Saturday, August 14, 2010

Gen Con 2010 - Day One

The first item on the agenda for the first day of the convention was the dealer's room.

I'd 'invested' in a VIG badge again for 2010, fueled in large part by the feeling of awesomeness I'd had in 2009 by being a VIG and taking advantage of all the perks of the program. Some of the options were better than the previous year, as the VIG organizers took the lessons of 2009 and applied them to improve the VIG experience (best example: there was no drink shortage in 2010 as there had been in 2009, and there was also more non-carbonated juice options, which I took full advantage of). Other options weren't as impressive as in 2009 (best example: though there were technically two swag bags in 2010, even both combined failed to be as impressive as the single 2009 swag bag, including the bag itself).

One of the big reasons to do VIG, however, is that on Thursday, with the rest of the con-goers waiting around until the official 10am opening time, VIGs (along with a few other limited classes of individuals, like press) got to enter the hall an hour early. Though there was a long line to get into the hall, the hall itself was so huge that by the time Chip and I had managed to navigate the line and get into the hall, the cluster of VIGs before us had been reduced to a vague mist of consumers that clustered just a bit around the larger vendors in the hall. I ended up picking up more magnets for my Alea Tools kit, stopped off at the Paizo booth to grab a couple of copies of the Pathfinder Advanced Player's Guide for two friends back home who'd requested it, and helped Chip go through the list of Reaper miniatures he'd brought to collect at this year's con (though in honesty, it was more like Chip was going through the list while I stood back and flirted with the woman in costume). After our tour through the hall, which ended shortly after the general admission started at 10am, we waded through the now crammed exhibitor's hall to escape back to our hotel room, dropped off our various bits of swag, and headed off to D&D HQ - a.k.a. the Sagamore Ballroom.

The first thing we did at Sagamore was participate in a convention delve -- a delve is a short (in this case, hour long) D&D adventure in which you participate with pregenerated characters and try to complete as much of the adventure as possible without dying or running out of time. This year's main delve (the Lair of the Dread Witch) featured pregenerated characters using the new D&D Essentials toolkit, and not only were the characters far simpler than the 4E characters we'd gotten used to, the adventure they were participating in was viciously difficult, a seeming continuation of the ethic of the Dark Sun D&D Encounters series in which someone designing the encounters simply decided to prove to people that 4E isn't the candy-strewn cakewalk that its detractors claim it is. One brutal hour later, I decided to skip the delve for the rest of the con, though Chip gave it another try and, if anything, had an even worse experience in his second attempt.

After delving, I headed up to grab lunch in the room (the first of many PB&Js) while waiting for what I expected to be the highlight of the convention: True Dungeon. True Dungeon is a 'live action' D&D experience, where a group of up to eight players takes on the roles of traditional D&D classes, but acts out the adventure by walking through a constructed 'dungeon', physically interacting with puzzles and traps (and occasionally even monsters!) and generally enjoying the hell out of the experience. Even better, I'd managed to secure an entire block of eight tickets, and all of our group was in for the run -- the first time I was set to do a True Dungeon run entirely with people I knew.

The start of the adventure was fine -- we motored through puzzles and mowed down monsters (including a very attractive ice demon in a neat optical illusion room) before finally reaching the final challenge -- Smoke the red dragon! Sadly, we were a horribly under-geared party (at least three of us were playing for the first time ever) and we ended up being unable to slay Smoke before his fiery breath killed us all -- the first time I'd ever failed to successfully complete a True Dungeon run. The disappointment was short-lived, though, as it became clear that most parties were unable to defeat Smoke (though a tweet from celebrity Wil Wheaton bragged that not only had he defeated the dragon, but he did so with a critical hit at just the right moment -- more on this later).

After True Dungeon, there was a bit of time to rest up before my annual GenCon LARP experience. This year, I'd chosen a scenario entitled 'Nyarlathotep and Miss Jones', set in a mansion where a 70s-era porn film was being shot. One reason I enjoy doing LARPs in general is that the male-female gender ratio is a lot better balanced at LARP games than at nearly any other game, and this year certainly disappoint -- a few of the women were even glamorous enough in their costumes so that they seemed as though they could have pulled off being actual porn starlets. (And, as is the case with much of 70s porn, the men were, well, not quite up to the same standard.)

My friend Michael accompanied me for his first-even LARP experience, and his character was Hymen Schtupwell, the world's oldest living porn star. He took to the role with aplomb, turning it into an almost Mr. Magoo-like experience, where he was nearly constantly in the center of the great plots unfolding during the adventure without any conscious realization or physical impact on those plots, but managed to survive anyway due to exquisite timing plus a bit of dumb luck. My own character, the plastic surgeon Dr. Benson, was not so fortunate, falling victim to his own obsession with female beauty with led directly to his demise at the hands of the tentacled horror summoned at the climax of the adventure.

It was nearly 11 by the time the porn LARP and its post-mortem ended, so Michael and I went our separate ways and headed back to our hotel rooms to crash and prepare for the next day, which would include the beginning of our LFR Mini-Campaign experience for 2010.

GenCon 2010 - Day Zero

Another GenCon has come and gone, and I'm hoping to capture as much of what happened here as possible.

Day Zero, as mentioned in previous sets of GenCon posts, is the travel day, and like last year, Chip and I were traveling to GenCon by air. Unlike last year, we were making a stop-over in Milwaukee rather than flying non-stop, and we were also planning to arrive in the mid-afternoon rather than late at night (as I'd managed to get the travel day off from work, which I didn't do last year).

Of course, I couldn't easily fall asleep the night before GenCon; I did finally drift off somewhere between 4:30am and 7:15am, when I got back up again, and started to prepare for the journey to Chip's. I was about a half-hour behind our agreed-upon schedule by the time I picked him up in front of his condo, but we serendipitously caught the shuttle from the off-site airport parking location we stopped at just as we arrived and made up a good chunk of time that way.

Going through the TSA checkpoint in Minneapolis-St. Paul International is always a trial for me somehow. Either I get bogged down with all the crap I have with me and hold up the line for dozens of others (as happened two years ago) or end up losing my pants while sending my suspenders through the scanner (as happened last year). This year I actually lost my boarding pass somewhere between the point where I had to show the pass and my ID to the initial guard, and the point where I collect my stuff at the far end of the conveyor after the X-ray machine. Fortunately, I was able to request and get replacement boarding passes at the gate, but it was still embarassing and frustrating. Count me in with Patrick Smith and others in the crowd that believes that the giant checkpoints and the mind-set they inspire is really little more than 'security kabuki', meant to provide a reassuring show rather than actually make air travel significantly safer.

The flight to Milwaukee was on a small Embraer 135 or 145 with one seat on the left of the aisle and two on the right, with carry-on bins only on the right aisle. Chip ended up having to leave his bag in the jetway to be loaded into the plane, then picked it up on the tarmac in Milwaukee after we arrived. I'd checked a bag, and paid $20 for the privilege, so I didn't have to do this bag juggling.

Milwaukee was notable for two things -- there was a Johnny Rocket's located just across from where we were waiting for our connecting flight, with just enough time to enjoy a hearty lunch, and I kept noticing a woman in a tan jacket and blue shirt who'd sat across from us on the flight from Minneapolis. She'd gone into the Johnny Rocket's before us, then stopped in the bathroom next to the Johhny Rockets, and my fevered and lonely brain quickly concocted a tale by which she was curious about us (specifically me) but was too shy to actually approach, and so she hoped that by hanging about, I'd eventually get up the courage to approach her.

As I explained this to Chip, he uttered the first in a long series of exasperated "Oh, Dave"s for the weekend.

The flight into Indy was uneventful, and once we arrived, got our baggage assembled, and caught a cab into town, we pondered stopping by a grocery store to pick up perishables that our friends Aaron and Justin weren't able to bring in their car from the Twin Cities. The cabbie informed us that there wasn't any grocery store easily en route from the airport to downtown Indy, so we abandoned that scheme, and just as well as it turned out.

Last year, we'd been bumped up to the Presidential Suite, complete with player piano, kitchenette with toaster and refrigerator, and other perks. I'd requested 'a' suite from GenCon VIG housing, and didn't realize until I arrived and checked in that there's more than one kind of suite in the Indianapolis Downtown Marriott -- instead of the Presidential Suite, we were staying in an Executive Suite. It was still a suite, and had a writing desk and pull-out table, but didn't have nearly the space or amenities of the room we'd stayed in last year: there was a space with a coffee maker but no kitchenette with ice maker and refrigerator (so we ended up filling one of the two sinks with ice and keeping the few 'refrigerate after opening' things we'd brought in that), there was a bathroom but it was a normal-sized hotel bathroom, not the luxurious space with the separate granite shower and the 'water closet' to hold the commode. The room we got wasn't at all disappointing except in comparison to the room we'd expected to get, and this was one of the handful of minor disappointments that haunted us all weekend.

We still ended up inviting everyone over to visit after they all arrived in town, but rather than spend the evening in the room (which was decently roomy for four, but cramped for the eight we'd expected to entertain), we went to Shula's steakhouse for dinner. The temperature in Indy that day was about 100 degrees, and the air conditioning in the restaurant seemed only sporadically able to handle both the heat from the outside and the warmth of the bodies in the dining area, but the dinner was outstanding -- I had a Kansas City cut with sides of grilled asparagus and hash browns (I embarrassed myself a bit by forgetting that in a place as fancy as Shula's, the side dishes were all a la carte) -- and I settled in for a game of Betrayal at the House on the Hill with Chip, Aaron, and Justin feeling a slow descent into food coma. The combination of the hearty meal and the busy day allowed me to collapse easily into bed at about 11pm local time and drift off almost immediately to sleep.