Sunday, 12 October 2014

Interview - Stephen, Joe, John and Stephen: The Crew of AetherCon III

Please welcome to Farsight Blogger the team that makes up AetherCon - Event Coordinator Stephen J. Holodinsky, PR Coordinator Joe Sweeney, Technical Coordinator John Brese and Fest Hall Coordinator Stephen Jacobs.


“The 3rd annual AetherCon Online Tabletop RPG Convention is a gathering of pen and paper roleplaying gamers that will take place in cyberspace on the weekend of November 14th-16th, 2014.

AetherCon is a free to attend, free to partake, non-profit initiative. Thoughout the weekend there will be a plethora of tabletop RPGs on offer for all to play in. Among those will be three, three part tournaments taking place over the three days of the event with final tables to be played on Sunday. [/two_third_last] All games will be run on the free, browser-based virtual table tops INFRNO and Roll20. These programs will allow GMs and players alike to simply click on a link and enter the playing area as opposed to needing to download and install the software to participate.

In addition to the collection of independent RPG playing opportunities and those run by RPG publishers, there will also be Q&As and themed panels as well as speedpainting duels using the free, browser based conferencing program Anymeeting. A further highlight of the event is original artwork that will be released periodically by those artists partaking in the speedpainting duels in the run-up to our event as free downloadable wallpapers. You will be able to find the schedule and registration for all Aethercon events on Warhorn.

Our goal as organizers of this undertaking is to provide Online RPGers as a whole with a common stamping ground for a weekend in the spirit of the traditional tribal moot. Historically during these gatherings, which took place in a mutually agreed upon location, trading, discussion and various contests among other things took place under a truce between all attending. It is our hope that this undertaking will also prove to be a way for gamers of all stripes and all places to meet up and celebrate our favorite hobby together.”

Hi guys - Perhaps you'd like to introduce yourselves and tell us something about your gaming history?

Stephen J. Holodinsky: Stephen J. Holodinsky grew up in a part of Canada that used old Buicks on blocks as lawn ornaments, son of an appliance dealer Father and a Mother whose heart was in the right place but had no sense of timing when it came to clapping in rhythm at baseball games. He played drums as a youth and was one of four on his block who did so (it was a noisy neighbourhood). He's also worked the tobacco harvest, delivered refrigerators, planted trees, gone to university, stopped going to university, and worked at a once proud institution of a blues hotel in Toronto, now deceased. It was during this time he began playing RPGs. He once had a AD&D 2nd Ed Half-Elf Ranger get brained by a pot thrown by a big mean angry Momma Troll while 60 feet up in a tree outside of the City State of the Invincible Overlord taking 2d10 + 6d6 falling damage (it could have been worse, I landed on the pot and not the pot on me). He has since played a bunch of other games including Gamma World, Traveller, Boothill, Serenity, Savage Worlds, Pathfinder, RIFTs and many others but holds a special place in his heart for the setting of Harn. In the midst of all that dice rolling he took a sabbatical from gaming to go over to Europe where he lasted for 10 years on a backpack and $2200 CDN. It was over there that he learned that the German phrase 'Hast Du mal feier?' (Do you have a light?') was not one word. He also lost his passport while getting a lift, nearly fell off of two mountains and got lost on a third, moved Canadian soldiers into their homes, worked for the post office, hitchhiked between Bonn, Germany and Reading, UK in 18 hours (upon which he waited another 6 for a bus to take him the last 30 or so miles to Oxford), and had a band called 'The Flaming Ted Rogers' whose sole claim to fame was almost opening for Jeff Buckley Jr (the promoter pulled a bait and switch). He took up gaming once more five years after returning and among other things makes up Pathfinder characters to blow off steam. He is a big Toronto Maple Leafs fan despite the fact that they last won the Stanley Cup when he was four years old.

Joe Sweeney: Hi Jonathan! I’m Joe Sweeney. I’ve been gaming for about 35 years. After my initial introduction to Dungeons & Dragons when I was Hobbit-sized, I never stopped… some would say I never grew up. I began writing games when I was 14. The first was a fantasy game aimed at developing a “moral” context similar to Aesop’s Fables. The game was called Knight Errant, which evolved into the “StoryWeaver” game for children.  However, it was only about 10 years ago that I began publishing games directly under the StoryWeaver Games brand. The most popular lines are the sci-fi space opera “High-Space” and the science fiction horror thriller “Rapture: The End of Days.”

John Brese: Well, my name is John Brese aka Winged Human, and I’m a 34 year old father of 4.  I’ve been “gaming” since about my 8th grade in Jr High School, where I met my long time best Friend, Chris.  I had previously heard about Dungeons and Dragons, but neither my parents, nor any of their friends played it.  It was one evening that my parents had taken my siblings and I to the library that I saw my classmates, huddled in an enclosed room.  I wandered in, introduced myself and asked what they were doing.  It was then and there that I began my love of gaming.  I have delved into all aspects of what I consider gaming, from Miniatures, to board games, card games, Roleplaying face-to-face in a table-top setting, and online.  To this day I continue to try to be involved in all aspects of the gaming culture.

Stephen Jacobs: I started gaming in the mid 80's. I was in 7TH grade at the time and our art teacher had a copy of the D&D red box. A friend of mine introduced me and I was hooked. From there we branched out into almost any RPG we could get our hands on, including Car Wars, Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World, Vampire. In 89 I meet Winston Hamilton of GR/D who got me hooked on the Europa series of war games as well as the WWII miniatures game Command Decision. Today I own Multiverse Comics & Games in Grinnell Iowa. I still play D&D, but I've moved into Pathfinder, Savage Worlds, and most recently the Edge of the Empire RPG by Fantasy Flight Games. We play Warhammer and Necromunda at the shop and I've been pretty heavy into Magic the Gathering for nearly 17 years now.

Tell us more about AetherCon; when did you come up with the idea and how did you get it started? 

Stephen J. Holodinsky: When I did return to my hometown, the only game shop that did exist had long since closed and the RPG scene was long since dead. This meant turning to the internet to find other players. I'd been out of the game for 15 years at that point and when I started frequenting different chatrooms the one thing I took away from that experience was the fact that everyone was at each other’s throats about this game over that game or this edition over that edition. The anonymity of the internet had basically turned the RPGing community on its head. Before I left to go to Europe, it was much different. If a new game came out, it didn't matter who wrote it or what edition it was, folks were all over it. Everyone wanted to try it. It was much more communal. There were no groups of folks who hived themselves off from others based on this game or that edition.

There may have been a time in the past when the RPG industry was big enough that it could afford such fissures, but that time is definitely not now. There are a bunch of different places to put a person's entertainment dollar these days. Movies, Concerts, Nightclubbing, Sporting Events, Theatre and the list goes on. It is highly unlikely that RPGs ever ranked above maybe 15th on that list, especially when you start counting the various sports separately as they should be. We couldn't afford infighting and backbiting or not only would we stagnate, we would lose folks to other things. If someone were to come into a chatroom who was interested in RPGs but had never played before and watched one of these donnybrooks unfold, why would they stick around?

That is the primary reason AetherCon was started, to bring gamers from all over the world and of all stripes together. We like to say that 'there is no RPG or RPGer that can't fit under the AetherCon Umbrella'. We try to live up to that at all times. Our goal is to be the 'tribal moot' for all RPGers.

Joe Sweeney: I was not involved in the development of Aethercon. However, I’m a huge supporter of gaming conventions, both off-line and online.  They are the lifeblood of the gaming community: the best place where you can make new friends and try out new games. StoryWeaver actually maintains one of the largest lists of gaming conventions on the net: (Global Gaming Conventions Calendar) and we offer support and prizes to many of these. If you’ve got a gaming convention, we love to help make it a success!

John Brese: I was recruited by Stephen for AetherCon 2 (AC2).  Originally I was asked to be the lead contact for training all of the guests and panel moderators on how to utilize our conferencing software (Anymeeting).  I worked closely with the Technical coordinator at that time as well as Stephen.  I was eventually asked to actively monitor all of the anymeeting rooms during the event last year.  Afterwards I was asked to fill the role that I do now as Technical coordinator for the whole of AetherCon.

Stephen Jacobs: I helped out in Aethercon II as a retailer supporter. Stephen invited me to join the staff in the spring of 2014 as a PR rep but I quickly moved around through several positions from video editing to web site design. My experience with the game shop makes me pretty flexible when it comes to tasking.

It's a huge online convention so it must be a hell of a job. What's involved in managing all of this?

Stephen J. Holodinsky: It is a massive undertaking with numerous facets. There is a bunch of outreach involved, to gamers, to publishers, to artists. You need to keep in touch with everyone, coordinate everything so everyone involved with a particular facet is on the same page. There can be no surprises. There the tech side of it as well. We have podcasts both throughout the year and on AetherCon Weekend. We have to have knowledgeable folk onboard to make sure all of that runs smoothly. It is fortunate for us that this year, for the first time, we actually do have what resembles a multi-person Tech Staff. Could we use more bodies? Who couldn't? But right now we are looking at four dependable IT experts whereas in the first two ACs we had none and one respectively. Our PR Arm and Administrative Arm has also been added to which has helped immensely.

You have to be aware of how things are working. Can we improve here? If so, is it a tweak we can slip in now or is it something that we have to wait to implement for AC IV? What do the gamers, publishers, artists think? We send out a survey specifically to ask that after each AetherCon. There is no such thing as a perfect convention. You can always make it better. Anyone who tells you they have one is selling you a bill of goods. We need to improve year on year. So long as we move forward, we are not moving backwards.

Joe Sweeney: When Stephen asked if we could help out with Aethercon this year, I knew it was going to be a big job. Luckily, I have a wonderful employee, Jaie, who has taken over most of the hard work. I think the secret to running a successful convention is to be really well organised – something I’m not. Jaie has been invaluable in that respect.

John Brese: Managing something like this is an undertaking that was completely overwhelming when I first became involved.  It’s like a juggling act of immeasurable proportions, and quite honestly I have no idea how Stephen H. keeps it all straight.  But I would definitely say that the primary thing involved in managing is communication.  This virtual convention would almost immediately disintegrate without a consistent line of communication between all departments, and participants all the way from Stephen down to the individual players.  AetherCon has volunteers from all over the world, and I am constantly impressed by every volunteer’s willingness to make this this event the best online RPG convention as possible.

Stephen Jacobs: Everything. The convention is as complicated to manage as any business and we are all volunteers. There is public relations, whether it's through our web site or Facebook. There is getting publishers, vendors,supporters, Gms and players together in a network that has to span the globe, and keeping them excited. Since we don't have a physical location we depend upon the tenuous connection of the net, which can be a pretty fickle monster at times.

What kind of pressures are there and how do you cope?

Stephen J. Holodinsky: There are some things that we do not have to worry about that Real Life Cons do such as space booking and guest accommodation etc. At the same time, we have no operating budget. Expenses like the server we are on or aps for the website etc, all come out of pocket. It was never our intent to be money mountain. That's not why we started this. Everyone here is a volunteer, including myself and we recruit from the internet. That combination can be lethal when it comes to finding help because it is so easy for someone to bail on their commitments without ever having to answer for doing so. If you are hired to do a job and don’t do it, you get fired. You might not like the particular task you have been assigned but your paycheck depends on you doing it, so like it or not, you deliver the goods. We do not have that luxury. We only ever ask of our volunteers one thing: 'If you say it, do it.' I'll be honest here. If we had a dollar for every person who came to us and agreed to be a part of AetherCon only to either back out or simply disappear weeks later, we would have no recruiting problems because we would be able to afford to pay everyone.

When it comes to recruiting, folks buy into volunteer opportunities for one of two reasons. Either they commit to the mission or they commit to those behind it. No one knows us from Adam and we've yet to prove anything to anyone so the whole 'cult of personality' thing is a non-starter. That leaves the mission.

People make time for what they believe is important in their life. That's human nature. "X is important to me, I'll prioritize it, Y not so much, I'll let that slide." We need to make AetherCon more important to more people year on year.

As for coping, personally I try to play RPGs when I have the time which to be honest is not often. I listen to sports talk radio or music when I'm doing stuff for AetherCon. I watch TV to unwind after the day is over and I make RPG characters.

Joe Sweeney: I think the biggest pressures for me, as someone who is supporting the endeavour rather than running it, has been simply time management. Putting together a convention like this is almost a full-time job in itself, and since I run my own business (two in fact) ensuring that we set aside the time needed to get the job done right is very tricky. It’s a balance between doing what I love, and doing what is going to pay the bills.

John Brese: Have you ever heard the expression “It’s like herding cats?”  Well, imagine that, and compound the fact that all of the cats are spread all over the world, with all levels of backgrounds not only in the RPG arena, but writing, artistry, and technology.  My best coping mechanism after a long day of working on AetherCon, is to put on some moderately loud music and continue my quest to finish “A Dance with Dragons”.

Stephen Jacobs: Time. Besides working for AetherCon, I am the Quality Manager at a plastics factory here in Grinnell, I own Multiverse Comics and Games, and I run a part time office cleaning service in partnership with my mother. I have a pretty good support group in my local bunch of friends and family and that is what keeps it all together for me. I make sure I have time at the shop to actually sit down and play some of the games with folks.

What can we expect from AetherCon III? What do you have lined up?

Stephen J. Holodinsky: You can expect a whack of gaming opportunities both on Roll20 and INFRNO, 18 very good Themed Panels with a ton of really good guests, 24 Live Publisher Q&As, and 18 top end artists going head to head in Speed Painting Duels all weekend long. Oh and prizes. We will be giving away prizes in the Ox & Mule General Chat Room throughout the convention and making the draw for the big one, the Convention Program Bundle (download the PDF to be entered) Sunday evening.

John Brese: Stephen would best be the person to answer this question, but what I can say is that we have more GMs, and players involved with AetherCon than we have any previous year.  This year will be specifically spectacular because those volunteers involved have done so much work to make this the best possible.

Stephen Jacobs: Lots of guest panels, and lots of games, and most importantly lots of fun. My store is holding a cosplay contest and a magic tournament in conjunction with the con and I’ll have a computer set up so folks can participate in the panels.

What are you looking forward to? What's your personal favourite part of the event?

Stephen J. Holodinsky: Bringing folks together :)

Joe Sweeney: Personally, I’m really excited about the panel sessions. Being based out of Australia, it’s quite difficult for us to be part of the mainstream gaming community in the USA. Just being able to sit and listen into these panel sessions, to see the faces and hear the voices of the Masters of role-playing, is going to be awesome!

John Brese: I’m definitely looking forward to all of the Q & A sessions.  I love hearing from some of the new Game makers, as well as some of the “old dogs” of this industry.  My personal favorite part of the event is seeing all of the players and GMs playing and getting together for one Weekend to enjoy their favorite hobby.  The community is my #1 priority, and I am thankful every day that I get to continue to be involved in such an awesome undertaking with such a great bunch of people.

Stephen Jacobs: I'm looking forward to it being a success and then growing even bigger for AetherCon IV. The panels are going to be great and the in store events I'm planning at Multiverse.