I did nerdy stuff this weekend.
Admittedly, I do nerdy stuff every weekend, but this one was particularly special. Because it was Owlcon! See, one of the purposes of this log is to talk about nerdy stuff- with a focus on Houston, and Owlcon really is one of the best opportunities to do nerd stuff in Houston.
Held at Rice University, Owlcon is an annual gaming convention held in Feburary that’s been going on for over 30 years now, and shows no signs of stopping. As far as ‘cons go, Owlcon is very straightforward: you go there, and you play games. There’s not much to be had in the way of cosplay, or panels, or celebrity signatures (unless you really like Steve Jackson). I’d say that this focus is one of the fun features of OwlCon, especially because it provides an opportunity to play just about anything. Card games, board games, roleplaying games, LARPs, wargaming minis, whatever. If it’s got funny dice and would probably earn you a wedgie in middle school, it’s represented at Owlcon.
In fact, Owlcon is (in a roundabout way) responsible for this blog. As I found myself in Houston back in 2012, at which point I decided to go to OwlCon on a whim, at which point I met a bunch of cool nerdy people who I hang out with semi-regularly now and play various nerdy games with them, which in turn led to me wanting to tell other people about how nerdy I am, and…yeah.
Unfortunately, as I had to work on Saturday, I wasn’t able to get the full OwlCon experience. Pity. But still, because it makes for easy blog material, I’m going to note some of my observations- a half-assed con report, if you will!
First, the bad. Now, there’s not much to complain about, as Owlcon is super rad, and you should go to it. However, nothing’s perfect.
For one, they discontinued OwlCon prize support this year, which is a shame, but totally understandable from a logistical perspective. In years past, if you won a game (or got voted as MVP in a co-op RPG), you could go claim some random sourcebook or other shiny as a prize at the end. Nothing too fancy, but I tended to at least get one or two sourcebooks out of it in years past. If nothing else, this was gratifying in a nerdy way that I’d get rewarded for being the BEST WIZARD EVAR or something. Also, perhaps this is related to the lack of prize support, but it seemed like there were less vendors in the dealer’s room this year, maybe? Or they might’ve just changed things around, I dunno. I wound up picking up a fancy boffer-dagger for LARPing shenanigans.
Now, my third complaint isn’t as easily written off. Though it’s totally worth noting OwlCon as an institution has nothing to do with it, so I shan’t hold it against the ‘con. Still, it’s worth noting.
Let me set the scene for you, friends. I’m standing in the dealer room, looking at some small-press publisher’s table, as you do. And at the next door table (for a different small press publisher), I hear the following exchange:
VENDOR: Yeah, we use this ‘con to pretty much shake things out, and get ready for the bigger ones later in the year, like Comicpalooza.
SOME OLD DUDE WITH A CANE: Yeah, I’m looking forward to that con. My wife’s letting me go!
VENDOR: Neat! Should be fun!
MY SUBCONSCIOUS: This is a perfectly normal conversation!
SOME OLD DUDE WITH A CANE: Are there any cosplay girls at comicpalooza?
MY SUBCONSCIOUS: This…is not a perfectly normal conversation.
VENDOR: Oh, tons!
SOME OLD DUDE WITH A CANE: Are they high school girls, or co-eds?
MY SUBCONSCIOUS: Oh no he did not just say that.
VENDOR: Oh, co-eds, mostly. But it’s super hot when you get the gender-flipped girls who are dressing up like male characters, only hot, and…
MY SUBCONSCIOUS: THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS.
I walked away at this point, so I didn’t have to listen to anything more. Still, if nothing else, this served as a pretty handy reminder that ‘geekdom’ in general can be pretty terrible. Or, perhaps more accurately, people in general can be pretty terrible. On the one hand, part of me wishes I would’ve called the old dude out with a cutting, perfectly-sarcastic “Really?” but on the other, well, I doubt that would’ve helped anything.
But, creepy old guys aside, I did have a bunch of fun at Owlcon, even with the few games I played. A rundown:
Serenity: I’ve never played Serenity before, but I dig on the show (though I might not label myself a ‘Browncoat’ mostly ’cause I’m lazy), so I figured I’d check this out. The game was decent, but I fear I picked a bad slot. See, it was a late night Saturday slot, which meant that a lot of folks had gone home, and a lot of folks had gone on to do the LARP-y stuff where they got to dress up in neato retro outfits which I am now seeing on Facebook. Huh. Owlcon Protip 1: Play LARPS in the post 8pm slots. You can wear a neat hat!
In any case, the turnout was a little light, which led to each player taking two characters- which added a little versatility, I guess, but it kind of downed on the fun player dynamic that makes a great game go. We blundered around for what seemed like a little too long, but things got back on track when we boarded the bad guys’ spaceship to get the MacGuffin. Though there was one player who kept on saying that grappling-hook EVA-ing over to the other spaceship at sub-lightspeed was a Bad Idea, which in turn makes me wonder how much he bought into the genre-tropes.
Pathfinder: Now this, this was the best thing I played at OwlCon. Full disclosure, a friend of mine ran this game, but even if I DIDN’T know her, I’d still say this was a great game.
It was a straightforward dungeon-crawl, and honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that! What made things interesting was how the fluff and backstory were mixed in with the mechanics. The gimmick was, we were a bunch of amnesiacs, but as we found cool magic loot, we regained parts of our memories with it. And on top of that, I got to play a shooty archery ranger, which is one of my favorite of the standard generic fantasy cliches. It also helped that my character was death on two legs- I think I killed like 75 percent of the bad guys in the dungeon, mostly ’cause my character was specifically designed to do so. Rangers don’t shiv, mon.
Exalted: Now, Exalted is a fun game. It’s a fun game that I don’t get the chance to play very often. For those unaware, Exalted is a game of crazy-ass wuxia epic kung-fu ridiculousness. I heard it once described as ‘Like D&D, only you start at level 20.’
This said, I don’t think Exalted is the best game for conventions. It also didn’t help that the GM picked Siderials, which are the most out there of the Exalted types. Basically, where most of the other character types fall into standard fantasy archetypes (animalistic barbarians, grand heroes, undead super ninjas, etc) Siderials are basically fantasyland MIB Timelords who can mess with the fabric of reality. Which is pretty cool, I’ll admit, but a little heady for a convention game. On top of that, Exalted is a fairly ‘crunchy’ game as is, as every character has like a dozen different powers to keep track of. And on top of that, the characters kind of had different agendas so the party played against each other and played a little secretive. Which turned out to be somewhat funny, as my character turned out to have a pretty big secret, but I wound up sharing the most information- mostly to keep everyone else distracted and kinda-sorta ‘on track.’
However, due to the lack of info/communication, it took a long-ass time for the group to really get anywhere, and then all we really did was fight a demon monkey at the end. Which was kind of cool, because evil demon monkey, but I think the game could’ve been done a bit smoother.
Still, even in playing these few sessions, I can’t help but think of a few things to keep in mind for a ‘con game. As the makeup of the group is definitely going to make a difference, but there’s still easy stuff you can do to run a good game:
Tell the players who their characters are.
A little bit of fluff text goes a loooong way. Unless you’re deliberately playing oldschool D&D or something, just a few sentences describing a character’s personality, and how they interact with the rest of the party can go a long, long way.
Tell the players what they can do.
Now this one, this one is huge. Most RPGs have ridiculously long lists of spells and powers and other stuff. Writing a rundown of their schticks/spells/feats/what have you on the back of a character sheet is going to make everyone’s life a lot easier, as they won’t have to keep looking random stuff up in the rulebook. It also helps if you yourself know what all the players can do, and thus tailor the adventure accordingly- giving the rogue locks to pick, the wizard arcane stuff to decipher, the fighter things to stab, and so on.
Give the players something to do.
This is a tricky GM-ing thing, as if you focus too much on a set path, it’s railroading…however, if you give the players absolute freedom, they’ll probably flail around cluelessly for awhile and chase off on a tangent and before you know it your slot’s out of time and the players haven’t even found the Boss Fight yet. I think this is why dungeon-crawls are a fairly popular kind of ‘con game; the players are in an enclosed environment, but a well designed dungeon gives lots of opportunities to explore it in different ways.
In any case, that’s at least stuff I’m going to try to keep in mind for next year- as, circumstances permitting, I’d really like to try running something next time around. Maybe Adventure! (a white wolf game of pulp action that’s about…10 years old now, at least). Or heck, if there’s enough interest, I might even put together a test-run of the one shot before then! It’s been a long damn time since I’ve ran anything. Hope I’m not out of practice.