PAX Unplugged is mere days away so here’s a quick primer to capture my approach to the con as well as some of the events where you might run into me.
Last year, PAXU was my first full con experience and it was an overwhelming weekend. PAX Unplugged illuminates how massive and wide-ranging the tabletop hobby is. I went looking to play some fun indie RPGs like Masks and Monsterhearts 2, and realized that those offerings are a small slice of what’s available among the board games, card games, LARP, mainstream RPGs, panels, and products. It’s easy to get bowled over by the amount of options and not know where to find the games you seek.
I had great luck last year stumbling into games, and by the end of the third day I felt like the spiderweb was finally starting to make sense. Here’s what I learned:
Caveat: I’m coming at this with a specific focus on indie RPGs and PAXU is a con with a lot of different people doing a lot of different things for a lot of different audiences. Chase what you're after.
Get Good Games
Your main gaming opportunities live in three phases and they’re all sort of run independently.
Phase 1 - The Daily Queue
First up is the daily queue which opens at 9am in RPG HQ (Room 119B) . This is where you sign up for all the games that are featured on the PAXU official schedule. Last year I only got into one game this way because these fill up quick. The good news is that these aren’t all the games being run, the bad news is that it’s not obvious where the other games are. My very abbreviated pitch on the official schedule is to check out any of the Magpie games that are available but fade anything else.
Phase 2 - Games on Demand
The second place to look is Games on Demand (room 115C). This is easily where I had my best gaming experiences last year, with games of Monsterhearts 2 and Blades in the Dark. The way it works is they run a first-come, first serve queue every two-hours. Volunteer GMs have two different options that they’re ready to run. When you get to the front of the line you pick which game you want to play. It’s either going to be a 2 or 4 hour window, and the GoD requirement for GMs to bring 2 different options is a clever filter to make sure the GMs are flexible and ready to listen to their players. I don’t have enough space to say what a great job the GoD volunteers do. They put in a lot of work to make this magic happen. If you’re completely lost about what to do at PAXU, I’d say hit up Games on Demand. I recommend grabbing a friend and jumping in the queue early with a mini game to pass the time. I’m bringing Mechs into Plowshares.
If you’re dying to find a specific game, here’s a schedule of what’s going to be on offer at GoD throughout the weekend.
Phase 3 - Everything Else
If you’re not able to get into a GoD game then your third option is the wild west of on-the-fly and off-the-books games. I had good luck with GoD last year, so this is the area that I have the least knowledge on. It’s also made up of the most moving parts. After the main queue first thing in the morning, that same space (Room 119B) turns into a LFG (looking for group) station for the RPG Freeplay rooms. There will probably be a handful of signups in that room throughout the day, so if you don’t have anything else going on, it’s worth checking out to see if something grabs your interest. A bunch of RPG Freeplay games with open spots have also been reserved here. My experience of the Freeplay spaces last year was that it’s mostly a way for folks to grab a table if they’ve already set up a game with folks they know. This means that finding one of these games requires being a bit proactive. My advice is to act early and see what’s available. See if there’s anything happening on Twitter, hit the expo hall and see if anyone is running demos. If nothing turns up, take the chance to eat something and recover, grab a budget buddy and shop around in the expo hall, or check out the super rad & retro Alexandria RPG Library (Room 119A). Before too long there will be another GoD line to jump into. One last note here: apparently there’s also an LFG section in the main expo hall. I had no idea that existed last year so I don’t know how it works. It’s possible that it’s more board game focused.
Pitching the Panels and Showcases
The best thing about PAX Unplugged is the opportunity to play a bunch of games live at the table with rad people. The second best thing about PAX Unplugged is getting those rad people to tell you what they’re really fired up about in gaming. Here are the conversations I’m most curious about:
Lesbisnakes, Orcs, and Vampires: Who are TTRPGs Monsters?
Everybody loves monsters and I’m definitely looking forward to this panel which will look at new ways to think of monsters both creatively and critically. The panel will also discuss queerness, ethnicity, and gender in narrative and role-playing contexts.
Audience Participation: To Serve Her Wintry Hunger
I wrote an entire post about this audience participation playthrough from PAXU last year that you can check out. Or you can just take my word that this is a good time. It’s late in the evening so it’s a nice way to close up your Friday in the convention center.
Beyond Tolkien: Queer & Non-Euro-centric Worldbuilding
Another panel highlighting queer and POC creators with a focus on worldbuilding. Hoping this conversation will help shake up some of the assumptions about imaginary worlds.
Two big blindspots that I’m working on are what’s going on with LARP and Streamers. Planning to take in this panel to better understand the latter.
The Shared Language of Pro Wrestling & Tabletop RPGs
This panel was put together by friend and collaborator Jeff Stormer. He has a contagious enthusiasm in his work and great taste in other creators, so I knew this was a lock when he told me that it’s not just his dream panel, but it’s his dream group of guests.
In A Campaign Built For Two: Duet RPGs With Your S.O.
One of my highlights from last year’s PAXU was the panel on two player games featuring folks from Party of One, Heart Points, and Pod of Love. This year we have a similar panel, focusing on playing games with your babe, that I’ll be checking out.
Narratives with Numbers: Storytelling Through Game Mechanics
A big part of the draw for this panel is the opportunity to hear Stephen Dewey talk “under the hood”. Like I said, I’m a big fan of To Serve Her Wintry Hunger but I don’t know very much about how Dewey thinks about design. The panel also sounds like it will be looking at mechanics and numbers through the player lens, which I’m very curious to hear.
In addition to the panels I’m penciling in, there are two showcases that have my attention. Look I just really like hearing people talk about their games, and the showcases also allow you to play something new. There is a NYC Indie RPG showcase running on Friday 11am - 3pm and Saturday at 1pm in Room 117. I stumbled on a solid breakdown of the games and times in this twitter thread:
On Friday at 7pm there’s also a Philly showcase in Room 125. I have no idea what style of games are going to be featured, but it’s a good chance to meet some local designers
And That's Game!
That’s it folks; there’s my take on PAX U and some of the stuff I’m most excited about. Looking forward to a weekend full of great gaming and extra energy in my city. Hope to see you at the table!