Metatopia bills itself as a game design festival, not a game conference. The difference lies in the purpose: Metatopia is for game design professionals to playtest their current projects. You can’t buy most of the games there yet, although you may recognize some of the game titles from a Kickstarter. You can register as a player, but some of the games are only open to designers. There is also a robust panel track, and many, many opportunities for socializing.

apocalypse-worldI attended a Hack Night at GenCon where I met Marissa Kelly and Whitney Beltran, with whom I began working on an Apocalypse World hack. A hack takes the mechanics and lays another setting, characters, and flavor over it. So we took Apocalypse World (AW), stripped out the end of the world setting and playbooks that creator Vincent Baker had made, and substituted the fairy tale of Bluebeard. It’s a creepy game of feminine gothic horror that we’ve been steadily working on ever since August. When we found that I had won the Indie Game Design Network (IGDN) scholarship and would be at Metatopia with Marissa, I submitted our game, Bluebeard’s Bride, as one of the things I’d be playtesting at the event.

Game design is a little opaque to the average player. My previous experience is mainly at the end, providing layout and illustration after the adventure or game has already been written, edited, playtested, and is ready for publication. In Bluebeard’s Bride, we came up with a concept (make a creepy game in which you explore Bluebeard’s castle), designed characters (or playbooks in AW lingo), created Moves (the things players can do), and set some GM Principles (rules for the person running the game). Our game isn’t finished yet. Playtesting it at Metatopia is just another step in the process, and we anticipate many more rounds of playtesting and revising before we have a finished game.

I had enough to worry about with a game to playtest, but I also was new to Double Exposure events. Double Exposure is the organization behind Metatopia, but Avonelle Wing and Vincent Salzillo made sure I had everything I needed. As part of my scholarship, Double Exposure footed the bill for my room and badge. They helped me coordinate the playtesting for my game. They were warm and supportive, and they continued to make sure I was okay by helping me on my first playtest, introducing me to people, and just checking in on me occasionally throughout the festival. And from what I observed, they carry that behavior through to everyone they come in contact with.

New Jersey meme imageI’ve never been to New Jersey, nor to a convention by myself before, but I had the advantage of already being familiar with a lot of the people who would be there either from other conventions or from the game scene in Chicago. I was surprised at how pretty the New Jersey countryside was, and Morristown reminded me a bit of Providence. There wasn’t a New Jersey stereotype to be found during my entire time there.

Once I was at the convention center, I was quickly surrounded by a crowd of wonderful, friendly people who treated me as an equal as we cut name tags and helped the con organizers prep. I checked into my room and got ready for the first night: the mixer. The idea is a sound one, if a little intimidating. All of the industry professionals gather with drinks, empanadas, and a little gaming to kick off the con. I quickly lost track of names as I was introduced to a roomful of people, but everyone was kind and interested in hearing about my game. It helped me identify one of my weaknesses: selling myself. Many of the seasoned pros had their elevator pitches down: a quick couple of sentences that gave their background and sold you on the game they were there playtesting.

My first scheduled event on Friday was a panel on the IGDN. I’m not a member, but they offer their scholarship to anyone whose background or work addresses issues that affect diverse groups. There was a bit of good natured ribbing at my expense, but the focus was on what the IGDN has to offer independent game designers: resources, knowledge, and support. Next up was a panel on fictional cartography. It was full of interesting information, but it also felt weird to be sitting on the other side of the business — when someone asked what they should expect to pay for a quality illustrated map, I felt vaguely guilty and had to suppress the instinct to hand him my business card. Next was a panel on how to succeed at conventions, run by Avonelle herself. I picked up a bunch of really good tips and actually started using some of them before the con was over.

Tips and tricks for con success:

Practice your elevator pitch. Write down a few sentences describing yourself and (in this case) your game. Try it alone and with a friend. Don’t feel dumb. It takes practice.

Have business cards to hand out. Even if you don’t feel like a professional, they’re a handy way for people to get your contact info. Hi, new Twitter followers!

Use the business cards you’re given. Add contact info to whatever program you use and email the person right away with a brief reminder of who you are, where you met, what you talked about, and what you promised them. Avonelle said she’ll sometimes do this at her con booth just minutes after talking to someone, and it makes a positive impression.

Make a reminder on your calendar for what you need to do. It’s easy to get caught up in con fun, and then sitting down later, only be unable to remember who you promised that rough draft to. I made a dump event for the days following the con for who to email with thanks and for info. I fervently thanked past-Sarah when I got home.

Dungeon World Sage & LaTorra 2013Then I was off to my very first playtest. This was a Dungeon World setting I’d previously played with a couple of groups and felt very comfortable with. I ended up with one player I already knew, and overall the group was fantastic. I asked them to try and break the situation I had set up, but the feedback I received told me that the tweaking I needed to do wasn’t in the fiction of what I had made. I needed to evaluate the system I was using and identify who I was making this for. I also forgot to get most of their names, and they were probably the sweetest group of playtesters a nervous newbie designer could ask for.

In the next session that I attended, I witnessed how a pro handles a challenging playtest. Mark Diaz Truman was running his game The Dark Road, using Project Dark mechanics, which involve card decks instead of dice. He stated up front that we were there to test the mechanics, this was still in the preliminary stage, and the game is based on a play-by-post game he’s already made. He then began to sketch in the background information which is when the trouble began. One of the players argued with the very premise of Mark’s game: the system of law and order and the mechanics he chose. Mark calmly but firmly shut the guy down several times, until even the other player was speaking up to support him. We did manage to play through a little, but all the arguing had eaten up most of our time, and the argumentative guy had pretty much checked out by the time we were actually playing. I didn’t experience anything like that, but I appreciated the opportunity to see how someone might handle it.

Next was the big deal: the very first playtest of the game I was helping create. I was terribly nervous despite playing with one person I’ve played with before and another I know from online. I’d only ever run this game once, and that was the Sunday before the con. No one had seen it, but many of the people I’d met had already heard of it, in large part due to my co-creators. However, my playtest went wonderfully. Everyone seemed to really get into the experience of exploring Bluebeard’s castle, and they gave me some good feedback, both for the game and how to run it. You could have knocked me over by breathing in my direction by the time we were done.

I spent the rest of the night mingling with the other designers in the bar area, drinking far too much wine, and wondering how the hell I had convinced people to pay good money to fly me across the country to describe horrible things to people. And then I heard some of the other women there say they felt the same way. We were at this design festival, our game materials in hand and being played, and some of us refused to call ourselves designers. A friend of mine chided me for not telling him I was designing a game, and I realized I hadn’t because I wasn’t comfortable telling a published game designer that I was trying to do what people paid him to do for a living. I was introduced to Vincent Baker, who designed the game I hacked, and almost fell over when he told me he’d heard of Bluebeard’s Bride and was excited about it. I went back to my room and couldn’t sleep for a long time. It didn’t feel real.

Metatopia Women in Gaming panel Sarah Richardson 2014

The next morning started with a panel on women in gaming. It was one of the highlights of my experience. Five female game designers talked about how they managed their lives, watched their children discover games, and discussed overall trends in gaming that affect women. Shoshana Kessock, Emily Care-Boss, Julia Ellingboe, Amanda Valentine, and Avonelle Wing spent part of the time discussing how essential mentorships are to make sure new female designers have the support they need, how the “second shift” adversely affects the amount of time designers have to work on their games, and how important crowdfunding as well as the visibility of female designers is to encouraging more women to make games. They talked about Imposter Syndrome, which I mentioned above, and how cultural messages reinforce normal doubts and turn them into a cycle as women self-select out of jobs and opportunities, telling themselves that they shouldn’t bother, that they aren’t qualified, even if it’s not true. Several women in the room knew of a recent job opening in Paizo, but only one or two had actually applied.

Metatopia Indie+ panel Sarah Richardson 2014

After that was a panel on Gaming as Other which is an Indie+ event that occurs at both online and offline conventions. They spoke of their experience gaming and making things as people of color, and the two women on the panel spoke to the singular experience of gaming as women of color. I left feeling like I understood someone else’s perspective a little bit more, as well as seeing how much I wouldn’t be able to understand.

I then had a playtest of Bluebeard’s Bride with a game designer I really respect, Avery Mcdaldno, and her proclamation that our session was “hot” is the highest of compliments. The session was fantastic, and I can’t really describe how it feels to see a game you’ve worked on click with the players when they start taking it and making it theirs. It was a pretty addictive feeling.

I went straight to a playtest of Ken Hite’s Last Flight of the KG200, and that was a newbie mistake. Especially with such an amazing playtest to process emotionally and intellectually, I wasn’t quite up to role playing, but I soldiered through and thoroughly enjoyed the game. I relaxed until a dinner with the IGDN in which I indulged in lamb and bourbon, before hitting the panel on Lovecraft: WTF?. It was moderated by Julia Ellingboe, and she started off by describing how she as a black woman interacted with the racist material found in Disney’s Song of the South. It was a really good panel, and I think there will be another next year to directly address how to deal with problematic material in games.

Project Dark Will Hindmarch 2014Despite another late night, I was able to check out and get to my first game on time, Will Hindmarch’s Project Dark. This is a futuristic game where the apocalypse has happened, but civilization hasn’t ended nor been affected equally. Instead of rolling dice you pull cards from your private deck and play them in order to overcome obstacles. Our mission had a serious Inception vibe, and I cannot wait to play this game again. Hindmarch was playtesting several things, including how to teach his game, so I got to see an example of an almost done playtest as well.

After that I ran a final game of Dungeon World with some of the funniest players I met all weekend and finished with a quiet but bloody game of Bluebeard’s Bride. I had finally gotten my footing on how to run it, and the two women in that game really touched me when they related that they normally didn’t play horror RPGs, but that this had been a safe place for them to explore horrific themes.

I would recommend anyone who wants to make games to go to this con. I didn’t even see the LARP, board, or card game areas, and I still had a full schedule. People were throwing out game ideas while they sat in the lounge and were having discussions of design theory over lunch, but they also played and drank and just hung out with their friends. I went there with a sense of feeling exposed (which was made worse for a while from an unrelenting sense of attention due to my scholarship) but left feeling pretty comfortable. And apply for the IGDN scholarship! I honestly thought I had no chance of winning. I figured there would be someone with more experience, better games, something. A real game designer, if you will. I probably wouldn’t have been able to attend without it, and Metatopia hadn’t even been on my wish list before. Now I’m having to make a list of cons for next year and taking a hard look at some choices.