Sunday, September 11, 2011

Dragon*Con 2011 - Gaming at the Con

This year was the 25th anniversary of Dragon*Con, a multigenre, multimedia convention celebrating science-fiction, fantasy, horror, comics, and gaming. I attended the convention for the first time recently, and thought it'd be fun to share some of what I saw...

It might be hard to believe given the anarchic, all-encompassing nature of Dragon*Con today, but the convention was actually started by a relatively small group of fantasy and sci-fi gamers. Despite the huge number of movie, TV, and comic book fans that now occupy the con, gaming still lives at D*C, if you look hard enough. Lurking in the cavernous basement of the Hilton, underneath the maddening crowds, there is a core group of gamers who play on:

Okay, I'm exaggerating a little bit. During the periods of peak traffic on Saturday and Sunday, the gaming hall is easily one of the busiest places at Dragon*Con:

You'll see countless people playing a variety of European-style board games, collectible card games (like "Magic: The Gathering"), and wargaming miniature battles (the BattleTech/MechWarrior tables are invariably impressive, what with their miniature burned-out cities and big 'mech models). There were even "MechCorps" head-to-head BattleTech simulators:

Sadly, if you wanted to play an actual Dungeons & Dragons-ish pen-and-paper RPG, one of the only ways to do so at D*C was through the Cheese Grinder, a tournament pitting power-gamed 11th level Pathfinder characters against superdeadly monsters, traps, and puzzles:


We tried out quite a few boardgames during D*C. First up was "Innsmouth Escape," a game set in the universe of H.P. Lovecraft's classic novella, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." One player is a human survivor, while the other players are Deep Ones (hideous anthropomorphic fish monsters) trying to kill him or her.

A guy named John randomly happened by the table to explain the rules of "Innsmouth Escape." John was a complete stranger, but was able to concisely explain the rules of an obscure boardgame to us. Only at Dragon*Con could this happen:

The game itself contains a board, various cards, and 100 Deep One figurines (25 figures per Deep One player). Like most Twilight Creations games, the production values weren't super-high (most of the game cards had identical, bland artwork, and the board was just plain ugly); since we got the game on clearance at a dealer's booth for $10, though, there wasn't much cause to complain.

"Innsmouth Escape" plays like a faster, more streamlined version of "Fury of Dracula." The human player's moves are planned in secret, though he or she is generally advised to rescue as many people and collect as much equipment as quickly as possible. That's because the Deep Ones get to spawn new monsters every turn, and can conduct rituals to become more powerful as the game wears on - if the human player dilly dallies, his or her death will be a foregone conclusion.

We liked "Innsmouth Escape," and felt it captured the feel of the source material nicely. The gameplay balance was a bit screwy, though; with only one or two Deep One players, it's too easy for the human to win, while three or more make the game too hard. Since the game board is the same each time you play, I could see the game getting stale after awhile.


We attempted to play another Twilight Creations-published game called "Bump in the Night." In the game, each player has a team of monsters that attempts to frighten children out of a haunted house. It's an interesting concept, but the rules were obtuse, and there was no John to help us, so we packed it away for another day.


The next boardgame on the agenda was something we borrowed from the massive Dragon*Con game center, where you can find almost any boardgame imaginable:

"Munchkin Quest" is the boardgame version of "Munchkin," the uber-popular card game. Like "Munchkin," MQ takes all the tropes of D&D-style adventuring and makes fun of them - you'll run into odd monsters like pterodactyls and goldfish, and you'll fight them with ridiculous items (eat Chainsaw of Bloody Dismemberment, you scoundrel!).

Unlike "Munchkin," MQ's rules are torturously complex, and the game just isn't very fun to play. The additional MQ elements - discoverable rooms, variable looting, wandering monsters, locked doors - don't do much except dilute the all-out PvP brinkmanship the original "Munchkin" thrived on. We ended our game of MQ early and moved on.


The best boardgame of the lot was "Mansions of Madness":

MoM uses many of the same mechanics as "Arkham Horror" and "Call of Cthulhu," but takes a more micro approach. In the game, players conduct detailed explorations of haunted houses, crypts, burial grounds, and other creepy Lovecraftian locations. Along the way, they'll try not to get killed or driven insane by the eldritch horrors that confront them.

It's a Fantasy Flight game, so it's expensive, but they certainly don't skimp on the materials:

Inside the hefty game box, you'll find room tiles that make up the gameboard, figurines for monsters and investigators, and cards for representing spells, items, and characters:

The actual moment-to-moment gameplay in MoM is pretty straightforward. One player is the Keeper, who oppposes the Investigators. On their turn, the Investigators explore rooms, look for clues, and fight monsters and hazards sent by the Keeper. On the Keeper's turn, the monsters attack and Generally Bad Stuff occurs.

Depending on which of the five included scenarios you play, you'll encounter certain enemies, items, rooms, and puzzles. Moreover, after certain objectives are completed by the Investigators, special scenario-specific events are triggered that both progress the story and cause something to happen on the gameboard: monsters and items can spawn, doors can appear, rooms can catch fire, etc. Most of these special events tie in well with the theme of the scenario ("The Fall of House Lynch" has a finale that would make "Left 4 Dead" proud).

We really liked the scenario-driven aspects of the game, though we felt combat was a little too random (you draw from a deck of cards with various outcomes instead of rolling a straight attack). The potential for expansion is obvious, as is the possibility of creating your own MoM scenarios. The game does take awhile to set up and play, but if you have the time, you're in for a great ride through the Mythos.


The highlight of D*C gaming (and perhaps our D*C experience in general) was Ziggyzeitgeist's Dungeons & Dragons adventure. It's the first true con game I've ever played, in the sense that multiple strangers dropped in and out of the game. The plot was a mix of fantasy, Lovecraftian horror (particularly "The Colour Out of Space"), and a wild, weird West based partly on "There Will Be Blood."

Strangely enough, we were the only people I know of who were playing any type of pick-up D&D game at the con (the Pathfinder tourney doesn't count, since it's not something a beginner would have fun entering). I guess it's safe to declare Ziggyzeitgeist's one-shot to be Dragon*Con 2011's Official Roleplaying Adventure.

Aside from our core D*C group of Eric, Sophie, Tessa, Spookysquid, and Ziggyzeitgeist, we had several new players stop by at the con. There was Trent, a disabled military vet who was somewhat familiar with roleplaying; Gabe, a nice kid who had played Star Wars d20; StonerKid, a young man who really got into his minotaur-with-a-shotgun character; KaraokeGuy; Quiet MMORPG Dude; and CuriousOnlookerKid. None of them had ever played 4th Edition, and most had never played any version of D&D.

It's said that every time we introduce someone to pen-and-paper RPGs, an angel gets its wings:

Sophie, Ziggyzeitgeist, and StonerKid:

There's nothing like playing D&D with friends in the basement of a giant sci-fi/fantasy convention. That's right, we're part of a literal subculture:

That's it for now. I think I'll do one last wrapup post, and then no more Dragon*Con, at least until next year...


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