Fear the Con: A Postmortem

Last month I attended Fear the Con X. It was a blast and there are so many things to be said about it that what began as a single blog post will probably end up being two or three. That said, I want to leave a broader discussion of Fear the Con and if you should attend for a later piece. Spoiler warning: if you like tabletop games, you should probably attend Fear the Con.

For the moment, I want to focus on my observations specific to Fear the Con X. I want to discuss what I did and what I learned as a result. Some of these details may seem a little muddy if you aren’t terribly familiar with Fear the Con, so for now I will give you this much; Fear the Con is a tabletop gaming focused convention held in St. Louis, Missouri by the hosts and/or community surrounding the tabletop gaming podcast Fear the Boot. Gaming is everywhere, the dealer’s room is small, panels are rare, and “guests” are nonexistent in the traditional con sense of the word.

With that out of the way, lets talk about the convention.

THE VENUE

In previous years, the con’s official hotel and the con’s actual venue were in seperate buildings over a mile apart. The old convention center has been under renovation for a while now, forcing con organizers to reconsider their venue solution. This year’s con was in a larger Drury in with balroom and meeting space enough to host the event. I for one do not miss the old space. It was by no means *bad*, but the advantages of having your hotel room and the con in the same space I feel far outweigh the advantages of the old convention center.

My only concern going in was whether or not the ballrooms/meeting rooms in the Drury were going to be big enough, and I’m happy to be able to say that at no point during the con did space seem to be an issue. Though the con no longer provides free beer and a working kitchen to order from, between the con suite, the pizzas provided at a per slice, pay-on-your-honor, the VIP diner that ended up open to everyone for the excess of food there, the free hot hotel breakfast and dinner, and the many local eateries a short distance away, I was never hurting for food, and people, myself included, brought enough strong drink to share.

The lesson here? I appreciate the old convention center and all it did for us, but the con is going to be just fine. The Drury is taking good care of it, and has outright stated that it has enough room for more than double the turnout that we had this year, which was an all-time high.

GAME 1: TALES FROM THE LOOP: UNDER THE SHADOW OF NUCLEAR ON

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The beard was not a part of my game, but it was for charity, and therefore awesome.

I usually try to avoid running games this early in a convention for fear that I may not be fully awake and present of mind enough to manage the task. That said, this year I found myself filling my schedule with games so fast that when time came to schedule my own I found that I had cornered myself into running my most mechanically intensive game during the first slot of the con.

Tales From The Loop is a tabletop RPG set in “an 80s that never was.” You play as children, ages ten to fifteen, typically tasked with dealing with some sort of weird-science related problem that none of the grown-ups are noticing or in a position to deal with. For the game I ran, I set the game in Russelville, Arkansas, home to the nuclear power plant Arkansas Nuclear One and, in the game, a set of secret labs attached to the power plant. I had not had time to familiarize myself with the settings in Tales from the Loop, but I was much more comfortable with using a setting a little closer to home.

The mystery at it’s core was a fairly simple one. The manager of the local Walmart is a not-terribly-bright, get-rich-quick-scheme sort of villain and, after learning of certain security deficiencies in the Nuclear One labs from a disgruntled former security guard now under his employ, decided to go take a look for himself to see if he could find anything that could secure him the fortune he felt he so obviously deserved. Inside he found and stole a device that looked like an early laptop that, though designed to make people smarter, could also make them easily controlled zombies. He tested it both on employees and on a high-school applicant, and discovers the brain-numbing effect, and decides it makes the perfect employees. It does not seem to work on adolescents, however. What he doesn’t realize is that, though the effect is slower, it actually inhibits inhibitions in adolescents, making them wild hooligans.

So, he starts bringing in more people and having them test his brand new device, slowly turning the town into his perfect workforce, not really thinking about the fact that he’s cannibalizing his customer base. Adults close to several of the kids have gone missing, and this prompts them to investigate.

My biggest worry going into this game was the fact that I had not had time to do any playtesting. I had not even had a chance to run the system. While the rules were not terribly complicated, I had no baseline for what players would do when exposed to them. More worrying was the fact that, as a mystery, the length of the game could vary wildly depending on how the group approached it.

Ultimately, the game was a great success. It did run slightly short, as I try to make my games at Fear the Con run at least 3 hours of the four hour slot, but everyone seemed to really enjoy themselves and at no point did the group get stuck in decision paralysis or find themselves wanting for a lead. It turns out that when you make the PCs children they tend to be less likely to get bogged down in worries over tactics and consequences. The physical handouts I used for the game, largely just physical copies of notes and journal entries that could be found in game, seemed to get everyone’s attention without being overly distracting or becoming red herrings. There was very little that I prepared that didn’t get used, but there was only one scene that happened where I had no notes prepared for the location or encounter, and it still turned out to be an amazing bit of character building as well as a nice down time before things really got tense.

If I had it to do over again, the one change I’d make to the game is that I’d go back and grab my poker chips from my room to give players physical tokens to represent their Luck and their Pride, the two expendable resources available to them to improve their rolls. I had considered this at some point during my game planning, but at some point the idea just sort of fell to the wayside. I’ve found that players are more likely to remember this sort of resource if they are holding some sort of physical token to represent it. Tales from the Loop is weighted in such a manner as to force players to use these resources often, as oftentimes success won’t happen on an average roll. Several times I would see a player attempt something, roll, and look downtrodden until I reminded them of those resources.

I also learned that, if anything, running in Slot 1 is an amazing way to wake myself up and invigorate myself for the con. I’m oftentimes a somewhat high-energy GM, and having an entire table engaging with me woke me up way faster than I would have expected. In previous years, I’d typically look for something relatively low difficulty for slot one presuming I was going to be tired from the trip the previous day. As a result, sometimes I’d take a back seat and not be super on the ball until halfway through the game. Starting off GMing got me engaged way faster because I couldn’t just let the game run on without my participation. I will probably look to run in first slot again next year unless something comes up that I absolutely cannot miss.

SLOT 2: INSPECTRES: OVER THE BERM

This is going to be difficult to describe to the uninitiated, as this game’s entire premise was by and large an inside joke from the podcast. InSpectres bills itself as a rules-light mystery game with supernatural and reality TV show elements. Though I understand where it is coming from, I feel like describing InSpectres as a mystery game is both inaccurate and doesn’t do the game credit. Inspectres sits in a very similar genre to where Fiasco does. It’s a hijinks game. Though each adventure is framed as a mystery, unlike mystery stories and games, the ending really doesn’t matter, so much so that the players literally dictate what the truth is behind the mystery as the game goes along. It’s not a game about discovering the truth, it’s a game about the journey and the poor life decisions made on it.

In this case, it was a game where I performed an exorcism with a .357 magnum and a bottle of Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbeque Sauce.

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Accept No Substitutes

Dan, one of Fear the Boot’s hosts and GM of this game, played a little fast and loose with the rules, largely to the table’s favor, and I think the game was better for it. After the con, I finally picked up a pdf copy of Inspectres and read the rules myself. At first, I had a moment of “oh no, I shouldn’t have been able to get away with some of the things I did.” But thinking back, everyone had moments like that, and letting things fly in the face of the rules, particularly in this genre of game, made the game better overall.

If you happen to run into Pat Roper, ask him to do his Ted Kennedy impersonation.

SLOT 3: ACTION CASTLE and ACTION CASTLE 2: RETURN TO ACTION CASTLE

This was the second game I ran, and the first game I signed up to run. It was the game I came in most confident about running and the game that I was least prepared for. It was the simplest game I ran and the most taxing.

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I couldn’t have inflicted this game on a nicer group of players.

Action Castle and Action Castle 2 are both members of the Parsely family of games (which I would after the con find out are made by the same company that did InSpecters). The idea behind Parsely games is that the players are taking turns entering commands into a text parser adventure game, in which the GM plays the computer. Those of you familiar with this era of computer games might imagine where this is going.

The group had a wide age span, ranging from “old enough to remember these games” to “not old enough to drive.” Though this worried me at first, the younger players picked up on the idea quite quickly and it proved to be no problem.

My second worry came when, roughly a half hour into the slot, the group completed Action Castle. I had two more adventures printed out, but if they rode through them with the same ease they did Action Castle I was going to be out of printed material less than halfway through the slot. I had more on my tablet, but I had not done any pre-reading on them.

Fortunately, it seems Action Castle is easy in part to serve as an introduction. Action Castle 2 was far more devious and head-poundingly obtuse than part one, and it took the group most of the slot to complete.

There were some unforeseen difficulties, but they were mostly on my side of the GM screen. Because I was the arbiter of everything about the game, I had to track things like inventory, which proved to be more difficult than I originally thought given there isn’t a pre-made list of gatherable objects. I will probably prepare one for future use if I find myself running this again.

Far more taxing, though, was the stress this game put on my voice. While I did put on a slightly robotic tone during this game, that in-and-of itself was not a problem. What I had not considered ahead of time, however, was *how much* I was going to be talking. Now, when GMing, you are going to be talking a lot. Usually you will have more to say than any single player at the table, because you are going to be responding to actions from everyone at the table. That said, since everyone’s actions were given straight to me, often in short, text-parser-friendly form, I realized about 3 hours in that I was saying about 6 words for everyone else’s two, often with very little time to rest. An example.

Player: Cast Rod

Me: I DO NOT KNOW THE SPELL: ROD.

Player: Spell List.

ME: L I S T

As a result, my voice was dying by the end of that game. It was fun, and I might do it again next year with one of the adventures I haven’t done yet, but I will make it a point to come to the table with several bottles of water handy and plan a break mid game.

DAY ONE AFTER HOURS: THE PATHFINDER CHARITY GAME

So, I wasn’t originally planning to play in this, in part because I misunderstood when the game was happening. On conplanner, the website Fear the Con uses for event sign up, the charity game was given it’s own slot, which I misread as taking place over the course of slots 1-3. In reality, it took place from midnight to four am. I happened to be drinking and consorting in the room that the game was to take place in, and Derek and Adam, the GM’s and two of the con’s organizers, were short on players, so I was roped in.

I didn’t mind, really. The main reason I hadn’t considered the game earlier was because of my misunderstanding of when the game was happening. Had I realized sooner, I probably would have chipped in the extra money to be able to make my own character, but I was perfectly happy with the human fighter I got to play. It was late, I was drinking, and I just wanted to hit things a whole lot.

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This is roughly how much I brought to drink to this game. We had a keg of local brew in our room that I felt needed to get shared.

The first half of the game I spent hanging back and drinking as most of the group put together a very elaborate plan to cause the downfall of the kingdom we were in so that we could overthrow it. Then things got amazingly weird. You see, a traditional part of the charity game is that people could donate to screw with the players, and I got to enjoy some amazingly creative screws in the form of some sort of fae royalty. Over the course of the game, I went from being a grizzled old warrior with an adamantine greatsword, to being a grizzled old warrior who thought he was a 10 year old girl with an adamantine greatsword, to being a grizzled old warrior who thought he was a 10 year old girl with a magical fairy wand, to being an ACTUAL 10 year old girl with a magical fairy wand. None of these changes significantly impacted my ability to murder. At the end of the game I took the throne and declared myself princess of the land. It was silly and amazing.

The one downside, of course, was the fact that I was up until the wee hours of the morning. Several of the players had planned for this and did not sign up for anything in slot 4, knowing they would need the sleep. I, however, really wanted to play in my slot 4 game. So, I spent the next day catching naps between each game session.

Continued in Part 2.

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Predictions for the Tabletop RPG Industry

A preface: The following was originally a forum post I made on the forums for the podcast Fear the Boot (www.feartheboot.com). It was made in response to an episode on the same topic (http://www.feartheboot.com/ftb/index.php/archives/4994). This has since come up in conversations in multiple different venues during which it has been universally difficult to point people to a months old forum post for my views on the topic.

So, here I present my predictions in a more easy-to-find location. The above is to give context as the below post was written presuming that context was already had, and in some places direct references are made to the episode in question.

With that out of the way…

-Kickstarter

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Kickstarter is going to remain a major pipeline for small/indy level tabletop game creators to get published and make a non-zero amount of money on their product. The relatively low bar for a tabletop game kickstarter to be a success means we are unlikey to have catastrophic failures the likes of which have graced video game Kickstarters. This is in part due to the fact that, unlike with video games, if a tabletop game is at least close to delivering on what the audience wants, there is nothing stopping the audience from making the necessary tweaks to a game to ultimately get the experience they wanted in the first place. This is also in part due to the fact that making a tabletop RPG is simply an easier task than making a tabletop RPG. A TTRPG ultimately is a document. This document needs to be written, edited, formatted, and have the necessary art created. The game ideally should be playtested, but it is much easier to crowdsource tabletop playtesting than videogame playtesting, as evidenced by the fact that nearly everyone, including WOTC and Paizo, use this very tact. In many cases, when a TTRPG goes to kickstarter, a rough draft of the document already exists and the funds are to do things like hire an artist/editor/graphic designer to make the document easier to use. It is actually quite difficult for these Kickstarters to fail, and I cannot fathom a scenario where one could fail on the scale of something like Star Citizen or Mighty No. 9.

What I can see happening, on the other hand, is this low bar making it difficult when/if someone comes to Kickstarter with a more complex, ambitious TTRPG product in mind. I fear that we may see an instance in the near-ish future of someone coming forward with a Kickstarter for a TTRPG of considerable crunch and depth only to find that it is difficult to explain to the general population why their game is going to need a couple hundred thousand to produce Capital Ships: The Broadsidening when the FATE Core adaptation they just backed needed a tenth that much money.

-Paizo

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I think in near-ish future we are going to see Paizo start to diversify their brand. We are already seeing the earliest movements towards this with Starfinder, and I think this move is indicitive of a greater motion towards launching more games.

I think this by and large because I think Pathfinder is running out places to be developed. Pathfinder has hit a point where they are running out of clear reasons to produce more content other than because they are a company that needs to make money. At the same time, they have expressed that they are keenly aware of customer worries about a new edition of Pathfinder. The last thing anyone wants is a Pathfinder 2.0 motivated primarily by the need to have a new line of books to sell.

One solution, and the one I think they are most likely to take based on their current direction, is to simply make more, other games. Presuming Starfinder does well, I would not be surprised if they expanded their line of RPGs further, taking advantage of the fact that they are one of the few companies in the RPG market right now with a good pipeline for creating mechanically complex, crunchy games reliably and successfully. I expect that, presuming Starfinder does well and proves this pipeline works for games other than Pathfinder, we can expect to see at least one more game in their main lineup in the next 10 years, and at least two more in the next 20. I don’t think support for Pathfinder will completely drop off, but I do think that with the pressure to put out new product to pay the bills no longer entirely on one line you will see them released much less often, and the resulting product quality will be much appreciated.

-Catalyst

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I think that Catalyst’s current business model is not sustainable.

That is to say, the way they are creating their books is damaging their end product consistently enough that it is damaging their brand. Catalyst currently has most of their writing done by freelancers, then brings these freelancer’s works together to make sourcebooks. They presently have only one or two editors managing the entire line, depending on who you ask. The end result is that Shadowrun 5th Ed has had some serious editing and cohesion problems. You run into problems like one part of a book referencing another part that doesn’t exist, indexes that are so innacurate they are functionally useless, and balance issues that are absurd even by the standards of a game where I keep a bag of 100D6 handy whenever I play.

I don’t think this is going to be the death of the company by any means, but I do believe that they are going to have to figure out a way to shift gears in the near future. I expect that at some point 5th ed will get an equivalent to 4th ed’s 20th Anniversary edition. It is my hope that at this point they will approach this new edition with more editors on staff and are able to make 5th ed a more polished product. 5th ed is not a bad game. It’s really solidly designed at it’s core. But, Shadowrun is a game where you cannot really ignore the supplimentary material. As far back as 3rd edition the core book simply assumed you were going to buy the gear book, the magic book, and the hacking/technology book. I don’t really mind this approach, but their current pipeline is not handling publishing the amount of material they are publishing gracefully.

I don’t think Anarchy will stick around, which makes me sad, because I think it is a great idea, but what I have heard is that it is plagued with the same editing problems that the rest of the edition is plagued with, and the last thing you want is to need an FAQ to play the simplified version of a game.

-WOTC

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I do not think there will be another edition of D&D in 10 years. I think they are going to support 5th ed for a while, and it will get a full, solid run, but I do not think it is going to make the kinds of returns a giant like Hasbro is going to want to see, especially with their resistence to PDF publishing. I don’t think they are going to lose money, but I think Hasbro will be unenthusastic about the idea of supporting the D&D line beyond the next 5 years or so. We will not likely see 6th ed in the next decade. I expect WOTC, like Paizo, will still support their flagship game, and also like Paizo I expect the new products coming out for that game will slow to a crawl, but unlike Paizo I do not expect them to diversify into other TTRPGs.

-Technology

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I expect that while the technology that supports and improves the tabletop gaming experience will continue to be developed, I feel that much of the tabletop experience will remain fundamentally unchanged. The biggest change will likely be just the further proliferation on tablets/mobile devices supplanting books at the gaming table as PDF continues to prove to be a cheaper, more convenient alternative to traditional books. I do not feel like online solutions will ever supplant face-to-face interaction for tabletop gaming, because tabletop gaming is written with face-to-face interaction in mind. I do, however, foresee someone at some point designing a game with both the limitations and unique advantages of online spaces in mind. I don’t think this will completely revolutionize TTRPGs, much like how Dread didn’t lead to everyone replacing their dice with Jenga towers, but I think they will diversify the design space in an interesting way.

I do not think the GM-Box is coming. The GM-Box doesn’t provide significant advantage over a video game.

I do not think smart glass/interactive tabletop technology is going to have as big an impact on the market as people think.

-Other Predictions

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DriveThruRPG will continue to be a major market force, especially for small press RPG stuff. There are no clear deficiencies in their design save for maybe lack of curation. It will take someone coming up with a really out-of-left-field idea to act as a competitor.

Mid-sized RPG companies will in the near future continue their focus on toolbox-games. The market is clearly leaning towards rulesets that enable GMs and Players to realize their own ideas over selling them ideas pre-made. FATE Core was a clear example of this, though Apocalypse World’s design is also clearly meant to be tinkered with. In that light, Apocalypse world could be viewed as a game engine with an example game baked in. I expect that in the next 10 years we will see at least two more of this sort of game make it relatively big, and many other quality products to use these systems.

D&D will still be shorthand for TTRPG to people outside of the hobby, even as that term loses importance within the hobby.

Being a full-time professional game designer will become a rarer thing than it already is.

Dan will eventually publish Skies of Glass and/or Epoch of Rysos. Then, we will have two Ennie winning show hosts.

Star Wars will get another RPG relatively soon.

Someone in the next 20 years will try to turn their tabletop game into an MMO again. It will fail. Again.

Paradox will release a Vampire: The Masquerade grand strategy game. It will be glorious and impenetrable.