This past weekend, I attended my first Gen Con in Indianapolis. It’s a gaming convention of somewhere around 50,000 attendees, and the largest convention I’ve attended to date (unless you count the brief time I wandered New York Comic Con’s halls.) It was a wild experience; we took over the massive convention center and all of the surrounding enormous hotels. Many of the local restaurants and other businesses cater to geek culture — a local sports bar played Star Wars movies on their screens, another changed the names of the items on their menu to reflect popular fandoms in geek culture, like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Dr. Who. I also spotted a disproportional number of comic book t-shirts on mannequins in the local department store windows. Even the airport had a plaque on the floor welcoming Gen Conners as they descended the escalator towards baggage claim.
And this may sound strange, but one thing I love about being at these kinds of conventions is seeing how many people show up not just in costumes, but also in geeky t-shirts. The percentage is grossly above the percentage of people I see wearing these kinds of things outside of geeky events, and it creates an atmosphere that feels noticeably welcoming to geeks. People know they’ll be surrounded by others who will appreciate the science and fandom jokes and references, and they want to wear something that puts a smile on their and their fellow geek’s faces.
I had a great time trying out new card games, playing through a first edition Dungeons and Dragons dungeons crawl (as old school as it gets), wandering the dealer’s hall, watching belly dance performances, cosplaying and admiring other cosplayers, enjoying the 80s themed dance on Saturday night, and getting to know lots of cool people.
I also played in two LARPs at Gen Con. The first was a steampunk LARP called Kidnapping at the Embassy — Evening Soiree, the second an A Song of Ice and Fire LARP.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to play Kidnapping at the Embassy. It turns out it was a three part event with a continuous story, and I caught the second of the three parts. I was expecting a theater LARP like the theater LARPs I normally play, but it was structured quite differently, which proved to be a fascinating experience. Characters were created on the spot by the players based on what factions in the setting interested us most, and what steampunk archetypes appealed to us. We were given eight character templates to choose two from. Our two choices determined what decks of abilities cards we could choose for our characters. I’ll admit I didn’t quite understand the mechanic system and how many of our abilities worked, but combat wasn’t allowed for the second of the three events, so some of the confusing cards were moot. Unfortunately, there was a last minute room change, which resulted in us playing in an alcove in the old railroad station. The railroad station made a really fantastic set for a steampunk LARP, but the acoustics were terrible, and I missed some of the game briefing. I didn’t want to slow the LARP down for clarification on everything I missed (especially since many players were already familiar with the mechanics from the previous event) so I tried to wing it with what I did understand.
The plot of the LARP revolved around a few major mysteries — a kidnapped diplomat and a couple of mysterious murders. Players were given one sentences clues from a pile of slips of papers, with the information tailored to our character concepts. (I was playing a thug with connections, so my clue was information about fenced stolen goods.) There was also some mild politicking between the factions of the setting, but by and large the structure of the LARP indicated that we all generally had the goal of solving the mysteries, which I think let players feel encouraged to share information and work together. So I was pretty open about my character’s unsavory origins, and my hints regarding one of my secrets — that I was some sort of undead — were as unsubtle as I could make them without stating it outright.
After the LARP, one of the GMs indicated that I was probably supposed to keep my faction a secret, but I had been unaware of this at character creation. I chose the name Taz because it was the first name that came to mind (being the name of my character in a steampunk campaign LARP.) And my faction was called the Tazmen, so I went around introducing myself as Taz the Tazman. I have no regrets about this, though, since I was the only player who was publicly a member of this faction, so many other players came to me to talk about anything related to the Tazmen.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of a conclusion to this event — the big finale was scheduled for the last event, and I don’t think the players made too much progress on the mysteries. (Turns out, the murderer was an NPC played by a seven year old, but unfortunately, I wasn’t aware she was in-game.) There was some sort of system that allowed characters to score points and advance, but I didn’t worry too much about it, since I knew I’d be unable to attend the third event.
The highlight of the LARP for me was the NPCs. They had fantastic costuming. (Costuming was pretty impressive across the board for PCs and NPCs (I felt distinctly underdressed). And they clearly had well developed, flavorful characters with distinct personalities, and they chatted up many of the PCs and dropped plot relevant hints. One in particular was a magician who performed real tricks and used the cards we chose from his deck to convey coded information. I don’t know if any PCs cracked the code, but I thought it was a really cool idea.
The second LARP I played was the A Song of Ice and Fire LARP called The Dragon’s Feast. It was a very large LARP with over 60 players, set a little over 60 years before the books. The con book indicated that there was only one slot left, but I went in my Snow White costume with Prince Charming anyway (we figured our costumes were the most likely outfits to blend in with the setting). We figured there would be a decent chance of last minute drops that needed filling. Luckily, the staff had a few extra characters to hand out, so I wound up playing a Targaryen while Prince Charming was cast as a Tyrell.
Normally, my expectations for characters that are written to be extra, unnecessary to cast, are fairly low — they’re typically poorly integrated into the plots (otherwise leaving them out would cause gaps in the LARP) and not important to any of the other characters. But I was pleasantly surprised. I think this was the best example of the extra sort of characters that I’ve yet seen. Many of the characters didn’t seem to recognize my name, and yet I still felt like I had a significant impact on two of the major mechanics in the game and ties to several major factions (Houses, of course) which gave people cause to care about my character’s goals and role in her family. I wound up affecting the melee tournament (the fighter I backed won first place, carrying my favor) and helped one army to victory in a battle in the Reach in the war game.
The character sheets seemed pretty simple and short — the ones I saw had under two pages of background, but it still felt like most of the players were kept quite busy throughout with complex politicking, commanding battles, dueling, and a bit of romance. And the costuming and set dressing was high quality. Most of the players came in really nice fantasy garb, and many of them were dressed in colors specific to members of their Houses or roles as septons and septas or maesters. The Tyrells had badges of gold roses embroidered on green fields on their costumes, and one of the Targaryen princes was dressed in black garb with red embroidered dragons. (Sadly, I had a Targaryen necklace back in the hotel room that I was kicking myself for forgetting.)
Each of the major houses had lovely banners bearing their sigils and mottos draped over their tables, surrounded by candles, which worked well in the nice hotel function space’s interior design. You can see pictures on the staff’s Facebook page here. (If you squint, you can spot me in the background of this picture, between the two guys on the left.) If you like the banners, they were purchased from this etsy shop.
It seemed like it would be straightforward LARP to run, though the wargame and the dueling mechanics probably take a bit of specialized printing. I wasn’t able to stay for much of the game wrap, but on my way out, I did ask the GMs if their LARP would be made available for others to run. They seemed open to the idea but not terribly dedicated to it. I’ll keep my eye out for it because, despite its very large cast size, I think it would go over well with the Intercon crowd. In the meantime, the staff expressed interest in writing and running a sequel at Gen Con 2015, and if I can make it, you can be sure I’ll be signing up in advance.
There are two small other LARP-related items at Gen Con I wanted to share. One was an amusing candy dispenser toy I found in a candy store near the convention center. It was a rock paper scissors toy, with a plastic hand on the end and two buttons.
Pressing one button flexed two of the fingers (scissors), pressing the other flexed four (rock). Paper was, of course, represented by not pressing either button. This utter defeat of the one major advantage of RPS, the reason it is a particularly popular LARP mechanic (you know, not needing to carry any gear or props at all to resolve challenges) amused me to no end. I was highly tempted to purchase some to either introduce as a joke during game briefings, or include as a mechanic in a 10 Bad LARP (the series of short LARPs written based on the worst conceivable LARPing ideas.)
Also, while wandering the dealer’s hall, I spotted a booth for CHRONOS, a universal LARP system from Eschaton Media that uses cards. They showed me a few same character builds created with their decks, including one for Tyrion Lannister and one for StarLord. You can check out the core rulebook — it’s free to download here. You can find more information from the creators here, and thoughts on CHRONOS on the Croatian LARP blog here. I think it would work best with campaigns that have multiple genres within them. And their original settings, like their Rockabilly Hell, sound original and interesting.