The Beauty of Loncon 3

Finncon was big. Ropecon was bigger. The 72nd World Science Fiction Convention was the biggest. I attended Loncon 3 at the tail end of a two-week holiday trip to London and, as prophesied by the late Iain Banks, it was great fun and a total hoot.

As last year, I worked with the Helsinki bid for Worldcon. Though we suffered narrow defeat last year running against Spokane, we have come back stronger than ever and are targeting 2017. More on that in a later post.

What was different from last year, though, was that with the Worldcon located in Europe, we had vastly more boots on the ground than last year and I felt more comfortable with not being on call or on duty all the time or at every party. This resulted in me seeing probably more programming than in all the other cons I’ve been during the entire previous year put together.

Emmi Itäranta signing her novel Memory of Water at the Helsinki tent

Emmi Itäranta signing her novel Memory of Water at the Helsinki tent

The convention was at the ExCel Centre in London, a ginormous convention centre from which even the ten-thousand member Loncon only took over one half. The convention comprised a couple of larger auditoriums, around 17 upstairs rooms for panels, one very large exhibits hall featuring the art gallery, vendor area and Fan Village, and some other spaces. It was big, and it was easily a five-minute brisk walk to get from the Fan Village to watch a panel. Longer than that if it was a busy time of day. I literally walked so much I destroyed my shoes. And I’d only had them for three months, too…

The Fan Village, then. Last year, and I gather normally at Worldcons, the parties thrown by the different bids and other instances are in suites at the convention hotels. This year, the con committee had arrived at the alternative solution of placing everyone in a large exhibit hall in their own tents, where they promoted during the day and threw parties in the night. I actually prefer this solution to the hotel suites, since everyone is in the same space, there’s more air to breathe, you don’t have to switch floors to go to another party, and there’s no issue with other people trying to sleep in the vicinity.

Along with our competitor the DC bid and the 2016 Kansas City bid, we were in one of the largest tents, having bid parties for three nights of the weekend, with one on Sunday night for Archipelacon, where the convention also announced its third guest of honour after Karin Tidbeck and Johanna Sinisalo. It’s George R.R. Martin.

The Hugos

I suppose I should say a few words about the Hugos, since I held forth at such length on them before. I even went to see the awards ceremony, which I missed last year at San Antonio.

I have absolutely nothing to complain about. While not all the awards went exactly where I voted them, most of them did and the ones that did not were all well deserved. Congratulations to all the winners, and keep on being awesome.

The Stuff I Saw

An observation about Worldcon programming: it emphasizes panels a lot more than single-person presentations. This is, from my point of view, unusual. I mean, over half of all the items on the Worldcon programme were panels, while if I filter the Ropecon programme for this year, which has four tracks of speech programming over three days for panels, I get a grand total of one (1). This is an interesting difference and the programme is probably easier to put together this way than how we at Ropecon do it due to the sheer mindboggling scale of it all. Loncon 3 had over 1000 programme items over five days and I imagine it simplifies a lot when you can just tell people “you’re gonna be in these panels” instead of negotiating every lecture separately.

This does, of course, require you to have all those warm bodies to allocate to different panels, but I suspect that Worldcon might be one of those “build it and they will come” type deals.

The following is mostly written for memory, rather too late after the fact. The long trip, ExCel’s overenthusiastic air conditioning, five days of convention centre food and proximity to people and bacterial strains from every continent but the Antarctic conspired to lay me low soon after I had returned home on Tuesday and it’s taken me this long to put together anything coherent.

So, instead of going through every damn program item, let me just offer up a few observations.

First of all, Mark Oshiro is one of the best panelists I have seen. It’s a different skillset from holding a presentation by yourself. It requires the ability to improvise, be spontaneous, and work with any number of other people in front of an audience. I’ve seen it done well, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done this well. His is a rare talent.

The audiences at Worldcon also impressed me. With one single exception, audience comments and questions were good, informed, intelligent, and respectful. Admittedly, I did not go to any panels with a historical topic. Those tend to bring out the armchair historians. I wish they’d just do the honourable thing and sign up as panelists if they love the sound of their own voice so much.

During the Food in SF/F panel on Friday, someone pointed out that during the olden days, water wasn’t really the safest thing to drink, so people primarily drank beer or wine. The appearance of coffee and tea in Europe coincides roughly with the beginning of the Enlightenment – so basically everyone went from being slightly tipsy to being highly caffeinated all the time. (No, historical causality is not that simple, but I find this an amusing coincidence.)

Perhaps the best panel I saw during the convention was called “Sinbad Sci-Fi presents The World at Worldcon: Arabic SF/F”. It turns out there actually is science fiction and fantasy being written in the Arabic world. Harry Potter has been translated into Arabic and is being read, not burned. According to the panelists, there are problems with translating stuff into Arabic, but they’re mostly financial and though there’s a prejudice against science fiction and fantasy, it’s that the stuff won’t sell rather than it offending someone’s religious sensibilities. At least, this is the case in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, where most of the panel hailed from.

From the left: Noura al-Noman, Ibrahim Abbas, Amal El-Mohtar, Yasser Bahjatt, and Yasmin Khan

From the left: Noura al-Noman, Ibrahim Abbas, Amal El-Mohtar, Yasser Bahjatt, and Yasmin Khan

As was also pointed out, talking about “the Arabic world” as a monolith is not really constructive, since there’s like 23 different Arabic countries and they’re culturally, economically and geographically very diverse. Heck, I have developed over the years a certain dislike towards discussing even sufficiently large single states like India, the United States, China or Russia as cultural monoliths.

Of course, the way we get our news from foreign cultural spheres is wonderful at creating the perception of such cultural monoliths. Seriously, when did you last hear a news story from an Arab state that was positive? Because I cannot remember if I ever have. That’s part of what made the panel so wonderful. It dispelled myth and prejudice and served as an important reminder that even in nations whose leaders we think are terrible (And seriously, do we like even our own leaders that much?), there’s this thing called normal people, who live and love and read science fiction. Write science fiction, too. Ibraheem Abbas’s books HWJN and Somewhere! have been translated into English. I missed out on the freebie copies distributed after the panel due to technical difficulties (my phone had died on me and the spare I was using was only slightly more advanced than smoke signals and by the time I got a new smartphone this week, the link behind the QR code had expired), so I haven’t yet had the opportunity to peruse them, but the few Goodreads reviews I of them I can even begin to make sense of look promising.

Also, the publisher Yasser Bahjatt introduced himself as a Spartan Jedi, because he was born in Sparta, Michigan and lives in Jedda. That was probably the most deftly done bridging of a cultural gap I have seen in my life. Here we have a panel looking very much the part of the Other, and then boom, Star Wars joke. Now we’re all on the same page, let’s talk about books. It literally brought a tear to my eye.

The Fan Village, as seen from the dealers' area.

The Fan Village, as seen from the dealers’ area.

These are the things that to me, make Worldcon special. While I can meet my Finnish and even most of my Nordic friends at almost any convention I go to in Finland, and they are great fun, and I think getting involved with running Ropecon is one of the best things that I’ve done, it’s at Worldcon that I can meet, well, the world. According to the con’s website, there were attending members from 54 countries. I made new friends from across oceans. I bought lots of books and talked with the people who wrote them (and now Scott Lynch thinks I’m stalking him). This lasted for five whole days.

I have this thing about conventions that I have mentioned before. When I go to a con, until it’s over I don’t really do anything else except attend the con. When I wake up, I go to the con site and I only leave it to crash for a few hours so I can do the same thing all over again the next day. I am fully immersed in the convention, I am with my tribe. I have no nationality but the convention, and my badge is my only passport.

It’s a hard crash back to the real world after a high like that, but it has never been not worth it. For this, I thank the fandom. For all its faults and occasional capacity for truly mind-boggling amount of drama, it remains awesome.

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Ropecon 2014 – The Same Old Song and Dance

Last weekend’s convention, with a fortnight of breathing space (yeah right) after Finncon, was Ropecon, 21st of its name.

This year, I’d taken on a lighter slate of duties, refusing a con committee position in favour of focusing on Pathfinder Society. In practice, this resulted in organizing and supervising a 34-table slate of Pathfinder Society games, including overseeing an eight-table Siege of the Diamond City special, and participating in two different presentations. I was still less busy than during my con com years, though.

The kill list of the weekend's Pathfinder Society games. Photo by Jukka Särkijärvi.

The kill list of the weekend’s Pathfinder Society games. Photo by Jukka Särkijärvi.

Friday was the busiest part of the con for me. I had to get the Pathfinder Society games going with seven GMs starting in the beginning slot, do both my presentations and in general get attuned to the convention.

The first part of that was the easiest, really. The GM desk, under the leadership of Arttu Hanska, was helpful and energetic in a way that I can only hope it was under my management, and made its new placement in the Takka-Poli-Palaver corridor work. Had to do some wrangling and one game started late, but all the first-slot games eventually went off, all the GMs got their paperwork in order and I could head off to do some final planning for my first presentation.

Well, I say my, but in reality, there were three of us. Along with Teemu Korpijärvi and Joonas Katko, we had a 105-minute talk about the British Empire, its reasons and history, and how those elements might be adapted for use in roleplaying games, titled “Guns, Germs and Tea”. Teemu talked about exploration and seafaring, Joonas talked about warfare and famous battles, while I discussed colonialism on the ground and how “the evil empire” is really a tautological phrase. It apparently went rather well, we got a lot of positive feedback, and it should be up on YouTube at some point for you to enjoy and me to curse every pause and “um” that I mumbled into the mike. Here’s a link to our slides. They’re in Finnish, but the bibliographies at the end should be useful for everyone.

Following on the heels of the British Empire, there was our presentation about the next really evil empire poised to dominate land and sea, Myrrys.

Myrrys

So, last year I started working with the small Finnish game publisher Myrrysmiehet. Myrrysmiehet is the outfit behind such games as the pirate-themed storygame Hounds of the Sea, the concept games LGDS and Swords of Freedom, last year’s Lands of the West (Lännen maat, written by Risto Hieta) about the Egyptian afterlife, and the most recent and ambitious project, Children of Wrath (Vihan lapset), a bleak, dystopian science fiction RPG about a world taken over by totalitarian aliens, who keep the population illiterate and easily controlled. It runs on the Flow system used by Stalker. This year we also released another one of Risto Hieta’s games, The Agents of Mars (Marsin agentit). In addition to myself, the Myrrysmiehet were Ville Takanen and Jukka Sorsa.

Then there was this another Finnish small game publisher, Ironspine, comprising the gentlemen Miska Fredman and Samuli Ahokas. They are responsible for making such games as the space opera Heimot, the occult action game ENOC – Operation Eisenberg, and the fantasy parody Legends of Generia. Most recently, they produced the frankly gorgeous family RPG Astraterra that got everything it asked for and more in its recent IndieGoGo and is, in my view, the prettiest role-playing game product to have been released in Finland.

There’s also this third outfit called Ironswine, guilty of The Fly (Kärpänen) and most recently the most awesome RPG in the history of awesome RPGs, Strike Force Viper. It’s a postapocalyptic action RPG set fifteen years in the future, after the Fourth World War, in 1999. The relationship between Myrrys and Ironswine is hard to define and slightly embarrassing for all concerned, so I’m not going into that right now.

Anyway, it so happened that the gentlemen of Myrrysmiehet and Ironspine alike took a weekend retreat to brainstorm games and playtest new material last winter, and the idea was floated that we should merge.

No, not like that, you perverts.

The idea was deemed to have merit, and looked good even once we’d sobered up. Our philosophies in game design are similar, there was a history of cooperation, and surely five guys can get more done than two or three. We then spent a while drafting plans and talking a lot, and made the final announcement at Ropecon.

Purveyors of fine role-playing games and terrible humour.

We also discussed our upcoming products. We have plans to release everything in both English and Finnish, starting with the Astraterra English translation which I’m raring to get my hands on and should be out in time for December. Also upcoming is Robin Hood, another family RPG, which is another short-term goal. There’s also a bunch of long-term projects whose priorities are subject to change as whim and mood takes us, but among those are Ville’s deckdrafting card game The War which is beautiful and atmospheric and has solid mechanics and just needs a crapload of playtesting so that the damn Conclave stops winning all the damn time, the second edition of ENOC which Jukka Sorsa and I are provisionally focusing on once Robin Hood is done.

There’s also those Ironswine dudes who are kinda suspicious and I really don’t trust, but they’ve got a game called Sotakarjut that I’m really, really tempted to translate as War Pigs, and Strike Force Viper, which has been pegged for further development.

More information forthcoming as stuff gets done. Once we have something to sell in English, we’ll be opening a DriveThruRPG storefront.

The Rest of the Convention

The last of my real duties at the convention was overseeing the Siege of the Diamond City Pathfinder Society special scenario, which we ran for eight tables. The job of the overseer GM in a special is easier than it sounds – it is just about keeping track of time, calling act breaks as they occur, and tallying results as they come in. It did require me to stay in the game room for the whole of the third act, though, which was slightly inconvenient and I must remember to draft myself an assistant GM for next time. The sweltering heat, associated requisite fluid intake and the resulting bathroom logistics were a thing. Fortunately, at least I had the foresight to request a microphone. Last year’s module had me shouting myself hoarse.

Siege of the Diamond City in full swing. Photo by Jukka Särkijärvi.

Siege of the Diamond City in full swing. Photo by Jukka Särkijärvi.

I must say, I thought the scenario went quite well. In my view, it is thus far the best of the multi-table specials released for the campaign, featuring interactivity between tables and level ranges, a suitably epic plot, and a chance for every table to affect the outcome. As it stood, the valiant and resolute Pathfinders emerged overwhelmingly victorious against the demonic horde.

Well, I thought that was the last of my duties. Remember that Finncon report from two weeks ago? The one with the dancing? Well, the editor of Conteksti, the Ropecon conzine, was in the audience, and decided to do a comic strip. The strip, for those of you unable to read the lines of anyone except Jim Raggi, features a bunch of Finnish game designers and publishers discussing the state of the horse, interrupted by the appearance of an Astraterra crowdfunding backer benefit of a flying galleon and my song and dance show.

Note: This is not an actual Astraterra backer benefit, nor will it be.

After it was printed, there was only one way things could end. I expect the video of the closing ceremony will be out around a year from now. That is the length of my reprieve.

All in all, I deem it a very successful Ropecon (as does the treasurer – at 3,933 visitors, we fell 13 short of breaking the record). I had fun. I met all the old friends I never see anywhere else. I got some books. I even had time to play games. I got my ass kicked in a sumo suit.

Me in a sumo suit, during a rare upright moment. Photo by Peksu Järvinen.

Me in a sumo suit, during a rare upright moment. Photo by Peksu Järvinen.

However, as all good things, it had to come to an end, and as ended Ropecon 2014, so ended the convention’s time at Dipoli. Probably. The Dipoli conference centre, famously described by guest of honour Jonathan Tweet as a building designed by Cthulhu, has been the home of Ropecon for over fifteen years. The convention has taken on the shape of its venue, and the surrounding businesses have adjusted themselves to accommodate us and profit from our presence. Seriously, the grocery store next to Dipoli has a clause about working nights solely because during Ropecon, they’re open around the clock.

And now, they’re renovating it. The renovations will begin sometime next year and will likely take it off our hands for the next two years. After that, we are not sure if the venue is still suitable for our needs or if changes will be wrought. It is time to look for a new home. We do not yet know where it will be, but we do know that it will be somewhere. Ropecon will happen in 2015, and 2016, and all the years to come.

And now for a smattering of links.

What I did not have time to do was talk a lot with the guests of honour, Privateer Press’s Jason Soles and Luke Crane, he of Burning Wheel and other roleplaying games. Fortunately, for that purpose we had interviewers and intrepid cameramen. The GoH interviews were the very first things from this year’s convention to be edited and uploaded to our YouTube channel. The noise in the background is the convention’s afterparty.