GaryCon: Day 1 (Friday)
I started the day psyched about the con and happy to be going to it. Indeed, getting there was my favorite part of the trip; I love the drive up Rt. 12 to Lake Geneva. So pretty and scenic, with towns along the way like Volo and Richmond with so much character.
And the convention started well for me. I made it there when I expected to, just before 10 am on Friday. I played AD&D (“Magic Magic Magik!”) run by Seth Warfield, whose claim to fame was getting an article in Dragon magazine when he was 15. It was a simple scenario, like the short pieces in Dungeon magazine back in the day, but for a 2-hour time slot, you knew you weren’t getting an epic storyline. It was light and entertaining and Seth is a whiz with funny character voices. And I got to play it with Will Schumacher and his son David. The rest of the players were fine too, but Will figures prominently in this narrative again later.
If there was a problem at all so far with GaryCon, it was the noise level. It was crazy loud in that room -- GaryCon seriously, SERIOUSLY needs to invest in curtains to hang between tables to absorb sound.
My expectations were high going into the next event, as famous RPG writer/editor Harold Johnson was running AD&D (“Help Me Out Here”). Though I was not actually going anywhere, as by chance this game was at the very same table in the very same room. Six hours into the convention and I still hadn’t seen more of the con than this room! And, remarkably, the room was even louder now. Harold had to shout at us and, if we weren’t sitting in the direction he was facing, we could not hear what he was shouting. As for the scenario...let’s say I had issues with it. Harold’s play style seems heavily influenced by LARPing and we were expected to set aside the mission we thought we were on and hang out in an inn interacting with the NPCs there for a solid hour of game play. I’m glad I got the chance to talk to him later and give him some input on putting more motivation into the scenario.
Real, crushing disappointment came next. I had scheduled to run my Hideouts & Hoodlums game from 5-7 pm. Because of complications when I pre-registered, I did not make it into the online or paper event catalogs. I was hoping to be a pick-up game in the open gaming area and get at least 3 players.
There was a significant downturn in the number of pick-up games available in the open game area this year as opposed to two years ago when I was last there -- and yet people seemed just fine with that. Hardly anyone seemed to be looking for a game to play. This nice lady named Laura came and waited with me for awhile, and Harold Johnson stopped by to chat with me (which is when I got to give him some feedback on his scenario). We talked about the poor visibility of pick-up games at GaryCon vs. other cons (though -- to be fair -- GaryCon had added a markerboard for advertising them this year, which was an improvement over just letting people sit out sheets of papers on tables). After waiting an hour for players, I gave up.
I had skipped the exhibit hall at 4:30, because I had slipped outside to eat a sack dinner in the car. At 6, when I was finally free to see it, I found the hall was already closed for the day. I had Dawn Patrol to play at 7, so I went down to the wargaming room early.
Now, I had played Dawn Patrol twice in the past, but had always shown up late and had to jump into the game without proper instruction. This time I had lots of time to get told how to play the game. I would be sitting at the table with legends David Wesley, who ran the wargame scenarios for Dave Arneson that inspired the creation of Dungeons & Dragons, and John Pickens, who was an editor for TSR for at least 14 years. I had recognized the names, but had not remembered their resumes at the time, so I was not overly concerned for my German pilot’s safety. Indeed, having scored some good hits in turn 1, I was feeling confident going into turn 2.
And then someone scored a lucky hit on my engine, it malfunctioned and stopped because of some bad dice rolls (just like my traditionally bad luck with saving throws in D&D!), and I had to land in a field -- effectively taking me out of the entire scenario in turn 2. Now fed up Dawn Patrol -- and everything else that had gone poorly with my day -- I left the convention two hours ahead of schedule, drove home...and missed my turn onto Rt. 12 in the dark. Luckily, I was able to find my way home via Rt. 31, feeling confidence returning to me once I reached Algonquin and familiar territory.
That night, before I went to bed to rest for the next day, I resolved to lower my expectations for Saturday. Would it help...?
Day 2 (Saturday)
Project Lowered Expectations began by letting Megan sleep in until 9 am before we left for Lake Geneva. Our leisurely drive north included the pleasure of paying Wisconsin gas prices, one last stab at paying under $2.40 a gallon, as Chicagoland prices climbed back above $2.80. We drove around Lake Geneva for a bit, admiring the scenery and the downtown (though failing to find Harold Johnson’s bookstore). This leisurely pace was intentional, for it was my plan -- my scheme -- that we would eat lunch downtown before heading to the convention and hence save money over the convention food prices.
However, the “casual dining” sign outside the downtown Popeye’s fooled me. We clearly had different definitions of casual dining -- mine was that we would find some sort of high-end fast food place inside like Portillo’s, and theirs was that suit and tie was not required. I wound up paying twice as much on lunch there as I would have at the con, but...oh, what a lunch! That ultimate smoked pork sandwich was amazing, and I hope I am able to recall the taste of it for a long time still to come.
Now, I had been warned the previous day about how bad parking would be on Saturday and had been advised to take the shuttle across town. Neither Megan nor myself much cared for that notion, though, so we decided to take our chances at finding parking just after noon on the busiest day of the con. The entire parking lot was, of course, full. To our surprise, though, overflow parking was allowed on this side street leading to a nearby apartment complex. We were able to park a block away down this road and walk back to the con. Undaunted by this short stretch of the legs, we finally reaching the con and registering Megan for the day.
We headed first to the exhibit hall which I was anxious to see, having missed it the day before. I had a load of fun in there, pointing out people I recognized to Megan, saying hi to Allan Grohe of Black Blade Publishing, drooling over Rob Kuntz’s Bottle City module (and wishing I still had my lunch money to put towards buying it), buying a copy of the Gangbusters rulebook for $6 (another guy was selling it for $25!), and chatting with Terry Pavlet about his comic book work and library-hosted comic book conventions after buying his special GaryCon print. We also bought Megan a new set of dice.
A low point of the day also came in the exhibit hall, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Darlene was at the exhibit hall -- famous artist of the original Greyhawk map -- but I mixed her up in my mind with Jean Wells, author of Palace of the Silver Princess. So I’m standing there, gushing over module B3 to her, and she politely doesn’t say anything, but must have been thinking, “What is this nut talking about…?” My mistake eluded me until hours later when I had a head-slap moment.
With the exhibits all seen, we headed out to find some gaming, confident that, with more people at the con today, we would have no problem finding pick-up games to play. This proved NOT to be the case. We played a demo of Brick Wars, a strategy game about building with Legos, that was surprisingly challenging. But after that, there was nothing. Nor were unsold tickets for scheduled events available at the registration table, as in years past. We went to the open gaming area and picked out The Great Space Race -- a fantastic board game -- and set it up, hoping that it would attract *somebody* to play with, but no one passed by and showed any interest. We also found out why you’re supposed to play the game with 3+ players; with 2 players, it was too easy to maneuver around each other and our mines on the game board.
Would we ever turn things around? No -- but Will Schumacher did. You might recall he was supposed to figure prominently in this story.
So, Megan and I had given up on gaming before 4 pm, just 3 hours into our day at the con. We had settled into sitting and listening to Dan the Bard perform -- NOT that there is anything wrong with listening to Dan the Bard, but, you know, we sort of had our hearts set on gaming at a gaming convention. I was even thinking about calling it a day and heading home, beaten and rejected by the con that didn’t want us. That was when we discovered we were sitting next to Will’s wife, Paula. Not that either of us recognized her, having not met her before, but we did when their son Bennett walked up to her. Soon the whole Schumacher clan showed up and we all got the chance to talk and make acquaintance. But no sooner had they left than Will returned to us with a ticket -- our golden ticket. It was for “Revenge of the Over-Kobold”, an AD&D scenario with young but spirited DM Dave Olson. Dave was quite shaky on the actual AD&D rules (surprising, considering he planned to publish this scenario in 1st ed.-compliant rules), but the scenario was fun and Dave was hugely funny when in character. Further, Ringo the Charmed Kobold will go down in my personal history as a favorite NPC (“I get to burn things? Best day ever!”).
Buoyed by this turn of events, we could have left the con at 8 pm feeling much better about our day. We just had one wrong turn left to go -- giving the open game area one more try, we returned and set up the DC Comics Deck-Building Game that Megan had her eye on earlier. We shared a table with a man who condescendingly mocked us for finding the rules overly complex and lacking in explanation before we gave up on the game.
Around 9, we made one final round of the tables to say goodbye to a GaryCon with some high highs but many lows, and left for a late supper on the road home.
Lessons learned: Will I go back for a fourth GaryCon? Possibly. But --
1. Attending a convention on a tight budget is hugely stressful. I had hoped to keep to a $120 budget and we went about $50 over. I would not go again unless I had at least $180 to spare.
What are the other gamers doing? Since I was there last, there has clearly been a shift away from open gaming to pre-registered events, trying out new games to playing known games (with a huge emphasis on D&D and, for whatever reason, Werewolf and Dungeon Crawl Classics) and just mingling and socializing without gaming at all. So where does that leave me?
2. Making it into the event catalog is no longer optional -- it seems like it will now be mandatory for getting players. I would have to register earlier to make sure there were no problems like there were this year.
3. If I want to make *sure* I get to play, I’m going to have to bring the games myself. I would schedule much more than just 2 hours for me to run games. And I would divide my time between trying to run H&H and running other, more traditional fare.