Dungeons, Dragons, and Dreaming: A Review of PAX Unplugged

I cannot remember the exact moment I learned about Dungeons & Dragons. I do remember knowing about it by the time I was in middle school, because I recall playing the game one afternoon with my sibling Kai. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know all of the rules; I was winging it, but we were fighting a dragon (or something) and having a blast. I didn’t play D&D during high school, but when I had the opportunity to play it in college, I jumped at the chance. Playing just seemed like the right thing to do. The best thing to do. During those sessions, I learned about the great lengths players will go to make an overpowered character within the confines of the rules. I learned that Dungeon Masters (DMs) have no reservations about killing their players’ characters. And I learned to never, ever pass up on looting a body.

Many things changed for me in 2010, including my relationship with D&D. In between memorizing kanji and exploring the streets of Nagoya, I signed up to play a game with fellow study abroad students. It was phenomenal. Better than any game I had ever played. We all roleplayed our characters, wrote complex backstories, fought epic battles, and laughed until there were tears. My love for the game grew tremendously, and I knew I needed it to be a part of my life, one way or another.

Since then, I’ve transitioned from a full-time player to a full-time Dungeon Master. It happened by chance; in 2015, I wanted to play again and subsequently introduced new players to D&D. I taught them Pathfinder, a slightly improved version of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, but it’s math-heavy and the rules are complicated. It’s pretty daunting for new players. A few months after our campaign had to end, I read that the 5th edition of D&D was finally out, so I read the rules, and… well, I don’t want to play any other version of D&D. 5th edition simplified the game without sacrificing any richness or complexity. I have since taught it to new players and they picked it up quickly. They love it. Now I am the sole Dungeon Master who can run games for a massive list of people.

Needless to say, I don’t get the opportunity to actually play D&D anymore. Running a game is not the same thing as playing in one. So when I learned that Penny Arcade, Inc., the company behind the video game conventions called PAX, was holding a tabletop game-only convention in Philadelphia called PAX Unplugged, I knew I had to go. This is how I imagined the convention: D&D games all weekend long, for hours at a time!

The reality ended up being something like that, but not quite the idyllic situation I had dreamed.


The only thing I did on Thursday was pick up my pre-purchased badge from the Will Call line inside the Philadelphia Convention Center. I went with my friends, who had other business at the convention, and steeled myself for the huge line for badge pickup. At least, that’s what my past experience at other conventions told me: I’d spend several hours on Thursday afternoon standing in line just to pick up a piece of plastic and a guidebook.

Imagine my shock as I entered the lobby area and found no such line. I walked straight up to the Will Call desk and handed over my confirmation email. The volunteer scanned it, then gave it back to me, along with a square, plastic card and a bright blue lanyard. “Enjoy the convention,” he said, smiling.

“Where is the line of hundreds of people?” I asked, gesticulating behind me at all the empty space.

“Tomorrow,” he said. “There’ll be one tomorrow.”


And then there were lines.

I read on PAX Unplugged’s website that in order to play D&D, I had to sign up for games at the RPG HQ at 10 AM each day. So after checking in my coat, consulting the abysmal map, and asking a couple of volunteers for directions, I made my way there.

When Brooke signed up for D&D Adventurers League games at PAX East, an earlier convention in Boston, there hadn’t been a line. This is what she told me to expect at PAX Unplugged. A part of me wanted to believe her, but another part of me — the convention veteran part of me — knew better. I got into line behind approximately 30 people at 9:45 AM, and within a half-hour, the line continued behind me, snaking around the corner and down the hallway. I was lucky enough to arrive when I did. At 11:00 AM, I signed in and the man behind the computer confirmed my game: Table 1 at 3 PM for an adventure titled, “A Thousand Tiny Deaths.”

Conventions are for people with the same interests, so I tend to become less reserved, more open to talking with the strangers around me. This especially happens in lines, when I might be sitting around for hours. So I chat with the people around me, making what I call “line friends.” All parties involved know that these are temporary friendships, and we will never see each other again afterward. I mean, some people become real friends later, but usually, you don’t. I don’t, anyway. Regardless, in the line to sign up for D&D games, I started talking with a group of people, most of whom were signing up for the 11 AM games. The sole man in the group, however, was signing up for a later game, as he wanted to see the Critical Role panel, too.

“Oh, I plan to go to that one,” I said.

“Want to go check out the line after this?” he asked as we took another step toward the sign-in table.


After signing up for our respective games, we made our way to the Main Theatre for the panel. I’m glad we decided to go when we did; there were already about 70 people in line ahead of us, and the show wouldn’t start until 1 PM. So we sat down and talked about D&D some more. An older gentleman joined our conversation, and the three of us shared stories about our various games and groups. (Fittingly, we were all Dungeon Masters.) After listening to one of my stories, our new line friend even said he wanted to sit at my table — one of the greatest compliments for any DM. I was pleased as punch to hear it.

The line for the Critical Role panel. It’s a lot deeper than it looks, and there are many people out-of-frame to my side and behind me.

For those who don’t know, Critical Role is a live show (streamed online) that involves a group of professional voice actors playing Dungeons & Dragons. Matthew Mercer, their DM, is one of my gaming inspirations. His storytelling is excellent and his performance is legendary. The players themselves are all great roleplayers thanks to their careers in acting, and together, through D&D, they have shared a rich, emotional, and powerful story with a worldwide audience.

The Critical Role panel was heaps of fun. There is nothing quite like seeing the sources of your inspiration in the flesh. It’s actually a little bizarre, realizing these people are, indeed, real human beings. The panel was mostly for Q&A, so some members of the audience lined up behind microphones to ask the guests their long-burning questions. And as I listened to the line of audience members pour out their heartfelt thanks to the Critical Role group for introducing D&D to them, for giving them to the courage to run their own games and follow their own dreams, I felt a deep sense of belonging. At that panel, for all of us attending, Dungeons & Dragons is not just a roleplaying game. It’s a life-changing experience.

If you’re interested, the entire panel is on YouTube:

After the panel ended, I said goodbye to my line friends and rushed back to the RPG HQ to meet with Brooke. She had picked up a late lunch for the both of us, so we sat down outside the rooms designated for D&D to eat and relax. At 3 PM, we wandered inside and headed straight for Table 1.

A group of seven was there, seated, in the middle of their game of “Tinhammer Falls.”

I located a volunteer with a clipboard and made a beeline toward her.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Angelica and this is Brooke. We signed up for Table 1, ‘A Thousand Tiny Deaths,’ at 3 PM.”

The volunteer consulted her papers. “For whatever reason,” she sighed as dread rolled down my back, “I don’t have a lot of you on my list.”

Sure enough, a small mob of displaced players lingered by the far wall, looking displeased and muttering among themselves. Apparently, the computers holding all of the table information had crashed earlier in the day, and The Role Initiative (who were running the D&D games) ended up double-booking all of their tables.


Brooke and I waited, chatted with our disgruntled and confused peers, and watched the volunteers like hawks as they called out names. People stepped out of the crowd as they heard their names, barely audible above the din of roleplaying and dice-rolling. Tables filled as quickly as they emptied. Brooke and I met a man who had also signed up for “A Thousand Tiny Deaths” shortly before a volunteer shuffled us to three empty seats at a table. The adventure name was “A City on Edge,” but the other players were nice and the Dungeon Master did a great job. So despite the logistical nightmare, we had fun.

But those two hours playing D&D had only been a taste. We wanted to play more. We’d have to come back on Saturday.


My convention veteran sensibilities told me to wake up early Saturday morning. I pulled myself out of bed at 6:30 AM, washed my face, dressed, and ate breakfast. While Simone slept in, Brooke and I took the subway to the Philadelphia Convention Center. By 8:30 AM, I was in line again, behind 50 or so people.

The beginning of the nightmare.

This time, I didn’t make line friends. I read a quarter of the way through Brandon Sanderson’s Edgedancer and looked over my D&D character sheet approximately ten times. I watched as the line grew and grew and grew. Hundreds of people were in the queue room by the time volunteers led the first group of us to the sign-up table. I stood there for another half-hour before a volunteer shouted the most maddening thing at us:

“This line is for 11 AM games only!”

My blood froze. In front of me, a woman’s face twisted into fury. People behind me shouted in confusion and alarm. I stood where I was, observing my body as it grappled with a low-grade panic attack. The aforementioned woman stomped over to some volunteers to demand more information. I couldn’t hear them from where I was standing, but she looked more and more pissed. When she came back, I asked what the volunteers had said about those waiting on the later time slots.

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “It’s just so unfair. We’ve been waiting here since 8:30.”

So I went right to the front of the line where the volunteers gathered while she held my spot.

“Where would we have learned about this before arriving today?” I asked a frazzled man in a volunteer shirt.

“You wouldn’t have. We didn’t know about it either until this morning,” he admitted, not looking at me.

Oh. Okay. “If this line is for 11 AM games only, when and where are sign-ups for later games, like 6 PM?”

“People can sign up an hour before the games start, so come back at 5 PM, or a little beforehand.”

I reported back to the people in line ahead of me, then left. There was no point in me waiting in line for another six hours while there were other things to do. I still hadn’t explored the Expo Hall where both industrial giants and indie startups were trying to sell their games, so I headed in that direction. And let me tell you: there were so many games I’d never heard of before that it was a little bit overwhelming. One game that I really wanted to try is Gloom, where each player controls a family and tries to cause as much misery for their own family members as possible in order to win. Even though I never got a chance to play it, it sounds fun, so it’s on the Christmas list. There were also a few cosplayers — that is, people dressed up in costumes of fictional characters — and I got to snap a couple of pictures.

This Cersei Lannister glided around on a segway and drank her wine.
“Blood for the blood god! Skulls for the skull throne!”

I took a break from the Expo Hall to attend a 12 PM panel (“The Art of the Table: GMing Beyond the Basics”), which led me past the RPG HQ again. While passing through, I noticed a volunteer with a sign by the D&D sign-up table. The line is CAPPED for: 11 AM, 1 PM, the sign said.

I checked my watch. 11:45 AM.

Naturally, a group of con attendees were expressing their frustrations at the PAX volunteer. “You said we could sign up an hour before, and it’s not even noon yet,” said a furious middle-aged Asian man.

“I know. There was a miscommunication with The Role Initiative. They’ve been told that people are deeply upset, and if it happens again, we will have words with them,” the volunteer said firmly.

I stepped forward. “So sign-ups for later games will still be an hour before the games start?” I asked.

“Yes,” the volunteer assured me. “We will not allow anyone to sign up before 5 PM for the 6 PM game.”

“So if I come here at 4:30 PM, you will turn me away?”


“But if I come back at 5, I’m good to sign up?”


I sighed. “All right.” I thanked the man for his time and continued onto my panel.

The panel itself was actually quite good, and I got a few new ideas out of it, but that’s a discussion for another time. I did head back to the Expo Hall afterward, because I was on a personal mission, and I hadn’t yet succeeded. The latest rulebook published for Dungeons & Dragons is Xanather’s Guide to Everything, and I had been waiting months for its release. Well, its release date was November 21, which was after the convention, but merchants in the Expo Hall were already selling — as well as its limited edition, alternate cover version. I spent hours that day walking up and down the aisles, looking for it, but the first three booths selling rulebooks that I visited were all sold out. They didn’t even carry the regular cover version.

And then I happened to pass by a booth selling gaming miniatures when a golden cover gleamed in the corner of my eye.

Xanather’s Guide. They had it!

While purchasing it, I related my lack of earlier success to the man behind the register. He sympathized and said his store only had copies because they’d forgotten all about their stock until that morning.

The alternate cover version of Xanather’s Guide to Everything.

Brooke joined me mid-afternoon, and we returned to the RPG HQ at 4:30 PM because I am not an idiot. There was, indeed, a line. An unofficial line, our fellow players told us from where they waited. We joined them. A few minutes later, a PAX volunteer entered the hallway to announce that we could not, in fact, line up, and that we should disperse from the hall to other areas of the convention until 5 PM. The line actually dispersed… but didn’t go anywhere. Brooke and I walked even closer to the sign-up tables under the pretense of asking a different RPG table some questions about Sunday’s games. We lingered in the middle of what eventually became a massive wall of D&D players waiting to cross the hallway to the official line area.

“If I catch you punching, kicking, biting, shoving, or headbutting anyone to get in line,” a volunteer shouted at us at approximately 4:55 PM, “I will pull you out of line and you will not be able to play.”

But honestly, he was probably more worried about being utterly stampeded. At exactly 5 PM, he could barely shout, “The 5 PM line for D&D Adventurers League has opened,” before the wall of a hundred human beings shifted as one organism from one side of the hallway to the other.

Thankfully, Brooke and I were pressed against the far wall, so when the volunteers tried enforcing a “two person-wide” line, we didn’t have to move back. We stood surrounded by a dad and his 12-year-old son, a man who looked vaguely like the character Job from Arrested Development, his cousin, and a chill Norwegian who was attending university in Philadelphia. The seven of us chatted, mocked the logistical nightmare that D&D at PAX Unplugged had become, learned about the Great Emu War, and generally had a good time as we waited to sign up. Volunteers counted off 100 of us — the hard cap for D&D players at any given time — but the line did not move, even as the minutes passed.

At 6 PM, the volunteers finally let us in. They counted off seven people who could play together and assigned that group to a table. Brooke and I had been having such a grand time with the people in line with us that we all agreed to play together at the same time. Our DM was an middle-aged lady from Tennessee whose Southern accent and hospitality made the game even more enjoyable. She gave us one die each to keep as a souvenir, but to the 12-year-old boy, who had never played D&D before, she gave an entire set of new dice. The game was only two hours long, but it was so much more fun than Friday’s game had been. Everyone in the group shook hands and said goodbye before going our separate ways.

Our day had come to a close. Brooke and I joined Simone in the Free Play area, where she ran a demo for a new card game, Lightseekers, all weekend. Once her shift ended, the three of us left to have dinner, drinks, and recharge before the final day of the con.


Well, I recharged. I gratefully slept in after a late night, but the other two got up early for their work shifts. When I was ready, I strolled down to the Philadelphia Convention Center, picked up breakfast at the nearby market, and stopped by the RPG HQ tables to check out the situation. There weren’t any D&D games I could play on Sunday, so I didn’t have to worry about lines. I saw a lot more colorful tape on the floor and a lot fewer people waiting — typical of a Sunday at a convention. I left the RPG HQ and finally got a chance to check out some of the other areas of the convention.

I did attend a panel on Sunday and play some board games in the Free Play area. But mostly, I thought about how I can make D&D a priority in my life again. Attending the Critical Role panel, being around people who are just as excited about the game as I am, and rolling dice for a few hours really reminded me how much I love this game. How much it means to me. As Matt Mercer said in the panel on Friday, “Few things forge strong friendships like being in a gaming group together. Even though it’s all imaginary, even though you’re throwing dice and you’re making things up at a table in someone’s kitchen, those experiences become real. … You connect on a level that a lot of other forms of interaction, I find, don’t quite build.” And that’s what makes it so life-changing.

As for PAX Unplugged, I will definitely attend again. I recently filled out a feedback survey, which I’m sure thousands of people also did, so the second year of the convention will undoubtedly run more smoothly than the first. How much more smoothly? That remains to be seen. But Philadelphia is a mere two hours by car from my own town, and spending time with my friends is always worth the trip.

In the meantime, I’ve been reading up on Gen Con, the oldest and biggest tabletop gaming convention in North America. 2018 will be its 51st year. Gary Gygax, one of the co-creators of Dungeons & Dragons, started it in his home in Lake Geneva, WI. Essentially, it’s had plenty of time to grow and refine its system — a well-oiled machine compared to the first-year PAX Unplugged. And though that also makes Gen Con much more expensive, I feel like even if I only go once, the experience will be worth it, too.

We’ll just have to see what the next year brings.

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