Wednesday, December 5, 2018

PAX Unplugged: A First Time Critique

Ran into some friendly faces at the Loews bar.
So, I started to write this PAX Unplugged post and it appears on the surface to be a bit of a polemic. I had a lot of fun as a first-time attendee, but I also experienced its shortcomings.

This post is not intended to be a hit job. However, my critiques are unabashed. It would be inaccurate to assume I was disappointed overall as I quite enjoyed the convention. However, I saw a lot of potential unfulfilled. So, here’s your trigger warning:

The following post is unflinching in its critique of PAX Unplugged.

The TLDR version is that it’s a good convention that could be a lot better with some relatively simple adjustments. So, that’s my disclaimer.


I have mixed feelings about the security at PAX Unplugged. I understand that a large event like this needs to appear secure, but it’s almost entirely theater.

First Day lines were pretty long, and there was an big
issue letting people by the queue for the main theater.
Of the several times I had to pass through the security line, the security workers barely glanced inside the backpack and passed it along the table past the metal detectors (meaning any concealed weapon would not have been found). Only once did one of the gatekeepers actually look inside with real effort.

Secondly, the groups of people bunched up in lines by the doors would have provided a juicy target for any crazies. So basically, security is an inconvenience for attendees, raises the costs of the event, and offers only a tissue paper shield of safety against anyone who actually intends harm. I guess that’s just the world we live in now because that’s true of most event security, not just at a PAX event.


The Enforcers at PAX Unplugged were pleasant and helpful. I have only praise for those who volunteer time to help out other gamers. PAX has a lot of moving parts and the volunteers do their best to contribute to the positive outcome of the show.

Expo (Vendor) Hall

The Expo Hall was quite large -- not quite, but coming close to the size of Origins. There was a variety of vendors from RPG and board game publishers, as well as an array of accessory vendors. I found it a little hard to get bearings as the published maps were rotated 90 degrees from how one might navigate in your head (for instance, I think of the front entry doors as the "top" of the map), but that's just a personal foible. I read a few complaints that re-sellers dominated the space (rather than original publishers), but that thought had not occurred to me. There were a few re-sellers such as Cool Stuff that had large, centrally located booths, but I didn't think that detracted. Most publisher booths were generally smaller and less flashy than one might see at Gen Con or Origins, but for the most part, there was plenty to see for a con of this size.


Tried out the Pathfinder play test with
none other than Erik Mona as GM.

One thing PAX Unplugged has going for it is that its association with Penny Arcade means there will always be an Acquisitions Incorporated show, as well as other gaming streams, appearing at the convention.

Being a "PAX", it is likely to attract people in the industry who are fan favorites, as well as many game industry insiders. I was able to say hello to many well known industry people -- Patrick Rothfuss, Satine Phoenix, Jim Zub, Scott Kurtz, the Dice Tower crew (Tom, Zee, and Sam), Erik Mona, Jeremy Crawford, Joe Goodman, as well as many other designers and artists. Given that it's a PAX, it's bound to attract the heavy weights every year.

Event Scheduling

Warning: Ranty wall of text.

I think this is where PAX Unplugged really loses against just about every other gaming con I’ve attended. Attendees were only allowed to register for some of the largest game tournaments, as well as some D&D Adventurers League modules. There was little way for show attendees to find other RPGs or board games, as there was no centralized schedule or listing of the smaller events.

Even at the RPG HQ (where attendees were intended to find RPGs run by GM’s attending the con), there were only about a dozen different RPGs for which to sign up. I checked the room at the beginning of each day and a few other times, but there was only a very limited selection each time I was there. I think this sign-up service may have suffered from lack of promotion.

At the Games On Demand area, there were probably ½ dozen games going on at any time, but you couldn’t sign up for specific games. You had to get there early to stand in line in hopes of getting the game you wanted. You weren’t guaranteed to play the one that interested you. For example, when I investigated, there was Mutant Year Zero RPG being run, but also a Monster Hearts and several other indie RPGs that just didn’t appeal to me. You don’t sign up for a specific game… you get placed in the pool of all the games being run that time slot. First come, first served.

I’m sure Monster Hearts is a perfectly good game, but I wanted to play a sentient, cybernetic badger in a post-apocalyptic Hellscape, not a teen-angst filled wolf boy. I didn’t want to wait an hour only to find out the game I wanted was full and I’d have to choose another random RPG (or just leave, having wasted an hour in line).

Board gamers may have had it even worse. You either had to hope to get in a very short demo of the game in the vendor hall, or ask at the publisher booth if they knew of anyone running the game in the free play area… Or you just walked around aimlessly in the free play area hoping to find a game you wanted to play with open spots. You were utterly on your own if you wanted to find a game. As it turns out, there were some people on the Board Game Geek forums scheduling their own ad-hoc pick-up games. This is honestly ridiculous. A large convention should provide a means of hooking players up together. PAX Unplugged didn’t even have its own user forums for this kind of matchmaking.

Looking at the schedule for a convention like Origins, all the major publishers can list a schedule of their game demos or tournaments. Independent GM’s can list their own RPGs or board games being run. Board games and RPGs are assigned table space and time slots which can be searched for by attendees in order to register ahead of time or, at the least, show up at game time in hopes of getting a spot. Smaller conventions might use Warhorn or Tabletop Events sites to list their games (or allow attendees to list their own events in order to find players).

There quite a few technological solutions that allow GMs to post games and attendees to sign up (just stay the hell away from Event Brite). This isn’t the case at PAX Unplugged. Attendees are forced to meander around the “free play” area in hopes of a random pick-up game.

It’s the worst.

I found myself on Saturday doing exactly that. I wandered around looking hopefully for a game that needed players. It was a huge waste of time, and extraordinarily hard to find the games I wanted to play. By contrast, Origins or Gen Con has a listing of hundreds of events for any given time slot. PAX appeared to have hundreds of games going on in the free play area, but good luck finding one you want because they appear on no schedule anywhere. It’s a scavenger hunt that no one wants.

I understand that Gen Con and Origins are both decades old and can still have issues with event registration, but the PAX team isn’t exactly new to the convention circuit. For me, this is one of the single greatest faults of the convention. There’s really no excuse to not have a system of sign-ups and wait lists that extend beyond just the D&D Adventurers League events. Even local conventions of a few hundred attendees provide this most basic event listings -- event location, time slot, number of players -- even if they don’t provide full on-line registration.

Any other gaming convention of this size would be widely panned for not including some kind of game listings or registration. Somehow PAX Unplugged gets a pass because it's a PAX.

Had a really fun crew to play with at the D&D Open.

D&D Adventurers League

One of the few event categories that did have pre-registration was D&D Adventurers League. Of course, the slots filled up within minutes of registration opening, which meant if you wanted to get in on the waitlist, you had to arrive really early before the event to be at the front of the wait line. I was lucky enough to get into the D&D Open from the waitlist. Due to the length of the Open (9 hours), Not many people waitlisted and they sat everyone. The Tier 2 games were much harder to get into except for Sunday.

The Role Initiative (TRI) did a good job keeping things organized. They’ve only been doing this a couple of years, but as far as I could tell, DDAL games ran fairly smoothly. There was a small shortage of Friday/Saturday DM’s due to sickness or no shows, but that is largely out of the control of organizers. Consider helping out TRI at future events. There was plenty of demand for Adventurers League and willing DM’s are always needed regardless of the size of a convention.

Final Thoughts

A convention like PAX Unplugged has a high bar to clear. It will inevitably be compared to other heavy weights in the gaming industry like Origins or Gen Con, which each have their own issues.

Event registration has been problematic for Origins in recent years and limited housing is Gen Con’s Achilles Heel. PAX Unplugged, on the other hand, has plentiful nearby hotels, but absolutely no event listings, other than the large games and seminars (many of which require standing in huge lines for hours).

If PAX Unplugged can manage even the most rudimentary event registration for smaller RPG and board games (aside from Adventurers League), it could easily surpass Origins as the go-to gaming convention for those living near the East Coast.

Lastly, support your local cons. There are a bounty of wonderful, smaller cons popping up all over the country that could use your love. The East Coast hosts many, such as BFG Con, 1d4 Con, MACE, Mars Con, PrezCon, RavenCon... Keep an eye out. Attend. Volunteer. Run a game.

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