A Year at Critical Hits, and GenCon 2011

Roughly one year ago my first Critical Hits column was published. I was coming off Gen Con 2010, recently free of my duties for Living Forgotten Realms and with only a couple of brief freelance obligations ahead of me. When I hit such lulls in my freelance writing and editing work, I like to step back and take stock of where I have been, since there is often precious little time to do so in the maelstrom of juggling freelance projects.

At the same time, I had been reading and appreciating the work being done by Dave “The Game” Chalker, Phil “TheChattyDM” Menard, and all the other talented and funny folks contributing to Critical Hits. (Several months before I had even edited Phil’s short adventure in Goodman Games’ adventure anthology From Here to There.)  So rather than starting my own blog, I was hoping that maybe my scribbling could find a home at their website. After talking to Dave the Game for about 22.3 seconds at Gen Con, he agreed to give me a shot and include my blog as a column.

It’s been an incredible year for me, gaming-wise. Counting upcoming projects just being outlined, I’m going to be moving soon into the 200,000 word range on freelance projects and articles since Gen Con 2010. In case you aren’t aware, that’s a butt-ton of words. I even spelled a few of them correctly on the first try. For someone who loves writing as much as I love gaming, it’s a true blessing. I appreciate the opportunities, and I want to thank Dave for giving me a forum to spill my brains into the Inter-ether.

Gen Con 2011; or There and Back Again

Gen Con is always tough for me. When I first started attending, I just ran a few games, played a few games, and hit the Exhibit Hall. I didn’t really know anyone, no one knew me, and I could absorb it all without over-extending myself.  Now it is getting more complicated. I still know very few people, and very few people still know me, but there are more obligations that go into a convention now.

I know that, as a freelancer, Gen Con is supposed to be the time that I mingle with the people who can provide me with work. I should be visiting companies in the Exhibit Hall, getting together for drinks, and introducing myself to all the contacts I possibly can. And even though each year I tell myself that this year will be the time I do it, I never do. I attended the meetings and seminars that I really wanted to attend, but I ended up running too many games (if such a thing is possible), and I didn’t relax and just play some games or sit and chat with friends enough.

Nonetheless, Gen Con is still an experience like no other, and this Gen Con had some highlights that need to be noted:

  • I had a chance to listen to Mike Mearls, WotC’s new RPG Group Manager for D&D R&D, speak twice about the future of D&D—once publicly and once privately. Both times his message really hit home. Having been active in the world of business for about 20 years now, I am fairly immune to the wiles of marketing-speak, and I openly mock it whenever possible. Mike’s message was the opposite of corporate banter: it seemed honest, heart-felt, and refreshingly vulnerable. His were the words of someone who cared about the game and the people who play it.  At the same time, he recognizes the complications involved in trying to please a diverse and often contradictory customer base. Simply put, Mike is going to be a great steward for a great game and exciting brand.
  • I’m not a big proponent of awards or awards shows. Too often politics or outside factors dictate winners, leaving out those very worthy of consideration. I did try to attend the Ennies this year because of Critical Hits’ nomination (and Gold Ennie) in the category of Best Blog. As is my lot in life, I was held up by a meeting and arrived at the ceremony well after the award had been presented, but I stayed for a while to watch some other presentations.  I was glad I did, and here’s why.  I’ve always told my students to never forget that their writing is important, even if it is not ever going to bring fame or fortune. I feel the same about games. It was nice to see people who worked very hard for little financial gain get recognition for that work.
  • DMing games is so much fun, whether for strangers or for friends. Very few avenues exist in our culture for people to come together and share so much time doing something so fun on such an intimate level. After running 5 Ashes of Athas tables (and 1 LFR table, which I swore I would never do again), I was mentally drained.  Yet behind that exhaustion there was something large and fiery—a burning need to create more, as if the act of creating these stories and fostering these games restored rather than depleted something in me. I shudder to think what will happen to me if I ever become incapable of creating like this.
  • One negative: what was up with the Will Call line? Fortunately for me I didn’t need to get into that line until Saturday morning, but it was brutal. For those of you buying tickets and badges next year, get them mailed if you can.
  • It never stops amazing me how much goes into the publication of an off-the-shelf RPG product, or even a good online product for that matter.  I’ve been a manager for different software projects in the past, and those have left me in either a homicidal rage or stress-induced catatonia.  Greg Bilsland, a D&D Producer, does an outstanding job in that capacity. His communication and clarity of vision ensure better products than if he wasn’t working on them. ‘Nuff said.
  • I brought a gamer to Gen Con who had never attended before. It was like seeing a kid at Christmas. I remember feeling that way my first year, and it was wonderful to relive things through him. Not only that, but he DMed for the first time ever, teaching new players about D&D.  And, as the crowning geek-splosion on top of a bunch of others, he got to play the prototype of a new board game that was announced at WotC’s Product seminar.
  • As a fan of European-style board games and the Forgotten Realms, the demo I watched of the Lords of Waterdeep board game was spiffy. I hope this heralds many more crossovers using D&D world material in new formats. I want my Gauntlgrym-branded ale!
  • I arrived too late to attend DD&D, and the gamer in me was saddened by that. It sounds like an awesome game experience. The human being in me was OK with missing it, since starting GenCon with a hangover is a recipe for disaster.

So I drove away from Indianapolis as I usually do the Sunday after Gen Con: dog-tired physically but creatively rejuvenated.  I look forward to another year of blogging, writing, and—most importantly—playing new games and meeting new people who share love of the hobby.


  1. Shawn, you were on my “Official Regret That I Did Not Have The Opportunity To Meet Because I Was Only There For 8 Hours” list. I’m proud to have you on my team. Please continue kicking ass.

  2. Imaginaryfriend says:

    See I just knew I should have left time to play an AoA slot. Oh well, a goal for DDXP 🙂
    Good to see you got enjoyment out of the chaos and looking forward to reading some of those many words you crafted in the last year….or will craft in the coming year..

  3. I was very happy that I got to meet you Shawn! I will say that DD&D was well worth it, but starting GenCon with a hangover was definitely less than preferable. 🙂

  4. Shawn Merwin says:

    First, I need to make a clarification, since I’ve received a few private emails about this. When I said that I have sworn not to DM any Living Forgotten Realms games, I did not mean to imply I had any negative feelings or thoughts about LFR. I love LFR, and I don’t feel that any of the time that I spent on it was wasted. The LFR team (Sean, Greg, Pieter, the regional directors, and others) do an outstanding job–and the adventures are as good as they have ever been. My self-imposed removal from the campaign is strictly due to the place my brain is/was at–I was looking at work that was trying to break out of the “module” structure inherent in a Living campaign. To get my mind there, I needed to stop thinking in those terms. That’s it.

    @Vanir–Same here. We’ll meet soon. And if I kick ass, then you kick the ass of donkeys and people who have “ass” in their names.

    @IF–I regret that I have not been able to play in the D&D Championship so I can have you as a DM!

    @Bartoneus–It’s been a pleasure meeting you and working with you at CH. Keep up the great work!

  5. WeWantTheFunk says:

    Hi Shawn, I had the pleasure of playing in an AoA (AoA 2-1) game you dm’ed at Gencon 2011. This was the first Gencon where I got to take my two sons and it was one of the greatest experiences of our lives. Thanks for providing us with a fantastic game!

    P.S. we were the group of 5, me and my two boys and my best friend and his son.

  6. Nicely said, Shawn. Critical Hits has been bettered by your presence. There aren’t enough people covering the topics you cover. More importantly, thanks for covering it the way you do. You are a teacher and a leader and the gaming world is better for it.

    I also can’t think of anyone better to take on 200,000 word projects, and I don’t have a clue how you do it! (For those wondering, a decently long organized play adventure might be 20,000 words. So, this is about 10 adventures worth all in one project and I can’t begin to imagine how it would explode my brain.)

    On Gen Con for freelancers, I think it is an important place if you want to break out beyond WotC and meet several companies to drum up work… but, any given company has a more intimate event where you could volunteer and get their attention (as well as spend one-on-one time). Any smaller convention is likely to afford better opportunities if you do the legwork. Also, most gaming companies are small. A few e-mails, Twitter interactions, and forum postings can earn you recognition before you ever shake hands. Lastly, small gaming companies have different strengths and needs – one might be drowning in sourcebooks but need help writing good adventures. Another might be in the opposite situation. It helps to figure that out before making a pitch. You probably know this stuff, and I feel like my knowledge is “grain of salt” territory, but perhaps helpful to some that read your column.

  7. Shawn Merwin says:

    @Funk: It was a great pleasure running that game for your table. If ever table I ever ran as a DM was as fun and entertaining as yours, I would never tire of DMing. Hopefully we can met at a table again sometime.

    @Alphastream: Flattery will get you everywhere. Thanks so much for the kind words. Your words to freelancers are as relevant to me as anyone, since I really didn’t come to the business through the normal means. Having been a 10-year veteran of OP campaigns, I never really had the time to go through the normal process of seeking smaller RPG shops to make my mark in the industry. It’s like you pointed out in the comments section of the Kobold Quarterly article (http://www.koboldquarterly.com/k/front-page10389.php)–WotC may not have drawn from OP in the past to get freelancers, but they certainly are now. I think of my time in WotC OP as a ten-year internship. So your comments regarding mixing at GenCon and finding smaller companies for work is as valuable to me as to anyone else. Thanks!