WisCon 39 was great!

WisCon 39 is now over, sadly. It was mostly pretty great. Lots of wonderful, deep and important conversations; superb panels; some surprisingly good gaming; and general fannish enjoyment a-plenty. I feel both ebullient and exhausted. More later!

WisCon 39 coming up!

And with my Minicon 50 posts finally written up, I’m heading off to WisCon! I’m not scheduled for a lot that’s gaming-related, and it looks like I might even have a schedule conflict or two, but here’s my relevant schedule as it stands right now:

Join the Mod Squad: Enhance Your Moderation Skills

Ever go to a panel and spend your time thinking, “With a good moderator, this would be a much better panel?” We will review several ways to be that good moderator, offer tips and tricks, and generally work on improving WisCon’s already high standards for panel moderation. We strongly encourage you to attend this panel if you are moderating at WisCon, especially if it’s your first time. It’s also a great experience if you ever have been, or think you ever will be, a panel moderator anywhere. Fri, 4:00–5:15 pm

Hopefully a good discussion of how to get started in being a mod. There’s an Advanced Moderating panel later on, but I’m sure we’ll have some original insights in this anyway.

Let’s Build a World!

Together we will start with first principles—cats as nobility, floating continents, steampunk far-future romance, whatever the audience wants—and create a world to fit. Marvel as a functioning society coalesces before our eyes! Watch as you become expert on a world that didn’t exist minutes before! Dazzle as connections present themselves in astounding ways! Audience participation will drive this. Sat, 9:00–10:15 pm

As it worked out, someone is running Microscope at the same time as this. Hrm grumble grr. Hopefully we can figure out a way to have both games, because I’d really like to go to both! For further updates, it may be necessary to check the at-con newsletter, as I won’t have access to this blog after the con starts.

The Dooms that Came to Chaegrae

The Tomb of Gemenos has loomed over the middle of Chaegrae for generations. All who have dared to enter, or even to approach too closely, have had horrible fates. But now, you and your motley friends have come to plumb the depths of the tomb. You are unafraid of the Tomb’s strange fates, because you already know how you will die. The Tomb is but the next step in your destiny. A tabletop roleplaying game, using the Blade & Crown system (which I wrote). Themes of fate, destiny and the wrongs of history. No more than five players. No rules knowledge or materials required, though you may want to bring your lucky D10s! Sun, 7:00–11:00 pm

A reprise of the scenario I ran at Con of the North 2015. A nice epic delve into a fantasy history, appropriate to WisCon.

There are lots and lots of other great panels that I want to see, including “Feminism in Thedas”, “Are Casual Gamers Considered ‘Real’ Gamers?”, “Why I Need Diverse Games” and many others. Some of which aren’t scheduled against something I’m already on. I’ll have to miss the Guest of Honor speeches to run “Dooms”. That’s how it goes at WisCon, though — too much cool stuff going on at the same time, all the time.

Hopefully see you there! And see you on the other side in any case.

Minicon 50, part 6: Wrap-up

The Minicon blimpMinicon 50 was overall very good. There were more than twice the usual number of members, which meant that it had a very lively feeling. Even though the total membership was about the same as WisCon, it didn’t feel as crowded as WisCon sometimes can, because the Minicon hotel was larger. (I’m still pretty thoroughly in favor of the RadiShTree for Minicon, though its options for programming rooms always mean difficult choices.)

Lots of programming was great; only one panel I went to wasn’t very good. There were some programming problems behind the scenes, but they mostly worked out in the end.

I got to do some good gaming, the consuite was generally superb, and it was good to hang out with folks I knew and folks I didn’t know.

I’m of course biased, since I do several things on the Minicon concomm (I’m part of the programming staff, I was involved with the code of conduct committee, and I usually design and print the pocket program), but I do all that because I enjoy Minicon and like helping to make it happen. Minicon has just about the right mix of serious and silly for me, with a nice helping of socializing.

Minicon 50, part 5: Actual gaming

I managed to get a fair amount of actual gaming done at and around Minicon 50:

  • Star Traders: The aforementioned pre-con game. It was nice to have this before the game, because as I mentioned, it seems like it’s getting harder and harder to play longer games at a con. (Or anytime, in fact.)
  • Zar: I played several games of this, winning a couple. Zar produces fun in a nice, semi-automatic way.
  • Spot It: I played this once, for just a few minutes. It’s a good filler game where you compete to spot some basic symbols on cards before your fellow players do. It plays very fast.
  • Moneyduck: There was no Mega Moneyduck reveal this year, but I added a drawing to the scroll and played several regular sessions of the game.
  • Build a World. As I previously detailed, this was a lot of fun, if slightly cramped by scheduling constraints.
  • Trivia for Chocolate: I was thinking this might turn out to be irrelevant or uninteresting, but it was instead fun, distracting, quick and well-designed. There was a good variety of questions. I ended up getting a bunch of correct answers by knowing too much about Philip K. Dick. Go figure. Priscilla and Marc Olson ran this adeptly.

I think I may also have played a quick game of Timeline while waiting for something else to materialize.

No RPGs, and not much that was very in-depth, but still, lots of good gaming. That’s something I enjoy about Minicon: it’s entirely possible to go to a thoughtful panel, then follow it up with a light boardgame. There are many kinds of enjoyment available at Minicon.

Minicon 50, part 4: Iain (M) Banks

This one was apparently opposite some very popular panels; the audience was rather small. It was therefore a missed opportunity to spread enjoyment of the amazing stuff Iain Banks wrote. But the audience was also composed mostly of people who are already love Banks’ writing, so it was fun to have an excuse to just geek out with a bunch of fellow fans. And it was nice to not have to worry about spoilers. We talked about a lot of interesting aspects of his work.

There was of course the ritual listing of everyone’s favorite Culture ship names. Greg, my fellow panelist, said his is the I Said I Have a Big Stick (which must be said in a whisper), with a runner-up as the lack of Gravitas series. My favorite is Ultimate Ship the Second. Audience members listed their own.

We talked about the Culture, and how it’s a culture many of us would like to live in. I mentioned again my idea that the Culture itself is rarely the direct setting of Banks’ work, because post-singularity utopias are both unwriteable and boring. (At the same time that they’re places we might like to live, they’re also places where no much happens.) Instead, the books are usually set in the peripheries of the Culture, either literal or figurative: mostly other nearby civilizations, with occasional forays into Infinite Fun Space or offshoot cultures or Minds who’ve gone off to do their own thing.

US cover for The Hydrogen SonataThe Hydrogen Sonata, Banks’ last SF novel published while he was alive, got some discussion. The novel really feels like a love letter to his fans, written while he knew he was not going to live much longer. It is a novel about the difficulty and importance of art, how fame works and what lies on the other side of death. It also gives us a bunch of insights into things we’ve wanted to know about the Culture, including how it formed. Our discussion made me want to reread the novel. And a bunch of his other books.

One audience member mentioned that sometimes Banks’ plots aren’t actually all that great, yet the stories end up being great. My theory is that his worldbuilding is so endlessly inventive and fascinating that we drag ourselves through his occasionally turgid prose anyway.

We talked a little about how much a gamer Banks was. He was apparently very addicted to the computer game Civilization at one point; he stated that he deleted the game from his hard drive when he started writing Excession, and that the Outside Context Problem of that book was inspired by experiences he had while playing Civ. And of course, Player of Games is about a society built around a game.

One audience member mentioned that there’s a brief glimpse of the end of the Culture in Look to Windward. A background character who’s from the Culture gets their consciousness instantiated in the form of a very long-lived species; at one point, they wake up after a very long time in storage and find out that their home civilization went away several galactic rotations ago. I totally didn’t remember that, so it looks like I’ll have to re-read Look to Windward at some point, too.

Another topic of discussion was Banks’ interaction with fans. Specifically, why doesn’t he have more fans in the US? Refusal to come to the US post-Iraq War; very long space operas when US fans seem not to be very interested in such stuff; pretty blatantly leftist politics — there are several possibilities. I can only hope that more and more US fans manage to overcome their hesitance.

We also had small forays into Banks’ non-SF work, and even his non-fiction (specifically Raw Spirit, a travelogue of whiskey distilleries). And I talked a little about my love of Against a Dark Background, which I’ve written little about here before.

All in all, this panel was a great discussion of Banks’ work — lots of knowledgeable folks sharing insights and interest.

Minicon 50, part 3: Build a World!

I’ve been running this quite a bit at recent cons. It’s a lot of fun.

Build a World from Minicon 50We ended up with a world with some pretty weird physics: light moves in discrete packets, sound is faster than light, gravity is bouncy and time is like water. I occasionally had a hard time figuring out what all that meant. (This is a problem for worldbuilding: it still has to be something that the people involved can wrap their heads around. If your world assumes that triangles have four sides, you’re going to just have some serious contradictions to deal with.) We had some very silly elements: conflicts are handled by dance-off, Wile E’s law holds sway, and the ruling class are talking cats. (I don’t think I’ve yet had a game of this where talking cats didn’t come into it somehow. And not that I’ve been pressing this.) I enjoyed the detail of having to do prescribed dance moves up into the mountains to finish your pilgrimage to the Time Stream.

I tried to keep track of audience preferences via the “fist of five” method, where people show fingers to express their preference for an idea: five fingers = heavily in favor, zero finger = heavily opposed. But it’s hard to count fingers on the fly, so I ended up just doing thumbs up/down/sideways.

Another difficulty was that audience members kept slipping in and out, so folks who showed up later didn’t quite get what we were doing. It is difficult to get a social contract working in a game at a con; it is even more difficult to get one working when the players keep shifting. So that was an annoyance.

Finally, we ran out of time. I forgot what the time slot was — we actually had fifteen minutes more than we did — but we also got started late due to lack of audience at the beginning, and then things went slow because of the shifting audience. (See: social contract problems.) We only got about three categories finished, where we usually get five or six. Still, it was fun while it lasted.

I’m still curious if this game can work in a serious mode. I don’t think I’ve had one where it didn’t go goofy pretty much right away. Would a strict requirement that all following elements have to work with all previous elements change this? I might never find out, because people seem to enjoy goofy iterations of the game, and that’s what the audience seems to push for.

Minicon 50, part 2: Why are we still having this panel?

The Minicon blimpNow that it’s nearly a month after Minicon, and there have even been other cons since then, I should probably start writing things up a bit more briefly, lest I never get these done. Work continues to be busy, but I finally have a little free time, so hopefully I can get some of this written up quickly.

This panel was not especially related to gaming, but it is related to fandom in general and how fandom progresses (or doesn’t).

There were a lot of good examples of panel topics that keep coming up: “Women in science fiction”, “The differences between SF and Fantasy”, “The effect of the internet on fandom”, “Growing up in fandom”, “Writing 101″ and many others. John Taylor mentioned that he’d been on five different Philip K. Dick panels in recent years.

I feel like there are a few categories of panels here:

  • Panel topics that we keep having because they’re always fun. “Trivia for Chocolate”, “The Year in SF” or (when he was alive) “Ask Dr. Mike” are examples of this. If someone asks why we’re still having these panels, the answer is generally “Because it’s great!”
  • Panel topics that we keep having because they keep being necessary, even though we’d rather they weren’t. All the discussions about harassment, sexism, racism, etc. in fandom very much belong to this category. And a lot of us wish that these kinds of panels could stop, because that would mean that we didn’t need them anymore. Some of us are quite burned out on having to keep having these kinds of conversations.
  • Panel topics that we keep having because someone thinks they’re still useful, even though they probably aren’t. “Differences between SF and Fantasy” was mentioned as an example of this. “Greying of Fandom” might be another example of this.

A lot of it depends on the execution, of course. Many panels can remain good when redone with a different group of panelists. And of course it’s important to remember that just because I’ve grown tired of a given topic, that doesn’t mean you have. It can be difficult for a con’s programming department to come up with ideas that are both fresh and widely-appealing, but sometimes it’s good to do those separately rather than trying to combine them in the same panel.

Similarly, it’s of course possible to turn any panel horrible by addressing the questions in the wrong way. One panelist mentioned a “Women in fandom” panel where the description questioned whether or not it’s a good thing that more women are getting into fandom. So many things wrong with that!

Having worked for many years on Minicon programming staff (and a few on WisCon’s), I know how difficult it can be to come up with new panel ideas that any fail-tastic or boring or any of a dozen other kinds of wrong. It can be hard when you don’t have fresh ideas in programming, and (related to that “Greying of fandom” panel) this becomes difficult if you have the same tired group of volunteers running programming.

There ended up being a fair amount of discussion of how programming works, and how it can go wrong: forgetting panelists’ scheduling requirements, bugging them for the fourth time about topics they’ve already said they’re not interested in, having insufficient inspiration.

Dr. Taylor mentioned that he’s in the process of doing an analysis of trends in panel topics at fannish conventions. I think it sounds completely fascinating, and I’m looking forward to seeing his results.

There was a lot more that I don’t have space to discuss here. This panel ranged widely but also deeply. It was quite good.

Clouds for Mapping 5: Double!

Cloud for Gaming 5, sample cloud imageApologies for again taking so long between posts. Real Life continues to assert itself in ways that mean no time for posting here. In lieu of a content-ful post, here are even more clouds for mapping purposes: Clouds for Mapping 5. An extra-long time since my last post means extra clouds in the zip file: eight this time, instead of the usual four. As usual, I’m releasing these into the public domain, but I’d appreciate a credit and notification if you use them.

Minicon 50, part 1: Pre-con, and The Art & Business of Gaming

The Minicon blimpMinicon started well before the con itself for me. I’m on the programming staff, and have been for about the past decade, so I was partly involved in thinking up the panels and other events. I’ve also been doing the pocket program for about the same amount of time, so the weekend before the con I was up to my eyeballs in schedules and desktop publishing. The end product only had one true typo that I could find, so all in all, pretty successful.

Monday night — full three days before the con officially started — I ended up playing a nice game of Star Traders with Emily, Aaron and Joe. I don’t remember the specifics, but there was a lot of the usual Star Traders goofiness. And it was good to have the game before the con, because it’s gotten increasingly difficult to organize longer games at the con. Even medium-length games such as Moneyduck are getting hard to schedule.

There was a flurry of preparations for the con, including a Tuesday night work party, and then Minicon 50 had begun. Thursday night was good fun but not much to report about here.

Friday was my first panel, The Art & Business of Gaming. I was moderating this, but I ended up committing the faux pas of being late for my own panel. Especially bad as moderator. The reason was good — I noticed that there was no good list of moderators available at the con, so I printed one up and put it in the Green Room — but still, not cool to be late to one’s own panel, especially one that I was moderating. It meant that we didn’t really have time to pre-discuss anything, and that I was doing a poor job of modeling approved panelist behavior.

Still, the panel ended up being pretty good. Lindsay Nohl was great, as always. It was good to be on a panel with her again. She’s all the kinds of things you want in a panelist: she has insightful, interesting and fun things to say; she’s conversationally generous; she asks great questions. Christine Mitzuk also added a lot of cool perspectives and insights from her work as an artist and teacher.

It was clear from what Christine and Lindsay said that artists, like almost anyone these days, need multiple income streams. They do a mix of commissions, long-term projects, teaching, personal projects, curation, etc. etc. And having multiple projects also keeps the creative ideas flowing, as different images cross-pollinate through your mind.

We had an interesting discussion about artistic range. There’s a tension between wanting to be available for lots of kinds of work, and wanting to be known for a distinctive style. It’s possible to be typecast as “the artist who’s just good at demons” or “the one with the cute dragons” or “the one who does really good hands”, and art directors often want to find a particular artist for a particular job. This becomes especially fraught when the things you’re good at cease to be so in demand.

The panel suffered slightly from having a few guys in the audience who wouldn’t raise their hands before talking, and who liked to mansplain. If I’d been more on time, I probably could’ve set the tone a bit better and stopped that kind of behavior before it started. And it would’ve been good to pre-discuss things in the Green Room, so I had a better sense of what my fellow panelists wanted to talk about and not talk about. Really, Lindsay probably did a better job moderating than I did.

Also, we never really talked about what the related topic that most interests me: ways for tiny game publishers with nearly no money for decent art, and the annoyance of having our games judged on aesthetic grounds when that privileges big, established publishers with, y’know, actual budgets. But this never really seemed germane to the conversational thread, so I didn’t force it into the discussion.

And finally, Lindsay and I never got the chance to geek out about Darklands! But maybe next year.

Still, I thought this panel was a worthy successor to last year’s item, with a lot of interesting conversation and some good insights.

Clouds for Mapping 4

Clouds for Gaming 4, selection of larger imageIt’s been another hectic week here, so that means another batch of four beautiful, all-natural, free-range clouds for your mapping uses. As before, I’m putting these into the public domain, but I appreciate credit and notice if you use them for something.

I’m still working on a backlog of Minicon posts; hopefully I’ll be able to start posting them soon.