Philcon was great!
I left work early, picked up my little brother, and drove down Friday afternoon. We got to the con about an hour before stuff got started, met up with roommates and dealt with hotel setup stuff, then got ready for Shabbos.
I showed up at Kabbalat Shabbat services and was promptly told that the guy who normally leads the services hadn't shown up yet, and could I lead the davening? The Philcon minyan, such as it is, is an odd and extremely heterogeneous collection of people with extremely varying perspectives on Judaism and extremely varying levels of Jewish education- most are not capable to leading the Friday night prayer service, and none of the few that are are going to be able to manage to do it in a way that leaves everyone feeling fully comfortable and satisfied. So it was somewhat daunting- how do you lead a prayer service when everyone doesn't know the same melodies, some people want explanation and context and chizuk, some want to hear the familiar melodies of their childhood, and others want to smoothly move through the Hebrew in a way that lets them dig into the prayers? This is inevitably the challenge of doing a prayer service at a con, and I think I acquitted myself better this time than I have in some past instances, helped by the fact that someone actually spontaneously took up the role of gabbai calling out pages and offering a little context on the prayers and letting me focus on being chazan.
After that we made kiddush in our hotel room and ate dinner, and caught up on life and politics and so on, and then I went to be on a panel about the Hugo Awards.
This went well- we fortunately had a good moderator who kept control of the room and a thoughtful, cooperative audience, and we went through all the nonsense with 4 and 6 and EPH and EPH+, and then with about fifteen minutes left I had the thought to turn the conversation around to the YA Not-A-Hugo and we had a lively debate about the merits of that idea for the rest of the panel. And people actually came up to me afterward to thank me for the panel, so it clearly worked out okay. I had to flee the panel in a hurry because right afterward was my D&D game.
In general, The Quest for the Sword Trees was a success. We had varying experience levels at the table, from veteran D&D players to someone who'd never played an RPG before and was being dragged along by a friend, and 5E worked exactly as it's supposed to- offering cool powers for each player but otherwise being invisible enough that even the newbie rapidly understood what he needed to do to get in character and participate in the adventure.
The raison d'etre of the adventure was to give me a reason to use all of the nifty magical sword rules 5th edition has, and the adventure design grew up around that, into a story about the social and political dynamics of a magical forest populated by numerous fey creatures. My favorite moment in the adventure was when the players struck a bargain with the faerie king for transport to the sword trees, and then immediately spotted. after sealing the deal, both a loophole they could take advantage of, and a loophole that would screw them over. It told me that I had gotten my design of the faeries just right
And the players were thrilled with their swords, except for the one who ended up with a cursed sword. (Me: "You grabbed the sword with the skulls carved all over it. What did you expect?" Him: I expected it to do cool skull things, not evil skull things!") I would have liked to have given them a little more opportunity to use them, but ran out of time, but enough cool stuff happened that I think it was okay.
The forest exploration stuff worked out pretty well- the players mostly stuck to the paths, but not exclusively, and they pretty quickly recognized that they didn't have to. That was definitely aided by sanguinity
's suggestion about the ambiguity of paths, and my use of off-path sound and visual cues, and the players' idea to climb trees and see what they could see, but the biggest reason they came to the realization, I think, is something I completely hadn't though of: THEY DIDN'T HAVE THE WHOLE MAP IN FRONT OF THEM. I presented them a blank sheet of graph paper that I sometimes used to give them a rough idea of where they'd ended up and which paths they'd traversed, but they didn't have my nice, neat forest-as-dungeon map in front of them with all the paths laid out, which made it easier for them to realize that they could move in any direction- I'd overworried because I'd partially forgotten the information-asymmetry.
The only problem was the ending- a player had to leave a little before the adventure ended, and it sort of took the steam out of things. I navigated the players to their graduation ceremony and rewarded them, but... it didn't have the kind of finality I wanted it to. Oh, well, there's nothing you can do sometimes. After the game, I went to the traditional Eye of Argon reading for a bit and then went to sleep.
Saturday was fun and relaxing- I had no program responsibilities, so I got to enjoy myself. There was a Shacharit davening, which didn't quite manage a minyan, but which was still a nice experience.
Then I went to a panel which had Chip Delany and Lawrence Schoen and a couple other linguists and SF writers interested in linguistics talking about alien linguistics. It was deliciously technical and thoughtful and also asdfekjl Chip Delany is awesome!!! Schoen, who is an accomplished author, editor, and educator himself, turned into a total fanboy in Delany's presence, and the whole panel was just great. They talked a lot about how going back to the technical linguistic definitions of 'language' and 'communication system' can provide room for inspiration for thinking about kinds of writing that technically comply with various definitions, but in some slant way, or thinking about specific ways in which alien communication systems defy the academic definitions.
Then I went to a screening of an interview with David Kyle from several years ago. Kyle was at the first Philcon, 80 years ago. He was a small press publisher, a fannish organizer who chaired a Worldcon in the '50s, but all his life he was a fan first and foremost. He passed away about a month ago, and it was a loss that I felt at the convention even though he certainly lived a long life. David Kyle and Philcon feel inextricably linked to me, and in my head in addition to just seeing him as a kind and generous person, he represents the idea that fandom is a family that you grow up with, that dread 'the graying of fandom' is a feature, not a bug.
In the interview, recorded for the 75th anniversary of the first Philcon, Kyle talked about the early politics of fandom, both personal politics in terms of people liking or hating each other and scheming for power in fannish institutions and macro politics in terms of who supported different American political viewpoints and how that influenced fannish discourse. There's a certain degree of plus ca change, but there's also a real sense in his early stories of the idea that they were starting something new, a kind of interpersonal interaction that hadn't existed in this way for this type of people. And that the 'famous'/'infamous' stories of Fannish Exclusion Acts and so on came about because they were inventing this culture from scratch and making all sorts of mistakes along the way. And also, Kyle kept emphasizing this, because they were all incredibly young and stupid. None of the major organizers of the first Worldcon were older than about 22. This is weird to think about because a lot of them went on to major careers as professionals in the field of SFF, as authors or editors or publishers, so imagining them as punk kids fumbling their way through the creation of Worldcon requires a readjustment of perspective.
Then we did kiddush and lunch and a quick Shabbos nap before CJ Cherryh's keynote.
Cherryh's keynote was fabulous. She spoke about her early life, the obsession with writing that she carefully nurtured into a career that remains an obsession. And then she talked about science fiction as a way of seeing the world, as the idea that the world presents us problems and we have the ability, because of technology and our own ingenuity, to come up with solutions. It was breathtaking and frighteningly optimistic. I wish I had the full text of the lecture, but a sample quote a friend took down: "Science fiction is not the literature of colored lights. It's the literature of people overcoming things."
Then there was a panel on Star Wars and the Force Awakens and the state of SW fandom. Which was basically an hour of people squeeing at each other, and then we went out into the hall to talk about Star Wars some more. I am so excited about this new renaissance in people having Star Wars feels and I cannot wait for Rogue One to come out.
Afterward, I played a few rounds of Shadow Hunters in the game room, this simple, easy to learn intrigue game where the players all try to kill each other while trying to determine who is on whose secret team. I liked it a lot. Then I grabbed a quick dinner in my room and joined a Numenera rpg game.
Numenera is an rpg released by the legendary game designer Monte Cook a few years ago, and which I've wanted to try since then. Its fundamental concept is to create a system where exploration and learning more about the world is more important than combat, but that still features a robust enough combat system to function as an action rpg. Experience is awarded for discoveries, and player abilities are balanced against the presence of many powerful magical items spread through the environment- for these reasons it's more advantageous to players to explore and figure out how these magic items work than to grind xp by killing monsters.
The one-shot adventure was incredibly fun and satisfying to play. Combat was fun but quick when it happened, but the best moment in the adventure was when we put together the clues and figured out what was making the enemy machine work and how to stop it from attacking us. That's a hard experience to engineer in D&D to the same level that it was seamlessly easy in Numenera.
After the game I went to a party and drank some unidentifiable blue alcoholic drink (labeled Saurian Brandy or something silly like that) and talked with people for a while before sleep.
In the morning I didn't do much but laze around the room and read and check out of the room. Oh, I also nudzhed the rest of my roommates to hurry up and check out of the room faster. That was fun. I did a quick tour of the dealer's room, but didn't buy anything.
At noon was the panel on fanfiction and how it does things differently than published fiction. Our assigned moderator couldn't make it this weekend, so the rest of us looked at each other in puzzlement for a moment and then I volunteered to moderate. Which was great! The power rushed to my head and I took advantage to fix my problems with the panel description and plowed ahead with the panel I'd really wanted to have, which was about how the fact that fanfiction is written with the knowledge that it won't be published leads to all sorts of interesting features. My co-panelists went along with me and I think the panel went really well. We talked about notfic and how fanfic writers feel that it's okay sometimes to post stories that aren't quite stories, and how that sometimes opens up a lot of freedom to try things out and not care if people read them. We talked about remix and how the fact that we're already remixing canons means we feel free as well to remix each others' works. We talked about representation, how the fact that we're writing work without any interest in commercialization means we can write for small audiences, how we can write stories catering to all different types of identities. And we also talked about how that's not always as utopic as all that. One of the panelists spoke about her frustration with the comparative lack of F/F vs. M/M, and how 'Write it yourself' isn't always a satisfying answer. Another talked about how when you encounter a crappy Homestuck fic written by a twelve year old, you can just move on and probably find a similar story only better written somewhere else, but acknowledged that sometimes the niche is just too small and you have to accept the badly written story as the only one filling the niche you're hunting for. We talked about how AO3's tagging system is so great and how it means that you can hunt for stories fitting into whatever niche you're looking for, so that even if there does exist a published story in that niche, it is often much, much easier to find the fanfiction than to find the obscure published fiction.
We had a good, active audience and we had great panelists and this was finally the kind of panel I've known we could have at Philcon about fanfiction. :D :D :D
The last panel I attended at Philcon was about the intersection of science and visual art, and it was lovely and thought provoking and a great capper for the weekend. The panelists talked about things as varied as Cherenkov radiation and medieval cathedrals and strandbeests.
So that was Philcon. I had a great time. People spent a lot of time complaining about Philcon this year- it was too small, too staid, not enough good panels, whatever. I realized this year that I've hit the point with Philcon where I could not tell if that were true or not and couldn't care less. Philcon is just this balloon of space and time that makes me happy.