I have been to every Salt Lake Comic-Con there has been so far, and I hope to continue doing so for so long as both I and the Salt Lake Comic-Con exist. Since my brother and I play D&D on weekends, which is also when conventions occur, we are going to spend the week talking about the convention, since no Hoard of the Dragon Queen happened. I’m going to pepper my discussion of the con with random and largely unrelated pictures of cool cosplays and the odd crowd shot, because hey, I’ve got pics, why not use ’em.
Salt Lake and San Diego have had a bit of a tiff over the title of being the Comic-Con, since Salt Lake aggressively advertised itself at San Diego and San Diego responded with a lawsuit over the name, which was kind of an empty threat since tons of conventions have been calling themselves Comic-Con for years, so San Diego has pretty firmly lost the right to that particular trademark. Most notably, the New York Comic-Con had been running for six years before Salt Lake’s 2013 debut, and New York has also quietly usurped the throne of largest Comic-Con by attendance while San Diego and Salt Lake were bickering over it. In our (and San Diego’s) defense, New York cheated by being one of the most densely populated places on Earth to begin with.
The 2013 Salt Lake Comic Con was the largest first time Comic Con of all time, although in San Diego’s defense we cheated by starting up after geekdom had already become a socially acceptable thing to be involved in. You can stand around the water cooler and talk about how you went to Comic-Con this weekend and had an Iron Man costume you were really proud of and people will take it in stride and might even ask for a picture of your costume. That last one is probably out of politeness more than genuine interest, but still, that’s something that would’ve gotten you funny looks and punted you halfway to pariah status twenty years ago.
I almost didn’t hear about the first Salt Lake Comic Con. I happened to be visiting my father and he mentioned that he’d heard Stan Lee was going to be at the Salt Lake Comic Con (he was, in fact, there) and asked if I’d heard about it. I hadn’t even heard we were going to have a Comic Con, and was able to snag a Friday and Saturday ticket with some spare money I had lying around – and it was lucky I had that money lying around, since I was (and to a lesser extent, still am) pretty strapped for cash.
Northern Utah has an incredible density of authors. Brandon Sanderson, Tracy Hickman, and Margaret Weiss all have Salt Lake in their backyard off the top of my head – an exhaustive list would practically be a post unto itself. Being such an author-heavy convention means we can bring in even more authors by weight of association (J Scott Savage, for example, comes out to the Salt Lake Comic Con semi-regularly despite living in California, and while I don’t know for sure, I suspect he doesn’t go to many other conventions as a panelist unless they’re writing conventions specifically).
Numbers on attendance at the 2013 Comic Con are impossible to say for sure. I went on Saturday with Stubbazubba (who still lived in northern Utah at the time) and they completely gave up actually taking tickets after about two hours of struggling to get a decent throughput going, just telling everyone to come in. Turns out Stubbazubba didn’t even need to bother paying. The Salt Lake FanXperience, which started in 2014 (despite that extremely 90s name) as an off-season convention by the same guys who put on the main con, is the first time when proper numbers were available. FanX broke 100,000 attendees and cemented Salt Lake’s position as #3 to San Diego and New York, and at this point we were also starting to breathe down the necks of the #2 spot (New York at the time). The Salt Lake Comic Con continued to grow up until the 2016 FanX at least (no word yet on the numbers for the main 2016 convention), but New York and San Diego have grown faster, leaving us a pretty solid bronze medal.
Throughput problems were not solved in the 2014 main convention. I stood in line for hours to exchange a ticket for a wristband. It lasted so long that I wound up striking up a conversation with the person standing next to me in line and by the time we actually got to the front, I knew her well enough that I felt obligated to wait up for her while she was getting her wristband (I was in front) so I could shake her hand and say a proper goodbye. I still remember talking to her about GamerGate, because I talked to her about it like it was going to be an internet blow-up that would blow over in a couple of weeks. This blog is not the place for discussions of politics (Stubbazubba really doesn’t want his name associated with any controversies and even I’m sick to death of this particular discussion), so let’s leave it with a fairly uncontroversial statement that it did not blow over in a couple of weeks.
Leonard Nimoy and Stan Lee both showed up to the 2014 Comic Con. Also, I think this is the first time Studio C showed up. Studio C is a local sketch comedy show that achieved wider fame for their Scott Sterling video, which was big enough that you’ve probably heard of it. Scott Sterling wouldn’t be out for another few months, but even before that video they were big enough local celebrities that their booth in the convention bazaar was packed full whenever one of them was present and tended to be on the crowded side when they weren’t. Unfortunately my dumb phone’s tiny memory made photographs precious and I didn’t catch any shots of the booth. They had to share it with another BYU-TV show that runs after they do, but which no one under the age of 40 cares about.
The 2014 Comic Con was also, if my memory serves correctly, where I first heard about Serpent’s Tongue. Serpent’s Tongue was an interesting card game the premise of which is that you, your actual real life self, are secretly a wizard and that you are going to fight with other wizards to shape the future of the world. In order to play a card, you had to actually say the spell word and make the correct gesture, and the more powerful cards had more complex gestures with harder-to-decipher runes on them. The low level runes were easy enough to translate that you could play a perfectly satisfying game doing nothing but sounding out spells that were pretty much spelled out for you, while higher level ones required a bit of study of the constructed language the game was built on. You could also ignore this completely if you wanted to, and just play the cards like it was Magic the Gathering (though its mechanics were not especially similar to Magic besides the idea of playing a card game where your objective is to reduce another wizard’s HP to zero). It was a great idea for a game.
Unfortunately, it never did particularly well. I don’t know for sure why this happened and it may have been as simple as the orders of their original set being too few to justify the creations of any expansions, but I think it may have had something to do with how they managed their community. They encouraged the idea of “you are a for-real wizard” as an ARG in which the game was played, but then they also played up the wizard tropes of being secretive, elitist, and contentious within opposed factions. That’s well and good on the surface, but it means that the community inherently splits itself into multiple, mutually hostile components, that the community is actively encouraged to be vague and mysterious about the game instead of pitching it to their friends as hard as they can, and likewise encouraged to be somewhere between subtly to blatantly contemptuous of muggles (i.e. non-players).
The degree to which the community roleplayed not caring about anyone who wasn’t already playing the game was such that I was considered a controversial figure for advocating the idea that wizards such work for the betterment of humanity. Consider that real life political factions have ready access to explanations as to why every single one of their actions and beliefs is for the betterment of humanity. No matter how paper-thin those explanations are, it is absolutely required that you in some way be able to explain why your faction will actually make things better for the country (or whatever it is you will presumably be managing). The idea that factions for wizards (i.e. anyone who has already bought a Serpent’s Tongue starter set and has nothing left to buy until they release more products) should even consider having a justification for why their methods would result in a better world for muggles (i.e. those who are not already customers and who are thus the source of new revenue upon which a small, new game is utterly dependent upon for survival) was controversial. Obviously that’s not the same as the players behind those characters actually endorsing this level of elitism, but the problem here is that this is not the kind of community that lends itself to effective evangelism. “We roleplay people who look down on everyone who isn’t us” is not a good way to engage the interest of anyone who wasn’t already on board.
The entire ARG component of the game was clearly designed more around “wouldn’t it be cool if” and less around making it actually work in practice, which is too bad, because a lot of the game’s ideas were very cool and I would like to have seen more of them. They do have a recent (I think, it’s not dated but it wasn’t there when I last checked like six months ago) update intended to make the game more accessible to new players, but their forums are very dead compared to release in late 2014. I don’t know how much of this is due to the community issues that vexed me personally, but I’d be excited if they managed to pull off a revival.
One of the coolest ideas Serpent’s Tongue had was the idea of cooperative or solo play against an encounter, which cast preset spells (or non-spell moves) based on the fulfillment of certain conditions, die roll, or in a certain strict order. They were naturally somewhat stupid in their strategy, but were made more powerful to compensate and could be reasonably challenging. They had an entire campaign of encounters for 1-4 players called Out of Eden which their “Road Map Ahead” link still lists as a Q1-Q2 2015 release. It’s still not in the store. Goddamn I wish this game’s producers were as good at managing a game as they were at cooking it up.
The 2014 FanX was run because Dan Farr Productions, the guys behind the Salt Lake Comic Con, figured that after the surprise hit of the first convention, they’d be leaving money on the table not to try another one, one that could actually contain all the people coming to it. The 2015 FanX was a new direction, an intentionally smaller convention in which ticket sales were capped at around 50,000. It sold out in both 2015 and 2016. I was able to get tickets for both, but I’m constantly nervous that the slightly more exclusive nature of the FanX conventions might break my streak. The FanX also jumps around in date a lot. The main convention is very consistently in September. FanX was April in 2014, January in 2015 and I wouldn’t have got a ticket if a friend hadn’t happened to see a billboard advertisement and tipped me off, and then was March in 2016. I have no idea when the 2017 FanX is going to be.
Another new direction for the 2015 FanX was that they started selling RFID wristbands in advance, so instead of these gigantic lines to exchange tickets for wristbands, slowed down to a crawl by the thirty to sixty second verification process of the ticket, you could just walk up, scan your wrist band, and be in the convention. Cutting the time it took to get into the convention in turn meant that there was less congestion at any given time, so being able to get in ten times faster made the wait significantly less than ten times as long. I’m never going to spontaneously make a new friend while waiting in line at Comic Con again, but dear God is it worth it not to spend half the Thursday panels stuck on my feet in the summer sun (or worse, the winter snow).
The writing star power was stepped up in the 2015 main convention. Brandon Sanderson did not return despite having been there 2014, but we got Timothy Zahn, Jim Butcher, RA Salvatore, and Terry Brooks. Robert Jordan’s corpse was also going to appear on that panel, but the fascists at the Department of Health said this would violate some kind of health code.
It’s not really until 2016 FanX that I did anything cool at Comic Con besides show up. That’s the point when I tried out the D&D Adventurer’s League and played 5e for the first time since Christmas of 2015. Neither of these were my very first encounter with 5e, so neither of them were quite the moment where I thought “huh, maybe this won’t be a godawful timesink the way 4e was” (no, I do not want to hear about how the game gets much better if you play exclusively using obscure splatbooks released years into the edition or with online tools that require a monthly subscription), but the 2016 FanX was the point when I decided that I might want to play 5e regularly.
That was in March and you can see from the archives that it wasn’t until July that I actually started playing, and then I started playing with one player running an entire party because I had been completely unable to find a decent party for myself and my younger brother to play with in the interim. Granted, I didn’t try extremely hard, but it’s still odd considering how packed both the FanX and the later 2016 Comic Con was. There are people out there and they want to play 5e, but they aren’t using any of the online tools to connect with groups nor are they going to D&D night at local game stores. So far as I’ve been able to ascertain, these stores are pretty much all dominated by established groups that are receptive to the idea of new players, but already pretty much jampacked (one group I found already had eight players, plus the GM). Maybe I’m just going to the wrong stores.
On Wednesday I’ll have a blog post about the convention I actually went to last weekend instead of the conventions I attended months or years ago. You’re gonna have to work with me a bit here, I’ve got to wring three blog posts out of this convention and I’m trying to find a way to keep this more interesting than just sharing vacation photos. I figure a history lesson with occasional rambling personal anecdotes is at least a step up from nothing else but rambling personal anecdotes.