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In memory: Michael Satran

My friend Michael Satran died yesterday, from an inoperable brain tumor.

There are likely people out there who can write something more eloquent about Michael, people who had a different perspective on his work—like Jason Walters—or a different perspective on his life—such as his long-running gaming group. There are people who can write something about Michael’s impact on this Earth with more insight, with more detail. I write this as a way to deal with the emotional shadow that looms over my mind and spirit since I learned of his death.

I had known for a while that he was not well; mutual friends told me Michael was in the hospital, that the prognosis was not good. I attempted to speak with him a few times, hoping I could learn more, that I could console him, that I would learn somehow that our struggling medical system could work a miracle.

And then, he was gone. I heard about it yesterday morning during Essen Spiele, my first time at that particular convention, and I just kind of froze for a while. I sat, unable to move, unable to really see what was going on around me, except to think that – ironically – Michael would have loved to have been there.

I’ve known Michael Satran for over twenty years. We played Shadowrun online together in the early 90’s on sites like the Shadowrun: Seattle MUX. We met in person during 2000 at Gen Con in Milwaukee, the same year I met other friends like Sean Patrick Fannon, and the same year I became a professional in the gaming industry.

So many of my memories of Michael are from gaming conventions. Nearly all of them.

I saw Michael at least once a year, every year. Often, we would get a chance to meet and talk multiple times at different gaming conferences like Chupacabracon. Michael always wore a suit – it was a reflection of his day job as a suit salesman, something he was exceptionally good at, but it was also, in a way, his signature. You could tell people to look for Michael by finding “the guy in the suit.” He made a good living selling suits, and he was exceptionally knowledgeable about the field. When I needed a good-looking suit to attend the Air Force Ball earlier this year, I called Michael – and he got me hooked up in style.

That is because Michael’s greatest skill was his generous spirit. Michael never, not once, refused to give aid or assistance if he could. He regularly helped other gamers find lodgings at conventions, bought meals, provided rides, extended contacts. Michael was the guy you turned to if you needed something, because he would always—always—have your back.

Michael loved gaming, especially RPGs. He had it in his soul. Michael never seemed more alive than when he was talking about the games he ran for his home group, or while discussing his own projects for Blackwyrm Games or later, High Rock Press. Michael loved running games as well—he would obsess over getting every detail right, from the character sheets to the crazy scenarios (he once described to me an amazingly unique adventure set in a miniaturized superhero base hidden inside a soda can). I had the honor to game with Michael, both as a player when he GM’d, and with him as a fellow player in other games over the years. He was passionate about our industry, about our hobby, about the ways that games make people feel things.

Champions was Michael’s RPG of choice. He played the game continuously for decades. Both of us were fans of the game system, and both of us were determined to get into the game industry to create some things of our own. Michael achieved that goal and created several adventures for the Hero System, with one of the last being a very impressive setting/campaign called Journey to the Center of the Earth. He was a remarkably dedicated writer, and produced not just a sizable body of work in the gaming industry, but also created his own novel.

There are more things I could say about him, more that I could tell you about his struggles, his personality, his challenges. Yet, this is not, and should not, be a dry list of accomplishments or facts. Michael was more than those things. He was a friend, a confidant, a man who embraced life and found fulfillment in bringing other people the same sense of joy that he carried inside his heart.

Today, I will rage against the world because he is no longer in it. I will angrily shout that was too young. I will lament that I will never get to show him my own games anymore, that there was so much more for him to see and do, that he was an inspiration.

Goodbye Michael. I will miss you.

 

Amazing Stuff to Read: Drew Hayes

Hey guys — I know it’s been a long while without a post from me here on the Rogue Warden. My life’s been crazy hectic.

I’ve got a new career: I’m the lead designer and line manager for Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay: Wrath & Glory at Ulisses-Spiele and Ulisses North America. Along with that, I went and moved to Germany (I’ll be living in Idstein, not far from Frankfurt) to concentrate on the project.

In the middle of all that, though, I found an author who deserves some serious praise. The man’s name is Drew Hayes, and he’s quickly grown to become one of my all-time favorite authors.

I discovered his work when I found an interesting book series called Spells, Swords, & Stealth. It is a gripping fantasy tale that blends in a healthy amount of tabletop roleplaying game adventure in an engaging way. Interestingly, I started with book 2 of the series first, called Split the Party. I’m not sure how I got confused about which one was which, but regardless, I jumped into the middle of the tale rather than the beginning.

And it was damn good. Something I really appreciate about Drew Hayes’ writing is that he delves deep into establishing his characters’ motivations. You know what drives these characters, you know what makes them tick. In addition, Hayes picks some fascinating tropes to explore in greater depth, like “What makes a Paladin, a Paladin?” and “what would a Half-orc Wizard look like?” The barbarian character–the town mayor’s daughter–has a particularly unique arc.

So I finished Split the Party, moved to book 3, and read that… and it was also damn good. So I went back and read the first book, NPCs, to get fully caught up on the series. When I finished, I knew that Drew Hayes was an author that I wanted to follow.

Looking around on the internet, I located more of his work: the Super Powereds series. This was going to be different from his fantasy books, I could tell, but I wanted to check them out all the same.

I fucking devoured these books.

What I mean by that is I had difficulty putting them down. I had trouble finding out where I wanted to stop before going to sleep at night. These books are sinfully, radioactively good.

The Super Powereds series is about superheroes, but it is in a world that is very different than other superhero books I’ve read and enjoyed (such as Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart and related series). Drew Hayes’ superhero world is one that has some very interesting twists; what if there was a nation-wide agency devoted to dealing with superpowered individuals? What if being a superhero was a defined career choice with specialized academies to become certified? These are just some of the issues that come up in the Super Powereds world.

If I had to pick a short-hand to describe the series, I could say it is “Basically Hogwart’s for superheroes,” but that would not really suffice. Super Powereds is a series of books that explores the way potential superheroes are trained and guided towards their destiny as defenders of justice and protectors of the world. A better way for me to try and describe it would be this: Super Powereds is everything I’ve ever wanted to see in a story about training superheroes to do what they do.

There’s little else I can get into without spoilers, so I’ll wrap up with a brief summary of what makes Super Powereds so great. There’s an episodic nature to the books that keeps you guessing about what’s going to happen next. A cast of interesting characters (though the Super Powereds Wiki does come in handy if, like me, you sometimes lose track of who all the side characters are), and some blisteringly good subplots layered in throughout.

It doesn’t hurt that there’s a LOT of Super Powereds to read, as well. Three novels and two spin-offs are available, plus at least one more main novel in the works at Drew Hayes’ personal website.

If you like great books, check out Drew Hayes’ lineup. You’ll be glad you did.

 

Chupacabracon 2017 Report

Hi gang! I just returned from one of my favorite gaming conventions, the always-fun Chupacabracon in Austin, Texas. This is the fourth year of Chupa, and I’ve been honored to attend it every year so far. There’s a wealth of great guests, programming, and fun to be had at this intimate little (350+ people) convention that always provides me with plenty of great ideas and excitement.

I arrived in Austin on Thursday and spent some time with my parents in town. In the evening, I got together with several of my friends at the hotel (Wyngate by Wyndam) and we went out to dinner at Jack Allen’s Kitchen; I had some excellent chicken fried chicken and got to catch up with Jeffrey Webb afterwards.

Friday kicked off with some panels about GMing and Session 0. I had a very distinguished list of panelists and, somehow, I ended up as moderator for both! The panels were decently well-attended and I came away with a lot of fantastic ideas about games, stories, and managing failure in RPGs.

One of the games running all weekend at this convention deserves special mention: Andy Solberg’s Labyrinth Lord game, “In the Shadow of the Goat.” It is even themed to chupacabracon and name-checks the convention’s mascot! Andy ran this as a drop-in, play all you want in 30-minute chunks, mega-dungeon event all weekend. The gameplay was very old school D&D, and included plenty of awesome adventure! We explored lairs, solved puzzles, and left funny notes in the book that every other player had access to read along the way. Aleena the Cleric, my character, fell in love, lost her love, avenged him, and got a little treasure along the way, mostly by praising the Lawgiver’s church every chance she got. It was SUPER FUN and I hope Andy runs it again next year.

In the afternoon, Ed Wetterman and the ETU gang put on their very own ETU tailgate party! This was a great celebration of this fantastic Savage Worlds setting, complete with a large crowd singing the ETU fight song, party games, and plenty of food and drink.

That night I got a special treat of my own: Denis Loubet had arrived to sign some copies of Strike Force, and he stuck around to get into Michael Satran’s game of Champions Complete: Starfall. Denis ended up playing the team leader, a role he’s excellent at! It was a real pleasure to sit at the table with Michael and Denis and play some awesome superheroic action. I played the superpatriot electric speedster, Skybolt: a surprisingly fun and effective character who has a very simple set of powers.

Saturday began with more panels, this time on game design. Once more I had a strong team of panelists, and once more, I ended up doing the moderating! We had some interesting discussions about where to start with design and what questions need to be answered as the first steps.

Afterwards, I played in the diceless storygame Eons Protocol with Wendy Reischl. It was one of my first times with such a freeform narrative experience, and I enjoyed it. I’m not certain my improv skills were quite up to the needs of such a thing, though.

I then was interviewed by Aaron Burkett for Minionworks.net, a podcast that was interviewing most of the game designers at the convention. The interview was great and I’m very much looking forward to hearing them all once they’re available. That night, I participated in Savage Saturday Night in Sean Patrick Fannon’s Freedom Squadron game.

Sunday, the last day of the con, is always bittersweet. I hate that the convention has to end but it went out with a bang! We started with a brunch at Jack Allen’s Kitchen with the VIP attendees – delicious! After that, I got a chance to play in Sean Bircher’s Zorro game as Sergeant Gonzalez. Sean’s game was great: he even had a character sheet for Tornado! We rescued Zorro from the cruel Capitan before the Governor could arrive.

Sunday night ended with a fantastic dinner at the Steiner Ranch Steakhouse. The food there was simply mind-blowing. Cold-smoked steaks were devoured and praised by all as some of the best in the world.

2017 Convention Schedule

Hey gang,

I’ve gone quiet for a couple of months because I was busy moving! I headed south from Colorado and I now am a resident of Chandler, Arizona! This is the start of some big, cool things coming soon, so keep an eye on this space.

Here’s where you can find me at various conventions popping up this year:

  • May 12-14                                        Chupacabracon, Round Rock TX
  • May 25-28                                       Phoenix Comicon, Phoenix AZ
  • July 15-16                                        Crit Hit! Phoenix AZ
  • August 17-20                                  Gen Con, Indianapolis IN
  • September 22-24                           Spa-Con, Hot Springs AR
  • September 28-October 1              Tacticon, Denver CO

 

A Rogue Warden’s Report of Spa-Con

Spa-Con 2016 happened last weekend; this is the inaugural comic-con like event for Hot Springs, Arksansas–which happens to be where I grew up from about 1985-1993. Basically, I spent some very formative years in this deep south tourist town, and it was fantastic to see the community embrace the things I love.img_1190

I was honored to attend Spa-Con as a guest. In a way, it was a “local boy done good” scenario; getting a chance to come back to Hot Springs where I began my journey into game design and writing professionally! The convention put me up in the Hotel Hot Springs–a very nice venue connected directly to the convention center. The hotel restuaruant was particularly nice, with a menu that’s written in such an entertaining fashion (there’s an entry for “I THINK I WILL JUST HAVE A HAMBURGER”) that I took one home with me.

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The convention kicked off with an outdoor concert on Friday night followed by a pub crawl sponsored by Bar Trek. I didn’t attend the pub crawl, but the band performance looked like it was well-received. On Saturday, folks started lining up to get into the main convention center early, and the line got long fast–however, the team of volunteers kept things moving right along. I ran a full table at 11 AM for Savage Rifts: The Garnet Town Gambit. None of my players were familiar with Savage Worlds, but the game is easy to teach, and we had a great time. Jon Westmoreland was running the gaming area, and he did a great job of welcoming me and setting up the game tables for each session.

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The dealer’s hall was nice and spacious, with plenty of room to walk around, and probably around 50 different exhibits, artists, guests, and vendors. The cosplay guests were excellent; each had brought some astoundingly good costumes to display and were very friendly to speak to. Lady Kate, I had heard, is actually from the area.

I spent a good deal of time speaking to Randy Duncan, a professor at Henderson University. Dr. Duncan has won some major awards for his comic-book education programs at Henderson and some important books he’s written on the subject. I would have loved to have taken that class, for sure.

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That evening, I ran my Game Design Workshop; I’m pretty proud of this presentation. While I always start out by saying there’s no one true way to design games, I enjoy sharing my own philosophy and designing a game with the audience in the second half of the event. Unfortunately, I was scheduled last on Saturday, so I lost about three quarters of my audience after the first hour. Still, my small group of die-hards and I created a cool game idea and I feel like the presentation went really well overall.

Sunday, I ran a game of Feng Shui 2 named “Blowing Up Hot Springs.” I had crafted a story involving a lot of local history, including Hernando de Soto and Al Capone, involving ninjas attacking various local landmarks. We blew up a great deal of Hot Springs defeating the plans of the ninjas, and a great time was had by all! Jon Westmoreland actually recorded the session, and you can find a copy of it here.

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Sunday afternoon, I ran my Worldbuilding for RPGs panel, designed from my own experience and some additional material from my roommate Sean Patrick Fannon’s own class he presented here in Denver a time or two. Once more, the audience was plentiful and very welcoming. I’d love to run some more seminars and programs for the Spa-Con attendees!

Spa-Con certainly was a success! The number I heard on Saturday was 3100 people, which is huge, especially considering that the organizers were only expecting around 500 or so. I spoke to some of the vendors who attended the show, and they said that they sold quite a bit of merch, making it both good for the attendees and the vendors.

As for the guests, I had a fantastic time. In addition, I met and spoke at length with accomplished voice actor Chris Smith. Chris also spoke with enthusiasm about the great convention and how much he enjoyed his time there. I got a chance to catch up with several old friends who attended the convention, and met some great new people, like local game master and heavy metal DJ, Jon Westmoreland.

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I want to single out the convention organizers for doing a fantastic job of keeping things running smoothly: Erin Baber, Adam Beck, and Bill (the convention chair). I thought that Spa-Con was a huge hit, and no doubt brought a boon to the downtown businesses! I’m definitely hoping Spa-Con 2 will happen again next year.

On Monday, I visited Game Planet, a Hot Springs local game store. It was clean, well-lit, and had plenty of awesome games to see and play. I managed to get some very good friends of mine into a game of Sentinels of the Multiverse to show off how much I love that game.

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Crossing my fingers to come back again in 2017!

The History of Accursed

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Inspired by Shannon Applecline’s excellent Designers and Dragons, I’d like to share the backstory behind a setting of my own creation, the dark fantasy Savage Worlds phenomenon known as Accursed.

 

It all started with Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay: between 2008 and 2011, I was working at Fantasy Flight games as a senior RPG developer, in charge of the various 40K RPGs. Along the way, I made contacts with some excellent artists, editors, and freelance writers that continue to be a major resource for me today.

 

There were two fellows that I found myself working with again and again: John Dunn and Jason Marker. Both were talented writers, and both had some interesting views on the industry that matched up well with my own. We used to meet at Gen Con and say “Someday, it would be cool to create something of our own.”

 

We knew that we wanted to make something together, but we all agreed that we would need to wait until there was a project that we all found exciting. We wanted to collaborate on a project we all felt passion for, and although we bandied around various ideas, we didn’t find “the one” until later.

 

In 2012, I consulted with Catalyst Game Labs on the creation of Shadowrun 5th edition and other projects, such as a board game and a miniature game design called Sprawl Gangers. During this period, Randall Bills challenged me to come up with a pitch for what he described as a “dark fantasy RPG.” Initially, I struggled with the concept; wasn’t the genre saturated already? However, the more I thought about it, there was an idea lurking in the back of my head, inspired in part by the comic book “The Creature Commandos” and a WW2 game that Clint Black had run at Genghis Con that year. In Clint’s game, we played classic movie monsters fighting Nazis and vampires behind enemy lines.

 

With this idea in mind, I began to develop a vision for Accursed. The initial design hinged on one “elevator pitch” that stuck with me: Hellboy meets Solomon Kane. Monsters vs. Witches in a dark fantasy setting with black powder rifles and some Civil War-era technology.

 

I pitched the idea to Randall, but Catalyst passed. I actually was not at all disappointed by this outcome: I had found “the one” that John, Jason, and I were waiting for.

 

At 2012’s Gen Con, the three of us sat down and worked out the basics for what would become the world of Morden. There would be monsters: the player characters, who were men and women suffering under a curse that transformed them into something inhuman. There would be Witches, and some technology, and above all, an action-horror tone that would permeate the setting. We wanted “Castlevania meets Van Helsing,” we wanted Hammer Horror-with-Victorian themes, we wanted something vibrant and unique.

 

During that meeting at Gen Con, the three of us agreed that we’d found something we felt very excited about. Accursed began production the very next month. John planned out a Kickstarter launch, fueled by blog posts that actually doubled as part of the design process for the setting. I tracked down the immensely talented Alberto Bontempi as our main artist, for his dark style perfectly captured the setting’s feel. Between the three of us, we launched Accursed in 2013 to a resounding success.

 

Shane Hensley, CEO of Pinnacle and the creator of Savage Worlds, loved what we were doing. We signed on some talented writers like Andy Chambers, Richard Lee Byers, and Mel Odom to draft some fiction for the setting, and several other game creators chipped in by creating some one-sheets for the setting’s launch.

 

Within one year, Accursed was a gold best-seller on DriveThruRPG, and we’ve continued to support it over the years since. John has been the driving force on the business side, and I’ve maintained my position as the creative director and lead developer for the IP. Currently, there are over 34 products available for the setting, including the core setting book, a setting sourcebook (World of Morden), an adventure collection (Ill Omens), a crossover adventure with the Shaintar setting (Darkest Tides), a custom poker deck, 6 1-sheets, a special adventure (Fall of the Tower), and fiction; 3 novellas and 1 short story.

 

Not bad for a crazy idea and three game designers who wanted to do something cool together.

 

One of the reasons I felt compelled to write about this is that I recently released Pirate’s Oath, my first novella set in the world of Accursed. Pirate’s Oath was exceptionally fun to write, and I’d love to craft more fiction for this world again soon. Actually, completing a novella is one of my lifelong dreams, and achieving this milestone is truly something special in my life.

The D-Infinity Independent Game Awards!

I’m very pleased to say that I was selected to be one of the judges for 2016’s D-Infinity Independent Game Awards. This project is a competition aimed to discover some of the best independent game products of the year. In addition, 2016 is the first, inaugural session of these awards. I’m proud to help introduce this award into the tabletop gaming industry!

Obviously there is a strong RPG element to this award system, partly because it was founded by RPG enthusiasts and professionals like myself, Joe Charles, Michael O. Varhola, and Jason Yarnell. That being said, the awards are looking at board games, card games, and gaming accessories in addition to RPG products.

There are only a few days left to vote on these awards, so please check out the site! One thing that is special about these awards is how the votes are counted. Basically, there are five judges weighing in on the submissions; the four I’ve named already, and the popular vote forming the fifth judge! This is a great way to look at a gaming award, since it allows the popular vote to have an impact, but does not reduce the award to simply going to the most influential gaming company involved in the program.

It’s been very interesting going through all the various products submitted for judgement this year. I’ve had to weigh the impact of content, writing, editing, production values (such as artwork and layout), and the theme or ‘essence’ of a particular work. There’s also some intangibles to look at, such as the sense of passion and excitement evident in the work from its creators.

I hope the D-IIGA awards continue and I look forward to seeing how things work out during Comicpalooza! The award ceremony itself will be broadcast from the convention for anyone to watch, so keep an eye out for it!

Michael Surbrook Presents: The Grand Melee

Hi gang,

I’m very pleased to announce that Evil Beagle Games has teamed up with my good friend and talented creator, Michael Surbrook! We’re helping Michael publish several of his projects for various game systems, starting with The Grand Melee for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game!

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The Grand Melee is a great resource for running medieval tournaments in your game, covering everything from rules on how to run the tournament to the prizes… plus some great adventure seeds!

Remembering Aaron Allston and Strike Force

I’m writing this post on February 27, 2016. And just two years ago today, Aaron Allston passed away.

I first became aware of Aaron Allston in the late 1980’s, through seeing his work on the shelf of my local game store or in the pages of Dragon Magazine: stuff like Autoduel Champions (I was a huge Car Wars nerd in my youth!), and later, the Grand Duchy of Karameikos and the Dungeon Master’s Design Kit. Dungeons and Dragons was one of my favorite things to do in junior high, so I kept appraised of what was out there in the world for this fascinating game, and so I saw Aaron’s name on a few products.

I didn’t really become aware of his importance, however, until the 90’s. It was then that I discovered Champions 4th edition, and through that gateway, one of Aaron’s most important works: Strike Force.

I don’t have all the room here to say just how profound this book was for me… how formative it was on a young man fumbling his way through Gamemastering and running games for his friends. Strike Force taught me HOW to roleplay and gave me an example of a serious campaign. From Strike Force, I had an idea of the kind of games I wanted to run… and it put me on the path towards my eventual career as a game designer.

From there, I was more aware than ever of Aaron. I bought and read his Car Wars novels, then Doc Sidhe, then Galatea in 3-d. Aaron was a very prolific author–even today, I am discovering obscure little novels that he worked on or finding another RPG supplement that benefited from his creativity.

I ran into Aaron here and there over the years, often during Gen Con. I didn’t really get to speak with him at length during those times, keeping a respectful distance and simply thanking him for all the ideas he inspired in me. I got him to sign my copy of Strike Force, amongst other books, and he always struck me as a very kind and welcoming man–even when surrounded by legions of fans.

It wasn’t until the 2010’s that I really got to know Aaron better–just before the end of the life, it turned out. I attended a seminar he and Michael Stackpole held about writing techniques at Dragon’s Lair in Austin, and then I ran into him a year later at Chupacabracon 1. This would be a fateful meeting, for Aaron had plenty of time to chat, and I got to talk to him about a wide variety of subjects.

We talked about superheroes, writing, worldbuilding, game design, and more. It was wonderful. I believe we spent a good three hours or so, calmly talking in the green room. This was the first time we spoke about Strike Force at length, and he confided in me–with a grin–that he had plans to do a new version of his landmark book.

This was a discussion I will never forget. A chance for me to talk about all the things I love with one of my personal heroes, a man who had influenced me for decades. Aaron even invited me to playtest a game he was working on about giant robots fighting in an arena, and I eagerly accepted. I was on a panel or two with Aaron during this convention, and I remember leaving it with a huge smile on my face… a great deal of that thanks to Aaron and his amazing way with people.

Not long afterwards, of course, I heard what had happened at Visioncon that year. Aaron collapsed and then died of heart failure.

I remembered the way he walked very carefully down the hallways at Chupacabracon just weeks earlier, and the wan, pale complexion that initially worried me… I had asked him if he was allright, and he smiled, responding “I’m fine.”

All of this made me one of the last people to really speak with Aaron before he died. I took his death very hard–it was difficult for me to work through the grief. The world lost an amazing creative talent that day, and just a heck of a nice guy.

Over a year later, I was contacted by Jason Walters, owner of High Rock Press. Jason had gotten in touch with Aaron’s family, and through the Allston Estate, he was interested in picking up Aaron’s unfinished project and making it real. I didn’t hesitate — this was my chance to honor a great man.

It’s been about a year since then, and I’ve gotten a chance to work with some fantastic people–Denis Loubet, Steve Kenson, and Michael Surbrook–to build a new version of Strike Force, one that we all believe Aaron would be proud of. This project is not just another RPG book… it’s a dedication to someone who inspired all of us.

(The kickstarter for Aaron Allston’s Strike Force is in its final hours — please go take a look and consider backing us to help us finish strong!)

MileHiCon!

I’ll be at MileHiCon this weekend! Here’s my schedule:

  • Friday: 4 PM, Five Fantasy Worlds You Wouldn’t Want to Visit
  • Saturday: 10 AM, What’s In A Game?
    2 PM: Savage Rifts
    7 PM: Savage Rifts
  • Sunday: 12 PM, Reimagining Anime

Come see me there!