HEY, WE WENT TO ORIGINS (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

Tom's Lower Back the Sequel

We went to Origins last Friday. It was a somewhat impromptu thing. If you've been following us on Facebook or our podcast, you know that our convention plans for this year were limited to attending CSW Expo in Tempe, and that our plans were derailed by another installment in Tom's Lower Back Strikes Back (c'mon, Hollywood, enough with the sequels and reboots already!). With our convention budget being freed up, we decided we'd go to Origins for a day trip - much less ambitious than driving a couple of thousand miles from Detroit to Tempe! - and felt Friday sounded like a good day.

The drive down was pleasant enough, taking four hours and some change, including stopping for breakfast and a bathroom break. We got there just before twelve, waited in line to register until twelve, and then spent the next fifteen minutes registering. We felt really sorry for the lady at the desk, who was trying her best but likely didn't get a whole lot of training on their computer system. But after that, we were ready to go.

Captain Underpants cover

However - in the words of the immortal Dav Pilkey - before I tell you that story, I have to tell you this one. Because to understand how this con "went" for us (and to have some kind of point to this article beyond just recounting "this happened, then that happened"), you need to understand how previous cons went for us.

Because previous cons were very much not successful for us. By my count, we had attended four conventions previously: two Origins, one Gen-Con, and one Comicon. All four of them basically consisted of us wandering around a noisy, hot room while other people walked into us. We hardly talked to anyone (except at Comicon Mary talked to Lou Ferringo, and though she says it wasn't the case, it definitely looked to me like he was flirting with her, but what am I going to do, the guy is literally the Incredible Hulk) and when we did, we could barely hear what they were saying. I participated in maybe one or two demo games but didn't understand the rules and couldn't concentrate or focus on what was in front of me, let alone enjoy it.

So, why go? Well, for each of the three gaming conventions, I was there specifically to meet with euro publishers about the possibility of publishing one of my games. One of the great things about my transition into designing wargames is that it removed the need to pitch my games in person. Euro publishers constantly wanted me to come in person to show them the game, and usually wouldn't bother looking at any files electronically. Wargame publishers never asked me to show them a game at a con. I think this is because wargames are sufficiently complicated, and the decision space sufficiently aggregative, that there's not the same expectation that you should be able to set it up and explain it all in five minutes.

Anyway, I was lousy at pitching these things, just a mess of flop-sweat and stammering, and inevitably we left the convention disappointed, cursing under our breath that we had spent all those hours driving, and all that money, for nothing. It wasn't like there were any friends for us to meet or to game with.

Now, when we were planning our trip to CSW Expo, we figured things would be different this time around. First of all, we "knew" some of the people that we were going to meet at the convention, and they knew us, at least electronically. They, in turn, might be able to introduce us to others. Secondly, I wouldn't be some aspiring designer awkwardly attempting to push myself on publishers, since we're now publishers with I think a decent track record. Attending the con as publishers and as known quantities would also make it easier to communicate with folks in general. Because while I think that Mary and I are a generally gregarious (me more than Mary) and adorable (Mary more than me) couple, we're also fairly introverted and it's sometimes difficult to "put ourselves out there". This hurdle is removed when people already have some awareness of who we are; we get right past the awkward stage. So, when it came about that we wouldn't be going to CSW, and when we decided to go to Origins, we still were hoping that the experience would be different, for the same reasons.

And it was. We started by meeting Cole Wehrle, his brother Drew, and Travis D. Hill (he of Low Player Count and The Space Inside podcasting fame). We had lunch at a chicken place in the North Market building. It was pretty crowded and noisy. How the place works is that you place your order and pay for it, then you go sit down. Eventually, a fellow comes out with your order and bellows people's names at irregular intervals. "Tom R!" he shouted, and Mary and I waved him over so we could share the chicken sandwich we had purchased. It was more than a little disconcerting.

Despite the somewhat nerve-wracking milieu, we had a nice conversation with Cole, Drew, and Travis about Winsomes and wargames, and about designs we were working on (including, cough-cough, Cole's next game design for Hollandspiele) and designers we admired. It was like having lunch with friends, even though these were people we had just met in real life for the first time. Cole invited us to play some games after lunch, and we said we would after we were finished making the rounds, but we never managed to.

Podcast folks

We stopped in and said hello to a few other publishers we were friendly with, and then checked out the Grogheads area and introduced ourselves to Brant Guillory, the guy in charge. He introduced us to a couple of other folks, and we talked about our games, and the possibility of us having an actual official presence at Origins next year. Later we talked to David Heath, the owner of Lock N Load Publishing, about sales, development, and playtesting. Mary and I were both surprised at how easily and effortlessly these conversations flowed.

"Oh my gosh," I said, "it's like we're real, functioning adults. This is great!"

We decided that we should visit the Heavy Cardboard folks, Edward and Amanda, over at the Capstone booth, and were traversing the hall when I spotted Edward. "Hello!" I said.

At first he was probably wondering, who are these random people in the hallway saying hello to me? But then he saw our badges with our names. We had a nice, long conversation, more about life than anything else. Like me, Edward recently left his day-job to try and turn his hobby work into a primary source of income, and we talked about that experience. Edward also told me how he discovered that I was a real person, which probably sounds tantalizing and strange to folks who weren't part of the conversation, so I'm not going to explain it.

We stopped in at the Grogheads booth again to get in on a dinner order. They were ordering from a deli which had what was supposed to be a pretty good Reuben sandwich. Not having had a Reuben sandwich, pretty good or otherwise, in quite some time, Mary and I ordered one large sandwich to split between us. (We later got our sandwich - and actually the deli had only given us half of what we ordered, but that was, at least, pretty decent.) While we waited for the order to come, we went outside the hall to meet and speak with Hermann Luttmann and Fred Manzo.

Our last conversation for the day was also the longest. For an hour and a half, we talked about games, development, the marketplace, and personalities. Both Hermann and Fred were delightful raconteurs, and from our end, it seems like things just clicked. It's a rare occurrence, and perhaps that conversation, more than anything, left us feeling like we had had a very successful convention experience.

It was actually fun for us. It was still noisy, and somewhat overwhelming, and the wandering would-be hockey players still seemed to bump into my poor Mary with reckless abandon. We never did get to play any games, but neither of us knew if we'd really be able to concentrate on a game of any substance in that environment anyway. It was great just meeting with people, putting faces and voices to names, and talking about games and about life. It was easier for Mary to get involved in the conversations, and she noted afterwards that people actually listened and engaged with what she was saying. This isn't always the case in nerdy subcultures like ours.

Our previous convention trips had ended with a long and miserable drive home. This time, as we drove back to the Detroit area - a journey that took five hours due to some wrong turns and a rather terrifying thunder storm - we felt elated.


  • Brian, you’re supposed to be pitching BottosCon……or did my cheque bounce again?? I really like conventions, especially ones where I am only responsible for myself and not on call to answer a myriad of questions about food prices, parking prices, and hotell prices. I had a chance to go to Origins back in 2006 and spent a good chunk of my time in the CABS wargaming room. I’m pretty sure I came across like a drooling fan boy when I got to meet Tony Curtis, Andy Lewis, and Dean Essig. I hadn’t attained BottosCon infamy yet, but was still taken aback when one gamer said “Oh, you’re Rob Bottos!” wasn’t sure if it was for something good or bad so as a typical Canadian I apologized to deflect and defuse the situation ?

    Rob Bottos

  • Yes, meeting people and publishers is usually why I go to conventions too. Designers get together and talk technique and development, just as I am sure painters would talk about palette knives and where to get cheap red instead of Truth and Beauty. I rarely if ever play games, though when I do it’s to try out something I or someone else has brought to test.
    I sure hope you can make CSWExpo next year. It will be great to meet you two.

    Brian Train

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