Tuesday, June 26, 2012

My First Gaming Convention: Pointcon VIII

GenCon has always dominated as the grand pilgrimage convention for roleplaying gamers, with Origins coming in second place; but in my early gaming years they seemed little more than an unreachable dream one only read about in the pages of Dragon Magazine or other industry periodicals. Those resources, however, led me to the only game convention in my area at the time…Pointcon at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

As a high school kid and avid reader of Dragon Magazine, I quickly came to believe GenCon and Origins were the hobby’s leading gaming events, Meccas every truly dedicated gamer would reach in making the ultimate roleplaying game pilgrimage. At the time, however, I realized it was unrealistic to commandeer the family summer vacation to go to a gaming event only I’d enjoy, and one that seemed overly expensive given admission, travel, and hotel expenses, let alone shopping cash for purchasing dream game product I never imagined my local hobby shop carrying.

Dragon Magazine used to run a listing of conventions in each issue, vital to the gaming community at a time when print periodicals -- not the vast and instant internet -- served as the only efficient means of disseminating news of gaming events. I always perused the listings, desperate to find any gaming activities within range of my home in southwestern Connecticut near New York City. The “Convention Calendar” in Dragon Magazine #94 (Feb. 1985) finally printed a listing for a convention nearby:

Sponsored by the Military Affairs
Wargames Committee, this convention will
be staged at the U.S. Military Academy in
West Point, N.Y. Board and role-playing
games, tournaments, and demonstrations
will be some of the activities featured at the
convention. Note that admission to this
event is free. For more information about
Pointcon VIII, contact….

West Point was less than an hour’s drive away from my home. After convincing my father to drive us, a neighborhood gamer friend and I went to the convention. For the uninitiated con-goer who had no idea what to expect, the convention was a fun day of games, discussions, and dealers. I attended both Pointcon VIII and IX (in 1985 and 1986) some 30 years ago, so from here on out my memory’s merging impressions and events from the two years I went.

The convention occupied a large function space in Eisenhower Hall, with dealers at one end, game table set up throughout the rest of the space, and an area sectioned off for a few panel discussions…all with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Hudson River. I’ve since come to really appreciate these “open community” convention set-ups where everything occupies a central location and gamers can flow between games, dealers, and just hanging out with friends. That’s pretty much what this awkward high school kid did for the day.

I have fragmented, faded memories of the two Pointcons I attended. I recall purchasing FASA’s Doctor Who roleplaying game from a convention dealer, but can’t remember anything else I might have bought. My friend played a game of Avalon Hill’s Kingmaker (which we subsequently discovered we were playing “wrong” with my copy at home). Despite the convention listing in Dragon Magazine, I don’t recall seeing any roleplaying game events. But the numerous miniature wargaming tables intrigued me with their terrain and meticulously painted troops. Notwithstanding my complete ignorance of miniature wargaming at the time I joined a Northwest Frontier miniature wargame: Pathans versus Highlanders! I ran a horde of Pathans led by a “mad mullah” who gave them some degree of a morale boost, though not enough inspiration for them to reach the British field gun I ordered them to foolishly charge. Ouch.

One recollection I definitely have from Pointcon VIII was the roster of game industry guests. I talked with Al Leonardi about his Ace of Aces and Lost Worlds game books, which revolutionized head-to-head combat gaming before the Age of Computer Gaming. Lou Zocchi gave me his pitch about the quality of his dice and his 100-sided Zocchihderon die. Mark Herman and Eric Lee Smith of Victory Games gave an interesting talk on wargames based on a seminar they gave at Origins ’84 (I still have their dot-matrix-printed outline somewhere). I was (and still am) impressed to see these guests at what amounted to a small university gaming convention; what brought them all to Pointcon at the time remains a mystery. To find a line-up like that today one must head out to a venue like Origins or GenCon, the aforementioned gaming Meccas to which only a fraction of active gamers can make the pilgrimage.

I haven’t returned to Pointcon since then. Game conventions, especially those at universities, ebb and flow over time with the turnover of dedicated volunteer organizers who help set the tone and establish time-honored programming and themes. In today’s world security at West Point remains high, something we never worried about when our parents frequently took us there for day-trip tours, occasional parades, visits to the museum, or concerts at the magnificent, neo-gothic Cadet Cathedral; perhaps security concerns (or the inconvenience of security checkpoints and complexity of parking on campus) deters some attendees. Instead of the spacious Eisenhower Hall the con now lurks in a collection of classrooms in Thayer Hall. The convention has long since shed its general gaming coverage and focused on miniature wargames (though some board games are represented to some small degree). A cursory internet search reveals some concerns about advertising and promoting the convention. Where once Dragon Magazine served as the central clearinghouse for such information, now gamers and con organizers must cover a number of online news sources; few serve as the acknowledged leaders in hobby news.

Pointcon VIII and IX served me well as my first gaming conventions. They offered opportunities to explore and engage in games close to home. They exposed me to gaming luminaries, new types of games, and alternate ways of looking at games. I’ve since attended cons of many different magnitudes, from small university game days to almighty GenCon, as an individual gamer, company representative, industry freelancer, even as a “celebrity” game designer guest. Each convention possesses its own character, reflected by both organizers and attendees; I’ve learned to try enjoying each one for what it offers and what I can contribute.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Zombies Ate My Playground

During a recent visit to one of our county’s very nice public parks I watched a horde of summer day-camp kids overrun the playground, chasing each other with shambling gaits, uttering guttural growls, and reaching for each other with rigid limbs; they were playing “Zombie.” (I was somewhat amused that their adult minders didn’t seem to do anything to discourage this sort of horror-themed play…I can’t imagine it was a Christian summer day camp, though speculation on whether Lazarus could be considered a zombie after being raised from the dead remains the subject for an interesting if not deliciously blasphemous debate.)

My toddler was not immune and became immediately infected with the idea of playing “Zombie” with his dad. I’ll freely admit to engaging in monstrous play with him before, grabbing at him through his plastic play house window or the bars on the playground equipment and growling menacingly. He was a bit too shy to approach the older kids he saw chasing each other around on the jungle gym; so I obliged him by occasionally lunging at him with claw-like hands and a zombie-like snarl from my sedentary position in the shade of a small tree. He was amused and ran around me laughing uncontrollably, gleefully unaware of the horrific implications of pretending to run from zombies.

In my childhood we played “Cops and Robbers” or “Cowboys and Indians.” While the latter might seem politically incorrect today, neither had the horrific connotations that playing “Zombie” have. Yes, all three make-believe games rely on one party dispatching the other in some way, though one could argue the older two might mitigate the concept of death with imaginary capture or injury; but “Zombie” assumes at least some of the players start the game dead, or rather undead. It’s a somewhat grisly concept when one contemplates it…but it’s a children’s playground game one shouldn’t overly analyze.

I recall seeing somewhere that the zombie horror genre is a purely American invention; I’m sure whatever scholarly analysis I read gave several academic explanations why Americans in particular focus on this form of resurrected dead. Whatever the intellectual reasons (which apparently were so non-compelling they failed to imprint on my memory), my experience on the playground proves it’s quite effectively saturated the American subconscious to the point that our children -- who can’t (and possibly shouldn’t) comprehend the utter horror of the zombie concept -- think it’s an acceptable play theme.

What does this say about our society, and our media saturation, when children find playing “Zombie” an acceptable playground activity? At heart I think it demonstrates our ability as humans to compartmentalize potentially emotionally charged concepts to defuse them. For instance, warfare remains a horrid reality of our world, yet gamers -- from board and card game players to those engaged in miniature wargames and roleplaying games -- fully indulge in war-like activities of conquest, killing, blasting, and smiting things with axes. “Zombie” seems like a childhood extension of that ability; kids don’t sit there and contemplate the horror of resurrected dead (possibly their family members and friends) re-animating and trying to eat the living…children simply use the genre theme as a framework for imaginative and active play.

I’m not a huge fan of zombie horror media, though I’ve seen and appreciated some related films and television shows, from George Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead (on the big screen at the Library of Congress’ National Audio Visual Conservation Center fantastic theater) to 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, and the first season of AMC’s production of The Walking Dead. Despite my thematic aversion to undead in media, I love infusing roleplaying game adventures with zombies. They serve as the perfect cannon fodder few players have any scruples about killing. My pulp Heroes of Rura-Tonga adventure Island of the Damned strands the heroes on a Pacific island filled with hungry undead intent on consuming them and their Japanese rivals. I’m guilty of relying on Nazi zombies at least twice; once in a convention Doctor Who scenario using the D6 Adventure rules, and once in a D6 Adventure modern-mercenary themed scenario…both employing not simply the Nazi zombie stereotype, but the radioactive Nazi zombie stereotype.

Half the fun of roleplaying with zombies remains the uncertainty of infection. How (if at all) does a zombie infect a human? Is it by touch, bite, or outright death? And how long does it take? Does it affect dogs? One pair of contentious players in a convention game of Island of the Damned actually started shooting at each other because they feared minimal contact with zombies had infected the other (much to the relief of the other players, who were glad to get rid of the disruptive pair).

I suppose H.P. Lovecraft, of all people, might help us understand to some small degree the dichotomy between horror and play: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” If we stopped to think of the moral implications raised by our media tastes (from horror, violence, and sex, among others), our brains might simply implode in the face of such staggering cognitive dissonance. Perhaps engaging in games about zombies and war help us cope with related realities beyond such play activities.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Remembering Branchville Hobby

This year marks 30 years as a gamer for me, starting with my parents giving me the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set as an Easter present. I’ve found it a fitting occasion to examine my early gaming past, which would remain incomplete without reminiscing about my first “gaming” store, Branchville Hobby in Ridgefield, CT.

Branchville Hobby occupied part of the second floor of a two-story building at the corner of Route 102 (Branchville Road) and Route 7 (Ethan Allen Highway) across from the train station. Branchville itself is a small commercial area located about five minutes’ drive from the center of the town of Ridgefield. Most of the businesses still cater to people in the southeastern corner of the town’s official boundaries and commuters along the busy Route 7 corridor (insanely congested even way back then).

The building’s main floor housed Ancona’s IGA grocery, which later expanded to a nearby location to become a cornerstone of the Branchville and Ridgefield business community. One reached the hobby store by ascending an exterior staircase to an alcove with a door, the kind of entrance that didn’t really give confidence to new customers but seemed perfect for those “in the know” who dabbled in any dubious hobby pursuit.

A central island held the register and display counter, with a few tables for key hobby displays and the rest of the merchandise on shelves along the walls. The store carried model railroading supplies, models of all kinds, flying rockets and planes, and some sports equipment (no doubt there were other categories a clueless young boy didn’t notice since they didn’t interest me at the time). We had visited the hobby store before as younger kids, more as a novelty where we purchased balsa airplanes and model kits and, as my brother immersed himself in the HO-scale model railroad hobby, train stuff. Young boys found the most exciting feature in a side room: an entire HO-scale railway layout, complete with city, cutaway-view subway station, numerous trains running simultaneously, even a house “on fire” with a fire engine raising and lower its ladder to extinguish the blaze (all dependent on technical good fortune). Despite gaming slowly making its way into the inventory, the store had no open play area and rarely had any gathering of gaming fanboys hanging around.

When I started playing D&D the store kept most of its roleplaying game books and minis on the counter near the register and on a nearby display table. I suppose at the time it was the latest fad and deserved a place of prominence, though this might also reflect the limited number of products available in the adventure gaming hobby’s infancy. Still, the store managed to carry most of the “core” rulebooks, boxed sets, and games of the time. Once I immersed myself in D&D and other roleplaying and gaming pursuits, visits to Branchville Hobby became more frequent. Throughout my high school gaming years I bought nearly all my earliest D&D materials from the meager stocks there: the Expert D&D set, Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, Monster Manual, the Fiend Folio, even the World of Greyhawk folio edition -- whose poster maps adorned my bedroom walls and became visual icons of my early gaming experience -- and modules galore, including A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity and the tame version of B3 Palace of the Silver Princess. This was the place to find the “latest” games to add to my collection, titles I’d read about in Dragon Magazine reviews and advertisements and longed to try: the Gamma World box deal shrink-wrapped with several modules and the referee’s screen, Top Secret and its early modules, Star Frontiers, even a few Avalon Hill Games like Wizard’s Quest, B-17, Queen of the Skies, and Mystic Wood. I started slowly my first “D&D summer,” with new acquisitions usually occurring during prime breaks from high school -- Christmas break, winter or spring break, and summer vacation -- during which I could read new material and run games with neighborhood friends.

The store staff never really made an impression on me one way or the other. They always seemed polite but never overly friendly or enthusiastic about any particular hobby. Perhaps the best impression I got was one of my first purchases, the D&D Expert boxed set I bought at the beginning of my first “D&D summer.” The clerk tossed an “old” copy of Adventure Gaming magazine (October 1981) into the bag as a freebie; sure, he was probably just trying to get rid of a slightly out-of-date magazine, but it gave me one more glimpse into my nascent and imaginative gaming hobby.

During these years Ancona’s IGA moved out from downstairs to its new supermarket facility nearby. The hobby store morphed into Branchville Sport & Hobby, with emphasis on the “sport” as it catered to the burgeoning horde of organized youth sports teams. At first this allowed hobbies to take over the entire second floor, since the sports equipment side of the business had slowly but steadily encroached on hobby space. After leaving for college I didn’t visit Branchville Hobby much. At that time roleplaying game books were finding their way into mass-market bookstores -- I found my first copies of Paranoia and the Star Wars Roleplaying Game at the local Waldenbooks -- and my hobby interest became secondary to my collegiate studies.

The last time I visited it, Branchville Hobby languished in its final days. I was home on a summer break from college after having discovered West End Games’ venerable first edition of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game; I stopped by to see what they had and picked up the Tatooine Manhunt adventure. By then it was more accurately called Branchville Sport, the “hobby” portion having been so marginalized as to be crammed into a few shelves down a front aisle. (I sometimes sadly ponder the fate of the store’s fantastic HO model railway layout….) Not long afterward the store closed; the space has since hosted numerous businesses, none of which had the joyful appeal of a hobby shop.

Since then, during a long hobby and professional career in gaming, I’ve visited many gaming and hobby shops, some just once, others habitually. They’ve run the range of dedicated gaming stores to hobby shops with some gaming materials, those with knowledgeable and friendly staff, generous open gaming areas, and comprehensive inventory and those without. Time has no doubt fermented my memories of Branchville Hobby into the pleasant liqueur of nostalgic reminiscence, but one doesn’t easily forget impressions of their first foray into something new, exciting, and life-changing.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

D&D Next: Only Slightly on My Radar

The internet is abuzz with lots of speculation, expectations, opinion, judgment, and other dialogue about the next iteration of Dungeons & Dragons, currently called D&D Next or D&D 5th edition. I’d say it’s only slightly on my radar as much as any other big news event in the adventure gaming hobby. Sure, as a longtime gamer who got his start with Basic D&D back in 1982 I’m interested in where it’s going, but whatever it becomes I doubt I’ll take much notice beyond some of the system mechanics and play rationales it might introduce or develop.

Since Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR and the D&D brand in 1997 it has tried to revive the game and, in doing so -- in the economic cycle that demands regular updates to core product to produce sales -- has ignited “edition wars” among the numerous fans of the game. While I think a fifth edition of the game makes sense from a corporate standpoint, trying to create something based on an iconic past with modern innovations to please fans from all epochs of the game seems like an exercise doomed to failure. The current spate of opinionated activity focuses on the “open” playtest materials Wizards of the Coast recently released, offering fans a glimpse of the next iteration of the D&D rules with playable pre-generated characters and an adventure; a limited but practical view into what the final game might look like.

I’m casually watching the developments surrounding D&D Next because I came to the hobby through D&D long ago during the “Golden Age of Roleplaying” (the early 1980s) and because I’m interested in any new developments it brings to the mechanics of the roleplaying game experience. Beyond that, however, I doubt I’d purchase the new rules set myself, let alone play it.

My D&D Edition History

Dungeons & Dragons is the iconic title of the adventure gaming hobby, one that, in whatever version, most everyone seems to have played, in many cases as their introduction to roleplaying games (at least for the earlier generations of gamers). I started back in 1982 with a copy of the Modvay-edited D&D Basic boxed set. I enjoyed playing that and the Expert Set materials while simultaneously exploring (and gradually transitioning to) the standard Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game with the three core books, adding to that numerous adventure modules and supplements available at the time. Through the years I explored other roleplaying games in genres that interested me more, and thus didn’t really invest too much in AD&D second edition. When I started working professionally in the adventure gaming hobby for West End Games in 1993 I had more interaction with folks from TSR and the material they were publishing, and picked up a few second edition AD&D items that caught my interest (including the Deck of Encounters, City Sites, Castle Sites, and The City of Greyhawk boxed set), some through GenCon trades, many in gaming shop bargain bins and sales. At one point I even had a second-hand set of the core rulebooks, though I’ve since sold them off as I never really played the game but used the materials as sourcebooks as reference for other endeavors.

My interest, like the game line, languished until Wizards of the Coast bought TSR in 1997 and set about revising the brand into what would become D&D 3 and 3.5. My interest in the game at this time was more mercenary; given the open gaming license (OGL) that enabled third party publishers to produce compatible material, opportunities to freelance for the game abounded. I bought the core rulebooks for D&D 3rd edition and familiarized myself with the system so I could write for its various iterations under d20 and OGL. I got some freelance writing work out of it, too, and most of the supplements I own for 3rd edition are authors copies of books to which I contributed. I even ran some games at the local gaming store where I lived at the time and enjoyed playing one of my stereotypical dwarf characters in a friend’s game for a few adventures. After the d20/OGL bubble burst -- with too many publishers producing a deluge of product with varying degrees of quality to a saturated market -- freelancing opportunities dried up; no doubt my own interests moved off to other realms (the “revival” of the D6 System under a new West End Games, as well as other personal projects like Pulp Egypt and Heroes of Rura-Tonga).

I can’t recall when D&D 4th edition released. I certainly didn’t follow news of its development, and I didn’t bother buying into it or even checking out its supplements. Sure, I’ve heard about it here and there, mostly vague impressions from blogs and other online sources; my general, no doubt misinformed impression leads me to believe it’s more a tactical miniatures game with some roleplaying game trappings than an actual roleplaying game (not something I’d really want to play).

Although my genre tastes have wandered throughout my gaming experiences -- branching off into science fiction, Star Wars, Victorian steampunk, cyberpunk, and finally pulp -- my tendencies in medieval fantasy hack-and-slash currently reside in two camps: games adapted to use the D6 System (with which I’m extremely familiar), and those originating from the old school renaissance of D&D retro-clones, the most notable of which being the innovative and original Old School Hack. Even so, these endeavors remain secondary to my own gaming endeavors, both for playing and designing. I’m developing my own fantasy roleplaying game system attuned to my own tastes, with an eye to merging some elements of the old school renaissance with an approach to appeal more to younger players and their parents.

Curiosity about D&D Next

I’ve not downloaded the D&D Next public playtest materials Wizards of the Coast recently released; from the online buzz I’ve heard it’s far too much hassle to register, navigate the Byzantine website, and download necessary playtest files. I’m always interested in the look of new product and the technical approaches in presenting playtest materials, but my curiosity in D&D overall has waned since my professional interest in third edition.

I’m watching developments on the D&D Next front with more of a professional eye than that of someone considering playing the game and contributing their playtest observations and suggestions. Wizards of the Coast faces the daunting (and arguably impossible) task of trying to please everyone familiar with the D&D brand, from the earliest editions to the latest ones, with wide-ranging play styles and expectations for specific game mechanics. The company efforts to produce a new iteration of D&D with all the corporate-customer interaction available in the Internet Age may serve as a lesson in how to use the internet to solicit input for game development, introduce and promote a major new game, and influence customer perceptions of the game as a whole and its individual parts.

Right now my primary information about general opinions on D&D Next come from various gaming blogs whose authors feel the need to weigh in on the game’s development, regardless of the degree their blogs regularly focus on D&D. Most have what’s commonly called the “obligatory opinion of D&D Next.” Like gamers following the D&D brand from various points in its history, these blog perspectives vary across the entire range opinions about play styles and rules mechanics. The ultimate impression is one frequently generated by a superficial scanning of internet insight on any subject: no even remotely conclusive consensus.

Only one blog garners more than casual interest to better inform my opinion of the game’s development and reception; Rich Redman at Diary of a Grognard is the only blogger I find who with any degree of regularity discusses D&D Next and has an interesting perspective on the game. Redman worked on developing D&D 3 and 3.5 while at Wizards of the Coast, and has since written for numerous other game publishing endeavors (in addition to other active and entertaining blogs). He was involved in the “closed” D&D Next playtest, an experience that informs his current and future observations about the game’s development (without violating any non-disclosure agreements…). His perspective enables him not simply to comment on the playtest rules’ current incarnation, but the changes from the earlier “closed” playtest materials, often providing insight into the design rationale we might expect to see in greater detail as portions of the game release to the public.

I’ll always have some interest in the D&D brand even if I no longer play it (nor have any interest in playing its current incarnation). I’m keeping a casual eye on D&D Next, not because I’m looking to buy into it and play it as a fan returning to a beloved brand, but because it has already provided some interesting experience from which we can learn.