My First Gen Con

For the last few years, Gen Con has been something both too close and too far away. I’ve been either too cheap or too broke to attend, even though Indianapolis is (relatively) close to home. I decided to make the trip this year and I had a great time!

My view from a skybridge

The Games

As my first Gen Con, I attended as a fan. I came to play games I don’t get to play in my area. Pre-con, I signed up for six games across the four day con, one of The Strange, one of Numenera, and four of The Dark Eye. I knew these would be beginner/introduction type games, but I’ve owned all of them for a stretch of time and I just wanted a guided experience in playing them.

The Dark Eye – The Dark Eye (TDE) is Germany’s version of D&D. It’s their most popular RPG and has had one continuous setting that’s evolved over its 30+ years. As it was described to me at least twice, it’s more Brothers Grimm than Tolkien. Each region of its setting is some form of ancient Europe, from a raiding viking nation, to warring dark age states, to Arabian-esque deserts. In some ways, TDE is more complex than D&D.

The first aspect that stuck out the most to me was contested attack rolls. In D&D, and most RPGs, attacks are reduced to a single roll: your die roll modified by a skill bonus/penalty against a target/to-hit number that belongs to your enemy. The defender, more or less, stands there while the attacker takes a swing at them. TDE makes this a little more interactive. The attacker rolls against their own skill. When the attacker fails, it’s because they missed. If they succeed, the defender doesn’t just stand there. The defender gets to roll a dodge or parry against their own respective skill, which gets more difficult the more you have to do it in a single round. This back and forth can slow combat down even more than in other games, but it feels like it’s giving more agency to both players, which high skill attackers having the ability to miss less often by rolling against their own numbers, and defenders get a chance to user their own skill to avoid the attacks. These are important because the penalties for damage are harsh in TDE, with successive life loss increasingly making it more difficult to act. In three game sessions, I don’t think we killed anything, but we definitely damaged enemies to the point of retreating. I love this because it sets up a game where enemies can have names and grudges and reappear or redeem themselves, while D&D is largely a monster mash. Not that there’s anything wrong with a monster mash.

The other interesting aspect is skill rolls, which require three dice rolls against three of your character’s ability scores. That may sound like it’s inviting three opportunities for failure, but your skill rating allows you to negate failures. This balancing effect means that you can more often succeed at skill checks in things that you’re good at, and your level of success can be quantified because your remaining skill points improve the quality of your success. This also gives built-in narrative reasons reasons for failure. If you succeed on strength and agility during a climbing roll, but fail in courage, you’ve basically described for yourself how you failed; you’re physically capable of climbing that thing, but in that moment you didn’t have the heart.

I signed up for four games, but only attended the first three. In those three games, I bullied a serf as a good-looking viking-for-hire at a wedding between rival nations, I lost my temper and charged as fast as my dwarven warrior’s legs would carry me at handful of orc slavers, and I deftly picked locks as a high-skill but extremely squishy thief. After three games, I’d seen enough to be thoroughly impressed.

Numenera and The Strange – (some light disclosure: I backed a kickstarter for an updated version of Numenera) I’m combining these because they’re the same game system (the Cypher System) for two wildly different settings. Numenera takes place a billion years in the future, where we’ve lost knowledge of how technology and magic work so they’re indistinguishable and wildly dangerous, and The Strange is like The Laundry Files meets Sliders. The Cypher System reduces ability scores to just Might, Speed, and Intellect, abstracts skills, and gives everyone disposable powerful magic items. It’s kind of the opposite of TDE, where the GM rolls nothing but sets difficulty of the action, so every roll is unopposed. To affect these rolls, you can spend points out of your ability score pools. The catch is that these same pools count as your life counters, so physical damage drains your might, then your speed, then your intellect, and then you’re dead. Since this wasn’t an on-going campaign, everyone was pretty loose about using their ability pools, and no one died, but I could see how an on-going game would prompt more conservative play and result in more failed rolls. The settings were both interesting, but I think I enjoyed the octo-post-apocalyptic medieval world of Numenera more than the The Strange’s bioengineered sci-fi dimension of Ruk.

Battletech – Hey, wait a minute. I didn’t sign up for this! But I did skip on that last TDE session. I tried to get into a game of Dungeon Crawl Classics, but it was full, so I hopped over to the Battletech tables for a refresher on that system. It’s still high on the number crunching and wargaming end of the spectrum. But my Jenner outmaneuvered my opponents Panther and I got up in his face and lit him up like a Christmas tree. His PPC would’ve hurt if he landed a hit, but he couldn’t make it happen. We ran out of time, but I scored it as a victory.

The books I carried from home and back without ever opening them.

The Exhibitor Hall

Whoa. This was my FLGS except packed full of people. Just games on games on utilikilts on dice on games. It was just an unholy amount of people and stuff in one place. I’m not much of a browser though, so my experience here was checking the map for a vendor I wanted to visit, squeezing through the hordes of people slow walking or browsing until I found them, checking out what they had, and then moving to the next vendor. So I saw a ton of stuff, but I’m allergic to pitches so I didn’t stop to play much. I did walk out with my Numenera kickstarter rewards (two massive 400 page tomes), Scum and Villainy (Blades in the Dark in Space), The Sprawl (cyberpunk PbtA), and Vampire: The Masquerade V5.

Indie Game Revolution booth haul!

Stray Thoughts

  • There was a ton of cosplay, but I learned that for every picture in a Best Cosplay album, there’s at least 50 okay cosplays that didn’t make the cut. Good efforts but sometimes the seams were showing or I could tell what they were going for, sort of.
  • Here’s a real shocker: no one really stank. I squoze through a ton of people in that exhibitor hall, and I wasn’t constantly gagging on someone’s body odor. Dumb stereotypes of stinky gamers were deeply challenged!
  • Another shocker: I didn’t come home with con crud. Again, extremely close to a lot of people at times but didn’t get sick at all!
  • I stayed at a hotel near the airport and that was a mistake. I’m cheap and those rooms were cheaper than downtown, but they’re very isolated from everything (seriously, nearest gas station was a mile away), so everywhere I went was a 15 minute Lyft. I could’ve saved on Lyfts and spent that money on the hotel room. Lesson learned there.
  • I’m not going to bother taking any books next time I go. I took a small selection, but I got way more mileage out of my Kindle Fire with Dropbox and my game book PDFs. I made the mistake of picking up my Numenera kickstarter books before I was done for the day and had to carry them around everywhere to the detriment of my back.
  • There was essentially no D&D. Wizards of the Coast wasn’t there. Some other people were running D&D games, but it was very surprising to me that the biggest RPG in America wasn’t at the biggest gaming convention in the world.
“Include PDF” was pretty much a deal-maker on all three of these books

Next Time?

Will I go back? Almost definitely. Maybe not yearly, but I had a lot of fun and I’d love to go again. Next time, I’d like to explore more panels and opportunities to learn, but I’m definitely still going to play some games, new and familiar. And maybe take some pictures next time.

Streaming Schedule – Week of August 6th

Ooookay I’m back from Gen Con and almost ready to play video games again! I spent some of my free time playing the excellent Salt & Sanctuary on Switch, and I’ve taken the last couple days to chillax and unpack, but I’m ready to jump into some games! Dead Cells just came out of early access, and I need to spend more time in space and remember what I did before I left for Gen Con. On Saturday, I’ll return to the farm!

Wednesday, August 8th, 7pm CST – Whatever (Dead Cells, No Man’s Sky)

Saturday, August 11th, 7pm CST – Saturday Night Stardew

Streaming Schedule – Week of July 30th

Er, uh. None! Okay that’s not entirely true. I won’t be able to stream Whatever on Wednesday or Saturday Night Stardew on Saturday because I’m heading off to Gen Con on Wednesday and won’t be back until next Monday. HOWEVER, I will run some Tuesday night quiet time stream. It’ll be quiet time because Katie will be sleeping early since she has to take me to the airport and back super early in the morning. It will almost certainly be me (quietly) playing more No Man’s Sky and (quietly) talking about what I’m going to do at Gen Con.

Tuesday, July 31st, 7pm CST – Sleepy Time Quiet Sky (No Man’s Sky)

Also, maybe keep up with me at Gen Con by following me on Instagram!

Catch up last week’s streams below!

Whatever 18JUL18 (Enter the Gungeon, No Man’s Sky) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGP_kIC20oc

Saturday Night Stardew – Part 4 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DIEYjDfsuxE

Streaming Schedule – Week of July 23rd

Last week, I had my first streaming human snafu! About 45 minutes into Saturday Night Stardew, I felt really bad! So I took a short break and had to make a decision; do I keep streaming and risk having to take another break or do I put my health first and just end the stream? I ended the stream. My health comes first. I’m sorry that I had to cut the stream short, and it wasn’t an easy decision, but I’m glad I got to enjoy the Egg Festival and earn my straw hat!

This week, I’ll be checking out Enter the Gungeon because it just got a huge Advanced Gungeon & Draguns update! I will also be checking out No Man’s Sky again since it’s also getting a huge update. And I am bumping my Wednesday stream to 7pm CST to be a little more consistent!

Wednesday, July 25, 7pm CST – Whatever (Enter the Gungeon, No Man’s Sky)

Saturday, July 29, 7pm CST – Saturday Night Stardew

Catch up last week’s streams below!

Whatever 18JUL18 (Batman: Arkham Knight) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmRspgNedco

Saturday Night Stardew – Part 3 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqXFOi8Q3AQ

Streaming Schedule – Week of July 16th

If you thought Middle-Earth: Shadow of War was boring, good news! I’m playing something different. I’ll probably play a couple of Arkham Stories from Batman: Arkham Knight. At worst, I’ll chase Riddler trophies. ALSO corn facts will return on Saturday’s Saturday Night Stardew stream!

Wednesday, July 18, 8pm CST – Whatever (Batman: Arkham Knight?)

Saturday, July 21, 7pm CST – Saturday Night Stardew

Also, see me over at Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together for my review of The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts on Wednesday!

Catch up last week’s streams below!

Whatever 11JUL18 (Middle-Earth: Shadow of War) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e8QUodBSRIU

Saturday Night Stardew – Part 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezCnpENmraY

Streaming Schedule – Week of July 9th

Thanks to everyone who joined my Saturday Night Stardew stream! I enjoyed myself so much that I’m doing it again this week. I’ll also be running a stream on Wednesday, where I play uhhh whatever. Probably Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, but maybe Quake Champions? Here’s this week’s schedule!

Wednesday, July 11, 8pm CST – Whatever (Shadow of War, Quake Champions)

Saturday, July 14, 7pm CST – Saturday Night Stardew

If you missed my last Stardew stream, you can watch the recording here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ICR09Q4mxzA

Streaming!

For fun I decided to run a three hour video game stream on my Youtube channel today. My computer overheated and my webcam stopped working about an hour in, but it was a lot of fun! You can watch the recordings here!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dO_5vyJeKyk – Part 1, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War (sorry, very little sound because I don’t talk much and I didn’t realize that the game audio isn’t coming through)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XmYVfrDrEMc – Part 2, Injustice 2, Dead Cells, Quake Champions, Stardew Valley

And I’m going to do this again! Saturday, July 7th, at 7pm CST I will start streaming Stardew Valley for reals this time! Come watch me figure out how to farm. https://www.youtube.com/user/emnii/live

Announcing the Summer of Good Anime Movies!

The Summer of Harry Potter was a huge success in that I read all of the Harry Potter books in succession. It was also a huge failure because it took me three seasons, not one, to do so. This year, I’m setting my goals a little more realistically.

This is officially the Summer of Good Anime Movies. This largely came about because I get some internal shame when I remember that I’ve seen zero Hayao Miyazaki movies. I’m going to correct that, and then I’m going to watch some other critically acclaimed and popular anime movies that I also haven’t seen. I’ve picked 10, but the actual selections could change if I can’t rent some of these from digital streaming services, or if something really hot comes out over the summer. The good news here is that I could feasibly watch all of these over a long weekend, but I’ll try to spread them out. This list isn’t in any particular order.

Grave of the Fireflies

My Neighbor Totoro

Princess Mononoke

Paprika

Your Name

Spirited Away

Royal Space Force: The Wings of HonnĂȘamise

Perfect Blue

Ninja Scroll

Patlabor

How RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars Season 3 Turned the Competition Into a Game

I’m a huge fan of reality competition TV shows, particularly RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s a creative, funny competition between some wild personalities that never fails to entertain. But the All Stars seasons have broken the competition in ways that turn the results from the best of the best to the winner of a game, and there’s a big distinction between the two.

If you’re unfamiliar with the show, here it is. A (flexible) dozen drag queens start. Through a series of challenges playing to the strengths of a well-rounded drag queen, they’re eliminated one by one until three (sometimes four) remain. Each episode, after a challenge, a panel of judges helps Ru select the top queen (who gets a prize) and the bottom two, with the rest being safe from elimination. The bottom two perform a lip sync and Ru picks who stays and who goes home. In each stage of the competition, the panel of judges and RuPaul select the winners and the losers. This is standard RuPaul’s Drag Race.

All Stars has been messed with from the start. The first season put every queen into a pair with a competitor. They both had to perform well to win challenges and it wasn’t until late in the game when competitors were judged on their performance alone. All Stars season two course corrected by starting everyone out on their own, but it still changed the competition. Instead of Ru picking the winner and loser each week, Ru picked the two winners and three losers. The winners would lip sync for the right to choose who went home. The losers pleaded their case. In the end, Ru still picked the top all star, but it was from a selection whittled down by the competitors and not the judges.

Throughout this competition, Roxxxy Andrews was consistently, repeatedly in the bottom. She was almost always up for elimination. She was consistently saved by her friends in the top. None of them would send Roxxxy home. They, arguably, sent home more talented drag queens, because of their personal biases. When Alaska won All Stars season 2, it could be said that she won it with an asterisk because she didn’t have to compete against the best; she just had to make sure none of the competitors sent her home.

But factors in season 3 of All Stars broke the competition in ways that fundamentally changed it from a competition to a game; no more a matter of being the best but playing better than the others. What follows will contain spoilers for All Stars season 3, which very recently ended! Do not keep reading if you are avoiding spoilers!

All Stars season 3 followed the same formula as season 2; winners pick who goes home. But it broke in three different ways. The first is that it offered an eliminated queen a way back into the competition. Every show does this, but it’s a bigger mess when they were eliminated by someone else possibly still in the competition. There was a big segment where all of the (currently) eliminated queens met with the competitors still in it and they argued about who eliminated whom and why. In the end, they brought back Morgan McMichaels, the first eliminated queen.

This is a problem. Morgan didn’t compete for most of the show. She had to sit out because she was eliminated. Being brought back when most of her competitors were already gone means she stood a greater chance of convincing the rest to keep her. Also, Morgan said from the start that she was going to eliminate her biggest competitors. Not the worst queens, the best. She’s not alone in this, as everyone is free to choose who they want to eliminate for any reason, but it puts a huge spotlight on the problem with letting competitors eliminate each other. Sometimes the best go home in a moment of vulnerability because they’re the best.

The second way in which the competition broke was that BenDelaCreme was allowed to eliminate herself. She was the obvious front runner, she won a lip sync late in the competition, and she sent herself home. Her reasons are inconsequential, but the result is that she was shaping the competition by having a strong presence at the start, and then she cut herself out, leaving everyone else to know that their victories are only viable in her absence. Ru consistently put Dela in the top two because she’s the best. When she dropped out, it let everyone know, including Ru, that she had no competition. Anyone who wins season 3 All Stars has to know that if Dela hadn’t quit, they probably wouldn’t have won.

Finally, and the worst way in which the competition broke, is that the final two queens were chosen by the eliminated queens. Bebe, Kennedy, Shangela, and Trixie all had claims to victory, but the decision on which of those two would lip sync for the finale was put in the hands of the people they eliminated. Shockingly, they chose Kennedy and Trixie. This is shocking because, while a strong competitor and a great drag queen, Kennedy won the least number of challenges of all of the top four. Shangela, who won the most, was eliminated by the queens who were no longer a part of the competition. For whatever reason, they chose Kennedy. The finale was between someone who was top 2 twice but won no lip syncs, against someone who was top 2 once, won that lip sync, but spent most of the competition in the bottom.

Trixie Mattel is an all star. She deserves to be recognized as such. But her win was cheapened by the changes to the competition that turned it from a best-of-the-best to a best player of the game finale. In the end, this was not the Olympics of drag. It was the Catan of drag. It was a game that could be lost by the best player for simply not having the personal connections to assure victory. While Trixie was crowned, no one achieved a victory because the best player could’ve been in the competition but they were recognized too soon and eliminated by those who could see it, and the best player walked out. While I expect twists and surprises in these kinds of shows, I hope that the next season of All Stars sets out the rules fairly from the start and reduces the amount of input by the eliminated queens so that they have less influence in the finale. It’s just not fair to anyone to call someone an all star if they’re not competing on an even playing field.

Dark Souls 3

A short while ago, I’d committed to ignoring games described as inspired by Dark Souls. I’d played some Dark Souls and didn’t enjoy it much, played some Dark Souls inspired games like Lords of the Fallen and Bound by Flame and I didn’t like any of them. But this isn’t a consistent dislike. I really really enjoyed Salt & Sanctuary, but the qualities of Dark Souls that inhabited Hollow Knight turned me right off. And almost immediately after I’d decided that Dark Souls-like games were not for me, Humble Monthly gave me a copy of Dark Souls 3. I beat Dark Souls 3. I enjoyed Dark Souls 3.

I am ill equipped to describe what makes Dark Souls 3 so different from Dark Souls, and even less equipped to compare it to Dark Souls 2, but Dark Souls 3 hooked me fairly quick. I know how these games work and they’re very unforgiving, particularly of my overly-aggressive playstyle. With the help of a build guide to direct my efforts on creating a character I would enjoy playing with, a simple melee sword-and-board fighter, I sliced and chopped my way through hordes of monsters. The variety in combat encounters and enemies ensured that even my simple character build was never boring. Maybe Salt & Sanctuary made me a more patient player, but I rarely felt like the fights were unfair, even when I was dying to bosses over and over. I’d eventually learn their patterns and weaknesses, and chop them to pieces with my sword. Where as I found Dark Souls to be a largely frustrating affair, Dark Souls 3 never felt frustrating; it was rewarding.

What isn’t rewarding in the game is the storyline, or lack thereof. It starts with a cutscene explaining that the lords of cinder have left their graves and need to be returned to their thrones to rekindle the dying world. From there, there’s more or less nothing much to offer until you reach the end, and you get a short cutscene for your efforts. Sure, you’ll find other non-hostile people with some “quests” of their own, but there’s no journal. No quest log. Often, I struggled to even remember their names. Most items have a sentence or two of flavor text but that’s about it for worldbuilding. You could go end-to-end through this game and never learn a single thing about the lords of cinder that you’re mercilessly hunting down and killing.

This is a bit of a shame because the world they’ve built, without the exposition, is really interesting in that it’s not standard fantasy or grimdark. If anything, it’s sorrowful. This is a dying world, roamed by undead things, desperate for purpose and meaning. I find myself wanting to go back to Dark Souls again for another try to see if I can fill in the blanks because I want to learn more. Even if I can’t, if I can find in Dark Souls what I found in Dark Souls 3, that’ll be enough. Dark Souls 3 is a challenging game that rewards persistence and learning without feeling cheap.


Reference: From Software. Dark Souls 3 [Namco Bandai, 2016]

Source: Purchased from Humble Bundle as part of a Humble Monthly bundle.

Ne Cede Malis