good an idea this is as a kids con – people are great and he had a great time, but the sheer press of people worries me a bit.
  • I was fairly restrained in my purchases until the final floor walk on Sunday, when the combination of “we don’t want to take this home” sales and my son making big eyes for robot-fighting games demolished my resolve.

It was a good time. No question. And I have every intention of going again next year. But I fully concede that a big part of the decision is the fact that it’s just over two hours from home, which makes travel inexpensive and easy. If it were farther away, I’m not sure it would be worth the trip. But it’s also possible that once I’m past this initial wave of exhaustion, I’ll feel much better about it.

My Metatopia Schedule

My Metatopia schedule is as follows. Outside of that I expect I’ll be playtesting like a fiend, and when I’m not, I’ll be sneaking into other people’s panels to ask annoying questions from the back of the room.


D002 Playtesting 101

Rob Donoghue, Curt Covert & Jason Pitre

Playtesting is an absolute requirement for any game to be successful. This panel shows how to get the most out of your playtesting efforts no matter what kind of game you’ve designed.
Friday 9:00AM – 10:00AM
One Session; Serious, All Ages.

D015 Role Playing Scenario Design

Kenneth Hite, Darren Watts, Rob Donoghue, John Stavropoulos & Bill White

Our panel of experts drills down into the specifics of scenario-building for publication, whether it’s showing off the game’s basics with an introductory scenario, or stringing several together for a mini-campaign book.
Friday 1:00PM – 2:00PM
One Session; Serious, All Ages.

D024 New School Mechanics In Old School Games (And Vice Versa!)

Cam Banks, Rob Donoghue & Joseph Bloch

The borders between story games and traditional role playing games have never been blurrier, and many recent games have blended the two traditions to grand effect. Come hear our panel muse on what both schools have to offer, and what they can still learn from each other.
Friday 4:00PM – 5:00PM
One Session; Serious, All Ages.

D061 Dangerous Mechanics: Rules That Looked Good On The Surface

Kenneth Hite, Will Hindmarch, Rob Donoghue & Jason Pitre

The panelists will deal with mechanics that look good on the surface but can have unforeseen negative consequences in play. Spending XP, no-effect rules, dice-generated currency – all have hidden dangers. Explore these and other light bulbs that didn’t quite work out.
Saturday 9:00PM – 10:00PM
One Session; Serious, All Ages.

D064 Open Licenses: Why, Why Not, and How

Fred Hicks, Cam Banks, Rob Donoghue & Justin Jacobson

What are the various options available for licensing your game to others (or from others), and what are the creative reasons and financial imperatives for choosing between them?
Saturday 10:00PM – 11:00PM
One Session; Serious, All Ages.

Fred and I will be arriving int he wee hours of the night on Thursday because we have kids who need to trick or treat. Despite this, I will be maintaining my usual tradition of breakfasting in the hotel at ~7:30 every morning, and anyone who wishes to join be is absolutely welcome.

Notes from my talk

I gave a talk at Metatopia on Sunday on talking to the talent and promised to post my notes, so here they are in all their semi-comprehensible glory. That said, on a lark, I recorded the bit of advice I got from Fred, so I’m throwing that up here as a bonus (warning – hugely amateur sound – this was me in 15 minutes between calls on my laptop).


  • This will be hard because you are probably also a writer
  • Giving people work that you could do yourself requires you to conciously let go and trust


  • Tips From Fred

    Make sure that when you say something like a quarter page, define that in inches
    discuss resolution (300dpi minimum)
    Size weenies
    If you’re working in print, you want CMYK, not RGB
    Have some expectations for the image, communicate them clearly, but don’t be married to your vision. You’re paying them for their expertise.
    Do the reference image research for them if you can.
    If possible, do an art reference of These characters in these places, esp if you’ve got strongly recurring characters or places.
    If you don’t have the images, you may want to do a round of references images first.
    Make it clear to the artist what stages of the process you want to be involved in
    Maybe even roughs/concept sketches
    Try to get ONE intermediary step, just for course corrections

  • Blog: The Art OrderDifferent process, but informativeWOTC Guy


  • Editor Blogs
  • You don’t need to communicate a lot with editors once you get going BUT
  • You need to communicate your vision to them to help them help you achieve it
  • When in doubt, blame the editor.


  • Go read Robin Williams “Non-Designers Design Book”
  • Very solid crash course in understanding what the layout guy is talking about.


  • Yes, it’s marketing, even if you don’t call it that
  • Social Media
  • Evangelizers and engagement
  • Demo Teams
  • Demo Kits
  • Benefits and dangers of empowerment

Business Partners

  • Distributors
  • Shop Owners
  • Printers


  • Benefits and drawbacks of transparency
  • No bad reviews
  • Don’t be a dick – let the other guy do it

Collaboration Tools

  • Dropbox
  • Wikis
  • Basecamp
  • You WILL use MS word
  • Update schedule

Also, A hat tip to John, the editor who came up and helped me out at the talk byt talking about, well, talking to editors. You can check him out on twitter at @awesome_john or at his blog.

This Metatopia Thing

A while back, Vinnie had an idea.

Vinnie, for those that don’t know, is the robot brain behind Dreamation, Dexcon and a host of other nerd events in northern New Jersey. I’ve talked in the past about how good Dreamation and Dexcon are, and a lot of that is a reflection on how hard Vinnie works.

These conventions have historically been hotbeds of game design activity – a place to run playtests and to talk with designers of small press games. The problem is, the streams don’t always mix well, and this came to a head at a previous convention, when confusions between what was play testing and what was actually a game to play interfered with some people’s experience.

So, Vinnie pitched the idea of peeling off some of this and creating a designer-centric convention, one explicitly for playtests, discussion groups, seminars and roundtables. There was a lot of support for the idea, but a lot of uncertainty regarding what such a thing would look like. I admit, I shared in that uncertainty.

This past weekend was that convention: Metatopia. We got to see how the idea translated into reality, and from my perspective, it was very nearly miraculous.

I drove up very early Saturday morning, so I missed some of the fun on Friday night (including a panel of Ken Hite and Fred Hicks talkign about how to steal from other games) but I got two full days of goodness in. I didn’t know quite what to expect, but I jumped in enthusiastically.

There were three major activities at the convention: Seminars, Playtests and Focus Groups.

Seminars are what you would expect: one or more people talking about some subject or other. This doesn’t sound like much, but it’s worth noting that the sister conventions have historically had a fairly anemic seminiar track. The reasons for that get a bit chicken and egg, but the bottom line is that it was really nice to see good seminars with enthusiastic attendees. It was good enough that I want to see what I can do to help with seminar tracks at Dexcon & Dreamation. It also provides a double excuse to try to drag Chuck Wendig back – we totally need to get him to talk about writing.

Playtests are also reasonably self-explanatory. Designer shows up with a game, runs it, and gets feedback. These are interesting because their value really depends on the GM’s attitude. For GM’s who came into it looking to really tear into their own game to find what made it work, it was a godsend, and you could spot those GMs because they were the ones making changes in response to play experience. For GM’s who felt they had a finished game, I think it was a lot less useful – fine tuning is something you do over time. The feedback you could get at this convention was more suited to the guts of your game than the chrome.

This actually kind of hurts as a designer, because I’m not sure how to provide feedback on it, especially when it’s clear there are problems with the game. Even moreso when it’s clear the problems maybe things the designer is already married to. I don’t want to discourage people from playtesting their game in this context, but if you’re not ready to be told your game doesn’t work, it’s probably not helpful.

The last (and most interesting to me) were the focus groups. These were for people who had an idea for a game, but not necessarily much more than that. You sit down in a room and talk about your game and your ideas, and you proceed to brainstorm. For folks who’ve attended the Indie Roundtables, it’s rather like that, but more focused. I LOVED these, and I wish I had done more of them – something to make a note for next year.

Anyway, there’s a lot more to talk about, but for everyone who has wondered, I just wanted to make sure you had a sense of what this Metatopia thing is.

(I should also add, enough people at the con had nice things to say about the blog that I’m now feeling guilty about my half-assed writing schedule, so we’ll see if that can be fixed. Also, if you attended my seminar (thank you!) I’ll be posting my notes soon, probably as tomorrow’s post.)

PAX – More Bitter Envy

I am not at PAX, nor am I at PAX dev. This kind of sucks. I mean, it sucks a little bit less than not being at Gencon because it’s at least _possible_ for me to go the Gencon without punching a huge hole in my life, but all the same? Sucks.

In fairness, much of this grumpiness stems from how awesome PAX East was. Yeah, I know PAX is primarily a video game con, but as I gushed at length, it was one of the best all-purpose gaming (and really general celebration of the tribe) cons I’ve been to, and in my mind, PAX offers more of the same.

Anyway, if you’re going to be going, you should know two things:

1) I hate you.

2) Take some time to swing by Games on Demand. You can find out more here and here, but what you really need to know is that it’s free and it’s the place to get any amount of awesome gaming in. You know those rooms where they set up all the consoles so you can just walk in and play cool stuff, old and new? Imagine it like that, only with Pen & Paper RPGs. As with other walk-in rooms, it’s just as suitable for someone curious to check out one thing as it is for the person who wants to spend the whole con soaking in this particular brand of nerdery.

Now, here’s where I admit an ulterior motive. The PAX guys run a tight ship, and they only include programs if people use them. If Games on Demand does not see much traffic, then the PAX planners will probably decide that next time around they’ll use the space for something else. I can’t blame them for that, but I wouldn’t want to see it happen for several reasons. Yes, G.O.D. is awesome, but that’s almost secondary.

See, one of the things I liked about the PAX vibe was that there were lots of people there who were willing to consider RPGs a normal part of things without viewing themselves as RPG gamers. That’s incredibly healthy and reassuring, and it’s something I’d like to see get the opportunity to grow, and things like this are how it happens.

And, more selfishly, if it’s a success, there’s more of a chance we’ll see it at PAX East.

Anyway, if you’re not at PAX this week, feel free to join me in my bitterness. If you are, please feel free to ignore my death rays of envy and have as awesome a time as possible.

Gencon Hotspots

So, people were kind enough to help me out with suggestions about new things that they’re going to get a chance to pick up at Gencon, so I may now stew in my own juices of jealousy and think teeth-gnashing thoughts while I miss the conventions. Still, no reason I should be alone in this, so join me in running through this list and stew alongside me. Oh, and if you happen to actually be going to Gencon and just happen to benefit from this, well, I suppose it can’t be helped.

Green Ronin – Booth 965
Dragon Age (Second Boxed Set) – I preordered this, so I got mine a few days ago (it’s awesome) but this is it’s real coming out party. I’ve written a lot about how awesome Dragon Age is, but also complained about the ceiling that the first boxed set (which limits things to levels 1-5 imposes. This second boxed set covers level 6-10 and includes a lot of things people felt were missing in the core, like Grey Wardens.

They should also have the first big supplement for DC adventures (Heroes & Villains, I think?). If you haven’t looked at this game, you need to, if only because it’s all SO DAMN PRETTY.

Burning Wheel – Booth 311
Burning Wheel Gold – If you, like me, missed out on the very narrow pre-order window, this is your chance to grab it. I still haven’t seen this, but I want to. The price is good, production is (predictably) fantastic but most importantly, this is the new version of a game that has seen more deep, careful thought and attention to what makes it go than pretty much anything I can think of. Luke knows his stuff, and while I don’t expect this to be a revolutionary change from the existing Burning Wheel, I expect is to be pretty damn spiffy.

I don’t know if they’ll have it for sale, but hopefully they will have a display copy of the Mouseguard Boxed Set to show off. You want to see it.

Machine Age Productions – Booth 1356
I think (hope) they’re going to have Amaranthine available for sale, and as awesome as that is, you really need to go there to see the gaming patches. Seriously. If I were there it’s the first thing I’d be hitting on the dealer floor.

Cubicle 7 – Booth 711
Yes, they’re going to have The One Ring, and that’s a big deal, but greatly overshadowed in my mind by Airship Pirates. As far as i can tell, this is basically wall to wall steampunk porn, and I understand there’s an audience for this sort of thing. They should also have a sci-fi game called In Flames that I know nothing about.

I also expect a few awesome things in the Cubicle 7 Penumbra, hopefully including Ashen Stars and Stealing Chthulu, but I can’t speak to it for sure.

Third Eye Games – Booth 605

Part Time Gods – People I’ve needed with will long attest that I’ve bemoaned the lack of a “Street Nobilis” game. I am no longer bemoaning.

Flying Frog – Booth 1421
Fortune & Glory – It’s a boardgame from Flying Frog who have done cool adventure boardgames with strong themes in the past (Last Night on Earth, A Touch of Evil). This one is billed as a Cliffhanger game, and it looks pulpy. I admit, that’s pretty awesome.

Black Crusade – I Guess it’s for playing Chaos Space Marines?

Outrider Studios – Booth 1544
Mentioned these guys yesterday for Remnants, but folding thim in here for completeness!

Other Awesome Things That Might Be at IPR, I Think
, Wherever it is
Do – Well, yeah, I’ll plug it. It’s beyond gorgeous, Daniel remains talented beyond all reasonable measure. I can’t say enough good things about it, so go check it out.
Bulldogs – I’ve mentioned before how excited I am for this one – it’s Brennan Taylor’s Sci-Fi RPG with a fFATE engine and a chassis made of Han Solo.
Dungeon World – A hack of apocalypse world designed to handle classic dungeon crawling goodness. This is going to be, by my understanding, the basic edition, with a release schedule somewhat akin to Dragon Age (with more stuff/rules to come later) but I don’t know all the details. What I do know is that I’ve been curiously watching this develop, and I’d pick it up in a hot second.
Shelter In Place – I mention this only so you can share my bitterness. A survival horror LARP by
the remarkably talented J.R. Blackwell, it’s my understanding the Gencon copies are already sold out.
Kerberos Club (Fate Edition) – Kerberos Club was already super-neat, so adding in a FATE engine is basically a big present JUST FOR ME!
Kingdom Come – It’s a LARP thing, and that may be a turnoff for some, so all is well and good. I admit, I know almost nothing about this, but I have suspicions. Specifically, I have suspicions that this is born from the brains of some Canadian LARPers who are basically the super-secret-ninja-masters of truly awesome LARPing.

So, what did I miss?

A Gencon Plug

Stepping off the design train briefly as we start warming up for Gencon (which I will not be attending, sadly), and I have a larger post in the works about all the new things I regret I won’t be seeing which you should totally check out. However, I want to make a smaller recommendation today, perhaps even a request.

If you get a chance, stop by booth 1544 – Outrider Studios. There are a few reasons for this, and I’ll break them down.

First, they have a game called Remnants which is pretty sweet. It’s a post-apocalyptic game centered around battling suits of power armor, and while that’s pretty cool in its own right, it makes a lot of little decisions that make it even more interesting than the premise. The core system is fairly lightweight, with some pretty clear Tri-Stat influence (that’s a good thing) but some very clever tweaking, including it’s handling of critical failures. More interestingly, it strikes a very interesting balance between providing a detailed setting and recognizing the flexible elements of the premise. Of all things, it’s reminiscent of Sorcerer in that regard – a nice little engine with a strong core idea that is reasonably easy to skin in a variety of ways that stay within theme. Also, it deserves kudos for production – it’s a $20 game (great price point) that looks good and is cleanly laid out.

So there’s that. Also, I had the pleasure of spending some time in conversation with the Outrider folks at Origins, and they’re good people. Perhaps more persuasively, they’re folks who have decided to make a go of this crazy gaming madness, and have decided to take the risk to come down for the conventions. This is, to put it bluntly, expensive and a lot of work, and they’re absolutely taking a risk in following this route, and I hope it pays off for them.

I had, I should note, not ever hear do these guys before Origins, and that was a useful reminder to me that for all I try to keep on top of things and think of myself as watching the hobby for new entrants, I can’t see everything, and I’m still going to be surprised when someone comes in from a vector unfamiliar to me. This is a good, awesome, and humbling thing.

Anyway, the last reason is that it will take you over to Entrepreneur’s Avenue, if you check out the map of the dealer’s hall, you’ll see there’s a little cluster of booths. This is where you’re going to see the people you’ve never heard of before, and that’s important. It’s all well and good to be going to Gencon to get the new releases you know are coming, but if that’s all you get, then you’re missing out. New releases can always be gotten later, but there are people and things at Gencon that you won’t see anywhere else. Take the time to look at those, let yourself be surprised, and maybe try something new and unexpected.

It might suck. I have a small stack of bought-and-played-once games from gencons past, but I also have some pleasant surprises. Remnants, I should add, was one of them.

So, please, do me a favor. If you’re there, swing by and just say hi. Take a look at their stuff, talk to them for a few minutes. Obviously, don’t buy anything unless it grabs you, but allow yourself the opportunity to be pleasantly surprised.

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.

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.