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.

 

Finncon 2014, Part II: The Obligatory Literary Snobbery

Continuing from my previous post, this is a sort of appendix about my thoughts on the Hugo fiction categories. Quite a few of them are available online, and links have been supplied.

The panel. Note my thousand-yard stare from reading a million words of Wheel of Time in the space of two months. Photograph © Johan Anglemark.

From left to right, Tommy Persson, Marianna Leikomaa, Jukka Halme, yours truly, and Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf. Note my thousand-yard stare from reading a million words of Wheel of Time in the space of two months. Photograph © Johan Anglemark.

I tried to read all the material before the panel. I got everything else done but had to give up on Wheel of Time after the fifth book. I simply cannot see the appeal of the series, and I object to the length. I think that in a novel, the first 300 pages are free. That’s a good length for a novel. It may suck, but it’s a decent pagecount and whatever else its successes or failings, will not feel too long. After that, though, you have to earn every page with something more than just “entertaining”. You need to have themes, depth, ideas, beautiful prose, something to bring it meaning. Neal Stephenson can pull it off. Eleanor Catton can pull it off. Umberto Eco, George R.R. Martin, Thomas Pynchon, and yes, J.R.R. Tolkien himself can pull it off. Should Hannu Rajaniemi someday be possessed by the imp of the perverse and pen an 800-page doorstopper, I am sure he would pull it off and look good doing it. Robert Jordan did not, in his first five novels, even remotely pull it off. The length of the series is respectable, yes, but apart from the distinction of numbering among the longest works of literature ever written, it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. There’s your Chosen One, complete with whining about his destiny, your Prophecy, your guiding Obi-Wan dudes, your orcs and your Dark Lord and your plot coupon collection. To top it off, it’s so damn humourless. David Eddings told the same story, but he only took five to three novels per telling and he could be funny when he tried.

I admit that I cannot speak for the Brandon Sanderson novels that cap off the series since I never got that far. Perhaps they are better, perhaps not, but I am separated from them by a gulf of thousands of pages I’ve no intention of reading.

That said, the Wheel of Time is not the most objectionable thing on the ballot this year. It merely bores me and takes up far too much space. It does not actively offend me in the way that Vox Day’s “Opera Vita Aeterna” does, for instance. Apart from what thoughts I have of the author’s political views (he’s something of a caricaturish embodiment of all the negative stereotypes about Christian fundamentalists), it’s some remarkably bad writing, with clumsy English, clumsier pseudo-Latin, and a vestigial plot that has the tension of an overcooked noodle. It feels like background worldbuilding for a larger series and the entire payoff of the story is tied to that some other series. There are also enough descriptions of medieval monastic interior decoration to make a novelette-length story somehow feel bloated. Then, it’s probably necessary for the story because it would never have made the shortlist at short story length.

I am also not entirely taken by Brad Torgersen’s stories, “The Exchange Officers” and The Chaplain’s Legacy, which read like someone found a couple of unedited first drafts written in 1956 and decided to print them as-is.

Larry Correia’s Warbound, on the other hand, I was predisposed to dislike, but the entire trilogy was in the voter’s packet so I read it all and was quite entertained. The 1930s superhero setting works, and reminds me of Godlike in a number of very positive ways. It feels gameable. The story keeps going, it maintains a sense of humour about how goofy it is (Count Zeppelin was an Active supergenius) and has a nice touch in Hitler getting executed for his troubles after the Beer Hall Putsch and the bad guys being Imperial Japan. I’ll read any novel where Ishii Shirō gets offed. That said, I still don’t think Warbound has much of a place on the ballot. It’s not nearly as strong as the trilogy’s first part, Hard Magic, and for all its virtues as fun entertainment, it simply has no depth. I am also not enamoured with the occasional gun porn or the overly gory descriptions of violence. They feel off and out of place.

Read this.

Read this.

Ranting over. Like I said, we all thought Ancillary Justice was the best of the lot. It’s science fiction doing what it was born to do, exploring the what ifs and why nots of the human condition. The novel focuses especially the concepts of identity and language. The main character is actually a part of a spaceship, whose native language has no gendered pronouns – and she defaults to she in English (it also just occurred to me that “Radch”, the name of the empire that is the main character’s home, is probably pronounced /ɹɑːdʒ/). It is a simple and elegant way of highlighting and problematizing something that we take for granted, the male as the default. It also probably renders the novel untranslatable into any language that doesn’t do gendered pronouns, like Finnish.

It’s also a bit of a send-up of Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, another favourite of mine. It’s already deservedly picked up pretty much every other major award in science fiction, and the Hugo would be a logical extension of the series. I mean, I won’t cry if it loses to Neptune’s Brood (Charles Stross at his internet puppiest, complete with an extended Monty Python joke, clever ideas by the bushel and a rather too abrupt an ending), but it really shouldn’t.

In the novel category we also have Mira Grant’s Parasite. I do not have a lot to say about it since it brings together medical horror, which I dislike, and zombie horror, which I hate, and the pacing is off. Almost the entire first half of the novel consists of doctor’s appointments, treatments and the protagonist’s everyday life. It does pick up once the zombie outbreak gets going, but it’s too little, too late. Additionally, there is a revelation at the end that was implicitly told to the reader a hundred pages previously. Even I caught it and I was skimming at that point. Sometimes figuring out the big reveal ahead of time makes the reader feel smart, but this one was too obvious and felt like sloppy writing. Personally, I think the zombie novel has jumped the tapeworm.

In the novella category, we get Catherynne M. Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White, which is a fascinating blend of western and fairytale. The story is beautifully written in this frontiersy, Deadwood kind of voice, and I ended up reading it aloud to myself to better appreciate it (as well as the sound of my own voice).

There’s also Equoid by Charles Stross, which is a worthy instalment to the Laundry series, with H.P. Lovecraft and the coolest unicorns anywhere. my favourite thing about the story is how the writing dates it between the second and third novels of the series, sometime in 2007 or 2008 – someone has a MySpace account. The category also features Wakulla Springs, an evocative story of the early days of filmmaking. And swimming. It has a very strong atmosphere and a powerful sense of place, but I find the speculative fiction elements kind of lacking. Someone commented that it should be read as a work of American magical realism, which I guess works, but does not quite do it for me.

This, too.

This, too.

In the novelette category, my favourite is Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”, a sentimental, beautiful and sad retro-futurist story about getting old and the pull of the final frontier. It’s just good enough to pull it off without becoming cloying. Aliette de Bodard’s “The Waiting Stars” was interesting and well-written, with an intersting way of tying the two seemingly unrelated narratives together. Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” I felt was somewhat distancing and cold, a very methodical exploration, perhaps even a dissection, of its themes. It was too explicit about them, and I think I would have preferred a subtler approach.

Finally, there are the short stories, the only category where I did not feel the necessity to field the dread “no award” option. My favourite was John Chu’s “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere”, very closely followed by Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket”, which is seriously funny. I think too many writers forget that humour is sometimes necessary to offer contrast to the bleakness and even more often that something being legitimately funny in its own right is a valid thing to aspire to. Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” and Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” don’t quite do it to me in the same way, but neither is bad.

The darkly funny thing about the inclusion of Correia and Vox Day and Torgersen on that list is that they’re all known for being politically somewhat to the right (sufficiently to come around into being politically wrong), and there is a certain temptation to frame this particular year’s ballot as a true test for the fandom, to reject the bigotry and the outdated values of yesteryear, to once and for all declare that science fiction and the people who love it truly stand for progress, for looking into a better future. However, it really isn’t. If it were Orson Scott Card or Dan Simmons on the ballot, that argument could possbily be made. What we are up against here, though, is one decent entertainer and a couple of guys whose work has the subtlety of a political manifesto, the finesse of a boot to the head, and a grasp of language easily rivalling that of an an eight-year-old English-as-second-language student. I can come up with no metric of literary quality that would see any of these men walking away with a rocket statuette. It is defeat enough that they’re on the ballot. While I would have no problem voting No Award over any of their works simply because there is a point in political discourse where I can no longer in good conscience agree to disagree, it is not relevant to the situation because their works are not the Best Novel, or Novella, or Novelette of the year, or even among the ten best, or in most cases any good at all.

Rant over, hopefully for good this time. We’ll see next month.

Finncon 2014, Part I: A Little Song, a Little Dance…

The science fiction convention Finncon 2014 took place last weekend in the sunny city of Jyväskylä. Along with Ropecon, it’s one of the two conventions that I consider my home away from home.

It’s kinda like that, actually. Except with more aliens and alcohol-based humour.

I was originally only scheduled for one program item, the Hugo discussion panel on the Friday before the con proper. The Finncon Friday in Jyväskylä sort of gently eases into the convention, with only a single program track and a smaller venue at the Writer’s House, close by to the university buildings where the remaining two days took place.

The panel was great fun. 90 minutes with Guest of Honour Jukka Halme, Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf, Tommy Persson and me talking about the nominees in the four fiction categories for the Hugo Award this year, moderated by Marianna Leikomaa. We all agreed that Ancillary Justice is the best novel and Wheel of Time is too damn long regardless of whether you like it. More on these in a later post that I already wrote up last night in a sort of a flow state before realizing that leading my convention report with 1,000 words of literary criticism is not an idea with merit.

I was also there to promote Ropecon, which led to a lot of sitting behind a table next to the Helsinki in 2017 Worldcon bid table. Ropecon is in two weeks, and we handed out lots of fliers. It was interesting to note how many people were not really aware of the convention even though the overlap between Finncon’s and Ropecon’s target audiences is great and Ropecon’s been around for over 20 years now.

One reason I like Finncons in Jyväskylä (the hosting city rotates between Helsinki, Turku, Jyväskylä and Tampere) is that they’re generally smaller and there’s this social signal-to-noise ratio that is a lot clearer than in the other cities, where there are more people who just drop by on a whim or come to gawk at the spectacle (Finncon is free, so the threshold to do that is very low). Thus, a larger portion of the attendees are into the fandom. It feels like home. As the fan guest of honour Jukka Halme commented: “Fandom is love.”

Because I spent most of my time at the Ropecon promotion table and because it was frankly rather hot in there, I did not go see a lot of programming. On Sunday, I caught the duel between Shimo Suntila and Tuomas Saloranta for the title of the Last Trash Writer of Finland, where the two prolific (the Finnish small publishers are currently releasing anthologies at a sufficient clip that I can no longer afford to buy them all, forcing me to start writing short stories so I can get author copies – my first story is going to be in the Hei rillumapunk! anthology, which is coming out this autumn) authors and editors talked smack and went at each other with boffer swords. Judges were bribed, illegal weaponry was utilized, the electric kannel sang, and the end result was a tie.

“You interrupted my story, you scoundrel!”
“It was bad!”
“You’d still publish it!”
– harsh men, harsh language

The duelists. Photograph © Antti Kiviranta.

The duelists. Photograph © Antti Kiviranta.

I also managed to catch Jukka Halme’s guest of honour interview, though it was late in the day and I’m afraid I nodded off at one point.

The guests of honour, by the way, were magnificent. I might ascribe Finncon’s success with guests of honour to luck, but really it’s about skill and experience in first inviting cool and interesting people and then treating them with the honour they deserve, which in turn brings out the best in their own speeches, panel discussions and general attitude at the convention. They’re kept happy and in turn they make the attendees happy. This year we had Hannu Rajaniemi, the erudite author of the sublime Quantum Thief, Fractal Prince and Causal Angel; the just as erudite and staggeringly prolific Elizabeth Bear (winner of Hugos for “Tideline” and “Shoggoths in Bloom”); Jukka Halme, a great man of wit; and Scott Lynch, a man of great wit (and author of The Lies of Locke Lamora). Also featuring, as ever, a horde of other authors both foreign and local and the honourary Finn Cheryl Morgan, who reported on the convention daily (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6).

And then there was the masquerade. Oh boy, the masquerade. I was asked to do some minor co-hosting for the masquerade a couple of hours before the event itself, with the actual hosting being done by Cheryl. I was just supposed to announce the halftime show, during which the judges deliberated and passed their final judgments on the contestants. The halftime show was Juha Jyrkäs reading poetry from his Kalevala poem workshop and excerpts from his own epic poem Ouramoinen, likewise in troichaic tetrameter.

Sounds easy? Yeah, well. Because of reasons, the length of the halftime was rather in excess of the amount of material that had actually been reserved to fill it, and our professional entertainer had a rather tight schedule himself, as he had to go do that thing professional entertainers do and head off to an actually paying gig. This left me with a mike, an audience and a somewhat awkward situation.

So, I improvised some stand-up comedy, danced a bit, sang a bit and was fortunately rescued by some of the masquerade participants who picked up when I could no longer come up with more material. I’d like to thank Laku, Paavo, Eemeli and all the rest for helping me salvage the situation. The audience was entertained.

This is one thing that I love about Finncon. The audiences are intelligent and understanding. There were a hundred people in the room and not a single heckler.

Best in Show, Geralt of Rivia. Photograph © Joonas Puuppo.

Best in Show, Geralt of Rivia. Photograph © Joonas Puuppo.

Mind you, I prefer the traditional model for the masquerade, where the awards ceremony is separate from the contest proper, giving the judges all the time they need. A halftime show like this requires a different skillset from panels and presentations. It calls for showmanship and stage presence, and I am not sure how easy it is to dig up the people who can pull it off. This is something to keep in mind for Finncon 2016 in Tampere and next year’s Archipelacon (because of reasons, there’s not going to be a Finncon next year so to fill the gap we’re banding together with the Swedes and producing Archipelacon in Mariehamn).

I also bought a pile of books. The sci-fi flea market is the bane of my existence. It’s not that it’s expensive, since it really is not, it’s just that carrying all the books home is a lot of work. I even picked up some French children’s comics because they were only one euro apiece. My French is not particularly good. Also, neener neener neener I’ve got The Causal Angel.

The haul. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi.

The haul. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi.

This Finncon was the end of an era. It is the final convention of a nine-year period when there was a Finncon every year, the longest such unbroken streak in the history of the convention. Next year, we go to Archipelacon, while Finncon will make a victorious return in 2016, in Tampere.

So, that was Finncon. It was lovely, one of the most fun conventions I’ve been to. I am proud to have done my small part in making it happen, and proud to be a part of the community that produces such joyous events, and creates a place where people of all backgrounds can come together, united by their common interest in strange fiction and all of its modes of expression. It gives me this warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

Photographs used with permission, courtesy of http://usvazine.tumblr.com/.

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!

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

 

Ropecon 2013: A Con Report

This is going to be a slightly awkward convention report. I was there, and I organized a substantial and visible portion of it, but due to the myriad responsibilities weighing me down, I did not actually see all that much of it. Ropecon 2013 ran from July 26th to 28th, and gathered about 3,625 visitors, which is some 200 more than last year. This is a nonprofit venture entirely organized by unpaid volunteers – by the gamers, for the gamers.

This was my first year as a program manager, one of three organizers responsible for the panels, presentations and workshops that ran during the three days of Ropecon 2013, as well as the opening and closing ceremonies, the gala, the disco, the ball, the musical, the costume contest and the art gallery.

In practice, this means we recruited, wrangled, approved and negotiated with the people who actually did all of that. A purely organizational role. However, there were 135 hours of active program slots under our management, and inevitably for something with that many moving parts reliant on human beings, something would threaten to go wrong and we’d have to run and make things right. Someone fell ill, items went missing, technical issues… the usual. However, despite having more program than pretty much ever before, not a single item was cancelled or even critically late (the gala started some fifteen minutes behind schedule, but that was just bound to happen anyway).

In addition, as the Venture-Captain of Finland, I was responsible for the Pathfinder Society offerings at the convention. That went rather well, I think. I originally estimated we’d have 21 slots of games and we ended up with 29, one of which got cancelled due to lack of players. That one, unfortunately, was The Ruins of Bonekeep special scheduled to be run by Mike Brock, the campaign manager. The sign-up sheet went mysteriously missing. However, the Race for the Runecarved Key special that I oversaw ran for a total of six tables and 39 players, and everybody seemed to have fun, despite some tables running out of time.

I think the scenario is a definite improvement over last year’s Blood Under Absalom in that the final winner is actually determined by performance and not blind luck. However, I think the last act runs slightly too long and includes an unnecessarily aggravating encounter.

Thanks to the quite generous product support provided by Paizo, we also gave out 48 copies of Ed Greenwood’s brand new novel Wizard’s Mask. Also, a pile of Inner Sea World Guides.

The only panel I had time to witness in its entirety was the Science Panel, which was roughly conceived as “let’s get these natural science people talking about science and magic, and give them the final late-night slot so they’ll be tired and they can go on as long as they want”. To help things along, we had an unofficial humanities block in the front row, with a couple of historians, a folklorist, and me, as the Venture-Captain who knows how the rules work and how they interact with reality. Every now and then they threw me the catchbox mike and asked me about the specifics of the peasant railgun or divination spells or something, Turns out, most of this stuff violates causality.

Apart from that, I had time to catch about half of two other presentations, and that’s it. I am eternally grateful to our documentation team and Rami Hänninen for recording most of the stuff. It’s now in editing and should be making its way to YouTube once the magic has been worked. It’s a tremendous boon to the busy convention organizer who otherwise will never see what they were part of facilitating.

In honour of this being the 20th Ropecon, we also had a small exhibit about the convention’s history, with collections of old ticket bracelets, the original trophy sword of the boffer tournament that Joonas Kekkonen got to take home after winning it thrice in a row, games released at Ropecon, photos, and classic costumes from years past. It was just awesome.

Speaking of Ropecon releases, this was a good year. Ironspine reprinted Kärpänen (The Fly), Myrrysmiehet came out with the GM guide to Vihan lapset (a work that I contributed to, apparently more substantially than I’d originally realized) and Lännen maat, Nordic’s new game about the Egyptian afterlife. The big event, of course, was Mike Pohjola’s Myrskyn sankarit, sold in a lavish box, with dice and everything. The classic elfgames of yore, Rapier and Elhendi, also got their sequel in Melidian, and the Glorantha Society of Finland, Kalikos, got their HeroQuest translation out just in time for the convention. Lamentations of the Flame Princess was out in force, as is Jim’s style, with kickstarter releases such as guest of honour D. Vincent Baker’s The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions, and the new Ropecon limited edition adventure Fuck for Satan. Smaller releases seen this year were Sami Koponen’s larp leaflet Sodan vangit and Nestori Lehtonen’s dungeon crawler Lohikäärmeliitto.

Fortunately, after the program for the day was done, I at least had time to relax at Cantina with friends. It’s the great thing about Ropecon. I can just sit at an empty table, and friends will spontaneously appear. If no tables are empty, I can always find a friendly table to join. Ropecon is my Cheers.

That said, I’m taking a break. The year has been far too busy and I’m beat. For 2014, I will take no conitea-level positions at any convention and will focus on managing Pathfinder Society with the attention it needs and deserves. I’ve worked Ropecon for five years, and I think I can take a year off.

But just one year. Come 2015, rest assured, I’ll be back in the saddle again. Which saddle, remains to be seen.

Finncon 2013

I’ve been silent here for two months now. This has not been my intention, but life has a way of placing distractions in our path, and especially my life has been noted more than once to be strange. Since the last post, I’ve been to Prague and spent three weeks in Edinburgh, and chaired a three-day, 160-attendee student event. That particular one was an event that redefined the concept of “stress” for me. I’ve been overwhelmingly busy and finding things to write about, let alone mustering up the energy to write about them, has been a secondary priority at best.

However, now the convention season is properly upon us and though I’m still overwhelmingly busy, they do give me material to write about with no extra effort.

Yesterday ended the three-day science fiction convention Finncon 2013 in Helsinki. It’s not strictly-speaking a gaming convention, but it’s my blog and I’m allowed to digress into related fandoms. Especially if they come with singing dwarves. There’s a gaming bonus at the end!

Finncon, for me, was the “easy convention” of the summer, which meant that my workload was limited to the duration of the convention and included no organization or management duties. I had a few hours of various gopher duties (“gopher” being local slang for general-purpose convention worker of the kind that mans sales desks, lifts heavy objects and runs the thousand little errands that make a convention work), and what seems to have become my thing at Finncon, hosting the masquerade. With both the other big Finnish cons I do every summer, Ropecon and Tracon, I’ve managed to accumulate an impressive collection of duties.

As a gopher, my convention actually started the day before the convention started. Before the guests can be allowed in, the convention has to be built. Tables and chairs and knitting corners and flea markets have to be set up, which involves a lot of heavy lifting. It’s the most exercise I get in a year. All this got done on Thursday, and was then undone on Sunday evening, after the con closed.

Due to my multitude of duties, I actually didn’t have time to watch a lot of the programming beyond the program items I had to gopher for. The first item I had time for was the traditional Hugo Awards panel, where four critics and fans with enough time to actually give an honest go at reading everything nominated discuss the nominees and give their preferences and predictions on how things will turn out. I’ve always found it an interesting talk, and this year it was even moreso since I’m registered as a voter this year and have actually read some of the stuff, and will be chugging through as much of the rest as possible over the next month.

For my part, I think the novel category was overall rather disappointing, but will probably go to Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. Short story goes to Aliette de Bodard for “Immersion”, as it should, though Kij Johnson’s “Mantis Wives” gets props for a powerful, visceral ick reaction. The graphic story category is interesting this year since Phil Foglio bowed out after his hat trick and for once, there’s no Girl Genius album to take the prize. Personally, I consider Locke and Key 5: Clockworks by far the best of the category. I’m still working my way through related works and haven’t yet even taken a crack at the novellas and novelettes, and I fear I won’t have time for all the categories.

The other thing I got to see on my own time was titled Gone But Not Forgotten, a Friday-evening memorial panel in remembrance of all the people the fandom has lost in the past year, writers and fans alike. It’s been a grim year and several veritable giants in the field have passed away, such as Boris Strugatsky, Harry Harrison, Ray Harryhausen, Jack Vance, Richard Matheson, Iain Banks… Banks, especially, went far before his time. It is good to remember them, how they changed the field and contributed to it, how they were all around great people.

I also got to gopher for half of a discussion between the eco sci-fi writer Risto Isomäki and the guest of honour Peter Watts, which turned into an interesting “Biggest Pessimist” competition as they discussed the various ways we’ll probably end up killing ourselves as a species, and the traditional Bimbo Panel, which was strange and funny.

And then there was the masquerade. We had some pretty amazing costumes this year, including a really impressive Tony Stark and a Ghostbusters team. However, what really takes the prize from me (and took the prize for Best of Show as well) was a company of dwarves. Here’s a video of them on the stage.

We also very narrowly dodged an embarrassing and awkward situation through sheer luck. When I was writing the script for myself (I’m absolutely rotten at talking on stage without a script), I juggled two choices for the speaking in the dwarves. There’s the one I settled for, which you can hear on the video… and then there was the song “Misty Mountains”, which you can also hear on the video. It’s a good thing I went for original material. Basing the script too heavily on quotation about the masquerade character always carries the risk of great minds thinking alike and pre-empting the contestant’s own speech or performance, and the presenter should never upstage the contestants.

What you don’t hear on the video is that I do the presenting in both Finnish and English. Since one of our guests of honour, Aliette de Bodard, was French, I’d also prepared some lines in French, but unfortunately she was not part of the judges’ panel.

The guests of honour, by the way, were great. In addition to Aliette de Bodard, we had Peter Watts, Stefan Ekman and J. Pekka Mäkelä, and additionally as guests there were Caitlin Sweet, Nene Ormes, Sara B. Elfgren, Mats Strandberg, Karin Tidbeck, Tom Crosshill, and the ever-present Cheryl Morgan. They were funny, they were intelligent, they were warm, they were gracious and they were approachable. One could not have hoped for better. (Though it’s a dream of mine to some day see Neal Stephenson at Finncon.)

Some of Aliette’s work is available through her website. Peter has an entire novel, Blindsight, up under a Creative Commons licence. I gobbled it up overnight off my laptop screen, and loved it. It’s as cheerful as a wake, and provoked James D. Nicoll to comment that whenever their will to live grows too strong, they read some Peter Watts. I cannot comment on the other writers, since I have unfortunately not read their work (yet!), and a number of them write in a language that I do not, strictly speaking, know. Well, good excuse to improve my Swedish.

It was a good convention. Finncon, along with Ropecon, is one of the places where I feel truly at home, where everybody is a friend, where I can just walk into the restaurant and sit down, and good company will almost spontaneously manifest. It’s where a dinosaur on the yard is just business as usual, the convention security has nothing to do, and we all share the love of reading. Me, I bought 28 books.

This is a distinction from American conventions, as I understand. Finncon is primarily a literature convention. Other media are not excluded, but there is more stuff about literature than, say, film, and it’s especially visible in the guest lineup. Eleven people, and they’re all authors, editors and translators. I’m not sure if they’ve ever even tried to invite, say, a Star Trek actor, but I know they’ve never had one. I hear things about American conventions, and they always sound very different from what we’ve got going in Finland. I’ll be seeing it for myself at San Antonio in a couple of months, when I’m going to Worldcon to help with the Helsinki Worldcon bid for 2015.

Yeah, we intend to bring Worldcon to Finland. It’s not yet a done deal but neither is it an unrealistic ambition. We’re good at this, and I feel that if we’re given the opportunity, we can pull off a great Worldcon.

The Game Content

In compliance to Joesky’s Rule, I now present the outline for an alternative D&D rules variant related to us by Cheryl Morgan at the dead dog party on Sunday.

The variant is designed to be played in a bar, preferably well stocked and affordable, which probably makes this unplayable in Finland. In fact, it might be accurately described as a D&D drinking game. Instead of rolling dice, characters have a specific thing or way that they must drink in order to perform in combat. It’s a four-class system.

  • Fighters are the easy class, as usual. Fighters drink beer. The faster they down their pints, the better they fight. The DM can be equipped with a stopwatch or they can just eyeball it. By the time they’re fighting the BBEG, that’s what he’ll be doing anyway.
  • Clerics drink wine. To cast a spell, the cleric must identify grape varities in wines by blind tasting. At higher levels, they can graduate to whiskies.
  • Wizards must create mixed drinks based on the spells they cast. I figure the old standby fireball could just be done with a shot of Fireball, though.
  • Thieves can drink anything… as long as they don’t pay for it.

I suppose the ruleset could be refined further, though I also suppose that whatever you do with it, the end result will be pretty far from any conventional definition of “refined”.

Anyway, good convention. Next up, Ropecon in a couple of weeks!

Tracon 2012: A Roleplaying Game Convention

Tracon 2012 was held last weekend at Tampere-talo, in Tampere, Finland. It’s billed as the “Tampere roleplaying and anime convention”, but in previous years, it’s been more of an anime convention with a bit of roleplaying stuff because the organizers are interested in it. This is because anime is amazingly popular over here, to the point where you can put up a convention in a rural municipality nobody’s ever heard of and triple their population for the weekend.

Anyway, previously Tracon has never really felt like a roleplaying game convention, just an anime convention where some guys from the gaming scene come to hang out, sell each other their new releases, shoot the breeze and eat together. This year, that changed.

Tracon is a big con. They had 4,800 visitors this year, a boost of some 700 from last year. If this keeps up, they’ll grow out of their venue. Its roleplaying side is a wee tiny thing compared to the rest of it. One room for games, a handful of game masters, a small nook on the second floor for the RPG vendors, away from the actual vendor area. Usually, there have been very few games and most of them got cancelled for lack of players. This year, that changed.

One of the guests of honour was Sandy Petersen, the man behind Call of Cthulhu, which is probably a contributing factor. I feel that Pathfinder Society can also claim some of the glory. There was gaming at Tracon this year. I think there were 24 games scheduled and around 20 of them ran (my numbers are probably a bit off, but they’re in the ballpark). In addition, there were two ex tempore Pathfinder Society games on top of the five we had scheduled, and Sami Koponen & co. did a magnificent job with short, introductory game sessions in the hall outside the games room and ran a total of 19 sessions of different games. The numbers may not look like much, but in Tracon, it’s a huge leap forward. Despite there being less RPG-related speech programming than in the past several years (or ever?), there were definitely gamers present and they actually played games. We even got some new people introduced to the hobby.

To me, this is what defines a roleplaying game convention. You may talk all you want about games, but it’s the actual playing that makes the con.

I myself ran two games of Pathfinder Society and mostly spent my time hanging out with the other gamers. I ended up seeing only two program items. First of these was Sandy Petersen’s guest of honour speech, Horror in Gaming.

Unfortunately, it was not very good. He’s an excellent, obviously experienced and articulate speaker, but the presentation was structured badly for the 45-minute time slot, with first fifteen minutes of good, if basic, stuff about running horror games, then ten minutes about a new iOS-based strategy game he was designing. I’ve forgotten its name, but then, I don’t do Apple. There will be a Kickstarter in the near future, I am told. The rest of the time was taken up by questions. This, I submit to you, is not how you do a presentation. It really should’ve been two different program items, both of them in their own 45-minute slots.

The other problem with it was that he clearly wanted to show us stuff, but he didn’t have a PowerPoint presentation prepared, so what he did was open up Word and type what he was speaking as he went. This, in different circumstances, might have worked. However, the laptop, being the convention’s laptop, had a Finnish keyboard. It isn’t all that different from an American one, but sufficiently so to render anything typed with the muscle memory of an American keyboard illegible.

I also later met Mr. Petersen at a kaffeeklatch event, but I arrived late and the meeting was cut short, and the encounter was far too brief. I missed the rest of his program items, but I am told that the game session he ran was superb.

I also saw Ville Vuorela’s talk about Stalker and the future of the franchise, which was an interesting overview of the state of the Stalker intellectual property and what the future might bring (apparently, the most requested accessory to the game is an Institute sourcebook). Unfortunately, I also continued my tradition of nodding off during Ville’s presentations. Conventions can be wearying.

Overall, it was a good convention. Met people, ran games, saw games being run. Tracon is shaping up to be a fine roleplaying game convention, and especially Sami Koponen and the Games on Demand team did excellent work. I’ve said it before and I will say it again; as a recruitment venue for the hobby, Tracon is a goldmine, if we can only figure out the way to really reach the masses.

Of course, there are things that can be fixed. The game room proved too small and should be joined next year by the adjacent one. The sign-up sheets were too small and not marked out very well. The online game schedule never included detailed scheduling for Pathfinder Society games. These, however, are minor issues and can easily be fixed next year. I have great faith in their RPG admin, Stefan Sauerland (as I should, seeing as he’s not only a former player of mine going way back to Living Greyhawk, but also a former RPG desk staffer from Ropecon), who stepped into the boots this year. Additionally, I’ve promised to offer my services as a consultant. If the trend observed here continues, Tracon 2013 will be a fine gaming convention.

Ropecon 2012, Saturday and Sunday—36-Man Game Sessions and Heavy Metal Musicals

As stated, Ropecon Saturday was a far better day than Friday. Most of my critical duties had been discharged, so I could kick back a bit and actually enjoy the convention.

The biggest thing for me on Saturday was probably Blood Under Absalom, the 30-player Pathfinder Society event. It’s a feature peculiar to organized play campaigns, these big convention events with many tables running a single game session simultaneously. We had five table GMs and the overseer GM, Stefan, and the tables were packed. I think we could’ve accommodated one more table GM, at least. Something to consider for next year. Unfortunately, I had other duties and could not participate, but I popped in now and then to see what was up. Only three character deaths in the entire session, for some reason. They, at least, were some of the high-level Tampere characters who occasionally need to be reminded of their mortality. They all got raised, of course.

My view on PC death in organized play campaigns is that 1st-level characters are cheap and especially the iconic pregenerated characters, Valeros, Merisiel, Kyra and Ezren, are utterly expendable and even the softest GM has no need to play nice with them. First-time players are an exception and especially inexperienced ones probably shouldn’t be slaughtered in the first encounter, but nobody should be immune.

Personally, I netted 15 permanent PC kills in my first month as Venture-Captain, all levels 1-3, including two TPKs. I swear I did not do it on purpose.

In the evening, I moderated a panel on alternate histories. I am still not sure if it was good or not, but I hope people were entertained. I only knew two of the five panelists personally, and it turned out rather more academic than I anticipated. I know it was recorded and it will make an appearance on YouTube at some point in the indeterminate future, so we can see if it’s actually coherent.

After the panel, the auditorium was taken over by 1827 – The Infernal Musical. It was a heavy metal musical that ran in a theatre in Turku last year to packed audiences, and we were treated to a DVD recording on a big screen, telling the tale of the Great Fire of  Turku. The musical uses classic metal and hard rock songs instead of original compositions (well, there are two of those, one by Mr Lordi), so there was no fear of the soundtrack being ass. Personally, I’m a great fan of metal and a sucker for musicals, so I was an easy audience.

Remarkably, 1827 also has a good book, the most underrated part of a musical. I saw Rock of Ages last night, actually, which provides a perfect point of comparison, being another musical that uses classics instead of an original soundtrack. Indeed, the two even utilize some of the same bands. The film worked well as long as it didn’t try to have a story, because it was inane even by the standards of a genre where the plot is generally regarded as an afterthought and an excuse to belt out a couple of power ballads. 1827, by comparison, was, you know, actually written, instead of just sort of invoked from some sort of morass of the generic. Okay, I guessed the ending twist well in advance, clued in by the fact that it was a Mike Pohjola work (the reason we got the screening in the first place), but I had great fun on the way there, even when there was no Iron Maiden playing.

There were nods towards Finnish history, including the obligatory send-ups of famous Finns of the time (such as Archbishop Tengström of Turku, who turned out to be one of the villains of the piece and a Satan-worshipper, who at the end of the first act sacrifices the Russian Commandant Sinebrychoff to his Dark Lord; and the evangelist preacher Paavo Ruotsalainen, played as a Yoda-like figure). There were roleplaying game references (one of the heroes of the piece is basically a D&D barbarian). There were puns (including the obligatory joke about the fact that the fire started at the Hellman house).

Unfortunately, that probably was the last time the entire musical will be seen anywhere in public. A novel is in the works, but it just won’t be the same.

After the musical, I went to play my only gaming session of the convention. At this point, it was around 1 a.m., and I kept falling asleep during We Be Goblins!, as one by one our hapless goblins died. Full TPK, but I am told it is not unusual in that module. The bits I remember were fun.

Sunday, then, was mostly just wrapping up the convention. I didn’t really have anything to do besides handling the Game Master loot event and wander about for something to do. This was unusual, since traditionally my Ropecon Sundays have been hectic and panicky because of the scenario writing contest and determining and announcing the winners. This year there was no contest, so no panic. I could relax and sort of not completely stress out. It was refreshing.

After that, it was just the Guest of Honour dinner, the Monday afterparty and the con was a wrap.

We’ll see about next year, but I’m probably handing over the GM desk to a follower and moving on to other challenges in con organization. What they will be remains to be seen. It’ll be the 20th Ropecon. Big deal, that.

Ropecon 2012, Monday to Friday—Tag-Team GMing and Beating Up Children to Relieve Stress

Ropecon, for me, begins on Monday. While the doors of Dipoli do not open until three o’clock, Friday afternoon, the preceding week is full of preparation, promotional events, briefings and running around in a panic. I have a terribly bad habit of immersing myself into a convention—any convention—fully, mind and body, which makes it next to impossible to focus on anything else while this is going on. Ropecon week began hot on the heels of Finncon, which led to an 11-day convention, which was tremendous fun and utterly exhausting.

On Monday and Tuesday, we made badges. Every member of the convention staff gets a personalized badge, from the coat check people and logistics haulers to the game masters and panelists. These badges have to be made, all half a thousand of them. Then there are the badges we sell (at €1, excellent profit), which we also need a few hundred of to supplement what didn’t get sold the preceding years. Every year’s badges need new (bad) jokes, which someone has to come up with. This year’s jokes mostly revolved around Game of Thrones, I think. “We do not shower” and its Finnish equivalent “Me emme kylve” were the funniest, but I am also partial to “Hear me roll”. All this is traditionally accomplished during the Monday and Tuesday evenings before the con.

In addition to badges, this is the time when we also print and laminate new signs. This year, we manufactured signs for the staff dormitories that read “Don’t Screw Here”. This has been a problem in past years. It isn’t that our staff is bumping uglies during the night—they’re mostly young people and such behaviour is not only healthy but inevitable—but that they do it in a place where it’s guaranteed to disturb other people’s sleep in pretty much the most awkward manner possible. In this case, said people need to be well rested and working customer service in the morning. You can get your exhibitionist jollies in the woods. It’s the goddamn Otaniemi, nobody cares.

Of course, the beast with two backs still made an appearance in the staff dorms. We’re thinking of arming the dormitory overseers with cattle prods next year.

On Tuesday, we also had a promotional event at the Sello library in Espoo. I was there to run some tabletop RPGs, but the demographic present turned out to average five years old, far more interested in our other attraction. The logistics and PR had conspired to acquire a stack of 50 child-sized latex swords from Denmark, which were a tremendous hit with the kids. Literally, really. I managed to run one game, mostly featuring library employees, while the rest of the time was spent dueling hyperactive hobbits. I am not sure we got a single paying visitor this way, but at least the kids had fun. Their parents looked very grateful that we provided an outlet for the excess energy of their offspring, too. We had our other guest of honour, Larson Kasper, hanging out with us.

On Wednesday, the other GoH, Peter Adkison, arrived in Finland. There was karaoke. We went to this bar called Swengi. The evening was going nicely, until one of the GoH handlers blurted out that “this evening is going nicely, there hasn’t been a single moron on stage yet”, which was a cue for the universe to rain on our parade. Immediately the table group next to ours became boisterous and noisy, and a guy climbed up on stage and began to bleat out Britney Spears. We beat a hasty retreat after that.

On Thursday, we had the big staff briefing meeting at Dipoli and then the pre-convention sauna event. At this point I had some fairly impressive stress levels going on (Especially since I pretty much never stress about anything. Some would argue this includes things I should stress about.), since I still had a pile of paperwork to get ready for the convention. I finally got everything written up at an ungodly hour on Friday morning, after which I proceeded to Dipoli several hours before the convention opened, and proceeded to use up around a ream of paper at the info desk printer, as well as significantly contribute to the death of its ink cartridge on Saturday.

Oops.

Anyway, the convention Friday was pretty much a blur for me. I ran around a lot and ended up dehydrated, tired and hungry. Gave Jim Raggi a lift home in the evening. My only game mastering during the convention was also performed on Friday, when Mikko, our venue admin and a Pathfinder Society GM, had urgent business in the middle of his session. I tag-teamed with him and kept the players entertained and the game running while he worked his mojo elsewhere. Good thing I’d run the scenario before and was familiar with it.

I know it’s a bit strange that the Venture-Captain doesn’t run anything at the biggest con of the year, but, being also a member of the organizing committee, I simply didn’t have the time. My Venture-Lieutenant Jussi Leinonen was one of the main organizers. Then, Tracon is coming up next month and I’ll be running  games there. Their RPG admin, in turn, was the head GM for Saturday’s big Blood Under Absalom game… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Fortunately, I got all the game masters present and accounted for during Friday and after a night spent sleeping in the back seat of my car in a sleeping bag, Saturday dawned rather more agreeable and I started getting into the spirit of things. But that is a story for the next instalment.