Tuesday, March 13, 2018

GaryCon X Report - part 1

GaryCon X has come and gone already! While the details are still fresh in my mind, I’m going to record my recollections of this, my second favorite GaryCon ever after last year’s. This was, I believe, my sixth GaryCon, my third (out of three) at the Geneva Grand Resort, and possibly the first time I’ve ever managed to attend all four days.


I made excellent time reaching Lake Geneva by car, arriving at 9:08 -- my earliest arrival time in years. And that was a good thing too because I had a long walk ahead of me. GaryCon had grown since last year, expanding all the way from the north end to the south end of the resort. This meant a long, meandering wander through many hallways and stairs before reaching The Forum at the south end. Later, I heard that people who could take the cold made better time walking outside. And there was shuttle service for those who could wait until half-hour intervals to get it.

The Forum reminded me of GenCon from the old Milwaukee days -- huge rooms broken down by hanging curtains into manageable sections. It was something I had been advocating for after the final year of GaryCon at The Lodge to take care of the noise problem there. It …mostly worked here, depending on how popular the time slot was.

I had three hours until I was scheduled to run Swords & Wizardry: Castle Baldemar’s Dungeon. I did wander and watched some other people playing. I saw some people I knew -- had an early encounter with Carlos Lising just passing by -- and was recognized by people I did not immediately recognize back. But mainly I just sat down and prepared, making sure I had reviewed the adventure, all the magic item descriptions, and anything else I could think of I would need to recall quickly.

I had eight people signed up for Castle Baldemar’s Dungeon. Of them, I had six show, plus one guest join in to make seven. I was quite satisfied with that, particularly in having one of them a repeat attendee from last year (though that was partly because R.J. is a huge S&W fan).

The game itself went great. Everyone seemed invested in the scenario. They delighted in every difficult combat I threw at them, especially the ones they were meant to run from. They were the only players I have ever run this for who stayed, fought the spectres, and won, though were they ever surprised when they found no way to get all their lost energy levels back after the combat! Because of their battle lust, they did have to take a long rest to get spells and hit points back before they could continue.

There is a lot of puzzle-building built into the scenario, but they avoided most of it by just bashing their way through every obstacle they encountered. They explored 14 out of 28 rooms in 3 1/2 hours and then I asked them, “Do you want to keep playing this adventure as-is, or cut straight to the last room now?” They picked the last room. And…despite the fact that half the party died in the final battle, the survivors did manage to retrieve the magic staff and escape with it -- and I think everyone was happy with that.

I was happy, but a little tired after running my first game of the con, but I had to get moving because text messages had informed me that my webcomic partner Mike Bridges and his best friend Jayson had arrived, and were already hanging out with master cartographer Anna Meyer and her friend. I found them all the way on the far end of the resort, sitting and talking. I made the mistake of finding that my phone was seriously low on charge from too many pictures and texts and plugged it in to recharge, then got left behind while the others wandered off and I was left guarding my phone. I never saw Anna again, though she insists she was there all four days.

I spent some time in the artist alley (an overflow area for people who didn’t fit in the exhibit hall anymore) talking to Terry Pavlet and Darlene. I wandered the Legends of Wargaming room and marveled over the new exhibit. Instead of rare items from published game history, this display was more focused on the early wargamers, contained a huge collection of photographs of wargamers going back to the late ‘60s, and its most remarkable piece was a homemade computer made for calculating wargame results, with dials for virtually every conceivable detail. I was assured by Kevin Maguire that the computer probably still worked.

I was particularly hanging around the Legends of Wargaming room because I was signed up to play Legends of Wargaming: They Met at Quatre Bras at 6 pm. Using the Fire and Charge wargaming rules from 1964 (which, I believe, were the oldest wargame being run at the convention), I was looking forward to this window into the pre-Chainmail days of our shared hobby. Particularly after all the prep work I had put into my S&W game, it was a little disconcerting to learn that our referee, Steve Fratt, had not played Fire and Charge in 40-odd years and was relearning it as we went along. I have noticed that, unlike roleplaying referees who need to stay involved in the whole scenario, wargame referees seem to feel they’ve done their job if the players can play the game without them, and then sit back and chat with other people about other things. I find this disconcerting too.

I don’t know enough about wargames to really evaluate the rules. I do know that, for a wargame, it was relatively rules-lite. This left a lot of subjective room for the referee to make calls, many of which were routinely questioned by a player on the opposing side of the table. Then Steve would adopt his “teacher talking to a problem student” tone and instruct him on how he was wrong. I got the tone once, but I needed it because I was not getting that we were attacking per company instead of per unit.

I am not a wargamer, but every year I convince myself I need to play one wargame to experience the roots of my hobby. I’m no good at wargames and found myself empathizing too much with the fictional soldiers I was throwing to their deaths. By 9 pm, I was emotionally checked out of playing and just going through the motions to avoid the empathic backlash. Interestingly, I noticed my hottly antagonistic antagonist had also checked out emotionally, but the two quiet players beside us were happily completing the scenario as best they could, though the whole thing ended with the murky sort of tie that makes you question what good is war.


I drove back from the Chicago suburbs again, and again made it shortly after 9. I had lots of time before the Working with Gary Gygax, 1998-2008 seminar began, which was a good thing because it was in the Grand Suite. The Grand Suite’s location was not clear from the map, was not labeled as “Grand Suite” outside the room, was impossible to find without directions, and difficult even with them. Next year, a simple sheet of paper taped to the wall that says “Grand Suite” on it would be grand.

Our three panel members arrived at different times as they found the place, but they gave an excellent review of Gary’s extraordinary output in his last decade, full of interesting anecdotes about how disinterested Gary was in his old Castle Greyhawk, how much he loved his Lejendary Adventures game, and how much he wanted to move past medieval fantasy into exploring “Renaissance”-era fantasy. I was glad to be there to point out that it was actually Tudor period that Gary was moving into in his later years (as he told the Greytalk mailing list around the beginning of this final decade; I suspect our very smart panelists actually knew this, but assumed their audience didn’t know the difference in the two historical periods). 

I then returned to the distant Forum to find where Carlos Lising was running Die, Markessa, Die! I had planned to only observe the end of the game, but actually was able to jump in when one player had to leave before the end and I took over his ranger character. My late arrival was not enough to keep Markessa (Carlos’ favorite character from the classic AD&D Slave Lords modules) from escaping from us. At least I got to search for a secret door.

After the game, Mike, Jayson, and I were going to peruse the exhibit hall (which I still had not seen) and then eat lunch somewhere, but we got invited by Carlos into his group of friends -- now numbering ten people -- who all went to a pub together. My burger was great. Pickle fries …not so good. As spread out as we were, it was impossible to engage everyone in the same conversation, though Carlos made a game try of it. I do wonder what the older people at the tables behind Carlos thought of his talk about Markessa murdering everyone’s families, though.

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