PAX Unplugged returned to Philadelphia this year, marking the fifth time the convention has taken place. I was fortunate enough to attend this year, making it the third year I’ve managed to go. Before I begin, I want to take a moment to thank the organizers for a few things: One, for continuing to choose Philadelphia as the site. I think that the area and community are an excellent fit with abundant transportation, housing, and food for a bunch of tabletop nerds, along with a city that prides itself on inclusivity. Philadelphia has gotten some bad press as of late, but I never felt anything but safe and welcome as I walked through, to, and from the event space. Second, I want to thank them for the amount of logistics and cat wrangling it takes to get a group of tabletop gamers to do anything. My GMing has increased since my last visit to the convention, and with it so has my appreciation for the work that it takes to get this rolling each year. This year, the team made sure that getting through the door was about as pain free as possible despite requiring proof of vaccination along with the necessary ticketing and security checks for entry. So I absolutely want this convention to keep going.
I will begin with a caveat that my window for observation was far shrunk as opposed to previous years. My initial plan to have some level of presence over all three days hit a real world wall faster than I could have planned, and thus I was only able to attend in the afternoon of the first day. As such, this is more of a “quick hits and observations” kind of article, rather than a daily log or the detailed dive I have previously done. With that said, I have a few observations I can get into:
PAX Unplugged’s tabletop RPG presence appeared smaller than in previous interactions. This might have something to do with my last visit being (checks notes) back in the halcyon days of 2019. Oof. A lot has happened since then, most notably a worldwide pandemic and by extension what it has done to the gaming industry.
At my last visit Fantasy Flight Gaming had a large enough presence that they had prepared modules for three separate systems (The new at the time Clone Wars era books, Path of Waves supplement for L5R and Shadow of the Beanstalk), and Magpie had a strong contingent of games available for sampling. There was more, and some of it can be read in Seamus and I’s account of that visit. This time, there was nowhere near the same amount of organized and scheduled sessions. Games on Demand did exist, but I did not see the same variety available as previously. I had hoped to try something like Seamus’ visit to the Helios Conspiracy, but there was nothing of the sort available.
There are obviously contributing factors to this: COVID and the current economic climate has hit the industry like everyone else. In particular Fantasy Flight has had its RPG properties moved to EDGE Studios, who so far have been content to publish out the remainder of items in the pipeline and begin reprints.
That is not to say that there was zero push. Free League Publishing hosted a number of sessions of Blade Runner and The One Ring. Onyx Path Publishing and the local charter of the Winding Path Initiative hosted World of Darkness Games. However, there was a demand that outstripped the supply.
The new solution was to move all registration to the PAX Mobile App, which also functioned as the event schedule. This happened to solve the previous issues listed above, but led to one notable new one: that there was a mad rush to register for events the moment that they were unlocked at 8 AM the morning of. Within minutes, all potential games I was interested in and could attend for were filled.
I honestly do not know whether there is a perfect one size fits all solution to registration, but it definitely exacerbated the relatively limited sample size of TRPGs. As I mentioned, there were Games on Demand available, and some events required in person registration. This could be enough to bridge the gap going forward, and perhaps on later days it was less of an issue, but it stuck out in my limited time.
While that’s all I could make note of while moving at speed, I hope that I am able to make it in the future and go back to fleshing things things out. As I said before, I really like PAX Unplugged and I wholeheartedly endorse coming back for 2023.