Convention Report: Pax 2011 Panels

Little more than a week ago, 70,000 eager gamers descended on Seattle for Pax Prime.  In a dizzying rush they climbed several stories (well, rode the escalator) to the convention’s main expo floor to play test hundreds of popular PC and console games.  And though I took my initial peek into the busy hall filled with vendors displaying their latest and greatest, I set about an immediate mission to scout the tabletop gaming areas, hoping to try out some new stuff and really sink my teeth into a weekend of role playing.  Once I had a good note of where everything was, it was off to get in line for my first panel, and I learned that lines were just something I’d have to get used to at Pax (though I’m not sure I ever did).  The following is a list of panels and the like that I attended which were specifically tabletop role playing related.

Chessex Dice

The Art of the Table:  GMing Beyond the Basics

After about an hour or so in line, probably the shortest wait I’d have during the whole convention, I kicked off my Pax experience with an excellent panel on game mastering.  Sage LaTorra of the recently released Dungeon World RPG joined Apocalypse World creator Vincent Baker as well as Polaris author Ben Lehman.  Rounding out the group were Jeff Fasenfast of GoDaddy and moderator Ben Mandall, who did an excellent job keeping the conversation moving and entertaining.  The panel offered several perspectives and some great advice to use behind the screen, most of which boiled down to the following:  know your players and communicate with them.  No advice can be better than that, and yet it is often what is missed by so many game masters.   If I had to pick one secondary piece of advice, it would be this quote:

“Maybe what your game needs, is child endangerment.” – Vincent Baker

What Vincent was speaking to actually goes in hand directly with the previous statement.  As GMs we need to know what our players want, we need to know what they are comfortable with, and sometimes we need to know what makes them a little uneasy, to push them to new greater heights.  Perhaps putting children’s lives in danger isn’t quite right for your table, that’s not really what Vincent meant, but if your table is mature enough to handle that sort of content even though it might be outside of their comfort zone, it could make for quite the heroic scene to save those kids, or quite the emotional moment if they don’t make it.

Acquisitions Inc:  The Last Will and Testament of James Darkmagic I

More of a show than a panel, this was something I knew I had to see.  Timing being what it was, I was forced to skip over the the Ask the Dungeon Master panel offering more tips and tricks on running a great game, to instead wait in line a few hours dancing with nervous anticipation (or maybe that was just because I needed to go to the bathroom) getting ready for the live game run by Wizards of the Coast Dungeon Master extraordinaire Chris Perkins for an all-star team comprised of Star Trek and The Guild‘s Wil Wheaton, PVP Online author/artist Scott Kurtz, and the Penny Arcade boys themselves, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik.  In the most over-produced game of D&D ever, the minstrels Paul and Storm played an opening homage not just to Acquisitions Incorporated (the name of the collected group above), but to adult tabletop gamers everywhere.  The adventurers arrived with grand announcements, stage lighting, and smoke machines, dressed in full costume… well, mostly… and ready to roll.  I could go on telling you how much I enjoyed this latest foray into live gaming, or how clever the writing was, or how impressed I was that they fit such a story into 2 hours of play, or I could just link this unofficial video I found via the /r/rpg subreddit.  Be sure to skip ahead to 3:30 seconds for when the intro song and game play begin, then catch part two which is in the playlist below the video.

Watching this game was one of the most incredibly fun experiences of the convention.  I’ve watched the whole thing over again since coming home from my trip, picking up on a few jokes that the crowd’s laughter overpowered and I missed the first time through.  I can’t believe that there isn’t a television show putting celebrities into a role playing game like this, or at least a more frequent web series.  I was a little disappointed that Perkins wasted a lot of time at the beginning of the night with “dragon mounting” rolls, leaving combat to not more than a few rounds, but I understand that this was a story driven, presentation experience and that honestly, the combats didn’t really matter.  I implore you to take the time to enjoy it, the last line by the Dungeon Master still makes me grin.

D&D Through the Ages

An expert team was pooled together for this panel which included creative minds such as Mike Mearls, one of the members of the team responsible for much of 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, also Mike Selinker, who did the same for the transition to 3rd Edition, and Keith Baker, creator of the Eberron Campaign Setting for D&D 3.5 and 4th Edition.  The panelists discussed the history of changes from edition to edition, and the trend of modern rules lite games and recreations/rules hacks of older editions.  The discussion was rife with stories from the round table discussions at Wizards during the last two edition changes, and it was great to hear some of the first hand accounts of how certain decisions were made.  The best story had to be Mike Selinker’s with regard to the Open Game License, how that concept was borrowed from open source software programming, and how nervous the designers were to agree to the idea knowing that it could easily make or destroy their ownership of Dungeons and Dragons.

I will also say I was impressed with the candid nature of the panel’s responses with regard to comparisons of 4th Edition and Massive Multiplayer Online games (MMOs), or even comparisons of 3rd Edition to Collectible Card Games (CCGs) such as Magic the Gathering.  There was an air of honesty in the given responses, openly stating to the audience that of course those games played an influential role in the development of the relevant versions of the game.  The way it was stated, Wizards wasn’t so much looking for piggybacking the existing fanbases for CCGs or MMOs (although they did admit some level of that), but instead they were looking for new ways to handle game mechanics that simply didn’t exist at the time previous editions were created.   I enjoyed the fact that nobody tried to dodge any questions or deflect, and I gained a new level of respect for Mike Mearls for how he and the others handled the crowd.

Next Week!

Although I didn’t play too many games during the con (to my surprise), I did have a chance to try out a couple of games that were new to me and to dive head first into a D&D 4e Dungeon Delve and the Wizards of the Coast booth’s live action D&D experience.  Also, be on the look out for my picture gallery, I only had a crappy cell phone camera with me this trip, but I came away with a few cool shots to check out, here’s a few samples…

Piranha Plant Cosplay


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