Observations From PAX South 2019

I went to PAX South 2019!

I’m not an avid con-goer, but I’ve seen a few. This year, thanks to the generosity of a friend who couldn’t make it, I got to attend PAX South and I had a terrific time. It was my first PAX event and I have a few observations from my time there over the weekend. Let’s cover the cool stuff first:

I first stopped by the booth of noted cool dudes and San Antonio locals, The Swordfish Islands. The booth was manned by Jacob Hurst, who is often the face of the company, and Donnie Garcia, one of the co-founders and co-authors. I have mentioned here and elsewhere that I sat down with Jacob last year for dinner and an interview and I really will have that interview (and a Hot Springs Island review) up soon. One of the things I learned then was that Donnie was party to the original, decades-old D&D campaign that spawned the Swordfish Islands, including Hot Springs Island. So, needless to say, it was cool to meet one of the original minds behind the madness. Donnie was a great sport and cool to chat with. Jacob had also enlisted his family to sit at his lovely booth, too, and enjoy the floral decor.

I walked away from the booth on Saturday with hard copies of books I’ve enjoyed in PDF for a long time – The Dark of Hot Springs Island, Field Guide to Hot Springs Island, Sean Mccoy‘s Mothership, and Donn, Sean, and Fiona’s Dead Planet module for Mothership. This alone constituted a great haul, especially in a fancy HSI tote, as all of those books have absolutely incredible visual information design and layout. But I came back Sunday and grabbed a hardback of Vornheim and one of the original, hand-made, proof-of-concept Night Axe ogre zines that Jacob and his partners made to launch the Swordfish Islands as a company way back when. On the drive home Saturday it was bugging the hell out of me that I hadn’t grabbed one, so first thing in the door Sunday afternoon I had to get one. Only 80 were printed, and I am a huge nerd, so resisting that wasn’t in the cards.

FREE PLUG: Jacob Hurst set the Hot Springs Island books to $5 each on DriveThruRPG for the duration of PAX South 2019. I just checked, and he hasn’t changed it back yet. That means you can get both for $10 total, which is literally 75% off.
The Dark of Hot Springs Island (GM-facing hexcrawl sourcebook)
The Field Guide to Hot Springs Island (Player-facing lore/tactics/useful info/travelogue)
This is an insane deal. Rob those idiots blind while the getting’s good!

Maybe most importantly, I got to meet several friends from Twitter, including the positive, friendly, and generally great Tweeter and Youtuber Jose Kercado. I also got to hang out with Justin from @MageHandPress, who is one of the nicest and most helpful new indie publishers on the internet. I had a terrific time with them both and even though I didn’t get to the show early enough on Sunday with my wife to play in a one-shot with Justin, I did hear some buzz around various booths for Dark Matter both days, so whatever he’s doing is working! I think this was the most important part of the weekend for me, because it was great to shake hands and just chat and get to know people who I’ve talked to on the internet every day for almost a year now. That was swell, and I’m glad they made it out.

Mr. Kercado and I got to paint minis together at the Reaper Miniatures booth – they had one-hour cycles where they handed out free minis and seated everyone with about a dozen standard paint colors and a fine pinpoint brush and a fairly normal brush. I’m not a miniatures guy – I play mostly theater of the mind with occasional paper minis (Pathfinder Pawns, sometimes) – so it was wild to sit down and paint one for the first time in nearly 20 years across the table with a friend. We painted sorceresses! I thought I did pretty okay for a dude who hasn’t painted a mini in decades and had 45 minutes to figure it out.

I had such a great time that I came back Sunday and did the whole process again with my wife. She’s always thought she’d love to paint miniatures and often looks at the Reaper racks at game stores with interest, but we’ve never really sat down and figured out how to get started. She had a riot too – she painted the same sorceress, while I got a vulture on a tombstone. When we wrapped up our hour on Sunday, one of the Reaper staff came by and gave me a free sea creature figure – she rattled off the model number and called it “some kind of fish-lizard.” No special cause for the kindness, just generosity and friendliness. I thought that was really terrific of them, since Reaper had already footed the bill for free minis and paints for everyone. My wife is convinced she wants to paint minis now!

It was amazing to see so many people playing D&D and other tabletop games. The span of the free play table area was absolutely massive, not even counting the dedicated Magic: the Gathering zone or the D&D Adventurer’s League area. It really brought joy to my heart; I remember being the only person in hundreds of miles to have heard of Dungeons and Dragons, let alone more esoteric stuff.

There was a ton of tabletop stuff. More than I expected, actually. Many of the, uh, luxury? bracket of vendors had absolutely gorgeous booths. I’m talking about Level Up Dice, Norse Foundry, Wyrmwood, Artisan Dice, and Elderwood Academy. Eye-catching and filled with well-presented products. Artisan Dice had a ~38-45mm 50,000 year old mammoth tusk d20 with inlaid silver numbering. It was like looking into the eye of opulence. I covet that die. They sell mammoth dice on their site (it’s not cheap, do not look if you are faint of heart!) and they told us that they include a chip of the same tusk so you can have it lab-tested without damaging your actual dice to prove it is real mammoth if you had any doubts. They also let me play with some tungsten dice, which made my day as I am a bit of a metallurgy nerd and I adored their weight.

Level Up Dice didn’t have any of the black-on-black raised obsidian dice that caused a stir earlier this year. I guess they really are sold out! I wanted to see some in person, if only to drool on them.

I sat and spent some time at the Wyrmwood booth and their build quality is excellent. I was shown to the Carolina Games Table booth by Mr. Kercado on Saturday and was so impressed I brought my wife by on Sunday to see them; they make absolutely lovely game tables which are a fraction of the price of a Wyrmwood table. There isn’t a catch, either. The tables are absolutely insanely sturdy; I’m a 6’5″ dude weighing over 300 and the tables and chairs didn’t so much as budge or flex in the slightest. I was tremendously impressed with their tables because they look like tables that belong in your living room or dining room rather than tables that belong just in a game room. Wyrmwood’s gorgeous tables are terrific, but I don’t have a dedicated game room and they aren’t what I’d want to serve dinner to my in-laws on. I could serve dinner to family members on a Carolina Game Table without a question. They’re lovely, and my wife and I are making long-term plans to save up and replace our dining room table with one.

Last but not least, some real geeky stuff — we got in just in time to sneak in and see Acquisitions Inc “C Team” on Sunday, barely. I also got to meet Nate, Anna, and Holly on Saturday, while they were hanging out in the tabletop expo hall amongst the crowd. It was actually really neat to meet Anna Prosser because (here comes the shameful nerd secrets) I am a big pro Starcraft fan from way back and I’ve actually been watching her host Starcraft events and participate in Starcraft shows for years and years. It’s neat to see her as a D&D personality these days. All three were super kind and took photos with their fans, both tiny little kids and grown-ass adults, which was nice to see. The idea of D&D celebrities is still strange and new to me, so it’s awesome that this first generation of them is doing a great job as public ambassadors on their own time with enthusiasts young and old.

Okay, so all of that is good, what about the other thoughts?

Well, I said I’m not an avid con-goer, and so my insight is limited to what I observed as a neophyte. In the past I have attended Emerald City Comic Con, SakuraCon, and Fan Expo Vancouver, once each, in the early 2000s. I’ve only been to a few conventions, and they were about 15 years ago. Trade shows are along similar (but different) lines to conventions, and in the intervening years I attended the massive SHOT Show small arms conference many times as a part of the firearms industry – that’s gonna be boring to most of you, but it’s a giant event and it has some similarities that we can learn from.

I’ve been to SHOT Show many times, hosted usually in Las Vegas, and it has nearly 70,000 people in attendance and hundreds and hundreds of vendors. I think it is useful to explain where my experience lay so that what I’m gonna say about PAX is better understood. So, for comparison:

I would say PAX South 2019 in my estimate had about 1/4-1/3 the attendance and booth count, and far less space.
The Henry B Gonzalez Convention Center is about 500,000sq ft, but not all of that is actually used for PAX — the pillarless “multipurpose space” of the venue is only about 86,000sq ft (PAX South). PAX also makes use of various other bits and bobs (theaters, mostly) for their convention, so call it 100,000 sq ft.
The Sands Convention Center is about 1,800,000sq ft (SHOT Show). They use all of it. Some years they needed inflatable external tent space.
The floorplan of SHOT cannot reasonably be walked by anyone actually doing business there in a single day, period. PAX South can be walked end to end in a couple hours, not counting time spent in lines to play games or buy stuff.
SHOT is organized for vendors (manufacturers and distributors) to generate interest and sales to retailers (stores), not the public, for the purposes of higher level commerce, which is why it is a trade show and not a convention.
PAX is organized to bring vendors (mostly themselves direct-sale retailers, too) to the public, for the purposes of mutual fandom indulgence, which is why it is a convention and not a trade show.
The bulk of those 70,000 people at SHOT are placing orders that range from thousands of dollars up into multi-million dollar annual orders. I have done deals on the latter end of that spectrum and sat in while military customers purchased wild stuff too. It’s a very different, business!business!business! affair, where sometimes heads of military units and foreign dignitaries conduct business and it is therefore must be organized exceptionally well.
The bulk of the 20,000ish (my best guess, I genuinely can’t tell you how many) people at PAX South are people between the ages of 13-40 who just want to have a great time with other fans, play video games, see new releases and upcoming demos, sit at a table and roll dice or flip cards, and show off their cosplay – and therefore, organization isn’t quite as critical, since they’re going to sight-see and gladhand and generally relax.

So, with that primer on my primary experiences with large crowds in big, organized, booth-filled spaces, I give you my more critical musings:

  • On dice: There were so many booths selling identical poly dice. They were selling identical Chinese-made metal dice. They were selling what appeared to be identical semi-precious stone dice right down to the color of the numbers. So many identical Chessex sets and tubs of same-y mixed bulk dice. No one went out of their way to be different or stand out in this regard despite several of these vendors doing only dice! No one had DCC dice sets at a gaming convention. No one was selling genuinely weird dice. The strangest dice were Fate dice, and a booth or two selling the FFG Star Wars dice that you can buy at any local game store. None of this was particularly inspiring. The “luxury” brands were selling some wild stuff, but at potentially hundreds of dollars per set of hard wood, bone, and metal dice, it’s not even really the same market. Someone next year needs to sell GameScience Dice, someone needs to be selling DCC sets of literally any manufacture, and hopefully some of these poly set vendors can come back with exclusive colorways or something next year – y’all need to go out of your way to be different. 
  • On RPGS: A lot of small press stuff. A booth had Fate of the Norns and Vanagard and was doing good traffic, that was nice to see. Great to see, of course, the Swordfish Islands crew selling Hot Springs Island. Would you believe their table was the only variety indie RPG dealer there? Jacob was selling Lamentations of the Flame Princess stuff, as well as Tuesday Knight Games stuff, and even a few copies of Zedeck Siew’s Creatures of Near Kingdoms (non-RPG) book. No one else was selling LotFP, no one was selling Hydra Coop, no one was selling really any OSR stuff, no one was selling DCC or any Goodman Games stuff, no one was selling Kobold Press books, no one was there with Mongoose or anything. It was actually really, really shocking. I don’t know how many copies of Traveller or whatever to bring, but you’d think literally anyone besides Jacob Hurst would have had the foresight to think “Man, maybe I should make arrangements to sell Ennie-award-winning games and/or giant press games with lots of marketing behind them?” Really stunning, and actually pretty disappointing overall. So much tabletop gaming excitement at this event, genuinely so much, and yet so underserved in so many ways? 
  • On big names: I dunno if I am blind or what, but I didn’t notice giant dedicated WotC or Paizo booths. I don’t see them on the exhibitor lists, either. That’s really surprising to me. I expected them to be more present and aggressive in marketing their games. On a related note, the D&D Adventurer’s League section of walled-off private gaming tables was pretty big, with a giant full-color sign, and about 15-20 tables or so… and a small handwritten sign, as an afterthought, advertising Pathfinder Society. I cant tell you how many of those tables were playing which game, but it seemed like a big change from the public perception of Pathfinder catching up and overtaking D&D just a few short years ago towards the end of 4E!
  • On other games: Great to see lots of small press boardgames and card games showing up. My wife bought what appears to be an adorable card game about jam from my home country. Lots of new launch games (incl. card games) but seemingly little support for existing games. A few booths had older games supported. I think I am mostly just stunned that there wasn’t a larger retailer presence in there. I don’t know if PAX disallows that (it sure didn’t seem so!) or if it is cost-prohibitive or what, but it seems crazy to have this massive convention full of a motivated buying public and not show up as a retailer. I dunno. There were actually shockingly few Magic: the Gathering vendors too; I do not play any CCGs or anything like that but I expected there to be a lot more given the table play space given to Magic: the Gathering. 
  • On layout: Why the heck were Norse Foundry, Q Workshop, Artisan Dice, Carolina Table Company, Dragonfiredice, Elderwood Academy, etc all the way over there, past a huge thoroughfare and food carts, beside and behind video game vendors – instead of with the other vendors in the tabletop area proper? You go to the tabletop section as marked on the map, which is separated by a broad thoroughfare from the video game stuff, and you see lots of the booths. But you could spend hours there and actually never even know that these other companies were even there, because they’re waaaay in the back tucked away behind a giant, view-dominating Western Digital PC gaming booth and dozens of other video game vendors in a weird little L-shaped hook. Confusing, poorly thought out, poorly executed, and not really smart given the weird open spaces the venue had. Could have been done differently.  
  • On general execution: More visible booth numbers are absolutely necessary. I do not know how the heck PAX doesn’t know this. Also, your in-venue maps need to be clearer, showing booth number ranges in blocks, and your mini-map brochures need to be even more specific. Your app doesn’t even do a very good job of it. You can go to SHOT Show with just a booth number, get blindfolded and dropped off somewhere random, talk to literally no one, speak the wrong language, not use the app, not use a map and still find your way to the vendor you need in a timely fashion across a vastly larger, massive convention center with three different floors, and about a dozen conference rooms and ballrooms because BOOTH NUMBERS ARE VISIBLE AND SIGNS POINT YOU TO “NEIGHBORHOODS” AT INTERSECTIONS. This is elementary stuff, guys. It’s not even like the venue is that large. You can do this better, Penny Arcade people.

Overall, PAX South 2019 was a total joy. I cannot wait to attend next year. I had a great time hanging out with everyone and seeing all the sights.

My wife, who has never been to a nerd convention of any sort in her entire life (but is a huge nerd) was as happy as I’ve ever seen her. We both had a riot, and she is determined to plan ahead and make a whole three-day shindig of it next year with the kids and everything in tow.

I’d like to spend a special moment giving attention to something very important. I want to offer a thought of immense public gratitude before I wrap this post up. To the friend who so generously supplied me with his own pass when he was unable to go: sincerely, thank you very much. We had no idea what we were missing and can’t wait to go again. Hope to see you there in 2020!

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