I'm back from GenCon 2014. As always it was an exhausting-but-fun four days of gaming, preceded by a few days visiting with my wife's relatives relatives in southern and central Indiana.
Adventuring with D&D 5th Edition
My Dungeons & Dragons 5e events were decent -- I played a pre-gen wizard who I was able to level up from 1st to 3rd after three 1-hour mini-adventures and two four-hour adventures. Everyone took to it like ducks to water; even the 4e people seemed to enjoy the game (though one guy said he was looking forward to the Dungeon Master's Guide and its presumed moduler rules for dropping Vancian magic. I found this amusing given that Vancian magic is one the reasons my group is considering returning to D&D).
The game played fast and fun, though I was surprised that none of the game masters used the Inspiration mechanic. Granted, it only gets a quarter of a page in the PHB, but given how important advantage and disadvantage are to the game, I expected to see it more. Then again, advantage and disadvantage didn't come up that much -- I think part of it was GMs falling back on old D&D habits and assigning a +2 bonus or penalty to tasks.
I think the lack of Inspiration was unfortunate, but not crippling, and a friend pointed out, it may because the DMs in question weren't used to Inspiration-like mechanics (see: FATE, Savage Worlds, Cortex)
It was all far less lethal than my group's Gygax Day playtest of D&D 5e, which saw three characters killed. My wizard got knocked to negatives a couple of times, but the party was able to save my bacon (and my luck with death saves was better than Damon's).
Of course, the whole time I was playing I couldn't help but sneak peaks at the new Player's Handbook. I've read all of the races and about half the classes, and I have to say I'm enjoying it. Might even be loving it -- as I've said elsewhere, this is much closer to what I'd hoped 4e would be. That said ... sometimes you have to go away to come back. I don't know if the community would have embraced a rules-light D&D (or at least, lighter) if (D&D 4th Edition and Pathfinder hadn't played out the way they had.
Walking familiar roads with Pathfinder
As for Pathfinder, I played my first Pathfinder Society game at GenCon. It reminded me of the old RPGA Raven's Bluff adventures. By my estimate the Pathfinder hall was probably twice as big as the D&D play area, and it was damn cool to see all the big Pathfinder banners flying everywhere. I played "The Confirmation", in which my newbie Pathfinder generic fighter went on his inaugural adventure for the Society. Half of my table was new to Pathfinder, though the DM was a vet. I found it amusing when the DM offered advice about "planning your character out for a few levels".
That comment's one of the reasons why I'm liking 5e so much -- I feel like there's more emphasis on the here and now, and less on what you're character's going to do in four levels.
My best games were outside the realm of organized play. I played in a Conan-inspired Savage Worlds fantasy game that had all the dice explosions, epic Soak roles, and exuberant players that you expect to see in such a game. I can't remember a Savage Worlds con game I haven't enjoyed. In hindsight, I should have dropped on of the 5e games and picked up another Savage Worlds one.
I also played two 4-hour slots of Firefly, which is a greatly-updated (and still Cortex-powered) version of the Serenity RPG we played a few years ago. It's even better now -- it's evolved into a far more story driven game, and both tables I played at were a hell of a lot of fun. The first table ("Wedding Planners") used the Serenity crew as pre-gens for a pre-Serenity movie adventure. I was a little apprehensive about it because playing characters everyone knows can be a mixed bag, but it worked out really well.
The second game ("What's Yours is Mine") was better; we started with archetypal characters with about half their attributes picked, and then we fleshed them out at the table, building out character connection as we did so. We ended up with a crew that was very much like the "Waltons in Space" (I played a newly-ordained Shepherd) and had a hell of a good time playing the game. It was the sort of game (and the sort of table) that you didn't want to end after a four hour slot.
"That's no moon ... it's an exhibit hall!"
The convention itself is huge. It was big in 2007, but it's truly immense now. I was very lucky that I was able to share a room with George (thanks George!) because housing sold out on the first day. They expended to hotels further out from the downtown, but I don't think the convention would be quite as much fun if I had been shuttling back and forth to a hotel 20 minutes away. That said ... it's just sleep right? If I did have to do that I could have packed a little lighter and played a little later, but I can see how it could quickly become frustrating.
The exhibit hall is epic ... but different. RPGs have receded from the fore -- there are far more card, miniature and board game booths than RPGs. The publisher booths are still there (though Wizards of the Coast did not have have one, choosing instead to sell the PHB through their own small store in their organized play area) but there are less RPG-centric supplemental booths, and no miniature booths to speak of (no Reaper minis which was as unexpected as it was sad). There are also a lot more booths given over to costumes than we saw in 2007 (to say nothing of 2000). There's also a bunch of miscellaneous geeky booths and a dedicated family game area.
The convention was invigorating, and I came back home wanting to run a dozen different games. I hadn't realized how much I missed being at one of the big conventions -- it made me exceedingly nostalgic for my gaming group's annual pilgrimages to GenCon Milwaukee. You can't go home again -- the con is very different from what we knew -- but I would like to figure out some way making an annual (or every other year) trip to one of the big cons. From a mental health perspective, it was fantastic to get away and just game and hang out with friends for four days. I'd forgotten just how good that feels.