Monday, August 24, 2015

Gettin’ Legal in the Mile-high city

I recently had occasion to do a couple of novel things; well, sort of novel. We’ll just call them cool …
First, I flew 1st Class for the first time since ‘Nam. Getting boarded first means you get to sit in your bigger, wider, more comfortable seats and watch everyone shuffle in line to their tiny, cramped seats. Until the other day when I did it, I used to shuffle by those same folks in the front of the plane and wonder what the big deal was. Well, the big deal is you get a more comfortable seat at the price of now being the one stared at. I hope I never looked that resentful, ever. The food is much too “healthy” for my tastes; if you don’t eat yogurt or cereal with skim milk, you are out of luck. Coming back the lunch was some sort of pasta all mixed into a bunch of vegetables that were all disguised with some sort of opaque dressing, topped by some strips of chicken with grill marks so perfect you suspect they have been stenciled or branded on. The tomato juice was good, nice and tomato-ey. I resisted the urge to get hammered in flight; who drinks that early in the morning, or in the case of the return flight, mid-day, except lushes? Even if the booze is free? (Coming home on leave during the war was different; then, you drank anything they were willing to give you, and thanked them most profusely.)

Another thing I did was the reason I was in Denver. A producer sent me tickets to come there to be interviewed for a film/story/documentary-thing they are making. I will keep their confidences, as they have asked me to and so say only that it involves games and gaming. (Well, duh!)

It can be both intriguing and painful, dredging up memories from 40 years ago, but worth it in the end. The funny thing about rooting around in memories that old is that they have a habit of dislodging odd memories that then come back several hours after the question was asked. Let me state the obvious: it really, truly sucks to be the last guy alive from the original crew. (On the other hand, the distinction does mean that I still breathe, not a bad thing at all.) I realize too that I have an obligation to answer questions about that time as fairly and honestly as I can. The historian in me demands that I do it, even though I realize that I could, if I was wired that way, take credit for stuff with nobody to gainsay me. Howsoever, those danged nuns instilled in me a set of values that prohibits my doing that.

And now to that “other” new thing I did, that I am sure some of you have been wondering when I would get to. I went to my first legal pot dispensary. Talk about a dream come true… I thought I was dreaming. Walking into it reminded me of Amsterdam, except way better. They scan your ID and then give you a number, like at the deli. When your number is called you are allowed into one of the showrooms to so your browsing. We stopped at LivWell-Enlightened on S Broadway; I have no way of knowing how big or small they are compared to other retailers and I did not get an extra bud for this plug. Ask for Amber, she’s a sweetie. After asking her for a recommendation or two, I selected a gram of Zeta Sage #1, a most satisfying sativa strain, and an equal portion of El Diablo #1, a very wonderful indica strain. The potencies were purported to be 18 and 21%, respectively. They were both just tasty as hell. The privately-owned building we did the filming in and hung out around the whole time had a very nice little balcony on the third floor that was about the same height as the canopies of the trees in the surrounding neighborhood. I spent a good deal of time on that balcony those two days. Here in Ohio, we have a ballot initiative on the next election that would allow personal use. I dearly hope it passes because the lack of furtiveness in CO is really relaxing. They are hard as hell on driving stoned, as well they should be, but just chillin’ at home? It’s all good in The Mile High City.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

How big is too big? Gaming Cons today

I am fortunate in that I get to go to seven cons every year. I start in Feb. at TotalCon, then CincyCon followed by GaryCon followed by Nexus, then NorTex then GenCon and wrap up with Gamehole Con in Nov in Madison WI. Every one of these cons has a certain vibe to it and is special in its own way.

The biggest, by a very wide margin, is GenCon with 61K attendees this year. The smallest con I go to is NorTex—the North Texas Role Playing Game Convention,aka NTRPGCon, with an attendance of about 350. (Full disclosure: They all put me up and some either reimburse for gas or send me plane tickets while some even give me meal money. I would not know how to go about appearance fees; I would be too embarrassed.)

NTRPGCon has about 10 attendees for every industry guest; Doug Rhea, the mastermind behind it, likes it that way. It is far and away the most laidback con of all the ones I attend, enabling wonderful conversations and interactions between all sorts of people, famous or not. It has an intense vibe of fraternity.

GaryCon has The Old Guard, a loosely defined group of former TSR staffers, that gets together each year at the con. As senior member, I am assembling them all at once for a group photo next con, before our ranks have too much more time to shrink. GaryCon is in Lake Geneva, birthplace of FRPG’s and has a sort of “pilgrimage to the source” aura surrounding it. Once there, it has a distinctively old school vibe of just a bunch of us gamers getting together to game. If you left your backpack out on The Virtual Porch in the morning, it would still be there, untouched, many hours later. It has that feel from the old days of “we’re all in this together”.

Nexus is struggling to find its niche; it is changing dates again for a better fit but seems to show some promise. I hope it gets past its teething pains.

CincyCon is my local con; 30 years ago we drew thousands, but not nearly so many nowadays. I want to see it get better and am trying out different things with them.

This will be my first time at Gamehole. Everything I have heard about it augurs well for its continued growth; being in early Nov. gives them an edge in that not much in the way of gaming goes on in Nov.

TotalCon is unique in that it has a long history, has had more than its fair share of ups and downs and takes over a very large Holiday Inn complex completely. Further, they have had a program embracing the children for longer than any other con I know of.

GenCon is just too damned big. Admittedly, I don’t game at GenCon-I work the Auction. But lots of my friends do game there and it seems that theirs’ is a mixed reaction this year. With venues scattered about downtown, and events such as True Dungeon having meticulous time requirements, I think a bit of dashing here and there is required a bit too often. GenCon is beginning to feel like that first week at college where you dash about like a headless chicken.

Then there is the commercial side of cons. All of the cons I attend have vendor areas; vendor table rentals and booth rentals constitute a meaningful portion of revenues. TotalCon and GaryCon have relatively small vendor rooms, although GaryCon’s may expand with the new venue. CincyCon has a smallish area and NorTex restricts their booths to the perimeter of a large open area. The point is, the smaller cons see the vendor area as an adjunct to the total experience of the con.

It seems to me that the driving purpose, the raison d’ĂȘtre of GenCon seems to be the Dealer Hall and the vendors. I have already complained bitterly elsewhere about the abusive way the floor-plan was derived--solely for the benefit of the vendors and to the detriment of the gamers, in my opinion.
GenCon used to be, and to a lesser extent Origins, the date we at which we aimed for new releases; it was the single largest confluence of that many gamers. There was but a fraction of the companies back in the 70’s and 80’s that there are now. I cannot imagine the pressure to succeed, to make or break your company, if it all depends upon the splash you make at GenCon. It is extremely likely that several great games or products get lost in the blizzard of releases every year because they did not spend a lot on the box or were overshadowed in their booth area by one of the mega-booths or any number of other good reasons. How can Joe Figamo, who has his entire life savings wrapped up in the best new game idea in decades, hope to compete with the smoke and mirrors of one of the big companies in his modest little booth with modest graphics and just a couple of products? He will be lost in the tumult. The next great “strange” game (just as D&D was certainly strange in ’74) may die at birth.

As for myself, I will continue to work the Auction as long as they will have me. If not for my involvement in the Auction, I would not attend any more. In no way, shape or form do I recognize today the first con I attended in ’74. In itself, that is neither good nor bad; I just don’t like what it has become, and I have all the other cons I go to that can feed my gaming need.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Tales from The Red Road--GenCon 48

61,243 people paid to go to GenCon 48, 2015. Sixty-one Thousand!?! Are you sh****ng me? I remember 600 being a milestone…
GenCon is so big that it seems to have outgrown the convention center.

Next to CincyCon, GenCon is the easiest con for me to get to each year; a little over two hours drive time with good traffic and no construction. I got to the Westin with no problems; in fact, this was the first year I managed to drive straight to it with no circling the block. Checked in, dumped my junk in the room and set out to see what I could see.

I followed out three gamers; two in jeans and T’s. The third fellow was so heavily inked, both arms and legs, that I thought he had patterned tights on. Then I saw the hideous Pink Flamingo-style bright pink-framed sunglasses. What completed the ensemble was the lace and silk, full-sized tutu he was wearing. Yup! I’m at GenCon.

GenCon is a working con for me, centered around my stints on the auction stage. What follows is a series of recollections, some gleaned from multiple sources, some from my treks through the sadistically laid out dealer area. They come in no particular chronological order, they are sort of bobbing about in the back of my head like so many apples in the washtub waiting for the Halloween party to begin.

Saw some great costumes again this year, including a few surprises. There were several ladies rocking the “Kaleesi” look of the long white flowing gown. Sadly, none were looking for that moment when she emerged unscathed from the fire with her babies. There were a couple of ladies wearing outfits that would probably get them arrested in Indy if they were dancing in a club; to be fair, they both pulled it off quite well. There was a guy on Sat. in some sort of power-armor outfit that was awesome to behold but had to have been just hotter than hell to wear. I am guessing he had some sort of cooling system; I saw him out in the sun posing for pics and not even sweating. Then there was the little goblin baby. He was a cute infant carried by his costumed Mom, wearing a hat that was supposed to make him look like Yoda. His tiny little head did not fill the hat so the ears drooped to the side and down in a most appealing fashion; I got a picture of him. Sat. was a delight and the Grand Parade (or whatever they call it) was great. There were lots of kids in costume this year, some in strollers.

Until you have had a Sucking Chest Wound, you won’t know donut nirvana. For the last couple of years GenCon and Indy have arranged for the city’s food trucks to be available, an arrangement I heartily applaud. Not to be outdone by the brick-and-mortar eateries that replace mundane menu names with themed named, they too have joined into the fun.
After walking the length of both lines of trucks on Fri and not seeing anything I wished to risk my digestion on (the trucks rotate every 5 or 6 hours so the menu varies by shift), I elected to try the most unprepossessing looking of all the trucks. It was old-aluminum silver and simply said “Coffee and Donuts”, parked at the very end. While waiting in the modest line, I saw what I knew, deep in my gut, that I had to have, a Sucking Chest Wound. It was the best $3 donut I ever ate; a cooked-to-a-turn Berliner filled with pureed raspberries and glazed with lime icing. It was a near-religious experience, and the sugar-buzz was notable.

Whoever laid out the Dealer Area should be publicly flogged or be subject to a lobotomy or possibly both. This year’s Dealer Hall was the worst laid out I could imagine. Which brings me to dealers’ booths, their size and their placement. This might be the next “mine’s bigger than yours” battlefield in the game industry. There were so many frustrations I hardly know where to begin.
Who is supposed to be impressed by the size of these mega-booths? Most of them seem to be a great waste of space. There is a “come into my parlor” vibe to some of these huge booths, but they waste floor space.

Dealer halls used to be laid out like a cornfield-nice neat rows with oversized or odd-shaped areas at the back or on the sides. Not any more, sad to say. If you throw enough money at the con, you can have a booth that effectively blocks two or three aisles perpendicularly. This forces gamers to either squeeze their way through a booth they have no interest in, or, worse still, find a detour around it and try to pick up where you left off so as not to miss any vendors. There were about three dozen vendors this year that have a legitimate gripe about being in these “lost aisles”. I was studiously trying to miss nothing on Friday (I do the Hall in two days, half each day) and still missed two small aisle fragments.

I do not have any magic solutions; there are, however, people that specialize in this kind of stuff and should be working for the Convention Ctr. The aisles now are so narrow that you take your life in hand dodging the deadly “Gauntlet of Backpacks”. Geez! What is it with gamers and their damned packs? Nothing beats having an already-large guy with a huge pack turn into you with no warning. It sort of like fighting with pugil sticks, except you don’t get one.

This was my tenth GenCon since I got back into gaming (2006). The con has grown more than 60% in that time, but it feels less and less like a game convention and more like a big commercial get-together to buy the new great stuff. Events and venues are spread all over downtown Indy; too many satellite sites. (When I finish thinking this through, big con vs. small con will be another installment.)
It is always great to see old friends. I got to spend some time with Duke Siefried whom I hadn’t seen face to face in some years. My good friend Diesel (the artist Dave LaForce) was there and had a new piece of art which I promptly snatched up-a Celtic-themed card box. I got taken to dinner twice at The Palomino, which I highly recommend. “The Pal” is seldom crowded (they don’t buy into the GenCon promo gig) and the food is excellent. Thanks again, Dave and The Acaeum.

The Auction, the biggest game auction in North America, went pretty well. Frank and I did an extra stint when we did Thursday night, but the buyers were eager. This year did not see any really choice or special items up for bids. There were three “White box” D&D’s but none very choice. A mint copy of the original Titan was probably the choicest item. From what I heard, the Charity Auction did pretty well this year as well.

There is talk of taking over the stadium in 2017 for the 50th GenCon. If it truly gets that big, I am going to have to give serious thought about continuing after that.