Friday, March 18, 2016

C2E2 2016 Report

Back from C2E2! As in, just recently back. What a long day!

Megan and I went with my coworker Joyce, who convinced us to ride the train into Chicago. We missed the first train, which is just as well since I had forgotten our badges the first time out the door! Once we were at union station, we almost missed the shuttle bus, but the driver stopped for us after seeing me run alongside him. No 30-minute wait for the next one!

Lots of amazing cosplayers again this year, of course. Some of my favorites were dressed as Cinderella, Chewbacca, Spider-Gwen, Mr. Freeze, Mojo Jojo, and I was pleased by all the cosplay support for Agent Carter. All the Deadpools annoyed me, except for Steampunk Deadpool, which was awfully amusing.

We walked through a large portion of the exhibit hall, but did not see everything. We didn't even bother going by the Marvel booth. Megan and I both got distracted by some store booths right away. I was tempted by some Animal Crossing stuffed animals, but $18 seemed too much for the size. I found this store from Oswego (The Comic Shop?) with a bunch of dollar bins and they were very helpful at going through my wishlist and finding at least four Astro City issues for me (Astro City, in the dollar bin! What's this world coming to?). Then, before we left the booth, Megan and I found the mini-magnets they were selling with classic video game packaging on them. I picked up Adventure and Kaboom! from the Atari 2600.

The Peace Corps had a booth and I picked up two books from them, one being a comic book -- and I'm donating both of them to the Poplar Creek Public Library government documents department! And then Megan and I got excited about a store booth selling trade paperbacks for half-off. I found Superman Chronicles volume 10 and Megan wanted an Usagi Yojimbo omnibus -- thank goodness they only wanted cash and I didn't have enough for both, or I'm sure I would have been stuck carrying around that big omnibus the rest of the day.

Then we headed upstairs for the seminars and attended "Designing for the Geek Community: Reinventing Library Services to Meet the Needs of Geeks in Chicago". Joyce and I got some good ideas from that to take back to work and I was able to talk to a D&D-running librarian about the long-term difficulties of maintaining a D&D club in a library. After that, we parted with Joyce for the day and Megan and I went to see John Cusack. Cusack was a real surprise -- untidy, foul-mouthed, anti-establishment -- yet refreshingly honest and somehow still charming. He disliked "top 5" type questions, but I couldn't resist going up to the mic and asking him my own about who he wanted to work with and never had. The only person he could think of off the top of his head was Martin Scorsese.

After that we went back downstairs and checked out artist's alley. On our way to the alley area, in the exhibit hall, we happened to come across one of Megan's old TV heartthrobs, Austin St. James from Power Rangers, being interviewed. I tried to get Megan to go up to him afterwards, but she was too shy.

The "alley" was so huge we only got through half of it in two hours! We spent more in artist's alley than we've ever spent before and I think we got some really good stuff. Megan's priority was getting to Jenny Parks to buy more cat merchandise. We found her and Megan picked up three buttons and a small print of Harry Potter as a cat. We also bought a comic book called Hero Cats of Stellar City that Jenny drew the cover for.

Art Baltazar remembered my name! We talked about how far Skokie was, the Streamwood parade, my health, and we dropped a boatload of money on a Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam trade paperback, two issues of Tiny Titans, three issues of Superman Family Adventures, one issue of Aw Yeah Comics, and a doodle sketch of the Golden Age Hawkman (Megan's H&H Hero, only with the later yellow mask instead of the hawk helmet). Both Art and Franco graciously signed everything we bought.

I had seen these comic books last year and wanted them, but only got them this year -- two issues of Tom Stillwell's The Honor Brigade -- a well-done, almost Astro City-like superhero universe. Honorable mention goes to Dave Wheeler's Wonderboy, which I would have bought this year had I not run out of cash!

We got a copy of Shrugged2 from Serena Guerra that says "Keith's Komix" on the cover, but that was more an excuse to see the baby and chew the fat about the Schaumburg Library Mini-ComicCon.

Megan was enthralled over a poster print of the Supernatural cast by Bob the Artist and had to have that too.

I completely missed the "Budgeting Your Comic Book" seminar I wanted to attend, but we made it back upstairs for "The Silver Age Trivia Challenge" with Mark Waid. I thought it was great, though Megan was bored silly for that one. Then I left Megan in the Hillywood Show seminar while I attended "How to Get Press for Your Comic" -- but left early after hearing way too much about Twitter and Kickstarter -- two things I'd rather be dead than use.

After that should have been a nice peaceful ride on the shuttle back to Union Station -- but construction had closed down our shuttle route back to the train! Our options were to wait in a long line for taxis, or hop on a different shuttle and walk six blocks from there to Union Station. Luckily, it wasn't cold or raining! We also had the company of this guy from Oswego (our second Oswego connection!), Jesse, who walked with us (I hope you made it home, Jesse!). By the time we got to our train, we had to run to get on board, and had we missed it we would have had to wait another hour for the next train! And even then we didn't get to relax, because there was a drunk husband verbally abusing his wife the whole way home near us on the train. I wanted to get a conductor to throw his sorry butt off the train, but Megan didn't want me to get involved.

But eventually we did get back home -- 13 hours after leaving home -- to rest our feet, count our loot, figure out how much we spent, write this, and dream of attending again next year!

Monday, March 7, 2016

GaryCon XIII Report - Day 2

The next day, I had none of the previous day’s problem reaching the Grand Geneva and arrived with plenty of time to spare before 10 am. I ran into Brian Jelke, who said hi to me but then ignored me the rest of the bus ride from the parking lot to the entrance. I guess there’s still some bad blood between me and some of the guys at Kenzer & Company.

It was good I was there on time, because I did not want to miss my only session with Dave Olson. Dave’s DMing skills had been one of the few highlights for me at last year’s GaryCon and he did not disappoint in the two-hour Tower of Skulls: Level 2 scenario. It was my first time playing “5th ed” D&D past 4th level, but the true challenge for us players is that only three of us showed up for the event. The scenario was extremely taxing for three players and we were not able to finish it. Dave was even able to prove wrong my earlier impression that “5th ed” PCs were largely unkillable.

I then had two more hours of downtime to look around. I talked to Terry Pavlet again. I found that Darlene had even more art prints sitting out this day (I wish I’d bought another!). I finally picked up my first Seven Voyages of Zylarthen volume from Black Blade Publishing, making it the first time I think I’ve ever given Allan Grohe money.  I ran into Will Schumaker and his son Ben and got to talk to them, assuring them that I was having a much better GaryCon this time.  I got to talk to Paul Stromberg for the first time, as he walked me through his Dave Sutherland table display. I got to see what Paul looks like when he’s livid, as an ignorant server had sat a wet tray down on top of an art print Dave had signed. I also got to talk to Mike Mornard for the first time in person, and chatted with Dave Megarry’s wife.

It was odd that, after having six players sign up for B&B and eight for H&H, that I would only have four people sign up to play OD&D: The Invasion of Arun’Kid.  But I picked up two extra players and the game went fine with a group of six. This session was particularly interesting because, just a week earlier, I had run this scenario for the first time in about 13 years, at the Games Plus store in Mount Prospect, Illinois. And it gave me a fascinating opportunity to compare and contrast.

First of all, I had run it at Games Plus (let’s call that group Group A) using all of Supplement I: Greyhawk, but this time, I decided to leave out all of Greyhawk except for the thief class and multi-classing.  That meant Group B (the GaryCon group) was doing all d6 weapon damage. And it didn’t seem to make any difference in the long term. Of course, there is a dearth of larger-than-man-sized opponents in this particular module, which might have changed that dynamic. But whether we rolled d4, d6, + d8 or all d6 did not change up encounter outcomes.

Another nice thing was that I wrote Arun’Kid with two different ways to approach it, with the PCs either as locals defending their home turf, or strangers protecting strangers they just met. I used the first option for Group A and the second option for Group B. I had never run this using the second option before; it had always seemed important to me that the PCs be locals so they would feel some loyalty to the village they’re saving. It turned out, though, that Group A was the one talking about ditching the village, while Group B valiantly never wavered in their support of the beleaguered village.  

Both groups had trouble with averting the gnomish invasion (just as they were meant to). Both groups went to the hermit next. Group A cheated on the maze, while group B went through the whole thing. The mausoleum was nearly a TPK both times, but I cheated and upgraded the dog zombies to dog-ghouls. Group A survived because they went with the gnomes and had the gnomes cover their retreat out. Group B was down to the thief, who climbed into the coffin with the shadow and cleverly talked the shadow into calling off his dogs. While Group A destroyed the shadow, Group B treated it as a friendly NPC and managed to communicate with it through yes-or-no questions. Both groups went to the brigand lair, but Group A was disappointed that the brigands wanted to fight instead of negotiate a surrender, while Group B was happy to treat it as a big end battle. They brought the gnomes and the villagers with them and quickly overwhelmed the brigands for what I felt was a more satisfying conclusion.  And we finished the whole module in less than four hours both times (with level 2-4 characters; it would take considerably longer at lower levels).

So, I was signed up to run three games and play three other people’s games. Of the latter category, I had so far missed one and enjoyed one. That left room for a different experience playing in my last planned event, Metamorphosis Alpha: Deadfall.  Many of the earmarks of poor game refereeing were on display here -- glacial pacing (40 minutes in the first room, trying to find our way out), too much that didn’t make sense (bad guys who just stood there getting life-leeched instead of moving out of range), too much attention paid to inconsequential details (no, I don’t need to know if the lids are screw tops or like Tupperware), and a plot twist that was going to guarantee a TPK without a deus ex machina intervention sometime in the last hour.  I stuck it out for three hours because there was free dice involved (if I could name a classic TSR AD&D module -- of course I knew it). Then I killed the alien parasite in my gut the only way I could see how, with suicide.

Granted, I might have got into it more had I not been distracted by the table side dinner service. I had given my server a $20 for a $12 burger and was getting really nervous waiting for him to come back with my change. I was about to go looking for the guy when a different server brought me my change. From what I heard and saw, while everyone appreciated the table side service, the servers themselves were pretty hit or miss.  

A benefit of quitting Metamorphosis Alpha early was that I got the chance to walk around the convention one last time. I even managed a quick game of Monty Python Fluxx that I was invited to play by a friendly bunch. If only I’d had that luck picking up open games last year!

The only last problem I had with my GaryCon trip wasn’t anyone’s fault but Mother Nature. I had to drive home to Illinois in a mini-blizzard!  But, overall, GaryCon XIII was a success. It was an improvement on last year and the Grand Geneva was a huge improvement over the Lodge. I will definitely be going back next year!

GaryCon XIII Report - Day 1

Last year’s GaryCon, I had such a wonderful drive up Route 12 from Chicagoland to Lake Geneva...followed by so many problems at the Con itself, that I often considered the drive there the best part of my trip. This year was the complete opposite.  I had a horrible drive up there on Thursday. I missed my first event I was signed up to play because I had expected the new venue -- the Grand Geneva -- to be visible from a main road, like any normal hotel. It took me a long time to figure out that I had to drive way, way down this little side road to get there. Then once I did get there, and wanted to set up for my noon game early, I found my game room was closed off to me by another group using it. So I spent my first 15 minutes of con time sitting on the floor outside a room I was waiting to go into.

But after that, it got much, much better...and I may have had my best GaryCon yet.

One of the reasons for that is that I ran three events this year. Instead of leaving myself vulnerable to the vagaries of open gaming, which had burned me so bad last year, I had decided to take matters in my own hands. There are lots of good players who come to GaryCon -- I already knew this to be true -- but it is hard to connect with them unless your events are listed in the official event listings, as I managed this year. This year, I was surrounded by them.

First up, at noon on Thusday, was my event Bunnies & Burrows: The Games.  I had six players who had never played B&B before, which is fine because I had only played it once before myself. I had prepared a lot of material for a two hour session (I had stretched it out to three hours when I first ran this, so I ran it tighter this time).  Though B&B is, as written, meant to only emulate the Watership Down novel, I had a lot of Beatrix Potter and Wind in the Willows influence in how I run the game, and the scenario itself is based on Emma Thompson’s Peter Rabbit sequel.

From my perspective, I think I had a pretty good handle on the game mechanics and just winged things I didn’t know rather than stop to look anything up. For a game where you’re playing rabbits, B&B is surprisingly roll-play over role-play (I had even created some extra mechanics of my own to handle some of the bunny games, but tried to extrapolate them from the original rules whenever possible). If my players were disappointed, they did a great job of hiding it as they balanced dice rolling for the games with role-playing to accomplish their randomly assigned side goals. My biggest mistake -- since I hadn’t run a game at a con in quite awhile -- was running right up to the end of my session. Apparently it’s expected that you wrap up 15 minutes early to give the next group plenty of set-up time, but the DM after me was extremely polite and did not even talk to me about my faux-pas.

I had then left myself a two-hour gap for going around the con and seeing it. I love just soaking up the ambience of a good con -- going around the tables and watching people play, talking to people I knew, and seeing the exhibit hall.

In the exhibit hall, I bought my first art print from Darlene, talked to “Kraftwerk” from, picked up an art print from Terry Pavlet (like two old men we traded health ailment stories), I bought two Swords & Wizardry products from the Frog God Games booth (including Dennis Sustarre’s module), and the guys from Prolific Games let me playtest a fun new card game of theirs.

It was during this downtime that I first discovered one of the ways that made the Grand Geneva so much better than the Lodge for GaryCon -- water. The Lodge had no water fountains. The Grand Geneva did, right outside the exhibit hall. Better, they placed water dispensers on tables all over the place! There was no danger of dehydrating at this year’s con.

I appreciated the uptick in seminars offered this year and Growing Up Gygax was particularly remarkable.  The Gygax siblings seemed remarkably candid and I felt like I learned a lot. Leaving time for an audience Q&A was helpful and the final question -- which games did they last play with their father? -- was inspired.

For the final part of my day, I ran Hideouts & Hoodlums: Palace of the Vamp Queen. Now, the last two years at GaryCon, I have tried to run H&H as a pick-up game and had no luck attracting enough players. This year, when H&H was in the event listings, I wound up with a full table of eight players. Now, this was both a joy for me and a possible disadvantage for my players, as I now see in hindsight that there were no encounters in the scenario that really needed all eight heroes at once. It was largely two really good players taking the lead, four players helping out as needed, and two players growing increasingly silly as the four-hour session wore on. The mood of most H&H games is light, so I was not concerned at first at all the laughing and joking, but when I made the mistake of allowing one character to urinate on the other, it was hard to come back from that and rein it in.

During this session, I was reminded that DMs at GaryCon get free drinks and snacks. Now, I had known about this from past cons, but had completely forgotten about it this time -- earlier, when some people had approached me with a cart while I ran B&B, I had assumed they were trying to sell me stuff and said no thank you. This is a wonderful service GaryCon does for its DMs.

The Grand Geneva also offered table service throughout the day for ordering food from their kitchen. The chicken wrap was quite good; impressive, for being the second cheapest item on the menu.

The heroes found the way down to the lower level, where all the tougher encounters were, pretty early. Then, when they went back up to the upper level for easier encounters, that proved rather anti-climatic. We tried to fix that by forcing a “boss monster” battle with the Vamp Queen that wasn’t wholly appropriate to the scenario, but certainly was challenging and ended the adventure on a high note. A particular high point for me was hearing praise for H&H’s saving throw system.

Watching the 20th Century, 1910-1911

If that’s Mary Pickford under that big black wig, she must be too uncomfortable to effectively play the hispanic maid who falls madly in love she’s supposed to be. Her Indian lover, that guy is sometimes pretty good. The best scene is unintentionally hilarious -- from the context, you’re supposed to believe that Ramona sees her Indian strumming his guitar and, afraid for her feelings for him, runs away...but it looks like his playing is so terrible that it chases her off.

This time, it’s personal! That’s right, in D.W. Griffith’s retelling, the French Revolution is incited by a poor tradesman, upset because a rich aristocrat stole his pretty wife. The costumes and sets are nice, the acting is okay, but the best part is the suspense of the chase scene. The wronged and crazed husband is chasing the aristocrat and his wife through the streets with a knife, but does he want revenge against just the man, or them both?

It seems a little pervy how jealous the old pigeon farmer gets of his daughter -- Mary Pickford, again -- falling in love, though he might rightfully be concerned that she seems to fall in love after just talking to a guy for an hour. D.W. Griffith is at his best when capturing emotion on film, and the old man’s melancholy and loneliness feel the truest in this short film. But the unanswered question is -- why did we ever have pigeon farms??

It’s Mulan in the American Civil War!  Kinda!  Well, that’s the good part, anyway, how the sister disguises herself as her cowardly brother and becomes a war hero in his stead. That’s pretty exciting. To give the movie its title, though, it then shifts to the cowardly brother being locked away by his mother, out of shame, for the rest of his life.


I’m already a fan of the classic comic strip, so seeing it animated, from drawings by the strip’s creator, is pretty special. There’s not anymore to this film than that, though.

This lurid, but often funny tale is about a married couple who grow restless, both seek out affairs, but wind up in big trouble for their efforts. The movie was supposedly made in Russia, though the writing in the movie is in English. The really weird thing about this movie is that it’s all stop-motion animation -- apparently done with dead bugs. The effect is creepy as heck.’

Another Civil War story from D.W. Griffith, this one stars “Old Ben”. Sure, Ben is a white man in blackface and a “happy slave”, but he’s also the first black character action hero in movies -- saving the family fortune from bushwhackers, rushing into a burning house to save a man’s life, and uniting two lovers at movie’s end. The other curious thing about this film is the sub-plot about the bushwhackers -- was civilian looting really such a problem during the Civil War? Or is this just another variation on Griffith’s theme of “income disparity leads to violent uprising”?

D.W. Griffith directed, based on the Tennyson poem. It’s an ambitious story and, like all complex stories, invites plot holes. This might be the first significant plot hole in film history -- if Enoch’s wife stands on the beach all day, watching his ship depart -- who’s watching the baby back home?

It’s a depressing film, but it does have some merit. I appreciate how Philip is never portrayed as a villain for stealing Enoch’s wife. Indeed, I was interested in how smart it was to have the children, who had never really known their father, bond with Philip well before Enoch’s wife comes around too.

This is the earliest Sherlock Holmes parody on film of which I’m aware. There is some broad humor here that works -- Burstrup using his magnifying glass to find his telephone, and the completely unnecessary disguise he uses to show up and investigate. The story is extremely weak -- a henpecked husband (and we know this only because of the masculine look of his wife) wants to escape home for a poker game (this context is only revealed later, at first it appears he’s trying to slip away with his gay lover) so he tries to convince his wife that he’s dead with a dummy’s head with a wig on it in their bed next to some blood.

There is an unusual camera trick used once in the film that makes it appear that the camera is looking over Burstrup’s shoulder while he leans over the floor, searching it for clues. Since cameras were not maneuverable enough in 1911 to do that, the actor must be facing a wall they are pretending is the floor, while he pretends to be bending over.

Perhaps the earliest known film adaptation of the classic fairytale, this version starts right at the invitation to the ball. They must have spent too much on the lavish palace set, because instead of filming an additional outdoor scene for the turning of a pumpkin into a coach, it happens right in Cinderella’s kitchen!  Other unusual changes -- the slightly creepy-looking fairy godmother appears in front of everyone at the end, and Cinderella’s father seems to still be alive! At least, there is an unexplained man hanging out with the stepmother who looks too well-dressed to be a servant. I guess, in this version, Cinderella just has two awful parents.  
Another difficulty is that they hadn’t figured out how to do nighttime outdoor shooting yet, so when it turns midnight, it appears to be noon.