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by Glenn McDonald

17 Aug 2008

More updates from GenCon:

I’m a total sucker for old-school, turn-based RPGs, like the first few videogame iterations of Dungeons & Dragons. In these games, you controlled a party of 4-6 characters, and would lead them in turn-based combat against the bad guys. That meant each character would act individually in turn—the elf fires his arrow at the orc, the wizard moves three squares and shoots a fireball at the troll.  Time crawled to a stop in these games. This was combat which in game time was resolved in seconds, actually taking an hour or more to play in “real” time, as you carefully executed each hero’s actions.

Promo art for The Continuum

Promo art for The Continuum

This is the kind of excruciatingly minute control that turns on a certain variety of videogame RPGers—like me. The new D&D games, like the otherwise excellent Neverwinter Nights series, move too fast for my old bones. I like the old-school approach. So I was psyched to check out a new game premiering at GenCon: The Continuum. A hybrid of sorts, The Continuum combines elements of turn-based RPG play with strategy wargames like Axis and Allies, along with a Collectible Card Game (CCG) aspect. I demoed the game in the main convention hall, and man-oh-man, am I sold. This game is going to get me in a lot of trouble, I can tell.

The cover of issue #1 of The Continuum's comic book

The cover of issue #1 of
The Continuum‘s comic book

The Continuum lets you control entire armies of 300-plus individual characters, each of which has its own stat block, equipment, etc. The CCG element comes in when you assemble your armies. You essentially purchase new and better combatants, much in the way you would purchase new cards in the digital version of a game like Magic: The Gathering. Your army becomes, in essence, your deck. What’s really cool here is that the game is entirely browser-based—it’s all managed via Flash animation, and the raw throughput of data they are managing here suggests they have a real design savant on staff somewhere. It’s nicely scalable, too. You can command various squads of up to 20 characters, or even your entire army as a whole, if you want to play quick and dirty. But—if you really want to—you can micromanage all the way down to the level of each individual fighter, commanding each in turn just like in the old days.

The Continuum just came out of beta a couple months ago, and already has a solid, global player base (you can play others online or go solo against the AI). The game has a very cool and compelling narrative chassis as well – check it out for yourself at

I spent a good part of the rest of the day attending various writers workshops and symposia (besides writing about games, I also occasionally write for them—I recently realized a lifelong dream by co-authoring a Dungeons and Dragons sourcebook, an advanced geek achievement I am proud of beyond all rational proportion).

A little bit of exposition in EVE Online

A little bit of exposition in EVE Online

There’s an interesting trend happening in this area. As the videogame industry continues its phenomenal growth, companies are starting to recruit science fiction and fantasy writers—and tabletop RPG game designers—to provide the narrative content needed for their rapidly expanding worlds. This is especially the case with MMOs, massively multiplayer online RPGs like World of Warcraft, Everquest, EVE Online, etc. One panelist, speaking at a workshop on freelance fantasy writing, estimated that every new expansion of a videogame RPG or MMO requires about 500,000 words of scripted dialogue to populate the conversation “trees”.

This writing used to be done by the coders themselves, or a small team of copywriters pulled over from the marketing division. And it showed. So the idea that the big companies are now hiring fantasy and sci-fi authors is a win-win for everyone. The games get more literate, and the writers have a new market. 

As always, the most fun to be had at GenCon is wandering the exhibit hall and people-watching. Or troll-watching, or stormtrooper-watching, or what have you. More pics after the jump…

by Glenn McDonald

16 Aug 2008

Hello from GenCon, the largest annual gathering of hardcore gamers in the world today. Founded by Gary Gygax, the inventor of a little something called Dungeons & Dragons, GenCon has long been the mecca of so-called “hobby game enthusiasts”—popularly known as D&D geeks.

I’ve been attending GenCon for several years now, to keep a finger on the pulse of contemporary game design, which I find endlessly fascinating. This convention—held every August in Indianapolis, Indiana—truly is the event horizon of gaming. Not videogames, mind you—although that is part of it—but games in a more fundamental sense. Card games, dice games, role-playing games, board games, pretty much any game you can think of that doesn’t involve sports or gambling.

So: A few quick hits and photos, and hopefully I’ll be able to blog in again tomorrow. One of the areas I’m tracking this year is general-interest, family-friendly board and party games. The games that, their developers hope, will supplant the moldy old stand-bys of Monopoly, Life, and Trivial Pursuit.

Talking with some of the exhibitors in the main hall, I’m getting a better sense of how the industry works. For instance, it usually takes about five years for a new game to even get a chance at cracking the retail shelves of big-box outlets like Wal-Mart or Target, or even the expanded game sections of bookstores like Barnes & Noble. Typically, a game has to move hundreds of thousands of units on its own merits, via online sales and specialty hobby game stores.

One such success story is Wits and Wagers, from the small Washington D.C. outfit Northstar Games. I played a demo on the convention floor with some other passing gamers, and it’s very fun indeed—an ingenious mash-up of trivia and Vegas-style oddsmaking. Wits and Wagers just recently earned enough success to get some coveted retail shelf-space at Target, and it won Games Magazine’s Best Party Game award last year.

Publicity art from Grey Ranks

Publicity art from Grey Ranks

On the other end of the spectrum, I spoke with Jason Morningstar, creator of the literary role-playing game Grey Ranks. A radically indie game project, Morningstar’s game is only sold online and via mail order, and is shipped, literally, from Morningstar’s living room. No wizards or lasers in this game. Instead, a player assumes the role of a Polish teenager during the 1944 uprising against the Nazis in Warsaw. Dark in tone and aesthetically sophisticated, the game deals with themes of adolescence, love, war and death. Grey Ranks won this year’s prestigious Diana Jones Award—GenCon’s equivalent to the Indie Spirit awards. My prediction: The industry will one day look back at this game—and its recognition at this year’s convention –- as a watershed moment, a turning point in which the RPG as an artistic form began to fulfill its potential.

Then, of course, we have the real fun of GenCon – people dressing funny. I leave you with a handful of pics from the Convention Center, after the jump.

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