28 February 2011

TotalCon 2011

This past weekend, I attended Total Confusion (TotalCon) in Mansfield, Massachusetts. The convention was advertised as being the largest game convention in New England, and has been running for 25 years. That said, I knew that TotalCon wasn't going to be the size of GenCon or Origins, but that's just fine with me.

In my experience, every local convention has its own charms, and I was looking forward to seeing how TotalCon compared to the smaller conventions I'd attended back in California. I have fond memories of DunDraCon in San Ramone, and OrcCon, Gamex, and Gateway in Los Angeles.

I drove to Mansfield late Friday morning. It was cold and rainy, but the drive was uneventful. The Holiday Inn parking lot was packed, but I managed to score a "rock star" parking spot mere yards from the hotel's front door. I wasn't able to check in to my hotel room right away, as it wasn't ready, but I did get to meet up with a new friend, Lorien, and grab a quick bit of lunch.

The first thing I noticed was the architecture of the hotel, which is perhaps not unique to the east coast. The hotel room balconies opened onto the interior courtyard and pool of the hotel, rather than outside. The hotel's indoor courtyard smelled of chlorine as a result, which wasn't necessarily bad... just unusual to an uninitiated guest such as myself.

After eating, Lorien and I went to registration, and I picked up my guest badge (and other goodies). I've never been a guest of honor at a convention before, so I didn't expect half the bennies that were bestowed upon me. The TotalCon staff really treated me well, and I was more than happy to be there in support of their event.

With my badge in hand, Lorien and I walked over to the room where the panels would be taking place. Frank Mentzer and Tim Kask, two industry veterans from the earliest days of TSR and D&D, were talking about our hobby's history and waxing nostalgic. We sat and listened for nearly two hours, because it really was an interesting discussion. I also decided then and there that I wanted to play in one of Frank or Tim's games before I went home the following evening.

Eventually we slipped out of the discussion, as Lorien had a long drive through inclement weather ahead of her. As for me, I needed to check in at the hotel and get my room organized. I considered a nap, but it wasn't in the cards. Instead, I had dinner at the hotel's barbeque restaurant, Pike's Peak, and then spent a lot of time reading. The food was decent, though not extraordinary... I was hoping for a more Claim Jumper sort of feel, but neither the quality nor the portions were up to the standards I desired.

My first panel of the weekend, on game design, was scheduled for eight o'clock. It lasted an hour, was hosted by Peter Blix Bryant of the Tri Tac Podcast, and included the likes of James Carpio, Ben Gerber, Jeffrey Talanian, and Jay Libby. The discussion was informative and entertaining, and I left feeling pretty good about the experience. I've been on a few panels previously, all of them at GenCon, so the size of the audience was somewhat smaller than I was used to. Being a shy guy, though, I never complain about such things.

I decided to try and attend Tim Kask's next OD&D game... at eight o'clock the next morning. "Who the hell games at eight o'clock in the morning?" my wife would ask me later. Such is life. My thoughts, at the time, were that it'd be easier to crash an eight o'clock morning game than any of the other scheduled sessions, as most sane D&D players would be snuggled away in their beds.

As it turns out, five players (not including myself) showed for Tim's eight o'clock session, High in the Hellgate Mountains. The potpourri of players who attend conventions always makes such groups interesting, if not dynamic. I spent much of the initial prep time observing, but found myself piping up as time went on. As the other players would often descend into off-topic banter about things as banal as the name of the evil princess from Buck Rogers, Tim (as DM) would interrupt their "philosophical discussions" with roving groups of random monsters.

For the most part, these encounters always surprised us, regardless of who was involved in the offending conversation. It got to the point where, once we'd exhausted whatever a dungeon location had to offer us, I would immediately goad the rest of the group into moving on before they could start another inane conversation about something completely unrelated to the adventure at hand, and thereby earning another random encounter.

In the end there were no character deaths--something that surprised the shit out of me. The game lasted a little over four hours from start to finish, and according to Tim we managed to accomplish everything we'd set out to do. Maybe Tim was tired (heck, I know for a fact he was tired), or maybe we were lucky. It was a nice way to spend a few hours, especially for someone who, like me, rarely gets to play games at conventions.

It did help me to narrow down my feelings on old school RPGs, though I admit that I need a little more input before making a final determination. While there were several moments where I experienced a very strong sense of nostalgia for the old days, I really do prefer modern systems that allow for specific skills and detailed rules for various circumstances. At one point, I asked Tim if fighting with two of my daggers would have any kind of effect. He scoffed and jokingly replied, "What do you think this is? A Drizzt novel?"

And to think I work with Bob Salvatore on a regular basis... ::sigh::

After the game, I talked to Tim for a while before going on to my interview with Peter Bryant for the Tri Tac Podcast. The interview was pretty straightforward, and I have no idea when it will be available for folks to listen to. Peter estimated it could be a month or longer. I'll be sure to give a shout when it's available.

Following the interview, I limped my way over to the room where the next panel would be held. Limped, yes, for I had slipped on a sheet of ice that morning while taking my bags to my car. It wasn't the slip that hurt, so much as the impact, and I spent the rest of the day limping around like Captain Ahab. Getting old really sucks.

I propped up my injured ankle and read until people started to arrive for the panel, which was entitled "Gaming and the Media." Sharing the panel with me were Tom Vasel, Eric Summerer, and Rone Barton (at least, I think it was Rone Barton... I could be wrong). Overall, I felt like a fifth wheel. I'm not a marketing guy, and my experience with digital media--especially a lot of the newer media--is seriously lacking. The other guys, with their experience with podcasts and self-publishing/small press, were much more informed (and informative) than I was.

When it had ended, I thanked Peter, said my goodbyes to the other panelists, and went off to buy my kids some dice. I was approached by a fan of 38 Studios, a guy named Adam, who asked me how I liked working there. I told him the truth: It's the best job I've ever had. He seemed satisfied by the answer.

I'm going back to TotalCon next year, and I think I'll even run a game or two of my own. I'm not sure what I'll run yet... I've got time to think about it, after all. But despite my painful tumble in the parking lot on Saturday morning, I had a thoroughly enjoyable time. Special thanks to Angelia and the rest of the TotalCon staff for making it a memorable weekend.