Thursday, November 9, 2023

Doxacon 2023 After-action Report

This past weekend (November 3 and 4, 2023) saw Doxacon X in Arlington, VA. Despite the fact that Nicole and I are still preferentially avoiding large groups in the midst of the ongoing plague, Kenneth Hite posted this three months ago and found it impossible to resist the siren's allure:

So off we went.

But first, a word about personal bias: Assuming you clicked on the above link to learn that Doxacon is sponsored by the Protection of the Holy Mother of God Orthodox Church, and assuming you have read my previous blog posts like this one, you might surmise that Nicole and I are not quite the target audience for this convention. So interpret whatever I write with that in mind.

Also, it appears that Doxacon eventually puts its lectures online, and there was definitely recording equipment present. So whenever that happens, I will endeavor to link to the lectures here.

Doxacon is a small convention: this gathering had somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 attendees, although we hardly saw that number present. Since we were coming for Tim Powers and Kenneth Hite, we missed several of the lectures and didn't participate in the gaming block around lunch on Saturday. (In hindsight, I'm curious to see the full shape of a table-top RPG at a Christian fantasy convention.) I would ultimately estimate that we saw about a third to half of what the convention has to offer.

Having skipped Friday evening, Saturday morning opened with an akathist before Tim Powers' lecture. Tim Powers spoke about writing fantasy fiction as a Catholic, and how having a belief in the supernatural makes one's fantasy writing more authentic. Whether or not you agree with that point, I can find common ground with the idea that you have to believe on some level about the subject of your writing — I have previously said that I think my Unknown Armies campaign The Rule of Beasts suffered because I never quite believed the antagonists' motivations.

In the afternoon, Kenneth Hite's lecture was about traditional morality in Lovecraft's work and in Call of Cthulhu. He argues that while most RPGs are escapist fun (and there's nothing inherently wrong with that), Call of Cthulhu reinforces traditional Christian morals because it posits that player characters are willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good of their community. Hite also connected this to the Western, and deftly brought these themes into Lovecraft's work by pointing out that most of his stories with "happy endings" occur in his hometown of Providence, RI. Despite his nihilism, Lovecraft clearly also had things he cared about and an eye toward community.

While I'm not the intended audience for this lecture, I'm certainly intrigued by the assertion: he has a point that most games do not start with coalition-building as an explicit goal, and almost none of them encourage personal sacrifice in either tone or mechanics. (That stuff often appears as an emergent property of the group rather than something explicitly coded in the rules.) While noting that there aren't many games that encourage coalition-building as an explicit goal, he referenced Underground and Avery Alder's The Quiet Year as good models in this paradigm.

I idly wonder if we'll see more coalition-building mechanics in the wake of renewed collective bargaining power over the next decade, but then again, who knows what the future holds?

The final lecture was a panel discussion among all authors about their writing process and about the role of fantasy in a secular world. Regarding the latter, Ken Hite's comments resonated the strongest with me: belief never left, as we always need stories and ghosts and fairies and continue to repeat them time and again even as proponents of the Enlightenment claim we have banished them. Regarding the former, Ken Hite contrasted what game designers do with what traditional authors do, noting that RPG designers really only provide setting, leaving plot and character to the individual tables, but that comes with the added difficulty of having to provide lots of setting as one does not know how those individual tables are going to engage with the material.

He also noted that the joy of game design is that nothing is wasted: if you have a concept that seems too niche to achieve mass appeal as a setting book, you inflict it on your home game instead. (His example was Rex of the Old '97, which I know for a fact would be eagerly purchased by tens of Unknown Armies fans.)

With that, we closed the book on Doxacon X, leaving Arlington before vespers.

While there were no grand revelations from the lectures at this Doxacon, it was a fine time and very worthwhile. (I got something out of all of the lectures, and I think it is worthwhile to occasionally immerse myself into wholly alien cultures.) I cannot say that we would return any time soon, although depending on the guestlist in a future year, I would be loath to say we would never return. If you're a faithful Christian in the D.C. area with an interest in science-fiction and fantasy, you'll probably like it. Otherwise, you might feel a little like Dr. Gonzo at a narcotics convention.

Edit (11-09-2023, 11:52 AM): Chaosium's Facebook page shared an article from Catholic news site Aleteia, which posted their own (much more thorough) overview of Doxacon.

Edit (01-11-2023, 10:20 PM): The recordings from Doxacon are live. Tim Powers' lecture is here and Ken Hite's lecture is here. (If by some happenstance you're reading this in the far future, the recordings from Doxacon X should be dated Tuesday, January 9, 2024.)

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