Posted by: NiTessine | July 5, 2010

Audiences of Seven, Maid RPG, and the Heat of a Thousand Suns, or, Tracon 2010: A Con Report

I started my con season over the weekend, when Tracon came to Tampere. The fifth convention to bear the name was also the first one to be held in the Tampere House, a huge conference centre that’s so close I could see if from my window if they weren’t all currently covered with tarps. Façade renovation, bastards woke me up at seven this morning, after last night’s dead dog party, by making a hellish racket with a sandblower on my west balcony…

But I digress.

Like last year, Tracon was actually an anime convention with a bit of RPG stuff on the side, this time mostly shunted off into the eastern end of the second floor. This is vaguely amusing, because according to one account I’ve heard, the idea for the con originally started with Excalibur, the technical university RPG club, who then invited in the anime guys, who took over. Of course, there’s a great deal of fandom overlap among the organizers, if not among the attendees.

This was also the first time Tracon was two days long, and in the summer. The changes in schedule, duration and venue are all very, very good things, since if you’re gonna host a convention for 3500 screaming anime fans, it’s better to do it in a place where you can fit them all and in a time when they can maybe spend time outdoors in costume without freezing their bare asses off.

As it happened, they could, though sunburn was a definite danger. Temperatures hit as high as 29 degrees Celsius, which sorta affected the atmosphere. The heat sapped our energy and cooked us in our own juices. Nevertheless, there was a convention to experience and the option of just lying in the sun and reading was simply not open to me.

The gamer reservation on the second floor was focused around the vendor tables of Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Arkenstone Publishing, with a demo room occupied by Sami Koponen (writer of Mythopoeia and father of the Efemeros ‘zine [both links in Finnish]) and Ironspine (link in Finnish) for most of the convention. I spent most of my con hanging around here and shooting the breeze. On the first day, two other rooms in the immediate vicinity were occupied by the Space Jerusalem group who demonstrated their gaming system and the virtual tabletop that they’re using. Their work interests me. The system is actually an extensively modded version of D20 Modern, meaning that it was their starting point several years and an absurd number of system iterations since. The ringleader, Nestori Lehtonen, gifted me a copy of the rules. The version number is 9.29 and while I can recognize the legacy of D20 in Jacketed Hollow Point, it’s pretty slight at this point. One of the more interesting points of note is that they character sheet and a lot of the mechanics are replaced by decks of custom cards. The system here is executed with a certain elegance, and the cards have a good design. I like the sense of humour in the art choices, too. Check it out. Their website has links to the virtual tabletop and the card design software that they’re using, too.

Since I mostly hung around guys selling games, it inevitably followed that I bought games. I walked away with some things that I’d been meaning to buy for a while, like Expeditious Retreat Press’ Lost Keys of Solitude and Arkenstone’s Solar System and World of Near. I also ended up purchasing Maid, which I’d never had any intention to or interest in getting, but I figured that €25 isn’t a bad price for something that caused such an uproar.

Maid Frost Doom

On the first day, the core gaming crowd ventured forth to the terrace of Nordic Pub to game. We divided up into two groups. The first playtested Karoliina Korppoo’s upcoming card-based soap opera RPG Saippuapeli. The second group was composed of me, James Edward Raggi IV of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Antti who posts at Six-Die Samurai, and Markku Tuovinen of Arkenstone. We spent a long time trying to decide on a game. Antti had his quick fantasy game system, but he didn’t have it with him. Neither of the Tuovinen brothers had brought along a copy of Solar System. I could’ve run Pathfinder RPG without a rulebook but not without some pregenerated stats and characters. James had left his game stuff to the con site. So, I rummaged around in my backpack and produced… Maid. The system is so absurdly simple that Markku could run it for us prima vista, having previously read only half a review, and it was a magnificently absurd game.

My character was Rinoa, a cunning, acid-tongued hereditary maid with a cool head, Antti played Sakura, a childhood friend of the Master, who was skilful and affectionate of the boss, and James had Rogerina, a slave girl who was actually a man. Rogerina was also the head maid. Our mission was to prepare a birthday party for our morbidly obese computer whiz boss, who was so fat he’d had to build his mansion on the Moon where the lower gravity allowed him some mobility.

I could try to give a coherent narrative of the game, but it would bring unnecessary clarity to the innate anarchy and chaos of what occurred. The game featured, among other things, the Uruguayan Deep Fried Chocolate Bar of the Month Club (staffed by a potty-mouthed, pipe-smoking Freemason), weaponized Ayn Rand, a really bitchin’ gamer hat, pillow fights, bubble baths, magical geas, and fan service. I’ve already been requested to run it at Finncon in a couple of weeks, and I’m thinking of making it a new entry in the One Module, Every Game saga.

The Program

I didn’t have a lot of time to watch the program. In fact, I believe there were precisely three program items that I saw in their entirety. The first was the panel Everyday of an RPG Designer on Saturday, where Ville Vuorela, Eero Tuovinen, James Edward Raggi IV, the Norwegian GoH Matthijs Holter and Miska Fredman from Ironspine talked about the practicalities of game design. The  panel started off with disappointment when it turned out nobody had any real experience with the loose women, drugs, untold wealth or fast cards promised in the  programme leaflet, but turned out to be pretty entertaining.

The second one was James’ piece on the Old School Renaissance, which was good enough. He speaks well for having pretty much no preparation and had one of his regular players shouting commentary from the sidelines whenever there was a sign that he was flagging. However, since his program items had been added to the schedule so late, they never actually made it into the program leaflet and there were maybe ten people present. Then, I heard there was a Naruto presentation that had seven people in the audience. Edit: my mistake, it was his Q&A session that was too late for the program leaflet.

The third one was a panel on horror and fantasy in games, which I was a part of. It wasn’t a total disaster, but I was thoroughly unhappy with my own performance and some structural issues of the panel (too many members, not enough time, overall vision muddy). I will discuss this in more depth in a future post, though.

Then there were program items I saw only in part – a presentation on zombies in popular culture by Minna Hiltula, an occasional player of mine, which was pretty good. Had to scoot when the Q&A portion started, though. Then there was a presentation on a really bad manga by Jussi Nikander (link in Finnish) and Janne Kemppi, which was hilarious, and which I saw a full half of before I got a phone call and had to leave. Finally, there was Otto Sinisalo’s (link in Finnish) Five Lies About Manga – Redux, where I came fifteen minutes late after stuffing a pizza down my gullet in record time and then getting lost in the conference centre, which shouldn’t even be possible. Entertaining stuff, though.

Summary

Overall, another good con. Could’ve perhaps been a bit less sweltering, but the organizers can hardly be blamed for the weather. The anime stuff is not to my interest, but then, I had a lot of free time to spend with the other awesome gamers present. We had, if not the entire, then at least a significant majority of the Finnish gaming blogosphere present (in addition to the above, Thanuir from Cogito, ergo ludo and Gastogh from The Small Dragon’s Den made appearances). The program schedule was a bit turbopacked and I’m unclear on whether there was any time explicitly reserved for the audience leaving, the next one showing up and for any pre-lecture prep by the speakers, since everything was scheduled to begin and end on the hour. In practice, especially in some of the lecture halls, this didn’t work out too well, which is one of the issues that plagued our panel.

Well, Finncon in two weeks, Ropecon a week after that. Busy times!


Responses

  1. I just had to comment and correct some misconseptions. A bit of RPG stuff on the side? As even Roolipelitiedotus announced, there were about 40 hours of rpg-related program at the con. Even if you don’t count the games, larp and tournaments, there were about 18 different lectures and panels that were RPG stuff. Granted, some of those combined the RPG and anime aspects, but it was there nevertheless.

    The conitea has always tried to balance the rpg and anime stuff somewhat equally. The anime guys haven’t took over, there are still (and always have been) people from Excalibur as part of the organizers.

    And lastly about the program leaflet. I still own a copy and the Old School Renaissance is listed there, on the chart and on the description pages.

    -Elisa, not part of the organizers but someone who has watched from the sidelines

  2. Yeah, the 40 hours is off by about a half unless you really count the demo room and the RPG sessions, which I wouldn’t, since then it takes a table of four people to start really skewing the numbers. While there is a decent amount of program, the attendees make the convention, and gamers are the minority. In the second floor, there was a twenty-meter gap of empty space between the vendor tables and the area where people were milling.

    The “taking over” bit is actually a direct, if humorous, quote from one of the main organisers, from the con organiser panel at Concon a couple of months back, and was referring to the audience. As I stated, there’s a lot of overlap among the organisers, but let’s face it, out of the ~3600 attendees that Tracon gets, the vastly overwhelming majority is there for the anime stuff. We’re talking about maybe a few hundred gamers, tops, plus a significant portion of the staff.

    It is, of course, currently inevitable in this country that when you hold a convention with an anime component, the screaming horde of cosplayers and midgets with “hug me” signs will outnumber all other attendees by a wide margin. Hell, they’d do it even if they didn’t have a habit of driving off other target demographics.

    I admit my error on the OSR thing. I remembered that one of James’ program items was too late to make it into the program booklet and figured that with an audience of ten, it’d have to have been the OSR lecture. Instead, it was his Q&A session.

  3. Thank you for the clarifications. For me it came across that you were talking about the organizers, not the attendees.

    I was part of the gamer minority and enjoyed the programme. But what is the reason that there were so few of us? And what would be the right way to get there more gamers other than good programme and great GoHs? (and other than kicking out the anime midgets since organizers want to create con for the both demographics).

  4. Nah, I know too many of the organisers to talk bull about them.

    But hey, there we have the million-euro question. Ropecon’s Game Master numbers have been dropping as well, though this does not exactly translate into lessened interest in roleplaying games.

    The problem is that there aren’t many roleplayers around in the first place anymore, and the scene is a fractious bunch, and it’s impossible to find something that everybody is interested in. It’s a dance of fine compromises, trying to appeal to a large enough portion of the gamer population without alienating the rest.

    Personally, I’m a fan of playing and running games at conventions, which is what I did at Tracon last year. Since the demo room could have easily housed one or two more active gaming tables, I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to quietly encourage more GMs to come to Tracon. Hell, I could come and run Maid or something next year. At least then the players wouldn’t necessarily be fleeing in terror from everything they faced like last year

  5. I doubt the “more GMs” approach. This year in Tracon there clearly was need for only one gaming group: Ironspine got a full table only after I had parted for Holter’s con game. And that con game wasn’t exactly crowded either.

    Maybe there is a way to find out what people want to see & do in a con instead of wildly guessing? Heck, maybe a con cannot even offer the things that a roleplayer is looking for. Let’s not confuse the means and the goals.

  6. There wouldn’t be craploads of roleplaying conventions if roleplayers weren’t looking for something in there. Regardless of whether it can be offered or not, they are, at least, looking.

    Roleplayers are pretty much defined by playing roleplaying games, so making that option available to them would seem like a reasonable course of action.

    Perhaps we can postulate some sort of critical mass of game tables that begins to attract gamers by wealth of choice? Maybe it’s an advertising thing and not enough roleplayers simply knew? Who knows?

  7. Roleplayers do not come there because there are so few roleplayers there. (That is why I passed a Tracon or two, and why a couple of friends did not come this year.)


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