So I survived another gaming convention, PDXAGE. This is an annual convention in Portland, Oregon, where the gamers take over a convention center at a hotel near the airport, and play games for three days.
I ran three sessions of Call of Cthulhu. I won’t go into a lot of detail about them, as I want to run the same sessions for the Thursday group, and if I give away all the details, then the players will have an advantage. It also won’t be as much fun for the players, if they know what they need to do in the game.
I also played a bunch of D&D Adventurer’s League. This is the organized play version of D&D, kind of like the Pathfinder Society and what other games like Shadowrun have. It was fun, but the organized play games always seem like they are forced. You have three things to do in order. Get your mission, travel to your mission (and have an encounter), then at your mission, you fight monsters. At the end of the mission, you all wait while the DM calculates how many gold pieces, renown, downtime and experience points are to be divided up by the party members.
It is fun, but but there are problems with con games. OK, I won’t call them “problems”, instead I will call them “observations”. Calling them problems makes it sound like I am complaining. If you look at going to a con like an anthropologist meeting with a tribe, and observing their behavior, then you can really find some interesting behaviors.
When I went into Army basic training, I was a little more mature than some of the other people there. OK, I wasn’t too much more mature, since I went into the army because I didn’t have the maturity to go off to college and succeed. I needed to have the army give me a reason to succeed. Five minutes into boot camp, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I didn’t want to be a private in the army. That experience caused me to end up going to college and doing quite well. I was smart enough for college. I just didn’t have the maturity right out of high school to do it. The army gave me that maturity, or at least the desire to not be a private any more.
By the time I went to boot camp, I had already been a foreign exchange student for a year. I left for a year to Australia just a few days after I turned 16. I had 42 pounds of luggage, and a book, got on a 747 and flew out of Vancouver BC’s airport for Hawaii, then Fiji, then Sydney, then Perth. I spent a year away from everybody that I knew. I met a lot of new friends. I learned a lot about myself, and the rest of the world. I grew up a lot (not enough to go to college and succeed mind you, so I hadn’t matured that much).
By the time I entered boot camp, I had done research. I talked to a bunch of people who had already been in the army. They gave me the skinny. I also read a bunch of books. Now this is in the days before the Internet, so if you wanted to know about the military, you could read books or watched movies. Nothing really prepared me for boot camp. I knew a few things going in.
First, they want you to succeed. The entire thing is set up to make you feel miserable, uncomfortable, tired and sore. But in the end, they have a formula that works. Break them down, make them tired, take away their security blankets. force them to learn to work as a team, then start building their confidence to the point where the privates feel as though they really accomplished something. It works,
But as a relatively smart person going into this experience, I treated it more as a visiting anthropologist. The process was miserable. The most miserable thing I ever endured. I am glad I joined the army. I am even more glad that after my tour was up, I got my honorable discharge and moved on with my life.
The point is that boot camp was nine weeks of a staged event. Well it was 1 week of unstaged event followed by 8 weeks of staged event. I went to boot camp at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and started in the first week of January. Just after we arrived at the reception center, it snowed. The snow stuck. All 1 inch of the snow stuck. The people lost their minds. Well, the locals lost their minds. This was snowmageddon. The entire base stopped everything. The reception center didn’t know what to do, since there were no civilian workers to hand out underwear, towels and soap. There were no barbers, no one at the commissary, no one at the PX.
Now when you go to basic training, you are told by your recruiter (and everyone else) that you don’t want to bring anything. Just the clothes on your back. The army will process you through fast, and get you into uniform and start basic. You will be given everything you need right away.
When the horrific 1 inch of snow closed down Fort Jackson (for a week. mind you) nobody could get to work. All the civilians stayed home. Many of the army people stayed home too. Now this is remarkable to a kid from Mount Vernon, Washington, since the entire western half of Washington State collectively lose their minds when we get a half inch of snow. But usually, we only lose our minds for the first three or four days, and after it has mostly melted off, we congratulate ourselves for surviving the worst snow storm in memory and thank our lucky stars that we don’t live in Fargo, Minnesota.
So we all arrive at the reception center of Fort Jackson in the dark. They evidently do this as part of the process of distancing you from your normal reality and replacing it with their version of reality. We are all packed on a bus. The door opens, and I am sure that the drill instructor yells something like “you have 10 seconds to get off this bus, and 5 are gone”. I don’t remember anyone saying this, but that is what they do in the movies, and this is my story, so I will embellish as I feel appropriate.
We get off the bus. The reception center is empty. Usually, they run you around and have you fill out all sorts of paperwork, and keep you busy until 2 AM, so they can let you go to sleep, and then wake you up at 4 AM. The reception center is usually a finely tuned machine. They have lots of people to run through the machine. But if all of the civilian workers are home snug in their winter blankets, the drill instructors have to improvise.
So starting at about 9 PM, they start yelling at us constantly. We march to all of the stations that we would have normally marched to, and stand around for the allotted time that we would have been at that station. First we marched off to the station where we would have filled out our paperwork. We are issued “pens”, “clipboards” and “paper”, all of which are imaginary. The drill instructors then yell at us to fill in the forms by the number, “NAME, LAST NAME FIRST FIRST NAME LAST MIDDLE INITIAL” type of stuff. So we are kind of LARPing there at the reception center. Every time someone giggles or asks a question, the drill instructor barks at them to “BEAT YOUR FACE”, which we learn means start doing pushups. We also learn that in the homophobic army, you make bad jokes at the expense of homophobia, by “making your buddy smile”, as in stand packed in like sardines, where you have no personal space bubble.
Now this is all fine and dandy. I figured that this was going to happen, but with real pens, real paper and real clipboards. I will give it to the drill instructors at the reception center, they improvised and did it pretty well. My “pencil” broke once, and I asked the drill instructor for a pen, so I didn’t have to find a sharpener. He thought that was pretty funny, as he barked at me to “BEAT YOUR FACE”.
The most surreal thing was when we went to get our “haircuts”. The civilian barbers were nonexistent. They were all snug in their beds at home. So we all had to sit on benches and make “BZZZZ” sounds as we pantomimed running clippers over each other’s hair to give them a haircut. Then we pantomimed going and getting the army photo.
Now, I grew up on Monty Python and love surreal humor. This was golden stuff for me. Other people were not dealing well with it. It was fascinating to watch people as they lost their ability to deal with this. They were expecting to go into boot camp, instead they are pretending to give each other haircuts, pretending to walk around with armloads of clothing and gear, pretending to fill out their TA-3512/2 forms with fake pens.
Anyhow, like clockwork, they ran us around until 2 AM, then put us down in a barracks. I remember trying to go to sleep, and hearing someone say “Well, we will get 2 hours sleep, then back up again”, to which another person naively asked “Do you think they will let us sleep in, after all, we did get in pretty late.” That person was not happy when about 2 hours later, the lights came on, and drill instructors marched in and yelled at us.
Day 2, or maybe the continuation of Day 1 with a short nap began at 4 AM. The drill instructors did what they knew. We did PT. I am not sure if they would have issued us with our PT uniforms by this point. I know that we eventually had to purchase our running shoes from the PX (when it opened). But the fact that we were in civilian clothes, and various forms of footware didn’t stop the drill instructors from making us do squat thrusts, pushups, bicycle kicks, and run around a lot. A bunch of us had comfy sneakers, which were not good for running. Some people were wearing cowboy boots, or penny loafers. Those are not good to run anymore than a few feet in.
So the day started again. Since there were no civilians around, we spent the day doing fake things. Getting fake gear. Laying out the fake gear for inspection. This was where the drill instructors showed their genius. They told us that we had to lay out our gear in a prescribed way, and we had to match the method, down to how we rolled and folded the fake socks, underwear and even placed the helmet on the blanket. There was no way to make this work. Since your fake helmet was not visible to the drill instructor they could make any shit up they wanted to, and keep you busy telling you to “BEAT YOUR FACE”.
Because we were told to go to boot camp without anything, since they will issue you everything you need (if the civilians were actually working) then you wouldn’t need more than one pair of underwear (the one you were wearing when you arrived), or need things like shampoo or soap. Well, there was no shampoo, no soap, no toothbrushes, no toothpaste.
Needless to say, after a few days, it was Lord of the Flies.
Even the DI’s couldn’t effectively keep control. The privates bickered, fought, were angry. We were all smelly (no deoderant), we hadn’t had a good bath for days, Our hair was greasy and nasty. We were wearing the same sweaty clothes that we slept in, exercised in, and did everything else in… People were tired and ready to get a damn haircut, not having some other bastard stand over them going “BZZZ BZZZ” and pretending to cut greasy hair.
We spent a week in this altered reality, where we had fake forms, fake stacks of clothing, fake issued gear, fake haircuts, real pushups, with really greasy hair, stinky asses and armpits.
It took a week for the civilians to come back to work from one inch of snow on the ground. Then we got real haircuts. I have to say that after a week of filling out simulated forms with simulated pens on simulated clipboards, we failed miserably at filling out real forms with real pens on real clipboards. This was truly the failure of the army training in my mind. We spent a week practicing filling out our forms, and having the opportunity to actually do it right, we failed.
Anyhow, the point of all of this is trying to explain how boot camp was miserable to many people in the group. I found it fascinating. I was going through the same miserable experience as all of the rest of the people in the training, but I found it surreal and amazing.
In some ways, that is what going to a gaming convention is like. Yes,there is greasy hair, stinky asses and armpits (for some of the people at the con). But a con is like an anthropologists dream come true. I am surprised that people working on the thesis’ and dissertations still go to Borneo to study headhunters. They should be following people at gaming conventions, and comparing the tribes of RPGers to to miniature gamers boardgamers to LCG’sers to CCG’ers LARPers to people who play video games.
I play mostly RPG’s. I have played a lot of boardgames, miniatures, LCG’s and CCG’s. I have not specifically LARP’ed, but it doesn’t interest me. I don’t feel the need to act out my RPG playing. I also don’t care for video games. They are awesome. I just suck really badly at video games. I have never been able to even master Asteroids. I truly am not good at video games.
Anyhow, Having played a few different types of games (RPG’s, miniatures, boardgames, LCG’s and CCG’s), I have had a chance to play with a wide variety of people, and tend to look for consistency in the sets. It seems that gamers can all coexist. They can all let each other geek out in their own way. It is kind of like going to a restored car show, and you have the Chevy guys on one side of the parking lots, and the Ford guys on the other side of the parking lot. They can appreciate what the other’s cool stuff, but won’t admit that the stuff on the other side of the lot is pretty cool. The Chevy people and Ford people can all agree that they feel sorry for the Mopar people, but everyone agrees that at least they aren’t into those AMC Gremlins.
Gamers are kind of like that. MTG players spend a huge amount of time and effort (and money) to make their decks the best they can. People who play Warhammer spend a huge amount of money building their army. Both MTG and Warhammer players rue the day that their codex changes, or their awesome card no longer is tournament legal. But they can look at each other’s stuff and joke about it “Hey, what’s the fastest way to lose $100? You know, open up that Warhammer box” The MTG players convince themselves that if nothing else they may get that special card that would be worth a down payment on a house. The Warhammer players just accept the fact that they are spending a lot of money, and hope that their spouse’s don’t realize how much it truly costs to play this game.
Where was I? I was going somewhere with this. Oh yeah, people at conventions.
Conventions are funny things. I usually run games with groups of friends. We all know each other, and each other’s quirks, what makes us laugh, what not to talk about… When you go to a convention, you get a wide variety of people.
I sat down at one table to play some D&D Adventurer’s league, and the lady at the table says something unintelligible to me. Now, my hearing isn’t the best. Something to do with being the biggest guy in the squad, so I always carried the M-60 machine gun. When I enter a room where there is a lot of background noise, everything sounds like the parents in the Peanuts holiday specials “wah wah wah… wah. wha. wahwah” So this young lady starts talking to me. It takes me a little while to figure out that she isn’t speaking English. I say “excuse me?” She then goes on and tells me that she is speaking Elvish (elven?). She and her friends had been studying the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit books and movies and were reconstructing Elf language into something they were using at the gaming table. Now, this does not sound like something I would want to do. I am too lazy to even learn Klingon, which is now an established language. But the idea that you would take the time to flesh out your character to include a special language? That is pretty much awesome.
Another guy I ran into played his dwarf mage as though he talked like a Rastafarian. Most people play dwarves as though they have Scottish or Irish accents. This guy was full on dreadlock Caribbean ganja man.
Another guy wouldn’t just swing his paladin’s sword. He went into full on RPG mode, and upon his turn would say things like “Snipnorp raises his eyes to look at the twin suns, opens his mouth and calls out for guidance from LorLop to reign in the fire of the sky saying ‘Guide my hand and allow me to avenge you, oh great LorLop, for this horrific aberration that stains the countryside’, the sky peals with thunder as a giant roil of thunder echoes off the hillsides and the might of LorLop adds the force of his will to Snipnorp’s sling and the bullet is let loose” followed by a die roll. The player would say it loud like he was actually calling for LorLop’s assistance. This was all find and dandy, but it got a little old when Snipnorp needed to call out for guidance with great fervor whenever he wanted an ale at the pub, opened a door in a dungeon or probably passed gas.
In some cases, groups of people who played together were in on all the private jokes. That was kind of annoying. I can deal with Snipnorp. Snipnorp needs to have his ROLE play, as opposed to his Role play. (see what I did there?). I sometimes have a lot of fun with an NPC where I get into more character than others. I love DM’ing and playing out the crazy NPC. That is really the same as Snipnorp.
The private groups who allow a non entity to be added for a game session can get annoying. They are having a great time, but leaving the rest out. I don’t think it is intentional. But it does reduce the fun for the nonentity.
I played one D&D Adventurer’s league game where I was one of the two nonentities. The other people at the table were all in it together. They knew the DM, and the DM was good buddies with the other players. Now, there was no unfair play, no advantages given. But all of the inside jokes and the lack of inclusion got old. Con games are hard sometimes, since you don’t know who you are going to play with, and in the course under 2 or 3 hours, you need to figure out how to create a cohesive group who will solve the puzzle. Sometimes this goes really well. Sometimes, not so much.
All in all, I had a lot of fun at PDXAGE. They were sponsored by Monster energy drinks. I am not a huge fan of Monster, but when you need caffeine, it serves just fine to keep me up and gaming.
There were several vendors at the con. Guardian Games had several tables. They had lots of neat stuff, but I am now to the point where I am becoming pretty careful of the games I buy. For instance, I only buy RPG books from the following games:
- Dungeon Crawl Classics
- Shadow of the Demon Lord
- Castles and Crusades
- Amazing Adventures
- Call of Cthulhu (in all its forms and variants)
- The Dark Eye
- Savage Worlds (in all its forms and variants)
- Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperboria
- Dungeons and Dragons
- Mutant Epoch
- Swords and Sorcery
- Fria Legion Games
and a few more… maybe quite a few more. All right, a lot more. I have most of the stuff that is available in current print form for most of these games. Since I am not really playing board games anymore, when I go to a con, and a game store has a shop, I probably won’t see anything that I don’t already have, and it is quite unlikely that I will see something that I must have. At Gamestorm, I found some used 3rd edition GURPS books that I really wanted. That was pretty sweet.
PDXAGE had a large set of tables for Guardian Games, along with some other vendors. I picked up a dice tray that was made by a 3D printer. Another vendor had tee shirts and MTG stuff. The tee shirts were pretty nice. I ended up getting three (one for me, and one for each of the kids). There were vendors selling handmade stuff like earrings, necklaces, and the such. Another vendor had a huge selection of D&D minis. The guy bought a huge stock with the intention of opening up a store to just sell minis. He ended up not opening up the store, but brought his stock of cool minis to cons to sell instead.
Overall, PDXAGE was awesome. I am looking forward to going again next year.