Total Confusion bills itself as “New England’s largest gaming convention”. I’m here to tell you that they don’t lie, in fact, they’re keeping the truth under wraps. They’re not just the largest, they’re the best.
I was lucky enough to attend my third TotalCon just a few weeks ago. I was in attendance at TotalCon 1 as a gangly teenager with a few dice and a mechanical pencil. Last year I was invited as an industry guest to TotalCon 25, a role I repeated again this year. It’s by far my favorite convention to attend and I would highly recommend it if you’re anywhere in the area. Now let me tell you what happened during the con, including some tidbits from behind the scenes and some thoughts on just why this is the most fun gaming I have all year.
It’s a fact – Total Confusion is the largest gaming convention in New England. That is, it’s not a fan convention, it’s not a mix of computer and table top games, it’s not dedicated to any one table top system. It’s simply four days of pure gaming goodness. In 2010, there were (counting by badge) 600 attendees. In 2011, 800. This year, TotalCon broke 1000 attendees, all there with the sole purpose of gaming, gaming, gaming.
From Thursday to Sunday you can get your fill of board games, RPGs, wargames and just about anything else you’d like in the tabletop arena. It’s all contained within one hotel (the Holiday Inn at Mansfield, MA) which means you’ve got everything you need under one roof.
I love this about TotalCon. PAX East has it’s moments, as I’m entirely sure other extremely large conventions do. At TotalCon you have enough people to ensure that there’s always an open game or a pickup game happening when you need it. Enough to keep everything busy and exciting and new. Yet you have a chance to run into people throughout the weekend and say hello. After a day or two nearly everyone is a familiar face. This is a friendly place where everyone is in attendance for exactly the same reason and that lends a distinct, pleasant atmosphere to the con you don’t get at the bigger gatherings.
The View From Up Here
This is my second year in attendance as an industry guest, which is amazing in it’s own right, at least to me. Yet here’s another thing that sets this con apart from others. The industry guests don’t appear at panels, do a signing and then vanish into the ether. Every one of us is generally doing their events, wandering the halls, hanging out with attendees or running and playing in games. There is no “up here”. How many other conventions will you go to where you’ll have a real chance to meet the convention guests, hang out with them, swap stories, ask questions, or give direct feedback about their creations?
I arrived at TotalCon on Friday afternoon, spent a few minutes checking in and along with my wife went to the hotel room and dropped off our luggage. After a few minutes, it was off to registration to collect my badge and then a quick stop at the vendor room. This year’s vendor room was, as always a delight. Nothing gets my blood flowing like looking at a huge amount of games, artwork and other geeky things that I don’t own yet.
Shortly after that, we met up with fellow site author Jonathan for a great dinner in the hotel. We talked gaming, backgrounds and of course, what our plans were for the convention.
From there it was off to catch a few of the panels. I ended up being on one of the panels at the last minute, talking about our best and worst experiences at previous conventions, which was a lot of fun! I heard a lot of stories that I’ll not be able to get out of my brain, and got to tell the tale of the time I helped raise money to fly a friend and her son (who is a quadrapalegic) to the New York ComicCon, where we got an impromptu private meeting with Stan Lee.
Right around 7pm, it was time for my first scheduled event – Blix’s Cube of Death! This is a combination of trivia game and fantasy RPG, where teams of two, comprised of one industry guest and one convention attendee, take each other on. Each player gets a character which has a special ability (think Wizard, rogue, fighter, ranger, etc.) I chose the sorceress, I believe, which allowed me to steal one question from the opposing team. Teams had 30 hit points, damage was done by a d6 with some special double damage questions. Anthony and I got our assess thoroughly kicked in the very first round.
I spent the rest of that evening hanging out with folks watching the Cube of Death and other industry guests. Many good conversations were had! That evening also found me playing a few casual games with Jonathan and Wayne (from the Sages of RPG group).
Saturday morning started with a bang. I ran Argyle & Crew for the first time at a convention. It went very well, with seven participants ranging in age from 8 to 13, and Wayne helping me out a great deal! A sock puppet scavenger hunt was had, lots of fun and running around and I was able to both sell and give away several copies of the game. Here’s a more detailed look at this event.
After the Argyle & Crew event, it was off to Jay Libby’s G-core game! Jay’s come up with a great take on the FASERIP system of superhero gaming. It’s lightweight, easy to grasp and fun to play. I love systems where the mechanics don’t get in the way of the game, and I had a great time taking out a goodly number of sentinels, arguing with Dr. Doom (another player) and generally causing havoc on a future Earth. You can check out Jay’s game and my review here, or even better, take a look at his newest release, G-Core Deluxe.
Later I was able to meet up with a friend and his son, and spent a little time watching them run through a classic D&D miniature event. Then it was time to play Thunderstone! We managed a good game before I met back up with my wife and the four of us headed off to dinner. After dinner, it was time for one of my favorite events, one that I plan on hosting for many years to come. Talisman!
In my opinion, Talisman is one of the greatest board games out there. I heartily love this game, partly out of nostalgia, partly because it’s such a fun game and mostly because I get to kill of my friends and family, or turn them into toads. We had a great six player game, with a surprise win just as we were running out of time! (For my in-depth review of Talisman, go here).
One of the perks of being an industry guest is that you get to do things like visit the green room (source of my Diet Mt. Thundar!), hang out with other industry guests and if you’re lucky, get invited to secret gatherings. I was luck, and was invited to a midnight gathering of indie/industry people. It was great fun! Everyone from the panels were there, along with artist Don Higgins, Angelia from the convention, industry legend Tim Kask and many others.
I really enjoyed all of the stories that were flying about that evening. Well, most of the stories, there was one which I am not allowed to share that was slightly more horrifying, but those things happen at conventions. Listening to Tim talk about “Dave” and “Gary” and adding in my mind “Arneson” and “Gygax” to the ends of those names was pretty amazing. Tim’s a stand up legend in his own right, and had a lot of insight into where the RPG hobby has been and where its going.
Sunday was our wind-down day. We hit the vendor rooms again and made a few select purchases. We also stopped by the Wiz Kids booth and got utterly hooked on Quarriors. So hooked that I’ll have a review of this game up in the very near future! I loved it so much that I dragged my wife back and sat down for another demo game. I also got a slight glance at Mage Knight. Woo boy, I want that game! They sold out of their first printing, but it should be returning to store shelves very soon. From there it was saying goodbyes, finding our car and returning back to our regular lives.
Thoughts on TotalCon
This is certainly my favorite convention of the year, the one that I think of as “my convention”. I really can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone in the area or willing to make the trip out. They get so many things right! The staff is great, the guests and attendees are amazing, the vendors have a huge selection and aren’t pushy. There’s always something going on that’s interesting and fun! Pick-up games abound, with a huge game library to borrow from should you want to try something new. There are interesting new things like the Cube of Death, fun panels, movie screenings and more. Add to that the chance to game with all of the industry guests, try out new games outside the vendor area and make a ton of connections and you’ve got an amazing weekend.
The facilities are great – there’s a good amount of room for a convention of this size, a nice pool to hang out at, decent enough food and the rates ($91 a night) aren’t terrible either! The hotel staff were all friendly enough and I feel handled the convention much better this year than last. Last year there was an air of panic among the hotel and restaurant staff, as if they weren’t expecting us all to be there. This year I saw none of that.
Where there things that could have been done better? Sure, there always are as nothing is perfect. I would have loved to have seen more coverage pre-convention for the Cube of Death and the panels. These were both rather lightly attended (although still a ton of fun) and I think making attendees more aware of these events is key to driving attendance of them up.
Iron GM is one of the events that happen on Saturday, and while fun, it can be awfully loud and tends to drown out scheduled games taking place right next to it. This is a bit of a tough nut to crack though because space is limited and TotalCon is growing. It will be interesting to see how the organizers handle this in the years to come.
Industry Guests Speak Out
Now that the convention is over, I asked a few of the other industry guests to chime in with their thoughts.
This year I experimented with a game show I call Cube of Death which is basically a mash-up of Trivia Pursuit and Dungeons and Dragons. It went well but there were a few glitches here and there. I should have given myself more time to set up, should have performed a more in-depth sound check, a few of my questions were not completely accurate, and an eight team playoff was a bit ambitious. Ah well, things to be fixed next time around I guess.
I also set up a few panels with the help of Wes and these went off very well. Attendance was low, much like last year but I recorded them and will put them up for consumption at the TotalCon Podcast site I maintain. Steve and Angela are going to work with me to see about some way to improve attendance for next year. I did manage to squeeze in one game with Jay Libby and it was a rollicking mess of awesomeness. Next year I plan to arrive a day earlier so that I can get in some real gaming and I think I’ll tweak Cube of Death a little to smooth out the rough edges.
There are so many things I can say about Totalcon. Since moving to New England I have not found a convention that has an amazing Staff, pushes the bar 110% each year, and treats its guests like royalty. Ben had asked me to give a couple of words about my experience in 2012, so without rambling on I shall speak about my highlights.
1. The Staff: Steve and Angelia made my stay comfortable. Everything from making sure I had everything I needed, inviting me to the wonderful after parties (including buying some single malt scotch for my enjoyment), and for ensuring that my girlfriend Mary was able to participate in guest events with me. As someone who has dealt with guests for other conventions, they do better than most high end cons with green room and guest amenities.
2. The Gaming: While I would have liked to have seen more indie style games (and some Shadowrun), the number of games and choice of the same was fantastic. Playing in Mark Edward’s 7th Seas game was an experience I am still talking about, and Jay Libby’s adults only game was one of the best RP experience I have had in months. My own games all went off and the players I had at the table were all wonderful and engaged. It is the sort of audience that most conventions wish they had.
3. Panels and Game Shows: Peter Blix Bryant’s Cube of Death and panels were fun. I am hoping in the next couple of years we can see more attendance, but as someone who just likes to talk about his hobby, I had a blast.
4. Industry Guests: First off I have to say Tim Kask is my hero. I won’t get into details, but his words to a certain smug GM were like listening to silver bells. While I missed Frank, Tim really brought me back to the days of my youth. One of the things I like about Totalcon is the meeting of the minds. When you get several game designers together there is an amazing amount of energy and creativity flowing. There might be some ways for next year to bottle that up and put it to use.
There was very little on the down side, if I had any complaint is on how loud and obnoxious the Iron GM competition was. I know there is very little space for them, but the organizers should be aware that there are several games going on, and as promoters of the best game masters on earth, they need to let those who are running games have a bit more quiet space. I am looking forward to next year, heck I am even planning what games I will be running as I type. Totalcon is worth the trip and the time if you love a large RPG convention that treats each member like family.
When it comes to conventions I go for my fans (and possible new ones). I have found that TotalCon brings together a really nice mix of gamers. The staff are always friendly and the industry guests are a collection of some of the most famous AND nicest people that work game design. I stress ‘nice’ because there are conventions that have had industry guests that were so ‘diva’ that I chose to not go back.
My highlights from TotalCon are really hard to pin down. I love running G-Core for new players (and old ones). They dig the rules and the chance to play their favorite superhero is always a draw. I always run a ‘kid friendly’ game in the morning because kids are the future of our industry. My ‘adults only’ Fuzion game was designed for players that just wanted to get away from the all ages crowds and be able to cut loose. But the thing I am known for at conventions are those infamous Dilly Green Bean Games cocktail hours.
We first started at I-Con YEARS ago with guests like Mike Pondsmith. We would get extremely socially lubricated and then just talk for hours. These days we have a couple drinks and just talk about a mix of life and the industry, but nothing dire. It’s really fun. Of course having Tim Kask arrive and bring down the world of D&D on Peter ‘Blix’ Bryant’s head was pretty funny too. That sticks out a lot. If there is one convention that I fully endorse, TotalCon would be it.