The Tabletop Renaissance Is Real: A Conversation with Alison Haislip: PAX Unplugged

“Gaming is Gaming.”

The Tabletop gaming community is passionate about their games. From the classics like Dungeons and Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, and Catan, we’ve come to know the names. You can make the argument that these are household names. But the names are only scratching the surface. What’s underneath is a sprawling world of limitless possibilities, a diverse, deep trove of unique games, and a culture that gives its players an incredible advantage: leaving it up to their imagination.

The Penny Arcade X conferences, better known as PAX, have become staples in the video game spectrum. Their visits to Seattle, Boston, Austin and Australia are almost as significant as E3. They’ve provided a platform where the developer and the player can come together to experience new titles, engage in conversations about them, and cultivate a deeper relationship with each other. While PAX has long been focused on the digital realm, attendees at PAX West have found the tabletop scene there to be just as valuable. The heads of PAX noticed this, and alas, dedicated an entire conference to tabletop gaming. PAX Unplugged saw its inaugural year in Philadelphia, a town with a strong tabletop culture already installed, and it was much more than expected.

Personally, I had no idea just how big PAX Unplugged was going to be. I was blown away. But more importantly, I was excited to see such passionate developers be vastly enthusiastic about their games. The magic they shared with their fans and fans-to-be was electric.

I’m fairly new to the tabletop scene. It’s something that’s been creeping up in my life over the past year. I’ve dropped in a few streams of Geek and Sundry. I’ve listened to a few episodes of Shut up & Sit Down. I loved the role-playing scene in the first episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm. Friends have been trying to get me to come out and play D&D all year, but I’ve long resisted out of shyness. What might have tipped me over the edge? Having a conversation with Alison Haislip, the Attack of the Show alum and brand ambassador for __.

“We grew up playing the classics, like Life and Trivial Pursuit,Haislip reminisced during an interview at the iello booth. “My favorite was when the power went out and you had to light candles and play tabletop games. That’s all you could do.”

That was only the beginning. Tabletop games were more than Monopoly and Jumanji or Apples to Apples.

“What changed was when Wil Wheaton asked me to be part of the first season of Tabletop that I realized where tabletop gaming had gone,” Haislip added. “Wil introduced me to a bunch of different worlds. There’s so much more being offered out there. And now it’s my job to play boardgames.”

When I asked her how that coincided with her relationship with videogames, Haislip made a very important point: “Gaming is gaming.” The word captures a myriad of experiences, not just the ones we find on our consoles and PCs. “When I went to GenCon, I was baffled by how many games there were,” Haislip said. “I don’t understand how there could be so many games. It’s inspiring. It’s an art.”

Yes. Tabletop games are an art. Respect them. Embrace them. Dive into them. Because there’s something for everyone. We just might not know what yet, and that’s what happens with a renaissance. Tabletop is not new, but it’s newfound power and exposure is resounding and revolutionary. It demands to be noticed, in a gentle way, kind of like a blackout with candles and family or friends.

“I have a feeling the games have always been there. But it’s people like Wil Wheaton and others who are getting the word out there and supporting it.” Haislip went on, “there’s also the power of the internet. It brings people together and gives people the chance to create these communities. They’ve made it accessible. And it’s fun to watch.”

Tabletop communities are growing rapidly on Twitch. Critical Role, Saving Throw Show, and Geek and Sundry are just a handful of examples. Prior to the conversation, Haislip had just gotten back from playing some tabletop games with TWISTGaming.

Haislip gushed about the iello’s Mountains of Madness. In it, you and your expedition team, which are the other players, make your way up a mountain collecting as many artifacts as you can to justify the amount of injuries you also get on your journey. Then, you have to find a way to escape the mountain. Along the way, you realize that you’ve acquired levels of madness, which affect the way you can communicate with your teammates. “All the players are playing against the game,” she said. “The point of the game is not the point of the game.” The game is available now.

The tabletop gaming community has not only a bright future, but an engaged and fruitful foundation. I was a bit intimidated going into PAX Unplugged. I’m essentially a noob when it comes to tabletop gaming. What I discovered was a passionate curiosity for tabletop gaming, and I’m looking forward to participating more in the community.