Marx Stead, Head Administrator, Rogue Cthulhu

Marx Stead, lead organizer and owner of the Rogue Cthulhu group at Origins, was kind enough to take the time for an interview with The Gamer’s Codex.


Hello, Mr. Stead. I appreciate you taking the time out to interview with us at The Gamer’s Codex.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, Rogue Cthulhu and how it came about?

I am the head administrator for Rogue Cthulhu and one of its founding members. I also Game Master and write adventures, amongst the myriad of other things I do for the club. I was a philosophy major at the University of Akron. I own an occult book store in Canton Ohio, and I have an 18-year-old daughter.

Rogue Cthulhu is a gaming club dedicated to presenting high quality role-playing (and other) games in the Cthulhu Mythos genre at Origins and other gaming conventions. We are a group of passionate gamers who want to make gaming better for everyone. Rogue started out as a very disgruntled and disenfranchised group of gamers who were fed up with the poor quality of games, poor organization and poor player treatment that was found at Origins the first few years we attended as players (1996-1998). Finally we decided that something needed to be done. An example needed to be set to show all these blanketty-blanks how things should be done, and we were just the kind of upstart rapscallions to do it!

Over the past fifteen years, we’ve built our reputation on quality, dedication, and passion for building an immersive gaming experience. All our members are enthusiastic about putting on a great show and dedicated to the club and its mission. We do everything in our power to see that every game goes off as scheduled so that no players are left disappointed. We try to have Game Masters run their own material whenever possible, so that they are well acquainted with and passionate about the games they are running. We listen to feedback about games and Game Masters. Occasionally, a bad game happens, and when it does, we look long and hard at what went wrong. We’ll re-work a scenario to make it better, or even retire it if need be. We’ll coach our Game Masters to improve their delivery, and if necessary, we’ll bench them if they can’t meet the standards we expect. That can be hard sometimes. No one likes to hear criticism about themselves or their work, but maintaining quality is paramount to our goal. Providing a great game and a fantastic gaming experience for the players is our primary objective and our highest priority.

What is your roll at Origins 2013?

My roll at Origins 2013 is as the head administrator for Rogue Cthulhu. As such, I do lots and lots (and lots) of stuff. For Origins 2013, I am Game Mastering in 24 hours of events. I am the liaison to the events team at GAMA, both at the show and pre-show. I assembled the event information from our GM’s, arranged the schedule, and posted the event submissions. I made what meager updates I could manage to our web page (which is still under construction from its content migration to a new CMS). I took care of registration for most of our GMs and arranged for their GM compensation. This year I purchased or fabricated several additions and improvements to our room decorations. I designed and built a new improved lighting rig; built a coffin and several other props for our LARP; and designed and fabricated an entire giant sized Settlers of Catan board game with 3D sculpted terrain in a Cthulhu theme. At the show, if a GM has a problem, like gets sick or can’t be found, I help rectify the situation any way I can. I’ll find another GM, make sure the players know what is going on and make explanations and apologies as needed. I’ll try to help seat players looking to bump into a game with generic tickets. I’ll try to round up more players if a game has open seats (they seldom do). I make sure the proper event paperwork is turned in to GAMA for all seventy-two of our events. I pack and load the majority of our physical props and gear (with help), unload on site, and supervise and help with the setup of the room, then pack it all back up at the end (many of us pitch in on the set-up and tear down of the room). I have a vision for Rogue Cthulhu, and as such, I find myself taking on the lion’s share of duties in order to fulfill that vision as I see it. Some say I have control issues (which is probably true), so I tend to do a lot myself. But I’m working on learning to delegate. This year was actually a lite year for me GMing-wise, and I let some of our other members take over a lot of the in-room administration duties so that I could spend some more time enjoying the con with my daughter.

How long have you been going to Origins?

I started attending Origins in 1996, its first year in Columbus, Ohio. Since then, I have only missed two years. I started running games there as a part of Rogue Cthulhu in 1999.

How long has Rogue Cthulhu been involved with Origins?  How did that start?

A former friend and I started putting together what would become Rogue Cthulhu, just after Origins concluded in 1998. We built a website to vent our frustrations with the establishment. We wrote some adventures for the following year. We networked through email and began making contacts. At first we only intended to high-jack a gaming table from the RPGA whenever their GM didn’t show up (which was a near certainty), and run a game of our own. That was what we called “Plan A.” However, before Origins came around the next year, we had grown. Others heard our frustrated rants on the internet and joined our cause. Our numbers swelled, as did our ambitions. When it became clear that we could do so much more than high-jack a table or two, we approached Chaosium to see if they would back us. We made it clear that we were going to do our thing with or without them, but with their support, we thought we could do more. Chaosium agreed to submit our events as theirs, as well as provide some prize support for our players. Rogue Cthulhu made its debut at Origins in 1999, with seven Game Masters and something like thirty RPG events; in contrast to the RPGA’s much vaunted “Cthulhuthon” the year before, which had a whopping thirteen events. We called our new group Rogue Cthulhu because we saw ourselves as outlaws, pirates of role playing not bound by rules or beholden to corporate policies. We never intended to ask permission or seek approval from anyone. We were going to do a better job at running games than the established organizers, whether they liked it or not. We figured that if we did a great job, it would force everyone to up their game or look worse by comparison. We were a very vocal group of guerrilla gamers back then. We called a lot of people out, by name, for their ineptitude. We weren’t interested in making friends in the industry, just setting an example. We made a lot of people in the establishment angry with our web site because we called it like we saw it and didn’t pull punches, which continued even after we started running our own games. We even got banned by WotC from Origins and GenCon for a year (2001) for our “abusive attitude.” WotC even tried to blacklist us to keep us from returning the next year, but we convinced GAMA to give us a chance to show them what we could do. That’s when we came out with “The Big Show.”

That was a long time ago. We’re much less angry now. In no small part because of the changes that we feel we had a hand in bringing about. Plus, we’ve matured, as people and as an organization. These days, we are more about putting on a great gaming experience and leading by example than about calling others out for their failings. The players can see the difference between a good game and a bad one. They don’t need us to point it out anymore.

Is this a for-profit effort or do you do it for the love of the game? Or both?

Rogue Cthulhu is a not-for-profit venture. It is definitely done for the love of gaming. We do occasionally up-charge for certain events and sell the odd gaming prop on eBay just to offset costs (which are more substantial than you would think), but we dump far more resources into running our show than we could ever get out of it.

What are you most proud of in your work with Rogue Cthulhu and Origins?

There’s a lot to be proud of. We’ve made a lot of players happy. We’ve increased the following for Cthulhu games substantially. We’ve had a hand in making the convention more responsive to the players and especially to clubs and organizations that provide content. We’ve raised the bar for Game Masters and event organizers to provide higher quality games. We’ve increased the level of presentation and pageantry to be found at Origins. I think we’ve had a great impact on Origins, and a very positive one. And I know that the current administration sees that as well. This year, John Ward (Executive Director of GAMA) called us the epitome of what a gaming group at Origins should be (I’m paraphrasing, because I wasn’t there when he said it).

There have been a lot of things that have happened over the years to be proud of, too. But my proudest moment was in 2004. Sandy Peterson was a guest of honor at Origins. This was the first year (I believe) that Origins ran its “Play with a Creator” track. Things were going well for us that year. The room was packed. About mid way through the con, Sandy Peterson showed up in our room – not to play with us or even to talk to us but to try to poach players for his “play with the creator” game! He showed up about ten to fifteen minutes after the hour. Players were already seated and characters were being read. The games were about to get underway. He must have had a poor turn out for his event (though I don’t know that for sure) because he showed up and announced to the room that he was looking for players for his game. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at him. All was silent and still. After a few pregnant seconds, he added expectantly, ” I’m Sandy Peterson… I created the game.” Everyone looked at him. No one moved. Mr. Peterson left the room, alone. Not a single person was willing to walk away from one of our tables to go play with the creator of the Call of Cthulhu RPG. That’s when I knew- WE ARE THE SHOW!

DO you get to play any games at Origins?  Or at least run games?

I rarely get a chance to play in anything at Origins, mostly because I spend all my time either running games or overseeing the smooth operation of the Rogue Cthulhu room: helping people find their game events, making sure the GMs are ready for their events and have everything they need, taking care of event paperwork, and acting as liaison with the convention organizers. Each year, I run anywhere from six to nine event slots, myself. Sometimes more, rarely less. This year I actually got to play in two games, which is nearly unheard of.

Tell us a little bit about the Rogue Cthulhu room at Origins 2013.  That was quite a set up!

From the beginning, we always tried to add a little decoration to the room where we ran our games. But those early efforts were paltry compared to “The Big Show.” That’s what we call our room set up now. Back in 2001, Rogue Cthulhu and all its members got banned from running events at Origins (and GenCon) by Wizards of the Coast (who ran both conventions at the time). This was back in our very angry days, and was the result of an angry email from us (me) that was sent to the events staff (about something that was totally their fault). Anyway, our year long ban only made us angrier, hungrier and more ambitious. It also gave us time to re-group, plan and build! We spent that time off plotting and planning for our triumphant return, which we vowed would be bigger and better than anything anyone had ever see at Origins. I have a motto when it comes to Origins, “Go big or go home.” During our hiatus, we designed special eerie mood lighting for our game room- colored flood lights and black lights. Designed and built a custom lighting rig to suspend it over head. We gathered dark ambient sound-scapes for background music. We built a hand made eight foot tall inflatable effigy of Cthulhu as a room centerpiece. We gathered or built numerous other decorative elements to create atmosphere in our game room. We wanted to make it look like a Cthulhu cultists’ den! We made a huge eight foot square hand sewn cloth banner with our group logo to post outside our room. We put together our own prizes for all our games (Chaosium dropped us like a hot brick when we got banned). We invented a point system for distributing prizes to all the deserving players, not just to one player that everyone voted for at the end of the game. We bought our own black tablecloths to cover the gaming tables, which we then painted with eerie occult symbols. We put together a large scale LARP dance party event with a DJ and light show (all home brewed). We hand made black cultists’ robes costumes for all our GMs! And of course, we recruited more GMs and wrote more adventures. All this we put together in one year preparing for our triumphant return. There was just one thing; some of our ambitious plans would require cooperation from the convention organizers to pull off. We needed a private room for all our games, control of the room lighting, access to electricity, etc. So I called the Event Coordinator at GAMA (who had taken over the running of the con after WotC defaulted on their contract) to get approval for these things. That’s when I found out that WotC had tried to blacklist us. What should have been a ten minute phone call about “can we control the lights in the room,” turned into an hour and a half spin session with me selling GAMA on “The Big Show.” Fortunately, they loved our ideas and decided to give us a chance.

That was back in 2002. Since then, “The Big Show” has continued to grow. We have made numerous additions and improvements to our kit. The Cthulhu effigy has been replaced with a better one. Two more large inflatable decorations have been added. The prize table has grown substantially, with over a dozen companies and individuals contributing. The light rig has been improved and refined. The background score has been improved and expanded. We have amassed a collection of props and costume pieces for LARPs. We bring our own computer and printer set up to help GMs prepare for their games. Some years we have Cthulhu artwork projected twelve feet tall on the game room wall. Some years we host screenings of Mythos-themed movies in between game sessions.

All this takes a lot of investment, a lot of preparation and a lot of time and effort to load, transport, set up and tear down. But the atmosphere it creates makes the games that much more immersive. Our room set up has become our hallmark. People walk into the Rogue Cthulhu room and are awed. They know they are in for an experience.

How has the reaction to your style of table top Call of Cthulhu con games been?

Every now and then you get someone, either a player or a Game Master, who doesn’t like the low lighting or the background music. It can be a little distracting at first, but I’d say the response to the room effects is overwhelmingly positive. The same applies to the games themselves. Tastes in style differ from person to person, and sometimes a player will be in a “creature feature” game when they would prefer an investigatory one, but we try to give descriptive information about our events to help people find what they like. We were the first group (that I know of) to include a web address in their event descriptions at Origins, so that players could find more information about an event. We are very fortunate to have talented and enthusiastic authors and Game Masters in our group. Their passion comes through in our games and makes for a better experience for everyone. The vast majority of players we talk to have a great time, and some are completely blown away by the experience. We have had many players spend their entire weekend in our room. One player this year made a point to tell me that he came 3000 miles to Origins just to play in Rogue Cthulhu games. He pre-registered for thirteen of our events!

What other events is Rogue Cthulhu involved in?

It took us fifteen years to break out from Origins to another convention, but in 2012, we finally did it. Rogue Cthulhu ran just under twenty events at Con on the Cob 2012, which went very well for our first “away game.” We also scheduled nineteen events at AnCon (also in Hudson, Ohio), but player turn out for that one was poor. It’s very hard to pull together personnel and resources to run events at smaller cons. A lot of us can only afford to take time off from our jobs to attend one convention a year. Origins, in Columbus Ohio,  is our “home field” and I expect it always will be.

Between all you do, do you get much of a chance to play any?  If so, what are you playing now.

Oddly, I never play Call of Cthulhu at home. I only play it at the con. I have a weekly D&D game, and some of our other members that are local to me have a weekly Pathfinder game. When Origins time rolls around, I have to take a two month hiatus from my regular game so that I can focus on getting ready for the show. Our production requires an immense amount of prep work in order to run smoothly.

Thanks for sharing with us all about Rogue Cthulhu and “The Big Show” at Origins!  For more information visit Rogue Cthulhu online at http://www.roguecthulhu.com/.

Origins 2013: Mechjocks & Battletech Pods

One of the more interesting and cool items at Origins 2013 that deserves special mention are from the guys at Mechjock.com and Virtual World. Set up in the main hallway in the convention center were 6 (or 7, I can’t recall) pods that just looked awesome. All around it were logos, posters and video screens displaying Battletech ‘mechs and Battletech combat. I thought it was some new Battletech simulator game being released at Origins.  However, it turns out that it’s not something new but it is still very cool.

img_20130615_153559_099Virtual World Entertainment is the company behind these pods.  The Mechjocks is the company that travels to various cons with these pods and sets them up for you to play Battletech: Firestorm.  Based on the Mechwarrior 4 engine, these pods put you in the cockpit of a Battlemech of your choice.  Built a few years back, they appeared in Battletech Centers and other arcades like Dave & Busters.  These machines are a little dated, running mostly on Windows XP boxes.  The pods are called the Tesla II cockpits and have a full mechwarrior cockpit inside with the main viewer screen and several other minor screens throughout, updating the status of your ‘mech during battle.  It is a very slick-looking pod that gives you all the realism you would want for a Battlemech pilot.

This group is out of Grand Rapids, Michigan, but there is a southern group in Texas.  They also currently have 4 pods for sale if you so happen to have $25,000 laying around.  I asked them what the minimum size of a con they would do because I would imagine they would not just attend any con.  Minimum size to make it worth it  is about 1000 to 2000 people, so you have to have a decent con before they will consider you.  I don’t blame them.  I would imagine hauling these beasts around the country can get expensive.

The pods are completely networked together so you are in a battle with all the other pods.  They run simple 7-minute free-for-alls for $6 or full fledged tournaments for a little more.  Signing up is fairly simple.  I had a few generic chips left for the weekend, so I paid for myself and my friend Jim Harris to play in a free-for-all.  All I had to do is walk up, give them my call sign (which appears above the pad in LED lights) and pay.

img_20130615_153611_695Sitting in the cockpit after a 15-minute wait, I was somewhat overwhelmed by sensory input.  There was the main screen, of course, but there were 5 other green screens feeding you input as well.  Also a secondary radar screen helps you target your opponents.  Remembering back in my days with Mechwarrior and Mechwarrior 2, I remember how important the secondary screens were.  They helped alert you of opponents all around you, as well as assess your damage, heat, ammo and energy situation.  In this cockpit, all that information is in front of you but you have no idea which screen is which when you first start out.  To just play the game in a free-for-all that information is not overly important, but in a tournament or long term mission it’s essential.  I know it would take me 3 or 4 times to grow accustomed to the cockpit displays.

There are two hand controls – one for torso pivot and the other is the throttle.  The throttle, foot pedals and military-style joystick help you pilot the ‘mech and at your fingertips are the weapons controls for the various weapons your ‘mech has.  Results may vary based on the ‘mech your choose – and there are quite a few to choose from, all the familiar ones as well as some I did not recognize.  There are over thirty different ‘mechs to choose from.  Of course each ‘mech has variations on size, speed, weapons and controls.  There are also choices of more than twenty different battlefields, including cities, swamplands, canyons, and more.  I played in a grassland with some kind of landing zone or something.  I piloted a Rifleman, which is a ‘mech that is best at long range.  That ‘mech just popped into my head when they asked me what ‘mech I wanted to pilot.  I just remember taking out even Atlas at long range with a Rifleman. Shot to the head! Long Range Heavy Laser!  Unfortunately, not the best ‘mech for short range free-for-alls.

Once you get dropped into combat and orient yourself, the controls come fairly naturally.  I think it would serve them well if they gave the pilots a 2 or 3 minute practice round before going into combat in order to get accustomed to the screens as well as the weapons.  Since I only had two primary weapons, I found myself toying around with buttons I did not need to, wasting valuable time in combat.  As it turned out, 7 minutes is a lot longer than I expected.  If you die, seconds later, you are dropped into the combat again.  You get a full 7 minutes no matter how many times you die.

I did pretty well against the smaller ‘mechs.  The heavy lasers on my arms did enough damage that I did not have to worry about them.  It was the big Atlas and the medium ‘mechs that were a pest.  I think I died 4 or 5 times.  I don’t remember my score but I do not think it was all that good.

I really enjoyed the 7 minutes I played and definitely wanted to play more.  However, I am not sure I enjoyed it enough to pay another $6 – almost $1 a minute.  Like I said, it would take me 3 or 4 times to get good enough to make it worth it – which is what they are hoping for.  The staff was very friendly and answered all my incessant questions.  They are a good group of people who love what they are doing, obviously.  I highly recommend at least trying it once and if you think it’s worth your $6 or even more, then go for it!

If you are interested in having them at your con or event and think you will have enough people to interest them, check them out at MechJock.com.

 

 

Afterthoughts of Origins: Con Energy

Now that a little time has passed since my trip to Origins, some more thoughts have been forming in my head that I thought I should write down based on some of my daily posts and my experience at Origins.  In some ways this is an analysis of what I experienced at Origins and in others it is an overall discussion of con energy and signs there are problems.  It is not a condemnation of Origins and all their hard work.  They did a great job!  Origins was well organized, even when things like a fire threw the proverbial monkey wrench in the works.  They really di well in general and I do not mean to take away from that.

I have had time to rest, recover some and think about my comments, especially those on the Day 4 entry with regards to Origins’ energy levels.  It was hard to comment on that since I was a first timer.  Who the heck am I but a newbie from the South who doesn’t really know any better?  But technically I know a few things about gaming cons and the gaming crowd in general.  Nearly 15 years of running 2 to 3 smaller cons a year might give me a little insight.  I give you the fact that the sheer size of the con might make a difference but I am not sure how significant a difference it would make.  The largest event I have been involved with grew to 1500 attendees, so I am still far shy of the 11,000 to 12,000 that Origins averages.

A convention’s energy comes from various things but is felt by most, if not all, attendees as a sense of “I am glad to be here.”  The energy of a con is infectious and should be felt from the weeks and months before the con in their PR (through social media, etc) to the day you arrive all the way through to the end of the con.  It is not up to one person to maintain that energy, however.  It should come naturally and be felt throughout the con.  In the case of a gaming con, the most important nodes of this energy are the people the attendees come in contact with.  The volunteers are a good beginning, but ideally an attendee will only have a brief encounter with general volunteers like registration staff and customer services.  The people the attendees spend the most time with are the game masters and tournament directors, referees and event coordinators.  These people are the best nodes of con energy.

At Origins, throughout the weekend, I could not help but feel a palatable something as I walked through the con.  The general vibe I was getting from the dealers coupled with mixed feelings from various RPG events kind of gave him an overall feeling of something.  I thought perhaps it was just me. Maybe it was because I was not getting involved with the big events – the Shadowrun 5 Edition release or the Pathfinder Society games.  Perhaps that’s where the energy was, at least from an RPG perspective.  However, when other attendees out of the blue voiced the same sense, I have to wonder a little.

Many companies made the perhaps difficult choices of the year to no longer attend Origins, at least at the level they used to.  Paizo was one of them.  Pinnacle Entertainment was another.  Wizards of the Coast has long since put more focus on GenCon.  Again, from an RPG perspective, this perhaps may be one explanation for the lower energy level.  From a board game and card game perspective, Rio Grade Games, Mayfair, Wizkids, and Upper Deck all had a reasonably large presence, as did the new kid on the block, Mage Wars maker, Arcane WondersCatalyst Labs was there enforce with both support for Shadowrun 5th Edition and several of their board games.  Asmodee Games and Cool Mini Or Not also had a presence, if not somewhat small.  Missing – Fantasy Flight Games.  So there is definitely a feel that not all those in the industry leaders see Origins as a good investment.

I can only guess why I and others felt this something – or lack of something –  at the con. In many cases, the lack of excitement for a con comes from the lack of enough newness.  To increase the energy level or at least maintain it, some cons work hard on bringing something new and different to their attendees.  From what I gathered, that “something new” at Origins was Kevin Sorbo and Ioan Gruffudd as well as the whole Super Hero theme.  I have never been a big fan of themes at cons because they are hard to maintain and require so much energy for so little return. I did not feel like the theme added a lot to Origins.  I only saw a handful of costumes.  Gamers don’t dress up unless they are involved in a LARP.  They just want to sit down and game.

Sometimes at a con the energy drain comes from your volunteers and volunteer burn-out.  I do not mean to slam the Origins volunteers as they obviously worked their butts off.  Many that I encountered were very professional and accommodating.  However, sometimes the cost of attending the con (both financial and mental) outweighs the benefits.  In most cases, the most a volunteer gets is a free badge.  Some might get a free room or at least part of a room paid for, but that’s rare for non-profit conventions.  Now, when I say volunteers, I mean not only the workers behind the booths and desks, but also the game masters, event coordinators, and organizers.  As I stated earlier, these are the people that the attendees of a gaming con are more in contact with.  The game masters, event coordinators and tournament directors are the flash point of the fire that should excite the attendees.  If they are not happy, then things kind of spread from there.

For Origins, they have a unique plan based on the number of hours you work.  Also, volunteers are ranked by the number of years they have worked for the con.  Minimum is 16 hours of work but that gains you no ranking in seniority.  The next level is 32 hours and that gains you a ranking.  The ranking categories are 1-5 years, 6-8 years (senior), and 9+ years (veterans).  Ranked volunteers get either a portion of their rooms paid for or free lodging, but they are sharing the room with up to 3 other volunteers.  Overall, it is not a bad deal.  I would imagine it is a nightmare to manage but all the same, not a bad deal.  However, because of the nature of a 5-day con (Wednesday through Sunday), this still can wear a volunteer down.  Also it is not clear if game masters count as volunteers.

On the other side of that, especially in the case of non-profits, it is very difficult to give so many volunteers some form of benefits.  SWAG can only go so far.  In some cases, these GMs, coordinators and directors are paying their hard earned cash for a hotel room, maybe even sharing with a number of other GMs.  They are working hard to herd the cats to make sure all events are running on time and all players are happy.  But all that effort can wear down on a person, especially over a 5-day event.

There are a few other signs that some friends have noticed about Origins that frustrate them and in the end, effect their energy level when they arrive.  The list of events and the vendor room map seem to be released later and later each year.  Also, I know quite a few people that have complained about their online gaming registration system – especially the fact that you can not access it after pre-regsitration closes.  There may be a ton of reasons I am not aware of that some of these things happen but these are the things that attendees see and effect their overall mood of the con, before they even arrive.

I could be way off base and I could be totally misinterpreting my sense of Origins.  It was just a  feeling one guy out of 11,000+ got.  Others may feel differently.  In the end, I had a great time at Origins and probably will return one day with my family.  One of the best things about it was that I would feel fine bringing my wife and kids.  I have seen cons with similar issues and with a few minor adjustments, changes in staff, changes in format, the con can recover.  Even if there is an energy problem, I never felt like the con was dying and hopeless.  There are a lot of people involved with lots of heart and they obviously want the con to do well.  I just think that there is some fatigue that is effecting the overall con and it was noticeable to a newbie like me.

Watching the Facebook page, however, there are more than a few complimentary posts.  One or two are even saying it is the best Origins in a while.  So maybe the con is on an upswing.  That’s good news.  As I was writing this, Mr. John Ward of GAMA released the numbers of the con.  It is in fact on an upswing.

2009: 10,030
2010:  10,669
2011:  11,502
2012: 11,332
2013: 11,573

By his number break down, more people got weekend badges than day passes this year than last.  So that’s even a better sign.  Even if my feelings were right, it’s changing.  The energy is building.  I would just be careful of burnout. A slow climb like that in attendance can wear people down.  200+ increase in attendance overall may not be a huge jump for all the work one puts in each year.   Like I said before, the cost of the con, mental or financial, may outweigh the return eventually.  And maybe that is what I was sensing.

Origins 2013 Report -Day 4: Final Day

Saturday, June 15, I had a noon game of Savage Worlds – Space:1889.  I was really looking forward to that because I really wanted a much more satisfying RPG than the first one.  The board games so far have been very satisfying but the RPGs have not.

Saturday is the only day that Origins sells day passes.  So you either buy for the weekend or come on Saturday for a day pass.  Walking down the escalator down into the convention center, it was quite apparent that Saturday was going to be their biggest day.  Registration lines were the longest I had seen.  The line for generic chips (to be used to get into games you did not preregister for) was obscenely long.  And the dealers room was buzzing with more people than I had seen all weekend.

Walking around the dealers room prior to the game, I did pick up a few good deals.  One dealer I had frequented was called Chimera Games.  They had some great deals on older items or out of print items.  I guess I am an old gamer.

Upon arrival at my Savage World – Space: 1889 table, I found a nice group of people picking characters.  The character sheets were in these nice plastic post card protectors, and the character name signs were pre-printed with nice logos on them.  That is a little more impressive than the last RPG game I played here.  Presentation is everything and if you can take the time to create nice characters sheets and character name signs, it goes a long way in creating a good con game experience.

I had specifically signed up for this game so I could be in the same game as a good friend, Jim Harris (yes, THE Jim Harris).  He and the GM showed up at the same time, as they were in a game together in the prior slot.  Mike Sprague was the GM and he is fairly well known in the Savage World circles.  I liked his attitude, passion for the game, and general demeanor.  He’s a nice guy.

The adventure was drawn from old GDW’s Challenge magazine which supported the original Space: 1889 back in the day. I have to respect a guy that pulls from an old resource like that.  The party was made up of mostly stuffy British citizens and soldiers.  I was not overly excited about playing a Brit, although I would have if need be, but when the American character came across the table, I jumped at it.  To play an American in a group of Brits was like me (from South Carolina) playing in a group of a bunch of northerners.  It worked out pretty well.

I really liked the group dynamic that was developing.  Most of the players dove straight into the role head first.  But as it turned out, we were too smart for our own good.  We did an end-around of the adventure and went in the back way.  In the end, we ended the game an hour early.  It was sort of a letdown but fun all the same.

I returned to the dealers room afterwards.  The one thing I wanted to do was vote for the Origins Awards.  The history of the awards goes back to 1979 but has evolved over the years, with changes to and additional categories.  This year, there were 14 awards and included Best Roleplaying Game,  Best Board Game, Best Collectible Card Game,  Best Traditional Card Game and many others.  The winners were announced on Saturday at a dinner with Kevin Sorbo as Master of Ceremonies.  To attend, it was an additional $30 to cover the dinner.  Press was allowed in after the dinner if they could arrange the time get in there at the right time.

And the winners were:

Best Roleplaying Game
Marvel Heroic RPG Basic
– Margaret Weis Productions
– Designed by Cam Banks, Rob Donoghue, Jack Norris, Jesse Scoble, Aaron Sullivan, Chad Underkoffler

Best Roleplaying Supplement or Adventure
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Civil War Essentials Edition Event Book
– Margaret Weis Productions

Best Board Game
Lords of Waterdeep
– Wizards of the Coast – Designed by Peter Lee and Rodney Thompson

Best Collectible Card Game
Legend of the 5 Rings: Embers of War
– AEG

Best Traditional Card Game
Doctor Who the Card Game
– Cubicle 7 Entertainment/Treefrog Games
– Designed by Martin Wallace

Best Family, Party or Children’s Game
Quarriors! Dice Building Game
– Wizkids
– Designed by Michael Elliot and Eric M. Lang

Best Gaming Accessory
Metal Steampunk Dice Set
– Q Workshop
– Designed by Shannon Couture and Blazej Walczak

Best Miniatures Rules
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Campaign Starter Set
– WizKids

Best Historical Miniatures Rules
Flames of War: Open Fire!
– Battlefront Miniatures, LTD.

Best Historical Miniatures Rules Supplements
Flames of War: Nuts
– Battlefront Miniatures, LTD. – Designed by Michael Haught

Best Historical Board Game
Samurai Battles
– Zvezda
–Designed by Richard Borg and Konstantin Krivenko

Best Publications
Battletech: Weapons Free
– Catalyst Game Labs
– Edited by Jason Schmetzer

Best Miniature Figure Line
Marvel HeroClix: Galactic Guardians
– Wizkids Games

Best Miniature Figure Rules
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Campaign Start Set
– WizKids Games

Congratulations to the winners!

I was unable to attend the ceremony, however, due to scheduling conflicts.  There were several other events I missed because there was just too much to do.  I love attending auctions, but this year I was strapped for cash, so I was kind of glad I did not make it to this one.  I am a sucker for a good deal at an auction.  They also had a silent auction but I steered clear of that because of the same reasons.  In addition they had several seminars or panels on the schedule that I wish I could have made.  In particular the Christianity in Gaming, the Pathfinder: Q&A with Jason Bulmahn, Q&A with Steve Kenson, and the various Q&As with Steve Long.  Next time, I will make a point to try to attend more of those and report on them.  I was by myself this year and I was trying to get a lay of the land, get The Gamer’s Codex name out there, and get in as many game demos as I could take.

The energy of the dealers room seem mixed despite the new influx of new Saturday-only attendees.  The economy may be a major factor even today.  I was encouraged to see the Geek Chic folks still around.  In 2008, I interviewed them when they released the Sultan gaming table at GenCon.  I thought perhaps those tables were a little too expensive to be a lasting product in the industry, especially in this economy.  However, they are apparently still thriving.  They even had their table set up in a special location where people could arrange for a special gaming experience on those tables.  I wish I had done that.  Those tables are amazing.  I plan to have an interview with the president of Geek Chic up soon.

I also did a few short demos of a couple of games, most notably Quicksilver: The Great Airship Race.  Funded on Kickstarter, these guys are working hard to sell their game and were all super nice.  I met the designer and the graphic artist.  There game is a steampunk-inspired race game with some really slick mechanics, nice graphics and great re-playability potential.  The only disappointment in this game is the playing pieces – I would have been more excited if it had nice minis and not the simple card board standing up airships.  But other than that, it was a very slick looking game.

That night I was invited into a pick-up game of A Game of Thrones by the same guys that I played with the previous night.  These guys are some good guys and I thoroughly enjoyed playing with them.  I learned a lot while playing with these guys.  These guys made me feel really welcome despite the fact it was my first time.  They also did not make me feel I was an idiot.  It was just a good gaming experience.

This time I played Baratheon and did much better than last time.  I did not win, but I played a major factor in who did.  At the end, we actually got some prizes because one of the players was head of the Axis & Allies section of the board game section and he had some free games left.  That was a nice way to end the night.

Overall, I enjoyed myself at Origins.  There were some small issues that I can understand and got over, and the biggest problems I had were mostly from outside sources.  The worst experience was a very bad GM.  The best experience I had was the feelings I had enjoying a good strategy war game with like minds; pure and simple gaming without drama and personal feelings.  It was a very satisfying experience.

I had a conversation with a young attendee that had been to more Origins than I have been and he did voice a few feelings I had throughout the weekend.  Since it was my first, I really wasn’t sure and I did not want it to influence my writing but the fact that this guy voiced it to me without any prompting almost affirmed my suspicions.  In general, throughout the weekend, I had gotten the feeling that there was a energy problem at the con.  This particular young attendee noticed an decrease in the overall positive energy, as did his brother.  He did note he had heard that there was a lot of volunteer burnout throughout the staff.  Origins Game Fair is run by GAMA which is a non-profit operation run by volunteers.  I can imagine that it is hard to maintain the same level of energy year by year for a con this size on a purely volunteer staff.

I cannot say definitely there is a problem with the con, but what I can say is that there is something noticeable about it that is missing.  Many I talked to expressed they were very satisfied with most of their gaming experiences but there was always a “..but …” that followed.  I also believe that it is not something that is irreparable.  I am sure with some work, it can regain the energy of its youthful days.

Origins Game Fair needs to be on any gamer’s bucket list.  Go to it with lots of preparation and research ahead of time.  Budget a considerable amount of money because you always spend more than you plan.  Good downtown alone is expensive.  You definitely have lots of chances to game the games you never have a chance to play at home as well as the games you have never heard of.  There are plenty of game premiers and a ton of people demo’ing their games in the vendor room.  You definitely will be gamed out by the end of the weekend.  I know I am.

 

 

Origins 2013 Report – Day 3: A Good Day

Friday, June 14 started bright and early for me again as I had a 9 AM game.  I was really looking forward to it because it was Fortress America, one of my favorite games.  My hope was that I would play with some experienced players and get a good game in.  That was not entirely what happened but it still was a very good game.

I am still new to all this but apparently there are several game groups that support Origins.  I get the feeling it is a voluntary thing but they get in for free for the work they do.  Like the Rogue Cthulhu group, there are several other board game groups that ran games in various sections of the main gaming area.  This room is HUGE.  You can easily fit a football field in there.  More about the convention space later.

In this room are a variety of miniature games as well as board games.  Each board game demo group is given an area and your tickets simply tell you to go to that specific area to find your game – no table numbers, just find the game.  If there are more than one sessions of the game, well, pick one I guess.

The particular group that ran my Fortress America game was Game Base 7.  There were others like the Rogue Judges and the Grand Gaming Academy.  All seemed like very nice people and were competent at their games.

Speaking of the big gaming hall, I probably should explain to any newbies what most would be most concerned about going in – the layout and how easy it is to get around.  Honestly, Origins is far easier to get around than GenCon, by a mile.  Of course, GenCon is 5 times as big (at least) and so it would be inevitable that the bigger con would be more complex.  But even for the size of this con, it’s incredibly easy to get around it.

There are two basic areas of the convention space – the Hyatt hotel and the Columbus Convention Center.  Both these buildings are attached and it is almost difficult to distinguish between the two.   Walking in from our hotel that is across the street, you first discover a food court area which is, I assume, part of the Hyatt.  The Hyatt has several ball room and meeting rooms upstairs where you could easily run a small gaming con alone.  Origins uses these for the role playing game rooms.  They average between 20 tables a room to maybe 5 or 6 tables a room.  There are rooms dedicated to Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu and several others.  Like the board game room, there are certain rooms that are dedicated to a specific gaming group, like Rogue Cthulhu.

Between the Convention Center and the Hyatt is this breezeway where they place a few fan tables and little else.  There could be a lot more in this room, like more RPGs, so I am not sure why that space is not utilized better.

The Convention Center layout cannot be simpler.  It’s basically a straight hallway, with the large exhibit halls on the right and other ballrooms, break-out rooms and extra space on the left.  The exhibit halls are divided up into three main sections – the vendor hall, the board game/minis room and the collectible card games.  The other ballrooms and meeting space is used for various other things like main events (the awards ceremonies, etc), panel rooms, the kids programming room (which is HUGE in and of itself), operational rooms including a press room, and other things.  There is space set aside for large scale games like giant sized Catan or the giant sized Star Trek Attack Wing.  Specific sponsoring vendors are given special space down these halls including Arcane Wonders, makers of Mage Wars, who have a large demo area set aside.  It took me less than an hour to figure the place out and it only took that long because they place is so big. So the last thing you need to be intimidated by is the layout of this con.  There are a lot more other things you can be intimidated by.

That afternoon, I made another vendor hall run, where I bought a few things and sat down for another demo.  This one was for a game called In the City: Origins.  Duncan Davis, the game designer is a really nice guy and demo’ed his game at MACE West, one of the cons I coordinate gaming for.  I was skeptical because at first glance I thought it was yet another deck building game but as it turns out I could not have been more wrong.  Stay tuned for a review of In the City: Origins on The Gamer’s Codex soon!

I also was shown a game called Pittsburgh, a zombie card game made by an old friend of MACE and Justus Productions – Larry Wickman of Gamewick Games.  This is a new twist on perhaps an overly-done game genre that I really liked.  Once again, stay tuned for a game review for that one too.

During this time, I also took a moment to vote on the Origins Awards, which all attendees have an opportunity to do. It’s a great opportunity to see what is hot in the industry and be involved in rewarding those who you think deserve it.  I have to admit that I did not know all the games on the list, but I knew a majority.

That evening, I played another board game – A Game of Thrones. This is by far one of my more favorite games and I thoroughly enjoyed playing it.  We played with a few experienced players and a couple of newbies.  I would put myself in the middle as I have played first edition of the game but there are some slight changes in the second game that made it a new experience for me.  It was a brutal battle where the Greyjoys immediately took to attacking as did the Lannisters, but unfortunately the Greyjoys were more prepared for it.  The Lannister player (the inexperienced player) was all but destroyed but mid-game.  I was Stark and outlasted most of the new players but eventually game Greyjoy the win.

This day was by far much better than previous days.  I thoroughly enjoyed today, and it wasn’t as much of a mixed bag as the last two days.  My satisfaction meter is well in the positive now.

Origins 2013 Report – Day 2: First Full Day

My second day at Origins – my first full day in truth has been a mixed bag, much like the day before.  It started fairly early because we wanted to get a good breakfast before being there when the doors open for the dealers room/vendor hall.  Before leaving for breakfast, however, I wanted to check out my tickets since I had not heard from Customer Service about them.  It took a matter of 15 minutes to get my tickets, which they had to re-print, and cash in my generics for chips.  A very good start to the day.

Once again, despite the silliness of the bureaucracy, they traversed it well and took care of me.  Bureaucracy can be bad, and in a con this size, it really could have destroyed my experience.  However, they have very competent people handling things so it was far less problematic than it could have been.  They did a great job handling things.

We had a good breakfast at a place called Sunny Street Café.  Once we arrived at the doors  of the vendor hall, the crowd was building up considerably.  The dealer room was awesome.  Not quite as  big as GenCon but still very awesome.  One of the very unique things they did this year was a coupon book.  I got the impression that this was a relatively new thing for Origins.  Instead of a swag bag, they gave out a coupon book with various freebies and discounts that you can obtain at the various booths in the vendor hall.  Free dice, free tote bags, 10% off this, or free expansions if you buy the core game.  It was a considerable booklet and there were some pretty cool stuff you could pick up.

I set out to schmooze with many of the gaming companies and passed out many of my business cards for The Gamer’s Codex.  Many were very receptive of our concept and open to working with us.  I had no expectation of anyone handing me review copies right away, as we are still a young site and it was only Thursday.   Many of the smaller companies need to know they are going to make their money before thinking about giving out free copies to a single guy they don’t know from Adam.

I also scanned for prospects of personal purchases.  There were a lot of cool games out there, but I wanted to be very selective in what I got involved with.  Shadowrun 5th edition was released this weekend, for instance.  I have enjoyed the times I have played that game but it’s not one of those games I really find myself getting involved in.  The Star Trek Attack Wing game looked really awesome.  There were expansions for Zombicide, a game from Steve Jackson called Castellan, and a variety of small press board games that looked really sharp.

I had a game at 1 pm, but I was able to get in a demo of Mage Wars before my game.  These guys are very cool and have a very cool concept behind their game.  They were very interested in our web site, as well as MACE in November where we will be holding a Mage Wars tournament.  They were more than willing to throw us a lot of support and I really look forward to working with them.  Be sure to watch for our review of Mage Wars.

My first game was a Call of Cthulhu 6th edition game set in World War II.  I had recently ran a WWII game at MACE 2012 and we had a blast.  I wanted to have that kind of experience as well.  Origins has a dedicated group that runs a majority of their Cthulhu events.  They have a great set up in one single room with mood lighting, music and props.  They call themselves Rogue Cthulhu.  They looked like a good outfit that knew what they were doing and I really looked forward to what they had to offer.  Be sure to watch for our interview with Marx Stead, head of Rogue Cthulhu.

Unfortunately, the game did not live up to my expectations.  The Keeper was very unenthusiastic about the game he was running and he was also very hard to hear.  He kept his head down below his Keeper Screen and never really spoke in an acceptable volume for a GM at a con.  I am sorry, but if you have this incredible ambiance set up, a group of very enthusiastic players and a great overall mood for the game, you need to show a little enthusiasm.  The group of players were great and had great potential for role play, but this guy just sucked the energy out of everyone and did not make the game a pleasant experience at all.  I was glad that I finagled a way to get my character killed 2 hours into it because I do not think I could take another 2 hours of that guy.

Any experience like that, I really try to draw lessons out of it.  Lesson #1 – As a GM running a game at a con, you need to show some enthusiasm for running the game.  Get your group of players inspired and ready to collectively tell a great story together.  Lesson #2 – Do not read the adventure behind the GM screen.  Know it well enough that you do not have to read it.  Just use copy of the adventure you have as a reference but you should not have to put your head down and read unless it is required in the adventure.  Lesson #3 – this applies mostly to military stile games, especially in Call of Cthulhu – let one of the players be the commanding officer.  Do not take the commanding officer of the unit as a NPC.  This will promote way more role play and player interaction.  This is one of the more subtle mistakes this guy made but it did annoy me.  I think we would have been better off if he had let us handle our own unit.

Probably the most important lesson to draw out of that is the hardest.  I see it all the time, and it is a matter of maturity with respect to con games and con experiences.  Do not let an experience like that taint the rest of your con.  Do not let it define your entire experience at the con.  It’s ONE game.  ONE bad GM.  I thoroughly expect to have a much better experience over the next 2 days.

Just playing those two hours had almost entirely exhausted me, but I had promised Andy Hopp (Low Life setting for Savage Worlds RPG) that I would demo his Dementalism game.  I sat down with two other pleasantly enough looking players and had a great time playing this game.  Once again, stay tune for a review of Dementalism.

After that demo, I walked around some more, networking and talking.  Got a short demo of Titanium Wars, a sharp looking card game of war and diplomacy in a interstellar steampunk like setting.  I will be reviewing that as well.  I also stopped and watched a game of the large scale version of Star Trek Attack Wing. This game seems VERY cool!  And at large scale, it was even more awesome!

The night ended pleasantly with dinner at BD’s Mongolian Barbecue and their awesome deep fried Oreos!

 

Origins 2013 Report – Arrival Day

Wednesday. June 12.  Arrival Day

When a friend of mine, Heath Medlin, asked me to attend Origins with him, I jumped at the chance.  We had attended GenCon together (with another friend, Neil Spicer) back in 2008 and that was one of my bucket list things to do.  Attending Origins at least once was another one of those bucket list things.

Having had an amazing time at GenCon, I expected no less from Origins.  My initial impressions from a preregistration, press pass registration and game registration was a mixed bag. Registration was easy enough.  Getting a press badge turned out to be even easier.  So when I had to refund the paid badge, the Origins staff were amazingly responsive.  Erica Gifford, GAMA Media Liaison was an amazing contact and was incredibly kind  and helpful when I arrived.  She is one of those con talents that a con can not afford to lose.

The downside to my pre-con experience was their online game registration system.  I will have to admit that I may be a little biased because I wrote my own system for MACE and our other events (called OGRe).  However, even with this bias, I think some basic functionality needs to be in any game registration system that is just not in Origins’ system.  I think they focused a little too much on the money transaction portion of the code and not enough with that general functionality.  On top of that, because your schedule is linked to your badge, when preregistration closes, you can not access your schedule again, not even just to look at it, print it out, etc..  So my first advice – print off your schedule first chance  you get, before preregistration closes.

The 8-hour drive seemed to go by pretty fast. Heath and I talked about everything from various gaming experiences to spiritual topics; from movies to politics (we happen to be very similar in our political views so that was a safe topic).  We had left fairly early in the morning and arrived in Columbus around 2:30 pm.  It was a rather pleasant drive.

Arrival into the city was a little underwhelming.  I fell in love with Indianapolis back in 2008 when I went to GenCon.  Columbus, OH just did not live up to that expectation.  I was a little underwhelmed by the city.  I had no intention of letting my impression of the city affect my outlook on the overall con, but I did want to make a note of it.  Maybe I should not be comparing but it’s hard for me not to.  The center on the other hand, is awesome.  Not as big as GenCon but still a pretty big space for a con.  What I could do with this space!  It’s a great convention center for a con this size.

We immediately journeyed onward to get our badges.  Registration lines were very small on Wednesday.  If you can get here on Wednesday, I HIGHLY recommend it. Both Heath and I had to go to two different places for badges – he was regular pre-registration and I had to get my press pass.  Both took a matter of minutes.  The only snag I ran into was my tickets for my games were missing.  And this began my exposure on the ticket bureaucracy that is Origins Ticket System.  They are pretty Nazi about these tickets.  Pack some patience when you arrive because if there is anything wrong with your tickets, it’s going to take some time to fix the problem.

The upside to this is they have a good customer service structure in place to deal with this and some great volunteers handling it.  Amy Miller immediately took my name and number down and told me she will find them.  They could not just print them out again because she knew that they were out there somewhere.  They had to be found or they had to at least verify that they are 100% lost.  They apparently have a lot of problems with table/seat fraud and because they have a pay-to-play system like most big gaming cons do, they have to be very careful about reprinting tickets.  I understand to some degree but I am still not a fan.  There has to be a better way.  As of now, I have still not gotten my tickets (but there is a good reason for that – see below) and I have a game at 1 pm tomorrow.

Heath and I left to eat a late lunch after I spent way too much time waiting at customer service.  After a good meal, we returned to the main hall only to find the doors closed and people being turned away and being told it will be a few hours before they are open again. I was quite confused. I wasn’t sure if this was normal.  Come to find out a transformer blew and caught fire (probably air conditioning related because it is rather hot for Ohio today) and the fire department had to clear everything before anyone could go back in.  This took several ours.  Heath and I gave up and returned to our room.  In our room, the road fatigue finally hit us and we fell asleep.

I did find a second wind after a few hours of sleep and walked back over to see if things were opened up again.  They were but the halls were all but empty.  Some RPGers were going at it in the various rooms, as well as board gamers but I would guess maybe 300 to 400 people total were out and about.  I took some pictures that I hope to upload soon.

What is in store for the weekend?  I hope to get several interviews in, perhaps check out some demos, and maybe attend some press conferences.  I am basically playing it by ear each day, like I did at GenCon.  At GenCon, I was able to find a ton of stuff to write about so I expect it will be no different here.  This should be fun!

 

Tips for Origins Game Fair 2013

I am heading to Origins with a good friend, Heath Medlin.  Since it is my first time there, he was kind enough to send me daily tips about Origins.  I have compiled them and published them here for those that my appreciate them.

Heath Medlin’s Origins 2013 Tips

  1. NEVER buy food from vendors right outside the exhibit hall. Way overpriced. Take the walk to the food court and you’ll save a little $.
  2. If you want to play in demo games at the vendor’s booth in the Exhibit Hall, go ahead and get those done on Thursday. There will be more people there on Friday and definitely on Saturday, which is the only day for the day pass this year. As the Hall is smaller with smaller table space, the demo tables will be packed on Saturday.
  3. It always rains at Origins, often with severe weather. I was always a single pair of shoes type of guy until someone suggested that I take an extra pair, just in case. It saved my bacon one year after I got trapped in a deluge and was soaked to the bone. Also, there’s a skywalk from the corner of the block to the Hyatt/Convention Center, but I never use it unless it’s pouring outside as it’s out of the way. Crossing Nationwide Boulevard will save many steps.
  4. Want an adult beverage? Big Bar on 2 is the Hyatt’s bar on its second floor. Many con goers will spend time there and there’s always a chance you’ll run across gaming industry folks there. If you like microbrewery beer, Barley’s is across the street from the convention center and is also popular with con goers. It is busy around meal times. Barley’s also has a menu with food. I usually eat there once a year.
  5. I’ve had bad experiences using the vending machines at the Columbus Convention Center. Use them only as a last resort.
  6. Though Max & Erma’s is considered the Crowne Plaza’s “hotel restaurant” and has a breakfast buffet, I usually try to eat breakfast at the Sunny Street Cafe on Nationwide Boulevard towards the arena and baseball field. It’s a bit of a walk, but I like the food and get a little fresh air and exercise as well.
  7. The last one! I’ve heard that Grant Wilson (formerly with Ghost Hunters) will be working one of the booths in the dealer’s hall. He’s an artist and will be offering a new card game he’s affiliated with, Dwarven Miner. Weird Al Yankovic is playing a show in Columbus tonight and there’s a minute chance he may make an appearance.

Additional lessons I (Ron) have learned already

  1. Register for games as early as possible.
  2. Print out your schedule/agenda before registration closes.  Because your game schedule is linked to your badge, once preregistration closes, you won’t be able to see your schedule until you get to the con.
  3. Pay close attention to any tips friends give you.