I had the pleasure of once again attending PAX Unplugged in Philadelphia, Dec 11th and 12th, 2021. It was wonderful to be back at this con after losing last year to the Covid haze. I hosted and presented on the “Can We Finally Admit Games Belong In the Classroom,” panel, giving me the last PAX presentation in the set. PAX Quadrafecta complete!
PAX Unplugged is my favorite PAX, but not just because I care more about tabletop games than video games and love Philly. Without the big videogame studios, it feels a lot less performative. There are no big flashy, loud displays, but there are a lot of indie game companies, and small booths of dice, games to play and conversations to strike up with fellow nerdlings. As you can see on the schedule in the photo, there were all sorts of panel discussions on mental health, table safety, adaptive gaming and more in this theater, alone! Philadelphia is a wonderful city with lots of beautiful sites, walkability, and cute little Christmas pop up shops in December. Never mind cheesesteak, no trip is complete without the amazing ramen in Philly!
The most thought provoking panel I attended was Decolonizing RPG Design. All of the panelists were thoughtful and candid with their experiences and had useful suggestions of how to move the industry forward. Joshua Mendenhall is someone I have followed on Twitter for a long time, and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of the DnD 5e setting he and his publishing team created. The Islands of Sina Una is a campaign setting based on precolonial mythology and culture of the Philippines. It looks amazing. All in all, the panel was an important reminder to keep a critical lens on common fantasy tropes and problematic settings based on a collective romanticization of colonialist and feudalistic Europe. If you don’t know what I am talking about, read this article about Orcs by another Sina Una contributor, James Mendez Holmes. (Seriously, do it either way, the article is amazing.)
Another awesome surprise was playing the great little indie RPG, To Serve Her Wintry Hunger. It has a fun mechanic where your dice pool decreases over time, increasing the challenge level. There is also a pull between cooperative and competitive play as players collectively track down and capture a human lost in the winter woods, while vying for the affection of the Winter Queen herself. The people running the RPG Freeplay table are saints, and our GM was phenomenal. It was one of the best roleplaying experiences I have ever had, even though my character fell from grace, and was likely consumed by the end of the game. I’ll remember the story we wove together for a long time.
My favorite spot is, of course, the Diversity Lounge. There are amazing organizations, including several LGBTQ gamer groups, Takethis.org, Game to Grow and other friends of R4K. At PAX West in September, I was disappointed to see the “lounge” was tucked away in a far corner. It was more like a Diversity Dungeon, to be frank - small, dark, secret and out of the way. Similarly, I was disappointed that the Diversity Lounge at PAXU was in a small side room. This year’s con was overall a little bit smaller than in the past, and there was plenty of room to have a diversity row or corner in the main expo hall. I’d like to see the Diversity Lounge take more of a center stage at PAX moving forward.
Because what I love most of all about PAX Unplugged is how many people are living their best life when they are there. There is lots of cross-play, people dressed as their OCs, a beautiful rainbow of dyed hair of all shades, mask wearing without complaint, and general acceptance of each other as you are. And that’s what keeps me driving 6.5 hours each way to go for the weekend. It’s the panels of people trying to make our hobby a more inclusive and thoughtful place. It’s the volunteers that are working to make it fun for everyone, and the people who are just being themselves. PAXU is a peek at what gaming can be, and hopefully will be in the future.