I was fortunate enough to attend the inaugural PAX Unplugged with my wife this past weekend, and while I (quite wisely, we needed a vacation darn it) wasn’t attending in any sort of official CHG capacity I was still viewing the convention as a whole with a critic’s eye. So what worked, what didn’t, and would going yourself next year be worth it?
It’s nitty-gritty boring non-gaming stuff, but it’s useful information: there are a LOT of hotel and food options all around the convention center in Philadelphia. I’ve done every PAX East since that con started, and trust me, the only lamentable thing about its moving to the BCEC for year two and onward was the lack of both in easy walking distance. That’s gradually changing as Boston’s Seaport District gets built up, but it was nice to immediately have options here.
The Expo Hall? Well organized, decently easy to navigate even on the most-crowded day of Saturday, and chock full of interesting stuff. A lot of demos, explanations, meet-the-creator opportunities (hi Keith Baker!), and of course plenty of opportunities to get good deals on buying games, books, etc. There was a ton of Tabletop Freeplay space, tournament areas, a HUGE game library to rent from, and just places to sit and catch your breath.
Games on Demand. I’ve mentioned this group before (and been proud to join them a few times) but for the uninitiated they’re a volunteer group of GMs who ran (mostly) indie Tabletop RPGs all weekend. They were phenomenally successful, requiring Enforcer reinforcements to manage their line(!), and were quite widely mentioned in a positive light wherever I stopped to listen.
The panels were not many (more on that later) but what was there was quite good. We made it to three: an Evening with Patrick Rothfuss, Drawing the Line with Harassment in Gaming Communities, and Balancing Life and Tabletop. They were all either fun, informative, or a nice combination of both. The big live games definitely seemed to be a hit as well, if that’s your thing. We only watched the main Acquisitions Inc. game (from the comfort of our room, we had hit a wall), but it was a blast as always and the other games were well-talked-about.
The community! The Enforcers were great, a hard thing to be when dealing with a con where nothing is set in stone yet. The entire point of Unplugged was to give Tabletop gamers a space of their own, rather than having to share with (or be overshadowed by) video games. That was accomplished! Just the general vibe was welcoming, pickup games and friendly chatter were plentiful, and it was a great way to meet far-flung friends, some for the first time in person (Hi Leslie, Nicole, Kristine, Immanuel, Dan, Patrick!).
Lines. Liiiiiiiiines. They weren’t great. If you were keeping an ear to the ground then you probably heard the most about D&D Adventurer’s League lines, but this was a widespread problem, and there were a few factors. Chatting with some Enforcers, the various Theatres (of which there were only three) apparently weren’t organized to fully take advantage of the space, limiting some seating. On the same note Unplugged wasn’t using the entire convention center (fewer Theatres, fewer panels and events to spread people out, longer lines). There were some symptoms of just not being familiar with the space yet; as an example a line for a Joking Hazard signing in the Expo Hall didn’t really have anywhere to go, and immediately drew Enforcers who had to try and manage it for safety and convenience’s sake. Overall the Enforcers worked hard and things were tweaked and improved over the course of the weekend (better defined lines, better signage), but it remained an issue.
As mentioned above the biggest line issue was with D&D AL, and that just highlights a larger issue: roleplaying games were the little guys of the con, at least when it came to games being actually run by non-attendees. There was the previously mentioned Games on Demand, who ended up filling to capacity every time. The Role Initiative were running AL, and while they did what they could with what they had they were clearly overwhelmed. There were some singular games offered by folks like Chaosium and Arcknight, and a few companies demoing games (such as Greater Than Games and their new Sentinels RPG), but they were small in table number and were quickly gobbled up. All in all, not very easy to find a roleplaying game to play, unless of course you had some friends in place to run their latest acquisition. Not impossible, but not easy, and it usually involved a line.
How to Improve, and Should You Go?
If Unplugged returns to Philadelphia next year, the single biggest problem solver would be to net more of the convention center for the con’s use. There was plenty of space being unused or taken up by other events (there were some marathons in town, and a surprising number of criminologists about). Using more of the entire center could mean more Expo space (I heard that getting a space from a vendor perspective was a bit tight), more tables, and more attendees (which will help with lines IF not TOO many tickets are added).
The increase in size would join with an increased familiarity to hopefully ease the line issue. Enforcers and vendors alike will better know what they have to work with. Like I mentioned, I attended the first PAX East, and while nobody at Unplugged was wrong to complain I’ve seen worse. It took moving East to the BCEC and the crew then learning their way around the new space to ease that con’s horrendous line issues.
So those are largely naturally-occurring solutions: now that the show has a successful showing under its belt it’s likely to grow, and with room to grow in Philadelphia it’s likely to stay there and give the crew a use for their experience this year. But while that’ll all help the Role Initiatives and Games on Demands of the world by providing more space for and easier access to roleplaying games, some company-level input is going to be the real equalizer for the RPG space. If Wizards of the Coast themselves and such offer games, and if those who were running demos this year devoted more tables to it (GTG only had one for Sentinels so far as I could find), it would make a huge and positive difference. Hopefully Unplugged’s first show success will give them the impetus to.
So, if you’re thinking of going to PAX Unplugged next time, should you? My personal verdict: yes! We had a great time overall, even with the con’s growing pains being what they were. If it follows the same pattern as East did it’s only going to improve, and if it can keep from going too rampant it’ll remain a much more laid-back alternative to huge events like GenCon. Life permitting we’re definitely hoping to go back.
Thanks to everyone who made PAX Unplugged what it was, from the Enforcers to the creators to the panelists to the friends we got to meet. You’re all awesome, and I hope to see you again next time!
And a special tip of the hat to my wife Michelle, who was a damn trooper while being ~6.5 months pregnant and still rocking the entire con, including chasing down Pat Rothfuss for baby name advice. You’re the best, love.