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Gen Con 2008





To paraphrase (from a faulty memory) Douglas Adams, Gen Con is mindbogglingly huge. You might think it's a long way to the shop to buy a loaf of bread, but that doesn't even begin to cover it. To attend Gen Con is to realise that you are only one half-eaten peanut in a shipping crate full of snacks.

(Although it being located in the USA does at least offer the benefit of making you feel fit and svelte, given that about 30% of the attendees appear to have eaten the entire contents of the aforementioned shipping crate full of snacks).

Living, as I do, in the UK, Gen Con had always been something that happened to other people, over there. I'd thought about going, but the cost involved had left that thought permanently stuck on the "to do, sometime" list.

And then I wrote a fantasy humour novel of roleplaying gods that I needed to try and sell. When I came upon the idea of hiring stands at roleplaying conventions, that thought of going to Gen Con moved from the "sometime" section of my life's todo list to the "maybe" section. Then I found out that Gen Con had an area called Author's/Artist's Avenue, intended especially for artists and writers to sell their wares - and that was that.

I was going to Gen Con. And my lovely wife and my best mate Bubba and his lovely wife were coming with me.

Selling the Book

As is usually the case with conventions, sales were somewhere between what I would have hoped for and what I would have feared. But we did get a very good response, with many people who've previously read the book coming to see us to say how much they enjoyed it. (We also had some of the judges from the ENnies come round to say how much they'd enjoyed reading the it).

I think the final sales figure was 125, which I think is actually pretty good. Sure there were 30,000 potential customers at the con. But there were also several hundred vendors seeking to part them from the money. In the end, after leaving a load of books with Indy Press Revolution, we only had a couple of boxes to take back home - so it all worked out pretty nicely.

General Recollections

WTF moment (in a good way!) of the con came when the group of us (me, Jules, Bubba and Syleth) were attending Game Live, a really fun event in which the Indianopolis Symphony Orchestra played theme music from varous computer games. I was making my way back to my seat after the intermission, squeezing past the couple who were sitting next to us, when the girl suddenly said, "Excuse me, but are you Jonny Nexus?"

For the five seconds it took me to remember that I was still wearing a t-shirt with the words "Jonny Nexus" written on the back, I really thought I was someone.

Another highlight was doing a podcast interview with Ross Payton of Role Playing Public Radio. It was really cool, and I hope what I said was at least moderately interesting, and perhaps even informative. Certainly, for pretty much all the questions Ross asked, I could think of something to say - which I think says a lot about the skill with which Ross was questioning me and the quality of the questions he was coming up with. It was a real pleasure, I had a really good time, and I hope people like the end result. (Which you can find here).

A four-time delight was the daily rush for the WotC stand. Each morning they gave away 250 limited edition somethings to the first people there, and so each morning I and my stall neighbours would watch open-mouthed at the flow of humanity walking, running, sprinting and in some cases hurdling their way past us.

I didn't attempt to pitch to them. It's like the melt-waters of spring after the winter snows have melted, turning a formerly trickling brook into a mighty torrent that sweeps all before it. You just have to stay on the high-ground and watch from a distance.

I did try and sell them something when they were on their way back though.

Time And Distance

There's a classic quote, along the lines of:

"Americans think 100 years is a long time; Europeans think 100 miles is a long way."

...that I was reminded of on several occasions during our time at Gen Con.

A long time? Well when we went on a very good Segway tour, our host did at one point say: "This is a very old building... it was built in 1846." (Although to be fair, he said it with a chuckle and then added: "Though it's probably not old to you guys.")

And a long way? Well on a load of occasions I had a conversation that went along the following lines:

Me: So where are you from?

Con Goer: Nebraska / Texas / Georgia / Somewhere miles and miles away.

Me: When did you fly in?

Con Goer: We drove.

I did it again and again. However hard I tried to stop doing it, I couldn't - although by the end of the con I'd changed to a related cock-up. ("When are you flying out?")

Why? Well over this side of the pond, we just don't drive that far.

Take us Londoners and our Edinburgh gaming friends, for example. Every March we go to Scotland's capital for Conpulsion. And every December they come down to London for Dragonmeet. Now I guess if we were more eco-friendly we'd take the train. And if we were poorer, we'd take a coach (bus). As it is, we always fly. But there's one thing we've never done, which is to drive. Why?

Because from London to Edinburgh is four hundred fucking miles!

A little over a year ago, I attended a wedding in Edinburgh. (I won't say whose it was in case they don't want it talked about). Having flown up the day before and settled into the hotel, we got to the church at around two. There, we met three of the London guests. I was a bit confused as they hadn't been staying at the hotel. I asked someone when they'd flown in, and received an unbelievable reply: they'd driven from London to Edinburgh that day, starting out at some unearthly hour and driving four hundred miles solid.

The news spread through amazed whispers, accompanied by by confused looks. They'd driven four hundred fucking miles? In a single day? In the name of God, why? Had they left it too late to book flights? After all, no sane person would voluntarily submit themselves to such a feat of endurance, would they?

And then I came to Gen Con, and found a race of automotive supermen with lead feet and cast-iron arses, who think nothing of getting in their cars and setting off across half a continent. (And that with a speed limit lower than ours). What can I say? I'm both awed and impressed. Not enough to copy you guys, I should stress. You won't catch me driving four hundred miles in a single day when I can sit in a magic tube at 30,000 feet doing 600 mph. You can keep thinking that one hundred years is a long time and I'll keep thinking that one hundred miles is a long way.

But I am seriously impressed.

However, of all journeys I heard of over the last weekend, I have to award the prize to the one reported to me by Gareth Skarka (@gmskarka) - a regular journey from Kansas to Maine of one thousand, six hundred miles. Or to put it in a European context, London to Minsk. (And then after staying there a few days, he and his wife drive back).

The Story In Pictures

On the Wednesday afternoon, the day before the con started, we headed off to the convention centre and then proceeded to get lost. We had a plan of the trade hall in the programme, and I'm a trained cartographer, but you can't use a plan to navigate until you identify upon it two features that you can see in the real world. Do that, and you can figure out both where you are and direction is up. Fail to do that and you are doomed to spend a half hour wondering the trade-hall saying, "Is that? No... Maybe that? No..."

We really did get lost, and it didn't help that around us was a chaos of noise, cluttering and fork-lifts. But eventually we made some kind of breakthrough ("Hang on a minute! That's this, and that's this, so we need to be... way over there!) and found Author's Avenue. (Click on any of the pictures to enlarge them).

It was still pretty chaotic, but it was cool to see it all taking shape. The pictures don't really capture it, but Wednesday's this:

...became Thursday's this:

And Wednesday's this:

...became Thursday's this:

Having set-up the stall, we headed off in search of people we knew. Malcolm Craig (RPGActionFigure) and Gregor Hutton (BoxNinja) hadn't yet arrived, but we did find a familiar crowd at the Cubicle7 booth.

This is the stall. It wasn't quite as flash as some, but I think it looked pretty nice. Credit for both the t-shirts and the ENnie logo poster design goes to Mr and Mrs Bubba.

Team Nexus. I cannot explain just how cool it was to have these three behind me, helping. It really made a huge difference. (And this is one of my favourite photos of all time).

Our neighbours, Michael Spagnola and Christopher Blair. They were very cool company.

The Sultan's gaming table. I have neither the $9000 to purchase it, nor a house big enough to hold it, but it was very nice.

Sometime on Thursday, the ENnies organisers came round with a very nice nomination certificate for us to put up on our stand.

They gave Green Ronin eight of the things.

Friday evening we went to the ENnies ceremony. We didn't win, which wasn't surprising. Frankly, if we had, I'd have asked for a recount, fearing some kind of Welsh Culture Minister moment. I'll admit to a smidgen of disappointment, but in the end, it was cool to be nominated. (And my singing stalker did write quite a nice piece - and no, I don't know who he/she is).

And Jon Hodgson's Game Night front cover did get splashed up on the screen, which was nice.

Me, Box Ninja, and Mr and Mrs Bubba afterwards. I'd make a joke about the glowing redness of my eyes betraying my inner fury, but actually, I was feeling okay.

Me and Jules with Jeff Ranger (a.k.a. ENWorld's Teflon Billy). Jeff's been a really cool supporter of Critical Miss in the past, and did a very nice review of Game Night. So it was very cool to finally meet him in the flesh. (And yes, we did buy matching outfits for the ceremony. I figure they should be tax deductible, and if the tax-man attempts to dispute this I'll just look him straight in the eye and ask: "Do we look like we're dressed to go to a fucking wedding?")

I've mentioned previously the insane rush for the Wizard's booth. Well this is the queue on (I think) Saturday morning, about thirty seconds after the doors opened.

It could get pretty crowded outside the trade hall when people were queuing to get in.

When we first arrived, the Gen Con people handed us a tax form to fill in. I had to put down my name, address, my US tax number certificate, and then sign a declaration ("Under threat of perjury") that I was a US citizen. I pointed out that I didn't feel happy to sign such a declaration for the obvious reason that I am not in fact a US citizen. They agreed. After a lot of phoning around they managed to find the form that non-US citizens have to fill out. Here I am, brow furrowed and pen-top well sucked, attempting to fill it in.

I think the most striking feature of downtown Indianapolis is the Civil War memorial. It's probably the best war memorial I've ever seen, and - when seen down either Meridian or Market streets - is nicely framed by the surrounding buildings.

Indianapolis is the state capital of Indiana, and this is the state capital building.

On Monday, the four of us went on a Segway tour, courtesy of Bubba. I've ridden a Segway before, but it was very fun to do it again. They really are like nothing else.

And a shot of downtown Indianapolis from the park where we took the Segway tour.

One of our leopard print suitcases (say what you will about them, but they're bloody easy to spot on a baggage belt) heads into our American Eagle flight from Indianapolis...

...closely followed by a box of Game Night books.

The Final Night

For four days and three nights Indy blazed in the light of thirty-thousand geeks. Spend thirty seconds waiting at your hotel's elevator (and at our hotel, you could easily wait five minutes) and you'd get chatting to gamers. Walk down the street and you'd walk past gamers. Stop to scratch an itch in your arse and there'd be a bloke in a t-shirt just as dodgy as yours scratching his.

A lot of them had Gen Con badges, but that wasn't necessary. For we are gamers, and can recognise our kin. (Sometimes to avoid them, but that's another story).

And then, sometime around 7pm on Sunday, it just died. My favourite part of cons is always the partying that happens on the final night after the con finishes. I'd spent the week anticipating the answer to a very special question: how good would it be if thirty-thousand geeks had a party?

Well I didn't get to find out the answer to that question because it turned out that about twenty-nine thousand of them upped and pissed off as soon as the con finished. (On reflection, I think this is partly due to Americans typically having fewer annual leave days than us, meaning they need to get back for work the next day).

Speaking charitably, I don't think Indianapolis is quite what I'd call a thumping metropolis. Obviously I'm somewhat spoiled, coming as I do from the throbbing, eight million population world-city that is London, but any city in which a supermarket can describe a weekday closing time of 8pm as "convenient" has something to learn about staying awake at night.

But I was still very surprised when - at around 7pm on Sunday - we went to a Scottish place we'd found that does some vegan food and found that they'd closed noon Saturday and wouldn't open again until Monday. I of course went through the standard grief phases, pausing only to skip bargaining (mainly because there wasn't anyone to bargain with save a closed and locked door)...

Denial: [Upon seeing deserted, unlit premises] That can't be right. [Takes look at sign showing opening times on door].

Anger: For fuck's sake, don't these people know it's the twenty-first century? How can a fucking bar-restaurant not be open on a bloody Sunday? And what's the point of opening on Saturday only to close just before the sodding lunch hour?

Depression: Now where the fuck are we going to eat?

Acceptance: [Thinks: well at least I can blog this, and takes a picture].

We eventually did find another place a bit further on. It wasn't terribly memorable, but it did have a very good, but very hot, vegetarian chilli, which by God my ringpiece regretted the next morning. (My other half prudently didn't eat the little slices of raw chilli. I, like an idiot, did, although I at least wasn't stupid enough to eat the whole chills they'd also put there. I suspect you'd have to be very stupid or very drunk to do so, with the very drunk at least having the advantage that they might still be smashed when the time came to visit the toilet.)

Having eaten, we headed off back into town in search of company and entertainment. What we found was that in our absence, Indy had died. The streets were so empty of cars that we were making jokes about being able to lie down in the middle of them - which is a very strange thing to find yourself saying when you're talking about a street five lanes wide.

The pavements ("sidewalks" for those on the US side of the Pond) were empty save for the occasional wandering person and the ever-present beggers with their rattling cups. (Favourite sign of the weekend" "I ain't gonna lie, it's for beer").

No-one seemed to be answering their mobile phones, and as we looked into bars we found only the standard three men and a dog watching sports. In times gone past I would have paranoidly assumed that there was a wonderful party going on somewhere to which I wasn't invited.

But I was starting to think that perhaps there was no such party.

We stopped at a place called the Ram that we'd heard people talking about. It was shut up and closing. A couple of the bar staff, who were clearing outside tables, told us - in breathless and excited tones - of how mad, extreme and generally lunatic the weekend had been for them.

Closing at eight on a Sunday night? Awesome! Party on you hard-living maniacs!

I think we might have muttered something under our breaths about London not closing up at eight on a Sunday night, but we didn't say anything to them. They were so happy and buzzing about how hard their town had partied.

(To be fair to Indianapolis, the Shake 'n' Steak does apparently open 24 hours a day, but I don't think you have to be a vegan to not consider that an obvious venue for socialising).

It was at that point that I sent out a text to Bubba describing our plight in somewhat less than polite terms, and begging him to phone us whenever his phone moved out of whatever dead spot it was currently in.

And to again be fair to Indy, I should point out that not only is the convention centre an awesome setting for something like Gen Con, it does actually follow the universal principles of where these sort of large convention centre/hotel complexes should be placed. You see, you want somewhere that a large a number of people will be able to get to. But you don't want somewhere that's already full of tourists, as that will overwhelm facilities and drive up hotel prices.

So you want a city that is:

a) conveniently located in the centre of the country; and

b) a dump no-one wants to go to.

National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, I'm looking at you.

Eventually, we found ourselves at the Embassy Suites with a bunch of very good people. It was very cool to be sitting down with game industry guys that I've followed via news and blog for years, and now I was getting to buy them drinks and shoot the breeze. I gave copies of Game Night to Simon Rogers of Pelgrane and Profantasy and Gareth-Michael Skarka (both of whom had previously very kindly answered some industry questions I'd had) as well as one to Robin Laws (because he was there, and I'd love him to read the book). I also had a chance to speak to Ken Hite (who I managed to forget to give a copy of Game Night to - Doh!) and a whole bunch of other cool people.

It was very cool.

Thoughts and Conclusions

In the end, it was a very good con for us. We sold a good number of copies of Game Night, got some very good feedback, met some wonderful, friendly people, and sorted out a deal that gets the book into US game shops. (Thanks to Bubba for fixing it up. He was brilliant. It was like having a commercial director to take care of everything.)

And then it was to London via Chicago, and then onto the Discworld convention. Yes, after spending one weekend at the Indianapolis convention centre I took my wife to the Birmingham NEC for the next. Dear God, she must love me!

I don't know when I'll return to Gen Con. But I will say now that I want to come back. If gaming is cocaine then Gen Con is highly addictive crack. So grab me a spoon and hand me some rocks, because I'm up for more!