Gen Con 2016: The Seminars

I found myself taking notes at all the seminars I attended at this year’s Gen Con, so I figured I’d put them here in case any of you are interested. They’re certainly not comprehensive notes, in some cases, because I wasn’t planning on reporting them. So I just noted the stuff I thought was especially interesting and that I didn’t already know.

Designing for the Cypher System (Monte Cook Games)

Monte Cook and company talked about designing products for the cypher system. Here are a few bits of advice that stuck with me:

  • Put specific cyphers in an adventure, cyphers that will shape how things happen. For example, an adventure with a barrier that must be passed might feature a phasing cypher.
  • Every good GM Intrusion should end with, “What are you going to do?”
  • Look at cypher limits (and the number of GM intrusions you use) as suggestions.
  • Sean Reynolds said designers shouldn’t worry about competing with MCG. For example, if you come out with a book of Western adventures for the cypher system, don’t worry that MCG will come out with a Western setting and outshine you. The customers will want both!

Monte also mentioned that 90-95% of the products from Monte Cook Games are the result of Kickstarter projects.

Cultivating Healthy Relationships With Publishers (Atlas Games)

Panelists: Jess Banks, Cam Banks, and John Nephew.

I wasn’t good at the note-taking at this seminar, so forgive me for not having much to share. (It was a good seminar!)

  • Atlas Games supports conventions by providing support in exchange for ad space.
  • Tools they use internally: Slack, Trello.
  • Playtesting can get their attention at Atlas Games, leading to design opportunities. They like helpful, interactive playtesters.
  • Jess likes chocolate. Send her some.

What’s Happening At Chaosium

Panelists: (left to right) Greg Stafford, Michael O’Brien, Neal Robinson, Jeff Richard, Rick Meintz, and (unpictured) Sandy Petersen. Also present were Todd Gardner and Mike Mason.

A lot of the talk involved reassurances that Chaosium has turned around its financial problems and is making things right with customers and professionals. Personally, I get the impression that this is true.

Here are a few more tidbits I caught…

  • Now when you buy a Chaosium book, you get the PDF free. (Love this news!)
  • Sandy Petersen was wearing an excellent shirt. The front showed the DOOM logo, and the back said, “Wrote it.”
  • For Call of Cthulhu playtesting, contact Chaosium’s “Cult of Chaos” (through Mike Mason, I believe).
  • Chaosium isn’t doing monographs anymore. They want to put more polish into what they work on.

Meet FASA Games

Panelists: Mary Harrison, Andrew Ragland, and Josh Harrison. Also present: Ross Babcock, Todd Bogenrief, Morgan Weeks.

The FASA crew talked about all their product lines:

  • Demonworld is a miniatures game featuring “shamanic humans vs dwarves.” FASA is now creating a Demonworld RPG. Most of the writers on Demonworld are women. The RPG will be based on the same system Earthdawn uses. FASA is hoping to have the Demonworld RPG out by Gen Con 2017.
  • Fading Suns has been around for a long time, and is my favorite (current) FASA game. New products in the works include Merchant League (which is mostly done) and several Noble Armada books. Fading Suns will also see a book called Where Shadows Lie (about dark evil things between the stars) and one called Rise of the Phoenix (about the empire).
  • 1879 is like an “earlier era Shadowrun,” a setting where magic has returned in the Victorian Age. The Player’s Guide is out now. The game has are Lewis Carroll tie-ins (such as orcs are called snarks). 1789 has a London sourcebook in the works, as well as a plot point campaign book.
  • Earthdawn: The latest edition has been out for a year. Some books were delayed.

Ross and Josh talked a bit about strengthening FASA. “We’re back to being like an indy publisher,” Josh said, mentioning that all of them also have day jobs. Ross is pushing for releasing more than one book per line per year; he wants to increase that to one per quarter, and eventually one per month.

Ross said, “FASA has returned from a slumber.”

Instant Adventure With Monte Cook

This is the second year Monte has done this amazing event. I went last year and loved it, so I was happy to drag my wife and son to it with me. (Spoiler alert: they loved it too.)

This year, Monte’s players were Bruce Cordell, Shanna Germain, Sean Reynolds, and Tom Lommel. The audience chose the following story elements, and Monte improvised an adventure around them:

  • Genre: noir
  • PCs: wizard mobsters
  • Where the PCs just came from: a PC’s daughter’s wedding
  • An ally: shady cop
  • The enemy: a priest

I can’t do justice to this event in words, so I’ll put a video here as soon as MCG releases it. Until then, enjoy this replay of last year’s event.

UPDATE: Here’s this year’s Instant Adventure seminar video…

Ken & Robin Talk About Stuff

I didn’t take notes on this one because Ken and Robin recorded it for an upcoming episode of their podcast of the same name. So go listen to that, when it comes out, and pretend you’re sitting right next to me!

Monte Cook Games Seminar

Invisible Sun

I took more notes in this one because Monte had big news: they’re releasing a new RPG called Invisible Sun. A Kickstarter for the game launches August 15, 2016, with a planned release timeframe of late 2017.

This is the introductory video MCG showed us at the start of the seminar:

And this is a video of the seminar itself:

Invisible Sun will ship in a complex-looking big black box. In addition to the game book, the box will contain “sooth cards” and apparently some kind of statue of a hand. The hand will be used in-game to hold a card. This will be a “deluxe game,” meaning not cheap. They don’t have a price yet, but mentioned that a past Monte Cook whopper, Ptolus, cost $120 ten years ago.

One thing Monte focused on was his intent to address the challenges of modern gaming with this product–such as players and GMs having busy schedules, players missing games, and players having different interaction preferences. Monte mentioned knowing players who don’t talk much at the table but enjoy the game on a deep (but quiet) level that they’re more comfortable discussing away from the table. Invisible Sun will support this in a number of ways, including its own smartphone app (in which the GM can send sooth cards to players) and the possibility of occasional one-on-one gaming.

In the world of Invisible Sun, the world that we as players know is called “Shadow.” It’s not the “real” world. The real world is hidden to most, and it’s called the “Actuality.” Sometimes, player characters feel the pull back to the shadow. This is how Invisible Sun will explain player absences–the player character has succumbed to the pull and vanished into shadow for a while.

The game will also feature a “directed campaign.” Players will tell MCG when their campaign starts. After that, the Invisible Suns website will have a new monthly offering for your campaign, which will be tailored based on input provided by the group of players. MCG will even send props in the mail to players! (The audience LOVED this.)

The game’s website (designed by Gnome Stew‘s Head Gnome, John Arcadian) is at Monte suggested we go there and look for secrets. The site will be updated daily until the Kickstarter begins (or ends, I forget which).

This is not a cypher system game, but it has similarities. Monte says that the system in Invisible Sun has a “different but similar core mechanic.” He mentioned that the system is very tailored to the setting, so it’s not designed as a general-purpose system like cypher. The game does have a GM intrusion mechanic; in Invisible Sun, they call it “complications.” These are usually associated with magic.

Invisible Sun’s system uses 10-sided dice. A zero is a failure. When a player is using magic, she’ll add a “magic die” (or sometimes more than one), and the magic die has a symbol in place of the zero.

Monte says you could describe the setting thusly: “It’s the Harry Potter books if they were written by Philip K. Dick.”

Miscellaneous notes:

  • The key word for the game is: surreal. (This–backed up by the images MCG showed in their introductory video–is what really grabbed my son. And he’s not even much of a gaming fan!)
  • Features joy and despair points as a type of XP.
  • The game has a “story point” mechanic.
  • Magic will be presented as weird and wondrous.
  • Inspirations for Invisible Sun include: Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol, The Invisibles, China Mieville, Philip K. Dick.
  • Every player character has an arc. There aren’t levels or tiers in the game, but there are story arcs. Reaching a milestone in your story arc can unlock things for your character.
  • Each PC has a “house” they can develop and define.
  • MCG gave out shirts to panel attendees. The shirt (which my son wants to wear every day) depicts “the path of suns,” serving as both a map of reality and also of the human spirit.
  • They also gave out mysterious sealed envelopes which we were urged not t open until August 15. Dammit.
  • Monte says this is probably the most complex project he’s ever worked on.

Cypher System News

After the Invisible Sun discussion, MCG moved on to talk about products related to their cypher system line.

  • Numenera Character Options 2 is coming. Among other things, it includes two new character types: the glint (a face man) and seeker (Indiana Jones).
  • The Numenera Starter Box (intended for new customers, not folks who already have the core book) will be $15. It will be out by Christmas.
  • Into the Outside won’t give us just any old alternate dimensions for Numenera; it’ll give us extra weird ones. For example, a place where you exist in 3 dimensions at once, and one where you exist as sound only. The book will include instant adventure spreads for each major dimension.
  • Predation will be out in 2017. They playtested it at this Gen Con.
  • Unmasked was also playtested here. Dennis Detwiller said that a player told him Unmasked feels like “The Breakfast Club if it were directed by Stanley Kubrick.” In this setting, cyphers are mundane objects that are revealed to be something special when viewed while wearing a mask.
  • Expanded Worlds will be a companion to the Cypher System Rulebook. It includes new genres, including mythology, childhood adventure, post apocalypse, and near future science fiction.
  • Numenera Bestiary 2 is coming.
  • A Numenera novel and a Strange novel are also in production. (I remember talk of these during a recent MCG Kickstarter, and I’m eager to read them.)
  • Organized play: Season 0 is going on now in 20 stores. Season 1 starts Sep 15.
  • Will we see more Numenera world books or adventures? Yes. Monte said they’ll keep supporting whatever games have demand, so that’s up to the customers.

What’s New at Goodman Games

Panelists: Joeb Bittman, Michael Curtis, Joseph Goodman, Jim Wampler, Brendan LaSalle, Harley Stroh, and Doug Kovacs.

(I also spotted Rick Hull and Terry Olson in the audience.)

  • DCC Annual #1 is due out at the end of the year, or early next year. The art for the book is done.
  • Mutant Crawl Classics is due to release by August 2017 at the latest. They expect it earlier than that, actually. They expect to offer an open license for MCC some time after release.
  • A DCC Lankhmar Kickstarter is coming at the end of the year. It’ll feature a boxed set with maps.
  • Big news: Goodman Games has landed the license for a Jack Vance game covering the Dying Earth stories.

UPDATE: The Spellburn podcast has provided an episode featuring the audio of this seminar. You can find it here: Gencon 2016: What’s New at Goodman Games.

AND: Here’s a video of the seminar…

Cthulhu In Games, with Ken Hite

I arrived late for this one, so only have a few notes.

  • Ken says horror games are the best kind of game because they tap into emotion. “Most emotions are too ugly or too personal,” he said, so you don’t want to tap them in public.
  • Ken says the roller coaster analogy of horror (using a series of ratcheting up tension followed by release) is dumb, but it works, “every goddamn time.” Like when you follow a recipe and put together bread and egg and cinnamon you come out with french toast.
  • He does suggest you vary the pacing to keep players guessing, though.

That’s it for the seminars I saw at Gen Con 2016. You should come with me next time!

Subsector Precinct Station 18: “The Donut”

Happy National Donut Day! Now that the sugar is flowing through my bloodstream, I wish to present a tribute to both Donut Day and CypherCaster Magazine’s new setting “Sector Agents” (in issue 6, just released on As an added exercise, see how many donut references you can spot.

Subsector Precinct Station 18: “The Donut”

by Logan Garrett, age 13

Precinct Station 18 is one of many space stations that serve as precinct houses for the Sector Agents. The station, fondly known as the Donut, serves the Sector Agents of the region as a meeting place, armory, living space, repair bay, administrative center, and prisoner incarceration facility.

The station doesn’t spin; the need for fighting weightlessness in this old-fashioned manner went away after the development of artificial gravity devices. The Donut is home to about a hundred Sector Agents and staff members, as well as ten police ships (ranging in size from shuttlecraft to light cruisers).

Areas of the Donut:

  1. The Hole. The inner ring of the station contains an interdimensional tuner that can generate a portal to a small pocket universe connected to our own. The Sector Agents use this pocket universe as a prison for its most dangerous inmates. Attempting to pass through the portal when it is active requires a vessel that has its shields tuned to a specific frequency; without this, any trip in or out of the prison universe results in a fatally krispy ship and crew.
  2. Landing Bays. The main method of entry to the station is flying a small ship into one of the landing bays. Each of the two bays features sufficient space to house and support a dozen ships. (The west bay was recently expanded, enabling it to hold a baker’s dozen.)
  3. Docking Ports. Made to accommodate ships that are too large to enter the station via the landing bays, the docking ports are rings on the outer hull that ships can connect to. These ports are useful when the bigger police or naval vessels deliver a large batch of convicts destined for the prison universe.
  4. Defenses. While the Donut is not a military installation, it was designed to both withstand and deliver high-energy punishment. On the protection side, the station features armored hull plating and heavy-cruiser-level energy shields. And in case any criminals are foolish enough to try and take on the Sector Agents on their own turf (whether looking for revenge or trying to break a fellow crook out of jail), the station is equipped with an array of lasers, missiles, and mines. In other words, any vessel smaller than a police cutter that comes too close to the station without permission will quickly find itself filled with holes.
  5. Communications Array. This equipment—critical for dispatching purposes—is mounted on raised metal scaffolds to prevent interference from the station’s power systems.

Notable Personnel

Valorpa Glono, tvornica Chief of Police. Chief Glono is a 3rd generation Sector Agent, and speaks often (and proudly) of its parent and grandparent and their lofty positions in the hierarchy of the Sector Agent command. The chief holds its personnel to the highest standard, hoping that by doing the best possible police work Station 18 will finally be recognized this year in the sector-wide Agent Awards. (Level 5; visual perception as level 1; resists might effects, moves in zero-g, moves underwater, and conducts police work as level 7.)

Sam Marlowe, antarean Space Patrol Captain. Though he is not from Earth, and in fact never left his home planet until he joined the Academy, Captain Marlowe grew up on Terran hardboiled crime dramas. He was initially disappointed to discover that the reality of the Sector Agents is much different than he expected, but like most antareans, the Captain resolved to make the best of the situation, and he brought his favorite fictional trappings with him. Fortunately for Captain Marlowe, Chief Glono doesn’t even realize that the antarean speaks almost completely in archaic slang; since Glono must use a translator to understand non-tvornica, words like “fried” and “dough” are converted to the same tvornica translations as “killed” and “credits.” And as far as Captain Marlowe’s trench coat and fedora, the Chief doesn’t think they look any more silly than “pants” and “shoes.” (Level 5; interrogation as level 6; archaic Earth culture as level 7.)

Than’vo’tok, rekan’choc Detective Lieutenant. Than’vo made a name for himself last year by achieving a record number of busts in his previous position of data-crime investigation. He accepted the promotion to his current position, leading investigations into violent crime, but so far he’s not fitting in to the new job very well. Than’vo sees every problem as an excuse to do some electronic hacking, and this is causing friction with the Chief. (Level 4; engineering and technical tasks as level 5; hacking and programming as level 6, social interactions as level 3; Armor 1.)

Shuff, shardfolk Sergeant. The senior sergeant at the station tries her best to fit into the mold of the grizzled police sergeant, but she frequently slips and reveals her concern for the patrol officers under her charge. Shuff makes sure her people are well-trained, well-fed, and well-armed, and is often hands-on in doing so. Her officers appreciate her skill at police work—her cooking, not so much. (Level 4; social interactions, climbing, police work, and teaching as level 5; cooking as level 2; Armor 3.)

Jack Simpson, human Patrol Officer. Unlike most of his fellow officers, Jack sees the Sector Agent thing as just a job, not a calling. Jack had been happy living on Earth, in Berlin, until his family moved to New Germany with the latest colonization boom. Jack had always been pretty tough, and naturally fell into a job as a security guard in New Bavaria. When he learned he could do similar work on other planets for better pay, Jack signed up with the Sector Agents. No longer identifying as an Earther or a New German, a Berliner or a Bavarian, Jack often feels adrift, like a man without a home. Also, and on a less existential level, Jack is sometimes annoyed by the fact that he’s the only one on the station who really knows what a donut is. (Level 2, tough-guy tasks as level 3.)

Avaroo, kiln Dispatcher. Avaroo is good at her job, but she’s become more excitable lately. The reason is simple: coffee. Avaroo’s coworkers introduced her to the beverage, and she was delighted to discover that coffee produces spectacular color changes in kiln, much different than those caused by drinking water. (Level 2, Armor 1, inability to resist cold environmental effects.)

Zemm Orayu, ponchiki Animal Control Officer. Zemm was a zookeeper for the biggest zoo in the Galactic Union before joining the Sector Agents, so he thought the job of Animal Control Officer would be a piece of cake. What he didn’t realize was that in his new job he would encounter animals that Galactic Union biologists had never even seen before. How can you tell if a pet without pain receptors is a victim of animal cruelty? How do you contain a rampaging helium-beast that can turn into a mist? Should a sentient powdered narcotic be considered an animal or a drug? Zemm would like the answers to those questions, too. (Level 3, zoology tasks as level 5.)

Oliekoek, yanathalaspan Technician. The inhabitants of yanathalaspa are not monkeys, and not every one of them is a programming expert. But because a lot of humans think they look like Terran monkeys, and because a lot of yanathalaspans are programming experts, the nickname “code monkeys” has stuck. Oliekoek doesn’t mind it. He’s happy enough that his skills are so in demand on the station that he’s willing to overlook the occasional joke about his lack of height or his affinity for a yanathalaspan fruit that looks almost exactly like the Terran banana. Sure, his coworkers’ eyes glaze over when he tries to explain his work to them, but he knows they value his work. And maybe the Captain complains sometimes about Oliekoek scratching up the consoles—after all, his fingers DO still bear claws—but the technician doesn’t let it bother him. Where else in the galaxy could he work on secretly solving the problem of keeping a dimensional gate from destabilizing and swallowing an entire star system? (Level 3, climbing and computer tasks as level 5.)

Sprinkles, feline Mascot. Sprinkles the cat has lived on the station since it was built around a decade ago. Nobody remembers when he first arrived, or who he arrived with. But surely it doesn’t matter. When Sprinkles knocks over a drink with his tail, or jumps up on a console and lands with one paw on a specific button, it’s obviously an accident, right? Of course it is. Sprinkles just likes to sit around the station and watch the Sector Agents come and go, come and go. (Level ?)

Factions You Won’t See in Predation

Smash-em-Up, Shanna, Smash-em-Up!

I recently mentioned the Monte Cook Games kickstarter “Worlds of the Cypher System” (expiring soon!) and its Gods of the Fall setting. Another of the three included settings is Predation, by Shanna Germain:

An asteroid will soon wipe out all life on earth. You know this—and you know when—because it’s in the history books your grandparents brought back to the Cretaceous period with them. Now your small society is trapped in prehistory, desperate to find a way back to your time. But at least you’re not alone. You have tech, weapons, vehicles, and science from the future—you even have the ability to bioengineer the dinosaurs around you. Can you use these tools to survive a dangerous world on the brink of extinction?

Is that the sound of thunder you hear?

I know, so much potential, right? Predation’s designer, Shanna Germain, also wrote a cool blog post about two of the groups in this setting: SATI and the Butterflies. (That needs to be a band name.) These writeups gave me ideas for more cool prehistoric factions! I’m sure Shanna will love them.


While Space and Time, Interglobal (SATI) is all cozy inside the group’s time-travel bunkers, and the Butterflies are camping out in the trees or mud or whatever, a group called the Sleestaks are living in style in a place they call the Lost City. Hear that hissing sound? That means “Go away or we’ll eat you” in Sleestak. These handsome reptilian fellows don’t go out in the daytime, but at night they’ll be eager to find some unprotected humans they might take back home to sacrifice to their god.

Sleestak guard: level 2, intellect tasks as level 1; Armor 1; crossbow attack inflicts 3 points of damage; short-range immobilizing net attack


I hope you’re not thinking there’s only room for one batch of humanoid lizards in the prehistoric world, because a species known as the Silurians is also on the scene. Waaaay in the future (1970, man) they’ll cause problems for a time traveler, but in our dino-setting they’re still debating whether it’s time to go into hibernation or not. Considering themselves to be the masters of Earth, the Silurians don’t like the idea of sharing their planet with a group of time-traveling upstarts. With their advanced knowledge of genetic engineering, it’s possible the Silurians will give the humans a taste of their own medicine and perform experiments to see how versatile the human genome can be.

Silurian warrior: level 3, science-related tasks as level 4; Armor 2; immediate-range tongue attack inflicts 1 point of speed damage; venom causes the target to mutate on a failed Might defense roll; carries 1 random cypher


The SATI folks might be pretty proud of their time-travel base and cybernetics and iPods and such, but the true masters of technology in this era are the Flintstones faction. Led by an inscrutable warrior called Fred, the Flintstones have cobbled together an empire featuring engineering feats such as bird-tech audio sampling, massive-scale quarry excavation, and foot-powered cars. The Flintstones are not aggressive, but they can be protective of their scientific advances—and Fred himself has a legendary temper. Members of other factions have learned to approach the Flintstones with caution…and a giant offering of ribs.

Bamm-Bamm, warrior of the Rubble clan: level 1; strength tasks as level 6; club attack inflicts 6 points of damage

Are You a God?

Monte Cook Games has a Kickstarter running right now for “Worlds of the Cypher System,” featuring three setting books for their Cypher System game (which I love). All three sound great, but today let’s check out the Gods of the Fall setting, by Bruce Cordell:

The old gods are dead. Burning and crumbling, the divine realm dropped from the sky and smashed into the world like a vengeful star. The earth was plunged into darkness. Hope shriveled. Life has become cheap, brutal, and short. But from the ashes of this catastrophe, you can awaken your own divine spark. Claim a dominion; declare yourself the god of War, of the Hunt, of Winter, of Fire, or of the realm of your choice. And if you can complete your divine labors, fulfill prophecy, and throw down the despots that rose in place of the fallen gods, you might redeem a world fallen into evil. You might truly become—a god!

How cool is that! You can eventually play as a god!

Now, I know you’re already thinking of the possibilities. “I could become the god of war,” you think! “Or the god of time!” What power!

Slow down there, Mr. Deity. Here’s my suggestion: Don’t aim for the top right away. It’s a lot of responsibility being, say, the god of death. One little slip-up and you might depopulate the wrong continent! So start small. Be a god in training, and roll a d20 on the tables below to see what kind of junior god you should be.

(It may turn out that your power doesn’t match your divine domain. No matter. The gods work in mysterious ways.)

You are the god of…

  1. Cookies 
  2. Crippling back pain 
  3. Déjà vu 
  4. Facial hair 
  5. Food spoilage 
  6. Goosebumps 
  7. Hangovers 
  8. Hiccups 
  9. Homonyms 
  10. Ladybugs 
  11. Nearsightedness 
  12. Odors 
  13. One night stands 
  14. Oversleeping 
  15. Profanity 
  16. Puns 
  17. Rainbows 
  18. Static electricity 
  19. Underwear 
  20. Vertigo 

Your signature godly power is…

  1. animating leaves on a windy day
  2. avoiding spoilers
  3. communicating using only your eyebrows
  4. creating “to-do” lists
  5. decreasing the calorie count in foods
  6. detecting sarcasm
  7. finding that itchy spot on a dog that makes him kick his leg
  8. healing damaged clothes
  9. leaning back in a chair and balancing it on two legs
  10. levitating balloons
  11. motivating toddlers
  12. playing both sides of “good cop / bad cop”
  13. purring like a kitten
  14. scintillating conversation 
  15. sleeping through anything
  16. speed reading
  17. spelling
  18. summoning slugs
  19. turning things purple
  20. ultrasonic yodeling