Gencon Survival Tips

Photo credit: Gencon LLC

I’ve been going to Gencon regularly since 2001 or so, with a few skipped years here and there. That makes a veteran, though I’m still a piker compared to some friends who’ve gone to more than 30 Gencons in a row.

This year Gencon hits the big Five-Oh, and judging from badge sales, it’s going to be the biggest ever. If you’re going, get your Maslow on and make sure you’re taking care of your hierarchy of needs.


We West Coasters fly to Gencon, but the vast majority of attendees drive there. In addition to being a terrific game designer, Kevin Kulp (PirateCat on EN World) has a fascinating day job: He’s a sleep and alertness expert who advises companies on shift scheduling and other sleep-related safety matters. Years ago, he started this thread to help sleep-deprived drivers get to the show without crashing, and I consult it every year before I go.

The overt focus is getting to Gencon safely, but it also answers the question you’ll be asking yourself by midday Thursday: “How little sleep can I get away with?” The whole post is worth a read, but the short answers are:

  • Five hours a night is a lot better than four.
  • Nap in 90-minute blocks if you can, and avoid one-hour naps.
  • “The least amount of sleep with close-to-normal functioning? Two 2-hour naps per day, spaced 12 hours apart. You’ll be tired, but it can keep you going efficiently for quite some time; it’s what we recommend to emergency workers.”

Seriously, though, read the thread. Pay attention in particular to the “drunk vs. tired” comparisons. I’ll bet Kevin’s thread has literally saved lives.


If you don’t have good, comfortable shoes for Gencon, buy new ones now (mid-July as we publish this). That way they’ll be broken in before you get to Indy. Gencon might seem like a “sit there and game all day” event, but there’s a ton of walking and standing involved. You don’t want every step to feel like Grimtooth’s Chamber of Caltrops.

Food and Drink

Indy’s food is great—assuming you’re a carnivore. It’s not exactly cheap, but honestly everyone’s restaurant tab would be higher if the show were in Chicago—or even Seattle for that matter. I treat myself every year to a big ol’ steak and a shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo Steak House…and with their cocktail sauce, it’s often September before my nose-hairs grow back. Strong stuff!

For lunches, take advantage of weird gamer scheduling and hit the food trucks outside the convention center in late morning or early afternoon. Game through the lunch rush and hit ‘em when the lines are short.

While you’re gaming, have protein/energy bars stashed away in your backpack. Your brain will thank you. And drink water, even if you aren’t thirsty. Even if you’re having beers later. Even if you just had beers. YOU NEED WATER TO GAME. (And technically also to live.)


Speaking of drinking water…If you’re roleplaying, you need to talk to play. Over the course of four days at Gencon, you’ll probably talk more than you do in a week or two of normal life. Your vocal cords will notice! Baby them. That means avoiding smoke, resisting the urge to yell, and saving that gravelly orc barbarian voice for Sunday’s game.

If you’re worried about losing your voice, there are some preventive things you can do:

  • Drink water. Seriously, just do it. There are bubbler fountains all over the place in the hall.
  • Avoid acidic and spicy food. Fewer mimosas, and ease up on the salsa.
  • Don’t yell, obviously, but also try not to whisper. It’s low volume, but whispering is hard on the vocal cords.
  • Gargle salt water. Really.
  • Stay away from chocolate and booze…or so vocal coaches say, though we’re edging toward “cure is worse than the disease” territory.

Other Random Tips

The Dealer Hall: Don’t try to walk all the aisles in one fell swoop. I did the math last year, and even the optimal serpentine paths clocked in at 2.5 to 3 miles…and that’s just the main exhibit hall, not the ancillary retail space over by Lucas Oil Stadium. If you’re bound and determined to see everything, try to knock out a dozen aisles a day and you’ll be fine.

Open Gaming: I always see something amazing when I wander through the open gaming tables—either a board game I’ve never heard of, a particularly animated group of RPGers, or some weird custom-made miniatures game that spends the other 51 weeks of the year in someone’s basement.

Generic Tickets: These are your best friends. Especially on Saturday and Sunday, people aren’t always showing up for events. I almost always get a spot at the table if I show up a few minutes before an event, generic ticket in hand. Someone’s gonna no-show, and you’ll be in.

The Most Important Tip

Embrace the unknown! My schedule is often a shambles by Friday—and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’ve played amazing prototype games, had sublime RPG experiences in systems I’d never tried, and talked game design until the wee hours of the morning at Gencon, all because my schedule isn’t set in stone.

So demo something, even if it’s not your favorite sort of game or not in a genre you love. Take time away from the gaming table to see the costume parade, or watch people get married. Every single year, the best thing at Gencon is the thing that you didn’t know existed before you walked past it—and it’s the thing you’ll be talking about until next August rolls around.

Kickstarters We Like: Revolutionaries

Revolutionaries promotional art

American gamers—like all Americans, really—have been soaking in the folklore and history of the Revolutionary War all their lives. The struggle for independence is so suffused in our culture that it often takes profound study to separate the folklore from the history. It was an exciting time in the North American colonies, full of spies and secret missions—and the world’s mightiest military force against a literally rag-tag bunch of partisans who were often more elusive than effective.

The setting features small groups from all walks of life, bound together by a common goal. The dramatic stakes are high. The historical setting details are abundant. Yet for some reason, the Revolutionary War gets short shrift in gaming, with a few memorable wargames but not much else.

Enter the kickstarter for Revolutionaries—American War of Independence RPG. The crowdfunding campaign launched July 4 (of course), and $30 plus shipping gets you the boxed version of the game. Thirty bucks!

I’m honestly not sure how they’re making that price point work, because the game looks sharp, and the pedigree of the designers is top notch. It’s a big team, but I’ll highlight two names of interest to grognards like me: managing director Mark Rein•Hagen (he still uses the dot, right?), designer of seminal stuff like Ars Magica and Vampire: The Masquerade, and creative director C.A. Suleiman, who’s contributed to a ton of D&D and World of Darkness books (full disclosure: I think we may have contributed to some of the same 3E D&D books back in the day).

The game wisely focuses on the “secret history” of the Revolutionary War, using the real-life Culper ring as the inspiration for the default protagonists. (RPGs tend to work better with strong defaults for who the PCs are and what they’re doing.) If you wanted, I imagine you should nudge the game into the horrific (it’s New England, after all, home of Lovecraft and King) or magical (maybe into Seventh Son territory).

The other reason I’m enchanted with Revolutionaries is that the PCs are going to be fighting against an unjust authority. That’s something I think a lot of RPGs have lost along the way. In most games and in most genres, the PCs are agents of the lawful authorities—maybe technically independent, maybe not. The patron, boss, or other authority figure tells the PCs about a threat to the home society, and the PCs go out and quash it.

I for one am tired of that. I want more stories about sticking it to The Man. Early RPGs were replete with those sorts of adventure setups, but now they’re the exception, not the rule.

Side note: I realize this sounds like a Trump thing, but it’s been nibbling away at me for a good five years now. Not that I don’t have feelings about politics! But this ain’t about that. It’s more that I worry gamers are getting too heavy a diet of “agents of lawful authority,” and on balance it’s more fun and more dramatic to be the righteous underdogs, blowing stuff up in the name of freedom.

That’s why I’m all in on Revolutionaries (and why my own writing tends to have the PCs as rebels). You’ve got until August 1 to join the Kickstarter campaign, though it wouldn’t shock me if you saw a retail release for this game at some point, too.

Watch a Hobby Eat Its Own Tail

At DASTOW we’re expanding our 5E content. It’s a good system and one we have lots of familiarity with. One promise, though: I want no part of the nostalgia parade.

Look at the existing 5E products, and you’ll see a lot of work inspired by the great adventures of yesteryear. Look at all the remakes, “spiritual successors,” and straight-up reprints. The dream of the ’80s is alive in Renton, Washington.

I have close friends who wrote a lot of the content in Tales from the Yawning Portal, but just seeing it fills me with sorrow. This could have been something new, but it’s a “greatest hits” album with 5E stats. At least they had the honesty to put “yawning” right there in the title, eh?

Imagine if they’d put the effort into something new. I am aware that WotC is a business, and their greatest hits compilation is going to outsell a new album. But that’s true only in the short term. What do you do in ten years? Do a remake of your remakes? Nostalgia is not a check you can just keep cashing.

The tail-eating isn’t just a WotC thing by any stretch; it’s just that they have one of the longest tails in tabletop. Tails are at the top of the menu in the video game world. A few years ago, I went to E3, North America’s biggest trade show for video games. As I stood at the entrance, I saw a dozen banners draped over the arena and the surrounding buildings—each banner at least five stories tall.

Every single video game mentioned had a number at the end: Far Cry 3, Borderlands 2, Assassins Creed III, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Halo 4, Resident Evil 6…you get the idea. Imagine what those studios could have accomplished with those teams working on new worlds and experiences instead?

Again, they’re businesses—I get that. But it’s short-term thinking. All those billion-dollar franchises started as one-offs, and if you never start anything new, you’ll never get to the point where you’re contemplating the lucrative sequel.

In our own tiny way at DASTOW, we’re going to deliver new experiences. Maybe someday they’ll be part of someone’s nostalgia kick, but honestly I couldn’t care less about that right now.

New stuff, as fast as we can dream it up. ’Cause that’s a more satisfying meal than a tail could ever be.

Swimming Rules for 13th Age, Part One

Because tactical movement tends to be abstract, the 13th Age Roleplaying Game takes a light touch toward such fantasy staples as mounted combat, flying, and swimming. Perhaps not coincidentally, those are topics most game designers tackle under duress, because it’s easy to get them wrong—and almost as easy to get them right but make them unfun.

Even though we aren’t under duress, we find our 13th Age characters dumped in the drink often enough to offer these somewhat-sketchy, wholly unofficial swimming and underwater combat rules for 13th Age. Try them out yourselves, and let us know what you think in the comments.

Design Principles

Let’s talk scope. Do we want to cover the entire breadth of life under the sea? Should we model water pressure and ambient light as the PCs dive deeper? Do we want to treat everything from weapon velocity to bleeding wounds to vocalized speech realistically?

Um, no.

Let’s focus on basic rules for the key moments that tend to crop up in typical d20 fantasy gaming:

  1. Character suddenly dropped into the water and must get back out without drowning or being swept away.
  2. Characters forced to fight undersea enemies with no warning.
  3. Characters intentionally exploring an underwater environment on a longer-term basis (beyond just one encounter).

Let’s also also talk depth—rules depth, not water depth. It’s not a game about swimming; it’s a game where you occasionally have to swim your way to the good stuff. So let’s design just enough to make swimming and underwater combat feel different and dangerous, not necessarily realistic.


In the first case, we’ll lean on the skill system. We want our rules to model two things: swimming in hazardous waters (ocean swells, swift current, crashing surf, and so on) and holding one’s breath. Not every encounter will feature both. Sometimes you have to swim through the flooded hallway, but the water is still. Sometimes your longboat capsizes near shore, and you’re battered by waves but not drowning.

Swimming under ordinary circumstances is automatic. Yes, even if your character is from the desert or the Elemental Plane of Air or whatever. Forcing rolls for ordinary movement gets old at the table really quick. As for extraordinary circumstances…that’s where the environment DCs in Chapter 6 of the core rulebook come in.

Adventurer Tier Hazard
rolling ocean waves DC 20
Mountain stream current (swift but shallow) DC 20
Champion Tier Hazard
Shore breakers, deep ocean swells DC 25
Swift current, few chances to grasp edge DC 25
Epic tier hazard
Tsunami-level waves DC 30
Pressurized water (geysers, clockwork plumbing apparatus) DC 30

Note that the backgrounds in 13th Age are more specific than just a “swim” skill; as a GM, you’ll need to use your judgment on what does and doesn’t apply. In a pinch, let characters use their Strength modifier in place of a relevant background.

Let’s add one key wrinkle that makes the wizards and sorcerers (probably poor swimmers) happy: a –2 penalty on the check for PCs in light armor and a –4 penalty for PCs in heavy armor. If they don’t like it, let ‘em take a round to disrobe from light armor and two rounds to get out of heavy armor.

Holding Your Breath

Let’s charitably rule that all PCs can hold their breath for a minute, just because we want to enable fun things underwater—however briefly—and realistic breath limits shut off more interesting story moments than they enable.

Unlike many other fantasy d20 games, 13th Age doesn’t have a robust saving throw system where attributes (Constitution in this case) and level are meaningful inputs. But it does have PD, which rewards high Constitution, and we can let hit points stand in for level (mua ha ha ha). After the minute is up, drowning (and asphyxiation if you’re stealing these rules for a dust storm or outer space or whatever) begins to take its toll.

At the start of each round, make an attack against each drowning character’s PD, according to the following table. If the character is fighting or swimming, use the high exertion option:

Tier Attack Bonus Damage
Adventurer tier +5 3d6
Adventurer tier, high exertion +10 3d6
Champion tier (didn’t get a good breath beforehand) +10 4d8
Champion tier, high exertion +15 4d8
Epic tier (enemy is magically trying to force water into you) +15 3d20
Epic tier, high exertion +20 3d20

With these numbers, drowning is a serious risk for everyone, but tougher and higher-level characters can last longer underwater.

Once again, let’s add one wrinkle. In real life, near-fatal drowning has a host of long-term consequences. But in the fantasy fiction that underpins 13th Age, characters often spend a few minutes coughing and spluttering after nearly drowning, and then they’re right as rain. To model this, declare that using recoveries (including healing magic) to restore hit points lost from drowning is twice as efficient; spending one recovery heals twice as much.

If it’s an underwater combat situation where drowning people are also being stabbed/bitten/magicked, you can either track combat damage separately from drowning damage (not a big deal, because it doesn’t come up that often) or just say to heck with it and let all healing in the quick rest after the underwater fight count double (also not a big deal, because you’re a GM and have plenty of ways to take those hit points back later.

With swimming rules and drowning rules in hand, we have everything we need to cover the first use case we outlined above.

For the second use case (an underwater battle) and the third use case (a long-term underwater adventure) we’re going to lean on the damage types already defined in the rules and on some new magic items. Look for those in part two, coming soon!

Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate

This week Wizards of the Coast announced Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate, a D&D-themed version of their acclaimed Betrayal at House on the Hill board game. My first thought: “Great ideas win out—even if it takes a while.”

“A while” being “fifteen years, give or take” in this case.

When I first saw the game that would become Betrayal at House on the Hill, it was one of the last Milwaukee Gencons, 2001 or 2002. I was a D&D designer for WotC, so I spent most of my Gencon time speaking on panels or running the Delve (a continuous four-day pickup game) inside the WotC castle in the exhibit hall. Nice work if you can get it, eh?

I was hanging around the castle after a shift DMing the Delve when the head of RPG R&D at the time, Bill Slavicsek, grabbed me. “Follow me—we need a fourth player for a game we’re trying.” With me in tow, Bill scurried over to the open board game area, where we met two designers in Hasbro’s board game operation: Rob Daviau (who later went on to pretty much invent legacy board games) and Mike Gray (who’s been key to more Hasbro games than I can list).

“It’s a haunted house game,” Rob explained. “Here, pick a character.”

What I played over the course of the next hour or so was a 80% complete version of what later became Betrayal at House on the Hill. The characters were horror-movie archetypes (cheerleader, professor, and so on), the stats were tracked with paperclips on cardstock, and the room tiles even had decent graphics. The traitor mechanic was there, though the supply of plots was much thinner.

After a brief explainer from Mike and Rob, we were able to hit the ground running—and it was fun! When it was all over, Mike explained that while Hasbro’s board game group liked the design, they weren’t going to be able to do anything with it. (I can only imagine the business and logistical concerns for an operation of Hasbro’s scale.) WotC had a separate line of board games, though, and they weren’t beholden to the same set of concerns.

“I think you guys could take the game if you want it,” Mike said. Then Rob piped up. “It doesn’t have to be a haunted house, you know. Look at the tiles and the monster tokens and the items. This could be a dungeon…”

One thing led to another, and the game did wind up on the WotC side of the fence, where Mike Selinker, Teeuwynn Woodruff, Bill McQuillan and a bunch of other people whose names I’m cruelly forgetting turned it into Betrayal at House on the Hill a couple years later.

Rob’s “it doesn’t have to be a haunted house” observation sat latent for years, but now that game’s structure will support a new theme, some 15 years after that Gencon afternoon in the board game hall. Rob gets his wish, and the haunted house becomes a dungeon.

It was a good idea then, and it’s a good idea now. Board game production requires a surplus of patience, whether you’re a huge corporation or an adorable indie. For all my fellow designers who’ve touched the various incarnations of this game over the years, I think 15 years of patience will pay off this October.

Why the Hell Do We Roleplay?

Polyhedral DiceBy almost any measure, it’s a golden age for gaming. We’ve got access to more games, more places to talk about them, more people to play them with, and greater cultural appreciation for them than ever before.

On any given evening, you could play a tabletop RPG…or the latest great video game. Or a fantastic board game. Or a minis game. Or a card game. And I suppose you could, theoretically speaking, engage in some sort of non-game activity like books, movies, TV, or making nachos.

Those choices all offer the possibility of a sublime experience (especially the nachos). So why do we pick RPGs? The reasons are as varied as the players, I suppose.

Some of us play for the game itself. We think that an RPG is “winnable” at least on some level. We’re the powergamers and the min-maxers, but those terms have a lot of baggage attached to them. At a lot of tables, min-maxing is no crime…or at least it’s a victimless crime. Still, if that’s the motivation, why not delve into a video game RPG, where there’s generally a more complex system to master and you never have to worry about finding other players?

Some of us play for the camaraderie/fellowship. We play because people we really dig play, and a great RPG session is really a rollicking, hours-long conversation among friends. But if that’s the motivation, who not delve into a really great board game, where you have just as much camaraderie, but less rules cruft and fewer scheduling difficulties?

Some of us play to immerse ourselves in a role—an idealized version of ourselves, very much the opposite, or someone else entirely. We can attempt anything we can conceive of, and the fictional game situation lets us tap some very real emotions. Sure, the drama kings and queens are among us are in this category, but so are the intentional shit-stirrers who are always picking pockets and starting tavern brawls. There’s a certain sort of glee in vicarious bad behavior that I wouldn’t want to deny anybody.

Here’s the thing about this third group: Tabletop RPGs serve them in a way that other games don’t. They can’t switch over to Mass Witcher Creed and scratch the same itch, and they can’t become the meeple in the same way that they become their PC.

I’m not saying that this sort of role-immersion player is the best sort of RPGer, or that they’re playing games the “right way” while others are having wrongbadfun. But I will say this: For that sort of player, the tabletop RPG experience is more precious—and probably more fragile. They’re getting something out of Thursday night D&D that they can’t get anywhere else. (Well, nowhere short of actual theater, anyway.)

So take care of those folks at your table! Even if you’re playing with friends, you might not realize how much Darryl needs to just evaporate into his role. Darryl might be going through a lot under the surface. Darryl might find a bit of himself while he’s pretending to be “Chala of the Trackless Wastes.” And that’s something Darryl can do only at the RPG table.

Take care of Darryl, or he’ll be forced to seek out community theater. You’ll never see him again.

Designing Magic Items for 13th Age

13th Age Roleplaying GameWhen DASTOW does the design work on a book in the Escalation Series, we generally start with the talents and powers—the core of the book, both literally and conceptually—then work forward (toward the backgrounds and One Unique Things) and backward (toward the magic items and NPCs). The NPCs are by necessity done last; we need to know what all the options are before we build those characters.

That order of operations means we save one of the most fun parts of the design for the end: the magic items. Each Escalated book has roughly a dozen magic items, generally one for each “chakra” body slot, some utility items, and an extra weapon or two. They’re basically like dessert for the designer. [Editor’s Note: They’re really more like cilantro, where Dave loves it and Stacey hates it. Your mileage may vary.]

Here’s what’s on our minds as we do the initial design:

Know what each chakra does. Because 13th Age shares a lot of DNA with 4th edition D&D, the key chakras are those that add to attack rolls or increase your defensive stats. That means armor, weapon/staff, cloak, and helmet. Those magic items don’t need to do a lot, because the inherent bonuses are so good. They’re a good place for simple, situational, or otherwise minor-league effects.

Go broader, not deeper. Magic items can show up in a campaign at any given moment. Other forms of character advancement happen only at the moment a character levels up. That means magic items are a great way for characters to cover a gap in their arsenal based on the more permanent changes they’ve made. For example, you might have a champion-tier fighter who hasn’t picked a maneuver that can be used with ranged attacks. A simple magic spear or throwing axe is perfect, because it broadens the fighter’s repertoire. Conversely, keep a close eye on items that deepen an existing specialty. The number-one place where characters go off the rails is when similar benefits stack to game-breaking levels.

Word the quirks carefully. The vast majority of quirks are mental/behavioral, and theoretically they evoke something of the item’s nature. But phrases like “always picks fights” or “cannot say no to a drink” are recipes for disaster when given to a literal-minded player. Trust the player to do the roleplaying and provide a direction, not a straitjacket. The idea behind a quirk is that it’s a constraint, and it’s occasionally annoying. They did bring this on themselves by wearing too many magic items, after all. If quirks seem like they’ll continuously frustrate other people at the table, though, dial them back.

Make sure you’ve got the GM’s back. Magic items are more freeform than talents, spells, and other class-based abilities. Unlike other games with a d20 heritage, there aren’t economic guidelines or level-based benchmarks to fence you in. That freedom is great, but it means that you have to be extra careful to specify frequency of use and duration of effect because there’s no default answer elsewhere in the system. Whenever you make a magic item, imagine your likely user triggering it as often as possible. How often is that? How long does it last? Is there a cost? Questions like that are best answered in the design process, not in the fourth round of a battle against the Headless Cyclops King.

Finally, break the rules once in a while. Magic items are the least constrained game element in the 13th Age Roleplaying Game. (One Unique Things are unconstrained in method, sure, but their scope is constrained and you get exactly one, period, at the beginning of the character’s life.) The GM has total control of when (and if) a magic item shows up in a game—and a big say in how long it sticks around. If you want to experiment with a game mechanic or cool effect, a magic item is the place to do it.

After all, any GM worth her dice can think of a dozen ways to separate PCs from their loot.

Spell and Ability Design in 13th Age

We’re designing some spells and other character abilities for the 13th Age Roleplaying Game, and I’m delighted—and maybe a little surprised—at what fertile ground d20 games continue to be for game designers.

The various branches that form the d20 tree (13th Age, Pathfinder, and oh yeah D&D) have a 15-year history, not counting the design time within WotC prior to 2000. Hundreds of game designers have been making new feats, spells, and other game elements for a decade and a half. Yet we’re still finding new mechanics—new ways to provide some game-structure interest to match the flavor and theme of the spell.

That speaks to how robust the third edition ruleset is. All of us—from indie game designers to the big crew at Paizo—are still happily making stuff up that’s genuinely new, not just retreads of previously explored game-design space. And for indie developers like us, 13th Age is a particularly good environment to explore the d20 tree…for two reasons.

First, there isn’t an overwhelming supply of content out there (as there is with Pathfinder and 3e/4e D&D). To put it in economic terms, the marginal utility of the 12th fireball variant or the 26th Two-Weapon Fighting feat is pretty lousy. 13th Age is still lean enough that you can make up new stuff and not feel like you’re just designing for corner cases.

Second, 13th Age does a good job of managing how often PCs change their game elements—how often they get new spells and feats and whatnot. That’s a hidden virtue of a 10-level game. With a few exceptions (wizard comes to mind), you’re only changing your “abilities loadout” when you milestone or level up. Back in my D&D days, I saw a lot of 3e spellcasters practically buried beneath a dozen different books, trying to figure out which spells to prepare for a given day. The rest of the table impatiently waits (no fun), and the spellcaster essentially plays “lightning-round rules referencing” (no fun). In the abstract, of course everyone says, “I like the flexibility of picking new spells/abilities/whatever each game day.” But in practice, it’s not always fun. And we often forget that what fun there is comes at the expense of bored or impatient friends.

I’m a firm believer in “playtest, then preview,” but soon we’ll have some examples to share.