#RPGaDay: Favorite Convention Game

15. Favorite Convention Game. This is a tough one to answer because in my early years of conventions, I tended to run games rather than play them. I suppose that still counts. And in my later years, I tend not to play at all, which is rather sad and must be corrected—perhaps this November at Pure Speculation.

Shortly before and during my tenure at TSR, I edited, wrote, and ran lots of RPGA scenarios. Among my favorites were the Ravenloft adventures by Bruce Nesmith, each of which offered the players a fate worse than death: loss of control their characters. Bruce’s scenarios replaced them with doppelgangers, infected them with lycanthropy, turned them into vampires, and otherwise made monsters of them without actually removing the player from the game. The effect was at once exciting (to those who enjoy playing monsters) and terrifying (to those who found themselves outnumbered by their former allies).


#RPGaDay: Best Convention Purchase

14. Best Convention Purchase. Because I’ve flown to most conventions, I tend to defer purchases until I can pick up something at a local game store. For a few years in the mid-90s, I made a point of buying a new set of dice at each convention as a souvenir. And a certain amount of what I brought home in those days were review copies or otherwise freebies. Still, I have made a few memorable purchases.

To be timely, I’ll mention last night’s Diana Jones Award-winning Hillfolk, which I backed in its Kickstarter and collected at Gen Con last year.

Creative Colleagues: Lisa Stevens

Lisa Stevens

Lisa Stevens

Every week or so, I’ll pester one of my creative colleagues with five questions about his or her work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

I first attended Gen Con a couple of years before I went to work for TSR. Then I missed almost the entire first decade of this century until I returned thanks to Paizo and my association with Pathfinder Tales. Since I’ll miss that glorious convention for the first time since 2010, it seems only right to experience it vicariously through a few friends and colleagues who’ll be there this year.

It’s entirely possible that Lisa Stevens and I first met at a convention, either through the Role-Playing Gamers’ Association (RPGA) or in the exhibit hall. But only after I moved out to Seattle did I see her very often. Usually she was talking Greyhawk or wrangling a team for brand management meetings. I saw even more of her when I moved from Dragon Magazine to Star Wars Insider, since she and her partner Vic Wertz are superfans. Then when Lisa, Vic, and Johnny Wilson formed a new company, our team went with them as part of the original Paizo Publishing.

Lisa and Vic have a country estate I like to call “Wayne Manor,” but really it’s more of a Star Wars museum with one of the best home theaters I’ve ever seen. They invested some of their Hasbro buyout money to hire Doug Chiang to design it for them, and a fairly easy Google search should net you a few photos of the amazing setup.

Parties (and the Indiana Jones pinball machine) at Vic and Lisa’s are one of the things I most miss since leaving the Seattle area, but for the past few years I’ve been able to see them once or twice a year at conventions. Not this year, alas, but I did manage to ask Lisa a few questions about those conventions and her long history with Gen Con.

1. What’s your earliest Gen Con memory?

My first Gen Con was the last year it was at UW Parkside in Kenosha. My friend Rich and I drove all day from Minneapolis and arrived at the campground near the convention in the dark. Back in those days, most of the attendees stayed at the campground because of the lack of hotels in the area. Rich and I proceeded to set up our tent by the lights of our car, only to find we had forgotten the tent poles and the stakes. We scavenged a somewhat straight and sturdy stick from the campground and found a few screwdrivers in the car, and ended up with a wobbly tee-pee for our lodging that first year. Of course, we didn’t plan to spend hardly any time there, so it didn’t really matter. And when you are exhausted after a day of gaming, you hardly noticed. Thank god it didn’t rain that weekend! Gen Con was amazing! I got to have my first character, Erwyle Antella, drawn by Clyde Caldwell, and discovered the RPGA, where I had the chance to watch Rich play in the finale of a tournament with Harold Johnson DMing. The highlight for me though was the dealer’s hall. I had never seen such a huge selection of gaming stuff under one roof. I spent many hours going from booth to booth and spending way too much money. The only let down of the con was the various games we had registered for. They all kind of stunk except for the RPGA one, so Rich and I became card carrying RPGA members and never played a game at Gen Con after that which wasn’t run by the RPGA.

2. Looking back on all the years you’ve attended, about how much of Gen Con was “just for fun” and how much was for business? These days, do you get to blend the two?

It is pretty funny that you ask this. I went from all out, nothing but solid RPGA gaming from the moment I got up until late into the evening, until 1987, when I went for the first time with my company, Lion Rampant. That year, I didn’t game at all. Just worked the booth and started getting to know folks in the industry. Since 1987, I really haven’t done much gaming. Gen Con has become almost entirely a business convention for me. I hope to change that this year with the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. We do marathon games of it at the various conventions, which is very conducive for me to jump into a game between meetings. You can’t do that with a long RPG game that might take 4 hours. At PaizoCon this year, I was able to play the ACG quite a bit and it was a blast! Save Ranzak for me!

Erwyle Antella by Clyde Caldwell

Erwyle Antella by Clyde Caldwell

3. What were the high points at Gen Con for each of the several companies you’ve been associated with?

Lion Rampant: The first year we went as a company, we just had Whimsey Cards. And Dave Arneson came up to our booth, talked to us and bought a pack. We were all just standing there with our jaws on the floor. Holy crap! That was DAVE ARNESON! The next year, we won the RPGA’s Gamer’s Choice award for best new RPG for Ars Magica and it catapulted us into the industry, with new distributors coming out of the woodwork and translation opportunities appearing from nowhere.

Wizards of the Coast: Our first year with a full booth at Gen Con was very cool. Jesper Myfors created a life-sized castle based on our first logo design. We also shared the booth with a small tech start-up called America Online. Of course, the high point for WotC was the release of Magic: The Gathering in 1993. We almost didn’t have the game at the show because of delays in airplane flights, but by the time it arrived on the Saturday of the convention, we sold it as fast as we could take someone’s money and write receipts. Everywhere I went in the convention center that year, you saw folks playing Magic. It was crazy!

Paizo: It would have to be the year we launched the Pathfinder RPG. We had no clue what the reception was going to be for the game, and to have that wave of humanity descend on the booth and to sell out of the stacks and stacks of Core Rulebooks we brought was exhilarating!

4. Tim Nightengale founded Paizo Con, impressing you so much the first year that you had the company take it over from him. How does the Paizo Con experience differ from Gen Con?

PaizoCon is much more intimate. Every year, I get to see a lot of the same folks over and over again. There is a lot of camaraderie and friendships made amongst the attendees. PaizoCon is also a great show for the whole Paizo staff to take some time and talk to our customers. Gen Con is just so much go, go, go, go! It is a whirlwind where I rarely get time to just sit back and enjoy the show. PaizoCon has many more chances to do that.

5. What is your greatest convention gaming memory?

That is a super tough one for me. So many memories over the years! Having dinner with Gary Gygax one evening and talking about Greyhawk for hours! Working in the TSR Castle the year WotC bought TSR. Seeing the line for Magic: The Gathering stretch all the way around the dealer’s hall in 1994. The big nerf gun fight at the TSR Castle in 1989. The crazy White Wolf parties we threw in our rooms during 1989 and 1990. I could go on! Gen Con is one of my favorite moments on the year. I get to see old friends and make new memories.


Creative Colleagues: Marc Tassin

Marc Tassin

Marc Tassin

Each week, I’ll pester one of my creative colleagues with five questions about his or her work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

I first met Marc Tassin at a dinner celebrating the tenure of the previous organizer of the Writers’ Symposium, Jean Rabe, who hired me for my first editing job back in 1993. Jean was passing the baton to Marc, so that year he was her shadow. It was also the first year I’d been back to Gen Con almost a decade, so I was astonished at how much the Symposium had grown.

The next year, the transition appeared completely seamless. That in itself was impressive, but even more impressive was how often I saw Marc sit down to solicit ideas on how to improve the event. Over the next couple of years, I saw him implement those changes, expanding and improving on an already well-oiled machine until the little writing convention inside of Gen Con became rather a big convention in its own right. What really blew my mind was meeting people who were there primarily for the Symposium, with the backdrop of the world’s biggest game convention as a bonus.

Marc recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for his passion project, World of Aetaltis: The Temple of Modren. In addition to the already-completed adventure, for which he’s hired professional artists, designers, and developers, he has lined up fantasy writers from Ed Greenwood, Matt Forbeck,Mel Odom, Mike Stackpole, and of course Jean Rabe to contribute to a fiction anthology when the already-funded Kickstarter reaches a series of stretch goals.

1. In addition to game design and fiction writing, you’re a cat wrangler. That is, you coordinate the Writers’ Symposium at Gen Con. How has that experience made you more creative?

Each year the Symposium hosts a very diverse group of authors. Their writing styles, beliefs, interests, and values all vary, sometimes dramatically. I think that having positive, creative relationships with so many different types of creative people has really helped to enrich my writing and my creative process. When I sit down to write or to work on a game, I often reflect on what I learned from those other authors. It lets me say, “Is there a way to approach this creative challenge in a different way from the one I automatically gravitate toward?” I think this has really helped me to grow creatively.

2. Speaking of the Writers’ Symposium, can you describe how it differs from other writing-focused conventions?

Conventions often focus on either fan panels (“What’s next for Randland!”) or academic panels (“The impact of fantasy literature on late twentieth-century western society.”) I love panels like this, but when I first started writing I found it difficult to find panels like “How to write query letters to agents,” “Tricks for breaking into a new genre,” or “Writing amazing dialogue.”

That’s why these nuts-and-bolts style panels are the sort the Symposium specializes in. For new authors, they provide the education needed to achieve success. For seasoned authors, the panels serve to re-energize them, help them adapt to the changing market, and maybe answer some seemingly simple questions they might be too embarrassed to ask.

The other major difference is how little it costs to attend. More than 80% of our panels are free to anyone with a Gen Con badge. This is due in no small part to the generosity of the authors that take part in the program (so please be sure to thank them when you’re there!) For the price of a $75 Gen Con badge you can attend 30-40 hours of writing panels featuring some of the greatest SF, fantasy, and media tie-in authors alive today.

3. What sets Aeltaltis apart from the bajillion other fantasy RPG settings? In what ways do you play to the strengths of the familiar clichés, and how do you push against them?

I think the thing that sets Aetaltis apart from other fantasy worlds is that I happily embrace the tropes, stereotypes, and clichés that many other games and stories avoid. In fact, I think that’s part of what attracts people to the world. As soon as they get into it, they think, “Wow! I’m home!”

All those tropes, stereotypes, and clichés exist because people love them—but only if they’re handled the right way. Handle them wrong, and you get, “Oh, that old thing again.” Handle them right, and you get, “I love this stuff!” Based on the positive feedback we’ve received so far, it looks like we handled them right.

Art by Mitchel Malloy

Art by Mitchel Malloy

4. How do you see RPG design and fiction writing complementing and contrasting with each other?

RPGs work better when they’re supported by great tie-in fiction. Creating your own stories by playing an RPG is fun, but when you can imagine that your story is taking place alongside the events and characters of that awesome tie-in novel you just read, it takes the experience to another level.

Despite this synergy, writing great game material and writing amazing fiction require different skills. With fiction, you’re drawing the reader in and guiding them through the story you want to tell. With game material, you hand the reader a set of creative tools, but then you need to get out of the way. Apply the game writing method to fiction, and the reader feels lost. Apply the fiction writing techniques to games, and the players don’t feel like they’re in control.

5. The announcement of the Baen Fantasy Award has inflamed a political divide among fantasy authors and readers. As the organizer of the Symposium, which sometimes includes panels on (fantasy) politics and religion, how do you make the event inclusive for a diverse crowd?

We have an unusually diverse group of people speaking on our panels, and that creates an environment that helps everyone to feel like they belong. What’s funny is that, while I’m really happy our program is like this, I didn’t do it on purpose. All I wanted to do was to gather together the best authors I could find, so we could teach people how to be better writers.

In the end, I think that’s why it works. Even when we host a panel like “Writing the other,” it isn’t about whether you should or shouldn’t write about “the other” or who “the other” is. It’s just a panel where fantastic authors teach you how to do it really, really well.


The World of Aetaltis: Temple of Modren Kickstarter has passed its initial goal, but many stretch goals lie ahead. Join in to help create the fiction anthology, maybe even with a cover by legendary artist Larry Elmore.

Gen Con 2014

After a brutal ordeal with the hotel reservation portal, I’d given up on attending Gen Con this year when a white knight charged in to the rescue. The only events I’m sure to attend are the Writers’ Symposium panels TBA. Take a minute to look at my featured speaker profile and make me seem like a big shot on the page counter. I will likely also put in a few hours signing, but I’d like to do more this year. Maybe run a game, maybe play a few, maybe submit some sort of Ask-Me-Anything event. Of course the parties.

If you’re going to Gen Con, what do you suggest I add to my schedule?

And what are your Gen Con plans?


Gen Con 2013 Overview

As has become my custom since my return to the show in 2010, I spent about half of my Gen Con scheduled time at the Writers’ Symposium, which is a surprisingly great convention-within-a-convention. Not only does it draw big names like Patrick Rothfuss and Brandon Sanderson, it has become one of those events where you recognize almost all of the other participants from other conventions. It’s only a matter of time before it’s considered “part of the circuit” by writers with no connection to gaming.

Special thanks to Marc Tassin, for scheduling me to read beside Pat Rothfuss, and eternal gratitude to those Rothfuss fans who followed me down to buy not one but all four of my Pathfinder Tales novels. You made my weekend as much with your kind words as with the purchase.

A close second to my scheduled time was signing and hanging out at the Paizo booth. I’ve been blessed three out of the past four years with a book released at Gen Con, which makes a huge difference in the number of folks stopping by for an autograph, as you’d expect. This was the first year I felt the jealous eyes of my Pathfinder Tales colleagues burning stripes down the back of my neck, though. For that reason alone, it’s probably good that I don’t have a book scheduled for next August. Howard Andrew Jones probably wouldn’t hurt me, but Chris A. Jackson is a pirate.

I did a very brief signing at the Pelgrane booth for my tiny contribution to Hillfolk. Like most booths, they aren’t really set up for half a dozen writers to sign books, and I have that kind of agoraphobia that makes me itch if I’m caught in a small space by other humans. A couple of short visits to the Privateer booth where I signed cover flats with Larry Correia, Miles Holmes, and Howard Tayler could have ended up the same way, but  they had seats and a counter in front of us, so the close quarters never triggered my flight or fight response. Plus we had a great view of the demo area with its enormous warjack and a good Coleman Stryker cosplayer posing for photos.

The “real” action at Gen Con is always at the parties, where I spent most of my time enjoying the company of people I see only once or twice a year. My favorite function there is introducing people who ought to know each other, and I had plenty of opportunities for that. And I got to meet some folks I’d worked with but never encountered in fleshspace, notably the aforementioned Privateer writers and Scott Lynch, a fellow contributor to the Tales from the Far West fiction anthology.

Scott, Howard, Lou Anders, and Saladin Ahmed, whose work I’ve admired, playtested a new game with a scenario designed and run by Howard Andrew Jones. HAJ and I had already become friends over the past few Gen Cons, but the others were all new to me, at least in person. Playing an RPG is a great way to break the ice and get some inkling of someone’s personality, albeit through the veil of their character. And it was a special treat to play a game at Gen Con, which almost never happens to me anymore. HAJ’s Nordic-inspired scenario drew from familiar legend, letting us focus on the fairly simple game mechanics.

As has become my custom, I caught the con crud early. Fortunately, it put me out of the game only for Saturday night, although the cough persists. If I still have it when I return from Worldcon, it’s time to petition my new doctor for a course of antibiotics.

I went to the show intending to say “no” to all new offers of work, but I walked away with two maybes leaning yes and one yes because the setting is right in my wheelhouse and deadline is so far away. I guess the only way to stop this happening is to cease attending conventions until my desk is completely cleared sometime in mid-2014. I’m just a boy who can’t say no, and I’ve got to accept that and work around it.

While I have no events scheduled for Worldcon, please say hello if you spot me.