PAX So Far

This weekend I’ve been at my third convention this August. Thankfully, the Penny Arcade Expo is in Seattle, so I didn’t have to travel to get there. While PAX has some tabletop gaming, it’s mostly a video game show. In just a few years it’s gone from humble beginnings to a huge show that may top 40,000 attendees this year. Craziness.

Friday I worked in the office for most of the day and then met up with Kate and Nik. We went to the musical guest panel because our boys the Darkest of the Hillside Thickets were down from the Great White North to rock the con. The panel was ill-conceived though, as it put every single musical guest (some 25 people) on stage at once. Moderation was practically non-existent, so while there was some interesting talk from the bands answers tended to meander.

That evening we had dinner with Wil Wheaton and Toren Atkinson (the singer for the Thickets, long time artist for Green Ronin, and of course the co-designer of the Spaceship Zero RPG). We don’t get to see either of them frequently enough, so it was great to catch up.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the Flying Lab booth doing press stuff. Did a bunch of interviews that seemed to go well. In the afternoon I was on a panel called “The Art of the Dungeon Master” with Mark Jessup, Chris Perkins, and James Wyatt of WotC, and Mike Fehlauer from Penny Arcade. The room was totally full and sadly they had to turn people away. I didn’t know what to expect but it went pretty well. Mark acted as moderator and he did a good job and kept things moving. I wish we could have gone overtime to take more questions, but otherwise it was a good time.

Last night we went to the music show. The fist band was Anamanaguchi. They are from the “chip scene”, which uses the sound code from old hardware to make music. So this was like modern prog rock overlaid with NES -style music. I got to say I found it intensely boring, but they were playing for the right crowd and got a good response. The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets played next and they rocked the house. I hadn’t seen them play in 3 and 4 years and it was great to hear songs like Shoggoths Away and the Innsmouth Look once again. New guitarist Mario was really good and the two guitar attack worked well for them. I have seen the Thickets in some weird places (like the holiday party of Duthie’s books in Vancouver) but finally they seemed to be in front of the audience they deserve. When they closed with Color Me Green, 3,000 odd people were chanting “Ia ia, Cthulhu f’tagn” along with the band. It was awesome.

Today more FLS press and hopefully a chance to walk around the exhibit hall.

Cool Stuff, Part 2: GenCon

It wouldn’t be GenCon if I wasn’t stuffing my suitcase full of games come Monday morning. This was actually a pretty light year all in all, as I didn’t have a whole lot of time out of the booth to look around the exhibit hall. One area I totally failed in was miniatures. I usually find something cool at GenCon but this year I only brought home two minis and they were for a friend who couldn’t be there.

3:16, Carnage Amongst the Stars: This is basically an Aliens/Space Hulk RPG. Looks easy to pick up and quick to run, which are plusses.

Battletech Technical Readouts 3039 and 3050: I could swear I used have some old Tech Readouts, but I can’t find them. These are the newest ones from Catalyst.

Cold City: It’s Berlin, 1950 and you are part of a multinational force hunting down the horrors unleashed by the Nazis during WWII. I love the premise and the game reads well, but I would have liked more discussion and examples of the core mechanic.

Dying Earth RPG: Saw this at Troll and Toad for $10 and couldn’t say no. Robin Laws designed this game based on Jack Vance’s classic fantasy series.

España 1936: Bill Bodden showed me this new boardgame and I picked it up on the last day of GenCon. It’s a two player game about the Spanish Civil War by Devir.

Houses of the Blooded: John Wick’s “anti-D&D;” RPG that embraces tragedy in the classical sense.

Inquisitor’s Handbook: TS Luikart gave me this bigass supplement for the Dark Heresy RPG.

Legend of the Burning Sands: I had no idea this was even coming out, so when I heard it was at GenCon I made a point of tracking it down. Basically, it’s an Arabian-themed game tied into the Legend of the Five Rings setting. Al-Qadim fans take note.

Legend of the Five Rings, Third Edition: I never did pick up the latest edition of L5R, so I grabbed that along with LBS. Thank you, jim pinto.

Tour de Lovecraft: Ken Hite writes about many of Lovecraft’s classic stories.

War and Peace: This is an old Avalon Hill boardgame of Napoleononic conflict. I love AH games and make a point of buying them when I can find them for a reasonable price. Someday I’ll find Up Front and then there will be much rejoicing.

The Winter War DVD: Classic film from the early 90s about Finland’s fight against the Soviet Union in 1939 and 1940. How could I pass it up after my recent trip? If you thought Saving Private Ryan was too upbeat, the Winter War is for you.

Cool Stuff, Part 1: Finland

I brought home some cool stuff from my travels. I’ll do the GenCon swag later, but for now it’s Finland. This doesn’t count the Finnish booze that Nicole bought.

Bilekuosi: This is a card game whose name translates to Dope Fiend. In the game you get to both deal and take drugs, while playing cards like “Crackwhore” and my favorite, “Damn fucking hippies.” Something tells me the American market is not ready for Dope Fiend.

Dragonbane, the Legacy: Dragonbane was an ambitious LARP that took place in Sweden in 2006. Over 300 players trekked out to a fantasy village purpose built for the event. Oh yeah, there was also a fire breathing dragon! This book is a document and post mortem of the LARP, analyzing its successes and failures. Timo Multamäki, the executive producer, was also a volunteer and Ropecon and he gave me a copy of the book as we were leaving the afterparty. It is quite an interesting read, and it comes with a DVD of resources and pictures as well.

Finland at War, Defensive Battles of Summer 1944: I’m hoping I can play this DVD on an American machine. It’s a documentary about the battles in 1944 that preserved Finland’s independence. The country could have met the same fate as the Baltic States, but the defensive victories of that summer convinced Stalin to make a separate peace with Finland instead.

Isältä Pojalle, Suomipunk 1978-2001: This is a 60 song CD retrospective of Finnish punk rock. Ville, one of the many great folks at Ropecon, gave this to me after learning that I was an old punk. I had found a couple of CDs on a brief trip to a record store to score a metal record that Schwalb wanted, but I really appreciated getting this, so thanks, Ville.

Lama CD: Lama was a key Helsinki punk band from ’77 to ’82 and this is a CD of their one and only album. If you like bands like the Partisans and Anti-Pasti, you will dig it.

Playground Worlds, Creating and Evaluating Experiences of Role-Playing Games: There’s a convention for Nordic roleplayers that happens each year in a different member country. The most recent one, Solmukohta, was in Finland and this is a book of essays that came out of that event. I met Markus Montola, one of the editors, at Ropecon and he gave me a copy of the book. It’s an interesting collection of essays divided into three sections: Journalism & Community, Art & Design, and Research & Theory. Like the con the book focuses on LARPs but there is some tabletop RPG stuff as well. Timo wants us to come to the next one, which is in Oslo in February. I would love to go, but money and vacation time probably prohibit it.

Ratsia, 1979-1981: A retrospective of another old Finnish punk band. I don’t know much about them but I thought I’d give the CD a shot. They remind a bit of the Undertones, which is not a bad thing in my book.

Roolipelaaja, Issues 15 and 16: I was interviewed for this Finnish RPG magazine and editor Juhana gave me two sample copies. It looks great, with crisp layout and excellent photographs. The text is all Finnish though, so I can’t speak to the content. I can tell Fred that Spirit of the Century gets a 5 star review though.

Star Wreck Collection: I was on a panel with Mike Pohjola and he was nice enough to give me a full set of Star Wreck goodies: movie DVD, soundtrack, and the RPG he designed. Star Wreck is a Finnish scifi parody that basically posits what would happen if the Star Trek and Babylon 5 universes clashed. Several years ago Nicole got me a Star Wreck t-shirt for Xmas and I said, “What the hell is Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning?” Now I am well informed!

System Danmarc: In 2005 there was a three day live action roleplaying game in Copenhagen that took place in a shanty town built out of 40 shipping containers. Peter Andreasen, one of the other guests at Ropecon, was an organizer for this event and he gave me this documentary DVD of the event. It’s got interviews with participants, footage from the game, and thousands of photos.

The Unknown Soldier by Väinö Linna: Katri recommended this novel to me and I’m glad she did. Väinö Linna was a soldier in a Finnish machinegun company in WWII and he based the Unknown Soldier on his experiences. It is not a happy story, but Linna really captures the feel of soldiers at war.

Eating on the Road

Here are a couple of food stories from our recent travels.

One night in Finland we went to the National Air Guitar Championships and a show by metal band Waltari. After that and (of course) much drinking, one of our fine hosts, Mikko, was going to give us a lift back to our hotel. As we were walking passed the Parliament building on the way to his car, I asked Mikko if Finland had its own variant of the hot dog. He said they sort of did and tried to describe what he called a meat pie. He then said, “If you want something like that, there’s no better place to get it than right there.” He was pointing to a kiosk not a block away, which was selling food to late night drunks. How could I pass that up?

We went over and of course the menu was all in Finnish. After some prodding Mikko ordered me a “student special.” I was asked what condiments I wanted on it and it was difficult to say since I had no idea what I was getting. I went with ketchup, mustard, and relish and we got the food to go. Back in our hotel room I unwrapped my mysterious bounty to check it out. It was not, in fact, a meat pie but a sandwich that had a hamburger, a hot dog, and chunks of fried bologna in it. Sounds foul I know but Nicole agreed it was pretty tasty.

We found out later that this food kiosk is frequented by members of Parliament and many of them have sandwiches named after them. The last night of the trip, we stopped there again. The stalwart Timo, who was in charge of getting us to the airport in time for our 6 am flight, wanted to make sure we had a chance to eat something after the drunken debauchery of the afterparty. Nicole got the “Tarja Halonen”, named after Finland’s president. This was, IIRC, a “double meat and double cheese” burger. Timo told me they had blood sausages and I was all over that. They were served with a lingonberry sauce on top and that was quite tasty. If you are in Helsinki and want street food at 3 am, find the kiosk by the Parliament building.

In general we found many interesting and delicious things to eat in Finland. Then we went to Indianapolis. In our hotel room one of the travel magazines had a cover story called “Chain City USA.” It talked about how Indianapolis had more chain restaurants than just about anywhere. More than that, folks in Indy liked it that way because chains are consistent. Eyaaa. So I had OK meals at Rock Bottom Brewery, Palomino, and PF Changs (chains all), but given the choice I’ll take something homegrown and unique every time. The last night in Indy we did our traditional Green Ronin end of con dinner at a Brazilian churrascaria called Fogo de Chão. This too was part of a chain, but it was started in Brazil and the Indy location is run by one of the founders. It was not cheap but at last we found a chain place worth going back to next year. Not only was it endless meat on swords brought right to your table, the meat was really well cooked. Even something as mundane as chicken legs was juicy and bursting with flavor. In some churrascarias the quantity of meat seems more important than the quality, but I must say that Fogo de Chão delivered in both areas. It turned out one of our waiters was a Warhammer Fantasy Battle player too. What are the odds?

GenCon #19

At the ENnie Awards on Friday night Peter Adkison assured the crowed that there would be a GenCon next year. This was a relief to me, as it’ll be my 20th in a row and I’d hate to miss it because the con itself was canceled. It sounds like the success of this year’s show ensured GenCon will get out of its financial difficulties and that is good news. There is no other convention like GenCon and it has a recipe that I don’t think can be replicated.

This year’s show was good but a bit strange for me. Coming so quickly after Ropecon I didn’t feel like I was really there, if that makes any sense. The upside of that was that it was a real low stress show. I was still on a high after the Finland trip, all our GenCon plans went off without a hitch, and there was just nothing to get worked up about. Spending quality time with my GR homies and excellent sales ensured I stayed in a good mood for the whole show.

Green Ronin debuted the Wild Cards campaign setting for Mutants & Masterminds, the first of our George R.R. Martin projects, and sold out of that handily. We also had a lovely Freeport poster map for sale (coming to our webstore soon), which really does justice to Andy Law’s new city map from the Pirate’s Guide to Freeport. Fittingly, one of the four ENnie Awards we won was for Best Cartography for that book; well deserved, Andy! The surprise upset of the ENnies was the True20 Companion beating out Hero High. Traditionally, the M&M; fans come out in force for the ENnies, so we figured if we won anything in the Best Supplement category it’d be for Hero High. Looks like the True20 fans really stepped up this year. Congrats to Erica Balsley, Dave Jarvis, Matthew Kaiser, Steve Kenson, and Sean Preston! I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention my excellent co-authors on the Pirate’s Guide to Freeport, Patrick O’Duffy and Rob Schwalb. That book picked up a silver ENnie for Best Setting, while Hobby Games: The 100 Best got one for the bizarrely named Best Regalia category. I must give a shout out to Jim Lowder, the book’s editor, who did a tremendous job, and the 102 other contributors who made it sing. I’m hugely proud of Hobby Games: The 100 Best and it was great to see the book pick up an Origins Award and an ENnie this year.

My only real regret about GenCon is the same one I have every year: I wish I got to play more games. I spent most of the convention at the Green Ronin booth, with Thursday being particularly brutal because of last minute set up. That day we were all at the booth from 7 am to 6 pm. Saturday night I got to play D&D; with friends from my college game group (Bill, Todd, and Aaron) and Rob Schwalb and two members of his group (Tom and Adam). We didn’t come close to finishing but with such good company it didn’t matter.

Like any good gamer, I picked up some cool stuff at GenCon. I’ll blog about that later, as I have to get ready for work now. Overall, GenCon gets the thumbs up as always.

A Hard Day’s Night Indeed

Nicole and I got back from Finland this afternoon after 21 hours of traveling. I was a guest of honor at Ropecon, the largest game con in Finland, so we got to spend the past week in the Helsinki area. We had been looking forward to this trip all year and I’m happy to say that it did not disappoint. We had an absolute blast and would go back in a heartbeat. I hope to write more about this trip when I have the time, but since we’re flying out again tomorrow for GenCon I wanted to post something before we left.

We arrived Tuesday in the late afternoon and then we had a couple of days to do some sightseeing and explore Helsinki’s cuisine and nightlife. Our companions on these adventures were Jukka and Katri. Jukka started us out right by taking us to an excellent Russian restaurant called Saslik, where I had my first tastes of bear and reindeer and discovered that pickles smothered in honey and sour cream is way better than it sounds. The next couple of days Katri, a photographer and LARP organizer, was our tour guide as we explored the city and a bit beyond. We went to Suomenlinna, an impressive sea fortress built by the Swedes in the 18th century. The next day we toured the National Museum and the ladies hit the art museum while I enjoyed the Military Museum and the nearby Army Museum. Both of those museums were empty late in the day, so I had them all to myself. Their English signage wasn’t as good as the other museums but luckily I knew enough about the subject to figure things out.

We discovered that the Finns love their karaoke, and it doesn’t seem uncommon to see older folks singing traditional songs and younger people singing metal in the same bar. I was looking for a song I liked and knew the words to and likely took my life into my own hands by singing “Back in the USSR” first. We saw many metal songs done, but almost always the power ballads. I guess the dudes are sensitive under that long hair. Thursday night we went to a club for the supposed National Finnish Air Guitar Championships, though in the end only four people competed. Katri was one of them and she was great but got voted out first. One of the judges, from a terrible cover band whose singer didn’t know the lyrics to stuff like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Smoke on the Water”, said that women weren’t made for rocking out. Cue Nicole to go give the judges what for and fight for grrrrl power. It was a classic Nicole moment that I believe Greg Stolze (also a guest) snapped pictures of. Later that night a metal band called Waltari played. Not exactly my scene but it was fun to rock out with the Finns.

The con itself started Friday. I gave two lectures over the weekend (RPG Publishing in the New Millennium and then World Building for RPGs) and participated in a panel about designing licensed games (by way of Star Trek and the Finnish parody Star Wreck) and the off the wall game design challenge. Nicole and I also did a What’s New with Green Ronin seminar on Sunday. My only real complaint about the con was that I was so busy I didn’t get to see enough of it or play any games. We did get to watch a silent adventure film that Katri and some of her friends had made and that was quite fun.

Oh, and did I mention the drinking? Good lord, the Finns can drink. I held my own but I haven’t drank so much in one week since college. Each night we were out later than the last, culminating with the legendary after party that kept us up until we left for the airport this morning. I discovered the long drink, a gin and grapefruit concoction that was invented for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, and enjoyed many of those. I felt it my duty to also try salmiakkikossu, a vodka drink flavored with local salty licorice. Did not care much for that, though the Estonian variant with a more menthol taste that we drank at the after party was pretty good.

As you can see we packed a lot into a week but that isn’t what made this a truly great experience. The reason we had so much damn fun was the hospitality and friendliness of our hosts. I have never been so well treated at a convention. And the people we met were tremendous. There were so many hours of good conversation that I was hoarse by Saturday. We also enjoyed getting to know Peter Andreasen, a Danish LARP organizer who was another of the guests of honor. His room hosted more than one late night debauch by the end of the con. I learned a lot from Peter and various Finnish gamers about the very interesting LARP scene in the Nordic countries too, and I may write a bit about that when I have some time.

Last night was the after party for all the volunteers. As Ropecon is an all volunteer run show and it hosts 3-4,000 people every year, that means it was a big party. We had the entire top floor of a building, with food, a ton of booze (of course), karaoke, and a sauna in the back. I suspect the Finns get a certain enjoyment from taking Americans to a co-ed naked sauna but we were not fazed. Nicole, as a Finnish American who grew up on Minnesota, knew a thing or two about sauna culture already. There were up to 30 people crammed into a sauna made for far less, but that fit the spirit of the event. Nicole and I both had slowly been succumbing to con crud and I hoped the sauna might help sweat it out of us. I did feel a lot better after, though we will be rolling into GenCon a bit under the weather.

At the end of the night I volunteered to do some karaoke. They didn’t have much in English but I smiled when I saw A Hard Day’s Night. It was too perfect. So I belted that out and everyone drank and sang along. It was a raucous end to an awesome week. I can’t thank my new friends enough for such a great introduction to Finland and the gaming scene there. Kippis!