GenCon 2012 Recap, or Why I’m Not Playing D&D At Large Conventions Anymore

I’ve spent a while writing and rewriting this post because the conclusion I’ve made from it was pretty hard to arrive at and I’m running the risk of hurting the feelings of some close friends who work their asses off for little recognition or reward. Yet, as I go through my experience at GenCon 2012, I don’t see any other conclusion to make: This was likely my last time DMing or playing Dungeons and Dragons at large conventions.

It’s a little hard to explain briefly why I made this choice, but I’ll try to cover it in general terms at the end of the post, after I cover my personal notable events of the convention.

Wednesday:

I went down early Wednesday with a group of friends with two purposes in mind. First, I was scheduled to run D&D Next for Wizards of the Coast during the Trade Day Wednesday evening. Second, I was planning to meet some people at the JW Marriott to play board games.

The Trade Day went well. Due to a brief misunderstanding on my part regarding which Marriott we were supposed to be at, I arrived just as the event was starting. Because there weren’t enough people to fill all the D&D Next tables, I helped run demos of the upcoming Dungeon! board game from Wizards of the Coast. It’s a fun light dungeon-delving game that introduces the key concepts of D&D combat (kill things, take stuff, don’t die) in a compact format. It’s also really easy to learn; I learned the game at 6:00 PM and was teaching the rules to another group of players at 7:00 PM. Look for it this October. As a thank you for running events, I got an advance copy of the upcoming Dungeon Command: Tyranny of Goblins set (which means I should probably learn Dungeon Command one of these days).

After the Trade Day, I was originally planning to meet a group of gamers from The Twitter in the lobby of the JW Marriott. Sadly, social anxiety got the better of me, and I went to the bar of the JW Marriott instead, where I ran into some of the Telestrations staff, who my wife and I hit it off with pretty well at Origins back in June. Talking with them occupied the rest of my evening, and I went to bed late with the knowledge that I had nowhere to be until the dealers’ hall opened at 10:00 AM the next day.

Thursday:

Thursday morning was a pretty tight schedule for me. I had about three hours to walk through the dealers’ hall and pick up what I wanted to pick up before I was due at the D&D Next area for DMing.

I decided to take advantage of the relatively late start and grab some breakfast. While purchasing my breakfast, the cashier made conversation by asking what I was playing at the convention this weekend. I said that I was going to run some Dungeons and Dragons games, and I hear a voice behind me say, “D&D’s dead.” I turn around and there’s a guy I’ve never seen before in my life wearing a Pathfinder Society volunteer shirt and a look on his face like he’d welcome an argument about it. Thus begins my first experience at GenCon 2012 with the Edition Wars.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Edition Wars, you’re very lucky and I probably shouldn’t take that way from you. The best way to describe it is that it’s the worst possible result of the union of a geek’s passion for his or her hobby and a geek’s ability to argue about anything (especially one product or concept being superior to another) until the heat death of the universe. A summarized and likely mildly inaccurate history follows: When D&D 4th Edition was released, a number of players didn’t feel that it met their definition of what D&D should be. A number of these players happened to be running a competing company, Paizo, and developed the Pathfinder RPG as something of an evolved 3rd Edition. What’s important to note here is that neither the WotC designers nor the Paizo designers expressed any ill will toward one another – the ones I’ve spoken with are good friends with one another and still game at each other’s houses, and much of Paizo’s staff at least freelanced for WotC at some point. However, the players were not so kind, especially in the Organized Play community, and arguments sprung up quickly about which game system was “better”. I’ve never had much of a desire to participate in these discussions; I enjoy 4th Edition as a system, but I play what my friends play (and we’re starting up a Pathfinder game this week), and I see no reason that there has to be a fight about a “better” system when people can go their separate ways and play the game they enjoy without trying to incite arguments with random people in breakfast lines at conventions. Apparently this Pathfinder Society volunteer disagreed, but I wasn’t going to feed the troll. I probably gave him a dirty look, but I did not engage.

The dealers’ hall on Thursday morning was… intense. After a badly failed attempt at a video presentation of some kind, gamers were allowed into the hall. Buzz prior to the convention was pretty heavy surrounding Android: Netrunner by Fantasy Flight Games, Seasons by Asmodee, and Smash-Up by AEG; sell-outs of all three were expected. Of the three, Seasons was the only one I was interested in, so I hit up Asmodee’s booth first and picked up that as well as a signed copy of Dixit: Odyssey for a friend who was going to be in town from New Zealand (where games are way too expensive) in a few days. While in line, I heard that Netrunner had sold out in under ten minutes. Crazy. Other pickups (some unexpected) included the first expansion for Cards Against Humanity (and getting my copy of the base game signed by the designers), Tell-Tale (for work – honest), Farewell to Fear and Curse the Darkness (both Kickstarter independent RPGs I had pledged to). I had hoped to pick up a copy of Red November, but only Fantasy Flight had copies, and I was not going to stand in a line over two hours long for it; I ended up picking it up on Sunday. I also stopped by a number of booths, most notably the booth for 5th Street Games to meet Phil Kilcrease and chat briefly about a game he’s helping me design. Even with the games I picked up, though, there were a few I missed out on that I wish I hadn’t, most notably Smash-Up, Gloom, and a scratch-and-dent copy of Quarriors.

After I left the dealer hall, I headed to the D&D Next area for my first shift DMing. I was a little early, so they put me in a little early to help get some of the DMs who had been running since 10 AM on break. D&D Next was pretty intense. The players sat down at one station to spend a half hour creating characters, then an hour to play an adventure. The adventure had six parts, so the DM wasn’t necessarily running the same thing each hour – which is great when you’re running the adventure for a total of thirty hours over the course of the convention. That said, when one of the parts is clearing monsters out of a tavern, and the players get to choose which part they want… let’s say most tables went for the beer.
For the most part, I had a lot of fun. The system is built conceptually very well, although mechanical balance of combat still needs quite a bit of work. However, like the other editions of D&D I’ve played, my enjoyment was determined not by the system, but by the people who played at my tables – who were, for the most part, a blast to play with. My high point was definitely the table of under-10s who just rocked things out (and the 8-year-old with the rogue was the only player who thought to look for the *third* tripwire in the opening doorway). They worked really well as a group without guidance from their parent, had a lot of fun, and each had moments where they shone. Most groups had a lot of innovation and creativity, took advantage of the improvisation built into the system, and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. That said, I got a lot of Edition Wars crap from a small yet vocal minority. Players who wanted to tell me that Hasbro was evil for changing things again. Players who talked the whole game about how much Vancian magic sucks (or how non-Vancian magic sucks). Players who just walked in wanting to hate the game. I know that it’s one of the risks of random tables, and that I shouldn’t let a minority experience ruin the enjoyment of the rest of my convention, but that kind of treatment just isn’t what I signed up for, and especially with Edition Wars experiences both earlier and later in the convention, it stood out to me as a huge black mark in an otherwise excellent convention experience.

The D&D Keynote address was Thursday night. I didn’t go, but a couple things stood out to me from the coverage. First, I think it’s awesome that Paul S. Kemp is going to be one of the authors for the Sundering. He’s my favorite Forgotten Realms author, and his work continues to inspire my writing for Living Forgotten Realms. Second, I am highly skeptical of the claims that player participation in adventures is going to guide the story of the Realms in D&D Next. That’s a claim that Living Forgotten Realms players have heard before, and we’re still waiting.

Thursday night, I again hit the bar up for some late-night gaming, and got the opportunity to join Benoit and Jeremy for Epic Spell Wars. This was a *really* fun fantasy magic-themed “take that” game that would be in my collection if I ever thought my wife would play it.

Friday

Most of my Friday featured more D&D Next. While my experience Thursday was mostly mirrored on Friday and Saturday, we had an extra twist on Friday – two new classes! Most of the DMs for the convention got to see a copy of these on Wednesday at the DMs’ meeting, but as I was running events for the Trade Day, the first I got to see the packet versions (I’d seen an earlier playtest version) was on Friday morning when the players did. The new classes – Warlock and Sorcerer – had interesting concepts behind them, but were clearly not as well refined as the core classes. I feel like they still need a lot of work before I’d even be willing to play them at a playtest table.

Friday evening, I sought out the folks from the UnPub program (aka the Big Blue Noodle), both to see what I could play and to try to get a playtest in for Microbrew (I’ll be updating the links in that post once the new version is updated), a design of my own that I’m working on. I managed to get a test of Microbrew in with Drew Melbourne, Jason Tagmire (of Pixel Lincoln fame), and Jay Treat. The players were all great at trying to crack open exploits in the rules and mechanics and giving the game a good, thorough playtest – and that had nothing to do with why, halfway through the game, play broke down in a bad way with four consecutive rounds in which no player could take an action. I got some really strong feedback, and I’m looking forward to getting a new prototype ready soon (after I get a couple other projects completed), hopefully in time for U-Con in October. I also got in a playtest of Traitor Tavern by George Tagmire. It’s an interesting game in which you’re a tavern operator trying to serve patrons beer while preventing those patrons from going to competing establishments by manipulating the patrons’ movement, playing cards, and using the special action of your specific role. I’m curious to see future iterations of the game.

Saturday

My Saturday began with more D&D Next. I showed up early to see if I could help out with anything. Turns out they needed people to help out organizing tables for the West Wall adventure, a 2-hour 4th Edition adventure with pre-generated characters. Normally, such an event gets traction only with players who are looking to fill a couple hours in or are looking to play the game for the first time. That was before Wizards decided to incentivize play by offering free dice for playing in each of a variety of events (including this one, D&D Next, and a Dungeon Command demo, among others). This led to a couple interesting pieces of drama. First, we got slammed with people who wanted to play with generic tickets in a way we never have before. Second, our room was opening up across the hall from the dealer’s hall – at the same time – so there were lots of traffic issues. Third, because people who had tried to play Friday but couldn’t due to lack of table space showed up *early* (like three hours before the slot started) to form a line, but because they got mixed directions somewhere, multiple lines formed and we didn’t know about the second line until we started seating tables. This led to a number of less than happy players who wanted to play, a lack of DMs to run adventures, and (because this was an adventure with pregenerated characters) a lack of adventures with characters to run. We were able to, with the grace and patience of volunteers, able to seat everyone that morning who was willing to wait around for us to try to find ways to seat them (three or four extra tables’ worth). Not bad for an oversold event – at least, not in my opinion.

Then I ran another eight hours of D&D Next. This is the session where the greatest number of mean and cranky players showed up, but I think I covered the basics above.

During my lunch break at D&D Next, I ran to the dealer’s hall to take another quick look around and to grab that copy of Red November. Sadly, the scratch-and-dent games I was looking at were no longer available, which gave me a slight sad. I need to keep a look out for that sort of thing in the future, if for no other reason than to get materials for Project Drink Coaster.

When my D&D Next shift was over, I went over to the D&D Organized Play room to see how the adventures I’d written for Ashes of Athas and Living Forgotten Realms went. The Ashes of Athas adventure in particular seemed to be very well received, which I was pleased about. I had tried a couple of things I hadn’t done in previous adventures, including a “scrolling” combat map for a potentially long hunter-and-prey style combat and advice to DMs regarding how to modify the adventure for groups that had a preference for lots of combat or for lots of role-playing (I try to make an effort to include lots of both in adventures I write).

Late that night, I met with a friend of mine and a number of people she games with for drinks and Cards Against Humanity. I’m not going to go into details, but let’s just say this was a highly appropriate group for a game that’s basically Apples to Apples for a more vulgar audience.

Sunday

Sunday morning, I tried (as I had been all weekend) to run demos of Cthulhu Fluxx and hand out a number of promotional cards that I’d been given by Looney Labs for this purpose. It was largely unsuccessful – especially since I got a tweet from a friend on the GenCon staff reminding me that game demos need to be authorized by the convention…

After one last walk through the dealer’s hall (during which I did not buy anything, but was very surprised to see Radio Disney present), I met with a friend from Chicago who I met through my wife, but only see at GenCon. It was good catching up, and we agreed that we needed to scheme to get my wife to the convention next year, even if it meant we were missing Origins next year. We also lamented that we didn’t find time to game together at the con, and agreed that it was a situation that needed to change next year as well.

The whole GenCon experience was fun, but not as fun for me as it has been in previous years, and the overall experience has let me to determine that I shouldn’t DM at GenCon anymore. I’ve got three main reasons for this, in order of importance:

  1. My wife is likely coming. She doesn’t play D&D. Playing a bunch of D&D while she does other gaming is both bad form and not what I’d prefer to be doing with my gaming time when she’s around.
  2. I missed too much stuff. This is the first year that I felt DMing held me back from doing things that I wanted to do. I didn’t do True Dungeon. I wanted to spend a lot more time with UnPub. I wanted to game with friends who I don’t see except at GenCon. I wanted to spend some time actually wandering at the dealer’s hall instead of doing targeted shopping. None of these things actually happened because I was DMing, and while I wasn’t thinking about what I wasn’t doing during the convention, I thought about it a lot on the way home.
  3. I have less than no desire to deal with the venom of the Edition Wars anymore. Period. I’m tired of the drama and the distractions, and it ruins my enjoyment of the game. I know that I shouldn’t let other players’ rudeness get in my way, but I do. Through Organized Play writing and editing, I’ve put a lot of my effort into multiple editions of D&D – for free – and for people to effectively tell me that my time and energy has no value because it’s for the wrong edition of D&D (or, in some cases, that it’s for D&D at all) is hurtful. I have no problem with people not enjoying the same games I enjoy – I think it’s great that multiple games exist to fit multiple people’s preferences. But to invalidate my choices of what games to play or write for as “wrong” because you happen to enjoy another system more creates a hostile atmosphere that I have no interest in participating in – on any side.

-John

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6 Responses to GenCon 2012 Recap, or Why I’m Not Playing D&D At Large Conventions Anymore

  1. My solution (and I’m at the beginning end of it) has been to only run my own adventures, either off the program, or, when the convention allows it (such as at the former DDXP which is always going to be a great show in my book)- when they allow an all-editions track and you can get your one-offs in the schedule. It’s the same level work as big program DMing, but you have true ownership of the experience, and I find you can really connect to players better. The only thing missing is DM rewards, but I haven’t missed it too much. Met some swell people that way, and got to run the original AD&D versions of Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan and Dwellers of the Forbidden City at DDXP around 3x each this year.

    The Edition Wars are pure poison and D&D Next didn’t stop them, so for now I’ve moved on to Tunnels & Trolls, which I feel like is far enough off the beaten track that I can avoid most of the trouble. Can’t wait for February.

  2. Karl says:

    Edition wars drives me nuts. People should just enjoy the game they want to play and let other people enjoy their games. I had a great time at Gen Con, but wasn’t able to get the d10 due to the room being packed. I actually wanted to play it because I enjoy the game, not because of the free die (although after getting the rest of them, it was kind of a bummer to be missing one).

  3. Cool beans John. Very interested to see how Microbrew turns out, especially as I just bottled my third batch of homebrew (what I’m referring to as a malt Double IPA) last month and my first batch of mead this past Saturday. Absolutely agree as well about the toxic atmosphere at times. Who needs it? Focus on the things you love and be a little “selfish” if you will, spend some time with your wife (I just have to figure out a way to get mine to go one year) and enjoy yourself.

  4. I’m someone who played 4th Edition D&D, and have basically found I’m not into D&D anymore, but the edition warring still gets to me. More to the point, I don’t like what I’ve seen in D&DNext, but instead of ranting and raving (Since obviously it’s got a player base), I’ve moved on to play the games I do like. I leave my dislike to conversations with friends, because, frankly, we like talking design, so it works.

    Hope your experiences next year have fewer negatives than this year. Still need to find time to hit a convention myself, will be looking at one where UnPub is setting up shop. Love meeting the designers and seeing stuff in progress.

  5. gsllc says:

    I certainly can’t criticize #1 and #2. Gaming is about having a good time, and you’re certainly investing enough vacation days, time, and money for GenCon to justify a shift in focus to yourself. I certainly have done that myself. I have no intention of going to an large convention anytime soon because it’s gotten to the point of “been there; done that” for me. It’s just not that much fun anymore. I do want to point out something of which you’re fully aware because it’s important for us all to remember. Organized Play (“OP”) is the best way to grow the community. (The fact that more game companies, small or not, don’t encourage and support OP is puzzling to me. It would result in far more sales, and might improve their bottom lines. But I digress . . . .)

    Personally, I’ve grown to hate LFR, and not because anything the writers have done. It just isn’t my thing. It’s tough for role-players to enjoy an adventure crammed into 4 hours where other players at the table are more interested in ROLL-playing. No one is right or wrong for what makes them happy; everyone has just as much a right to the game regardless of play style. However, it creates an environment I simply don’t like . . . but I DM, play, and organize it anyway. Why? Because it’s important. I wouldn’t have any of my home groups over the past 7 years if it weren’t for OP. Seriously. I wouldn’t have ever met any of these people. I owe a lot to OP, and so will the future generation of gamers. Having a future generation of gamers is also very important.

    D&D was traditionally a small, stagnant community. Any successful movement, business, economy, etc. requires an influx of new blood to survive. OP provided that to D&D, and by extension, RPGing generally. (There’d be no Pathfinder Society without Living Greyhawk and D&D.) If D&D is to continue its growth, it’ll be through OP. Fortunately, it takes only a few OP campaigns supported by only a few companies to make this happen (making those criticizing those companies sound ignorant, unappreciative, and spoiled), but even LFR and other WotC living campaigns can’t survive without volunteers and a full table of players. For those that are new to OP, and for those that genuinely enjoy OP, large conventions — and the major, special events held at them — are important events that need to happen.

    While you (and to a lesser extent, I) are personally doing enough to keep living campaigns alive (and are thus off the hook regardless of what we decide), it’s important that gamers in general keep their dedication. Hopefully enough gamers continue to give something of themselves at conventions, even the large ones. They’re important to the community, even to those members who never attend them.

    Just a reminder of what *anyone* who’s ever DM’d at a big convention probably already knows.

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