Survive the Con – Origins 2023

Origins became an annual pilgrimage for me starting in 2019. It feels like a dozen lifetimes have passed since my friend Augur and I enjoyed an assortment of games. Some standouts included Survive the Night’s “Carnage at Camp Ojibwe” with its creator Brian Crenshaw and the now classic Call of Cthulhu con scenario “The Shooting Party” with Matt French. These were the days of yore in the Rogue Cthulhu era, pre-COVID, back before I gave in to the Keeper’s compulsion…back when I actually went to cons and played games. My experiences with conventions and gaming have evolved substantially over the last several years, and this trip to Origins nicely encapsulates those shifts. 

Though I wish I could have attended opening day, I did not regret missing the massive registration queues. For a convention of this size, sending a pre-printed badge in the mail and allowing folks to hit the ground running when they arrive would be nice. This continued shortcoming paired poorly with the subpar mobile app, and I’m glad I finalized my schedule earlier in the week. I surrendered all of Wednesday to travel and arrived at the Graduate Hotel just shy of midnight. Booked in advance, I thought I would be near my primary game room, but Origins has a penchant for moving events, so I enjoyed long-ish walks every day.  

Opening Day lines. Photo courtesy of Bridgett Jeffries.

I had originally planned to play in a Spelljammer game employing the Savage Worlds system, but I ended up dropping to help fill a slot when a fellow Keeper couldn’t make it. Since I was a substitute, I allowed the players to pick the scenario, and they opted for my French Quarter “home brew” adventure. Kicking things off with “Swamp Song,” I ran this adventure four times during the con. Each group was satisfyingly different in their approach to the mystery and its conclusion. I enjoyed rolling out the Bouts of Madness Deck (available through the Miskatonic Repository) for the first time, and so did the players. Once struck by insanity, I dealt them three cards and allowed them to select the Bout most suited to their taste. The combination of player and character agency really brought some great roleplaying moments to the table. In my third game of Swamp, there was an extended sidequest to lay waste to both concrete and fabric birds.

Laissez le bon temps rouler! Preparing for the first foray into the French Quarter.

By the time of my third game on Wednesday, my voice had begun to crack and fail. Things were looking grim. I had fought off low-grade preschool-born crud to make it here, and it was now striking back with a vengeance. Fortunately, the energy of my table for “The Vanishing Conjurer” propelled me forward. This group of five friends plus one of my favorite public librarians embarked on an explosive effort to sabotage a West End charity show. Remarkably, only one character died in the cataclysm. Hilarious deception and infighting nearly derailed their attempts to secure a critical prop that would propel their traveling magic act to dizzying heights. After snagging some pizza at Mikey’s Late Night Slice, I shuffled back to my hotel to sink into a Nyquil coma. 

Matt McCloud showcasing the incredible prizes available to table MVPs. Photo Courtesy of Bridgett Jeffries.

The next morning, honey lemon tea managed to get me back to the Lurking Fears game room over in the Hyatt. I ran my first-ever con game with Lurking Fears post-Covid at Origins in 2021. It was great seeing both new and familiar faces running games this year.  Thanks to the hard work and hustle of Matt McCloud, the group’s de facto boss man, a massive collection of prize support from quality publishers like Chaosium, Free League, and Modiphius strained two large bookshelves. While Lurking Fears carries on the Rogue Cthulhu tradition of bringing quality Call of Cthulhu to Origins, the group also runs a wide gamut of systems, including Free League’s forthcoming Dragonbane (as well as Alien and Vaesen) run by tireless hype man Jonathon Myhre, Bloat Games Dark Places and Demogorgons, and Penny for a Tale’s Necrobiotic, which relies on neat playing card-based mechanics.

If you enjoy the art of Vaesen, you’re going to love the look of Dragonbane. Photo by Jonathon Myhre.

With sixteen tables in the main room, this many-headed monstrosity relied on the help of all-star volunteers, especially Chris and Betty Tatum, to keep things organized. Having the slot schedule on a TV screen really helped. At Origins 2023, Lurking Fears put on a staggering 204 events, including games, seminars, and a live play featuring Cthulhu in Cairo. Chaosium games (86), predominantly CoC, represented nearly a third of that total with other notables including Free League (50), Modiphius (12), Wet Ink Games (10), Bloat (8), and Mongoose Publishing (8). 

Taken moments before President Meints escorted me out of the Chaosium booth. I just wanted to ask what kind of knight he was.

After my morning game with a tremendous group, I took a stroll through the vendor hall and resisted the urge to throw money at Traveller books and the Judge’s Guild Deluxe Collector’s Edition. Barely. I allowed myself a moment of weakness when Chaosium’s Matt Ryan suggested one of the few remaining copies of the pre-release Pendragon Starter Set, which officially drops on June 29th. The shadow of Rick Meints loomed large as Dustin and Jeremiah moved tons of product, including Rivers of London and Regency Cthulhu, with many bearing bargain bin prices. Sated, I wandered around and drank in the sight of a full vendor hall before returning to my room for a much-needed nap.

Still struggling, I found my way back to the Hyatt in time for my 7 pm game. I had the pleasure of running “The Death of Superstition” for Lurking Fears stalwarts Tara, Becky, and Sean along with three other fantastic players. Despite feeling run down, the ingenuity and antics of the group just carried me on a wave of enthusiasm as we raced to a wild conclusion for the scenario. Not since my very first playtest of this Halloween romp has a group of players unleashed such violence and insanity at the climax. Never has the typically mild-mannered scientist exhibited such rabid bloodlust. It was remarkable. 

A séance takes place in the packed Lurking Fears room on Friday night while Clarence remains a wide-eyed skeptic.

Journeying back to my hotel, I ran into Nate and Miranda from The Old Ways Podcast. Riding the post-game high, I joined them in the Hilton bar to hang with some of The Old Ways cast. As a long-time listener, it was a revelation to discover James, the talented artist behind my awesome shirt also voices Dr. Sigmund Tattenbach in the show’s Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign. This Origins marked the first gathering of cast members from all three storylines, including the “Horror on Orient Express” and their Vampire: The Masquerade narrative, Blood Moon Rising

A really sweet Old Ways & MUP t-shirt featuring art by James/Sigmund.

Saturday followed a familiar routine, as I ran “Swamp Song” in the morning and “The Death of Superstition” at night. I broke up my two games by playing Unknown Armies with Al “Diesel” Smith and a lovely couple from Ann Arbor. Was shocked to learn they hadn’t heard of Chaosium Con until this weekend, and I’m looking forward to seeing them in attendance next year. While I’ve read and admired Unknown Armies, this was my first time seeing it in action. Diesel’s scenario, “Something to Remember Me By,” hinged on intense interpersonal relationships, arcane entanglement, and frequent use of the system’s coercion and conflict mechanics. It was not for the faint-hearted. As someone who frequently runs frantic, madcap investigative scenarios, the high-stakes, emotional roleplaying was a welcome change of pace. With clearly set lines and veils, Diesel did an excellent job spotlighting our characters while advancing the tension at a small dinner party. Within two hours, our small group reached a gut-wrenching conclusion. I look forward to trying Unknown Armies again, and I can appreciate its merits in creating strong and stirring storylines. 

“The Death of Superstition” marked my final game of the con. After a delightful game with XPLovecat in the morning, I invited her husband, Will, to join us as a seventh player since I had brought an additional pre-gen. This group presented a mix of seasoned veterans along with two new players. The table took a little time to warm up, but once the momentum took hold…wow. I’ve run this scenario nearly twenty times, and this group introduced ideas, took actions, and created consequences I’ve never had to contend with. There was a blood-soaked fight beneath a fallen theater curtain. An Achilles tendon fell to a palette knife, and a pair of scissors unleashed a popliteal artery torrent. The group crafted such an amazing story, and the novelty of it was so rewarding. This felt like a fitting end for “The Death of Superstition,” which I’ll be retiring from convention play.

I stopped by Bareburger to say hi to Nate, Miranda, and (Allegedly) Dave before heading back to my room to wind down with “The Black Cauldron.” I played a lot of games but I missed a lot of cool stuff this year like:

Captain Nate takes some familiar looking swabs on a journey into the Dark Caribbean. Photo by John Tyler.
  • Pirate Borg: Yaaaar! So many people were playing and running Luke Stratton’s beautiful little system at Origins. I have thoroughly enjoyed my own Pirate Borg home brews, but the costumes, tables, and anecdotes left me thirstin’ fer more!
  • Cthulhu in Cairo: Pulp Cthulhu run by Keeper Bruno “Raz” Grigoletti III with guest appearance by Seth Skorkowsky. Matt McCloud and Raz moved mountains to make this spectacle happen after Origins pulled the rug (and AV equipment) just days before the con.
  • Old Ways Podcast: they recorded a live episode, they hosted a Q&A session, and their collective ran some great games, including Vaesen and  the woefully under-represented Delta Green. This impressive group of creatives was out in force and coordinating fashionable outfits.  
  • Bridgett and Seth talking Chaosium: revealed and discussed the forthcoming Call of Cthulhu 1990s solo adventure, Alone Against the Static, by Brian Holland. For Gloranthaphiles, they revealed the next installment in the system-free Cults of Runequests sourcebook series: Mythology. 
  • Playing more games: Survive the Night returned this year for the first time since 2019. Always wish I could play more convention DCC. Missed out on Jonathon’s Dragonbane extravaganza. 
To be released in October 2023.

Sunday. I made it. No more games. I checked to see if I could jump into any sessions before I departed, but thought better of it. I took a longer, slower crawl through the vendor hall, and picked up some lauded Mothership materials, “Scrap Rats” and “The Cleaning of Prison Station Echo” (with great art by Evlyn Moreau). I snagged a copy of the Dragonbane Quickstart Rules, along with Mörk Borg (belated, I know). Before heading out, I stopped in at the Chaosium booth for one final hug from Bridgett Jeffries. It will be far too long before I see this crew again in person. 

The DCC ziggurat always draws me in despite my giant stack of unplayed Lankhmar and Dying Earth modules.

On the way to grab a final bite at North Market, I caught Rina, Matt “Doc” Tracey, and John C in the vast convention center hallway. The Other Doc carried on a conversation with two of my favorite players, Lynn and Mary, while I caught up with Rina, who introduced me to John, a fellow Old Ways cast member (Vince in theirVampire storyline). I got to hear from Rina about their experiences running Saturday the 14th and a Cthulhu Dark scenario set at a Polish Comic Con. While I enjoyed my weekend running games (and myself into the ground), I wished I played more and I missed the easy social interactions at smaller conventions. Having attended NecronomiCon and Chaosium Con in the last year, my tastes have shifted towards more intimate affairs where I can easily reunite with friends and catch a conversation on the way to the bar or the next game. While I enjoy the variety offered at larger cons, my interests tend to skew toward discrete niches these days. For those of you planning to return, you can rest assured Lurking Fears will be there. In fact, I’m currently crafting the Cthulhu Masters scenario for Origins 2024.  

Saying hello and goodbye to Rina, Doc, and John on Sunday.

From my perspective, Origins offers an excellent, large-scale alternative to the utter madness of Gen Con and its hotel lotteries but still has a long way to go in terms of organization. At almost every level. There are great games to be had at Origins, and fantastic companies regularly attend, but I think I’ll be taking a hiatus next year as I continue to reevaluate my convention priorities. So much to do, so little time.  At the very least, next time I hope to avoid being a vector for Con Crud. 

If you are back at Origins in 2024, learn from my many mistakes. For one, don’t miss out on a game of Survive the Night for some engaging high school horror and easy-to-learn game mechanics.