Close to the Edit
Necronomicon 2003by Ross Winn
Close to the Edit
Necronomicon 2003by Ross Winn
This weekend I attended one of Florida's oldest and most established science fiction conventions. Necronomicon has grown from what was literally a few friends getting together for the weekend to one of the south's premier stops. Writers like Timothy Zahn and Lynne Abbey regularly come on down and just hang out, host panels and spend time with the fans and enthusiasts who make SF an amazing industry.
Previous guests of honor include Orson Scott Card and the late George Alec Effinger, and have run the gamut of SF fandom and literature. While no less respected, this year's guest of honor was a little different. Steve Jackson is simply the game designer's game designer. Having been an on and off resident and attendee in florida for the entire history of the show I had always lobbied for guests that crossed the boundaries from simply SF Lit, TV, Movies, and Art. Steve Jackson was definitely this. Starting out by publishing a small game about futuristic tanks on a post apocalyptic battlefield. Progressing to one of the foremost respected and established companies in the industry, Steve Jackson Games has a loyal following and a sterling reputation.
While gaming has always been a part of Necronomicon, gaming took center stage at this year's show. Almost a hundred and fifty different gaming events took place at this year's con, ranging from computer gaming, through cards, miniatures, boardgames, to roleplaying. For a small-time game developer and freelancer like myself it was a wonderful show. From all reports I have been able to gather it was just as much fun for those at the show not involved in RPGs.
The State of Anime
Saturday morning I was lucky enough to host a panel with artists Kitsune and M.C.A. Hogarth on the state of Anime. For those of you new to the term Anime is a general term for the animated films of Japan. While in the United States animated films are considered to be the almost exclusive perview of children, In Japan animated series commonly run on prime time television and deal with subjects from school-age comedy to extremely adult violence, crime, and sexuality. Related to Anime is the Japanese Manga industry. Manga are weekly comics, many of whom share the same characters with anime, whose circulation is more than five times that of the US comics industry and covers the entire socioeconomic spectrum in Japan. Even more amazingly, it does all of this with a static population about a tenth the size of the US.
There are some amazing things happening in anime today. Even if, like Ms. Hogarth, you believe that the health of anime fandom in the United States directly detracts from the range of titles produced for adults by American animators. This is a point of view that I cannot help but support and agree with, even though I love anime. More American adults could be exposed to the genre than ever before this year. The release of The Animatrix, Anime films based on and inspired by the blockbuster film, The Matrix, may well exceed sales for even the top two grossing Anime films previously released in the US, may well be the deciding factor in bringing anime from a boutique hobby to a mainstream force in the United States. These developments come on the heels of the release of Miyazaki's Spirited Away on DVD last year; a film that is loved as much by my five year-old as it is by me, even if for completely different reasons. For me Anime has always been attractive as much for its alien-ness as for its artistry. With spirited away the alien-ness was replaced by a feeling of familiarity and comfort. This was not an alien story by any means. It was a story I understood immediately and deeply. Seeing a story told by a completely different cultural perspective. Making the connections between folklore, mythology, culture, and a not-American viewpoint had always held a certain appeal. Again, spirited away was different. The almost universal appeal of the film helped greatly in its American success. It has also opened the way for other Anime more broad in its cultural appeal.
These two events, coupled with the release of some of the most compelling and culturally open Anime in years make this a very exciting time. What Anime is this? Last EXILE.
Last EXILE is the story of two young adults, Claus & Lavi. Friends for most of their lives, both lost their fathers in a Vanship accident. A Vanship is something like a cross between a tesla generator and an airplane. Claus & Lavi's fathers were legendary as the finest vanship pilot and navi(gator) team in memory. Now the two of them, Claus as the pilot, and Lavi as the navi, were building a reputation of their own. The story takes place on the world of Prestale. An alien place for many reasons, not the least of which is the Grand Stream. The Grand Stream is a permanent storm that separates the country of Anatore from the country of Dusis. These mortal enemies were some part of the cause of Claus & Lavi's father's untimely demise. That is, they were trying to fly across the Grand Stream in a vanship, something no one had ever done successfully. Only the vast warships of the Navy could do that, and even then there was considerable risk. One day Claus and Lavi receive a message tube that they must courier to one of the mighty naval vessels of the Anatore fleet. From their the two are plunged into the very center of events that could well mean the end of their world, or its salvation.
Last EXILE is is many ways the best Anime I have ever seen. The character designs are attractive, cute, sexy, strong, and more. The pacing of the show is perfect. The story is engaging, and the ending deeply satisfying. I found myself weeping, screaming, cheering, and counting the hours as to when the next episode would be available from my fansubber. You see Last EXILE only very recently ended in Japan. In the old days this would mean years before it would be seriously considered for release in the US. Now, Pioneer has already entered into an agreement to bring this series to the US. I was elated, because soon all of America will be able to share it. For now, it is available as torrent files, at the AnimeForever website. You'll need a BitTorrent client as well.
The State of Gaming
Later that morning I hosted a panel on the State of Gaming & What's New in Gaming. Our panelists included the aforementioned Steve Jackson, Steven Marsh (the editor of Pyramid ), Frank Fradella (formerly Cyber Age Adventures, now iHero ), Hal Greenberg ( Mystic Eye Games ), our own Jeff Cisneros (freelance), Frank Frey (Freelance), and myself again as host.
I started out by pissing off the guest of honor. Evidently I said something that set Mr. Jackson off. I felt very much like he spent the rest of the con walking away from me. With so many panelists (something I was aware of a few weeks before) I felt it very necessary to keep things moving, as it were. Over the course of the hour I asked: What was your favorite RPG product that you didn't publish or write? What was the favorite project you did work on or publish? Steve didn't like either of these questions. At one point he shot back asking what I thought was his best. I answered honestly. Not only did I think GURPS WWII was extremely well-executed and historically accurate, I also complimented him on seeing a possibility that no one else had. A straight WWII game had not been published since Behind Enemy Lines in the 1980s, and even that was a flop by all accounts. Anyway, Steve if I pissed you off I am publicly apologizing. I have been on and hosted a lot of panels and did not in any way mean to offend.
After getting past that part of the discussion with the help of the other panelists we discussed the d20 backlash. There were a few differences of opinion, but there was also some agreement. There is a d20 backlash going on. There is too much product out there, and not enough of it is good. It is extremely difficult to differentiate yourself in the d20 market. If you announce an Akkadian Chariot Racing d20 book, there is no small chance that there will be a competing product at release. Without a strong brand identity and some compelling game play, there is little chance of breakout, or in many cases break-even, success.
This is not unexpected. As the d20 market has expanded some products have clearly sold well and continued to do so. Clearly opportunities have been made and capitalized upon by savvy people. However the anecdotal "easy success" of these products has brought a lot of dross to the marketplace. For every excellent product there are two to four average products, and probably eight dogs. This is almost an exact analogy to the CCG situation a few years ago. People who should have known better were sure that if one magical card game could make a fortune, then five could make five, even if their game was bad.
Personally I think over the next six to twelve months there will be a lot of fallout. Even some smart market leaders are going to take it in the shorts. This correction will be harsh, though not as harsh as the CCG meltdown. Some companies may even emerge healthier. I think it is important to mention that the d20 segment should continue to be a force in the RPG market, but that new entrants will have a much higher bar to entry with both distribution and consumers.
Finally there are a lot of new and interesting RPGs on the market as electronic products. Games like Wushu ,FATE , and others are purely electronic. While hundreds of others support nearly every game system in print, even including quite a few that have been out of print for some time. The PDF RPG, for free or pay, is definitely here to stay. Hell, I even wrote on one, Action! System with Pat Sweeney and Mark Arsenault for Gold Rush Games !
Damn Fine Games
I played some damn fine games during the con and I thought I should mention them here as well. Friday afternoon I ran a game fusing my perennial favorite Cyberpunk 2020 with Wushu. It was a great success, I thought. All of the players were having a good time and I did too. Whilst playing I met John, Howard, and James and later in the weekend they introduced me to Drakon. Whilst playing I met John, Howard, and James, later in the weekend they introduced me to Drakon, a game that lies firmly in the classic "screw thy neighbor first" tradition from Fantasy Flight Games. Basically the players are a party that gets caught by a great old wyrm. They are told that one will be allowed to survive, and he who has the most gold wins. The players, fleeing for their lives and trying to get the most cash in a hurry, each either move or lay down a dungeon tile. Some of the tiles, well most of them actually, allow the players to do something when they enter it. Like f'rinstance shifting another tile. Most doors are one way. As they say on the FARK , hilarity ensues. It became obvious to me that while each of them had played this game many times and together, I was in fact doomed. So I spent the game making it as difficult as possible for any of them to win. As each player neared victory the others set on him like wild dogs. It was a fun time for all. Well, it was fun for me.
I also played the newest episode in the very fine Munchkin series from Steve Jackson Games. Munchkin, Star Munchkin, and now Munchkin Fu also put the players against each other while ostensibly working in the same group. While Drakon is a tile-based game with pieces, Munchkin is a card based game. What more can I say, I have strong Kung Fu. I won! While your kung fu could never be as strong as mine, the fun is infectious and I constantly found other players looking over over wondering what we were doing too have so much fun, while they were all feeding their souls to Yog-someone-or-other. Hey Steve, there definitely needs to be a Munchkin-thulu supplement.
The last game I want to talk about wasn't really a game. It is a game Accessory. Cyber Age Adventures was a cool company. Basically, super hero stories in prose (not comic) form. Recently Frank Fradella released a Tarot Deck with USGS. Frank Fradella's Adventure Tarot is cool. It is damned spiffy, comes with a book, a drawing mat, and cool art. Not only do I like it as a Tarot, I also love it as a story development tool. Later however I tried to play poker with the deck and (wait for it...) I lost seventeen dollars and killed four people (rim shot).
Did you say Papa Tiki?
Saturday night is commonly a night of debauchery at Necronomicon. I wanted to do my part and attempted to throw Papa Tiki's Undead Luau. Basically I have a collection of throwaway hawaiian shirts, a lot of liquor, cocktail parasols, and leis. What I was shooting for was putting a lot of depressed goth kids in bright colors aand feeding the free liquor. It was, as SlushGem described it, performance art. While ultimately a failure with only twenty attendees, I think that this could well become a tradition. Of course I think that any excuse for a poker game and cocktails is a tradition. Yet the idea of making those depressed, pale, little people just a bit happier is too appealing to ignore.
Although the name of the place has changed at least a dozen times, Necronomicon has been in the same hotel for almost all of its run. Strangely enough nothing has changed. The rooms haven't appreciably changed. The poor quality of the preparation hasn't changed. The shocked looks on the faces of the housekeeping crew when they open the doors in the morning hasn't changed. After what seems (depressingly) to be about twenty years of me attending the same things still irk me. The restaurant is perpetually understaffed, the bars close too early, and the elevators invariably break sometime Saturday. You would think that the prospect of packing a hotel to the brim would wake these people up, but it doesn't. They realize that we will come anyway. I can only hope that the new hotel that Necronomicon will move to in 2005 will be better. I don't think hope is a strong enough word, maybe pray!
Wrap it up, Sparky
Generally it was a great show. I played a lot of games, met some cool people, and had a lot of fun. I look forward to next year, just like I do every year! Many thanks to The Stone Hill SF Club for putting on a great show. Thanks to Steve Jackson, Gahan Wilson, Lynne Abbey, Tim Zahn, and all the guests. Thanks to AnimeMetro for some cool anime and j-pop programming. Most of all, thanks to all of the fans for coming out and celebrating our geekiness! Yahoo! See you next year.