/ PANDA Tabletop Games Convention 2016: a Games vs Play Wrap
PANDA Tabletop Games Convention 2016: a Games vs Play Wrap
The weekend of 2-3 July saw the inaugural PANDA Tabletop Games Convention held at Kindred Studios in Footscray, an inner-western suburb of Melbourne known for its doggedly determined AFL team, its multitude of Vietnamese and African restaurants, and the largest freestanding statue of Lin Mo Liang aka the Heavenly Queen in all of Melbourne. Actually it’s probably the only freestanding statue of the Heavenly Queen in Melbourne, but that’s just another thing that makes Footscray a special place.
“PandaCon” (as everybody started calling it pretty much immediately) is the newest convention to grace our fair city’s already full calendar of games events. Before the weekend I spoke with Ian Bouch, PandaCon’s organiser and owner of KayJay’s Games and Hobbies Café in Footscray. Ian, who’s built up a loyal following over the past three years since opening his store, told me he decided to run his first games convention in Footscray so that tabletop gamers living in Melbourne’s west had a convention of their own. Despite going head-to-head with Australia’s tightly contested federal election (in which everyone over the age of 18 has to vote), judging by the numbers of gamers who turned up to play and the glowing feedback I heard from everyone, I think it’s safe to say that PandaCon’s mission was a success.
Falk and I went down to represent Games vs Play at the con on the Saturday. We saw straight away that this was a well-organised convention with heaps of parallel events going on at the same time. In the main hall directly behind the registration desk – staffed by Ian and Lexi and other super-friendly helpers – the miniatures crowd including Warhammer, Malifaux, Star Wars X-Wng and Guild Ball had drawn up their battlelines and were already deep in the zone, while in smaller rooms leading off from the main hall RPG sessions were in play all day from 9am to midnight. Me and Falk only played D&D (I’ll talk more about this below), but other RPGs running were Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition, Mutant Year Zero, the resurrected Dragon Warriors and Firefly. Out in the “stage room” – which also had a fully stocked bar – Sean and Matt from Savage Yeti Games were demoing their upcoming 2-player abstract game Quaddle. Though I didn’t get a chance to play Quaddle myself, people at the convention were raving about it. Best of luck to those guys in getting it into stores and onto people’s tables sometime soon!
It wasn’t just tabletop games that were going off either. In the upper gallery above the miniatures hall and further back in a studio space hidden among the maze of corridors that runs through Kindred Studios (it would be an excellent location for a LARP dungeon crawl) there were also historical swordplay demos in progress. A number of groups were represented, including the Fitzroy College of Arms, the Victorian Historical Combat Academy, and the The School of Historical Fencing. I spoke for a while with Dominic Mauricio from the Melbourne Swordplay Guild, who took the time to talk us through a steely array of replica sparring swords and, more importantly, show us how to use them safely. Naturally these aren’t real swords – the local constabulary would have something to say about that – but the swords that Dominic uses in his martial arts classes are all painstakingly researched replicas of real historical weapons, right down to length, weight and hilt decoration.
I’ve always felt conflicted by the central place of weaponry in so many tabletop and RPG games, but I do think it is possible to remove (or at least distance) the form of these instruments from their original function, so that martial training becomes a martial art, and combat becomes play. You can make up your own mind about this dilemma, and fortunately there are plenty of games out there that don’t feature conflict at all. Unless you include cutting the hay in Agricola. Nasty stuff, that. Especially if you’re wheat.
Like I mentioned above, the only game that Falk and I ended up playing was Dungeons & Dragons – or to be more exact, the first three linked adventures in The Curse of Strahd Adventurers League storyline. Usually when I go to a con I like to try a whole bunch of different games, like we did at OzBunnyCon earlier in 2016. But sometimes you get into a game that you really like and just stick with that, which is cool too. I guess it’s a bit like going out for dinner with your friends. There are times you want to order a whole stack of sharing plates so you can sample everything on the table; then there’s other times when you just want a big bowl of curry laksa all to yourself, chock full of noodles and fried tofu and bokchoy and topped with crispy crunchy shallots. PandaCon ended up being a laska kind of con for me.
The first adventure had already started when Falk and I turned up, but we jumped straight into the fray to bring some backup to the party of three adventurers under attack from some frost cats. In the initial adventure there were five in our party – Ronan (human fighter), Tim (gnome mage), Rhain (half-elf bard), Falk (elf rogue) and myself (human barbarian). In the later adventures our party was joined by Adi (cleric) and Mark (fighter). (Mark was also coincidentally the Keeper for the Call of Cthulhu adventure that I played at Gatecon 5.)
Our first DM was Jon, whom AB and I’d met at OzComic-Con back in June where he’d been leading a party of enthralled D&D noobies through a surprise goblin ambush. Though relatively new to RPGs, Jon had a very dynamic and engaging style as DM, doing a fantastic job of describing the action and setting the atmosphere for the Strahd adventures. In the two later adventures Merric took over the DM-ing duties. Merric struck me as a natural DM with a flair for theatricality and characterisation that perfectly suited the Gothic feel of the Strahd adventures. Which is hardly surprising really given that he’s currently Regional Co-ordinator for the Asia-Pacific region in the D&D Adventurers League been and has been playing the game for three decades! Not worthy, not worthy! Merric also has an excellent D&D blog, which you can check out here.
D&D – it never gets old, does it? Especially when you’re playing the 5th Edition rules, which are everything Wizards promised and more. 5th Edition has been out for a while so I won’t attempt to give a full review here, except to say that it does an excellent job of making the game more fluid and, to my mind, even easier to visualise. D&D has always been good at creating the kind of action scenes in the “theatre of the mind” (to borrow a phrase of Merric’s) that’s central to any RPG, and 5th Edition exceeds at this. The D20 advantage-disadvantage mechanic in particular makes away with many of the conditional modifiers that in earlier editions could slow down the action as players and DMs tried to balance alarmingly complex equations. 5th Edition is fast, intuitive and accessible, cementing D&D as arguably still the best gateway RPG there’s ever been.
So Falk and I played our adventures, popping out to the Footscray shops at one point for dumplings takeaway, and then suddenly we looked up and it was six or seven hours later. That’s often the way it is with RPGs; time has a way of being suspended as you step into that other place. I would’ve liked to play in Leigh Carr’s 1-hour Call of Cthulhu primer that was running throughout the evening, but every session was booked out. Probably just as well – switching from my barbarian character to a terrified and soon-to-be-insane CofC investigator might’ve resulted in irreparable damage to my own IRL personality, and that’s not exactly the high point on which to finish off at a con that we’re all looking for.
All in all, Falk and I had a great time at PandaCon. Well done to Ian Bouch and his team for putting on their first games convention, Games vs Play will definitely be back next year! There’s just one thing I forgot to ask Ian: where did the “panda” come from in PandaCon? I looked everywhere for one of the black-and-white critters and couldn’t find anything. If someone knows please let drop me a line. Please note that red pandas or people in panda costumes will not be accepted.
PandaCon was sponsored by KayJay Games and Hobbies Café at 1/2D Parker St, Footscray VIC 3011. You can see the store’s website here. Games vs Play is grateful to PANDA Tabletop Games Convention for the use of the “Panda” logo used in this post.