The Most Epic Quest of GenCon: Finding Accessible Hotels

Before I go into what will inevitably become a frustrated rant, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: GenCon staff has been incredibly responsive to my concerns about these issues. They have listened to my insane ranting until I calmed down and explained things rationally, and repeatedly provided as much information as they could to help. I wish I could say the same for their business partners.

Part 0: In Which I Am Already Set Up For Frustration

My wife and I met in March of 2009. In the nearly four years since that time, she has enriched my life indescribably – well, mostly indescribably. One very describable way that she has enriched my life is that where before I met her, I believed strongly in improving accessibility in our society, now I am starting to fully understand how accessibility options don’t just need tweaking, they need a complete overhaul. And we’re lucky – Christine’s able to walk short distances (albeit with crutches), and is capable of accessing many non-accessible areas if she really needs to (like my third-floor walkup apartment from when we first started dating). If we can’t get something accessible, odds are we can overcome it with equipment – but equipment starts to get heavy, especially if it’s equipment that I’m loading in and out of a vehicle on a regular basis (wheelchair and super-old heavy scooter, I’m looking at you). To date, our experiences with accessibility include:
This whole concert ticket fiasco.
• Having a web booking system for America’s Best Value hotels tell us that we booked an ADA room when in fact it had booked us a standard room. Up a flight of stairs. With no elevator. In pouring rain. And the hotel didn’t have any ADA rooms in the first place.
• Being locked out of a music festival because the doors by handicapped parking weren’t supposed to be opened until the festival was half over.
• Being forced to drive to five parking lots at our local baseball stadium for handicapped parking and needing to block the entrance to the VIP lot to get anyone to help us.
• And, most recently, when trying to get accessible tickets for the Detroit Red Wings’ home opener, I was only allowed to buy tickets via phone, during which time, I was hung up on once, redirected to a different ticket agent four times, and eventually was dumped into a voicemail, after which I was unable to reach any human beings at all for four hours until someone finally returned my call.

Basically, there are a lot of things that used to take me all of five minutes to do that now take me anywhere from (if I’m lucky) the same amount of time, but I need to be there an hour sooner to three days of frustrated phone calls and e-mails. And that’s just scheduling and reservations – it doesn’t even go into dealing with actually moving around in crowded or less-than-accessible spaces. The “moving around in crowded spaces” part is what led me to decide that for Christine’s first trip to GenCon, we’d try to get into the VIG program. It provides access to a lounge where she can rest and recharge her batteries (literally – she drives a scooter when significant walking would be needed), eliminates lines, and – perhaps most importantly – gets us into the dealer hall an hour early, which may or may not be necessary for her to move around in the dealer hall at all.

The VIG part of this story is pretty fast – like everyone else who couldn’t get on the site in the first two minutes of badge registration, I got to sit slack-jawed staring at my computer as I saw that the VIG program was sold out. Sadness, but that’s what happens with an extremely popular program. I was more than happy to get on the VIG waitlist and buy normal badges, but this also mean that I had to steel myself for what would surely be a Herculean effort – hotel room reservations.

Despite this being my seventh GenCon, the Hotel Registration Land Rush is something I’ve never had to worry about. Either I was working for Wizards of the Coast/Baldman Games as a DM or I decided to stay far offsite for frugality reasons. I had heard that it was intense, though, so I made it a point to read GenCon’s website before hotel registration opened to look into accessibility concerns. I was surprised to see that none were listed, so I got ready for noon on Tuesday, at which time hotel registration would open and I would book our accessible hotel room downtown.

Part 1: In Which My Patience Grows Thin

Work delayed me somewhat in getting to the site, so I don’t get in until about 12:10. The directly attached hotel rooms are gone. That’s fine – as long as I can get within half a mile, we’ll be ok. Omni Severin is still open, and reasonably priced, so I go to book that. As I’m looking for the list of requested amenities, though, I’m noticing that ADA accessibility isn’t an option. I backtrack to the housing page provided by VisitIndy and see something I hadn’t noticed when I first logged in (and on a page that wasn’t even available when I looked the day before): “Handicap accessible rooms, ADA approved, and suites cannot be booked on line. You need to either e-mail your request to <e-mail> or call the housing bureau at <phone number>”.

Well, shit. Here we go again.

Call the phone number. Busy signal. Call again. Busy signal. Fifteen minutes of busy signal later, I get a recording saying that they’re experiencing high call volume (no shit, it’s the first half hour of the GenCon Hotel Land Rush). Recording wants me to leave a message and they’ll get back to me when they can. My previous experience is that this is usually hours, if not a day or so, at which point the option to get a non-accessible room (difficult, but not impossible for Christine) downtown would be gone. Seeing no choice, however, I leave my information and go to the next listed option: e-mail. I send the e-mail and then, deciding that I have no other recourse at this time, go back to work.

Part 2: In Which I Fly Off The Handle

As it turns out, my appointments that afternoon were cancelled, so I get to go home early. I get home at about 2, and see an e-mail from VisitIndy. It’s very unusual to get a response this early, so I’m pretty excited – until I see the subject: Out of Office. The e-mail goes on to detail that “due to a high volume of e-mails today, there may be some delay in replying to your e-mail. Please expect a reply within 24 to 48 hours.”

VisitIndy wants me to be patient for up to TWO DAYS to see whether I can even get an accessible room? Hell. No.

That’s when I do this:

VisitIndy Tweet

In retrospect, putting GenCon on the spot with this tweet was kind of a dick move on my part. At this point, I hadn’t actually talked to GenCon (although their name was all over the place on the website that wouldn’t let me web register), and I actually know a guy at GenCon who I probably should have contacted first. Thankfully, that guy is a really good guy, and instantly gets ahold of me to see what is going on. After I let him know what’s up and that I don’t really think asking me to wait until all the other rooms are sold to find out if I can get the room I need is reasonable. Some checking with GenCon housing happens, and I’m told pretty quickly that the word from VisitIndy is that there are plenty of accessible rooms available and that they’re just lacking the personnel to process them quickly. Within minutes of being told this privately, the same information shows up on GenCon’s Facebook page. This is not the best news in the world, but at least I know we’ll be able to get a room. Even better, GenCon’s doing a great job trying to communicate known issues to all their fans/customers, not just the ones that complain loudly about things on Twitter.

At about the same time, I get a tweet from VisitIndy asking me to drop them an e-mail with my concerns. I do so, explaining the frustration that we don’t know how long it will be until we get a response by phone, and that two days is really too long to get a response by e-mail.

I take a short break to eat something and try to distract myself with NCIS reruns.

Part 3: In Which VisitIndy Makes It Clear They Have No Idea What They’re Doing

At around 4 PM, I get an e-mail reply from VisitIndy’s digital marketing coordinator: “If there is a handicap accessible room available, the room would have been listed via our online system; however, we’ve already received a record number of reservations, and the downtown accessible rooms are sold out, which is why it is not listed in our system.” This is followed by asking me if I want to be put on a waiting list.

No. I do not want to be put on a waiting list. I want to not hear via e-mail that your website misled me into not booking a non-accessible room. I want to not hear that you told GenCon there were plenty of accessible rooms when that wasn’t the case.

My reply e-mail is a little less friendly than my initial contact. It points out that because of the misleading information on the website, Christine and I have been denied equal access to rooms, because during the delay between trying to book a room and learning that there are no accessible rooms – despite what VisitIndy told GenCon – all the rooms within fifteen miles of the convention center have been sold out. What I don’t mention – because at this point the specifics of my wife’s disability are not any of their damn business – is that now the entire trip may be in jeopardy because the required equipment to access the convention has now gone from us taking a shower transfer chair (which was probably all that was required to access the standard room at the Omni Severin) and a scooter that I transferred out of the car once all convention to needing to load and unload the 100-pound scooter every single day of the convention. In 90-degree heat if last year’s GenCon was any indication. I also indicate that while I have no interest in a waitlist, I would love to talk to a housing director about their accessibility challenges.

This e-mail from VisitIndy was also forwarded to Friend Who Works For GenCon (and while I would love to directly name said friend, I’m trying to avoid attaching any names apart from mine and Christine’s to anything). I get a nearly immediate reply indicating that this is definitely not consistent with what he’s heard, and that he’ll pass it along to the appropriate GenCon folks and figure out what they can determine.

Another couple hours pass. I get a call from VisitIndy (I’m pretty sure from the people I left the initial voicemail with) just before 6 PM. All they have left downtown is a couple rooms at the Crowne Plaza (note: This contradicts their claim to GenCon that there were plenty of rooms AND the e-mail to me that the rooms were sold out). I start asking about specific room accommodations. Is there a roll-in shower? Is there room to store a scooter in the room? If both rooms have a roll-in shower and scooter space, which room has other accommodations, because we only need those two and we’d like to leave the room with a hojillion grab bars open for someone who can’t walk with crutches? They. Don’t. Know.

I’d like to point out here that health privacy laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibit businesses from asking about the nature of your disability except to ask what accommodations are needed. In fact, they aren’t even allowed to ask if you have a disability when trying to book an ADA room. Thus, the only benefit to requiring human interaction to book the room is so that someone knowledgeable with the room’s features can confirm that the room meets your accessibility needs. And the person handling this for VisitIndy can’t answer these questions (which, as accessibility questions go, is incredibly basic – someone dealing with accessible rooms should be able to answer questions like “Is there a grab bar at least two feet off the ground on the left side of the toilet?”).
So, being unable to answer questions about accessibility is yet another fail on VisitIndy’s part, but we at least have a room, downtown, that probably has what we need – at least, the reservation says “ADA Wheelchair Access” and “Request for roll-in shower”. I’ll be following up with the hotel as the convention gets closer to confirm exactly what accommodations the room would have (note: this is an incredibly useful idea if you happen to be booking an accessible hotel room for the first time, as doing the double-check sometimes alerts the hotel staff to “oh shit, we need to make sure this person actually gets the accessible room they requested).

The requested phone contact from a VisitIndy housing director happens on Wednesday. The housing director is friendly, listens to my concerns and suggestions, and asks if I would be available at a later date to speak with someone again as they try to improve their accessibility. Then – and I still can’t believe this was done – VisitIndy totally throws GenCon under the bus, claiming that not only should GenCon have had the information about accessible rooms on their website to begin with, but that disallowing booking of accessible rooms through the website was done at the request of GenCon. I express surprise at this, since I had been speaking with employees of GenCon and this all seemed to be a surprise to them. The housing director falters slightly before asking for names. I provide the name of Awesome GenCon Employee Friend and note that I was getting information third hand, so I might have misunderstood something (later contacts with GenCon Friend suggest that the information VisitIndy gave me is not the same as the information GenCon gave him).

Regardless, my hotel room is booked, I’ve actually spoken with someone from VisitIndy, and I figure that all I need to do is debrief Awesome GenCon Employee Friend about the conversation so he can pass the information on to their housing folks. Then, around noon on Friday, I get a reply e-mail from VisitIndy. From the address whose “it may be 48 hours” auto-reply on Tuesday initially set me off. The e-mail confirms that I have a room at the Crowne Plaza (which is, in all honesty, probably the first good move on their part, because the last thing they need is to find out in a month that two different people with my name are trying to book accessible rooms), and to let them know if they can be of further assistance. The problem here is only apparent if you’re looking at a calendar – noon Tuesday to noon Friday? Not within 24 to 48 hours. If I’d used the e-mail system only and not called – probably even if I’d e-mailed when registration first opened – I’d have been totally screwed.

Part 4: In Which I Try To Be Helpful

In the end, while I got what I needed, this was an incredibly frustrating experience, and as I related to Awesome GenCon Employee Friend With Superb Listening Skills And Patience, I’m getting a little tired of something that would take five minutes to do if I was traveling alone take six hours because I’m traveling with my physically impaired wife. As a result, I’m leaving the following take-away for any associated with GenCon or VisitIndy (or who are just interested in accessibility at conventions and hotels):

  1. The reservation timing gap is completely unacceptable from a customer service perspective. If your rooms are going to sell out – and if you’re GenCon, they are – there needs to be a system in place so that people who need accessible rooms can find out if they’re able to get accessible rooms in a timely fashion. In this case, knowing that the accessible rooms are gone at 12:30 means you can book a non-accessible room that is still close and find a way to work things out, but if you don’t find out until 7:00 that they’re gone, you can’t get the close standard rooms anymore.
  2. I am not a lawyer, but what I’ve read about accessibility in the past as well as what I’ve looked up this past week suggests that there may be ADA issues with a system that offers options that are only available to those reserving standard rooms (that is, a website that allows you to purchase standard rooms, but not accessible rooms). Ticketmaster had a huge settlement about a web system that did exactly this (although, to be fair, Ticketmaster had a ton of other accessibility issues as well), so it’s worth making sure those ducks are in a row.
  3. I realize that there’s a concern that some people will be dicks and book accessible rooms when they don’t need them, and that’s what motivates the “talk to a human to book an accessible room” system. But this doesn’t actually stop people from being dicks – you can’t ask someone trying to buy an accessible room (or accessible anything) what their disability is or even if they have a disability. All you can do is ask what accommodations they need (and, again, VisitIndy didn’t even do a good job of that). Yes, the phone-in system makes it harder for people to be dicks, but it also makes it harder for people with actual disabilities to access your convention or hotel.
  4. Because you can’t stop people from being dicks, the main concern with the reservation systems is to stop people from booking accessible rooms by accident. This can be handled (although not necessarily easily – I don’t know what goes into these systems) by setting up a parallel reservation site for accessible rooms. Taking the current reservation site as an example, adding a link that says “click here to reserve an ADA room” followed by a popup saying “ADA rooms are reserved for people who have access needs. Are you sure you want to reserve an ADA room?” is an accessible and certainly legal way to handle this.
  5. I can’t say enough how awesome GenCon has been about this whole process. Every communication I’ve seen from GenCon has been rapid and clear. Even though Awesome GenCon Employee Friend doesn’t work with housing, housing gave him clear answers quickly, and he relayed them to me quickly as well. As the convention grows, issues like accessibility become harder to manage, and I’m glad to see that the convention staff seems ready and willing to reach out to attendees having difficulties, get them information, offer them solutions, and listen to suggestions for improvement.

Epilogue: In Which VisitIndy Starts To Dig Itself Out Of The Hole.

Everything before this point was written while I was at work today (the Monday following the opening of hotel registration). I got home to find a large envelope from VisitIndy in the mail. Included in this envelope was a thoughtfully written letter from VisitIndy’s vice president of marketing and communications, who I believe is someone I haven’t previously interacted with. He specifically apologized for the frustrations we had booking our room for the convention and that they are trying to make the necessary adjustments to ensure that ADA-friendly rooms can be booked through the online system. There was also included an appreciated but totally unnecessary gift certificate to a local dining establishment. To customer service executives: This is the way you do it. Not the gift card (although, again, appreciated), but the follow-up letter specifically addressing the customer’s concerns and planned corrective action. It was the first time I got any indication from VisitIndy that they had a genuine interest in determining and addressing the problem I was having rather than passing the buck on to someone else.

-John

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National Game Design Month 2012 – Bread and Circuses Prototype D (Print and Play included)

The cards from Prototype C

National Game Design Month, taking place each November (at least each November starting last year), is a social encouragement to stop talking about that game you want to design, and actually design it. I participated last November, and talked about my experiences here. I designed a couple games, but neither of them really went anywhere after the month was over – they just didn’t seem interesting enough to be worth pursuing. I’ve been through a couple game designs since then, and I decided that instead of making a whole game from start to finish in November, that I should focus on completing projects I’m already working on. These projects, as of October 30, included a rewrite of an article for the Dungeons and Dragons website, an adventure for the Reclamation RPG (that I’ve promised the designer for a couple months now and still need to make pregenerated characters for), a dexterity co-operative game for the current contest at The GameCrafter, and some development work on Bread and Circuses.

The first week of November changed those plans pretty dramatically.

First, I got a disappointing (from my perspective) e-mail from Wizards of the Coast that they were not interested in the two previous articles I’d submitted for their website. Counting the article I’m currently revising, this makes five rejected complete drafts, although the feedback suggests that I’m closer to meeting their needs than I have been on previous attempts. I’m still planning to work on the article I’m currently revising, but I want to take some time to properly digest the feedback I just received to make sure that I’m producing content that fits better with their expectations that what I’ve been writing so far. I’m hoping that will still be in November, but I’m no longer certain.

Second, I got some very interesting news about Bread and Circuses. I posted a link to the Bread and Circuses blog post on BoardGameGeek to increase the signal and maybe get some feedback. Instead, I got a private message from a publisher, indicating that while the game needs some work, it would be the kind of game they’d be interested in developing. and got a GeekMail from a publisher indicating interest in the game. It’s not a contract offer, but it’s way more than I was expecting for an untested draft. At the very least, it’s gotten me interested in accelerating my development and playtest process. And that’s what this post is largely going to be about.

When I finished the prototype discussed in the last post (hereafter referred to as Prototype A), I had core mechanics for the Bread/Circus/Abstain play as well as mechanics for random effects when there was a Riot. I was trying to get ideas for a secret objective mechanic to motivate negotiation as well as improvements on the Riot cards. The publisher also had some ideas for me, most notably the addition of Event cards that changed every round and happened regardless of a Riot and a way to tweak the effect of Abstaining to balance it. I took the Event card idea and combined it with the “secret objective” mechanic for Motivation cards, a set of cards that gave each player a different goal to achieve (like “half the players play Bread” or “no player plays the same card as you”). With these changes, I had completed Prototype B, and took it to a friend’s board game gathering for playtesting.

The good news is that the game was received fairly well. Most players who played it wanted to play it again, and it never had a point where the game broke down or felt clunky. A number of the individual cards and mechanics needed tweaking (in particular, the Abstain mechanic needed balancing so that it wasn’t always the optimal choice and a number of the Motivations were too difficult to meet), and the suggestion for Event cards that came up every turn was suggested. We scribbled some ideas out and used them in another couple games, and they seemed to work well.

I took the feedback home that day and worked out another version of the game. Prototype C featured Event cards, more balanced Motivation and Riot cards, as well as a new Abstain mechanic (if a Bread and a Circus is played, the Abstaining players gain Gold; if not, the Abstaining players lose Gold). I got some blind playtest groups among friends and sent out prototypes; I’m hoping to get feedback sometime this week. Ideally, the feedback will give me some ideas on where rules need to be clarified, as well as identify problematic card interactions.

Since I’ve sent out Prototype C, I’ve been thinking about bloat in the game. I started out with an elegant design that’s grown considerably. Prototype C has 67 cards, and 30 of those (the Bread/Circus/Abstain cards) would probably work better as cardboard chits or tiles. In addition, I’ve been relying on playtesters to provide their own method of keeping track of Gold totals, and in a ten-player game with an endgame trigger of 40 Gold, you could need to track up to 400 Gold (not counting tiebreaking) – and that’s a lot of poker chips or cardboard chits. At this point, I’m trying to get back to the elegance of the original design while still keeping the utility of the Event and Motivation Cards.

The first change in Prototype D is getting rid of the Riot cards. The Riot cards don’t seem to be adding much to the game, and counting Riots can still be used as an endgame condition without them. This goes hand-in-hand with the second change – changing the method of tracking score. While poker chips allows bribery to work pretty well, it’s really inelegant as the scores get higher. Adding a scoring track instead serves multiple functions: it adds an easy method of scoring comparison, it allows for a scoring track for Riots, and it creates a game board to keep the Motivation and Event decks on.

I’m hoping to get feedback on both the rules and components for Prototype D after playtesting this weekend (if you’re reading this, I’d love for you to take a look and playtest this weekend), and combine the feedback from Prototypes C and D to get balanced Event and Motivation cards that create interesting and fun choices in addition to the basic choices of Bread, Circus, or Abstain.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you get a chance to download and playtest!

-John

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Game Design: Bread and Circuses (Print-and-Play included!)

20121102-174410.jpg
edit: There is an updated prototype for the game that can be found here.
This past weekend, my wife, a couple friends from out of town, and I took a trip to Ypsilanti, Michigan, for U-Con. We had a great time, and we went out of our way to play some new games that we hadn’t played before. Some, like Smash-Up, were games that I was pretty sure we’d all enjoy (because, seriously, dinosaurs with lasers and ninjas fighting zombies and wizards is awesome), but I also made an effort to get us into a couple games in a genre I had played before, but my wife had not – social deduction and bluffing games. I had previously played Zombie in My Pocket and Panic Station, and we tried out The Resistance and Shadows Over Camelot. Long story short – the games were a hit. We own The Resistance, and Shadows Over Camelot is now on our “acquire” list. These games, however, got me thinking about design of similar games, and this, combined with a discussion of Love Letter‘s minimalist design, got me inspired on the drive home from work the next day. A couple hours of typing later, I had the first prototype of Bread and Circuses:

Print-and-Play Rules

Print-and-Play Cards

The theme was inspired by Alderac’s Tempest setting, in particular the storyline of Love Letter. I reasoned that if there was a power vacuum in the city, then the common people of the kingdom probably weren’t faring well, and the nobility would do the absolute least they could to placate the peasants so they wouldn’t be quite as revolting (cue History of the World Part I quoting here). One Roman satire reference later, and I had a theme.

The core mechanical concept was inspired largely by Zombie in My Pocket – the bluffing and negotiation involved in the fight/flee option is incredibly elegant, and adding an option to abstain from the choice gives an extra level of complexity, something else to bluff over, and a thematic twist – at least some nobles would just hold out for their own profit. Scoring, likewise, was theme-driven – supply and demand for the bread and circuses would lead to the person providing the scarcer resource getting a greater reward. The Riot cards were inspired by the “event” cards that appear in both Blood Bowl: Team Manager and the Star Wars Card Game (at least, the demo version I played at GenCon 2011). I added more than the five cards it took to end the game so that the players wouldn’t know which five Riots would show up during the course of the game.

What makes this game interesting from the perspective of my personal design experience is that I’m not sure if the core mechanic – bluffing and playing the Bread/Circus/Abstain card – has much room for modification; either it will work or it won’t. The Riots, I’m sure, could use improvement, and I’d like to add some sort of secret objective mechanic so that players have a motivation to sway the negotiation in a certain direction and have an extra way to gain Gold. The win condition may need tweaking as well to get the game length adjusted, but that’s what playtesting is for.

Feel free to download/print/play and let me know your thoughts!

-John

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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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Project Drink Coaster!

A while ago, my wife and I were discussing the possibility of finishing our basement, which is not going to happen for a while due to cost and desirability – right now, the basement is a man cave because it’s risky for my wife and her physical disability to get down the stairs, and once the basement is finished, so are my prospects of having a man cave. One thing we had mentioned after watching lots of HGTV is trying to get decorations for the basement that reflect our personalities and family connections. Among these is our mutual interest in board games. While there are a number of ways to display board games in a decorative sense (or just get advertising posters, which we have done as well), we wanted something that would just be sitting around and evoke a “huh, that’s neat” response.

It was around this time that I noticed the picture frame coasters that we had gotten for our wedding anniversary. They were relatively fancy and held wallet-sized photographs. Thinking back to the reclaimed board game notepad (used an old Scrabble board as its cover) that I found at a local store, I set out to find drink coasters that were appropriately sized to fit cards from some of our favorite board and card games.

This was very difficult. In fact, it was impossible. I couldn’t find *any* photo drink coasters that could fit a standard size poker card. The closest I got was a set of cocktail napkin drink coasters – and those had a hole in them so the cocktail glass could rest on the napkin (I really like these coasters, too, but they weren’t what I was looking for). This, of course, meant DIY project.

I started out with the fundamentals of what I’d need for the coaster to work:

  1. It must be able to support a drink.
  2. It must be somewhat slide-resistant on the bottom.
  3. It must have a way to replace the card inside the coaster.
  4. It must be transparent (at least on top), so that the board game piece can be seen.
  5. It must protect the card so that it can be removed and used at a later time.
  6. It must be relatively easy to make, because a DIY expert I am not.

After reading some DIY websites on making drink coasters, all of which were informative but none of which had exactly what I was thinking of, I settled on the following:

Components:

  • Two 4 inch by 4 inch pieces of acrylic, the thinner the better (the thinnest I was able to find at Local Big Box Hardware Store at a reasonable price was about 0.08 inches thick).
  • 4 rubber furniture bumpers (I used these)
  • 4 screws, longer than the two pieces of acrylic are thick, but no longer than the acrylic and bumpers combined are thick (for me, this meant 1/4 inch screws, color chosen by my wife)
  • 1 card or other thin item.

Hardware needed:

  • Drill
  • Screwdriver
  • Ruler
  • Clamps

Process:

The first step in my preparation was to actually get acrylic of the appropriate size and thickness. I was able to find sheets of the appropriate thickness, but had to get them cut. On my first trip to Local Big Box Hardware Store, they were willing to cut it down for me, but on later trips said they did not do “project cutting”.

Once I had the acrylic cut to the proper size, I set up the following steps:

  1. Align the two pieces of acrylic so that their edges are even.
  2. Clamp the two pieces of acrylic together.
  3. Apply the four bumpers to the corners of one side of the acrylic, about 1/4 inch from the edges).
  4. Using the side without bumpers as the point of entry, drill through the two pieces of acrylic and bumper at the center of each bumper (four holes total). Drilling all the way through the bumper is critically important to keeping the bumpers on the coaster when finished.
  5. Unclamp the two pieces of acrylic.
  6. Place the card between the two pieces of acrylic.
  7. Again using the side without the bumpers as a point of entry, screw the two pieces of acrylic together through the drilled holes. The screw should go all the way through the two pieces of acrylic and into the bumper.
  8. To replace the card at a later date, unscrew the coaster, change out the card, and replace the screws.

Using this method, I was able to produce the coasters seen below.

The Monopoly coaster was the first prototype, using a different style of rubber bumper (one that I’d prefer to use if it wasn’t more expensive). The coaster with the Fluxx card is more recent, and reflects my current methods. The coaster with the picture of the Detroit Renaissance Center is an example of a variation I tried out as a gift for a friend who’s out of state – that picture is a trimmed postcard.

For cleaning, any glass cleaning solution works (we use vinegar in a spray bottle).

Even though we haven’t finished the basement yet, we still use the coasters in our dining room and living room, and keep a large number around for when we host board game days at our house.

The methods of creation, admittedly, could still use some refinement. Using a drill press would let me make straighter and more even drill holes and allow me to drill multiple coasters’ worth of acrylic at the same time. I also feel like it needs some sort of thin seal around the edges to make sure it’s watertight (although I’ve never had a problem with drinks or vinegar getting in the side without any seal).

In all, I’ve probably made about 25-30 coasters using this method, some of which I’ve given to friends, others of which I’ve kept. Sadly, I can’t make any more as I don’t have the necessary resources to cut more acrylic, but I’m looking into ways to get some more cheaply (what’s been suggested most recently is to go to a plastics manufacturer and ask if they have scrap that they can cut down to 4×4 squares).

This is my first crafty DIY project of this nature, and I’m curious as to what other people think. Have you seen something similar to this? Do you have suggestions as to how I can improve it? Any other general thoughts?

-John

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Summer of Projects: Another Update

It’s now almost a month since I initially made the project list, so I felt that another update was due, if only to keep me honest:

Personal: Lose Weight. This week, I finally got back on track with this one. I’ve been riding my bike and walking the dog again, and I’ve been watching what I eat. Hopefully I’ll have good news to report as the summer progresses. Next Due Date: Continuous. Current weight: 252.5 lb.

Personal: Secret Family Art Project. Done. As in, completed. Next Due Date: None.

Writing: Living Forgotten Realms. A playtest of my GenCon adventure was run last week, and I’m reviewing feedback and sending revisions in today. Stalled slightly due to my editor losing power, but I think we’re still in good shape. Next Due Date: Today!

Writing: Ashes of Athas. This adventure isn’t quite as far along as the LFR one, but it’s going out for playtest this week, and most of what I have to add is flavor text. Next Due Date: ASAP.

Writing: D&D Insider. I have negative progress to report here (sort of). I haven’t made any progress on the revisions for the article that had already been submitted, and I got word last week that two additional pitches had been approved for first drafts. So now instead of one article to write, I have three. Good news, but not exactly forward progress. Next Due Date: ASAP.

Game Design: Alchemists! For a variety of reasons, this project is being shelved. First off, while I got it completed in time for Protospiel last weekend, it didn’t actually get played – there was far more interest in my other game. Also, that game seems to have a lot of potential, so I’m going to focus on it instead of this one. Next Due Date: None.

Game Design: Microbrew (24-Hour Contest). This got done a couple weeks ago, and the voting for the best design in the contest is up here (BoardGameGeek membership required; thumb the game you’re voting for). I also took this game to Protospiel last weekend, where a number of people were relatively surprised that it was an untested prototype. I got a lot of good feedback (mainly shoring up the action sequence and to get the core mechanics down before adding ancillary elements), and I’m developing it further for more playtesting either at an upcoming local boardgame meetup or GenCon. Next Due Date: 7/13/2012.

Household: Hang Cabinets. Yesterday, I finished the first step of this project: leveling a piece of wood on the wall on which the cabinets will be balanced. Today, I made a shopping list of materials needed (specifically, what kind of screws I need). Tomorrow, I will be buying those screws, and Thursday, my father is coming over to assist in hanging the cabinets. Hopefully, at the next update, this will be done. Next Due Date: 7/11/2012.

Household: Repurpose the Den. About a week and a half ago, Christine and I went to Ikea to look at shelves for the den. We saw some shelves we liked, and went home to look at all the selections and double-check measurements. Then, we forgot which shelves we wanted to buy. Tomorrow, I’m going to stop at Ikea again, and this time, I’m going to write things down. Either way, we wouldn’t have been able to order the shelves just yet; the cabinets are currently in the den. Next Due Date: 7/11/2012.

Speech Pathology: Home Health Evaluations. At this point, I’m more or less waiting for more referrals to come in. I’ve got my current caseload well managed, and I’m able to work 2-3 days a week on these while working on projects the rest of the week. Next Due Date: Continuous.

Speech Pathology: Visual Diet Texture Reference. I was totally going to do this today! But… the camera is still in Christine’s car, which is with Christine at work. Maybe Thursday. Next Due Date: 7/12/2012.

I’m pretty happy with progress thus far, but I do need to step it up a bit if I want to get everything done by the end of the summer.

-John

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Summer of Projects Update: One Week Later…

So it’s a week after I posted my list of summer projects, and I actually have some updates to report already. As follows:

Personal Project: Lose Some Weight. Wow, do I suck at this. The most major problem is that this week, I’ve been doing swallowing evaluations, so I’m in the same place all day, meaning it’s really easy to go out to eat and eat crap. Also, the plan to walk the dog every morning lasted exactly three days. Also, zero bike rides. Not good, but if I get back on track now, I’ll have about nine weeks of good behavior. Next Due Date: Continuous.

RPG Writing: Living Forgotten Realms GenCon Special. Success! First draft went in on time, I got comments back last night, and used a work break today to get a second draft in. Next Due Date: Shortly after I get the next revisions.

RPG Writing: Ashes of Athas GenCon adventure – Partial success! The first draft was a few days late, but it’s done (including a relatively complicated combat encounter). There are undoubtedly revisions that need to be done, because I’ll need to make some changes to accommodate the plot arc as a whole, but having the first draft done feels like a fairly significant accomplishment. Next Due Shortly after I get the next revisions.

Board Game Design: Alchemists! I’ve gotten the latest rules revisions done after reviewing feedback, and I’m sending them out for another round of feedback. I’ve got nomenclature for one game term to decide on, then I’m ready to get the cards printed. On track for Protospiel in early July. Next Due Date: Still July 5.

Speech Pathology: Home Health Evaluations. I did home health evaluations two days this week, and got most of my backlog completed. If I work two or three days next week, I’ll be completely caught up barring new referrals. Next Due Date: Continuous.

At this rate, I’ll be able to complete all the projects in my last post by the end of July, which is a great time frame. Then, of course, I have the projects I forgot about in the last post:

Household: Invisible Fence. We’d like to get an Invisible Fence (or similar generic product) up around our yard to keep the dog penned in. This requires both research (since our 7-pound dog is too small for many brands of electric fence) and calling for estimates. Due Date: July 31?

Household: Tree Removal. In 2006, the home we currently occupy was hit by one-third of a tree. The remaining two-thirds of the tree are still standing (and still alive), but I suspect that’ll last until a really good windstorm, and I don’t want to be responsible for a tree on my property hitting someone else’s house – or worse, their kids. Problem is, it’s really tall. Need to get estimates there as well. Due Date: August 30.

Speech Pathology: Visual Diet Texture Reference. One project I’ve been meaning to engage in is getting a visual reference of the various diet textures to hand out at my homes, because apparently “pea size” is not a clear enough reference for a chopped consistency. This, like a couple of the other projects, is not technically difficult. I just need to find the time to cut up a meal, take a picture, cut the meal up smaller, take a picture, grind the meal, take a picture, puree the meal, take a picture, and arrange the pictures in a pretty fashion. Due Date: Soon.

-John

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