Observations From PAX South 2020

I went to PAX South! Again!

This year, I attended PAX South 2020, making it two years running for me. I took my whole family this time around; last year I went solo on a gifted ticket from an incredibly generous pal, and managed to sneak my wife in with me on a Sunday-only ticket for the final day (and to the live C Team show that evening). It was different from last year, but in many ways, it was the same, and I’d like to address those in the hope that we see iterative improvement for everyone’s benefit. But first, some cool stuff!

Not pictured? The eye-searing, hot pink TOXIC ELVEN SMUT tote I got to cart my goods away in. I saw dozens of them throughout the con on the arms of PAX attendees of all sorts.

As with last year, I stopped by the booth of San Antonio locals, The Swordfish Islands. This year, the incomparable Dirk Leichty was there helping to sell Silent Titans, the Super Blood Harvest zine trilogy, and even original art from his works! As always, Jacob’s booth was simple, organized, tidy, and very floral! This year incorporated more nautical, island sort of set dressing than I remember last year (I could be wrong); there were wooden crates and nets and stuff all around. The booth was busy every time I passed by.

Talking to Dirk was a pleasure. He’s a really funny dude and there’s a great sardonic humor to his delivery of the Super Blood Harvest elevator pitch. I copped the trio immediately after his summary and didn’t even notice him tuck DIRK RULES! into the books for me. I also convinced him to sign a copy of Silent Titans, and got some of the Swordfish Islands crew to sign my copy of The Dark of Hot Springs Island.

 I swear, I didn’t fake this signature.

FREE PLUG: As with last year, I’m not sure if it’s coincidence, laziness, or luck, but Jacob Hurst of the Swordfish Islands team put the Hot Springs Islands PDFs on sale on DriveThruRPG during the convention and still hasn’t turned them off.

The Dark of Hot Springs Island (main book)
Field Guide to Hot Springs Island (player-facing book).

I got some other loot, too, besides the big haul of important Dirk Leichty books at Jacob’s booth:

There’s that hot pink bag!

I got a few of the dice trays that had an awesome back pattern and were on sale for 50% off because they say GEN CON 2019 on them. What, you didn’t see me at GEN CON 2019? I was definitely there, for real, in real life, because these dice trays say so. It is fact, and definitely not fiction.

My wife mentioned wanting to try the Learn to Play Magic booth every time we passed, so we sat down once we had a chance and by Crom we learned to play Magic. Somehow, despite knowing all the “Magic Kids” in high school, I never managed to learn a goddamn thing about the game and it has remained a byzantine secret to me my whole life. We had a great time learning. When we sat down to try, they offered us free practice decks; limited by what was available, I picked White. My wife was undeterred by the lack of Black decks on the table after hearing the summary of each color and asked if they had any more and they damn well did, tucked aside behind a table. I got screwed there. Oh well. I like clerics in D&D and Death Knights in WoW so I would have been happy either way. Afterwards we got to keep the decks and were given some life counters(?) too! You can see those on top of my binder above.

At PAX, each day you can tap your RFID badge on a scanner for a chance to win a free daily prize. Actually, the Swordfish Islands books were all higher-tier rewards, which was great to see. What was even cooler, though, was winning a quickplay copy of a western gun dueling card game called Slap .45! on Saturday morning. I never win anything!

While walking the aisles, we saw a booth selling dice and sundries and I spied a cat dungeon master sticker (check it on the binder) which looks just like my best feline friend, Charlie. I had to grip a handful of those and the bi flag d20 stickers for my wife and I to stick on… everything.

We also popped by the Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms/WoTC booth at the far end of the convention hall so we could take crayons to a D&D-flavored coloring book page in exchange for a d20. I’m not even kidding! They only gave you four colors, which was a real hoot for me but which drove my wife nuts as she tried to color in Rosie Beestinger with what amounted to Every Incorrect Color Possible.

The Possum in the wild.
The final touch was an attempt at pretty lipstick. Instead I made Evelyn look like the Joker. That’s on me.

We bought a bunch of board games and card games as well, and we tried a few out at the PAX Board Game Library that we have since purchased online (after finding that our favorite local game store didn’t have it in distro to get on our behalf). We are all excited to try the new Dungeon Mode expansion for Superfight, which is sort of like baby’s first collaborative dungeon crawl. Should be cool. I, personally, am not huge into board games (weird, I know) but I am especially excited for our copy of Dino Dude Ranch to arrive in the mail. I may be a grade-schooler at heart, but this game is adorable:

To get a T-Rex, you need to give it two meat counters and a Triceratops!

I got to link up with Twitter friend, Youtuber, gamedev, and future celebrity Jose Kercado of Dice, Pencils and Paper this year too! It was huge for me to catch up with him, feel like we never missed a beat, and see all his amazing progress and successes of the past several months. He brought me a copy of the quick play zine version of his new game – 52 Fates – and it was really exciting and so much fun to hear his process for coming up with it and how he came to certain decisions. He had so much good news to share. He’s such a beacon of positivity and kindness! You can peep his sticker adorning my mini-binder below, along with a sneak peak at the free quick play ruleset for 52 Fates.

I also got to meet the awesome Jason Braun. You won’t find a kinder, more generous dude. Once upon a time this talented RPG artist, cartoonist, and general scene personality sent me a copy of Moldvay Basic when I was new and fresh to Twitter – I didn’t have a copy down here in the USA and he helped correct that. What a superstar. We actually narrowly missed being neighbors; he moved away from San Antonio around when I moved down here. It’s hard not to be offended. But  meeting him in person? Hilarious, friendly, charming. Awesome guy. He even introduced me to NTRPG Con‘s Mike B, and taught me something altogether new: Alex Kammer, of GameholeCon fame, runs the True Dungeon experience. Crazy. Meeting Jason was a super highlight for me. It’s neat how you can banter on G+ and Twitter and wherever else for a few years about dice and made-up monsters and be instant friends in person too. What a great, great guy. He also gave me a special gift: a Hydra Co-Op pin! I have to avenge his generosity somehow, but I have a year or so to figure out a good answer to that. Look at this OG old-school renaissance cred right here:

Pictured on my badge atop the confusingly arcane carpets of the Henry B Gonzalez Convention Center.
That reminds me: the carpets of the Henry B Gonzalez Convention Center are absolutely bonkers. I mean, look at this goddamn carpet and wall sconce/lamp:

This is blatant sorcery and I will brook no arguments to the contrary. I know witchcraft when I see it, and that’s witchcraft.

One immense highlight, worth some extra line breaks to call attention to:
In some downtime, my kids pulled my wife and I aside and told us how bad they wanted to play D&D. Not one to be caught flatfooted at an RPG convention, I happened to have, in my backpack, D&D. But not the D&D 5E these small babies have grown accustomed to. Three hardcovers plus daily shopping loot is too much weight for one Possum to carry. Nope. Not 5E:
Shout-out to Skerples.
That’s right. Mid-con, at a cafeteria table in the free play area, to the confused stares of our neighbors playing Euro economy games, I autogenerated a handful of player characters on Ram’s site and plunged my family, on the edge of their seats, nervously into the Tomb of the Serpent Kings.
The best part of the entire convention for me was my kid grasping the gravity of being quiet and methodical and careful with aplomb, then seeing the first cursed item and greedily throwing all of that out the door to shout DIBS ON THE RING I PUT IT ON in a single breath and grinning like a maniac at the dangerous mutagenic effects.
It begins!
I had lamented earlier in the convention that somehow I do not have a softcover, digest-size B/X or B/X clone in my possession. I have softcover original B/X (and countless hardcover clones), of course, but no digest-size, less-fragile version. So I carried Advanced Labyrinth Lord with me this time, and have plans to solve that little problem shortly.
My wife made me take a chance on a panel/show I wasn’t expecting to go to, called BomBARDed!, a 5E live game played by a podcast crew who are, in real life, bandmates and music educators. They play multiclass bards at a literal bardic college, they have to sing their spells while playing instruments live, and each episode of the podcast contains at least one full original song.
Front row!
I had no idea this particular actual play group existed, but both of my kids are band geeks and it was a really fun time. I had a great night shutting down Day One with that panel and the players and DM stuck around afterward to do an impromptu Q&A and generally hang out with other nerds and fans. It was great! Super cool people who genuinely love music, love D&D, love education, and just wanted to hang out with other like-minded nerds. Awesome!
Speaking of shows, of course, we went to go see Acquisitions Inc on Saturday night. It was tremendous. Acquisitions Inc is, in many ways, the main event of PAX as far as entertainment goes. Nerds travel a great distance in pilgrimage to Acq Inc performances.
 Like, twelfth row. Still, way close, way central. Perfect seats.

I know a lot of us old-school D&D nerds and OSR-adjacent types don’t really get down with the livestreamed games-as-audience-entertainment trend. But Acq Inc is truly a ton of fun, peopled by a group of talented folks whose humor, ideas, and personalities really shine up there. I’ve loved it every time I have gone to see the Acq Inc/C Team performances at PAX South. There’s something wonderful about shouting a chorus of BLOOD! BLOOD! BLOOD with a thousand other dorks while massive metal dice clatter and Jeremy Crawford illustrates the scene expertly. It was hilarious and my whole family (and the entire crowd) had a riot. I even had a brush with fame here:

I think I only scared him a little.

It was a great show. It’s impossible not to get caught up in it and have a good time. I would go on a one day pass just to see that, to be honest. I didn’t get a chance to meet Alex after the show as he had to leave midway through, but it was a good time nonetheless.

Now, with all the cool stuff out of the way, I am left only with my List Of Grievances. Constructive criticism time, yall!

  • On big names: Once again, missing the big guys here. Well, I say “missing,” but as an OSRish dude I kinda don’t “miss” them really so much as note their absence. How is WotC not sending a booth worth of people? Why are local shops picking up the slack to run the Magic stuff? Crazy. And why is Paizo not aiming for that vacuum? Crazy again. I would love to see them present, hyping up RPGs to video gamers and pulling people across the literal aisle between halves of the expo hall. Also, where was Reaper this year?! My wife and I both really missed the Reaper Minis booth/display/paint-o-rama. That was a highlight for her (and me) last year and she was really looking forward to it for weeks before PAX. We walked the whole con and came up empty on it and were starting to feel crazy when a helpful Enforcer informed us Reaper was not present this year. Bummer.
  • On video game big names: My kids pointed out that there wasn’t really “big name” companies present. Neither they nor we particularly cared, but they found it odd. Why isn’t Sony or Nintendo vying for a huge central booth next to the Arena stage? Why is Mixer present but Twitch is not?
  • On scale: It felt smaller this year somehow. Maybe it’s just because I knew my way around, but it just seems like it had more free area to move around in, more empty space taken up by free play cafeteria tables, etc.
  • On organization: Despite the above point, the place is still organized like a drunk chipmunk stepped on a keyboard hooked up to an Excel spreadsheet. How this happens is mind-boggling to me. Like, everyone I spoke to, stranger or friend, attendee or exhibitor, all brought it up and all had the same bewildered attitude of, like, “How has this not gotten better?”
  • On small press: So good to see even more small RPGs and tabletop games represented here. Some came with their own booths. Others came in via the Indie Press Revolution booth. All were welcome sights. Honestly so much better than last year. Last year I bought everything I had any interest in. This year I couldn’t afford to. Huge difference. As much as I am complaining about lacks of this or that, underwhelming numbers of this or that, etc – to mangle a phrase, quality has a quantity all its own, and this year there was also a quantity of quality. Seeing a table with Fraser Simons’ work on it and Bluebeard’s Bride – and people walking up to look at them and buy them? Amazing.
  • On swag: I absolutely didn’t buy the tickets to this event for free or subsidized merch or whatever, but after talking to repeat con-goers, it seems crazy that the PAX South Swag is an email inbox full of discount codes.
  • On layout: I’m gonna say this twice: how is it so bad?! And why haven’t you mastered booth numbers yet?

In summation I feel like PAX kinda got smaller, but also got better at catering to what I like somehow. Next year let’s do the right thing: organize like booths with like booths, add booth coordinate numbers, change the name to PAX Unplugged South 2021, ditch all the video games entirely, and throw enough board game and role-playing game insanity at it to draw an enormous crowd.

Or at least get the booth numbers. Please?

PAX South 2020 was a ton of fun and, on a personal level, an even more enjoyable success than last year’s journey. I loved all three days, I met a ton of cool people and saw several great pals, and got to watch a few live D&D events that really smashed it out of the park on entertainment value. I had a great time, so did my wife and my children, and I hope Penny Arcade takes my sarcasm with the loving, constructive intent I wrote it with.

My thanks to the many volunteers and employees who genuinely went out of their ways to make this great weekend happen. The Enforcers were all so great to everyone, hyping people up and helping out and being great ambassadors for PAX. Thanks to the work of Penny Arcade to provide a fun and safe atmosphere, my kids felt it was good going hog wild all three days.

It was a joy. See you in 2021!

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