Mobhunter: Gencon 2007 Report

I began playing Dungeons and Dragons in high school in the 1989. Back then we played 2nd edition which, in retrospect, lacked a lot of the power of the original and current versions of D&D but managed to keep all of the complexity. Somehow we muddled through the rules of Thac0s, the lack of any demon princes and devil lords, and unique stat bonuses for every stat and still have a good time. I remember fondly the time when we battled Lord Manshoon and one of my players swallowed a spider in his big glass of lemonade at the same time.

Since then I've been playing D&D on and off for the past eighteen years, all of it as a DM. I love the low technology of a tabletop role playing game. I love working out the math and the stats myself. I love building a dynamic story at the table based on some themes, plot seeds, and characters I develop beforehand. I love having a group of friends laughing, rolling dice, eating Doritos, and having a good time.

This year my wife and I decided we would go to Gencon, the biggest tabletop gaming convention in the world. What follows is my account of the best four days in gaming. Everquest players take note that only a part of this article will discuss the lands of Norrath so skip ahead if you care not at all for the rest of it.

Stepping into the Indiana Convention Center on Thursday after lunch, I knew I was in trouble. Immediately I became aware that there was no way I would be able to pack in everything I wanted to do in four days. Looking through the phonebook-sized convention guide, one finds thousands of games going on. My wife, having the clearest head of the two of us, had pre-signed us up for a number of excellent events so we didn't have to scramble too much. Knowing what we know now, however, gives us a great idea about how to handle it next year.

Sometimes, while working at our day jobs, watching popular television, and walking around the malls, one forgets just how many geeks and nerds there are in the world. Walking into a convention hall with thousands of people who all know how to calculate a fighter's attack bonus is a wonderful thing. For a brief four days I learned what it would be like to live in a world of geeks and what a wonderful world it would be. Like the EQ Fan Faires, you get to hang out with thousands of people who all share a passion for a hobby that few in the outside world understand at all. Being this passionate about things like gaming, science fiction, and fantasy is a wonderful thing. It defines us when most people are defined only by their job, their family, or their in-depth knowledge of the political subtleties of American Idol.

Going to a tabletop gaming convention in a post MMO world is an interesting experience. The market is still very strong but one can see how the strengths of an MMO shine through. Throughout my eighteen years of D&D the hardest part is finding a good group. I've had about four or five groups in that time and all of them came to me by sheer luck. There has yet to be a good, efficient, and comfortable way to meet new players for a D&D game. This is where MMOs have such a clear advantage. I can log in, hang out in the Plane of Knowledge, and, though it may take some time, find a group of people who want to adventure. That's a pretty amazing thing compared to the trouble it takes to find a good D&D group.

Within the ocean of events and games, we did get to see a couple of interesting things related to EQ. Our first stop was to SOE's room. Here SOE employees ran demos of their latest in-game collectable card game. Years ago at the first Fan Faire, I talked to one of the other players on our bus ride to the airport. He mentioned that Smed had asked him what he thought of a Magic: The Gathering style game built into Everquest with certain rare cards as loot drops from in-game monsters and certain rewards that carried over to your character. I hadn't heard anything since but apparently that idea solidified.

Legends of Norrath is a beautiful card game, though much of the rules still escape me. If you've ever tried Magic Online, you'll be familiar with the interface. The artwork and mechanics are very strong. The game can be played within Everquest and Everquest 2 as well as with a stand-alone windows interface. Unfortunately there is no flash-based web version, something I would have loved to play on my Mac.

How much impact a game like this will have on EQ is a good question. If the game is too good, we may see hundreds of zombie "AFK: playing Legends" players in the Plane of Knowledge. Not good enough and it will have as much impact as Gems. Still, it is a strong move for SOE and likely to be one of the bigger gameplay shifts in EQ we're likely to see.

Of special note, I asked both an Everquest developer and an Everquest 2 developer what they thought of Legends. I had wondered whether there was any mistrust of a game that was being wedged in by management into the worlds they develop. Both, without hesitation, said "I love it." Both of them talked about a shaky start to the game but both also mentioned that they and their co-workers have been caught staying after hours at work just to play a little more Legends.

I had the honor to meet Mr. Alan Vancouvering, also known as Absor, at the SOE booth a few times over our weekend at Gencon. Absor gave me a nice walkthrough of some of the new zones for Secrets of Faydwer. When I asked Absor what he best liked about the expansion, he said "clockworks". Given what I saw, there is a lot for Absor to like. The theme of the expansion borders on steampunk with huge roaming mechanical constructs walking across the new lands. Dynamic zoning points will keep players chasing the doorways to the next land of adventure. Given the length of time it can take to get a party together and actually into a dungeon, I am a bit apprehensive about making it already more difficult.

And yes, there are working gnomish catapults.

The expansion is still early but there were some excellent looking NPC models and some beautiful zones. One thing Absor mentioned that sunk my heart a little; the raids in Secrets will be starting at Solterius level and going up in at least two tiers of power. Whatever hope I had about skipping Demiplane has been crushed. SOE still seems to hold on to a philosophy of running players through very old content in order to fully explore the newest expansions, a cycle that has repeated itself since Planes of Power. By the time many players climb through the flagging and gearing requirements to get there, even Secrets may be old and out-dated.

Shifting back to my Dungeons and Dragons passions, Thursday night Wizards of the Coast announced the development and 2008 release of Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition. More and more over the past few months I have frequented the D&D forums and seen what the hard-core D&D players think of a new edition of D&D. Most of these players have all but memorized the current rules and feel very comfortable with 3.5. They have also spent a lot of money on 3.5 rulebooks which, as they see it now, will become obsolete with the release of 4.0.

My own gaming group, much like my Everquest and Warcraft groups, are not as hard core. We play monthly with the players spending little if any time in between games worrying about the rules or their characters. We like getting together, throwing some dice, shouting when we get a critical hit, and having a good time.

However, over the past three years, our characters have grown to level 16. The game begins to get much more bogged down at the higher levels than it does early on. We have gone from five encounters a game in the earliest levels down to two encounters at the higher levels due to the amount of time it takes to make decisions and verify all the rules.

When I heard what 4th edition would be doing, I smiled. They saw the exact same problems I saw. The typical wizard casting system, known as the Vancian system, is being heavily modified into "at will", "per encounter", and "per-day abilities". Watching wizards throw all their spells away in the first couple of battles is no more. Complicated combat systems like Grapple are also being reworked along with, I hope, the complex Cleric Turn Undead rules.

Combat in 4th edition is supposed to return to high speed, fast and fun dice rolling instead of continually referencing the Players Handbook.

My excitement for 4th edition mimics my excitement whenever I hear about new features for Everquest or Warcraft that help bring the game to the level of the hobbyist gamer. Wizards could have focused on developing more and more complex rule-sets for the current batch of gamers, or they can redevelop the system to help bring new players in. It appears they chose the latter.

Chatting with a couple of the Wizards game designers, it became clear that recently published D&D rulebooks like Book of Nine Swords, the warlock in Complete Arcane, and the three spellcaster classes in Tome of Magic all point towards the thinking in 4th edition. The recent D20 Star Wars Saga Edition roleplaying game also hints at some of the streamlining we will likely see in 4th edition. For my own glimpse at 4th edition, I came up with my own set of 4th edition-style house rules for my newest campaign.

One of the people I met at Gencon stated that they schedule in a whole day just to visit the dealer room and, after spending about four hours in there and still not feeling like I got to see everything I wanted, I can understand why. The dealer room is the heart of Nerd Heaven. Game demos are going on constantly. The costumes, ranging from Darth Vader to a very creative Beholder, add a wonderful atmosphere. Bring your wallet, however. I spent about $50 on dice, $50 on other accessories, and about $150 on various D&D miniatures that I just had to have. One disappointment, I had heard wonderful things about the Wizards of the Coast Dungeon Delve, a one-hour full D&D game hosted at the Wizards booth, but with only three tables, it was almost impossible to get a seat and play. I finally rushed their booth at the beginning of the last day and got to play only to be wiped out in the first room by some water elementals. I wish they had run a lot more tables of that. It was too much fun to have so little time playing.

Instead we played a lot of the RPGA dungeon delve, a 20 minute rapid rolling D&D adventure which, should you win, awarded you tokens with which to purchase dice or select minis. I came home with the biggest bag of dice I ever had.

I consider my first run to Gencon to be our recon run for our future years. Here are my recommendations for future visits to Gencon:

1. Sign up early for the True Dungeon. It was absolutely awesome, worth every penny of the high cost, and very hard to get into if you don't get in early. Don't miss it. Make it the first thing you sign up for.

2. Try to sign up for events outside of the dealer room hours. The dealer room is only open 10am to 6pm but the games go on early morning to late at night. If you leave a day open, leave Thursday open since the best wares will be out with the fewest people.

3. RPGA D&D games are a little bit dry but they are consistent. Sign up for some RPGA games to fill in slots of full RPGs.

4. I heard the Paizo Dungeon Crawl Classic games were a good time. I didn't get to go through any of them but I would like to next year.

5. Make a good list of the minis you want to purchase before you go and add to it as you see ones there. Shop around since the prices on the same mini can change a lot depending on the dealer.

6. Bring lots of food and drinks. You'll find yourself with very little time to buy food while you're running around. Bring something that can tide you over for half a day if you find yourself in a four hour game. Go to a Subway early in the day and get yourself a sandwich you can carry with you.

7. Arrive Wednesday night instead of Thursday so you can get all day Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and half of Sunday. You'll use up all that time without any problem.

8. For a quick and fun minis game, try Red Shirt Monster Mash. It's a one-hour game with about ten players all duking it out in a big dungeon. It costs about a dollar fifty but it's a great time.

Going to Gencon reminded me how much I love this hobby, how much the hobby means to me and defines me, and I can't wait to go back next year.

Loral Ciriclight
26 August 2007