GenCon 2008 – The RPG

As GamerDad and a good portion of the Gaming With Children crew head off to PAX this weekend, I am sitting at home finally recovered from the GenCon gaming convention earlier this month. Of the several different game related gatherings in the US, GenCon is the Mecca of gaming for fans of role playing games.

GenCon got its start and its name from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin back in 1967. It grew in size with the popularity of TSR and its flagship game, the Dungeons and Dragons role playing game. After some ups and downs in the role playing industry, GenCon is now host to a vast array of boardgame, role playing, miniatures, and video gaming events. I was able to attend for several days, and over my next few installments will be giving you an overview of my experiences there. With a nod to GenCon’s role playing roots, we’ll begin with an overview of some of the roll playing news and activities.

As the current developer of the Dungeons and Dragons brand, Wizards of the Coast always makes a strong showing at GenCon. This year was no exception. While their merchant hall booth wasn’t as large as last year when the new 4th edition rules were introduced, Wizards had many organized gaming areas for those interested in playing a quick game or even longer minicampaigns at the convention. The primary buzz at the show was the rollout of the new edition of the classic Forgotten Realms setting. The Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide is currently out in stores and its companion, the Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide will be following in September. Of course, gamers at GenCon are already familiar with some of the new material as it was part of several different roleplaying events throughout the weekend. Other upcoming Wizards products include a new book of magic items (Adventurer’s Vault) next month, a book on dragons (Draconomicon) and on fighting character classes (Martial Power) in November, and the Player’s Handbook II in March. Family gamers and those thinking about giving D&D a try for the first time should watch for the Starter Set in November. It has introductory rules, dice, map tiles, and an introductory adventure to get everyone up and playing quickly. (Note, it does NOT have any miniatures in it this time around.) If everyone has a good time and wants to continue with the game, the map tiles and dice will be useful for some time to come.

The last bit of information on Dungeons and Dragons available at the show were the many demos of the online portion of the new 4th edition product roll-out. Wizards is pushing online tools, information, and community in the new edition. Currently, players can access everything for free but it will eventually turn into a subscription model (prices depending on whether one wants to subscribe by month/quarter/or year). For a small fee, players will have access to a character creator with most current character design options available, a character figure creator that lets players design a 3D computer model of their character with multiple color and special effect options, and a special D&D game table application. This game table application will allow players to create and run online games of Dungeons and Dragons, even importing the nifty 3D models designed in the character creator tool. While the game table application will help manage some of the busy work and tracking of data, most of the rules will still need to be arbitrated by the game’s Dungeon Master. The programs demoed at the convention all looked pretty spiffy. I’m looking forward to using them in the coming months. For now, they seem to be up and running, and primarily need some stability bug squashing and a final feature polish before they’re ready for prime time.

In addition to the big guys, there is plenty of room at GenCon for the smaller RPG companies to show off their wares. Of course, the typical Vampire/Werewolf/angst-filled RPGs were around in abundance, but if I’m looking for some fun escapism they just don’t appeal to me. However, I did find other interesting games and systems to check out.

Nearly my first stop of the convention was to swing by Aaron William ’s booth to get him to sign my copy of PS238: The Roleplaying Game. He draws the popular Nodwick comic and several years ago he started a comic about grade school kids with superpowers entitled PS238. The PS238 comic took off, I highly recommend reading it. The Hero System folks (maker of the popular Champions RPG) licensed his PS238 setting and made it into a stand-alone supplement to the Hero system. With just the book you can play out a game with characters from the comic strip as they attend grade school and save the world at the same time. Those wanting even more detail could go after the full fledged 5th Edition Revised Hero rules. In fact, Cryptic Studios (makers of the popular MMORPG City of Heroes) is nearing the end of its development of a new superhero MMORPG entitled Champions: Online. It is moderately based off the Hero system and back story. I was able to interview some of the folks working on it and will talk more about it in later posts.

Other upcoming RPG products I spotted included an enthusiastic Brit at Cubicle Seven who have just received the rights to make a new RPG based around Dr. Who, one of my favorite sci-fi shows. Even further down the pipeline they may even put together a kid-friendly RPG based around the Sara Jane Chronicles, a spinoff off of the Dr. Who show. Another RPG that caught my eye was over at the Archaia Studios Press booth. They’re the publishers of the beautiful Mouse Guard graphic novels. These books are adventures of several mice set in a sort of animal medieval times and are very popular with the young teen set. In any case, they are hoping to come out with an RPG based on Mouse Guard later this fall! Another small press booth I stopped by was Skirmisher Publishing LLC . They slipped a few little books in the press swag back that were fairly eye-catching. The first was a booklet to help one put on a murder mystery infused with the Cthulhu horror mythos entitled: Murder at Miskatonic. The second pamphlet was Little Orc Wars , a play on the famous set of miniatures rules written by H.G. Wells’ entitled Little Wars . This little book contains quick play rules for a fun wargame using any miniatures or action figures one has lying about. Visiting the Skirmisher booth, I spotted one last game of interest, The Noble Wild . This is a handbook that uses the D20 game system (basically, the 3rd Edition of D&D) and provides rules and advice for playing a game with normal animals as the main character or characters. After talking with the folks at the booth, I think there is some real possibility here for fun role playing with younger kids. What preteen wouldn’t want to go off on an adventure as a squirrel, moose, or cheetah?

Not everyone is excited about the new version of D&D. Fans of classic RPGs from the 70s and 80s might want to check out Troll Lord Games’ line of Castles and Crusades titles. This is a fast playing, traditional fantasy RPG with the classic lineup of races and classes. One of their largest claims to fame is their line of adventures developed in part by Gary Gygax, one of the founding fathers of Dungeons and Dragons and fantasy RPGs. At first glance, the system looks pretty good, keeping most of the flavor of an old D&D game, but simplifying rules that were too busy and cumbersome for their own good.

Saving the best for last, I wanted to talk about The Forge. This is a group of writers and designers who got together in order to promote their own games at a large convention like GenCon. I had seen the booth before, but this year had a small connection to it through a friend who has created an RPG system entitled StoryCards. I played the StoryCard game system a few years ago at GenCon and had a blast. The basic idea is a loose set of rules for using a custom deck of cards (which look very nice, by the way – lots of star constellation art, etc…) for generating characters and resolving rules within the game. Playing a game where everyone is a member of Scooby Doo’s investigative team and you want to see if you can outrun the “ghost”? Say what you want to do and play a dexterity card from your hand of cards. If you get enough cards played (by yourself or with your co-players helping) you succeed at your task. Overall, the game makes for a great low-stress and rules-friendly role playing game where the focus is on developing a story much more than trying to beat the game or rules system into submission. I enjoy how the game system encourages creativity by trying to spur players and game masters with suggestions rather than hard and fast rules results. Anyone interested can even download the rules for free.

Other offerings at The Forge were just as unique. Many were rather angst-laden or at least containing a darker theme than I prefer. However, Brick Battles is a freely available rules set for playing a wargame with little Lego people. There are other Lego wargames out there, but Brick Battles does look to be one of the simplest to learn and play. The creator, James Brown, has also written an RPG game entitled
Death’s Door. In this game, the characters all know they are about to die. The game consists of the players attempting to end well by succeeding in lifelong goals that they set for themselves. My first thought was that this is a very macabre game. However, after gaining more information I have changed my mind and think it may be a very useful tool for people to get a better grip on what they really want to do with their life and spur people on to take action. The final RPG at The Forge that caught my interest was Sons of Liberty. In this fantasy RPG set during the American Revolutionary war, each player takes on the role of a founding father out to thwart the Red Coats. However, the setting is not purely historical, it is also fantastical similar to the Wild Wild West series. Each founding father has an additional super power to help them accomplish their goals. Ethan Allen, for example, has his Green Mountain Men, but he also rides around on a War Moose. Sam Adams has his own quirks, including his many ties to the Boston criminal underworld and his ability to “get things done” if needed. And who could forget that mad scientist, Ben Franklin, who could clear the streets of redcoats with a few well placed swings of his electrified kite? Played with a normal deck of playing cards, the game is quite amusing while also teaching some basic history at the same time. (Just look past the steam-driven tripods advancing on the White House, time to strap on your clockwork power gauntlets and fight for freedom!)

My final comments are reserved for the various accessories shown at the convention to help players upgrade their current RPG. Wizards had yet another release of D&D Miniatures in size extra large, Against the Giants has new minis and each box has a giant-sized specimen to add to your collection. Paizo Publishing continues its excellent line of map tiles and erasable Flip-Maps. The folks over at Campaign Coins are producing some very cool looking metal coins for use in RPGs and games of all types. They’re a bit pricey, but are very well made. Finally, I also picked up a small package of magnetic markers made by Alea Tools. With the new edition of D&D coming on strong there are many times where a player needs to indicate a foe is suffering from some condition (bloodied, weakened, slowed, marked, cursed, etc…). These color coded magnetic discs can be used to attach on the bottom of miniatures and provide a handy way to keep track of the many character conditions floating around on the table.

Each year I visit GenCon I experience something new. This year was very much the year of the smaller RPG developers. While I did see some upcoming boardgames (which I’ll discuss later), I was very impressed with the overall turnout of role players at this year’s GenCon. Now to find some time and give a more thorough playtest of some of these new games. (I’m hoping to convince my friend the social studies teacher to give Sons of Liberty a try in her junior class.) Hi-Ho War Moose, awaaaay!

No Responses to “GenCon 2008 – The RPG”

  1. What a great review. Other plans prevented me from going this year, but I am already planning on going next year.

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