Convention Reports
A Visit to GenCon 1997

GenCon 30 was held August 7-10, 1997, in Milwaukee, WI. This year, it was still in the "Wisconsin Center," despite the sale of TSR to WOTC. My personal belief is that it'll be there for years to come, but I may be just naive enough to believe WOTC's protestations. :) "Wisconsin Center" is in quotes because the true name of the convention center is MECCA (Milwaukee Exposition & Convention Center & Arena), going back many, many years. That new building they're building behind MECCA is the true Wisconsin Center, not the familiar Arena (where the Bucks and Admirals used to play), Auditorium ("Bruce Hall") and Convention Center. BTW, I am told (it's that naivete thing again) that GenCon will be in the (new) Wisconsin Center next year. (Of course, I heard that rumor last year, but at least the building is in progress now.) It's planned for completion next July, and then the other parts get a renovation. The Wisconsin Center looks at least three stories tall, so they just might fit it all in there. It'll be poignant to say goodbye to MECCA, though. :(

Note: this is all my opinion. :) In rereading it, I seem to have gone over the edge in talking about a few things, but that's just because of my personal biases. YMMV.

I managed to get all my pre-reg events this year, so I'm pretty satisfied. No RPGA Members' Meeting for me this year (same as last), so I'm hoping to see some discussion of what happened there online. It probably was rather interesting, with the WOTC buyout and other controversial changes. At least it looks like "Polyhedron" newszine is back, but I may be dropping from the RPGA Grand Master status. (I have not won enough tables to satisfy the new prerequisites for going up to some of the RPGA levels.)

SLOT 1 - RPGA: Living City Feature

This year, it was "Pirate of Hearts", the first Procampur LC adventure. It was pretty good, I thought, except my character isn't much of an investigator, which this adventure required. we didn't do too badly, however.

One thing that bugged us throughout the con was that when 10 AM and 6 PM (the opening and closing times for the dealers' room) rolled around, several PA announcements would be made not only in the Great Hall, but in the Arena as well. Since we would be in the midst of a game, we wouldn't really care that the dealers' room was closing in ten minutes. I am told that finally on Sunday afternoon, they figured out how to cut the Arena out of the announcement loop.

SLOT 2 - Torg: End of the Worlds (Round 1)

"The end of the War as it should have been." No kidding. We started out killing the Tharkold-Nile zone sitting over Berlin, and went from there. (There were two tables here, and two in Slot 4, each with a different mission; two tables made from the survivors in Slot 6, and a single table with the last remaining ones in Slot 10. All different missions.) I played Dr. Alexus Frest, a really cool character from the initial novels that's quite the fifth wheel in any combat encounter. He managed to do some good until toward the end of the second round, when he was Taunted into running away along with his attache, Mace Cannon. Unfortunately, this seemed to count as a death when dealing with advancement. (If you survived, you advanced to the next round.) So, I wasn't around when the last of the High Lords got what they had coming. But I did see many of them die (in cutaway scenes, the fruit of the events we set in motion,)

SLOT 3 - Great Hall 'n' Stuff

I spent the next two hours going through the Great Hall, which is good because I hardly saw it through the entire convention. Therefore, ,my notes are a bit slim here.

TSR's foam castle (AKA Fortress TSR)- no change. I still wonder where it gets stored, and whether it's going to Washington with the rest of TSR. :)

BTW, I'm not sure what to think of the buyout. I certainly have bought a lot of Magic cards in the past from WOTC, so I don't have quite the same feelings towards WOTC as, say, the other Washington behemoth, the one in Redmond. I get the feeling that they didn't pull TSR out of bankruptcy as a sound business decision (although it certainly isn't a bad decision, Adkinson must have paid attention to his business classes), but more to keep it afloat as the purveyors of the top RPG in the world. They have stated they admire AD&D a lot. (Plus, owning TSR is kewl, especially for a company that was running out of Adkinson's basement five years ago.) Now, the only time I play the needlessly complex AD&D is at conventions, and that mainly as Living City, but I do recognize that TSR really is the ambassador of the role-playing world to the mundane world. WOTC itself was running for a similar position, but it's a card game company, not a role- playing company (having dumped all its role-playing stuff a year and a half ago), so it's in a slightly different position. (They're buying TV ads, for gosh sake!)

So, I feel guarded optimistic about the buyout, as long as WOTC gives the TSR people freedom to create like they can. (Well, come to think of it, TSR could use a few more creative juices for its products. :)) Well, enough of the rant. :)

TSR did have some neat models of ships from its new Alternity science- fiction RPG. They looked nicely detailed and unique, but I didn't get a chance to either take pictures or play in an Alternity demo, oh well.

FASA: the same, as far as I can tell. I respect Shadowrun and Earthdawn, even though I don't get a chance to play either. Well, the settings are cool, and the system for Earthdawn was created by Greg "Torg" Gorden, so it's got to be good. Shadowrun's system makes me wince, though. Battletech? Never played it, but what I know of the setting is good.

West End Games: Er, well, let's move on...

:) But seriously, I'm not sure that WEG is entirely serious about role- playing games. Their booth is always rather sparse compared to TSR's and FASA's, but that's all right. It's just... Well, many things. Around 1990, they came up with the best RPG I've ever seen, Torg. Soon after, the creators, Greg Gorden and Bill Slavicsek, leave. I don't know the circumstances of that, but the game began to wander wildly after that. It seemed like, in the words of Joel Robinson (MST3K, "Attack of the Eye Creatures"), "They just don't care!" Having John Terra write a lot of stuff just exacerbated the problem. They claimed they stopped publishing Torg because of low sales; that probably was the case, but a lot of it was due to the poor editorial control exerted on it. (Mainly failing to rein in Terra's acid trips... er, forget I said that.) Well, and the actual presentation quality went down as well. (For instance, the Torg gamemaster screen looks really neat with the storm from the boxed set's cover in the margins, but the Shatterzone one is, well, boring black writing on white cardboard.) Since that time, let's enumerate the games they published. Shatterzone, World of Indiana Jones, Bloodshadows, Tank Girl, Species, Necroscope, Tales From the Crypt, World of Aden, Men in Black and coming next year, Hercules & Xena. And they're continuing to publish Star Wars, their big seller and the only one they support decently. (Well, WOIJ isn't supported too badly either.) Let's count the licenced ones. I get ten. (Shatterzone was originally going to have Isaac Asimov's name on it, but he died before the negotiations were done.) The only original one? Bloodshadows, which was sitting with WEG's only other original RPG, Torg, at WEG's dollar table again this year. Most of the above-mentioned games are Masterbook, a supposedly-universal system that started out like a watered-down Torg. Now they're converting everything to "d6", which is similar to the system Star Wars has had all along. It's a decent system for the high adventure Star Wars, but not really so for the others. (Oh yeah, and don't forget the constant rules-breaking that each Masterbook book does to the base system.)

So, when is WEG going to create something new and good? Who knows? Fortunately, Torg lives on, even if the attempt by Omni Gaming Systems to resurrect it as a commercial product failed. :( Well, enough of the rant.

Wizards of the Coast: It'll be interesting to see what their booth looks like next year, given they'll be running the convention through their convention subsidiary, Andon. Perhaps the TSR castle won't be around next year, anyway. (I expect that this year went off pretty much as it would have if TSR wasn't bought out, as there was little time to change things.) WOTC had a bunch of demo tables for their Magic and Battletech CCGs, and I expect other things. I didn't spend much time here, as I don't play Magic as much as I used to.

White Wolf: still terminally kewl and goth. I spent little time here, either. While the game world is all right, albeit really gloomy (as I said, goth), the Storyteller system gives me hives. I wonder if Greg Gorden is available to help tweak it? :) Also, putting some Phil Foglio and Adam Warren art in their sourcebooks would help.... OK, I'll stop.

Decipher: Still doing the Star Wars CCG, with a somewhat plain booth. (nowhere as plain as WEG's, though :) I got a neat Yoda poster there. If I had a lot more money and time, I'd buy a lot more Star Wars cards, as it's one of the cleverest systems I've seen in a CCG, and the world is, of course, neat. (Yes, as you may guess, I probably put more stock in what goes on "under the hood" of a game than most people.)

Phil Foglio: Yes, he was back! After skipping last year (I hear because of a slight disagreement with TSR about his adult-oriented Xxxenophile CCG, that went against their Code of Ethics I guess), he again had a booth. No new Buck Godot, although I picked up a graphic novel of BG that predates the comic series. Signed, of course. Xxxenophile the CCG was in evidence, so the dispute must have been settled. Xxxenophile the comic was not being shown in plain sight next to Buck Godot, but that's to be expected. If only Ben Dunn and Adam Warren had been there as well, my journey would have been complete. :) BTW, I knew that I has arrived at GenCon when I was outside MECCA on Wednesday after checking in, and saw Phil and Kaja Foglio unpacking their car.

Sancho Games is best known for their "Live Role-Playing Chess" (see Slot 10 below), but they also had an interesting, non-collectable, card game called "Let's Kill." Basically, a new victim card gets turned up each player's turn (usually obnoxious ones, like a playground bully, a stuck-up artiste and a televangelist), and players use the weapon cards in their hands (like a ninja sword, a cheese grater, and the ever-popular toaster in the bathtub) to whack them for points. (You play to 20 points.) Other cards let you increase your point take, or make it easier to kill a number of people with one weapon card, or sabotage victims other players will be killing. It's good brainless fun. :)

I think I hit most of the major booths, but I'm sure I missed some. Let's so through the list... Oh yeah, there seemed to be a lot of artists in the Great Hall this year, compared to previous years. Of course, the dealer's area is the largest it has ever been, and shared the full area of the Great Hall with only one small corner of computer games. (There wasn't even the SF memorabilia hall like in prior years.) That's quite an expansion since I started going to GenCon about 8-10 years ago, when there was gaming in both side areas of the Great Hall.

Kenzer & Company was selling "Knights of the Dinner Table" comics, a series I'm only familiar with through Dragon magazine. I picked up the collection of all the strips from Shadis, Dragon and other magazines. I belatedly realized that I had seen half of them before. For some reason, I thought that there had been a lot more in Shadis than there had been in Dragon. But it was still a great read. I also picked up a copy of the latest issue of the comic book, #10, which was also a riot. It's not a technically well done comic (Jolly Blackburn acknowledges he's not an artist), but the writing is great! And if there's anything I like more than what's going on "under the hood" in a product, it's the writing. Good work, Jolly. I'll have to track down more issues.

Bungie Software (the creators of one of the most-highly-regarded Macintosh games, Marathon and its sequels) had a demo going of their forthcoming game, "Myth: The Fallen Lords". It looks really cool. It seems to be a tactical battle simulation along the lines of Warcraft II (my current favorite), but one in which you can fly all over the battlefield, change the viewing angle and zoom in or out. You're not looking directly down on the action. Plus, it seems that the individual units have a bit more intelligence than those in Warcraft. And the terrain is 3- dimensional. It should be out this fall, for Macintosh, and Windows 95 so others don't feel left out.

Oh, yes, USPC. The X-Files card game is still going strong. It's also a good one, but the same time & money argument with SWCCG applies here, too. :)

Five Rings Publishing (the makers of the Legends of the Five Rings CCG, a game I never got into) is introducing the Dune CCG soon. I have a couple brochures about it, but I can't say much more. It looks good from a graphics standpoint. (Of course, I liked the movie, even though I think it tried to do too much of the novel.)

There were a couple booths at which previously-unannounced Babylon 5 guests Mira Furlan and Richard Biggs were to appear. (Drat, missed them both, but at least I've seen Biggs before; this is the nearest I've ever gotten to seeing Furlan. Darn, darn, darn.)

Toss in a lot of general SF and comic books dealers, some M:TG single card dealers, and a bunch of other miscellaneous booths, and you have this year's Great Hall.

SLOT 4 - RPGA: World of Indiana Jones Feature

OK, despite my disapproval of WEG in general, Indiana Jones is not a bad game. Especially since this slot I played with the author of the adventure ("The Homefires"), Thomas Reed, and he was a Masterbook purist as well. We used the original Masterbook rules rather than the d6 ones. (And, after all, the game system is less convoluted than AD&D.)

This was a Grand Master table, with meant that everyone was at least 5th level in the RPGA. (Actually, two of us were Grand Masters, the other four were Paragons, 7th level.) The role-playing was some of the best I saw at the con, which is pretty much what you should expect at a Grand Master table. (I admit I got to that level not by excellent role-playing, but by being at a lot of events, and getting lucky once or twice. :))

Meanwhile, out on Kilbourn Avenue, the one with the Convention Center on the south and the Arena/Auditorium on the north, WOTC was having a party! Now, I obviously was not there, but they did mention some "special guests" would be around. Well, I later learned that the special guests were a rather well-known Milwaukee-bred music group. The Violent Femmes.

As one person said, it's kind of sad that the WOTC street party had better concert guests than the Wisconsin State Fair, which was winding up that weekend. (I don't know what the list was there, so I can't comment on that.) If the purchase of TSR didn't prove that WOTC has far more money coming out of its ears than it needs, this should. :)

SLOT 5 - Torg: The Doomsday Gambit, Act 1

Wow. This adventure (including Act 2, in Slot 7) gets the award for The Most Fun Time at the Con. Todd Furler and Russel Furnsler (I think I wrote their names down right) use a lot of props in their quest to keep Torg alive. I'd suggest you sign up for their games next year, except I want to make sure there's room for me. Aw, heck, sign up for them. :) They're set up so that people who have never played Torg can play, everything is explained if necessary.

The things handed out to each person included a character sheet with everything laid out nicely for beginners and experts alike, a cardboard standup (that needed to be returned, as they're difficult to make), and a button with the character's picture on it. No mere dice here for a tactical battle map; all the characters were cardboard standups. There were rather nice maps to play on, including this one building's floor plans that were perhaps a little too detailed to be fiction. Hmmm..... :) There was background music, as well, and the truck we started travelling in was a model on the map. Their GMing style was very engaging. If I lived anywhere near them, I'd beg to get into their gaming group, as they said this was how their home campaign works.

Anyway, this was the Living Land (the primitive reality that invaded the USA in Torg), and I got to play an edeinos, one of the native lizardmen from the Living Land. There were also a stalenger (one of the flying starfish also native to the Land) and several other characters from other realities.

SLOT 6 - Torg: End of the Worlds (Round 2)

See Slot 2 for more information. This time, we had to fight to get a table, as one of the two we had been given basically had no light. Fortunately, another game was canceled and both tables could play.

SLOT 7 - Torg: The Doomsday Gambit, Act 2

See Slot 5 for more info. Yes, Friday was a Torg day. :)

SLOT 8 - Once Upon A Time

Myself and the rest of people riding in my car to the con were all free this slot, so we got one of the games out of the game rental library, called "Once Upon A Time." It's a card game that you use to tell fairy tales. The way it works is this: Each player gets a card off the endings deck, that gives the line you need to end the story with, and then a number of cards from the concepts (?) deck. One person starts telling a story, using elements from the cards in their hand (discarding them in the process), trying to end up at their ending line. If the storyteller uses a concept that another player has a card for, that player can play that card and take over. There are other ways to steal the floor, and a player can voluntarily pass or he can get booted for either taking the story in a stupid direction or pausing too much. With the right group of people, this can be hilarious. In one of our games, one person needed a group of people to get somewhere and do something to complete his story. But control was stolen, and we commenced upon killing off most of them one by one. :)

And then we left early (about 11:15). This last 45 minutes or so were the only time the con was open I wasn't there.

SLOT 9 - RPGA Living City Exclusive

Remind me never to play in a Dan Donnelly adventure again. (It was "Stairway to Heaven" this time.) I hate having my character's levels drained. I suppose this is a good thing to reduce the power of the power- gaming LC players, but it also unfairly harms those just trying to have a good time. A restoration of lost levels needs to be paid for in part by magic items, which removes them from the campaign, but the power-gamers are more likely to have the items to do this. So my two characters (both have been drained recently) are stuck without the cash to fix them. ::sigh:: Well, I suppose the levels will grow back. Level draining is worst for those at the top (because those levels are so expensive) and bottom (because if you lose all your levels, you're gone). I'm in the middle levels, so I shouldn't complain too much, I guess.

I'm still going to hesitate to play another Dan Donnelly adventure, though.

SLOT 10 - Live Role-Playing Chess

Well, I was out of the Torg: End of the Worlds tournament, and the other Furler/Furnsler Torg game ("Pulp Factions") was full, so choice three was Live Role-Playing Chess.

This is the brainchild of Aaron Pavao, and one that I've played several times over the past six years or so. Basically, each player is a chess- like piece (Monarch, Mage, Priest, Thief, Warrior, etc.), with related powers. Combat is handled by rock-scissors-paper, and you bleed red poker chips. (It's rare for a single combat to kill off a piece, but several can happen in sequence if neither piece runs away.) Each piece goes in a random order each turn, so you never know if you'll go before or after the piece you're chasing across the board. When you die, you act out a death, the wilder the better. Points are scored for kills, and for deaths, and for other things that catch the GM's fancy. So, in the first game (I played the Dark Monarch's Priest), we obliterated the Light side, but lost on points, and in the second game (I was the Dark Monarch), we got creamed, but won on points.

Oh yeah, and there are mercenary pieces too, that you can bribe to get to attack the other side. In the second game, there were a full 8 mercenaries, so with 24 people on the board, the casualties were appalling. :)

SLOT 11 - RPGA: Star Wars Feature

Well, usually Star Wars isn't too bad (as explained before, I'm not entirely comfortable with the d6 system), but this time it was... disappointing. The GM was pretty good, but the adventure seemed a bit weak. Even the GM said so. Apparently, this was an event in a Living City-like campaign WEG is starting, in which you can bring your own character. I used one provided, a Mon Calamari, who was pretty cool. But I managed to get whacked with a spell of exhaustion and hunger as the game started (so I couldn't really intervene), and most of the other players just could not listen and comprehend what the GM and other players said. My teeth still grate. The best portrayal was the security droid, a Marvin the Paranoid Android-like affair. (_Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy_ series, in case you don't catch the reference.) Bad luck in getting a table together, I guess. :(

In retrospect, I should have ditched this and got a Mira Furlan autograph, but I'm sure I'll track her down at some point in the future...

SLOT 12 - Radio Dramatization of Bram Stoker's Dracula

After failing to get into the second act of "Pulp Factions" (no surprise there) and wandering for a little while, I realized that "Dracula" was being performed over in the Plankington Theater, between the Arena and Auditorium. I've never been to one of the eight annual Ravenloft dramas (after all, Ravenloft is about my least favorite AD&D setting, because I don't like horror; now, a Spelljammer drama...), but this was really good. I'm rather familiar with the novel, having read it twice and seen the recent movie that (gasp) was pretty close to it and had some nifty effects. (And it had Cary Elwes, the Dread Pirate Roberts, in it! But then again, it had Keanu "Ted 'Theodore' Logan" Reeves as the miscast lead.) This was in the style of an old radio drama, complete with commercials like "Undead-B-Gone". If one actually listened to just the sound, one would miss a lot, because there was a lot of playacting going on on stage as well. From Harold Johnson's hammy Van Helsing acting enamored of each of the female cast, to Sean Reynolds' Dracula flexing his biceps whenever another character complained about how strong and quick the Count was. And his doing the Macarena. :)

I'll certainly look into seeing this again next year, if I can make it.

After this ended about 10:30, I wandered off to the anime room and saw some Evangelion and Ranma until my rendezvous at midnight to return from the con.

SLOT 13 - RPGA Living City Benefit

This was more fun and safer than the last Living City event. ("Make A Wish", about getting a child's birthday present) There was one dangerous encounter that made no sense in context with the rest of the event, but otherwise it was fun. We got some fun magic items that weren't really powerful, but I don't really mind. (Except that the lethality required to challenge the power gamers usually makes my AC 4 look awfully wimpy...)

SLOT 14 - Lots o' Stuff

With only four more hours to go, I was raring to finally give that Great Hall and Art Show a good once-over. It didn't quite work that way. I saw some Sol Bianca at the anime room (which I had only heard about before, and I found good), then ran into an old friend, that kind of directed the rest of the day away from my goals. We saw the Art Show, it's true, but then we rendezvoused with another friend who was finishing up the Deep Space 97 live-action game. (He had a lot of fun there, as one of four Garaks on a DS9 that was caught in a time loop and being destroyed each day.) After doing some fun things with them (including playing RAK Graphics' Dragon War game, which is in part a gallery of their main artist's art; he's good and at GenCon every year, but I haven't gotten around to buying anything from him), and bidding them adieu (they needed to leave early) I ran through the Great Hall for the last 45 minutes.

I hate doing things this way, but I played too darn much during the con, and spent less than 4 hours in the dealer's room, and never once got to play MIDI Maze. [ MIDI Maze is most fun if you're playing with people you know, but we were too far-flung to get together for an hour of the funest networked computer game at GenCon. As those who have read my previous GenCon reports know, lack of MIDI Maze at GenCon 1993 was one of the Signs of the Apocalypse. :) ]

So, next year, pack your dice, some Dr Pepper and granola bars (good portable gaming fuel, although the MECCA food service has gotten a lot better this year) and some comfortable shoes. Then head to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where GenCon will be taking place August 6-9 in the brand- spanking-new Wisconsin Center! See you there!

This file is Copyright 1997 by Timothy J. Bailey, but may be freely distributed provided that this copyright notice remains intact and attached to the file, and that nothing is charged for it save normal download costs. Certain terms are trademarks of and/or copyright to their respective owners, and their use should not be considered a challenge to said claims; chalk it up to advertising for them. :)