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Gen Con 2006: Indie–napolis?

By Steve Dempsey


In 2006 I paid my first visit to Gen Con Indianapolis, the self styled “best four days in gaming”. I was there with around 20,000 other gamers each day to catch the sights and sounds, play some games and shop.

It's certainly an eye-opener. In the UK we're hard-pressed to scrape together 600 roleplayers for our Gen Con so 20,000 is just in a different league. But with five times our population, the US has enough roleplayers to create the kind of community that can support a convention of this size, and even a roleplaying industry. I don't ever expect this to happen in the UK although with the relaunch of Gen Con UK at Reading University in 2007 I am rather hoping for some kind of community spirit to be present.

Attendance in Indy was slightly up on 2005, which belied the malaise in the roleplaying industry. In fact you would have been hard pressed to find a miserable face running the stalls on the trading floor. However, not everyone is here for the roleplaying. eCard games, computer games and boardgames are also present. And whilst the ICV2 Retailers Guide to Games has roleplaying as a “weak hobby”, it is fairly upbeat as regards the others.

It's not all gloom though. Although some of the larger companies may be feeling the pinch, and some of the mid-range, such as Guardians of Order, have gone to the wall, the very opposite is happening in the shallows at the small end of the market.

Indie games, which roughly means games that are published by their author, have been undergoing an explosion. You may have read in previous articles about my love of games such as My Life with Master, Dogs in the Vineyard and octaNe. Where there were about ten of fifteen such games about two years ago, there are now well over one hundred.

So where did this deluge of new games spring from?

Most Indie games have their origins in the Forge, a website set up about 7 years ago by Ron Edwards and Clint Nixon as a place to discuss roleplaying theory.

My Life with Master, Dogs in the Vineyard, Nine Worlds or Dust Devils amongst others were originally discussed and playtested through this forum. Starting with Sorcerer, these games began to be published and be played by a wider audience.

Then Indie games started to be noticed beyond the borders of the Forge.

Mainstream designers such as Ken Hite and Robin Laws started discussing them in their articles. The Forge ran a booth at Gen and Origins bringing their games to the attention of yet more gamers and owners of the larger companies started to pay interest. I saw Peter Adkison, the owner of Gen Con with the Cheshire Cat grin, buying a few of Indie games at Origins last year.

Next several factors contributed to create the outpouring of creativity that has lead to the huge number of Indie games now on sale. Around about the same time, the Forge closed its main theory discussion threads and refocused more on the design and play of games, and several roleplaying design competitions were set up to test the mettle of the seasoned amateurs and newcomers alike.

The result is that, in 2006 at Gen Con, on the Indie games booth there were 92 Forge games for sale with another 20 or so from Wicked Dead Brewing Company, the John Wick, Jared Sorenson, Annie Rush partnership next door.

Just round the corner there were further games on the Lulu stand, a company that prints many of the Indie games. And even the French are getting in on it, with Qin a full colour large format game of Ancient China.

In order to understand a little more about the Indie game phenomenon and to get some of the low-down on Gen Con, I have talked to three of those involved. They are Brennan Taylor, John Wick, and Emily Care Boss. Brennan owns a company that sells Indie games, John has published both mainstream and Indie games, and Emily has recently started to put out her own games.


Brennan has written three games published through his imprint Galileo Games: The Legend of Yore (heroic fantasy), Bulldogs (d20 sci-fi), and now Mortal Coil, (a supernatural game of magic and passion). Brennan also runs Indie Press Revolution. This is a business that was set up in 2004 to sell Indie games through its website.

How was Gen Con for you personally, for Galileo and for IPR?
Gen Con was a great success on both sides. As a publisher, Mortal Coil sold 60 copies, which is a great success at the Forge booth. This fit with my expectations, and I wasn't disappointed in the least. It received an excellent reception in all of my demos and after-hours games, and I continue to have an excellent time playing it.

For IPR, the Gen Con booth was also a success. I generally view conventions as a promotional event, and aim to break even. The Forge booth did such brisk business that IPR made a quite tidy profit, making it worthwhile to return every year. Other booth members were grateful that IPR took on the cash register and display headaches so they didn't have to.

What games caught your eye?
I am really interested in Agon which I got a peek at just before the con. It's a game of Greek heroes battling monsters, but it is also about competing with the other heroes for renown. I am excited to try it. I also picked up Qin: The Warring States from Seventh Circle, a French publisher. This is a gorgeous book and I am a sucker for the wuxia genre, so I may be giving this a try sometime soon. What sold me on the book was the way they incorporated harmony between yin and yang into the system, making it an important part of the character.

The creator publisher model seems to be working well at the moment. Can it be said to be part of the industry?
Sure. It is still a small part of the overall picture, but it is definitely a significant one. The games produced by creator-publishers are gaining more and more attention from the community of gamers, and the games have definitely attracted the notice of some full-time designers employed by the industry leaders.

Can it exist without the mainstream, and vice versa?
I don't think Indie games could exist without the mainstream, but I think they are slowly becoming part of the mainstream. I am very interested to see how this develops.

In the short term, the mainstream could do just fine without these games. In the long term, though, I think the innovation you see in the Indie scene will migrate over into mainstream design, and that will help all of the games in the long run. All creative endeavours need an infusion of new ideas periodically, and the Indie games movement is a teeming lab of radical ideas. Not all of them may make it, but many of them are excellent design concepts that will help to enrich all future game designs.

Do you think the Paul Czeges (My Life with Master), Vincent Bakers (Dogs in the Vineyard) or even Brennan Taylors will end up working for the mainstream eventually?
It's interesting that you pick these names. Both Paul and Vincent are very invested in the creator-ownership aspect of game publishing, and I doubt that these two would ever be interested in taking such a job. In fact, most of the Indie publishers I know have no ambitions in this area. Of course, I wouldn't rule out a few going into design full-time for a bigger company.

As for myself, I know that I personally will probably never take a job in the mainstream, but that has a lot to do with both creative freedom, and relative pay. I have a well-paying full-time job that I am no ready to give up. It would be a significant pay cut for me to take a job like that.

How much further can the Indie side expand? I mean you could play a new Indie game every week, won't that get a bit tiresome after a while?
I'm not sure how much more room there is on the Indie side. I think we have a pretty wide selection at this point, and that some games are just not going to take off because the market as it stands can't support all of the new games coming out. Some Indie games fans who used to buy everything are now picking and choosing a bit more, and this will continue. Some small games won't be able to gain traction, and they won't make it.

On the other hand, I kind of view "Indie games" as comparable to a game line from a mainstream publisher. The number of products is not that different from a mainstream line with new supplements coming out every month. In the Indie games world, it's just new games that are published instead of supplements.

With IPR, to what extent do you feel responsible for Indie gaming?
I don't feel "responsible" for it. I do want to promote it, which is what IPR is all about. I wanted to make it easier for people to get their games and ideas out there, and so far that is what IPR has done. Part of being indie is being responsible for yourself, and promoting your games on your own. IPR just helps with that process.

What's next for IPR, anything different?
Nothing different for the time being, just an attempt to do what we are doing in a more efficient and flexible way. Demand for IPR has grown so much that it is difficult to keep up with the systems and technology we have right now. Of course, I am always watching the industry and if I see an opportunity to further the goals of IPR and its members, I'll jump at it.

John Wick is a well known game writer. He has been on the scene for over ten years and was responsible for Legend of the Five Rings and 7th Sea for AEG and several other books for White Wolf. John now publishes his own Indie games through the Wicked Dead Brewing Company (WDBC) and has had success with games such as Orkworld, Enemy Gods and Cat. John has also recently published a novel.

John Wick

How was Gen Con for you on a personal level and for WDBC?
It was mixed. I lost half my books to either airport security (LAX) or American Airlines. My books were packed in my luggage, and when I arrived, my luggage was pilfered through and many of my books were missing. So, I didn't have the books I wanted for the show. That started things off on the wrong foot.

But the show itself was great. I got to see the people I only see once a year and met a whole new slew of people. I was on painkillers for my back (I injured it earlier this year) and a combination of those and lack of sleep made me a bit... "woogy" may be the best word.

I released Wilderness of Mirrors, my "better spy-playing game" (as dubbed by the cover and interior artist, Daniel Solis which pretty much got a standing ovation from the folks who looked it over. I'll be releasing that soon.

What games caught your eye?
Annie (Rush) always catches me off guard. Her little ninja game, House of Horiku, is brilliant. Any L5R fan should shell out the five or ten bucks to pick it up and add it to their L5R game. Like, right now. Also, her Run Robot Redux is a great polish of a beautiful game.

I also picked up Qin, a Chinese-based RPG from France (translated to English). Beautiful game with an intriguing system. Again, L5R fans should check it out and put it right on the other side of those mountains in the West.

I also got Agon from the Forge booth as well as Burning Empires. Those two games caught my attention. And Clinton (Nixon)'s new Princes game is a great game for gamers of all ages. (Did I plug everybody? I hope so. I took home a huge bag o' swag.)

You seem to be slightly on the periphery of the Indie games explosion, in that you've also written many games for other people as well, several of them quite successful in the mainstream. Straddling both worlds, do you think there's much difference between the two? In terms of goals, pressures, quality, inventiveness, etc?
It's kind of like being in two bands. One of those bands is the Ramones and the other is Queen. On one side, you've got guys cranking out really catchy tunes that are just about the strangest shit and on the other, you've got pomposity and orchestration and production. They're really two different animals all together. On one end, you have production value and on the other, you have innovation. Although, I have to say, while the production values of the Indie games are moving up, the innovation of the mainstream games is not.

You've written a novel about a magically aware gumshoe. Could you say a few words about it? How was the experience for you? Was it much the same as writing a game and do you plan to publish more fiction in the future?
No, I don't want to talk about my novel at all.

Just kidding!

No Loyal Knight is something I worked on for a year, then tried to sell, but nobody wanted to buy it. Not because it wasn't any good; I was told over and over again, "This is great!" But then I was also told, "But it isn't for us."

I've submitted novels before. I've gotten rejection letters. I deserved them; those novels sucked. But this wasn't even a rejection letter. It was kind of like going on the date, wearing the right clothes, picking the right restaurant, seeing the right movie and making it right up to the door and not even getting a peck on the cheek. It was frustrating. So, I was complaining to Jared about it and he said, "Yeah, too bad you don't have a way to publish it yourself." So, I did.

So far, I've gotten a lot of good word on the novel. My friends liked it (they always do), but I've also had people who have ordered it on-line or bought it at Gen Con contact me and tell me, "This is really neat. I've never read anything like it before." That was my goal, so I'm happy.

And yes, there is a sequel in the works.

Finally, a rather messy question - which shows I'm on rather shaky ground but hopefully you can make something of it: I know you have a great interest in hermeticism. Do you think there's any link between this and gaming? I'm thinking that with Indie games in particular there's a lot of "as above so below" - games seeking to emulate and recreate particular emotional states and even to generate altered states.
Well, it's no secret that I'm writing a game about magic. Secret has turned out to be more than just a game about magic, but has become a Great Work for me. It's me trying to give a unique viewpoint on something really brilliant men and women have already said really brilliant things about. I've always loved the idea of magic, been fascinated with characters like John Dee, Aleister Crowley (the real man, not the caricature he's become), and even the insights Alan Moore has brought to the subject. I wanted to say something important about it. I can feel it, right on the edge of my mind, but I can't quite articulate it properly yet.

And that's the whole thing about magic: it's articulating something that cannot be conveyed with language. There's no coincidence that "spells" and "spelling" come from the same root word. Or "grammar" and "grimoire." Making words is magic. Language IS magic.

Writer for WoD and Fallout developer, the best CRPG ever.

But then again, so is math. Just a quick look at "math magic" can show you that, but when you start studying geometry and really advanced mathematical concepts (which Jess Heinig is kind enough to share with me), you really start seeing why ancient peoples viewed math as magical.

Math and language are the two greatest magical arts, so yes, there is SOMETHING to roleplaying games — being a form of literature that relies on both math and language. Not only that, but as gamers, we literally reach into the upper atmosphere and touch that invisible place where heroes live. We summon the hero out of the ether and for a short while, we walk with him. No, more than that, we don't just walk in the hero's footsteps, we MAKE his footsteps.

In other words, we reach into the Hero Realm and make the Rune Quest. Thank you, Great and Mighty Stafford.

Emily Care Boss

Emily is a relative newcomer to Indie game publishing. She is the owner of Black & Green Games, the company that publishes her two games: Breaking the Ice and Shooting the Moon. These are unusual in that they are both games centered on relationships, which is an interesting departure from the usual themes of violence and mayhem. Emily also has a third game on the way.

How was 2006 for you personally and for Black & Green games?

This was a great year for me, though it felt like a bit of a roller-coaster at times. In my personal life: I finished my Masters in forestry at UMass Amherst. At the same time, I finished my second role playing game, Shooting the Moon. This made the first half of the year pretty hectic and wacky for me. I found myself finishing up my professional paper for school — just in time to start doing layout for the game.

Were there any new games this year that caught your eye?/

Best Friends was the winner of Best Modern Day Game (2007) at

I came home from GenCon this year with a laundry list of games to play: Shock, Agon, Hero's Banner, Best Friends, Contender, Primitive. I was lucky enough to be a playtester for Shock, and I ran game of Agon pretty quickly — a one shot happening just post the disastrous Persian invasion of Greece — and played a game of Best Friends where the girl friends were double dealing freshmen Senators, but still have to get to the others. I am sad to have not managed to play Contenders on Boxing Day.

The three that I've enjoyed the most this year were three I got to play prior to Gen Con: 1001 Nights, The Shab Al–Hiri Roach and Mechaton. Meg Baker's game 1001 Nights is simply amazing. The setting drips with decadence and intrigue, distracting you from the deceptively simple mechanics that call into question many of the assumptions of what rules can do in a role playing game. The Shab Al-Hiri Roach came out early in 2006, and still shines as one of the best of the year to me. How can you go wrong in a game with a mind-controlling 1000+ year old cockroach? And you get more dice for revelling in your interests and excesses? Those three Bullypulpit Games publishers are ones to watch, no doubt.

Finally, Mechaton is fun on a stick. Lego robot battles, what more need be said? This was a good year for competitive games, looking back on my list most of them have some competitive element: Mechaton, Agon, Best Friends, Shab Al-Hiri, 1001 Nights. Shooting the Moon picked up on that trend too. Following in the footsteps of Tony Lower-Basch's Capes. Now that there are so many gm-alternative games out there, we are getting into the rich field of providing adversity through competition. Every card game in existence (well, most of them anyway) does it, why not rpgs?

There are games with relationships in them but none where it is the key issue. And here you come along with three - how did that come about?

It's kind of accidental. When I started working on Breaking the Ice I had a list of 4 or 5 games I was thinking about. I picked Breaking the Ice to do first because it seemed like the shortest and simplest to do. Though it's never simple! I am glad I started with a short one though, it gave me a chance to learn a lot about the craft with less pressure on me. It didn't have to be some kind of magnum opus, it's just a little game.

The other two got spun off from it because of the specific nature of Breaking the Ice. It's a two player game, so I thought it would be good to have a game to go with it that could be played by three people, hence Shooting the Moon. So odd numbered groups wouldn't have to leave someone out. And my third game... well, I guess I think I just got carried away with the whole relationship thing. Why relationship games? Let's just say I've given it a lot of thought over the years. We all have material from life we can write about, guess that's some of mine.

I've played one of your games and read the other, what's going to complete the trilogy, and do you have a direction for after that?

Breaking the Ice and Shooting the Moon are part of a trilogy of games called Three Quick Games about the Human Heart. Breaking the Ice is a romantic comedy about two characters who go on their first three dates, Shooting the Moon tells the (often tragic) story of a love triangle where two people try to gain the love of a third character that they both love, and the third will be Under My Skin, which deals with crossing lines in relationships and exploring the boundaries of friendship. In Under My Skin, the characters will be a circle of friends who start falling for one another outside of the already established relationships in the group. It will deal the "lint of love" (as the band Cibbo Matto puts it), the distance that can arise between people, and the fears and jealousies that can strangle intimacy. This will be one of those "intense" games.

After doing two games about relationships, I wanted to take a break so I wouldn't feel or get pigeon-holed. I'm working on my alien first contact game, Sign in Stranger. That is meant to be a very collaborative game for long-term play, so I'm finding it has challenges all it's own. After I finish SiS, I'll go back to Under My Skin and finish the three. Then it will be time for my classical Japanese game, City of the Moon. Julia Ellingboe is working on (the amazing) Get Away Jordan--a game about slavery in the US pre-civil war South. So now I don't have to worry about doing a similar game I had in mind. One more down!

You haven't been an indie publisher for very long and you've already got two games under your belt. What words of advice, or warning, do you have for any others who might be considering taking this step?

The main thing I learned is to give yourself plenty of time. The second game was much harder for me: so much more at stake somehow. It's easy to imagine that the first one was kind of a fluke. So, keeping up my determination and belief in finishing Shooting the Moon was harder. But it's totally possible. If you can do it once, you've clearly got it in you. But, boy do I wish I'd had more time to work on it. Maybe that whole finishing the degree at the same time thing was something I should have thought more about...

I'm tempted to ask you about being a woman designing games in what is still a male dominated hobby, but I'm not sure to what extent that is relevant to your experience, particularly with the indie scene seemingly more accepting. Is there something you'd like to say about this issue?

Thanks for asking. I've only received support from other folks in the Indie Gaming scene. And not particularly because I'm a woman, that I know of, but because I'm a friend and a colleague. It's been on my mind though, due to the relatively low representation. In my experience of role playing many of the most influential GMs and players around me were women. There are a lot of talented women out there who've been doing good work. Rebecca Borgstrom and Annie Rush come to mind and John Kim has put together a web site pointing out notable women in the field. It's odd that this isn't mirrored in the design world.

I hope it's not controversial to say that, rpg design and play culture is an extension of geek culture which has been male oriented, very white and extremely genre ghettoized. I am glad to see greater diversity creeping into the content of gaming, as well as the gender and ethnicity of designers. Horror, sci-fi, fantasy have been the defining genres of the culture and the games, they are what many communities have formed around and given all the products (games, films etc) an audience, but we are limiting the forms to think that's all that can be done. I love science fiction and fantasy as much as the next person, but I'd be sad if that was all literature consisted of. I'm glad that Ridley Scott made Black Hawk Down and Thelma and Louise, as well as Alien and Blade Runner. Diversity in designers and diversity in game are mutually reinforcing--as different voices bring different tales, new people are drawn in. Comics saw this transformation in the 90s, I'm enjoying seeing it happen in role playing games.

Thinking back on my experiences, the single biggest factor in my being able to complete my games has been the support and mentoring of others in my community. Without that I am 100% sure that it wouldn't have happened. Communities like the Forge have made it more possible for many people to do the same, of all genders.

Thanks for your questions, Steve!

So that was Gen Con Indy 2006, two years ago now. I also went to Gen Con in 2007 and hope to return this year, maybe even with a game of my own. Given the swell of creativity, it's hard not to get carried away with it all. In many ways I'm reminded of the punk movement in the 70s. All you needed to form a band was instruments and the three chords printed on the front of Sniffing Glue, the fanzine of the moment. With PDF publishing, IPR and other fronts for indie games, all you need is a personal computer and a bright idea. In paper format I own games about failing conspiracies, cruelty to animals, cavemen, the Polish resistance, monsters under the bed... In soft copy, well, I'm not sure I could even count them all.

Back in 2006, I hinted to Brennan that we might be reaching some kind of plateau in indie game design, perhaps a saturation of the market or a stagnation in ideas. This doesn't seemed to have happened yet although there are perhaps now four times more indie games in print than there were back then. In fact, there are new models coming out for getting games published.

The traditional method for indie games is to write a game, playtest it with your friends and perhaps some internet contacts, scrimp around for art and then pay the printer. There are at least two new models that don't use this route.

The first is the ransom model, invented by Greg Stolze. He writes a game but instead of publishing directly he solicits donations. When the total donated reaches a preset threshold, the game is released for free. If the threshold isn't reached, the donations are returned and the game shelved.

This works for Greg because he's a trusted name who has already delivered many mainstream games but I've also seen it work with less well known authors, notably in the smaller French market. And I'm not sure if a ransom game has yet failed to reach the threshold.

The second model is the Ashcan. This has been championed by Paul Czege and they had a Gen Con booth to themselves last year. The idea is that games that are at a decent stage of development are published in cheaper formats. Then anyone who buys and plays them is encouraged to report back to help the author iron out the kinks, finish off the game and bring it to a wider audience.

The other big news for the indie scene is that two of the more succesful designers, Jared Sorenson and Luke Crane have been hired by Peter Adkison's Hidden City Games to design a game known only at this point as Project Donut. Whilst mainstream games have been influenced by some of the development of indie games, this is the first time that the talent in the underground has been used directly. It's a sign not only of the skill of indie designers but also that the mainstream recognises and is prepared to pay for that skill. Some invidious individuals might see this as selling out, but I think it means that indie is coming of age and reaching a bigger market.

I think it will be also interesting to look at the new 4th Edition D&D coming out later this year to see whether any indie concepts have crept into the design. Whilst the main focus will be creating a game that works equally well in table top as it does over the Web, I wouldn't be surprised to find that the new awareness of and interest in game design that has accompanied the indie explosion has even reached this pinnacle of the gaming world.

Steve Dempsey, a long-time contributor to and editor of the Zine, has been bitten by a mutant-radioactive indie RPG. The long term effects of this remain to be seen.

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