7th Sea Second Edition Review

7th_sea_cover_v1When sitting around the table with an RPG, I am the game master probably 95% of the time. I don’t have any qualms about it; it feeds into my sense of self worth and importance (kidding). In the 20 years or so that I’ve been running games for people, I’ve become pretty good at reading them at the table, reacting to what they’re going to do, and doing my utmost to maximize fun.

Sometimes, though, you need a challenge.

The good folks at Gamerati and John Wick Presents were gracious enough to provide me with a review copy of 7th Sea, a role playing game set in a Europe-like land of swashbuckling and backstabbing. Here’s where the challenge comes in for me: the holidays are coming, and that means that for the next two months, it’s going to be difficult to get a group together to play. I had a play session coming up, though, and a player had to drop out of our regular D&D game, so I invited the others to play 7th Sea. The challenge: I only had 36 hours to learn the new system, be able to teach it to others, come up with a story, and run the game… Oh. And I needed everyone to have fun.

36 hours for a married guy with two kids and a job, actually becomes about five hours. Luckily, the presentation in 7th Sea is beautiful. The art is very easy for your eyes to fall upon, and the text is uncluttered and uncomplicated. I also love learning gaming rules, so flipping through the rule book was a pleasure.

That said, I’d often completely forget about learning how to actually play 7th Sea when I’d get caught up in reading about the ins and outs of the setting. I love alternate Europe scenarios, and this one combines the Renaissance with mythology in an easy-to-grasp package. This is a very fluffy game, and that’s fine by me. I’m much more of a storyteller than a dice roller; I revel in lots of world-building information.

If I’m to be honest, I’m still not entirely sure how the dice mechanic works in the this game. I know, I’m a bad reviewer, but again, I had five hours. It doesn’t look complicated, but it definitely takes a backseat to building solid, believable characters and a setting that feels fresh and real.

Character creation in this game is so deep. Characters are heroes and can’t really die without good reason, and that’s okay because this game forces players to really think about their hero. There’s even a section of 20 questions to more deeply consider the role you’ll be playing at the table. Yes, there are skills and talents and attributes, but while playing the game, it didn’t really feel like they mattered very much. What matters in 7th Sea is creating a character with a soul. The attributes might say that your character is strong, but these 20 questions will tell me if your character is meek, or bombastic, or prone to boasting. Your hero will end up having defining character traits and virtues  This, to me, is so much more important than what the numbers say how many dice a player gets to roll. These characters get to drive the story in a meaningful way, and the players get to create heroes who are more than just a math problem.

I spent five hours frantically reading and learning 7th Sea, and game time finally arrived. My confidence in my ability to learn the system may have been misplaced, but I understand storytelling and had enough of the setting information under my hat that I could fake what I needed to.

I had two players that evening: people who were experienced role players ready to try out the brave new world of a brand new system. We started with character creation. We didn’t get super deep since this would be a one-off game (for now), but they created two characters: one was a soldier from a terrible war that destroyed his homeland. The other played a sailor who had made a Faustian deal to bring retribution upon his enemies.

We played the game on November 5th, and with the Gunpowder Treason fresh in my mind, our intrepid team was drafted into saving the queen of Avalon from a mysterious plot by Church loyalists who were unhappy with her stance on religion. Both the characters were imprisoned for piracy, but the Crown’s agents knew of the heroes’ competence, so they were willing to cut a deal.

This plot quickly went off the rails. The characters, as created, were  pirates, so they chose messy freedom over having to work for someone else. They picked locks, they let out terrible criminals…

And then I had the idea that maybe their tower prison wasn’t exactly what it seemed, so they began to descend an endless stairway, dotted with rooms that would confront the “heroes” with their sins. I got to play with English mythology, introducing a character based on Merlin, a giant talking baby, swamp witches, and other barely sane characters as they moved deeper into the rabbit hole.

The game basically ended up as a way to just let our imaginations run wild. There were a lot of laughs, a lot of careful moves and counter moves, and we all had a ton of fun.

I know I’m not the perfect reviewer here, but I want to say this: 7th Sea is really, really good at facilitating fun storytelling for mature role players. As my two friends and I started getting lost in the story we were telling, the dice and mechanics took a back seat to pure role playing. I actually found myself exhausted by the end of the session, but I was also exceedingly happy from having such a good time.  There are very few games where I found that to be the case.

In a world where throwing dice seems to be the main point of RPGs, 7th Sea gave me a breath of that fresh ocean air of storytelling. I cannot wait to visit it again and dig a little deeper into the rules.

 

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The Journey into RPGs

Stories drive me. They contribute to my sanity on my darkest days. I’ve read, watched, or played some of the greatest stories that people have been able to tell; obviously, I’ll never experience every story, but there are billions of people in the world and each one has some kind of story to tell. Humans are natural storytellers. One of my favorite ways to tell a story is through the medium of the roleplaying game.

Roleplaying starts early. One of my earliest memories is from when I was in preschool. A couple of boys in my class had picked up the silos from a Little People farm set, and were holding them like cannons.

“Bank robbers! Bank robbers! Boom boom boom!” they chanted.

Little me, though, loved heroes: Ninja Turtles, Super Mario, the (Real) Ghostbusters, Batman. I couldn’t understand why kids would want to be bank robbers, but if they were bank robbers, it was my job to stop them.

So I tackled them. Hard. I remember one of them crying… Maybe not, but it makes a better story if one of them was crying, so one of them was totally crying. Don’t worry, though; I got in major trouble. Mrs. Riccio was not impressed with my heroic shenanigans. I had to sit in her kitchen while she made cookies, and then I’m pretty sure that I didn’t end up getting any.

I literally have no idea what his name is. Steve is a good placeholder.

I literally have no idea what his name is. Steve is a good placeholder.

Not long after that, my parents purchased a Nintendo Entertainment System. I’m fairly certain that it changed the course my life. (Maybe for the worse. Maybe for the better. The jury’s still out.) The NES allowed me to not just experience stories from books, but also actually PARTICIPATE in the stories being told. I was Mario stomping on goombas. I was Link slaying Ganon. I was Balloon Fight Steve floating around with frustrating controls…

the-hobbit

I can’t believe I wanted to read this based on the cover. My friend must’ve given it a massively good recommendation.

Don’t get me wrong, I still became a voracious reader. My mom was awesome and took me to the library often. I was entranced by the stories of  the Boxcar Children and Laura Ingalls. I was also blessed to have some good grade school friends who were also readers. One of them introduced me to The Hobbit. I was immediately intrigued by this cover of a morbidly obese man with a butter knife being stalked by the sad spawn of Count Orlok and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Thus my love of fantasy began. Grade school became a time of hobbits, the mouse protectors of Redwall, the land of Narnia, and all kinds of various magics and dragons. Good always triumphed. Evil always failed. And the smallest of creatures (like me, a kid in grade school) always had the courage to stand up for what was right. That kind of morality gets lost in the grittiness of the adult world sometimes. Roleplaying games are fat with fantasy settings, so it’s obvious now that I would be instantly drawn to them.

The term RPG didn’t enter my lexicon until I discovered Final Fantasy after Nintendo Power magazine sent the strategy guide for it to my house. Even with the guide, I didn’t understand the game at the time. The turn-based combat didn’t make sense to me; I’ve never been a great tactician. However, the fact that I could create a party of adventurers, give them names, and send them out into a world of mystery and magic was immediately appealing to me. RPGs eventually became my video game genre of choice. The Final Fantasy sequels, Dragon Warrior/Quest games, and Chrono Trigger all became my favorite games.

The next step in my RPG journey takes me to the internet. After receiving maybe 40 AOL discs in the mail, I convinced my parents to give it a try. One of the first things I discovered was a little game called Gemstone III. GS3 was multi-user dungeon (MUD), which basically means it was an MMORPG before that term existed. It was text-based, but I was playing with real, actual people on the internet! I was making friends and thwarting enemies who were actual people. Mind blown.

And then came Dungeons & Dragons. Introduced to me by a friend in Jr. High, I had never before played a game that was both so rules-intensive and yet so freeing. Anything could be done in D&D. My character had a family, became mayor of a town, and finally died at the hands of a vile beast… And I’ve never been able to shake that kind of storytelling. It’s interactive and collaborative.

Now that I think of it, maybe tabletop RPGs are the reason why I tend to thrive in cooperative settings.

Autumn often leads to me being introspective. I’m writing all this because I’ve been a little bit reflective lately. Why am I who I am? What helps make me tick? What are good things that I can pass on to my children?

Communication is just storytelling. I pray that I can instill in my kids and others a love for it. I have this suspicion that important virtues like empathy depend on a person having a love of stories.

 

Obama Llama Game Review

Obama LlamaParty games have long been anathema for me. I’m just not really a huge fan of Uno or Trivial Pursuit or other games of that ilk. I guess that my idea of a party game is a rousing session of Dungeons & Dragons, but that certainly isn’t the cup of tea of some of my family and friends. So, I’m glad that I learned about Big Potato on Twitter. At Gen Con, I was introduced to Obama Llama.

Obama Llama is the combination of a memory game, a rhyming game, and charades–which sounds busy, but actually works effectively into a cohesive experience. The game is all about getting your team to guess the rhymes written on a card. If they guess, your team gets points; for every three points, your team gets to flip over two memory cards, looking for a rhyming pair. The team with the most rhyming pairs at the end is the winner.

The game includes three types of clue cards: Describe It cards work like the old game show Password, where you have to get your team to guess the rhyme without using any of the given words; Act It cards have the name of a celebrity on the back, and the team has to figure out the thing that rhymes with the celeb’s name; and Solve It cards, where you just read the sentence on the card and your team has to guess the rhyme. You’ve only has 30 seconds to guess, so the game moves quickly and can be played in about half an hour.

Here is an example of the rhymes you’ll have to try to guess (from the back of the box):

Clue: Mysterious snow monster enjoying Italian noodles.

Answer: A yeti eating spaghetti!

I fully get why a game should have teams and scoring, but honestly, the first night I played Obama Llama was with my wife, my 7-year-old son, and my mother, and we just took turns trying to get everyone else to guess the rhymes and laughing our heads off.

This game brings the chuckles in droves. The thought of Fay Wray using eBay or Tigger having a girlfriend who is a gold digger are instantly funny to me. I’m a big fan of absurdist humor, so this is right up my alley.

Honestly, if the game has any flaws, it’s that the cards really depend on pop culture. I played a session with my mother-in-law who sometimes had a hard time keeping all the newer actors and characters straight. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but it might be wise to consider the group you’re playing with before you bring this one out–a more pop culture-savvy crowd will appreciate this game more.

As far as presentation goes, the box is compact and has plenty of space to neatly house all the components (which is always a sign of quality for me). The cards are easy to shuffle, but feel sturdy enough for lots of use. It even comes with a pencil!

Big Potato has created a game that is fun, funny, and quick. Obama Llama is a keeper for sure. I can’t wait to pull it off the shelf again.

Obama Llama (and other Big Potato games) can be found at Target in the US. A review copy was provided to The Cool Ship by the publisher.

 

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Gen Con Day Four: Who We Are Now

Sunday is always a bittersweet time at Gen Con. It’s officially branded as “Family Fun Day,” so you’ll often see harried parents herding children through the crowded vendor hall.

But for many of us gamers, it’s the last day of the convention, and everything will be torn down and packed away for next year.

For John and I, Sunday meant one last trip through the vendor hall, one last wait in the line at the Marriott for coffee at Starbuck’s, and one last game–this time, Pathfinder in the Legacy of Mana setting, run by our friend (and game designer) Cameron Parkinson.

Honestly, it mostly turns into a fun shooting-the-breeze session of gaming. It’s pretty relaxed, and this year we only had one other person show up for the game: a nice man named Greg who seemed down to game and enjoy chatting. Sundays are chill, after all.

Well, they’re chill for some people. We were constantly beset by trolls from a group of gamers who seemed very upset that we were assigned to a table in “THEIR” space. They were afraid that we were going to be interrupting them, but they actually kept passive-aggressively interrupting us with nary an “excuse me.”

I love gamers a lot, but when they act like THEIR gaming is the most important thing ever, it gets tedious. Anyway, we ended up moving because they were super loud, but they kept butting in anyway. One guy apologized, but sheesh.

After the game ended, we parted ways and walked through the halls, watching chairs and booths being packed up. A weird, sad ending, but there is always the promise of gaming for next year.

As John and I left Indianapolis, our drive home was quieter than normal. We discussed a bit what we want to do next year and what we want The Cool Ship to be.

All in all, I think we had a pretty good, chill Gen Con this year. I’m already counting down to the next one.

 

Gen Con Day Three: Space Intrigue and Bros

Four-and-a-half hours of sleep seems pretty par for the course for most Gen Cons, but I was really feeling it today when I woke up. I love gaming, but you cram so much of it into this weekend that it almost loses its meaning.

Anyway, we had a nine o’clock event at the Marriott hotel. We thought it was a Babylon 5 RPG (Babylon 5 is John’s favorite show), but it was actually a weird, hodgepodge, homebrew board game. There were ELEVEN players… and the game was definitely not optimized for it. There was a lot of downtime where I was trying to read the hand-written rules or just playing Pokemon Go on my phone. I think there was a kernel of a good game there, but it was a bit exhausting. Luckily, someone won the game early, so we had a little extra time to visit the dealer hall.

The dealer hall used to be the main attraction of the convention for me, but it’s kind of lost its luster. I had this thought a couple years ago that I was standing in a lot of lines to spend more money than I would at my local gaming store or one of the great online gaming store options… Anyway, ever since then, the dealer hall has become this weird, uncomfortable shrine to geek commerce that I just can’t really get behind. I guess I’m not the type of person anymore who has to be THE FIRST to play new, awesome games. I can wait for the reviews and prices to drop. Maybe I’m getting old. Maybe I’m getting more cheap. Maybe I’m changing. Is my enthusiasm for this media waning a little bit?

Next up, Fantasy Age! I’ve been wanting to play this one for awhile, and we had a lovely GM who ran us through 3 hours of fantasy action and roleplaying. We played the role of teens attending a coming-of-age party on a local island… when an eclipse happens and an ancient evil appears. I had a blast roleplaying as a halfling bro who was trying (and mostly failing) to be the life of the party.

Turns out, my love of RPGs hasn’t waned very much… but Gen Con is starting to feel like a very board game-centric convention. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I get the appeal of board games… but do I ever love telling a story with a group of friends.

jokerAfter that, we had steak dinner and saw Suicide Squad, which I didn’t think was very good, but I love Jared Leto anyway.

Last day is tomorrow. Bittersweet. I’ll fill you in.

Gen Con Day Two: Demigods and Starwarriors

Day two started with one activity that almost never happens at Gen Con: sleeping in. Oh man. We slept until 8:30 and it was glorious. Granted, we probably slept too late (we were late for our game due to traffic and weird parking troubles), but we made it to our first game of the day: Exalted.

Exalted is a game where you roleplay as, for lack of a simpler term, demigods. As powerful beings tasked with… well… really nothing, it’s your job to give your character meaning in a world full of mythical monsters and magic.

I ended up building a character who was a pastiche of a drunken master from a whole bunch of my favorite kung fu movies. Casey, the GM, was a vivid storyteller who led us through the depths of the abyss and back. I had a great time. The system seems a bit overly complicated, but I think the storytelling aspect more than makes up for it.

Next, our wanderings brought us back into the dealer hall. I didn’t spend any money today, but did get to spend some time with the great guys at Big Potato Games. They’re some blokes from England who are just starting to distribute into the US (Target has picked up there games on our side of the pond). I was really taken with their game “Obama Llama,” but I’ll wait to give you some of my more in-depth thoughts about it when I spend more time with it.

Our stomachs then led us to St. Elmo Steakhouse, where the shrimp cocktails flow and the steaks sizzle. The food was good. The staff was friendly. What else can I say? It’s been open in Indianapolis forever, so you should probably just visit it if you’re in town.

Finally, Conquest of the Starlords end our day. Man, I can’t tell you how much I like this game. I suck at strategy, but this one somehow transcends my terribleness into something near-magical. I couldn’t wait to attempt to conquer the galaxy after my failed attempt last year. This year, I came much closer to winning, but we simply ran out of time. Rogue Judges, please put this game to Kickstarter soon. Really. I have my money right here. Just take it.

Now, I’m back at the hotel and ready for bed. See you all tomorrow.

Gen Con Day One: Starships and Superpowers

Our phone alarms went off at the same time: 5:30 AM. I, groggily, got up and limped to the shower. I had pulled a muscle in my foot when I was mowing the lawn a couple days before. It hurt… a lot. But gradually loosened up as I bathed and started moving around. Foot pain and Gen Con don’t really mix very well, but I’d just have to do my best not to whine about it too much.

rabbleI treat day one of Gen Con like a dog treats a new room. I like to look around–figure out the space. Get a feel for the people, the smells, the noises. Learning how to RPG again in a room full of other groups of people playing took some getting used to, for sure.

As we drove to the Indiana Convention Center we got a glimpse of a beautiful sunrise shining through the thin clouds. I had a feeling it was going to be a pretty good day.

The parking situation this year is weird. Gen Con has contracted a company to relieve some of the parking pressure downtown, so we bought a 5-day parking pass. It wasn’t a bad deal–the parking is farther away, but it includes a shuttle service.

Of course, we found out the shuttle service consists of 2-3 buses or vans. It’s not too bad, but there are a lot of people to serve.

So we arrive at the convention center at about 7:15. I get in the press line, and begin talking up Trent from The Board Game Family. It’s his first Gen Con, so he’s come alone to check out the sights, sounds, and overwhelming amount of games. I’ve heard some of his stuff before because of the Dice Tower Network, but I keep it coy. I mean, I’m not really the type to gush over the work people do, but as the conversation went on, I told him that I had heard of his site and the work he’d done, and marveled at the success he was having. I highly doubt he’ll ever read this, but he was a nice dude, and I hope he enjoyed his convention.

Next up was wandering around waiting for…

Mutants & Masterminds.

This is, by far, my favorite RPG. I love superheroes. I love wacky adventure. I love that the system can be tailored to whatever superhero story you want it to be. John and I played Captain Metropolis and Bowman, respectively. Captain Metropolis is to cities what Swamp Thing is to swamps. He’s super amazing. My character, Bowman, is not all that spectacular, but I really enjoy playing underpowered heroes for some reason. It turns out to be a really good time. Bonus points for Steven, our GM, actually showing up to run the game… We’d struck out three years in a row previously.

Next up was a run at the exhibit hall where I bought way too much Pokemon stuff for my kids (and, okay, for myself). If you would’ve told me ten years ago that Pokemon would become a thing in my life again, I would’ve laughed you out of the convention center. But here we are.

Following that, lunch at Circle City Bar and Grille. We got free mugs for being in the first 30 people to ask for one. Free mugs! The food was good, but a bit overpriced.

After realizing that we had misread when our X-wing game was going to take place, we ended up jumping into Empty Epsilon: Multiplayer Starship Bridge Simulator.

The game is really fun, but the presentation was plagued with a lot of first-day issues that seem to creep up when a new group is trying to put a Con game together. There were some networking issues and the staff seemed to be a little frustrated (they were all finding their legs), but we ended up getting grouped with some nice guys from Austin, TX and a guy from right here in Indianapolis, so it worked out okay. Also, we were totally better at running our ship that our co-op bridge crew across the simulation. We’re just that good.

After buying more Pokemon stuff (because I have a problem), we set off for the hotel, where I sit now. I think steak is on the menu tonight, and then we’ll be back to bed to hit Gen Con tomorrow. Hopefully my foot will feel better and I won’t be such a hobbley mess.

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Gen Con: Pre-convention Thoughts

Undiscovered CountryPhew. Another year has passed, and I’m about to pack up a bunch of games, snacks, and toiletries and head to Indianapolis for Gen Con. This will be my sixth trip to the largest tabletop gaming convention in this hemisphere. At this point, I feel a bit like an old pro. I know what to expect, I’m not really overwhelmed by the glamor of the whole thing, and I haven’t planned too much.

This year, the convention is bigger than ever: expanding throughout the Indiana Convention Center, all the hotels connected to it, and the Lucas Oil Stadium (home of the Indianapolis Colts) across the street. It’s getting huge. Too huge? I guess we’ll find out.

The group is smaller this year, and that’s fine. As much as I love taking as many people as possible to this gaming Mecca, this year it’s just two, which made planning everything quite  a bit less stressful. It’s a lot easier getting two people into events than 11… or even 4, really. That said, my friends have an open invitation to join me in coming years. The more the merrier.

As per usual, I’ll be bringing you my daily impressions of Gen Con: what I see, who I meet, what I do. This isn’t really a place for breaking gaming news… I’m one guy, and I can’t do that coverage justice. However, I’ll include brief reviews of the stuff I’ll be playing and giving you my recommendations.

Truth be told, I’m really excited this year. I’m excited to see people I only get to really interact with on Facebook. I’m excited to have an organized way to play my favorite games. I’m excited to not have to GM, and I can just enjoy pretending to be a bard-warrior half-elf or whatever.

I’m going to have fun, and I hope you’ll share in a little bit of that with me.

An Ode to an Old Gamertag

I changed my gamertag today, and I’m sad. “Spumis” has been with me for over two decades, from Juno email to AOL Instant Messenger to Xbox Live.

HeroForgeScreenshot(4)

Spumis in miniature form.

Spumis was a name that I came up with thanks to a classmate who couldn’t quite remember the word “Tsunami” on a pop quiz. He ended up writing “Tspumis,” and I thought that “Spumis” would be a unique, fun screenname… And I wouldn’t have to rely on numbers or the infamous “Xx__xX”.

The first time I used Spumis was for a roleplaying game my neighbor was DMing back in jr. high. Then I used him again in Gemstone III, the text-based MMO game.

Then I just started using it everywhere. It was mine. In fact, I still answer to Spumis when people call me that IRL.

Spumis will live on in other places and other realms, but my gamertag is now officially “The Cool Ship.” I wanted to give it some synergy with my Twitch account, if I ever decide to do the Twitch thing (don’t worry, I won’t be annoying about it when I do).

Gamertag Spumis is dead. Long live gamertag The Cool Ship.

My Love/Hate Relationship with Card Games

I am TERRIBLE at card games. Specifically, I’m talking about collectible card games like Magic: the Gathering (even digital CCGs like Hearthstone). I just do not have a mind for it.

Magic tgMy terribleness is probably at least partially due to how unpracticed I am. I played a little big of Magic when I was in Jr. High, and I played a lot of the old Pokemon card game with my sister, but other than a few matches with John or at Gen Con, I don’t really play them.

Even when I play a card game a lot (I try to play Hearthstone at least once a day on my phone.), I’m not great at it. Practiced or not, I just can’t seem to bend my head around probabilities, ability combos, deck building, etc. In games, I’m kind of bad at thinking ahead and planning my next move. I’m reactionary and twitchy. It makes me okay at online shooters, but terrible at strategy games.

I don’t like to spend a lot of money on things like booster packs and expansions, either. Magic, especially, is built around constantly buying packs and hoping you get cards decent enough to field. I try to be frugal about my gaming habits, though; I rarely buy games when they first come out (since you know a discount is coming eventually), and I constantly scour websites for deals to feed my hobby. Micro-transactions for card packs in Hearthstone can add up quickly, and I tend to forget when I’ve spent money on such things, so I just don’t do it. Magic booster packs seem relatively expensive as well.

Maybe the entire genre isn’t for me. There are card games that let you play a game straight out of the box with no booster packs required. The Game of Thrones Card Game and Star Realms are well designed and lots of fun, for instance. You only have to purchase the game one time, and boosters/expansions are optional. But they don’t seem to have the mass appeal of Magic: the Gathering.

How do I get good at these games, then? Do I hire a tutor? That seems unlikely. Do I just need to play more? Commit to spending money? Read The Art of War a couple more times?

Really, though, until I’m better at thinking ahead in these games, they probably just aren’t for me. I don’t think I’m a sore loser; I just lose about 80% of the time.

Next time, I think I’ll write about how bad I am at games in which I have to bluff and lie. Ugh. I’m a terrible liar.

 

The State of the Ship

I’ve been neglecting The Cool Ship a bit lately. Partly because it’s just me at the moment and I really like working with collaborators, but mostly because I’ve been making money with writing and editing, and this doesn’t provide any cash. I mean, I really love this thing, but providing for the family has to take precedence.

So, where is the Ship heading in 2016 (even though it’s nearly half over)?

Unrelated John Cena Picture

Unrelated

1.) Gen Con – I love board games, card games, and RPGs, so we’ll be making our yearly trek to Gen Con. I will provide daily reports from the frontlines, so you can know what we are playing, what you should be playing, and what’s coming up that we’re excited about. Also, we might get philosophical, like we did last year.

2.) Twitch Streaming – I play enough Destiny that it might be fun to stream the thing. You can follow me: The Cool Ship on Twitch!

3.) More writing – I really need to write here more. I apologize. I know I don’t have any rabid fans or anything, but blogging on here is a lot of fun.

4.) Getting some new or returning collaborators – Most of the people I started this site with have moved on to bigger, better, or more important things, but getting some fresh blood in here could only be a good thing.

So there they are, goals for 2016. I’ll try to stick to them, and you stick around too. I miss you.

Gaming Clans Changed the Way I Play

I haven’t really been the most social of online gamers. For a long time, I tended to play games with my headset off and other players muted. The reasons are numerous for playing games this way: language when the kids are around, people listening to loud music or coughing, twelve-year olds who are trying out adult insults for the first time. I really just didn’t want to deal with it.

I had been in guilds before, but I was mostly a silent member. In World of Warcraft, I’d mostly do what I was told to do during raids and just hold the line. I’m probably more antisocial than I’d like to believe… But my philosophy on conversation (and social media) is basically this: if I don’t have something funny, interesting, or useful to say, I tend to just listen. Especially in situations where I don’t know the people I’m conversing with well. (This might be a reason why I’m pretty good at being self-employed.)

But Destiny happened to me, and to ascend to the pinnacle of Destiny you need a team–you need a bunch of online friends. I have a few friends that play the game, but not enough to do what I needed.

DoD

Still big, but 20 lbs. lighter.

So I went searching online. It wasn’t too long before I discovered the Dads of Destiny. I mean, it fit me pretty well. I’m a dad. I play Destiny. ‘Nuff said. But the DoD ended up becoming more than just a group of guys to shoot digital dudes with; it became part support group, part chat room, part gaming group. I’ve played with guys that had to take a short break to go change  a diaper. I often hear kids running around in the background through my headphones. It’s great.

I haven’t felt like part of a real online community for a long time. Yeah, I’m obsessed with Destiny, but I think that part of that obsession comes with being able to play with the Dads. As a guy that works at home, it’s been a huge boon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Twitch Isn’t Just Video Games

While I’ve been enjoying Twitch fairly regularly for a few years now, lately I’ve been paying a lot more attention to it. Sure, it’s been a great platform for watching people play new games so you can get a decent handle on what they are before you buy (and watching lots of people play Minecraft and  Hearthstone), but the people who stream content on Twitch (and Twitch itself) have been getting creative with how they are becoming an entertainment entity.

Bob RossBringing the Joy

A few months ago, Twitch ran a stream that featured Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting for a few days. After pulling in over 5 million viewers, Twitch has made The Joy of Painting available all the time at Twitch.tv/BobRoss.

This is what really got me interested in Twitch as being something more than just gaming. It feels like the floodgates of interesting entertainment opened wide after the late Bob Ross changed things up.

Live Entertainment

ASAdult Swim has been basically running their own channel via Twitch streaming. They run low-budget, low-key talk shows from 11-6:30 EST, and between segments, they stream their wall clock. And while a stream of a clock probably seems pretty boring, the clock takes song requests, so chat moves at a pretty good clip as people try to get their song on the air.

It’s so simple that it’s kind of ingenious.

And their talk shows are all pretty creative. Stupid Morning BS is their morning, “coffee talk” type show where the hosts recap the news, play trivia games with the audience, and give away prizes.

Other shows include Fishcenter, where the hosts provide commentary of the goings on in the AdultSwim fishtank, and Williams Street Swap Shop, where the hosts attempt to facilitate trades between viewers.

Blackstaff

I really like using this picture of Khelben “Blackstaff” Arunson.

Tabletop Gaming

Twitch is known for video gaming, but tabletop gaming is becoming a fixture there too. The folks that created Dungeons & Dragons periodically do a stream, and so does Geek & Sundry, but other, lower budget fans run streams as well(Like the Thursday Knights).

It makes total sense, too. RPGs are great storytelling mechanisms, so not only do you get a great story, you get to experience the thrill of victory and agony of defeat as the dice fall where they will.

A quick search on Twitch for “board games” brings up a whole bunch of viewing choices as well. I love watching other people play board games, especially when I’m thinking of buying something specific. It’s often difficult to get a live demo of a board game (unless you’re at a convention or a good gaming store), so watching other people figure out the mechanics can give you a good sense of what you’re in for.

Twitch is doing some really cool things right now. If you got some free time, check it out. You’ll probably find something you like.

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Hamilton: Hip hop and History

Hamilton PosterMusicals are not really my thing. Sure, I like to sing, and I like to dance around (poorly), but watching people sing and dance around always seemed like the height of ridiculousness to me. For instance, my family watches White Christmas every year, and I can’t get through it without my own biting, hilarious (read: annoying) commentary.

I’m a real amateur Mystery Science Theater 3000, I am.

Then, along came Hamilton, and my whole view of an entire form of entertainment changed.

Hamilton is the hit Broadway musical that tells the story of, who else, Alexander Hamilton. But the creator of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda,  did something with the ten-dollar founding father’s story that I find intensely interesting: he threw hip hop into the mix.

In hindsight, it makes perfect sense. Hip hop and rap are about love, braggadocio, the struggle of poor people, and then the struggle of new money. Sometimes those musical forms are about violence.

So when Alexander starts rapping about how he came up from nothing and starts bragging about how smart he is (but unpolished), it feels authentic. Really, the story of Hamilton is the story of a hip hop feud. There are competing posses, there are shootouts, there are falls from grace, and unrequited love.

Honestly, Hamilton could be about Notorious B.I.G.

And that’s where it works. When we think of the founding fathers, we think of stodgy old white dudes who talked with semi-British accents who forged this country from nothing. Sometimes, I think we see them as peerless demi-gods.

But they were men. They loved. They hated. They cheated on their wives. They had slaves. They sometimes drank too much or ate too much or cared too little about certain things. They didn’t all agree on every single point of our government. They had fears and regrets. They had aspirations. They succeeded and failed.

And although I think they were intelligent and exceptional men, they were just men–not the giant gods made of granite that we picture when we think about them.

Hamilton doesn’t shy away from the fact that they were human.

Hamilton

Hamilton meets Laurens, Lafayette, and HERCULES MULLIGAN!!!

It’s funny: we live in a society that isn’t afraid to crucify celebrities or public figures over their failings, but I’ve heard folks talking about the founders as if they were infallible gods second to Jesus in all matters. Hamilton isn’t afraid of poking holes in those perceptions. If that gets only a few people interested in our country’s history, I think it will have been worth it.

Even better, though, Hamilton, like the book on which it’s based, focuses on the women in Alexander’s life as well. Women might not have held a whole lot of power in the 1700s, but, man, could they bring their influence to bear. Angelica and Eliza Schuyler get plenty of attention (and some great songs to boot.)

I haven’t seen the show yet, but I’ve listened to the cast recording of the show probably a dozen times. I’m not sick of it yet (though my family might be), and I doubt that I will be for some time. I highly recommend it.

And, hey, maybe I was wrong about this whole live-action musical thing. I guess there’s only one way to find out.

Living Less Large

Belly

My kids, nephew, friend, me, and my belly.

I was extremely hesitant to write this post, but I needed to write something–and this seemed like as good a topic as any.

I’m on a diet.

Yeah, I know. New year, new you. You have my permission to look at the screen skeptically for a moment… I’ll wait. No worries. You’ve earned that right to do so.

Ahem.

Anyway, I’m on a diet: counting calories, trying to get more steps than I normally do, etc. I’ve been meaning to do this for awhile; I just never really got around to it. It’s really easy to make excuses for your weight when you’re 6’6″. But I’m also up to about 375 lbs right now. There’s no real excuse for being that heavy. Reasons, for sure, but not an excuse.

I work a pretty sedentary job, but I’m discovering that I was using food for comfort. If I was stressed, I would eat. When I was relaxing, I would eat. Breaking that cycle is difficult.

I was inspired to do this by my parents, weirdly enough. When I was young, they quit smoking. I remember it being a bit of a nightmare at the time, but they did it. In my pride, I thought that if they could do something to better their lives, that I could, too.

So, here I am: officially day four. I’m doing pretty well, I think. The low-level always-hunger started on day two, though. I remember reading that a person on a major diet would feel hungry a lot; however, this reminds me of a ringing in your ears that you can never get rid of–except it’s in your stomach, and your body knows that you can stop it by shoving tortilla chips by the score in your face.

Day three brought a neat emotional breakdown where I knew everything was awful and nothing was ever going to be okay for myriad reasons. Have you ever seen a grown man crying in the pickup line of an elementary school for no reason? Well, the mom in the Honda Odyssey in front of me who looked in her rear view mirror did.

I’m hoping she just thought I was sensitive.

So why am I doing this?

Health, really. I’m mostly okay with the way I look. I mean, my beard is on point and I dress pretty well. I don’t really want to keel over and leave my kids fatherless and my wife having to date again… because dating is awful. What a nightmare; I would never want to have her go through that mess again.

I’m trying to gamify this whole journey as well. Weight loss is a quest, and the more days I hit my calorie goals, the more experience points I’ll have as this quest gets more difficult. It’s been working so far. Granted, I’m still only four days in.

Blackstaff

Does it get any sexier? Khelben has mad game.

I was told that I need to have some concrete goals, so here is what they are:

I’d like to get down to 275, preferably 250, but at 275 I can basically go about my life without fear of my heart exploding at any moment. My family has a history of heart disease, so staving that off is important.

I’d also like to be in shape enough to cosplay. If you’ve read any of this blog, you know that I’m a pretty nerdy dude, so being able to dress up as Thor or Superman or  Khelben “Blackstaff” Arunsun would be pretty cool. I would never body shame anyone of my size that wanted to do it, but I’m not comfortable cosplaying at my size. Getting my fitness on, however, is going to have to come after I get the eating habit under control. I know myself well enough to know that I won’t keep at it if I have to change everything about myself at once.

So, that’s where I’m at. It’s going to be a long journey, but my family is supportive. I told my son last night that I was eating less food so that my belly would get smaller. I told him that I was going to be cranky sometimes, but that I would try not to be cranky to him and his sister. That night, he prayed for me to not be so cranky.

He’s a sweet kid. I like him a lot.

I’ll try to give frequent updates, as well as more musings about any nerdy thing that comes to my mind, as 2016 progresses. Stay boffo, friends.

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Halo 5 Got Bigger, but Lesser

Halo 5Halo is in a weird place right now, but let me just get this out of the way: the shooting feels great, the gameplay is solid, and some of the new moves included in the game are a lot of fun. The spectacle of Halo is still in full force, but I can’t help thinking that when 343 Industries took over the series, they assumed that “higher stakes” for the game’s protagonist meant that the galactic threat got larger. When it comes to the Halo games, though, I’m not entirely convinced that bigger is better.

Spoilers are probably ahead. Read at your own risk.

Halo 5: Guardians (a subtitle, really?) begins with new character (in the games, anyway) Spartan Locke and his crew of Spartan pals taking down the Covenant on a planet in order to rescue Spartan-and-Cortana creator Dr. Catherine Halsey. After the rescue, she informs the heroes that a new threat is about to emerge.

Meanwhile, the Master Chief and his childhood buddies are on a mission to stop some Covenant baddies from stealing some stealth ship technology on a secret space station blah blah blah, and then he gets a message from Cortana. She’s alive!

And this, for me, is immediately where the story starts to fall apart. The marketing of the game (not that you can always trust game marketing) seemed to indicate that Spartan Locke would be hunting the Master Chief because he had made a tough decision that went awry. That is far from the case, however.

In fact, the story is kind of incoherent when a little thought is put into it. Sure, Master Chief goes AWOL, but I feel like they could’ve given him a call rather then send a team after him.

And let’s talk about Cortana’s resurrection. Halo 4 was a lot of things, but it’s greatest moment was when Cortana, your AI buddy through the all the previous games starring Master Chief, manages to put off her insanity long enough to sacrifice herself to not only destroy the bad guy that is threatening earth, but also save the Chief. It’s almost a tragic love story. The two had been through a lot.

So I was interested to see how ole John-117 was going to cope without her on his latest mission. And honestly, with Cortana back and evil, the effect is ruined. Cortana has cured her insanity and has decided that the best way to save the galaxy is by enforcing a rule by fear using massive robots to kill anything that threatens the peace–a “Pax Cortana” if you will. And now we get into 343 thinking that “higher stakes” means “galactic threat.”

CortanaFor Master Chief, the stakes were already very high. For seven years or more, Cortana has been his constant companion, his protector, his confidant, his love. She may be an AI, but he had real feelings for her. She died in a moment where he was powerless to do anything to help the situation. She saved him.

Imagine a game where you’re defeating the bad guys, but the real story is about Master Chief’s survivor’s guilt. He loved that little blue robot lady, and now he has to face a universe where the constant comforting voice inside his head is gone. Sure, he still has his buddies, but they aren’t one flesh with him like Cortana was (she was, after all, attached to his brain). The Chief is basically a widower.

So, the threat didn’t have to be galactic. The story could’ve been about how self-destructive John-117 had become, with his friends trying to bring him back from the brink. Maybe Chief’s recklessness had done something bad to one of the colony worlds, and he decided to go AWOL in shame. Locke then, would actually be “hunting the truth” to find out what happened and to bring the Chief back.

I don’t hate the story that the game has. It’s interesting enough, such as it is. But I think the storytelling in Mass Effect, Bioshock, Fallout, and even Gears of War, have shown me that games that are shooters can have deep, personal stories that make you empathize with a character.

Maybe Locke and The Chief will end up saving the galaxy, but is it worth rescuing a galaxy that has no real personal stakes? The expanded universe of Halo is full of good stories about people trying to make their way through the both the chaos of war and the ultimate order of living in a massive police state. The audio series “Hunt the Truth” is a superb example of just how interesting the universe that Halo has created can be.

Maybe what Halo needs is fewer power weapons and more plot. The characters should be what drives the plot; as it is right now, the protagonists are merely slaves to the story rather than the player feeling like they are a part of it. War stories are only good when the characters are well-developed. Here’s hoping that in Halo 6 is less about spectacle and more about the characters involved.

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The Taken King Took Me In

WarlockI’ve written before about how much I love Destiny, the “shared-world” shooter by Bungie. It scratches every itch I have when it comes to video games: first-person shooter, co-operative, competitive, MMO, RPG elements. The newest expansion “The Taken King” has leveled up my love for the game even further.

I came into Destiny a little later than a lot of people. I bought it after the first two DLCs had come out, so some of the things that people had been complaining about had been fixed. I played the game all the time. Got my Warlock to Level 33 and was preparing to do raid stuff in the weeks before The Taken King released. I also got involved in a clan, The Dads of Destiny.

TitanLet me just make an aside here: the Dads of Destiny are a great group of dudes to play with. They are all polite, most of them have children, and they mostly play when they are able to, which can be pretty random. The other day I was playing with a couple guys, and we were all commiserating about sick kids who refused to sleep. It’s part gaming clan and part Dad support group.

Anyway, The Taken King takes Destiny and makes it better. The story is more coherent, the enemies are more challenging, some of the events are more epic, and the NPCs actually feel like characters rather than a means to an end (and I actually remember their names). I also like the fact that Light Level (the measure of how powerful you are in the Huntergame–an aggregate score of your defense and attack values) and character level are separate, so you always feel like you are improving, even after you’ve reached the maximum character level.

The meta also hasn’t reached the point where one load out beats everything else. Right now I can play the way I want to play, and it’s just fine. I don’t have to worry about having a certain loot drop to go into a raid; I can just play. It’s beautiful, and I hope it stays that way.

That’s not to say that everything about the game is peaches.
I really don’t like that so many of the high-level activities don’t include matchmaking. I get that Bungie is attempting to go for tight-knit groups of friends, but I have to play pretty randomly, and mostly late at night. And, let’s face it, most people are using looking-for-group websites to connect with others to play endgame content with. If people are going to a website that Bungie owns to do this… why wouldn’t Bungie just include it in the game?

Other than that, I’m pretty satisfied with the game. Will I still be playing when Halo 5, Fallout 4, or something else I love comes along, that I can’t answer right now.

 

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Dungeons & Dragons: Out of the Abyss — Review

Out of the AbyssI’ve never really been one to use published adventures; I love creating my own worlds and letting my players explore them through mutual imagination. However, recently my life has been pretty busy. My kids need help with homework or navigating the life of being tiny. Work can get overwhelming.

I’m an adult; it happens.

So for my roleplaying games that I’ve been running, I’ve been turning to alternative sources of running adventures. Whether it’s through knowledge of the Star Wars universe, or through adventures by Kobold Press or Adventure A Week, these adventures for people who have little time to prepare have been great. I’m especially impressed by the new adventure path for Dungeons & Dragons, Out of the Abyss.

Made through a partnership between Wizards of the Coast and Green Ronin publishing, Out of the Abyss takes place in the “prime” setting for D&D, The Forgotten Realms. To add to its relevance, more specifically, your group of adventurers finds itself trapped in the bowels of the Underdark by an evil drow priestess. From there, they will find that an incursion from the demon-infested Abyss is going on, and they must stop it.

I’m not the biggest fan of the Underdark setting. I’m pretty burned out on Drizz’t (the famous drow hero) and drow (dark, evil elves that live underground) in general, but some things about this adventure re-piqued my interest in the drow, their society, and the dark hellhole that they inhabit.

For one thing, I think drow society makes a little bit more sense now. Right in the first adventure, your weak, mostly helpless player characters are imprisoned by a drow priestess and her underlings. The drow seem to be enmeshed in an almost cut-throat corporate culture where Lolth, the evil spider queen/goddess is the CEO, and everyone under her is vying for a promotion. They sabotage each other; they sleep around; they scheme. Drow society is like a crazy soap opera that I really enjoy. And the PCs are basically mail room interns that can’t wait to escape from corporate meaninglessness. If you watched Mr. Robot (and you have), the drow are a lot like Evil Corp.

For another, the drow aren’t really the stars of the show, here. The Underdark as a whole is. You meet a lot of the Underdark races along the course of this adventure path (and it is a lengthy one). The good guys. The bad guys. The guys who are just out for themselves. They’re all here. As a guy that is largely sick of drow, I found this to be a very good thing.

The book looks great, too. The art is the high standard that has typified Wizards of the Coast publications over the last year or so. The binding is high quality.

So, for now, I would say that if you want to run a good published adventure, this is a good one. I don’t want to give too much away, but the profiles of all the demon lords in the appendix is worth the price of admission. Also, it’s well written and beautiful. Go out and get it at your local game store. And as we run adventures out of it, I’ll publish some reports here.

TL:DR, Wizards of the Coast and Green Ronin have knocked it out of the park. Go buy it.

 

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Humans Love Repetition

My son is on summer vacation from school. He’s six and LOVES cartoons and other kids shows. He doesn’t get to watch them all the time, but he is definitely plugged into them when he does. His current favorites are Teen Titans Go!, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Odd Squad, and We Bare Bears. What’s always amazing to me is how he could watch the same episode of a show so many times, and the jokes are still funny to him, and he acts like he’s never seen them before.

The same goes with books. He loves this one book (Traction Man Meets Turbo Dog) and we could read it over and over and over until our eyes bleed and our mouths are dry. My daughter is the same. At first, I thought this was a kid thing–until I started really considering it.

I’m the same way with music. I could listen to the same song time and again and not get sick of it. I’ve probably listened to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours a thousand times, and I can still groove to it like it’s the first time I’m listening. Pop songs often stay on the charts for months because people like to listen to them repeatedly.

DestinyWe tell stories like this. My grandpa tells me the same couple of anecdotes every time I see him. I can recite most of his stories verbatim. And I’m the same way; I tell a few choice anecdotes of my own to ingratiate myself into new social circles.

I’m regularly this way with video games too. I’ve been playing Destiny so much lately. I love it. There’s not a lot of content, so I end up playing the strike missions over and over, but I find it really enjoyable and relaxing. A lot of people complain about it, but I kind of see it is a feature rather than a bug. There’s something comfortable about doing the same thing constantly. We love routine, and for me, Destiny has become a fun routine. It doesn’t hurt that the game mechanics are really well designed.

Bounce

It was weird. This always put him to sleep for some reason.

Repetition is a way for us to cement concepts into our brains. It’s also comforting: I remember there was a certain way I had to bounce my son in order to get him to go to sleep–if I didn’t do it exactly the way he wanted, he would get upset. He was comforted by that repetitive motion. We learn things by doing them consistently: practice makes progress.

It’s easy to get so caught up in repetition that we are afraid to step out of that comfort zone. Maybe the best kind of consistency is to be constantly trying new things, so that new experience become habit.

Have fun with that. I’m going to go watch The Empire Strikes Back again.

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Gen Con Continued: Wrath of Con

Indy at nightWhen you last left me, I was itchy, angsty, and a little bit torn about this whole Gen Con thing. Well, after little sleep, some canceled games/no show GMs, and meeting some very cool people, I am happy to announce that Gen Con 2015 finally won me over and was a complete success.

Day 2 was a good one because we were able to sleep in a little bit and only had a couple events. That led to a scouring of the exhibit hall for swag and trying out Lynnvander‘s Deep 5, a game of space and betrayal. I didn’t get to play, but my cohorts said that it is super fun. I hope to be able to try it as soon as possible.

I also worked the booth for 3D Virtual Tabletop and AdventureAWeek.com. I was super, super impressed by how smoothly 3D Virtual Tabletop worked and absolutely loved volunteering to help out. One of the things I love about Gen Con is how its basically built on the backs of volunteers… Gamers working to give other gamers a great time. Sometimes it doesn’t work out (like when your GM doesn’t show up), but when everything goes smoothly, it is a thing of beauty. AdventureAWeek is also a solid service, providing all kinds of adventures for a low price. Seriously, if you want to DM some games and want to save time, the combination of 3D Virtual Tabletop and AdventureAWeek.com is a surefire winner in my book.

I also wanted to briefly give a shoutout to Mike Myler, who is going to be Kickstarting his Hypercorps 2099 cyberpunk setting for Pathfinder. He’s a nice guy and has a lot of hustle.

After volunteering, we went and played a game of the Doctor Who RPG… And had a crazy amount of wibbly-woblly, timey-wimey fun. In our group, we had a fellow who didn’t really know the show very well, but he immediately decided to play The Doctor, and he played a very dark, violent version of the Time Lord. It was hilarious. John played Clara Oswald, the Doctor’s “conscience,” and he had his hands full keeping our Doctor under control. Would definitely play that again.

We finished out Day 2 by playing Conquest of the Starlords, a game that has been in development for 10 years. If the creator is reading this… Kickstart that thing. It is a beautifully complicated game for hardcore tabletop gamers: both complicated and treacherous, Conquest of the Starlords should be a “real” thing.

Saturday, Day 3, we were running on very little sleep after getting back to the hotel at 2:30 AM to get up at 7. But we had to get moving to watch Tracy Hickman’s Killer Breakfast. A gloriously corny comedy of errors and death, Killer Breakfast is the perfect way to watch low-level player characters die in hilarious and dangerous ways. I loved it, but I think the corniness of the event wore on me a bit after two hours.

Next up was the event we were really looking forward to, a game of Mutants and Masterminds, my absolute favorite RPG game. Unfortunately, the GM no-showed. So, over 5 years, we are 1/5 for playing Mutants and Masterminds. John and I were discussing running somewhere around four games of M&M next year, just so we could play a couple times. We love the system, and it seems like it sells out every year. There really should be an organized play option.

Tragedy struck again on Saturday when another one of our events was canceled without any kind of notice. I would love for Gen Con to have system that would email you when your event was suddenly unavailable. I’m actually surprised that something like that isn’t available yet.

We ended the night with a party at BL&Ts hosted by Lynnvander, CoolMiniOrNot, and GeekChic. There was so much candy. And gaming. And just having fun with new friends. Looking forward to hanging out with those guys again next year. We played a game of Zombicide with the creator of the film “The Rangers.” It looks really great. Give it a watch when it’s available.

Today. Sunday. Day 4. The bittersweetness of Gen Con ending. I’m never more simultaneously distraught and relieved than when it’s time to pack all my stuff (heavier due to some exhibition hall swag) into the car and check out of the hotel.

Dice BagWe learned how to make scale mail dice bags. I didn’t finish mine because I just straight got lost in the middle of it, but I plan on going back. I’ll show you a picture of John’s, however, since he actually persevered and finished his. Our group is 2/5 for completing dice bags so far.

And with a couple laps around the exhibition hall, the Con ended. Congratulations to Gen Con for running another successful one, and to all those who won Ennies or were just brave enough to follow their dreams, make a game or movie or some piece of art, and come to Indianapolis to make their dreams come true. Best of luck to all you crazy people; I’m pulling for you. And I’ll see you next year.

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