GenCon, Storybricks, and the ENnies

My recent absence from this blog has a lot to do with the preparation for, travel stress attendant on, and subsequent exhaustion after (followed by a mild case of concrud) that I experienced upon attending GenCon recently, generally advertised as “the best four days of gaming.” This yearly gathering is perhaps best envisioned as the ALA Annual of the gaming world… with trolls.

The convention’s primary focus is traditional hobby gaming — board games, role playing games, collectible card games, LARPing, along with demos, tournaments, endless cosplay, and the release of the hottest new titles — with a significant presence of electronic games media alongside.

I attended the convention, in large part, to participate in the initial unveiling of Namaste Entertainment’s Storybricks. A new entrant into the electronic games arena, Namaste choose GenCon for the Storybricks debut, in part, to solicit feedback from people whose tastes were not necessarily for electronic gaming but who might be interested in nuanced role-playing of non-player characters such as that expected in tabletop games. The currently-available massively-multiplayer games have not touched this idea, yet tabletop gamers take it for granted in their own games.

The response we got was pretty amazing, and it is getting written about extensively in the games and technology arenas that follow MMO development and electronic gaming. (Joystiq’s Massively has a great article and they also caught my mug on camera. Did I mention how much I hate cameras? That’s me in the purple.)

My interest in the Storybricks idea extends largely to having done some freelance artwork for them to date, and I certainly don’t want to fail to disclose that interest to my readers here. If it were just another MMO being developed, I might not even have brought it up. But one reason I was so captured by the whole idea was in its potential for educators and librarians.

Imagine putting simple tools into the hands of people of all ages, to allow them to easily create quests and adventures, playable by oneself or that allow others to explore what you have written. Little Big Planet makes level-creation possible, but the focus of Storybricks is on story-creation with engaging characters who have personal lives and needs that extend beyond the obvious parameters of the game.

Talking to my fellow gamers at the convention, I saw so many people’s imaginations catch fire when they watched the demonstration we had for them. I can envision developing game programs in schools and libraries, using these tools to teach game design as well as how to make fictional characters and learn elements of plot development for story-writing. The educators I talked with during the con thought so too. Right now, the Storybricks concept is in the early stages of development — there is nothing yet to go out and buy — but I will be watching to see how things grow. You might want to as well.

More than 36,700 people attended GenCon this year, participating in GenCon’s 44 years of ongoing history and its deep roots in hobby gamer culture. At GenCon, the ENnies are awarded. Like the Hugo awards in science fiction circles, this is a fan-voted award with a focus on recognizing the best role-playing games and the associated products of the community that plays them. Thus, not only are there predictable categories for “Best Game” and “Best Adventure” but also categories for “Best Podcast” and “Best Website” and “Best Blog.”

Any public librarian worth her salt and engaged in game events should check out the list of nominations and awards. Not only are these the blogs you should have a gander at, but you should be conversant with the companies topping the charts, and the products people have voted up.

Many gaming librarians know about Dungeons & Dragons, of course, and maybe you know it is produced in recent years by Wizards of the Coast. (Props if you are more familiar with it as a TSR product from the old days.) But you should pay attention to companies like Paizo, whose bestselling Pathfinder RPG has the distinction of becoming the first fantasy role playing game to surpass the sales and popularity of D&D, which has dominated the field for 37 years. Fans argue whether Pathfinder is just what the latest edition of D&D ought to have been but the simple fact is that the torch has passed. (ICv2, responsible for the information in that link, is a specialty consulting firm tracking sales in comic books, anime, games and similar markets.)

I’ve written before about the value of face-to-face traditional fantasy role playing games (and more than once). There are benefits and challenges to running such games in a library setting, as I discuss in that second link, but the benefits of working in a small group, engaged in cooperative storytelling and a kind of live theater are considerable. It is well worth your time to learn what games are popular and see about bringing in this kind of material to your library.

Furthermore, just as your Collection Development people read a specialty magazine like LOCUS to find out what science fiction and fantasy books they need to fill out the automatic pre-orders generated out of house, a list of winning books and games like the ENnie awards should provide a hint about what books and games you should consider purchasing for circulation in the library.

Remember, I said over 36,000 people attended GenCon. Some of them are probably your neighbors, living in your community, coming into your library. They might not expect to find the top award-winning game books on your shelves, but why should they not? Production values in the game industry vary wildly, but many companies consistently produce first rate publications. If nothing else, consider the “Best Production Values” winners. It’s probably a good bet to look at the best cover art, interior art, and cartography award-winners too. No company will invest in lavish art budgets only to release a shoddy book out the other end.

Next year is GenCon’s 45th anniversary, and I understand there will be celebrations suitable for the event. If you are serious about games and gaming, this is an convention to attend if you can make it to Indianapolis in the tail end of summer. It’s not like the formal and sometimes stuffy professional events you might be more familiar with — these people are here to have fun and play. And while membership is a pittance compared to most library professional conferences, your status as a librarian or educator will get you in free or at a substantial discount. There are formal panel presentations and big name authors to listen to, and huge conference rooms of pick-up games with people eager to find someone new to share their favorite game. There are cosplayers for every genre around every corner. You will find charity events supporting School on Wheels, and the Gamers for Humanity, with their Family Game Library Program in partnership with local Habitat for Humanity chapters.

The vendors’ hall is arguably the heart of the convention, and no attendee fails to spend at least a day there. Unlike many vendor areas at more ordinary conferences, the attendees relish a chance to get their hands on the books, games, and miscellaneous things being offered by the sellers. The aisles are always insanely crowded, filled with attendees checking out the latest games, the new releases planned, an Artists’ Alley, a Writers’ Alley, the costume and dice booths, and the utterly unique t-shirt and jewelry shops alongside the sellers of anime and collectible action figures. Many of the well-known designers and game developers (and artists far more famous than me, like Larry Elmore) are right there on the floor to talk about what they’ve got cooking, and everyone is an insider.

It’s a tight community, the celebrities are numerous and accessible, and the heart of gaming beats strongly in Indianapolis in August. You might want to make it a working vacation next year. It’s definitely somewhere to get your game on, and to find out what the tabletop gaming hobby is really all about.



  1. […] been pretty out of it since coming back from GenCon. I talked a bit about GenCon in my Library Journal games blog, but with extra attention paid to librarian and educator considerations. Here I can relax a bit to […]

  2. […] in sales, reportedly surpassing WotC. Liz Danforth over at Library Journal has flat-out stated that the torch has passed. I think that for traditional fantasy role-playing, that might be correct. I like them both, but […]