Conpulsion 2014: Mindjammer – The RPG wins Griffie Award for Best RPG
Last weekend, the 25th to the 27th of April 2014, I had the great privilege of being a guest at the Conpulsion RPG convention in Edinburgh, Scotland. I love Edinburgh – it could be my favourite city – but hadn’t visited for over 10 years, so the chance to go there, and guest at a roleplaying game convention, and sell some copies of the brand new Mindjammer RPG before it officially launches in May – how could I refuse?
It was a great convention. Not huge, but certainly not small; some 350 gamers, a decent trade hall, seminars, panels, and loads of games, all conspired to make the weekend fly. I drove up with several boxes of the huge 496-page Mindjammer RPG hardback, and a box of Mindjammer novels, on Thursday and Friday, in one of the frequent RPG and fiction convention roadtrips I do these days from Normandy to the UK, arriving in Edinburgh late Friday afternoon in time to say hi to the organisers, set up shop in a corner of the trade hall, and familiarise myself with the schedule and my part in it. Almost as soon as I arrived and said hi to Sandy Ryalls, Gwen Fyfe, Tiggs (Lisa Cunningham), Euan Reid, and Tara Catt of the con committee, a horde of the “blue shirt” convention staff mobilised to help carry up the heavy RPG boxes to the trade hall on the second floor. Thanks to Edith, Alan, and all the blue shirts for their tireless efforts behind the scenes at Conpulsion – their labours were unceasing, and the con went smoothly as a result.
Conpulsion takes place in Teviot Row House in the centre of Edinburgh – on the opposite side of the Castle and the Royal Mile from Princes Street, an area of the city I’d never really got to know before. Teviot Row House itself is an amazingly beautiful building – apparently the oldest purpose-built students’ union building in the world, it’s a great, Hogwartsian edifice, defying Euclidian geometry, fluted and fretted with wood-panelling and fanciful curlicues, stairwells, corridors, mullions, casements, towers, and perhaps the most beautiful bar I’ve seen – the Library Bar, which, as its name suggests, is replete with hoary leather-bound tomes behind leaded windows of endlessly stretching bookcases. A perfect place for a roleplaying game convention.
The main convention runs Saturday and Sunday, and incorporates not just tabletop RPGs, but boardgames and live action roleplaying, too. Obviously I’m a dyed-in-the-wool tabletop RPGer, so my contribution to the weekend as a guest was to run two sessions of Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game, appear in one panel, one debate, and host one discussion, and do a handful of interviews, as well as hang out in the trade hall, bar, or wherever, and talk about Mindjammer with fellow gamers – and maybe sell and sign a few copies, too!
As it turned out, it was an awesome weekend for Mindjammer. As those who’ve preordered or bought the game already, the book is gorgeous, with an awesome cover by Paul Bourne, layout by Michal Cross, and beautiful interior artwork by Jason Juta, Ian Stead, Andy Wintrip, Andreas Schroth, Eric Lofgren, Jeff Ward, Earl Geier, and Fil Kearney, as well as text and so on by yours truly, and I was totally thrilled by the way people took to the game. I sold half my stock on the first day, and the other half on the second, and return home with 3 copies of the game and no novels unsold – a result! Most importantly, I had the chance to chat about Mindjammer with fellow gamers, and to play a couple of sessions and one discussion group on the game, which is just so awesome. Writing is often a lonely business, and the chance to receive direct feedback from people who are your primary gamers is priceless.
My first panel was early Saturday afternoon, discussing the future of RPG publishing and the digital revolution with Cat Tobin (Pelgrane Press), Grahame Bottley (Arion Games), Jenny Harman (Frankenstein’s Bodies), and chaired by the inimitable Phil Harris (Bleeding Cool, etc). A good discussion – I think everyone realises that RPG publishing is both in a period of enormous change, but also something of a golden age right now – there are more games, more publishing activity than ever before, and no one knows where the industry is going except forward. We exchanged some passionate opinions about Kickstarter, its pitfalls and exigencies, and generally agreed that games writers and designers had never before enjoyed such close contact with the fellow gamers who are our customers – and how that could only be a good thing.
Almost straight after the panel I had my first GMing session of Mindjammer, a 3-hour session in the Loft Bar running the first episode of the new scenario Hearts and Minds. The session was a little marred by the noisy environment – I find it difficult to tell a compelling story when shouting – but all the same we made a good fist of handling a protest in Friendship Square on the rediscovered world of Olkennedy, which rapidly descended into a deadly riot and an attack on the Commonality culture by violent separatists. We used the Mindjammer pregens from the Mindjammer site, and I was privileged to be the debut GM for two brand new RPGers, who did an awesome job of rising to the challenge. I hope you’ll go on to play again and again! Also at the table were Andrew Jones, and Geek Native’s very own Andrew Girdwood, both of whom I’d met online and so was very excited to game with in person.
At this point I want to express a huge thank-you to Doctor Mike Reddy, of the University of South Wales fame (and MANY other places) – I’d met Doctor Mike at cons previously, and it was great to see him again, but this time he wonderfully offered to man the Mindjammer table in the trade hall while I was gadding about. Such an awesomely kind thing to do, and a huge help over the weekend for me and for anyone wanting to grab a copy of Mindjammer throughout the day. Thanks, Doctor Mike!
Doctor Mike and I joined Cat Tobin and David Elliot-Mumford (Ornithocracy) that evening in the bar, hosted by Conpulsion Coordinator Euan Reid, for the “great debate” – is the GM dead? A huge crashing clash of opinions – are the “new” brand of GM-less games going to destroy the role of game master in roleplaying games, or will the game master win out? Of course, the real answer to that is a lot more nuanced, but Doctor Mike and I joined forces to doggedly argue that the GM was *doomed* DOOMED!, and that GM-less games were the way ahead. Despite not actually believing that, I think we made a good case – especially for games where all the players are actually GMs in their own rights, too – and I used a lot of my Fate smarts to argue for a more decentralised approach to narration which hit the right spot more than once. It was fun to be basically arguing devil’s advocate all evening, but ultimately I think our true allegiance may have shown… The GM lives! 😉
Sunday morning began with a mild panic. I had my second session of Mindjammer at 10am, and I knew it was free parking in Edinburgh centre, and I might have stock to take home, so I decided to have a leisurely breakfast then drive in about 9.15 – it was only 5 minutes to Teviot Row House – and set up for my game in a relaxed manner. However, apparently Edinburgh had chosen that morning to close off the entire city centre around the convention for some little thing called a “Great City Run” or some such ;-), and I found myself potentially being diverted off to some endless hebridean bypass where I’d drive around and around in a traffic jam for all eternity. After some choice expletives hurled at the universe in general, I abandoned my car and walked (well, kind of ran, really) into the university – and my game – with minutes to spare – to find that my fully booked game had 2 additional players wanting to join, 7 folk in total!
The previous day when that had happened, my game had 3 spectators, for 9 of us in total. However, for the Sunday game I knew we had a room to ourselves, nice and quiet, and that all the players were pretty experienced, so I offered the 2 newcomers the chance to generate characters on the fly during play – something Fate Core (and therefore Mindjammer) does very well. They jumped at the chance, and so Thaddeus Clay’s SCI Force team acquired two additional members – “K” the Cyber-Street Brat, 15 years old and filled with lecherous hormones and lethal augmentations, and Churchill the Tank Ninja, with a wicked assortment of hypertech gadgets and stealth gear, some of which I’ll write up on the Mindjammer site shortly.
I had a great session – I hope the players did, too. I’d decided to run the session immediately following on from the day before – same characters, different players – so we ended up playing an intrusion mission into the Alpha Node mindscape satellite in geostationary orbit above Olkennedy’s Crater. Some excellent roleplaying and problem-solving, once again highlighting Fate’s great ability to generate drama and cool gaming out of pretty much any situation, and to create satisfying role-playing challenges involving not just physical but emotional, social, and even cultural conflict. As Martin Page, august novelist and player of Churchill the Tank Engine said, “We ended the session on a group hug! Oh my god, we’ve just played an episode of Star Trek – The Next Generation!” Proof you can save the world and still have a totally geeky laugh in under 3 hours. 🙂
After that, the pile of Mindjammers on our table in the trade hall were dwindling in a very satisfying way – apologies to Phil Harris, who interviewed me for Bleeding Cool actually at the table, in a very staccato interview constantly broken by pauses to chat, sell, and sign. Lord knows what the interview recording sounded like, Phil – but next time we’ll get a room! 😉 Thanks to everyone who came along and bought copies of the game – that was so cool.
My final bit of scheduling was next, a talk from 2.30 to 3.30 about Mindjammer. I’d intended to give a 20-minute setting spiel and then open for Q&A, but basically everyone who turned up either knew the setting or had just appeared in one of the two demo sessions and pretty much knew the spiel already, so we threw the session open to a discussion about Mindjammer and transhuman RPGing in general. Andrew Girdwood of Geek Native and Andrew Jones turned up again, and we got into some great detail and feedback on issues about the ideology of the Commonality, player agency and affecting the setting, directed evolution, and the nature of sentience, consciousness, and identity. So much great food for thought – and another reinforcement that SF gaming is a great arena for playing through and dealing with these great science-fiction themes. Thanks everyone for coming!
The rest of the afternoon was in the trade hall, chatting with gamers, and also getting to meet Liam O’Connor of Black Lion Games and his team, who run a great RPG shop in Edinburgh just round the corner from the university and had a big stand at the con. Lovely folk all – I had a grand browse of their shelves, seeing some great rarities, including a deluxe boxed set of Traveller – The New Era which I never even knew existed, plus the chance to get hands-on with the new “wood box” reprint of the original D&D white box books and supplements, which unfortunately I found a little underwhelming (I’ll be keeping my originals…). Why on earth didn’t they keep the original artwork and covers?
And then it was pack-up, and time to attend the closing ceremony before heading home. The closing ceremony was the total icing on the cake after a brilliant weekend, as Mindjammer won the Griffie Award for Best RPG at the con! Up against some very stiff competition – Numenera, 13th Age, Hillfolk, Rocket Age, and Blood and Smoke – the convention-goers voted for Mindjammer, and a quick hop on stage to wave, blush, and say thank-you had me with the biggest grin of the weekend. Thank you everyone for voting and awarding Mindjammer Best RPG. A great honour, and a lovely end to my first Conpulsion.
Then that was it. I’d had the chance to make tons of new friends, and meet up with some old ones – Ian Lowson, Steve Ironside, Gregor Hutton, Jon Hodgson, Adrian Tchaikovsky, David Donachie, and more. There was more fun still to come at the con, with pub quizzes and other RPG events, but I had a 4 hour drive into the Edinburgh nighttime rain, so I bade my farewells with many hugs, and vanished into the night, filled with good thoughts.
Thanks to everyone on the Conpulsion committee for inviting me, and for laying on such a great and friendly convention. If you’re ever wondering whether to go, then definitely do so – it’s great fun. Thanks too to all the blue shirts for beavering away right through the weekend, keeping everything moving like a well-oiled machine. Conventions are an opportunity when I get to spend time with My Tribe, and Conpulsion was no exception. I hope to do it again soon!
Normandy, May 2014
All photos are by Doctor Mike Reddy via Twitter – many thanks Doctor Mike! Note to self: take photos next time!