Posted by: NiTessine | April 1, 2014

The State of the Scene

A while back, Sami Koponen requested a number of Finnish gaming bloggers to write articles about their views on where the Finnish role-playing game scene is now and where it is going.

Me, I think it’s doing pretty great.

First, a preface on what’s my background for all this. I’ve been gaming since the mid-90s. From 2009 to 2013 I worked in the organizing committee of Ropecon, Finland’s most important gaming convention, the first four years as the role-playing games manager and the last as part of the program team. I’ve also been consulting for Tracon, which is the second-most important. Additionally, I’m a minority partner with the Myrrysmiehet game company, wrote a book on RPGs in 2007, occasionally do some minor freelancing for Lamentations of the Flame Princess and other publishers, write every so often for LOKI, dabble in academic games research, am involved with the RPG clubs of both the Universities of Tampere and Helsinki, and last but not least, serve as the Pathfinder Society Venture-Captain for Finland.

No, I don’t know how I find the time for sleep either, but I do have a pretty decent overview of the lay of the land. Nevertheless, I’ll be doing a lot of speculation and there are a lot of invisible quantities involved here that I can only guess at and some things I just can’t plain talk about before they’re publicly announced. Take what I say with a grain of salt.

The Convention Scene

The convention scene is livin’ it large. Ropecon is financially stable, the attendance is stable, and it’s been going for 20 years now. We have an excellent reputation abroad for taking good care of our guests of honour, and the convention is generally the venue of choice for new releases. Ropecon has the biggest Pathfinder Society participation, more scheduled tabletop RPG sessions than every other Finnish gaming convention combined twice over, and is the convention where I feel most at home. This year’s Ropecon is in July from 25th to 27th, in the Dipoli conference centre, Espoo.

I foresee Ropecon going on for another 20 years, no problem. However, there’s a challenge in the near future, since the conference centre was just sold to a new owner, and will likely be renovated either next year or the year after that. It is possible but unlikely that this will not affect Ropecon. More likely, we’ll have to find new digs for a year and I have no idea where those will be. This does not make me think happy thoughts, since Dipoli is the best damn venue in the country for a gaming convention.

Second in line is Tracon, which keeps growing. It is actually the largest convention in the country at the moment, but accomplishes this through the anime fandom. The RPGs are a small but significant part of the convention and in the past few years it has become the place where the game publishers converge to talk shop, with fewer distractions than Ropecon. Tracon also invests well in their RPG guests of honour and last year’s Ross Watson is one of my all-time favourites.

There are also smaller conventions such as Maracon, run by the gaming club of the University of Oulu, CRYO. It’s a two-day event twice a year. I am occasionally able to attend, but it is a bit far for me. It’s nice, but the Oulu gaming scene feels somewhat insular.

There’s also Conklaavi, an event of comparable size in Turku. They’ve been plagued by really poor communications for a number of years and I’ve traditionally only found out the dates after I’ve booked the weekend for something else, but this year I’ll be there to run a couple of sessions of Pathfinder Society. The convention actually takes place next weekend. Expect a report.

An interesting curiosity was also Pampcon, a Swedish-language convention in Bennäs, which is one of those places I have trouble placing on a map. It was organized for the first time this year, and I have no idea how it went or if it is going to happen again. I couldn’t make it, but I’d be interested in trying next year.

I don’t think we’re going to see the rise of another major RPG convention anytime soon. However, as proven by Pampcon, smaller conventions can pop up quite easily. I also think there is demand for a small convention sometime in the first quarter of the year. As it is, there is nothing south of Oulu in the five-month gap between Tracon and Conklaavi. I can scratch my convention itch with the Tampere kuplii comics festival, true, but I believe there’s an audience for an RPG event in Tampere or the Helsinki region at around this time. Anyone? Build it and I will come?

The Industry

Okay, let’s admit right off the bat that the Finnish tabletop RPG industry is not a major economic force. Nobody is making a living off this, or at least not much of a one.

Currently, there’s a crapload of small RPG publishers in Finland. Some of them are proper corporate entities, like Myrrysmiehet, Ironspine and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, while others are private individuals like Tuomas Kortelainen or Sami Koponen. The biggest players are Lamentations of the Flame Princess, whose stuff is in English and is not constrained by the limitations of a language area of 5,000,000; Burger Games, whose Praedor and Stalker have both cleared the magical 1000-copy sales threshold; and Mike Pohjola’s Heroes of the Storm, which has an actual company with multiple full-time employees moving some marketing muscle behind it. Below the surface we have something like ten other companies that turn out, on average, more than five but less than ten new products a year.

So, the industry is lively, there are lots of people publishing lots of stuff, some of which is damn good, and selling it mostly to each other, which is basically what happens when you have a niche hobby and primarily operate in a language that nobody speaks. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this. Many people do not want to turn their hobby into something that their livelihood is directly dependent on because that sucks away some of the fun. It’s no longer voluntary. On the other hand, is not the job of the professional game designer one of the coolest in the world?

Apart from the small audiences, another thing that’s holding back many companies is the business model. Burger Games is probably the best example of this. Both their games are magnificent works, some of the best game design I have ever seen. Their mechanics are elegant and their prose clear. You get everything you need to play in one book. That’s all you need and that’s all you get. There are no supplements, just standalone games. Apart from Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Northern Kings’ Bliaron, this is how everybody operates. There’s nothing more for the player to buy even if they wanted to. The end result of this is that my Pathfinder RPG collection alone is bigger than my entire collection of Finnish RPG material.

Recently, though, more publishers have figured out that it’s possible to break into the English-language market. PDF publishing and companies like DriveThruRPG and Lulu.com make storage issues and warehouse costs obsolete. “Out of print” is becoming an archaic phrase. The investment of creating a presence in the market is becoming trivial. I foresee more and more companies taking advantage of this, possibly in languages beyond English.

Another trend I am observing is trying to aim for the next generation of gamers and designing stuff that parents can run for their children to introduce them to the hobby. Heroes of the Storm was the first, and Myrrysmiehet is following that up with Robin Hood, and Ironspine with Astraterra.

Is anyone going to make it big? If I could predict a thing like that, I’d be writing this in a much larger apartment.

Everything Else

The individual gaming communities is where things get really hazy. The thing about RPGs is that while it’s a social hobby, once you have those four other people to game with, you’re set for life and there’s no strict necessity to meet anyone else, or tell anyone else, or even know about anyone else. This makes it difficult to estimate how much gaming there’s actually happening. To my understanding, there’s even an active Pathfinder Society GM somewhere in Finland with no contact with the rest of the community. It’s somewhat maddening.

For instance, I know there’s a number of active gaming groups in the Tampere region, but the university gaming club has been in hibernation for some time. The sense of community is weakening, which is sad. I think there’s a real value to meeting your fellow gamers and sharing what cool things you have come up with.

Pathfinder Society, my personal bailiwick, is doing fine. I think the play numbers have plateaued, more or less. I figure that with the size of the gaming community, having two conventions a year capable of supporting a five-table special module is sufficient. Now the thing is in trying to expand to other cities and get something going there, however small. With Oulu I failed, but Turku looks like it might have potential.

The blogosphere is active, at least, as evinced by the wealth of responses to Sami’s original call for articles. The English-language ones are at Heidi Larpwise, and Domain of Man, and new players have stepped on the field as old ones have fallen silent, which is as it should be. The Pelilauta forum is still going and still a source of interesting conversations, as is Majatalo.org.

As for the inevitable question of whether RPGs, the RPG industry or the RPG scene is dying off, I have too much respect for anyone who’s read this far to waste their time with that particular topic, not to mention better things to do with mine.

Over and out.

Posted by: NiTessine | January 26, 2014

Happy Birthday, Hobby

Some forty years ago, the first copies of Dungeons & Dragons were sold. The specific date is a bit fuzzy, but Jon Peterson has laid out the evidence on his blog and January 26th is one of the likelier candidates, and why not?

A forty-year-old franchise is a big deal, and Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson deserve our respect for creating something that could so adroitly carve out its own niche and endure and sustain itself on a changing, competitive marketplace. However, D&D is only a small part of what came out of that Lake Geneva garage in 1974. It launched an industry, created a new genre of games and birthed a peculiar strain of cultural influence that pops up in unexpected places.

To me, the most important thing is that it originated a social hobby. Now starting on their fifth decade, role-playing games have brought people together around the same table, same online chatroom, same larp venue – and unlike sports, they are not competitive. It is just “us”, the “them” are in the fiction. I’ve sat at that table for some seventeen years now, and around it I have seen lifelong friendships form and romance bloom. It brings people together and facilitates communication.

It is also a creative hobby, a “game of the imagination” as the Dead Alewives once described it. Around that table, stories come into being, from slapstick to tragedy and all things in between. I have seen sonnets, songs and short stories arise from that table, and witnessed the formation of epic legends. I’ve also laughed so hard I fell off my chair.

Sure, it’s not always all these things and sometimes it’s none of these things, and not everyone plays for these things. It is these things sufficiently often, however, that I keep returning to that table. Those are the things that make this the most rewarding thing I have ever done.

So, I wish Dungeons & Dragons and the entire role-playing game hobby a happy birthday.

And here’s a couple of songs from way back:

 

Posted by: NiTessine | January 10, 2014

Greyhawk Lives! River to a Sea of Choices

A couple of days ago, I was contacted by the Living Greyhawk module author Grant Featherstone. He had stumbled upon the collection of Living Greyhawk modules by Sampo Haarlaa and myself from a couple of years back, and wished to contribute his own module to the collection, the Splintered Suns metaregional ESA6-03 – River to the Sea of Choices.

I remember playing the module. It is a fairly straightforward piece of work, but it showcases what was from my point of view one of the central tensions in the Splintered Suns plotline, the conflict between the United Kingdom of Ahlissa, which represented a strong military and rule of law, and the Iron League, who had weaker militaries but more individual freedoms. Law vs. chaos, basically. The military strength was relevant because the Scarlet Brotherhood posed a threat to everybody in the region and the kingdom of Onnwal only was liberated from Brotherhood occupation during the campaign.

ESA6-03 – River to the Sea of Choices, by Grant Featherstone

The revenue brought in by gemstones panned from the River Thelly is vital in the maintenance of the war-damaged city walls and defences of Nulbish. The Royal Guild of Merchants need guards to protect a barge full of grain and gemstones destined to be sold at Kalstrand for the Windmarch fair. The Ahlissan army after all routed many bands of outlaws and humanoid tribes during the recent campaign around Wyverntor, and these are desperate for coin and food. An adventure for APLs 2-8.

And here is Mr. Featherstone’s commentary:

This is the first and only adventure I wrote for the RPGA. It took a little over a year from the first contact I made with the local Triad when I whimsically offered to write a module to finally getting it polished enough for release. I did have an idea for a follow-up adventure but I do not think the Triad wanted to wait another year for it.

The title came about as a bit of a poke at the railroaded adventures most of the other RPGA modules were. However, once you take on the knowledge that someone else has to run it and with a group of any PC type you can think of, it actually becomes very challenging not to railroad the adventure and ironically the choices generally came down to help the Good guys or the Lawful guys. Or the other choice being to pay 25 gp to get off the boat! Apparently from the feedback I got most PC’s are tight with their gold and refused to pay for an additional roleplaying scene. The other feedback I got ranged from the encounters were easy “we backstabbed the cleric game over” to it is so dangerous its broken.  Ideally its APL 4-6 being a bit too deadly at APL 2, and too easy with the high level magic available at APL 8.

Apparently, he also received only one report where the party sided with the cleric of Hextor against the Nemoudian Hounds.

I’m pretty sure that was my table. I’m so proud.

Posted by: NiTessine | January 6, 2014

New Year, New Tricks

So, that was 2013.

For Worlds in a Handful of Dice, it was not a particularly remarkable year. I managed to pen a total of mere 15 posts, mostly convention reports. The year’s main event seems to have been in February, when I reported about Laborinthus, my peculiar find in a Zurich game shop. Reddit found it and showed up in great force.

The conventions were largely the reason it was so quiet over here. Between Ropecon, Tracon, and a third non-gaming event, I had way too much on my plate and came close to a burnout in the spring. I managed to muddle through Ropecon, had fortunately very few responsibilities for Tracon, and then had another annoying load of metaphorical bricks come down on me in the autumn, leading to me blowing a number of deadlines and generally not getting a whole lot done.

The year’s gaming was mostly Pathfinder Society, which has now reached sufficient autonomy that it barely needs my intervention to continue and grow. I also ran a game of Stalker late in the year, which I thought went rather well and drew my attention to an interesting fact about the system: it is possible for the GM to keep it entirely hidden from the players if they so wish. There was additionally a session of Paranoia XP, my first since the 90′s, which I shall not talk about any further. I played some Lamentations of the Flame Princess, too, and did some Myrrysmiehet playtesting. Alongside the Pathfinder Society campaign, a friend of mine started running Curse of the Crimson Throne, which is about one session away from wrapping up the first book.

I also larped for the first time in April. I am happy with both the experience and the blog post, partly because of the excellent photography of Tuomas Puikkonen.

The gaming world at large, then?

Well, Myrrysmiehet came out with the GM book for our game Vihan lapset. My contribution was primarily editorial, and I am very happy with the game. We also released Lännen maat, a role-playing game about the Egyptian afterlife, written by Risto J. Hieta, the Father of Finnish Role-Playing. The Glorantha Association of Finland released their translation of HeroQuest, which is also a very solid piece of work. There’s also Melidian, the spiritual successor of the elfgames Rapier and Elhendi. This is the only time you will ever see me use the term “elfgame”, by the way. I make an exception for games where you explicitly play only elven player characters. Tracon also saw the release of Lohikäärmeliitto, an OSR-like curio, and late in the year, Burger Games produced the free PDF of Crimson Rovers (scroll down a bit), a game about exploring and colonizing Mars. It’s in English, by the way. There was also the usual pile of Lamentations of the Flame Princess products, such as Vincent Baker’s The Seclusium of Orphone and his charmingly titled Ropecon scenario Fuck for Satan.

Paizo ran the open playtest for the Advanced Class Guide. While I am not strictly certain of the necessity of adding yet another pile of base classes to the already teetering tower, the hybrid class system seems to be a good way to do it. It limits multiclass dipping, and some of the ideas seem fairly clever. I am not fond of the hunter being married to their pet, though.

This year, I shall endeavour to have a higher rate of actual content-to-hamsters. Thanks to being involved with the Helsinki in 2017 Worldcon bid, I will also be digressing to that side of the fandom more frequently. These Hugo Awards are utterly fascinating…

Posted by: NiTessine | December 25, 2013

Paranoia Drinking Game

Recently, I was requested to run a one-shot session of Paranoia XP.Paranoia_XP

As a drinking game.

I am trying to ignore the fact that a person hitting upon an idea involving irresponsible drinking behaviour would immediately think of me as the ideal person to facilitate it.

The game is to be run this coming weekend, and I have been hard at work perusing the rulebook and preparing the adventure. However, the drinking game portion also needs rules. Ideally, the last third of the scenario will be unnecessary due to players being incapacitated, everyone running out of clones, or both.

Also, a drinking game, much like a game of Paranoia, needs to proceed at a reasonably fast pace to keep up the inebriation. To this end, the beverages should have sufficient alcohol content or be imbibed in sufficient quantities per ‘drink’. It is up to the players to supply their own poisons, though. However, I must note that red wine would be within their security clearance, while, say, white wine or cider would not.

To any players reading this, the Gamemaster may or may not be open to bribery, and prefers Scotch whiskies, noble spirit, and Russian vodkas. Full-bodied red wines are also appreciated.

The Players Shall Drink When…

  • …they lose a clone.
  • …they kill or are otherwise responsible for the death of another player’s clone.
  • …someone mentions Bouncy Bubble Beverage.
  • …their character is accused of treason.
  • …they accuse another character of treason.
  • …they roll a natural 20.
  • …another character gains a promotion.
  • …an experimental piece of equipment or a bot malfunctions.
  • …a mutant power misfires.
  • …their secret society briefing tells them to.
  • …the Gamemaster tells them to.

Drinking makes you happy. Happiness is mandatory. Therefore, drinking is mandatory. The Computer is your friend.

The Gamemaster Shall Drink When…

  • …ever he feels like it. It is good to be the Gamemaster.

Report to follow. No it won’t. We will never speak of this again. Good gods, that was a dumb idea.

Posted by: NiTessine | November 11, 2013

Murderhobos!

The term “murderhobo” gets bandied about a lot in relation to characters in Pathfinder, Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy adventure role-playing games. It denotes the tendency for player characters in such games to be functionally homeless wanderers without much in the way of a personal history and a casual, indifferent attitude towards using violence to solve every problem they face. The implication is that this is an unwanted and frankly, lazy style of play.

This is, to a degree, true. However, I’m not here to discuss how it sucks when people don’t role-play their characters. To me, the word “murderhobo” highlights something I have been saying for years – going down a deep, dark hole in the ground to effect genocide upon orcs is not the career choice of a well-adjusted person. I do not think this fact has sufficiently wide appreciation in the gaming community.

Sure, the potential rewards are such that even one successful delve can destabilize the economy of a region (or could, if the state of economic realism wasn’t typically even worse than psychological realism), and quite likely more than one will make in a lifetime of turnip farming. However, turnips don’t try to eat your face.

It takes something of an extreme personality to seek out such a line of work, and I suspect that adrenaline junkies would be in the healthy end of the spectrum. Sociopaths would probably be overrepresented. A distinct lack of empathy is almost a career requirement. The mental makeup required to go into a cramped, poorly lit, hostile environment, prepared to kill thinking, feeling creatures, is fascinating. How does killing your hundredth intelligent being affect your ability to relate to your fellow humans?

Of course, there would always be those who are forced into the profession by desperation and those who are just too stupid to consider what they’re doing. The latter kind would get weeded out in short order. However, even the sane people would probably not stay so for long. The kind of stuff that goes on in your average D&D adventure is quite sufficient to cause post-traumatic stress disorder, and your average adventurer would probably develop all kinds of psychological problems by level 5. On the positive side, they’ll have enough gold to hire a psychiatrist.

Personally, I think Lamentations of the Flame Princess has a pretty good take on how horrible dungeon crawling would actually be. To a person who’s even approaching normal, the genre of pretty much every mainstream RPG would be horror.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone should study the psychopathology of war veterans to improve their role-playing (I might give some rather more serious reasons why everyone should study that, though), but I think it’s useful to keep these things in mind. Even if your game is of light-hearted adventure where evil orcs leave bloodless corpses, we should keep in mind that this kicking-in-doors business is not sane.

Posted by: NiTessine | October 18, 2013

News from the North

There have been a few interesting developments in the past month or so on the fields of academia and Nordic larp.

First of all, the fourth issue of the International Journal of Role-Playing was released back in September. The issue contains five articles originally presented at the Role-Playing in Games seminar back in 2012. There will be more articles from the seminar in issues to come.

Incidentally, one of the articles from the conference, ‘Threesomes, Waterfalls, and Healing Spells: The utility of magic, fantasy, and game mechanics in erotic role-play in World of Warcraft’, saw daylight this summer as a chapter of Ashley O’Toole-Brown’s PhD thesis.

The articles in this issue range from an ethnographic study of problems in role-playing communities (or the Drama Llama Paper, as I like to think about it) through a literary analysis of rulebooks and how they affect the formation of narrative in role-playing games all the way to edu-larp. It’s a fascinating smörgåsbord of different ways to study gaming.

Also, the larp PanoptiCorp was played this past spring in Denmark. It’s a Nordic-style larp about an advertising agency that takes all the clichés about ad people and dials them up to eleven. The larp was first run in 2003, and Juhana Pettersson discussed it in a column about it back then. It is worth reading. This time, Cosmic Joke made a fifteen-minute mini-documentary about the game, apparently as a part of a larger, feature-length documentary. Here you go!

It could maybe have more Claus Raasted talking, but then, I like listening to Claus Raasted talk. He has a pleasant voice.

For the parts of the audience who read Finnish, the player Jonne Arjoranta wrote about it for LOKI.

Posted by: NiTessine | September 30, 2013

My First Worldcon: LoneStarCon 3, Part II

As I mentioned in the previous entry, the main reason I went to LoneStarCon 3 in the first place was because of the Helsinki 2015 Worldcon bid.

On Bidding and Parties

Bidding for a Worldcon is what you’d call a nontrivial matter. Typically, a bid is announced at least two years in advance of the actual vote, or four years in advance of the convention’s proper date. The Helsinki bid was announced only a year in advance. The amount of time, energy and funding even just to take a shot at getting to host a Worldcon is staggering. I was far from the only person to hop over the big pond to help out at the convention (and I probably should reiterate here that I was not a member of the bid committee, just someone to help out with heavy lifting and light banter at LoneStarCon itself – the really hard parts were done by people like Eemeli Aro, Crystal Huff, Jukka Halme and Karoliina Leikomaa and the rest of the bid committee). We printed posters and t-shirts. A sponsorship deal was struck with Lignell & Piispanen, who supplied us with some of their excellent liquors and fortified wines for serving at the room parties.

Our bar. Ignore the photographer.

Our bar. Ignore the photographer.

Incidentally, our bartenders Kevin and Andy discussed our drink offerings (and our bid in general, and other Worldcon things) on the Nerdvana podcast. It’s all worth listening, but the part about American culture shock when encountering Finnish acquired tastes is around 1:11. The cognac & vodka blend they refer to is called the “noble spirit”, or jaloviina. It’s one-star because it comes in one and three star varieties, dependent on the amount of cognac in the mix, and three-star jaloviina is just bad cognac.

A key element of a successful Worldcon bid, it appears, is the hosting of successful room parties. These were a new thing to me. In Finland, with the exception of Finncon, conventions stay put and the conrunner pool is smaller, so there’s no real competition for the hosting rights and thus no need for lobbying parties. Also, it’s common for Finnish conventions such as Tracon and Ropecon to have programming run until midnight or even later, leaving no dedicated time slot for an abundance of room parties. I was somewhat surprised by this.

The thing about the room parties is that they all (or at least all the ones I visited) had an open bar and free alcohol, which, as luck would have it, is my favourite drink. There’s been a lot of commentary on the blogosphere about how the membership of Worldcon is getting on in years, but in my view, if you’re gonna have parties with free drink, it’s better if everyone has had some years to develop a mature attitude about alcohol.

I spent a good portion of our three party evenings checking people’s IDs and giving them their “this person can drink” bracelets. Local law, as it was explained to me, required that we card everyone we don’t personally know before we can serve them alcohol, so I ended up checking the IDs of several Finncon guests of honour, one Hugo winner and a number of people in the age bracket of my grandparents. I heard a rumour that our ID check was so strict that our bracelets – which had our advertising – were accepted as confirmed drinking age even at other parties. Hey, I get told that something is a legal requirement in a foreign country, I don’t start second-guessing. Every place in the world is funny about alcohol in its own way. This, I take it, was how Texas does it.

Our parties, incidentally, were pretty great. The first night we served ice cream and tar syrup, the second night we had gravlax, and the third night we had crackers with a variety of jams and preserves, like Santa Claus brand reindeer paté. I have no idea where that came from, but I can appreciate it.

We may have had slightly too much ice cream, and a lot of it was left over after the Thursday party. This formed a problem when one of our coolers had apparently malfunctioned during the light and allowed a lot of ice cream to thaw out. The guys solved the problem by dumping it into the bathtub in our party suite. Unfortunately, the plug was not pulled. The result was… well, see for yourselves.

You gotta admit, there are worse scents you can have in the bathroom.

You gotta admit, there are worse scents to have in the bathroom.

So yeah. Friday evening, we were entertaining our guests while in one of the bathrooms, behind the curtain, lurked several dozen gallons of ice cream. Vanilla, ’cause that’s how we are.

I am pretty sure that conrunning is the only hobby where you end up with problems like this. Being able to say “Yeah, we filled the bathtub of the Marriott Rivercenter VP suite with vanilla ice cream” and seeing people’s faces makes up for a lot of stress. Especially when they see the photo.

As for the bid itself, well, we lost. We did not, I hasten to add, fail. For the first two rounds of counting votes, we were in the lead. In the third, once Orlando dropped out with 307 votes, the secondary preferences of their votes took Spokane to the lead with 645 votes against our 610.

A defeat of 35 votes, with 1,348 ballots cast, still rankles a bit. But just a bit. After travelling halfway across the world, I just could not let that ruin the convention for me. I had a wonderful time, met wonderful new people and made new friends, ate portions of food that would have their own area codes in Finland, and had the globe become just a bit smaller for me.

Also, we won half the party prizes, for Best Food, Most Crowded and one we shared with Orlando, Best Excuse for Hosting a Room Party (losing a Worldcon bid). We got enough of these shotglasses that even a minor cog in the larger machinery of the bid like me got one.

VICTORY!

Tastes like napalm in the morning

Overall, my convention experience was a good one. Indeed, it was one of the most fun conventions I’ve ever been to. I can easily understand how some fans will travel to the other side of the globe if need be, just to make it to the Worldcon.

Fortunately, I do not have to. Next year, London!

Posted by: NiTessine | September 18, 2013

My First Worldcon: LoneStarCon 3, Part I

For the gamers: this is going to be one of those long-ass posts about stuff only tangentially related to role-playing games (there were daily RPG sessions at the con and Steve Jackson was there). Nevertheless, I hope it is a rewarding read even if you do not consider yourself an SF fan.

For the sci-fi fans: this is primarily a gaming blog and for the benefit of my audience, I will explain things you will consider obvious. Feel free to skip the section “A Whatcon?”. I will also likely make errors. I prefer enlightenment to ignorance, so if you spot one, feel free to correct me.

The pileup of conventions that has been my past six months is drawing to a close, and I finally have time to breathe a bit and write stuff like convention reports that are running weeks late.

Last May, I was in Scotland doing my language residency, when one morning I opened up my e-mail and saw a message that went, basically, “Hey we bought you a staff membership for Worldcon in Texas, you think you could make it?”

You understand, I receive an e-mail like this usually about once every 18 months. Other classics of past years have been “hey I thought your blog was pretty cool, wanna write us a book?” and “why are you not already a Pathfinder Society Venture-Captain?” I’m getting used to them. So I ran the numbers and discovered that yes, indeed, it was economically feasible. Especially since most of the accommodations were also paid for.

The lobby of our hotel. It is a very nice lobby.

The lobby of our hotel. It is a very nice lobby.

A Whatcon?

This was a Worldcon, or the World Science Fiction Convention, if you want to be all formal about it. Every year in a different city, host to the Hugo Awards and pretty much the longest-running gathering of science fiction fans in the world. LoneStarCon 3 was the 71st Worldcon. I’d never been to a Worldcon or even had a membership, though by cultural osmosis I sorta knew what to expect. Sorta. I’d also never been outside of Europe, so there’d be that as well.

The reason for the invitation was that Helsinki was bidding to host Worldcon in 2015. The site for a Worldcon is decided two years in advance, and even bidding is a huge project in terms of money, time and nerves. As far as I can tell, the reason the bidding is such an intensive process, usually started two years before the actual vote and requiring presence and representation at multiple conventions throughout that time, including hosting bid parties, is that Worldcon is a tremendously large affair to organize and a would-be organizing committee must demonstrate their capability to raise funding and use it in an intelligent and responsible fashion (as far as these things go…). Also, people like parties. Parties are fun.

Indeed, by certain metrics, Worldcon was the largest convention I’ve ever been to. While the number of paying attendees was around the same as a Ropecon and somewhat less than a Tracon, this was five days long, from Thursday to Monday. At LoneStarCon, there was something like a thousand hours of programming, including a film festival and an academic conference. There are enough guests of honour for three regular conventions, plus a small horde of other people who would not be ill-placed as GoHs themselves, there to attend the Hugo Awards or just because going to conventions is fun.

Also, it’s the most expensive convention I’ve gone to. Ropecon is €28 for three days, Tracon about the same for two, Finncon is free. LoneStarCon 3′s website lists the price of $220 for an attending membership of the whole convention, and that’s before you go into hotels and travel. It was cheaper earlier in the year, but still not exactly pocket money. Also, you get your money’s worth with it. In addition to five days of convention, it fetches you a pocket program, a book of the convention and in San Antonio’s case, a complementary water bottle. Handy thing to have at a con, especially in Texas in August. For 20 hours of work, you’d get your membership fee reimbursed.

Most crucially, though, the membership gets you the Hugo Voter’s Package. It’s downloads of most if not all of the nominated works in the different Hugo Award categories, plus the John W. Campbell Award. That’s free ebooks of works deemed sufficiently good by sufficiently many people to be on the ballot. Novels, novellas, novelettes, short stories, other books, magazines, graphic novels. The dramatic presentation categories have not traditionally been available, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Loncon could prise the inevitable Doctor Who episodes from the iron grip of BBC. I must confess that I did not have time to even read everything, which also means I did not vote on all the categories.

The Con Itself!

As mentioned, it was a five-day con, running from Thursday to Monday. I spent most of my time either staffing the convention photo booth, which netted me a nice t-shirt and reimbursement of my admission fee, or working at the Helsinki bid parties. However, I did have some time to roam the convention, see a few program items and make purchases.

Apart from the scale of everything, the first difference between Finnish cons and LoneStarCon was the security. In Finland, convention security is done by fans who have been trained and licenced to work as security personnel. It is standard practice for conventions to spring the cash for a training course every couple of years to refresh the pool of volunteer security personnel. They’re usually unarmed but, if they have the appropriate training, may carry mace, handcuffs, or similar gear.

SIMBAAAA! Photo by Crystal Huff.

SIMBAAAA! Photo by Crystal Huff.

At LoneStarCon, security was provided by uniformed police officers. With guns. I must admit my heart skipped a beat when I first saw them, because over here, a uniformed cop at the con site usually means something’s gone royally pear-shaped.

The photo booth I worked at was (I understand) originally conceived at another convention, Boskone. It was overseen by Crystal Huff, who was also one of the co-chairs of our bid. It was mostly thanks to her efforts that I ever made the trip. At the booth, we had a load of props like funny hats, alien penguins, labcoats, steampunk accoutrements and fluffy bunnies. People would pick stuff out from the prop table (or not) and we’d photograph them and print them one to take home. We also offered the possibility of getting all the shots if they brought their own USB stick.

So yeah, I was not only allowed but expected to use a professional photo setup. It was mostly point-and-shoot, fortunately, and even a newbie like me got the hang of the basics pretty quickly.

The other duty I had on the convention proper was occasionally filling in at the site selection table, where we received the ballots for Worldcon voting. There needed to be a representative from each of the bids to ensure the integrity of the system and that nobody would have cause for complaint afterwards. Having played through Papers, Please a week before, I was right in my element checking that people had signed on the dotted line, checked the boxes and whatnot. Also managed to resist the urge to yoink Michael Swanwick’s signed ballot.

Apart from that, I was free to wander, buy stuff, end up in conversations with new people, buy stuff, eat interesting new things, and buy stuff. I also managed to see a program item, one of the about a dozen of Robert E. Howard themed items over the weekend. Howard, you see, lived close by – less than a thousand miles – and half the Howard scholars in the world are Texans. One is French. The item was a panel called “Robert E. Howard at the Icehouse”, with his boxing stories as its topic.

Sports stories, apparently, were a thing back then. One of the pulps that Howard wrote for had stories about all the major sports of the day – boxing, horse racing and baseball. Even the occasional story about polo. I’ve never actually read any of the boxing stories, though I have The Complete Action Stories anthology somewhere (story of my life: “No, I haven’t read that, but I’m sure I have it somewhere.”). I think I had the same problem with them as i have with Howard’s westerns. The voice that the stories are written in and especially the vernacular of the dialogue are foreign to me and I can’t get a feel for it as easily as I do for Conan, Solomon Kane, or Bran mak Morn. The Howard biographer Mark Finn did an excellent reading for one of the stories, though, which kinda points me in the right direction.

I kept running into the Robert E. Howard Foundation people throughout the convention and ended up with a pile of business cards and two volumes of Howard’s letters. The first book of the three-volume set has been sold out and the rest were horrendously expensive, but the correspondence of early 20th-century authors is fascinating reading and well worth the money. Letter-writing as an art form has more or less been killed by e-mail, but in the days of yore, these guys would write essay-length letters to one another. If you think Lovecraft’s literary output looks modest, his surviving correspondence blots out the sun.

The main exhibit hall also featured stuff like Artemis Spaceship Simulator, exhibits like the Israeli-Texas War Memorial, Jay Lake’s genome, a Doctor Who 50th Anniversary exhibit complete with a dalek who’d periodically tour the hall and shout at people, an art gallery, a mechanical bull (of course), and really far too many fascinating things to take it all in.

Next part: strange things done with ice cream, the infliction of Finnish drinking habits upon innocent and unsuspecting Americans, and observations upon the United States, or at least a part of one of them.

The book haul

The book haul

 

Posted by: NiTessine | August 18, 2013

Return of the Mythic Giant Space Hamster

Now that Mythic Adventures is out, I thought I’d revisit this wee fella I wrote up in April, based on the playtest document, and retool him to correspond to the final ruleset.

First, here’s your ordinary giant hamster with the savage simple template, like my original creation. The simple template doesn’t grant the mythic subtype, as you can see, and is not very exciting.

Savage Giant Hamster                               CR 4/MR 1
XP 1,200
N Large animal
Init +1; Senses low-light vision; Perception +9
–———–
AC 17, touch 10, flat-footed 16 (+1 Dex, +7 natural, -1 size)
hp 38 (4d8+20)
Fort +7, Ref +5, Will +2
Resist acid 5, cold 5, electricity 5, fire 5; Immune disease
–———–
Speed 20 ft., burrow 10 ft.
Melee bite +6 (1d8+6 plus grab plus bleed 1)
Space 10 ft.; Reach 5 ft.
Special Attacks cheek pouch, feral savagery (full attack)
–———–
Str 19, Dex 13, Con 16, Int 1, Wis 12, Cha 6
Base Atk +3; CMB +8 (+12 grapple); CMD 19 (23 vs. trip)
Feats Endurance, Skill Focus (Perception)
Skills Climb +9, Perception +9
–———–
Cheek Pouch (Ex) A giant hamster can try to stuff a grabbed opponent of two sizes smaller than itself into its cheek pouch by making a successful grapple check. A creature stuffed into the giant hamster’s cheek pouch takes no damage, and can escape by making a successful DC 16 Strength check or can cut its way out by using a light slashing or piercing weapon to deal 10 points of damage to the cheek (AC 11). Once the creature exits, muscular action closes the hole; another trapped opponent must cut its own way out.
A Large hamster’s cheek can hold 1 Small, 2 Tiny, or 8 Diminutive or smaller opponents. The check DC is Strength-based.

Now, if we delve deeply into the mythic monster rules, we can really make this a beast of legend.

Giant Hamster of Legend                               CR 5
XP 1,600
N Large outsider (fire)
Init +8; Senses low-light vision; Perception +10
–———–
AC 23, touch 13, flat-footed 19 (+4 Dex, +10 natural, -1 size)
hp 50 (4d8+32)
Fort +12, Ref +8, Will +3
Immune disease
–———–
Speed 20 ft., burrow 10 ft.
Melee bite +11 (2d6+13 plus grab)
Space 10 ft.; Reach 5 ft.
Special Attacks breath weapon (15-ft. cone, DC 20, 3d6 fire), cheek pouch
–———–
Str 29, Dex 19, Con 26, Int 3, Wis 15, Cha 10
Base Atk +3; CMB +13 (+17 grapple); CMD 27 (31 vs. trip)
Feats Endurance, Improved InitiativeB, Skill Focus (Perception)
Skills Climb +14, Perception +10
–———–
Cheek Pouch (Ex) A giant hamster can try to stuff a grabbed opponent of two sizes smaller than itself into its cheek pouch by making a successful grapple check. A creature stuffed into the giant hamster’s cheek pouch takes no damage, and can escape by making a successful DC 21 Strength check or can cut its way out by using a light slashing or piercing weapon to deal 10 points of damage to the cheek (AC 11). Once the creature exits, muscular action closes the hole; another trapped opponent must cut its own way out.
A Large hamster’s cheek can hold 1 Small, 2 Tiny, or 8 Diminutive or smaller opponents. The check DC is Strength-based.

No, wait, what? Erm, sorry. That’s… something completely different. Now, here is the proper mythic giant hamster!

Mythic Giant Hamster                              CR 4/MR 2
XP 1,200
N Large animal (mythic)
Init +2; Senses low-light vision; Perception +9
–———–
AC 18, touch 11, flat-footed 16 (+2 Dex, +7 natural, -1 size)
hp 46 (4d8+28)
Fort +7, Ref +6, Will +2
Immune disease
–———–
Speed 20 ft., burrow 10 ft.; sand glide
Melee bite +6 (1d8+6 plus grab)
Space 10 ft.; Reach 5 ft.
Special Attacks always a chance, cheek pouch, feral savagery (full attack), mythic power (2/day, surge +1d6)
–———–
Str 19, Dex 15, Con 16, Int 1, Wis 12, Cha 6
Base Atk +3; CMB +8 (+12 grapple); CMD 20 (24 vs. trip)
Feats EnduranceM, Skill Focus (Perception)
Skills Climb +9, Perception +9
–———–
Always a Chance (Ex) A giant hamster does not automatically miss when it rolls a 1 on an attack roll.
Cheek Pouch (Ex) A giant hamster can try to stuff a grabbed opponent of two sizes smaller than itself into its cheek pouch by making a successful grapple check. A creature stuffed into the giant hamster’s cheek pouch takes no damage, and can escape by making a successful DC 16 Strength check or can cut its way out by using a light slashing or piercing weapon to deal 10 points of damage to the cheek (AC 11). Once the creature exits, muscular action closes the hole; another trapped opponent must cut its own way out.
A Large hamster’s cheek can hold 1 Small, 2 Tiny, or 8 Diminutive or smaller opponents. The check DC is Strength-based.

Here you go, a fully mythified giant space hamster!

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