In the first part of my (entirely-subjective) review of NecronomiCon Providence 2019, I tried to capture some of the overall impressions I had of Providence and the convention overall. One of the key observations in that overview was that in many ways NecronomiCon felt to me a lot more like multiple concurrent conventions — a literary/HPL conference, a game convention, a trade show, and a bunch of affiliated weird-fiction-y events and performances. Given this general impression, it’s probably worth diving into a description of how each of these different parts worked in practice. In this post I’ll try to cover all the game-related stuff.
I should state at the outset that (as should be obvious from this blog) my primary interest in weird fiction these days is in its potential to fuel great gaming experiences. I am interested in HPL and his fiction, but the literary criticism angle and discussion of new weird fiction writers is less my thing. Hence, my view of things will be a little skewed towards the gaming side of things, although I spent time dipping into both aspects of Necro19. The other thing I should highlight is that, clearly, my impressions are going to be idiosyncratic and based on the games/panels/events I was able to attend (which was only a subset of what I would like to have seen, and very much a tiny proportion of what was on offer over the 4 days) — so keep that in mind.
When The Working Gets Weird
Before I launch into a description of the gaming aspect of NecronomiCon, I really should spend some time talking about WeirdWorks. If you aren’t familiar with this (non-commercial) association of amateur-creatives/small-scale horror publishers, it’s a wonderfully broad and diverse group of people who throw around ideas for gaming projects, trade information about industry trends, incubate collaborative efforts, and the like. The group also have a strong association with NecronomiCon, being formed largely as a collection of like-minded folks who wanted to release a zine at NecronomiCon 2017. I wasn’t a part of any of that, but I’ve been loosely kicking around with the WeirdWorkers for a while.
At Necro 2019, WeirdWorks upped the ante a bit: not only did a bunch of WeirdWorkers band together to make another zine (Hypergraphia Issue #2) to debut at the con, but the group hosted a networking event on Thursday afternoon, just prior to the official convention opening. This was an open event which any curious conference-goer could attend to chew the fat about the process of creating weird-fiction games. Because I had been corresponding with the WeirdWorks folks for quite some time, I was quite familiar with many of the active members including the WW event organizers Charles Gerard and Matt Puccio. Of course I had never met *any* of the WeirdWorks folks in person (since hardly anyone is in my part of the globe), so attending this event — to put faces to names — was an absolute must for me.
Even beyond this personally satisfying aspect of the WeirdWorks function, there was another cool aspect to the event — getting signed up for their convention meta-game “Rock, Paper, Cultists!” All registered players were issued with free decks of cards which could be used to challenge other signed-up folks to a simple game (each pick a card from their deck, compare cards using rules printed on the card back, winner takes both). The idea behind it was to encourage folks to chat with other convention-goers … and from what I can tell this worked pretty well. I saw quite a number of folks playing this game all the way through Necro, with a few collecting vast quantities of cards.
The Gaming Hall
The heart of the gaming side of NecronomiCon is the gaming hall, located on the top (18th) floor of the Biltmore/Graduate Hotel. Most of this floor is set up as a single open ballroom with views out over most of Providence. It’s a stunning place to do some gaming, especially if you happen to be in a session around sunset. The gaming hall is filled with a large number of round tables, each big enough for a gaming group of 7 or 8 players. When it was busy — which was most of the time — this was a noisy place to be, with the tables being close enough together that ambient noise spilled from all the surrounding tables to yours. While this isn’t ideal — and definitely strained my voice when I was GM for a couple of sessions — this same issue affects pretty much every game convention I’ve been at, and at least the Biltmore hall had some soft surfaces to absorb some of the sound (as opposed to lots of convention centres where blank concrete surfaces reflect and amplify sound into a wash).
In addition to the open area, the 18th Floor has a number of smaller enclosed rooms along one side of the hall — these seem to have been booked for games sponsored or run by Chaosium. I didn’t personally get to game in those spaces, but they likely would have been quieter.
Gaming sessions at Necro were organized into a programme of sessions that GMs had previously nominated. The scheduling of sessions was based on some general preferences for days and time (morning vs afternoon), but was (necessarily, I guess) independent of all other streams of activities at the convention. This meant that my own two sessions (a 4-hour Dateline: Lovecraft game on Friday night and a 2-hour Convicts & Cthulhu game on Saturday night) clashed with other popular things that *I* wished I could go to as well. I guess that’s just how things go. This year for the first time, NecronomiCon convention-goers who wanted to book into game sessions could do so using a third party website. Bookings were free of charge, but you needed to register on the booking website and lock in a seat for the sessions you planned to attend. A lot of the sessions by more popular/well-known GMs sold out within an hour or so of going live (several weeks before the convention). But quite a number of sessions, including one of mine, only partly filled up and even supposedly “full” games often had people who failed to show up — so if you’re keen for a particular game it’s worthwhile lurking around at the time it’s scheduled to start, just in case a place frees up.
In addition to the scheduled games, the gaming hall is set up to allow people to also create ad hoc (“pickup”) games by speaking with the minions and finding a free table at any time. I think there was also a library of boardgames that groups could book out for sessions, too.
All the game sessions I ran or played in went really well. Both sessions I GMed had surprising players — two out of three of my Dateline players had never played Call of Cthulhu before (one had never played an RPG before); two of my Convicts players turned out to be ex-pat Aussies living in exile in the USA! I was also fortunate enough to play in a World War 2 era scenario which featured a mysterious German U-Boat that had spontaneously appeared in a Scottish Loch. This mind-bending scenario was written by an author whose work we hope to soon feature on Cthulhu Reborn. In the dying hours on the very last day of the convention I also managed to inveigle myself into a game of Cthulhu Dark (a scenario from Hypergraphia #2, run by the author no less!)
Panels About Gaming
Aside from the very active gaming hall, there was a small amount of game-related content buried away in the programme of NecronomiCon panel discussion/presentations. If I am being honest, this was the only truly disappointing element of the convention programme, not because of a lack of interesting speakers but because of the commercial focus of most of the panel topics.
Some of the gaming panels were held in smaller rooms in the Omni hotel (on Level 2) with others held in larger spaces (ballrooms) in the Biltmore/Graduate. All up there were six gaming-related panels at NecronomiCon 2019:
- Creating Historical Settings for Call of Cthulhu (Saturday; panelists Lynne Hardy, Mike Mason, Oscar Rios, Christopher Smith Adair)
- Victory at Home and Beyond: Investigators for Social Equality (Saturday; panelists Gwen Callahan, Charles Gerard, Lynne Hardy, Andrew Leman, Jeffrey Moeller, Nicholas Nacario, Oscar Rios)
- A Taste of Ashes: DELTA GREEN (Sunday; panelists A. Scott Glancy, Daniel Harms, Kenneth Hite, Shane Ivey)
- Cosmic Horror of the Warhammer Universe (Sunday; panelists John Goodrich, Niels Hobbs, Nicholas Kaufmann, Mike Mason, Molly Tanzer)
- How To Game The Weird (Sunday; panelists Fiona Maeve Geist, Dan Harms, Kenneth Hite, Shane Ivey, Badger McInnes, Sandy Petersen)
- Favorite Call of Cthulhu Scenarios (Sunday; panelists Sean Branney, Paul Fricker, Jon Hook, Mike Mason, Matthew Sanderson)
Having been to more than my fair share of game convention panels, I have come to appreciate that there are two general categories — panels which exist primarily to promote the selling of game books, and others that aim to promote an exchange of ideas intended to educate or be thought-provoking for the audience. The former are great if you are unfamiliar with a particular game or game setting and want to hear some of the creators share some broad descriptions of what they think is great about their creation. The latter are great if you are already acquainted with the game/setting but want to hear panelists challenge one another with different ideas to explore the defining ideas in new and interesting ways. I have come to learn that game publishers greatly prefer the former type of panels (since they see them as a vehicle for snagging new recruits to their game and thereby selling books). On the other hand, as someone who tries to stay informed about all the different Lovecraftian RPG product lines that are out there, I really prefer the latter.
Even in the lead-up to NecronomiCon 2019, when the schedule of panels was published, I suspected that I would be out of luck when it came to seeing thought-provoking panel discussions about RPG lines. This was confirmed by the one session I *was* able to attend — the Saturday panel relating to historical settings, which had some great panelists, but was clearly limited to discussing product-lines currently being sold by Chaosium and Golden Goblin Press. I would love to have heard the same folks talking about the topic more generally (e.g., the challenges of creating game scenarios for entirely original times and places), but that was plainly not the intent of this session. I am hopeful that some of the other sessions were more educational/enlightening — certainly the inclusion of the impressively erudite Kenneth Hite on a couple of them would have upped the odds of that kind of discussion breaking through.
Another somewhat gaming-related session that I was able to attend was the lunchtime “battle” between two of the leading podcasts of the Lovecraftian RPG world: the Miskatonic University Podcast vs the Good Friends of Jackson Elias. This was a fun session, with both teams of podcasters up on a stage engaging in a series of semi-serious/semi-mock debates on a range of gaming-related topics. I’m not sure that any of the debates really settled anything (even the weighty question of whether Dunwich Horror’s Prof Armitage was a hero or villain), but it was a fun hour regardless (audio recording here).
The Vendor Hall
As I mentioned in the convention overview in part one, another very active part of NecronomiCon 2019 was the promoting and selling of Lovecraftian-related items in the Vendor Hall. This was a large open space (a vast ballroom) on the ground floor of the Omni Hotel. Packed into this large room was a veritable treasure-trove of weird horror-related swag. I spent quite some time trawling through the several rows of vendor tables looking at the impressive diversity of things on sale. There were definitely a lot of weird-fiction related books being sold, but also a fair number of game publishers had tables offering their recent products (Chaosium had a sizeable one, as did the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society; Arc Dream and Squamous Studios both had smaller tables; strangely Golden Goblin Press was entirely unrepresented in the vendor hall). Aside from games and fiction books there were lots of T-Shirts on sale, as well as physical props and DVDs of H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival highlights. There was undoubtedly a lot of other weirdness that defies categorization as well.
There were three particular highlights for me in the vendor hall. One was dropping by and meeting the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society guys (Sean and Andrew). I have been a big fan of their work since their earliest days producing physical morsels of weirdness, and have corresponded a little with Andrew sharing prop-making tips (aka being eclipsed by his vast experience in the domain). So it was great to meet the guys in person. Unfortunately I couldn’t buy anything from their stacks of amazing products, since I already owned (or had pre-ordered) one of every item on display. Well, that’s not quite true — I did buy one of their amazing replicas of Lovecraft’s literal “back of the envelope” outline for “At the Mountains of Madness” (pictured nearby).
Another highlight was meeting the Squamous Studio guys — Badger and Damon, who I had also corresponded with a little bit over the years. Damon was especially keen to get me into a round of his new card game “Arkham Relic Hunt” (which is still on Kickstarter, with a few days left to go at the time of writing). The game is a very fast-paced exercise in exploring various locations around Arkham to discover relics/spells which you can use to snipe the other players who are engaged in exactly the same mission. It’s anarchic fun, which has the potential for a lot of “hey let’s all pile up on player X” type action. Badger and Damon thoughtfully let me be “player X” in this scenario … for pretty much the entire time I was playing at their table. But despite all that kindness I still didn’t get the lowest final score (thanks to some last minute luck and perhaps skill). Anyway, it’s a game I’d definitely recommend checking out on Kickstarter if rapid-fire competitive play is your thing.
The last of the vendor hall highlights for me was dropping by the table run by Jason Thompson, famous for his graphic novel version of HPL’s Dreamland tales as well as creating one of the most amazing maps of the Dreamlands. (He’s also the talent who drew an impressively-huge number of popular “walkthrough” map/posters for classic 80’s D&D modules and even for the classic “Haunting” scenario featured at the back of virtually every Call of Cthulhu rulebook edition). Unbeknownst to me prior to NecronomiCon, Jason has recently been developing a Dreamlands RPG which aims to differ from previous gaming depictions in that it aims to capture the wonder and whimsy of the Dunsanian/Lovecraftian dream cycles as much as the nightmarish aspects. The new RPG is designed such that most of the gameplay takes place in the Dreamlands. The mechanics, as described to me by Jason, focus on the power of words and memories as resources that dreamers can spend to influence their dream experience — but if anyone spends *too many* they risk losing the very memories which tie them back to reality. Jason ran three sessions of his game in the Gaming Hall but unfortunately all were at times when I was either busy elsewhere or actually running my own games nearby — so I never got to see this new Dreamland RPG in action, but it sounds pretty interesting. Definitely something to watch out for when it gets released (or Kickstartered).
Watch This Space
In the third and final part of this NecronomiCon wrap-up, I will attempt to try to capture some personal impressions of the literary and biographical parts of the convention … as well as the ever-important “extracurricular” aspects (including the weird prayer breakfast and the surreal Dunwich picture show).