Gen Con Report

I’ve been trying to get to this for days, and I realized I just need to take a flying dive at it right now rather than wait for the right moment to tackle it. So, here goes.

Wednesday, August 17

I left for Indy barely after noon on Wednesday, August 17. I buzzed clear through Chicago and made it there in about five hours. This gave me enough time to check into the Hyatt and bump into my roommate Ken Hite. Ken’s a great friend and the perfect convention roomie, at least for me. As he said at the end of the show, “Our drinkadian rhythms are in perfect sync.”

After unpacking, I rushed off to meet up with Mark Simmons (of Games Quarterly Magazine and Catalog fame) and Richard Martin-Leep for dinner. As with many meetings at this show, we had no business on the table. It was just a chance to catch up with old friends.

Mark handed me a copy of the latest issue of Games Quarterly Magazine. It features an article I wrote about National Games & Puzzles Week and the Million Minute Family Challenge, which Patch Products (a game company in my hometown) puts on every year.

After dinner, I raced over to the super-secret site of the Diana Jones Award ceremony, which I help organize every year. I ran into a ton of people waiting downstairs, including Paul Czege (who won the award last year) of Half-Meme Press (1), John Wick and Jared Sorensen of the Wicked Dead Brewing Company (2), Peter Adkison (of Gen Con and Hidden City Games), and many others.

Just before 9 PM, I head upstairs and find that we already have a few dozen people who have showed up early for the party. The staff is friendly and helpful as ever though, and has already started serving drinks to these hardy souls. They hand me a stack of free-drink tickets, and I’m off to hand them out to the crowd.

The party is in full swing by 10 PM, at which time I make my way to the stage in front of the DJ’s booth and announce this year’s winner (Ticket to Ride from Days of Wonder, in case you haven’t been listening). Mark Kaufmann from Days of Wonder gets up to accept the award and seems genuinely honored.

The venue kicks us out at midnight, which is when they close on Wednesdays, and a large group of us wander out through a series of bars. After they all close, I end up in a room party that some friends of the White Wolf crew put on. When I start to nod off sometime near 3 AM, someone drops an ice cube down my shorts, which wakes me right up. At that point, I figure it’s time to get home.

Thursday, August 18
Ken and I get up in time to help out the guys at Edhellen Armory with the first slot of the Gamer Olympics. In this live-action event, you waiver your life away and then step up to prove how well you would fare as a character in a real-life version of a fantasy roleplaying game. You go through a series of six trials, ending with a padded-sword fight against a well-trained swordsman. It’s a lot of fun, although all I did was check people in and then total up their scores when they were done. The biggest problem I had to face was suggesting names for people’s characters, knowing they would be read out loud when they entered the sword fight. My favorite: Sir Hurtzalot.

When the Gamer Olympics breaks at noon, Ken and I go grab some lunch at Steak & Shake. It may have been the only time I ever ate at this place during the day, although many nights at Gen Con end with a quick bite from the take-out line there.

Then I meet up with Luke Peterschmidt and Ryan Dancey, who are handling the adventure game industry marketing for my upcoming Marvel Heroes Battle Dice game from Playmates Toys. Pat Linden from Playmates is flying in for the show late that night, and we go over our schedule for Friday with Pat.

Afterward, I wander over the Embassy Suites, which is two blocks away, for the Secrets of Eberron seminar for which Wizards of the Coast asked me to join them. I join Bill Slaviscek, Peter Archer, Keith Baker, Chris Perkins, Don Bassingthwaite, and Tim Waggoner, and we have a grand time answering the questions from the alert and inquisitive crowd.

When the seminar’s over, I rush back to the exhibit hall to meet up with Charles and Tammie Ryan and Jeff Tidball. We go grab dinner at an Italian restaurant a few blocks away. Again, while we inevitably talk some shop, there’s no business here, just old friends catching up.

Afterward, I run off to the Goodman Games room party (a.k.a. Beercon). I meet my old pal Sean Fannon there and catch up with Joe Goodman too. Joe took over with the Mutant Chronicles and Warzone games after I left the lines in the mid-’90s, so we go back. Maybe we’ll work on something else together soon. I also run into Lee Garvin, who’s got the rights to his Tales of the Floating Vagabond back, and I met Luke Johnson, who’s posted evidence of our encounter on his website. (4)

After that, Sean and I make our way to the Fantasy Flight Games 10th anniversary party, which is packed. It’s also loud, since Tod (FFG’s longest employee and warehouse manager) is DJing, but it’s good music and good people, so who’s to complain? I stay there until the place closes down, catching up with more friends and the FFG crew. I somehow end up in the Ugly Monkey with Peter Adkison and Ken Hite, among others. I wander home late once again.

Friday, August 19
I make it to my Eberron group signing at the Wizards of the Coast booth. As I told Don Bassingthwaite that morning, “This is the ‘watch Keith Baker sign books’ slot,” and that’s much how it turned out. No sweat there, as Keith’s a good friend and also the creator of Eberron. He deserves every bit of the attention.

I mostly spend the time chatting with Keith, Don, and Peter Archer (who runs the book department for Wizards), as well as any other authors who wander by, like Ed Greenwood and Richard Lee Byers. Someone stops by with a copy of Savage Worlds for me to sign, despite the fact I didn’t work on it. He explains that I did work on The Great Rail Wars, of which Savage Worlds is a direct descendant, so I go along with it long enough to scribble my name.

Someone also stops by a with the first copy of Blood Bowl I see at the show, and I sign it without a moment’s hesitation. The people at Sabertooth Games didn’t want to sell any copies until my signing session on Saturday morning, but this guy literally begged them for an early copy, and they caved. What they won’t do for their dedicated fans!

Afterward, I meet up with Pat, Luke, and Ryan for lunch. Later, we do a quick walkthrough of about half the floor. Pat’s impressed, having never been at a show like it before. Once you’ve gone to enough Gen Cons (3), you tend to forget how overwhelming it can be for a novice, but he held up well.

I excuse myself for a bit to meet up with Fred Malmberg from Conan Properties. The book line is doing well, he tells me, and he has hopes for more on the way. In the meantime, he’s lined up a top-notch author to handle the novelization of the upcoming feature film.

After that, I head off to join the meeting between Playmates and Alliance (the largest game distributor in North America) and Diamond Comics (the largest comics distributors in North America). I finally get to meet Mark Easterday, the Alliance buyer, despite the fact we’ve both been in the industry for years. He tells me that he looks for my name on products, as he knows it helps to sell games, which is the most flattering thing I’ve heard in years. I walk around with a grin for the rest of the day.

We meet with ACD (the second-largest game distributor) right after that. Danny and Bill there are old friends, so it’s an easy encounter. Afterward, Ryan asks them what the coolest thing they’ve seen at the show so far is. They point to the Marvel Heroes Battle Dice prototype and say, “This.” (My grin grows wider.)

After that, we split up and head for our respective rooms to change and then meet back up for dinner at the Alcatraz Brewing Company. It’s a great capper to a strong day of meetings. Afterward, we wander over to the Fantasy Productions party they’re having for the launch of Shadowrun 4th Edition. Then we meet up with some friends who haul us through a number of bars, including Shula’s, at which I play one too damn few games that weekend (Bang!), which I win. We end the night at Jillian’s, somewhere around 3 AM.

Saturday, August 20
I make my Saturday morning signing of Blood Bowl at the Sabertooth Games booth. They had some early copies of the book flown over from the UK for the show. I stand there and hand-sell them to people, and we run through all but two within the two hours I’m there. They sell those shortly after I leave. While that’s a great feeling, hanging out with the Sabertooth guys was a lot of fun too, so much so that I end up having a few drinks with them later in the evening.

When the signing ends, Jervis Johnson shows up with extra copies of the novel for me to sign. Jervis designed the Blood Bowl board game on which my trilogy of novels is based. He also worked with me on the Deathwing and Genestealer expansions to Space Hulk back when we worked together in the Games Workshop Design studio. He’s a great guy and an incredibly gifted designer. I count him as a friend too, although we’ve only seen each other twice in the past 15 years.

Jervis and I chat and catch up until he has to leave for the finals of the Blood Bowl tournament being held in the board gaming hall. The group that puts this on (the NAF) flew him out for this event, so he can’t slough it off. I come along with him to check it out, as I’d been intending to do all weekend. The guys there give me a warm welcome. They also show me the strangest thing I’ve seen the whole show: a knockoff statue some company in China made of the Blood Bowl trophy. It’s the spitting image of the one on the cover of the Blood Bowl rulebook, which means somehow this company got its hands on a copy of the game and liked the imagery enough to swipe it for this statue. The mind boggles.

I run off for a meeting with Matt Robinson, the director of development for WizKids. I’ve never met him before, but he turns out to be the nicest guy. He runs me through a demo (demonstration game) of High Stakes Drifter, the upcoming CCG I designed for them. It’s amazingly close to what I turned over to them, which does my heart good. He tells me they tried all sorts of different things with the game but ended up circling back around to something close to my design.

I finally get a chance to roam through the Exhibit Hall some more and make the most of it. I’m supposed to be in a seminar about working in the games industry at 5 PM, but before I can even start out for it, I get a call from Jonni Emrich, Gen Con’s director of events. They need a last-minute replacement for the spot of the celebrity judge for the costume contest. I explain that I have this seminar, but six other people are supposed to be on the panel. I probably won’t be missed. She makes the executive call, and I find myself hustling over to the Hyatt for the contest.

I’ve never even been to such a contest before, much less judged one, so it’s an all-new experience. My fellow judges are Zorba Rose (a reporter from the Indianapolis Star) and my old pal Keith Strohm, who’s busy running Paizo Publishing these days. Since they have little time, they steal my bio from the Guest of Honor section of the program guide and read it verbatim. It’s about ten time as long as Zorba’s or Keith’s, and I’m hanging my head in embarrassment by the end. The crowd notices my shame, though, and seems to laugh it off with me just fine.

The costumes in the contest are stunning. The best three are the Masque of the Red Death (the costume is eight feet tall, and the man inside moves it with puppeteering sticks attached to his arms and legs), the aerial elf (stunning, articulated wings crafted over five years with real feathers), and the Dark Lord of the Dance (two girls dressed as Sith witches doing an Irish jig). The winged elf wins it all by a landslide.

After the contest, I manage to meet up with Ryan, Luke, John and Michelle Nephew (of Atlas Games) (and her sister Wendy), and Mark MacKinnon (of Guardians of Order) for dinner. Afterward, we rally in the lobby of the Marriott and enjoy chatting with all the other industry folk passing through, including Bob Watts and a lot of the Sabertooth guys.

As the evening wears on, a couple other folks and I decide to head over to the White Wolf party at the Ugly Monkey, despite reports that it’s not the best venue for such a shindig. Halfway there, we duck into the RAM for a drink and run into a load of friends. Matt Wilson of Privateer Press spots me and bawls me out for not replying to an e-mail he sent me last fall—when I went back to freelancing full-time—about working together. I’m stunned, as I’d love to work with Matt and his crew. (Have you seen their Iron Kingdoms stuff? It’s gorgeous.) We trade cards and agree to check in with each other again after the show.

As I pass the table next to that, Mike Selinker of Lone Shark Games hauls me into a game of what I always knew as Thumper back when I was in high school. Mike taught me another game earlier in the weekend called Yes! It’s a rock-paper-scissors variant that involved way too much thinking for me at first, but I caught on in time to win. (5)

Eventually I manage to find the door and head for the Ugly Monkey again, a couple of compatriots in tow. When we get there, we run into Will Hindmarch (the Vampire developer for White Wolf) and Alex Flagg out front, who are hanging with their Beloit College buddies. Inside, I make my way to the back room where I find Justin Achilli, Peter Adkison, Ken Hite, Claire Vail, and Hal Mangold, et al. Will and I end the evening by escorting Justin and his ladyfriend back to their room, ensuring that he doesn’t end up finding any trouble on the way home. (Others have done it for me. I’m just paying forward—again.)

Sunday, August 20

As I’m waking up, I get a call from Jeremy at Edhellen Armory saying they’re desperate for help with the Gamer Olympics this morning, as two of their volunteers bailed on them that night. I have a book signing scheduled at the Sabertooth Games booth from 10 to noon, but since the Sabertooth guys told me the night before that we’re sold out I figure I can safely skip it.

I hustle down the Gamer Olympics to help check people in again, and Ken follows soon after. Once things clear up a bit, Ken heads out to one of his seminars, and I head out myself. I manage to finally meet up with Keith Baker to chat a bit, which we haven’t really managed all show. He’s leaving at the moment, so we catch up while he’s literally walking out of the convention center.

Afterward, I double-time it to the WizKids booth where I meet Jordan Weisman and Jon Leitheusser. We go over to Champs in the Marriott across the street for a good, long lunch. Again, we don’t have too much business to talk about, although we chat a bit about High Stakes Drifter. The subject of Marvel Heroes Battle Dice comes up, of course, and Jordan reminds me that FASA, his old company, once sued Playmates over similarities between FASA’s Battletech and Playmates’ Exo-Squad. So, there’s no love lost there. Despite this, we wrap up lunch by talking about projects we can work together on in the future. I’m booked solid at the moment, but we hope to work on something new together toward the end of the year.

On my way back from lunch, I run into Robin Laws, who asks me if I’ve eaten. Despite having just done so, I agree to join him and have a pop while he eats, as I haven’t had a chance to catch up with him enough yet. Robin’s one of the few other full-time freelance designers out there these days—and one of the best of them, to boot—so it’s always good to sit down and compare notes with him.

After lunch, I race through the last bits of the exhibit hall I have yet to see. I go to the Mayfair Games booth to pick up a copy of Bang! and its expansion High Noon for my sister Jody and her husband Nanni, who live in Italy. Bang! is originally an Italian game, and the card and rules come with both English and Italian on them. I figure it’s something we can all play together. I also get my old mentor Will Niebling to sign a couple of the limited edition “Uncle Will” Bang! cards for me.

As I wander by the Pokémon booth, Karen there hands me a half of display of booster packs for my son Marty. He wasn’t a fan at the time, but after opening a pack a day for the past two weeks he is now!

I stop at the Privateer Press booth as they’re shutting down and say hi to Brian Snoddy (who created the covers for my games Dracula’s Revenge and Frankenstein’s Children from Human Head Studios). Matt Wilson steps up and hands me a back-breaking load of breathtakingly beautiful books and says, “Read these. We’ll talk.”

I stop by the Sabertooth Games booth and the Wizards of the Coast booth to say my good-byes. Then I find a box to stuff all the swag into, and I head for the door. Twenty minutes later, after packing and leaving Ken in charge of the room for the final night, I’m on the road and heading for home.

And that’s how I spent my Gen Con.

(1) Paul’s website currently has a graph charting the sales of his fantastic RPG My Life with Master. It shows that his best sales month ever contained the Gen Con at which My Life with Master won the Diana Jones Award. Who says awards don’t spur sales? 😉

(2) John, Jared, and Annie Rush later gave me a CD with PDF copies of every game they’ve published together. They flat-out rock. Also, I see that the front page of the website has a quote from a post on my website praising their work. Very cool.

(3) This was my 24th Gen Con in a row. I grew up in southern Wisconsin, so I’ve been going to them since I was a kid. My father used to pile me and my pals in the van, drive us over to UW-Parkside (where the show was held in those days) and leave us there alone for the day, figuring we’d be safe. Other than the fact it led me down my current career path, he was dead-on right.

(4) Luke is a full-time freelance game designer in his mid-20s. This thrilled me to no end. Most of the guys who do this kind of thing for a living are in our late 30s and early 40s (if not older) these days. When you look behind you to see if anyone’s chasing after your career and you see an empty street, it’s disconcerting. At least Luke’s racing along that path.

My current theory (supported by long conversations with Ken Hite and Robin Laws) is that lots of those seemingly missing young designers are self-publishing indie RPGs and hanging out at the Forge. Still, it’s great to see someone following in somewhat closer footsteps.

(5) I rarely win games, as I don’t play them competitively. Instead, I’m always trying to take them apart to see what makes them tick. Once I figure that out, I usually move on to another game long before I’ve had a chance to master the first.

(6) There is no number 6. I just wanted to finish by saying how much I love Gen Con and how thrilled I am that Peter Adkison owns it. I can’t imagine a better steward for my favorite time of the year.