Saturday, August 20, 2016

Credit, Recognition, and The Pillow Test

During the past several years several people have asked me various questions on the same topic or subject, and my feelings about it. I guess it has come time to state it publicly, once and for all.

Gary Gygax and Brian Blume hired me to be the company editor, that company first being Tactical Studies Rules, and then TSR Hobbies. I edited some of their business letters; I edited some of Gary’s stuff; I edited whatever game the company was working on (but more as a proofreader in those instances); I edited Strategic Review and then when I edited Blackmoor, all of our lives changed a little that day.

The word “edit” was pretty loosely applied back then. In the heyday of newspapers there was a person or desk called “Re-write”. This person took the facts as dictated from the reporter not actually writing their own story and made them coherent. I did a ton of that. Another skill necessary for a good editor is making the words that you have flow; they are there for a reason and should be pleasing to the mind reading them, they should be euphonious in your head. Sometimes this means substituting words and other times reconstructing sentences and paragraphs. But the most called-upon skill in those days was my ability to divine what the author meant and re-write in his voice, at the same time filling in all the gaps. In some cases those gaps were rather substantial, and I ended up creating significant portions of transitory and “tying together” material. In some of the D&D supplements it was as much as 30% of the content. This continued, to one degree or another, for Eldritch Wizardry and Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes. With the former I wrote lots of stuff, for the latter not so much.

This was what I was hired to do. Gary put his trust in me that I was not going to screw up the basic system and gave me my head. So, technically, I wrote a small chunk of OD&D. In accepting that trust and responsibility, I certainly had a major hand in directing the evolution of the game as we know it today. It was what I was hired to do; this is why I am only ever listed as the editor. I was one of many that were thanked in the fronts of the AD&D books, and I was OK with that.

To be bluntly honest, had I known then that D&D was going to become what it did become, I might have argued for, and gotten, “more credit”. But we first TSR employees were a team when it came to creating stuff. A lot of our early product was worked on en masse; we all had a hand in it. When it came to stuff like new spells and potions, I do not think it possible, without Mr. Wells’ time machine, to clearly say who did what in the majority of cases. Certain artifacts and magic items were proposed by various individuals; for some of those I can remember authorship.

We “First Five”, Gary, Brian, Dave Sutherland, Mike Carr and myself (founders of what is now called The Old Guard by GaryCon) shared ideas freely.

A couple of years ago I revealed the process for what became Basic and 1E. Before then, no one had every asked me about it and I had not felt it necessary to blow my own horn. I revealed that I was certainly godfather to 1E and Basic, having spent nearly seven workdays closeted with Gary making decisions on which was which and what went where, as well as what got nerfed and what got beefed up. Then I sort of withdrew from that part of the company to concentrate my efforts on my division of the company, Periodicals.

A chance to do a professional, “slick paper” magazine about games and gaming is what most drew me to TSR in the first place; getting to help on this new game was a side dish. Gary promised the chance to turn The Strategic Review (beginning to notice a fondness for certain letter combinations?) into a “real” magazine with advertising and some color. As a recent grad of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a fresh degree in Communications, and former junior college newspaper staffer, I was ready.

Gary and I had discussed a magazine at some length before I was asked to come on board this “new venture” he was brewing. I thank whatever fate or providence or my lucky stars or whatever for my wife, Cheryl, nearly every day. She had the faith in me, and the letters RN behind her name, and enabled to me to pursue this crazy dream with Gary while she provided the majority of our support those first years (we had our first child, Amanda, before I went to Wisconsin). We started two magazines: Little Wars and The Dragon Magazine (how I originally named them).

LW was devoted to all things historical; we had several sets of historical minis rules as well as some historical boardgames then. Sadly, our success in fantasy almost fore-doomed any success in historical; we were very soon known as “those fantasy guys” and not taken seriously for anything else. I still maintain that William the Conqueror – 1066 was an outstanding innovation in boardgaming that blended in the feel of minis long before similar systems of today. Eventually, LW was absorbed back into The Dragon as it became more well-rounded.

The Dragon proved the adage that a rising tide lifts all boats. Gaming took off at the same time and we rode the rocket. The mag was very successful financially and generated a lot of profits. A substantial number of artists got their first stuff published by me; some went on to TSR. Several new writing voices were first published in one mag or the other. Several years later a couple of them showed up as “talking heads” on a couple of history programs. It was heady stuff to find new talent; I hated to leave the mag more than anything I have ever done.

What we “First Five” had really done hit me in the gut whilst I was watching the second LotR movie. We had cleared the forest and pulled and burned some of the stumps, then planted that first meager crop. Our efforts then made this possible now.

Granted, as I have stated elsewhere several times, we were at a confluence of culture and events and society that enabled this to happen, but it damned sure was not something inevitable or anything like that. We busted our asses and in so doing created all the jobs that came after; we laid one hell of a foundation in 1975.

I wonder how many Harry Potter books were sold to old players, buying them for their kids?

The social impact of what we devised, without a name then but called role-playing now, has been surprisingly significant. One of the great pleasures for me now at cons is hearing how our silly little game impacted people’s lives, sometimes for keeping them from mischief, other times enabling them to come out of their shells and learn to interact with others. Gary and I had already recognized the latter, having congratulated each other once for (here I paraphrase) giving nerds something in common to talk to each other about.

There is little that delights me more than someone recounting the two summers they adventured and stayed out of real-life trouble with their pals, or how playing the game enabled them to find self-confidence.

After I left TSR I founded a new magazine, Adventure Gaming, with the support of the now-defunct Ral-Partha (which lives on in memory and spirit in Iron Wind Metals). It only lasted 13 issues, falling victim to the failed “trickle-down” policies of the Reagan administration; hobby and book shops were disproportionately hard hit by the melt-down. So I got out of the business I had helped take off.

I was many things for the next 20 years: Dad, Husband, soccer coach, salesman, draftsman, softball player, HS soccer announcer, soccer ref and still played the occasional boardgame, and then got a Masters in Educ. So I could teach. My children are of an age that was not impacted by Sat. morning D&D, so I essentially stayed away from the hobby for 22 years. When I came back to GenCon in 2006, I was stunned.

I live in Cincinnati, which is less than two hours from Indy. I came in from the East, running West on Southeastern Ave. When I got to the intersection with Washington, I saw little flags hanging on the light poles welcoming GenCon. I saw signage everywhere saying the same. I was gobsmacked by the numbers of the opposite sex (I never know how to refer to them; if I use the word “ladies” I offend some; if I use the word “females” I offend others; if I use the word “girls” I offend them all.) There were kids, too. What a wonderful metamorphosis had transpired. 

Every time I see others RPG’ing, I smile inside. I helped make that happen, I helped make that matter, and I had helped to touch to those lives. What we created spawned an entire library of knock-offs, an industry devoted to capturing that magic that we discovered in ’74 and ’75. We made, literally, millions of memories possible. We created hundreds of jobs, possibly thousands depending upon how you choose to analyze it.

So when I am asked why it seemingly does not bother me that others’ names might be better known than mine, I tell them that it really does not matter to me that my name is not on a marquee in lights. I walk through game cons with the same thoughts I have each night as I go to sleep: I know what I did. I rest incredibly easy every night knowing that I had a hand in something that has had such a profound impact on society and culture. Future historians might puzzle over the cultural significance of droopy pants and how or where it started. No such questions exist for the birth of role-playing; those historians simply say “1974-1975 and “The Little Brown Box”.

I have been “a gamer” for over 55 years now. My gaming history is demarcated by “pre-RPG” and “post-D&D”; I avidly play all three main types of gaming: boards, minis and RPG’s. And they are all different now because of what we did from 1975 to 1980, when we lit the fuse that ignited the gaming experience. So I lay my head on my pillow each night knowing that.

What recognition I have received has concerned my magazines more than my other work at TSR, and that’s OK. 

And you know what? Next year I plan to go to my 50th HS Reunion. When I walk in there, I know that out of 700+ fellow alumni and alumnae, none of them has had the impact on modern culture and society that I was a part of. And most of them will have no idea how I helped change modern popular culture, and that’s OK, too. I know.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Gen Con #49, 2016: How big is too big for a convention?

First Impressions…

The residents of Indianapolis have every reason to think that GenCon attendees are some of the dumbest sheep around.

This was the most visibly diverse GC ever.

The vendor hall grew to monstrous proportions.

Attendance was flat, but Thursday was mayhem.

The Debut of The Dwarvenaut

The Charity Auction was a smashing success.

Has Gen Con gotten too big?

Now some details…

GenCon attendees, for the most part, are some of either the most rude, or dumbest, pedestrians ever. The lights in Indy are really simple; a white icon of a person walking or an orange hand with a countdown in seconds. When the white icon comes on, you walk. When the orange hand comes up it means DO NOT START ACROSS NOW; the countdown is to alert those already in the crosswalk how much time they have left before the light changes so GET THE HELL OUT OF THE CROSSWALK! Well, not for GC attendees, apparently, who lumbered out into the crosswalks halfway through the orange countdown and made the long-suffering drivers wait while they plodded across. C’mon, folks! Show some courtesy to your hosts and quit acting like a herd of buffalo.

When Indiana’s benighted Gov. Pence signed a bill last year that basically said it was OK to discriminate in IN for just about any reason, GenCon LLC was the very first to threaten to pull out of Indy. Eventually, Pence’s lackeys convinced him (remember, this is the guy that thinks it is cool to be Trump’s running mate) that Indy might get upset with him to lose the $70 million that GenCon means to Indy, and so allowed the bill to be rescinded.
Never has GenCon been as openly diverse and embracing of everyone as it was this year, proving again that we are all just gamers first. All sorts of costumes draping all sorts of body types, some attendees were just letting it all hang out.

Costumes have become a very big deal. Some of them are amazing and evidence hours of work and lots of dollars spent. Some of them are puzzling, I must admit. But it all seems to be in good fun, for the most part. I can’t help feeling though, that the idea of costumes at GenCon feeds some peoples exhibitionist tendencies. So, Dude in the leather G-string that paraded around for 2 days legally naked (and all the rest of the similarly benighted), save it for your mirror at home. I truly do not care how well you’re ripped; put some damned clothes on. GenCon isn’t Naked City IN (where they have real naked contests). If any female in attendance had shown that much skin, she would have been cited for Public Nudity.

I no longer smoke tobacco, but I still make regular trips to the smoking areas to see old friends and use my vape. It was during a few of these sojourns that I noticed a phenomenon that I do not pretend to understand. Apparently, some of the vapers there are looking for future employment as human smoke-screens; WWII destroyers should have been so efficient. What is with the huge clouds? Isn’t all that juice wasted?

Attendance was pretty flat this year, right around 61K attendees, same as last year. Turnstile numbers (how many attend each day added together over the 4 days) were way up. I think I know why. Thursday was insane; I’m guessing that a whole lot of gamers decided to take the whole four days. I do know that some items at some booths were gone by Friday noon. For the first time ever, I thought to buy a GenCon souvenir; they had a nice messenger bag I liked. They were sold out on Thursday.
Other than a tragic inability to understand traffic rules, the crowd was as well behaved and courteous as you would expect a gathering of gamers to be. I witnessed many acts of kindness and none of boorish behavior.

The vendor hall this year was the largest ever; I believe they may have added about 11 rows when they expanded. I do know that my achy and arthritic knees and ankles gave out the first time at Row 19; I completed my circuit the next day. Artist’s Alley was embroiled in controversy over who got in and who didn’t, including a couple of long-time denizens of the Alley whose work was not accepted this year. My god, has this also become politically corrupted now with petty jealousies and spite?

On a positive note, I was able to pick up three boardgames (Shadows over Camelot, Powergrid Deluxe and a new game that looks quite interesting called Council of Blackthorn) that I think my group might like, as well as a couple of silly card games. I got really lucky on a boardgame I saw coming up for auction after my shift was done; a FASA game I did not have from the series they did on James Clavell’s stuff, called Shogun. I scribbled a Proxy on the bid card and got the game for about 65% of the Proxy. It was much later when I opened it and found it to be un-punched!

Every year there are new vendors at GC, and this year was no exception. There is an ever-increasing number of what I call “non-game” vendors, selling jewelry and knick-knacks as well as esoteric stuff like kilts, steampunk clothing and accessories, mapping software, replica weapons and stuffed animals. These last must be something to do with anime as the majority of them had Asian features. Ah well, I don’t have to understand it for you to have fun.

About a year and a half ago, some film-maker types had the idea that Stefan Pokorny, CEO and mastermind of Dwarven Forge, was an interesting guy. They followed him around for over a year making a documentary about him. They named the movie The Dwarvenaut; it had been shown only a handful of times at film festivals around the country before GenCon, where it debuted to the public.
(Full Disclosure demands that I say up front that I consider Stefan to be both an amazingly talented guy, but better yet, my friend.)
I spent a bunch of time in the DF booth; the crew of ladies that Susy assembled were great to spend time with.
There is a glaring error in the credits of the movie (the post-production clods spelled my name incorrectly), so I was signing copies of the DVD’s and Blu-Rays with the correct spelling. They were specially priced for GC (50% off Amazon’s price) and signed by both Stefan and myself.
The movie is very, very interesting. (I am in it very briefly, and act sort of annoyingly; so, no ego in this recommendation.) Stefan is an amazingly talented artist capable of producing Fine Art as well as amazing sculptures of castles and caverns and dungeons and monsters and the like. The Blu-Ray has some extra stuff much more interesting to us gamers, like a 15 minute documentary on GaryCon and more. Treat yourself and pick one up.

Last year, the Charity Auction raked in about $12K; we smoked that figure this year with over $17K. Cardhalla raises a hefty chunk, and the people at Mayfair Games donate a hefty chunk of cash each year. Frank and I got them rolling and fired up the first hour and the rest of them ran with it. I still get a great deal of pleasure working in the Charity Auction. Next year we will have Twinkies again (inside auction reference for those in the know).

The question now is this: has GenCon gotten TOO big? The Best Four Days in Gaming (as they like to style themselves) may be getting too big for its own good. They had a record number of ticketed events this year. Those events were spread all over hell and gone. Just about every downtown hotel, with the exception of The Conrad, had games running somewhere. The convention spilled over into the Lucas Oil Center this year, making for a venue that is very spread out.
My first GenCon was in ’74; a couple hundred of us crammed into a non-air conditioned venue in August. The air was redolent and we all sweat through it together; the shared experience bonded us. The sweat is still there in Indy, while the venue has superior ventilation, it is still a daunting proposition. Sadly, I have heard a lot of gamers over the past year say that they just weren’t feeling Indy anymore. Particularly in the Midwest, we have several very viable smaller cons that are growing. Two that stand out in my mind are Gary Con and Gamehole Con, both in WI, one in March and the other in November. (Full disclosure demands that I acknowledge my pledge to Gary's offspring to support GaryCon, as long as I am physically able, that I made upon his death.)
Everything changes with time but the mountains, or so the old saying goes. I know that there are enormous game conventions (or shows) in Europe that dwarf GenCon. I cannot wrap my head around what they must be like.
The “fun” I seek when I go to GenCon is no longer gaming related, at least not in the way it once was. My enjoyment comes from seeing old friends, looking at new products and working the crowd in the Auction. I no longer get to play games at GenCon. I am fortunate in that I get to attend several cons each year as a Guest; at these events (TotalCon, GaryCon, NTRPGCon and Gamehole Con) I get to play games with strangers and friends; that is what game cons have always been about for me.