PAX Unplugged: Welcome Home

I don’t particularly like board games, but I love me some PAXs, so it was a no-brainer to get down to Philadelphia for a brand-new PAX–PAX Unplugged–in spite not being a fan of the card and cardboard style. I’m certainly familiar with the material and, with the backing of Penny-Arcade, I knew it would be an excellent show. You Shall Not Pass Go’s Cengiz and I were also fortunate enough to be granted press passes to afford us the opportunity to represent Geekade and check out the latest and greatest games for the fans of the analog mediums and I’m here, reporting back about all aspects of the landmark first PAX Unplugged.

It was quiet.

Surprisingly tranquil. Relatively.
Surprisingly tranquil. Relatively.

(It wasn’t actually quiet.)

Coming after almost a decade of ever-inflating comic cons, the low roar of PAX Unplugged was comparatively quiet, and that was not at all unwelcome. The focus was on paper-based mediums, sometimes accompanied by little wood figures or small plastic bits, and the interactions occurring were between face-to-face humans, as opposed to between Man and the bright lights and blaring sound of a screen attached to a controller, console, or PC. The volume level was a pleasant din of thousands and thousands of people reading rules, discussing scenarios, rolling dice, and comparing numbers. The Unplugged descriptor was apt, I knew, but when it comes down to meeting around a table, cracking a fresh Player’s Handbook, and immersing yourself in a world created by a new or old friend, there’s no need for booming orchestral scores or blaring techno synth tracks or representatives with LED glasses and bullhorns. In fact, if it weren’t edging on winter, most of this con probably could have occurred without power at all.

Cengiz and I got a fair sampling of all manner of board and card games. We tried the competitive/cooperative Emergence board game, in which you’re on a team to collect resources in a computer-themed environment, but you do not know which players are fighting for your cause and which are working against you, as the mechanics are the same for both sides but the end goals are different. After a small learning hump, I found I enjoyed the experience, even if I certainly was far from mastering the concepts.

Shiba Inu House!
Shiba Inu House!

Quite apart from Emergence, we were easily captivated by the large plush Shiba Inu dog seated securely atop a life-sized cartoon dog house in the midst of the show floor, and opted to find out more about the attached Shiba Inu House card game. An all-ages game, players were charged with forming hands from identical decks of cards each containing roofs, walls, and smiling pups into Shiba Inu topped dog houses matching that round’s example card. Simple enough for small children, I still found it fun despite being an adult man.

Crowns of Aragon
Crowns of Aragon

Later we tried Crowns of Aragon, a card game for two players with a theme of medieval castles and towns. Players took turns building up their sides of the board with cards representing different political, economic, and military resources and each round measured the shift in the balance of power between them. Cards could also add or destroy other cards, adding a layer of strategy and removing the potential for the game to be too unwelcomely straightforward. I will say I didn’t think I would like this game, only to emphasize the fact that indeed I did enjoy it, which is certainly a pleasant surprise.

H1ntegers the card game.

Shifting tone wildly once more, I was literally pulled into a game which seemed quite absurd on the outset. H1ntegers (pronounced ‘hintegers’) was essentially Guess What Number I’m Thinking Of: the card game. How can that possibly work? Spoiler: it works just fine! Each player takes a turn where they are presented with two category cards, and then must issue a broad hint, such as “Lord of the Rings” or “Star Trek” or “planets” and with only that concept in mind, must then play a card with a number on it matching the number played by the hint giver. It may have to be experienced to be understood, but it’s good too.

Knuckle Sammich
Knuckle Sammich

We didn’t play anything we didn’t like. Knuckle Sammich was a card game where each round finds you with a different card with a different kobold adorning it, complete with a different action such as sniffing another player to see what flavor they are, or claiming a sammich token, or feeding a sammich token to the dread King Torg. I personally found it a little bit tricky to pick up initially, just due to the glut of humor and antics, but funny, adorable art and absurd concepts reeled me in.

Debilitating social anxiety aside, I would have liked to have gotten to sample a tabletop RPG, and such a thing would absolutely have been possible, considering the crowd, but Cengiz and I were shocked to find how fast and how booked the officially-run sessions were. And that is wonderful.

Being old pros at running a massive tabletop arena at PAX Prime West, East, South, and Aus, things were structured well, with a central booth for sign-ups, boards displaying games and times, and attendants ready with materials. There may have just been surprise constraints on interest and space. We were told, as we sauntered down seeking an evening session, that everything had been booked since only a little after opening, and being in the spirit, we didn’t mind, because it was so heartening to be among so many pen-and-paper RPG fans.

Later, I discovered people had been granted the modules to go off and pull up a food court table or a corner of the convention center hallway, just because they really wanted to play an Adventurer’s League session and you probably couldn’t swing a broad sword without cutting down half a dozen seasoned Dungeon Masters in that place, so game-mastering was well in hand. I didn’t participate in the session I stumbled upon in an outlying hallway, as even the most brisk character creation efforts always take far longer than anyone anticipates. But again, it’s critical to point out, in case anyone is uninitiated, that can be half of the fun. Creating your character is an integral portion of any role play scenario, and the excitement I witnessed as decisions were made about being wizard or bard, and what spells or songs would inevitably be played, was very close to as exciting as seeing the game get played. And that’s exactly where I was off to before the hallway cadre got started.

I love tabletop pen-and-paper role playing games. I do not play tabletop pen-and-paper role playing games. (My life has a core theme of contradictions.) For me, Looking for Group has proven a problematic endeavor and nowadays time commitments are hard for all of my friends and it just doesn’t seem to happen. Fortunately, there was a bit of a revolution that snuck up and exploded in the way of Live Play, almost sort of performance art Dungeons and Dragons, which I would argue was launched with the quiet beginnings of the first Penny-Arcade/Wizards of the Coast Acquisitions Inc. podcast (either that or the first live session in that tiny downstairs PAX East theater). They weren’t prepared for how many people would be clamoring to get into that little, out-of-the-way space, and the exponential increase in interest has continued to shock both the PA crew and the venerable Chris Perkins, DM to the Stars, ever since. I must imagine it’s like guys named Frank seeing Bruce in concert.

The Boss. Chris Perkins of Wizards of the Coast.
The Boss

It’s like a five-year-old on their first Disney World trip. I’ve never felt like I can properly impress upon people my experience of watching an Acquisitions Inc. game. I laugh! I cry! But no, really. To start, it will never lose its bemusing elation that I would ever, let alone on multiple occasions, sit in an auditorium, with set decorations, costumes, lights, cameras, directors, sound engineers, live-streaming, and celebrities on a stage playing Dungeons and Dragons to thousands of laughing and cheering fans across the world. If you’d told me that as a child, I would have just been like “Maaan, what the f*ck is an internet?” but I guess that’s beside the point.

Friday night, one, possibly two award-winning authors (maybe two, this article is not fact-checked) with an acclaimed YouTube streamer, award-winning costume designer, and, just for the sole reason of pulling the most surprising bullet off of the resume, a former Miss Oregon USA, sat down and played three hours of completely improvised Dungeons and Dragons and ran me through the gauntlet of laughing harder that I’ve laughed in months to experiencing real edge-of-seat concern and fear that one of these characters, who I had only really met an hour or two prior, might not make it home in the end. And that is basically magic. And it was a gathering. (But not ‘the Gathering ™’…nevermind.) They’ve been adventuring for well over a year, under the Dice Camera Action banner, and I’m very excited to have their archived adventures to dive back into and catch up on.

And then Saturday was the Acquisitions Inc. crew, continuing their eleven-year runaway success of a campaign (and merch program). By now, there are admittedly expectations of the group: hilarity, cleverness, and tying into the latest campaign setting from Wizards of the Coast. But Chris Perkins can always be counted on to keep the players and the viewers on their toes. It may not track. I may be biased. And you may want to avoid this spoiler, I don’t know. But trapping the group and turning them into eight-year-old children might have been the funniest thing I’ve seen all year.

And these people are not trained in sketch or improv (again, admittedly not fact-checked). They’re artists and authors, which are creative endeavors to be sure, but they’re just natural talents in comedy and snark and, when it comes to Patrick Rothfuss, rule-bending. They just come to the table and put on the best damn show I’ve ever seen. They just do it. And they keep doing it. And it’s just the best.

I dove headlong into going to conventions, with my first being PAX East 2010. I possibly did not even fully appreciate how far off the deep end I was diving, since I had no frame of reference to work from. But it was amazing and I’ve gone to a problematically high volume of anime, video game, and comic cons since. I’ve met a lot of incredible people, made amazing friends, and had fantastic times. It looks like they don’t say it anymore, which is too bad, because PAXs used to simply say “Welcome Home” and that tagline still fits, perhaps now more than ever.

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