For years it meant the Grail of gaming to me.
From the initial glossy ads playing on TSRs old logo. The once-stoic dragon belching fire and staring at me from the back of my older copies of Dragon Magazine, to the fantasies of my aspirations as a fantasy author and game designer… this event loomed as my own foggy Avalon of the gaming universe.
I say Grail deliberately… I’ve never quite found my way there.
When I was a child, my parents all but laughed at requests that I be allowed to fly or drive half-way across the country to stay in a city I knew nothing of on the power of my mostly imaginary allowance. In college, I was too busy hawking magic cards and finding my next meal to generally believe a journey of that cost and magnitude was possible… My Grail, miraculous and elusive, like a fleeting dream until someone else I knew went… for free…
My friend and I were regulars at the local sci-fi Con. We’d already begun the annual critique of the newer venue of the Con. Comparing our current quad occupancy room at the Airport Hilton to last year’s Quality Inn’s downtown conveniences, when we saw it:
“D&D Tournament. Grand Prize: All expenses paid trip to GenCon!”
It was possible.
For the first time in my mythical relationship with the gilded gates of the Con that could not be had, all I had to do was “beat” people at my favorite game. I had LEARNED TO READ from D&D boxed sets and manuals. They were my “See Spot Run!”. Dick and Jane were 14th level Magic-Users as far as I was concerned. I had Dungeon Mastered since I was 11. I had made hundreds of characters already. I had the 2nd Edition Rules books within a day of their releases.
I would own this.
The DM sat us down. A viking of a man, he looked more like the villain of some unmade Conan movie than a nerd. His frame was heavily muscled and he had a braid that looked anything but feminine hanging wrist-thick to the middle of his back. His beard would have marked him as attractive to me if it wasn’t for the insistent and unyielding aggression of his presence. A known legend of the local gaming scene already, he loved nothing more than hearing players regale each others horrible deaths at his hands. And as he ran he would laugh thunderously with each failed saving throw.
He laid out the rules of this “Tournament”. Characters had to “Role-Play”. His mouth worked around this phrase like it was foreign to him. Like he was trying to talk around a block of cheese, or a mouthful of honey. It should have been my warning. My chance to run screaming from the Hotel. But all I could think was, “Bitchin’ I make my players stay-in character all night for bonus experience.” We had had 10 hour games where no one broke character once. I started running over my catalog of voices and accents, deciding how I was going to dazzle the group.
The rules continued. The “Tournament” would have two rounds. The first round was three selection games where 18 players would work through the first half of the adventure. Points would be awarded for the above mentioned “Role-Playing”, creativity, and completion of the objectives of the party. Each character would go to the best player of it during the final round. Easy enough. In my head the first two were givens, the third more than likely but my only concern… until….
Snag #1: Pre-generated Characters.
We were each handed a sheet. The DM-meat-grinder explained we were each in possession of a carefully balanced character delicately weighted for high-level play to make us equals in every fashion. I searched the unfamiliar layout for the basics and watched my co-players has over the details. The first-timer girlfriend had got a half-elf rogue. She began to anxiously ask what sneak attack was. Her boyfriend smiled triumphantly as he announced his possession of the Grand Druid of his Circle… …And immediately set to ignoring his girlfriend’s questions. A classic gamer who carefully eyed the group as if a wild animal about to dart back to his mother’s basement whispered he had a dwarf fighter/cleric. “Classic gamer’s” roommate was immediately contesting his character’s gender and asked if she could be male, the DM shrugged and said “Sure, he’s going to die anyway.”
And there I was looking down at a shiny 20th-level Paladin. I had been hoping for my preferred character class of Wizard, but the guy wasn’t a slouch. Stats were generous in the extreme. My saves could have held up a national economy. I looked across the table at the dwarven priest. An 18th level Cleric/17th level Fighter. I began to feel a little shaky about the equality of my character…
Snag #2: My best friend.
Then my friend mumbled something about his character being really complicated. I offered to help him and looked over his shoulder. “Noble Drow, 19th Fighter/19th Mage”. My heart sank. A dark-elf Gish. Full spell-resistance, near max casting. Other details like “Black Razor” and “Staff of Power” shone out from the sheet. It was the Monte Haul of loot lists, with the Aged Gouda of Power Gaming. I timidly offered some tips. As I sunk down into my seat, I was certain my DM wouldn’t know balance if Ralph Macchio crane-kicked off the tip of his nose.
I looked at my friend, I looked across at the dwarf. Both felt a lot cooler than my Pally, but then I looked at my “kit”. Dragonmaster. The DM was suddenly like, “Oh, I forgot. Here are your DRAGONS.”
In my hands were slid a pair, an Old Wyrm and an Adult, of silver dragons. Combined, I had nearly 1000 Hit-Points of raw melee dominating power at my disposal. I asked if I could role-play the dragons too. I was told yes, and that I would get bonus points for doing so. I was giddy and started plotting my priorities for booths at my very first Gen Con…
The game began. My friend and I had gamed together for years and our Drow-Paladin antics were the McCartney and Wonder of the D&D universe that day. We had fun. I hammed my dragons and my virtuous luster. My friend drew out a beautiful sun-tortured enigma. And in my comfort I freely let my spellcasting expertise flow to my friend. We finished Round 1 with 50 minutes to spare. We tried to push on, and found our universe collapsing to a snow-field and series of Arches wrought in Ice…
Another friend managed to grab a spot in another of the qualifier games and even got a character we hadn’t played. It was the she-barbarian/ranger whom he respectfully left gender intact. A little check-in later and we found they had reached the final encounter over nearly two hours from the scheduled game time. My drow-playing friend and I nervously watched as a chain of failed rolls exploded the competition and a TPK ended most of their hopes of entering the Final. With her death being first, our gender-intact barbarian was disqualified from advancing.
Snag #3: Old-School and Finals.
After a college-funded breakfast of candy bars and Bailey’s Irish cream with coffee added for color, we were sitting down and I really began to worry for the first time about our new competition. Slowly they drifted and slunk in… each baring the most hung-over of demeanors. Something went off in the uniformity of their actions. Alarms sounded. They were ALL dragging, ALL recovering… It hit like thunder.
They were all from one gaming group.
The DM’s gaming group.
It felt like a set-up. A horrible trap my friend and I had fallen into. One of them leaned over behind my ear, his hot, stale wine-laden breath on me and whispered, “You are playing my character.” It was a command to yield my seat. I mumbled rapidly that I would try not to die then. Convinced I was not going to leave, he settled into one of the couches nearby and fell swiftly asleep.
And then it was on.
The game raged, and the party fought. My fear of the DM’s gamers fell away as we realized he was out for blood, and our mutual enemy forged us into one machine. My paladin barked orders and screamed charges, healing his battered dragons and smiting the Frost King’s children. My friend’s dark-elf assaulted Jotun with Meteor Swarms and Lightning. As the last giant crashed into the ice, and we stood triumphant, the blood-thirsty DM swore profusely at having failed to down a single one of us.
And then he began scoring…
I had felt bad. My advice and mentoring had helped turn the tide. I was so obviously the party leader it was embarrassing, and as the scoring began I honestly started to think about what I would need to pack…
I heard him tallying. Each of my friend’s spells was read and marked. His point totals sky-rocketed. I was happy to receive high marks for role-playing. But as he read off my impressive score, I was stunned to hear it stated as a “close second”… to the exotic lure of dark-elven magic. The DM the recounted drow’s harrowing charge on dragon-back as he rode the beast in to assault the Frost-King, and the Dragon had torn out the mad giant’s gullet. I was dumbfounded.
“That was my dragon,” I reminded him.
“But the Drow was riding it!” He proclaimed “explaining” everything.
There was no reasoning with those eyes.
And just like that, my first ever GenCon ended and never was. My friend went, and did have a blast. He had succumbed to what I came to see as the most elaborate gaming group recruitment I had ever heard of. And even as he spun the stories upon his return of meeting our mutual idols, playing with game designers and showed off his pre-release autographed editions, I vowed that someday I would go…
But not this year… I am bummed about it, but I have my games and friends here, home-cooked meals and my own bed to sleep in… so it isn’t all bad.
Maybe next year… Maybe.