GameHole Con 2018 – Con Report
Well, I survived! This was the first convention that I’d attended since my journey to GenCon 2017, as part of my first foray as being part of the con as Gaming Ballistic, LLC. I was, more importantly it turned out, also there as part of my Kickstarter rewards for backing the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game (Powered by GURPS) at the “play the game with Kromm” level.
That’s important for this journey to Madison, Wisconsin for two reasons.
1. I played through what would turn into the linear adventure Lost Hall of Tyr (for D&D5e) there for the first two times
2. I got to know the Dungeon Fantasy RPG for the first time
My mission for this Convention, then? To demonstrate and run Hall of Judgment, the first licensed adventure or supplement of any kind for the Dungeon Fantasy RPG. To talk with the SJG folks (Phil and Steve were both there) about further ideas for supporting GURPS. To get to meet in person folks like Matt Finch, Erik Tenkar, Jason Hobbs, and many others whom I’ve interacted with – and who have helped me so much – in getting my games off the launch pad. I simply could not have done what I did on Dragon Heresy and Hall of Judgment without an absolutely crucial hour or so with Zach Glazar, who pumped an incredible amount of InDesign Starter information into my head.
I also was hoping to sell a few copies of my product, which was a secondary goal but a real one.
Mostly Wednesday was about frantic preparation for the trip. I did have to go to work, but that got done quickly and I raided the local office supply store to laminate my pre-gens for HoJ. I chose 10mil lamination, and paid a bunch of money for that, but it was ultimately worth it, as folks recognize quality and actually commented on it.
Then the trip with the family to Madison. My wife took the two girls to Wisconsin Dells for a few days at the big indoor waterpark there while I was nerding out, and that was a spectacular success for them. They spent the first night with me in my hotel room – I’d gotten a suite in case I had business to discuss with anyone, a decision made last August – and then left early the next morning. Other than my 4yo sleeping like an octopus playing a drum solo, that went well
It also turned out that my fellow DorkStock (the mini-convention within a convention dedicated to all things John Kovalic, with healthy dose of SJG as well, who were there demonstrating The Fantasy Trip, including the Monster Box for the Legacy Edition) travellers were in the same hotel, which made it easy to join the 6pm to 10:30pm GURPS IOU game. I met John Ickes and Nancy Hutchins and many others (including Alex and Jenny Yeager, who brought much-needed pizza!), and was handed the character sheet for a beautiful journalism and public perception manipulator whose character sheet said she was 5’9″ tall and 115 lbs. I noted that she’d blow away in a stiff breeze (her BMI is a dangerous 17; fitness models who aren’t bodybuilders are usually 19-20 or so!), to general amusement, but she also had +11 in positive reaction modifiers, which I played up to the hilt. Fundamentally a combat-free game, it was good fun.
I deliberately had a very limited schedule on Thursday. I got my badge, and then walked the Con, a lot. It’s a great size. About 5,000 folks, probably, rather substantially smaller than the 65,000 at GenCon 50. But the booths were roomy, the dealer hall was large enough to have lots of folks in it and small enough to *guarantee* that every person who walked the hall would see your booth – something that was absolutely not true at GenCon, where it’d be easy to be missed.
I also spent quite a bit of chat-time on podcast row, where I hobnobbed with Jason Hobbs, Roger Basslet, Art Braune, and James Maliszewski. Folks I’ve chatted with online but met for the first time in person – Cons are great for that.
I also had a surprise meeting with Steve Jackson, who was walking by at lunch. I waved, he waved, and he plunked down at the table where I was eating with Paraj Mandrakar and Tim Deschaines and suggested we have the planned meeting right then. OK. Strike while fire was hot.
We discussed five of six things; one was entirely not RPG related. He was as favorably disposed to some of my ideas and questions as I could have hoped. No details yet, but productive questions were asked and answered.
I also watched a demonstration of The Fantasy Trip (or the Melee part of it). It is recognizably the predecessor of GURPS, while still being its own thing. It uses one-roll hit resolution, as does DnD, lacking active defenses. All attack skill is based on your DX score; defenses are either armor or shields or nothing and subtract from damage rather than making you harder to hit effectively. Armor slows you down.
It’s a fun, old-school romp where the emergent behavior is the thing. Tactics matter, and being “engaged” in a fight with a hostile character pins you in place unless you take a disengage option. The separation of “move” and “fight” phases means that you actually CAN disengage with a foe. You start engaged, you take one step away during the movement phase and then one more step on the attack phase.
So if you go first and you start engaged: you step away. The foe steps in to try and kill you. That’s the move phase. You step away again on the attack phase (restoring 1-hex separation), and they can’t step in, because they don’t get movement.
If you go second, they step into engagement distance (or maintain it), then you step; on the attack phase, they can’t move and you step again.
In short: this quickie mechanic allows a cagey fighter to actually maintain a no-hit distance. I mention this because in my limited experience, many games make it very hard to disengage from a fight; this tends to drive the wrong sort of “all or destruction” decision cycle.
Also: while the Thursday game had a modicum of cooperative behavior, PvP started on the first turn in the game I played in (picture shown). All was taken in good fun. Murderous bastards.
Thursday evening, I sat in on an adventure design talk with Matt Finch and Bill Webb. That was interesting. Some good insights were gleaned there.
Friday was my first day to run games, with a 4pm-8pm session of Hall of Judgment on the docket. It was a bit hit and miss, since there were only 2 of 8 tickets sold when the day started, but things happened and we wound up with 5 players (six, really, but one left in the middle; game wasn’t for him).
Even so, the day started off at 8am with a 2-hour demonstration of the Pathfinder 2.0 playtest. I played a rogue, 1st level. My impressions? There’s still a LOT of fiddle and technical bits to the game that you need to know right away. The new 3-action economy is brilliant relative to actions, swift actions, movement actions, immediate actions, rapid actions, actions you can only take after your second cup of coffee, reactions, retcon actions, etc. Boiling it down to three actions of which the player can take as many as you like? I wish I’d have thought of that for Dragon Heresy.
They did “steal” my shield rules though, so there’s that. Kidding. Parallel development. But it does work, though with a twist. Of your three actions in order to use your reaction to catch a blow on your shield, you have to spend one of your actions on your turn to Ready the shield.
But if you want to do three moves? You can. If you want to do three attacks? You can do that too – but at -5 and -10 for the 2nd and third attacks. you can now draw a potion, move to a friend, and dose them in one turn, which is nice. There’s a death mechanic and a “wounded” condition that make going up and down from 0 HP a few times in a fight more punishing. And my thief was indeed reduced to 0 HP by a troublesome zombie-type, and it happened all at once in one turn. So nicely lethal, which I approve of.
No idea how it runs as you level up, but the lower level game played out with a nice range of tactical options, and a good section of player choice. Oh! And they also re-normed the economy to a silver basis rather than gold. I like this, as it makes gold a real treasure, but those used to having gold pieces dealt out like grains of rice will need to recalibrate.
Fast forward to 4pm, where Paraj, his son, Rob (OmnusI), Randy, and two Erics (one dropped) played in my first HoJ game. We cut down the shopping trip a bit, and I offered them the choice of fast-forwarding on to the mission, which they accepted. I read them the key bits, and off they went north from Isfjall to Logiheimli. On the way, they encountered skeletons and we had the first of many repeat instances of realizing that Turn Undead is, as I believe Peter Dell’Orto coined the phrase “24 points of ‘I Win!’ button” and I hate ‘I win!’ buttons. Turns out the players aren’t fond of it either.
I made a spot ruling that you have to make your Turning roll every combat round. The cleric’s player liked this because players like to roll dice. This has proven universally true for me running games. Anyway, they fought skeletons on the approach, and then ghouls in the village proper. They didn’t really have any of the chance fun encounters that I could have thrown at them, but that was a pacing decsion more than anything else.
In the end, they cleared the demonic influence from Logiheimli in 3.5 hours of play, and all claimed to have had a blast. One of the highlights was giving Paraj’s 12-year-old son K the choice of either Exorcising the demon (with dice rolls) or Exercising the demonic influence (with push-ups). I told him if he could do 20 push ups he could declare success. He was laughing too hard to do pushups, so we wound up rolling dice.
That was the end of Friday, my first GM-day. I basically played with folks I knew from long interaction online, so it was a good way to get practice with the scenario. Oh, also: the store there sold 1″ hex wrapping paper, at $3 for a 12-foot-long roll. Brilliant. Way better than writing and erasing battle-mats!
This was The Big Day for me, with three games, one of which I was running.
The morning started with a 4-hour GURPS game with Benjamin as the GM, playing a game set at the start of the 2nd Punic War. We were Roman soldiers. I played a classic sword, board, and spear guy, whose highest stat was 12, I had a 9, and no other skill on my sheet (and there were maybe 5-6 skills total) was higher than 12. So the lowest point character I’d played in years. The rest of the table had effectively no GURPS experience (though at least one was very well informed about the Punic Wars and Roman History, as was the GM).
This led to what was, for me, perhaps the highlight of the convention, which was as Benjamin laid out the GURPS basics, he mentioned Dungeon Fantasy RPG. I pulled out the Hall of Judgment hardcopy, pointing to the “Dungeon Fantasy RPG” logo: “look, Dungeon Fantasy RPG!”
Benjamin exclaims “oh, wow! You have Hall of Judgment!” I say quietly, “I wrote Hall of Judgment.” He just stares at me. “You’re kidding, right?”
Anyway, used up one of my moments of fame, I guess. In any case, he ran a tight game, and where he took shortcuts with rules, no one noticed, and I didn’t bring it up, because that’s not my role unless asked – and there were other times where I’d quietly give some rules help to a neighbor. But we first did a scouting mission, failed to fall for a Carthagian trap, got attacked by and nearly trampled by elephant cavalry, and then had to schmooze our way into the Senate chamber (which we did), where we did not foil an assassination attempt on our patron by the treacherous Carthagian scum. Killed ’em, though, so that’s something. Good game.
Then I proceeded over to the “just take the walkway” neighboring hotel to play in Matt Finch’s Jordoba game, but not before stopping to chat up/flirt with one of the LARP team who was there giving lessons. We exchanged combat notes (that’s not a euphemism; we talked about viking style shield fighting, using axes and weapons, making the foam vs wood equipment and other things) until I had to go play.
Matt’s game was fun – 16 players!! – in what is clearly a long-running convention campaign with its own continuity. I jumped in as a 2nd level sword and board guy: 3d6 six times (15, 9, 12, 11, 11, 10) arranged as I like (STR 15, DEX 12, CON 11, INT 9, WIS 11, CHA 10); the only bonus would come from the STR 15. I was given more or less free choice of equipment: I went with chain, shield, axe, spear, shortbow.
He sat us in descending DX order around the (large) room, and he’d go from one end of the players to another for actions – I’ve done this before myself with big (and small) groups and it’s invariably a good idea.
We were charged with protecting a wedding (of one of the player’s other characters from the “high-level” campaign, I think – that might have been Rocky Gardner) from potential disruption from a snake cult. Because you gotta have snake cults. Deities included Mitre and Set. We started by looking around for other ways into the chapel area, immediately found the plan for the sewers (my wife would have had a fit, as a PhD in wastewater and stormwater systems, but hey, game), and mostly stumbled onto what was the nexus of bad guy activity in the first few moments of the game by following a couple of guys carrying barrels. I made a joke that we were from the coopers union there for a barrel inspection, and discovered that Matt runs a “you said it, your character says it” table, which was fine by me. We ran with it, and eventually found chilled fanged venomous frogs in row upon row of barrels. Plus a giant cobra and a few other snakes.
We completely and totally Leroy Jenkins’d the entire adventure, and it never really did catch up with us, to my great surprise. We fought undead animated corpses, snake cult minions, exposed a faction of the “main” snake cult as the culprits (should have called them the Diamondbacks, for Reasons), then got caught up in planning, made good use of a Wall of Stone spell, and were ultiately victorious thanks to the actions of a giant shrubbery.
The game went for five hours, and It was a very easy group to assimilate with. Rules light is awesome for that sort of thing.
Then dinner – the inevitable Ike’s pizza for the 874th meal at $7 per slice (it’s good but not THAT good), and I ran a table of 7 in Hall of Judgment for the 8pm to midnight setting.
Of my seven, it was Benjamin from the Hannibal/Roman game, and six folks who have never played GURPS before. So I let them choose pre-gens, and they were not shy about nabbing spellcasters. I passed out the Dungeon Fantasy RPG books and pointed out the spell list, and got down with a brief explanation of GURPS. Ultimately there are four mechanics. 3d6 roll low for skills and quick contests (with ‘margin matters’ being the contests), damage rolls, and reaction rolls, which are 3d6 roll high. Explained that a hit requires an active defense. That there’s no Opportunity attacks but there are Waits, and that GURPS has a 1-second time scale that should not be used as an excuse to spam the ATTACK button.
They got it right away. They came into Isfjall by ship, in November, during the Valor Festival. They saw two warriors sparring on the frozen section of the river, on ice skates, and one disemboweled the other to general acclaim of “well done!” and “bravely fought!” This group also elected to short-circuit to “game on” rather than explore the culture of Isfjall (a choice I heartily recommended) and I let each roll once on the rumor table, gave them the location of the village and hall (mostly) and sent them on their way.
Notable differences between the first day’s play was that the Druid’s player discovered Mystic Mist right away, which neutralized a lot of the encounters on the way to Logiheimli.
They got a lot of good information with clever questions about the nature of the skeleton threat from the village. They were seriously going to skip the village entirely, but the Holy Warrior whose higher purposes are “Slay Undead 2” and “Slay Demons 3” plus the Cleric of Halja, the Death Goddess nipped that in the bud with a “this is why we’re on this earth” kind of appeal.
Having realized that Clerical Turning is a bit of a giant “I win!” button, they “raised deflector shields” on entry to the main hall and rolled a 4 on the initial turning roll, making the skill roll by 15 and nailing a critical success even though theh area was Low Mana, Low Sanctity, and Supernaturally Defiled (-5, -5, and -10 respectively).
Note to future HoJ GMs: the undead are a big deal in Logiheimli, so make the CLERICAL sanctity levels a -10 penalty as well, and boost the Will of undead in the region by 5 or 10. Otherwise watch this blog for some suggestions on Turning, because undead should be horrible and frightening and dangerous and Turning makes them barely rate as speed bumps.
Anyway, I had the cleric roll every turn for barrier radius, and mostly it was in the 5-15 yard range, so the players were mostly protected. Then at some point later in the curb-stomp that was the ghoul fight, a poor roll was made (yay for the GM!) which collapsed the barrier and exposed lots of folks to attacks by ghouls. Nonetheless, they made excellent use of Reach, retreat, and other tactics to keep the ghoul’s paralyzing touch off of the players, and beat the ghouls in good order. They Exorcised the demon influence in the main Temple then explored the barrow. But since it was daylight, they were not plagued by skeletons and other nastiness, and managed to deactivate the other two obelisks as well. They had a good interaction with the guardians of the tomb, picked up some sweet offered loot from the warden and his retinue, and we ended there.
So six total newbies and one veteran ran through a not-for-beginners adventure in GURPS, that hard, hard, mathy, complicated thing, and kicked butt and took names. The spellcasters made nice work of their spell lists, there were tense bits, funny bits, not any grappling (alas), easy bits, and they all liked the immersive nature of a well-connected cosmology. Plus: vikings.
At least one person bought the book as a result of play; all left pleased with how the game went, and I feel confident that none will bad-mouth GURPS as unplayable in the future. It might not be their thing, but they saw it run in a large-ish group, at 250 points, run well, and they all had a good time. Even if they didn’t get to experience the grappling system.
Slept past 8am for the first time at the Con. Was joined by my family coming down from the Dells mid-morning. We packed up the room, and then walked my kids around the Con a bit, and the Reg Desk was happy to let them do so. Bumped into some of my TFT companions, my LARP companions, and then Steve and Phil. I had a brief exchange with them that tied off one loose end (and which I’ll talk about later; it’s a GOOD thing), and then we invaded the dealer hall, bought some souvenirs for the kids . . . and picked up my remaining stock from Chimera Games.
Or I was going to, but I’d dropped off 3 Dragon Heresy books, and two copies of HoJ. Two DH and 1 HoJ were left . . . and he bought all three to re-sell retail! So that was an awesome end to the Con.
We then went as a family to have lunch with Paraj and his family, and then headed home to Minneapolis.
GameHole was great. I met folks, I played games, I ran games, and engaged in very productive company-level stuff. Got told that one of my biggest assets as a licensee was “you deliver on time,” which is indeed a point of pride for Gaming Ballistic, and it was gratifying to see it recognized.
But it made me want to do more Cons. I will likely not go to Gary Con this March; I think that’s a bit soon. But I will try and get a booth and run a game or two here at Con of the North, will return and set up a Gaming Ballistic booth at GameHole next year, and finally will likely hit up GaryCon in 2020 as well. By then I should have as many as 10 products to sell.
Oh, wait: doesn’t Gaming Ballistic, as of November of 2018, only have four products available? Am I saying there could be as many as six or seven more by this time next year?
Yes. Yes I am.