2023 GenCon Report Part 1: What Was New

(Dork Tower August 14, 2002 by John Kovalic)

Last week, I attended my 29th GenCon ("The Best Four Days in Gaming") in Indianapolis, IN. As always, it was a delightful whirlwind of games, shopping, and friends, though this year you could really feel the crowds with a record 70,000 attendees. I wore a mask for the exhibit hall and any movement through big crowds in the hallways, because that's 69,992 people around me that I don't know.

One of the things I really enjoy at GenCon is seeing how the industry is changing, year-over-year. The biggest theme in the exhibit hall this year was definitely new dice. I found that surprising since there are always numerous dice vendors, with wide assortments of must-have shiny math rocks.  But this year, with people able to make their own dice with resin and other materials, it really seemed a step beyond. 

It's All About the Dice

There were probably 10-12 new dice exhibitors this year. Chessex, Crystal Caste and Q Workshop all had 3-4 booths with their traditional, beautiful dice. I got the free GenCon die from Crystal Caste (and ended up buying the set). From Chessex, I purchased 4d8. This was a utility purchase. Somehow, over the last five years or so, I've found that I'm running low on d8's in my standard gaming set. Rather than find them, I just bought some. This impulse buy cost me $2.56, including tax; this seemed quite the deal, given that there were polished resin dice that were upwards of $30 per die.

As for the rest, I always look at dice, but don't think I'd purchased any in 10 years or so. I'm at the point of measuring dice by the pound, so it's hard for me to really *need* new ones. I'm as much a die goblin as the next person, but when you almost never play in person, and don't even get to look at the dice you have, there's less incentive to get new ones. That said, this year, I bought some new ones.

My big find was these "Stained Glass" dice, by Gate Keeper Games. They had an amazing collection of "pretty" dice, including several glow-in-the-dark models. Firefly dice were sold out before I found them, sadly, but these were must-owns, anyway. 

I was also very happy with the similar dice I got for GMing "Old Gods of Appalachia" for Monte Cook Games. These have a similar theme to the Stained Glass but are more sinister, which fits the theme of that game. (more on that later...)

Probably the biggest innovation this year was the liquid core dice, which effectively turn dice into snow globes. I don't know how reliably they roll random numbers, and I didn't get one, but they are gorgeous. The following picture is a "Disco Vibes" liquid core die by FanRoll.

I also need to give a special callout to Infinite Black's Elder Dice, which had a tempting collection of relatively affordable, beautiful and readable dice. One of the problems with some of the coolest looking dice is that they have so much detail and flair around the numbers that the numbers themselves can't easily be read. The Elder Dice had symbols in lieu of the highest value, but otherwise were easily readable and done in a variety of colors that made me want to pick some up. I resisted, because I didn't need yet more dice...yet.

5e Everywhere

The other thing that struck me this year was the ubiquity of 5e as the basis for all manner of games and settings. Of course, this is obvious, in the sense that 5e D&D is the dominant RPG in the industry. What I didn't expect was that the 5e experience went far beyond extensions to existing 5e content. Rather, people are using the 5e System Reference Document, which lays out the underlying mechanics of 5e, to build all manner of settings and even completely different games.

Because my Dungeons and Toast club is running an "anthropomorphic characters only" campaign this year, I was interested in Animal Adventures by SteamForged Games as a world building implementation of that. I'd seen it before, but it seemed quite popular on the Exhibition Hall floor. But I was definitely surprised by Historia, which is an Ennie-winning animal-based setting that's dark fantasy. Aside from a traumatizing event of watching Watership Down and reading Animal Farm in the early 80's, I normally don't think of animal stories as being dark, so the premise intrigued me.

I was also intrigued by a Sci-Fi setting that was 5e based. At first I was thinking it didn't make sense, but if you just apply the SRD ruleset, you can do as much with 5e Sci-Fi, as they did with D20 Modern back in the day. I can't recall the name, but see that Esper Genesis has been around for a while, using that premise.

A key to my noticing the 5e content this year, was the shadow of WOTC when they tried to restrict 5e SRD usage and the huge backlash it generated. Just among the creators who I follow on Twitter, this was potentially apocalyptic, and so I made special note of small-press companies that were making 5e content, and it was really impressive--there were so many solid and creative settings, I could write a whole article on just that (if I'd written down all the ones I found.)

Crowd-funded Projects

The other big "new" thing at GenCon was a usual but dizzying assortment of new games, crowd-funding efforts that were funded-but-pending, kicking off or about to start, and even some "coming in 2024" early hype for new games. I heard one person saying that something like 65 games were being Kickstarted (at whatever crowdfunding company) at or immediately after GenCon. I don't know if that counts things like Monte Cook Games mentioning a soon-to-come campaign for something called Magnus Archives, which I'm sure will turn into a whole article of its own.

I backed Stiffling Dark after last GenCon, and they were there this time to show off what was coming soon. It's a "ghost in the graveyard" style horror board game, where you're wandering around with flashlights trying to avoid being eaten by the big bad thing. The premise last year was strong, which is why I got it, but it was fun to see the changes to their original vision, based on design and playtest feedback.

Tales of the Valiant, by Kobald Press, was also there. I'll talk more about that in the next article about the games I played, but it's a coming-soon 5e-like RPG game that doesn't use the 5e SRD, to avoid any future changes by WOTC. I actually expected more WOTC-backlash type games, but this was one of the only things I saw.

One that I was especially interested in was a new Tainted Grail TTRPG that's starting a campaign . Awakened Realms has delivered solid results in both the original Tainted Grail board game and their rogue-like computer game both based on a really creepy post-Arthurian setting. So the idea of an RPG in that same universe is pretty exciting, and I'm looking forward to seeing how that turns out. The mechanics will be a deciding factor, but I have great confidence in both the setting and the company.

To say that I only scratched the surface is an understatement. The GenCon exhibit hall is roughly 4 acres of game-related products spread out in 30 two-sided rows of vendors. But to keep this short, I've limited my description to the biggest trends I saw, and the ones that especially interested me. Among the biggest things that I didn't pay attention to was the launch of the new Disney Lorcana card game, which was so popular that there were apparently safety problems caused by the crowds waiting to get it.

For my part 2 article, I'll be describing the TTRPG games I played and ran, as well as a few games that I demoed during my time there.

About the Art

The header art for this article is my favorite GenCon comic of all times, from 2002. It's by the absurdly talented and funny John Kovalik, from his wonderful Dork Tower comic series, and in 4 panels it succinctly captures the pains and joys of attending GenCon. I subscribed to Dork Tower for years, and still try to keep up with his latest creations whenever I can.


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