Field Report: GameHole Con, Madison, WI

We are back from a road trip that may have been several days in the making, but was still over a thousand dollars cheaper than simply flying from Texas to Wisconsin. GameHole Con, one of the most unfortunately-named gaming conventions in the country (started by a tavern called the Gamehole, so…) has amassed a dedicated following in the last decade. As gaming conventions go, this one is very well run, well organized, and features a wide spectrum of new and old rpgs, board games, and the like. There’s a strong paneling track, too, and even some hands-on workshops for stuff like prop making and miniature painting. All in all, it’s a full service convention.

The particulars of the trip can be seen on the weekly update, over on Substack. If you’re interested in the travel itself, go here and enjoy the photos. You can sign up for the weekly missive–it’s free, and it always will be. For those of you with more hardcore sensibilities, here’s the day by day breakdown.

Dice! Glorious Dice! Note the official swirly D6 from GameHole Con and the 2022 Con Die from Black Oak Workshop

Wednesday Night

We rolled into town early in order to grab registration stuff, and attend the Monte Cook Games Welcome Bash. I did not get any pictures of this, because it was a sea of humanity, crammed into a ballroom at the Sheraton, as clutches of gamers descended on pizza as fast as it could be brought out. I was there with my friend Jeff, and we were looking for people we knew, but it was a little too chaotic and so I bailed early.

Thursday – Day One

I had two big things to hit: the RPG Zine Mixer and the Call of Cthulhu Masters tournament, both of which were at the end of the day, so I spent my first day at the con hobnobbing, talking to and meeting up with people I had previously known only online or in some other digital way. This was good, as it gave me a chance to get the layout down. The Alliant Energy Center is a big space, and GameHole Con uses all of it. This makes for a well spread-out convention that never feels too crowded (well, not until you get to the Clarion hotel), but there is a lot of walking to do if you don’t know where you are going.

The Zine Mixer was great fun, and dumb-ass me didn’t snap a single picture. For a couple of years now, a bunch of indy zine creators have been using a group on Facebook to chat, solicit advice, get work, and help each other. This was, to my knowledge, the first time more than four or five of us had been in the same space at the same time. About 15-20 of us in all, spent a couple of hours shooting the breeze, trading zines, and just getting to know each other. It was great. I miss face-to-face conversations.

This is just a partial grouping of my overall Zine Haul. And don’t get me started on the other stuff I bought…

I also didn’t get any pictures of my Call of Cthulhu preliminary round game, which sucks because it was my favorite thing I played all weekend. We had a blast as a podcast team sent to Arkansas to investigate a new cryptid. I played an ex-military good ol’ boy who loves the podcast and buys into all of the conspiracy theory stuff and really wants to catch a monster, preferably with his bare hands. The rest of the table was great, as well, and we all got really invested in making each other laugh, but staying in character. A good session. I was stunned at the end of the round to learn that the Keeper had selected me and one other to advance to the finals on Saturday! I still got it, y’all.

Friday – Day Two

I had two games to play today: a Mothership (space horror) game based on the Scrap Rats (space pirates) rpg. Again, I found myself playing the teamster who was older than everyone else and had seen it all and done it all. This was a great scenario, containing touches of Event Horizon and Serenity as well as some pretty unusual and interesting concepts. We all had a good time cheerfully flinging ourselves into danger (one of the great conceits about a convention game–no need to save yourself if dying spectacularly makes for a better story) and fighting a hive-mind intelligence that had interfaced with the ship. I ended up slicing the monster in half with an industrial mining laser in a single epic roll. It was a “cheers from the table” moment as we realized I’d done a critical hit.

My Teamster.
The final battle in the reactor core.
Our scrap-happy band of spacers and one enthusiastic GM.

In the afternoon, I played an introductory Dungeons and Dragons scenario, mostly because it would have been weird to me to not play some D&D while was there. It was a short starter, but it delivered the goods in action and suspense. I got to play a dwarf. I’m sensing a pattern, here. The DM was great and she made full use of her discretion to give bonuses for epic ideas and stunts. I didn’t pull off any grand heroics, but one of the fighters in our group managed to save the chicken wrangler (something that typically doesn’t happen) from a giant scorpion while critically wounding the giant arachnid and exiting the temple, which was about to blow up, unscathed. It was an impressive stunt, and he played it off well. Also, the bad guys were candy on our game board. Kill a cultist, eat them. Fun!

We are all acolytes here, of our own device.

There was another mixer at the Clarion hotel–connected to the convention center by a covered walkway. The Clarion is where a lot of the after hours stuff went down, and when there was food and beer to be had, there was always a large scrum of people in cloaks and capes and combat boots. I never saw most of these people anywhere but standing in front of the pizza box, trying to make a Jenga tower out of the slices. It made socializing nearly impossible.

I know it doesn’t look like it, but epic things are happening right now.

Saturday – Day Three

As I was leaving the hotel (some three miles away from the convention site) to head to the con, I got a call from my pal Brad, who was checking in with me. I told him where I was and what I was doing, and bid him a goodbye as we got a quick breakfast at a coffee shop, and then it was off to the con. I was sneaking Janice in because we had to exchange a t-shirt and I wanted her to at least see what the space looked like. We joined the crowd, blending in, but Janice noticed we were being followed. By the time I realized it, they were beside me. I turned and my jaw hit the floor: My friends Brad (from the call above) and Bill Willingham, who drove in from Michigan to surprise me and chastise me for not telling them sooner I’d be merely in Wisconsin. My only defense is this: outside of Texas I have no sense of distance or geography. It’s about three hours from Madison to Michigan, I mistake I won’t make ever again. I blew off some panels I’d planned on attending to hang out with my pals. What a cool surprise, and it was just fantastic to catch up with them!

Brad and Bill. What I like about this picture is the warmth and exuberance you can see written all over Bill’s face as I take his picture. There’s a lot of love in this photo. A lot.

I had an old school D&D game scheduled, but it was running up against the final round of the Call of Cthulhu tournament. I bid adieu to my old friends and sat down with Tim Kask, one of the legendary creators who worked at TSR back in the day. His game is based on the players giving him input and him spinning a crazy funhouse dungeon out of those results. It’s a real old school game, where we are basically playing against the DM. It gave me flashbacks.

Kask had a dice tower made out of a cigar box. Now that’s old school.

Unfortunately, I didn’t stay to see how it all ended, because we ran longer than I thought, and staying meant that I would have missed the Master’s tournament. I explained my situation, and he said that my excuse was the only one that would pass the muster (advancing in a tournament), so I reluctantly got up and ran for my C of C game.

In hindsight, I wish I’d have stayed. As much fun as the preliminary round of the Cthulhu game was, the final was just the opposite. I was quite surprised to find that we were playing the same group, in a new set-up, and so I got to reprise my role. However, we had a different Keeper and his style was not very well suited to this kind of play. He explained the set up, and handed us maps, and then explained some more stuff, and handed out a few more maps, and then made some more explanations with asides at how hard this was to research, and I kept expected him to throw it out to us at some point. At last, he said, “So, you’re driving down the road…” and I glanced at my watch. An hour had passed. Unbelievably, he started explaining the roads to us again, and chewed up another thirty minutes of our four hour session.

This was a great character that I never really got to play. Nuts.

There wasn’t much for us to do; three times, he sped up the narrative to advance the game, and each time, he just told us what we needed to know. The final scene, where we had one last chance to get some role-playing in? He decreed that the only person who’d survive the encounter would be anyone in the control room. Then he told us how we all died. We were all a bit dazed, and in the end, he had us write down who we thought the best role-player was, and then apparently gave it to the person he wanted to give it to in the first place. That guy who won? He was mad too, and he took off, so he didn’t even know he’d won the tournament. It was not our finest hour, nor the Keepers’ either.

Sunday – Day Four

Thankfully, my final game was Fiasco! One of my favorite rpg games to play. Our table came ready to work, and our facilitator was fantastic, playing random NPCs, helping with scenes, and making sure everyone was having a good time and got a chance to play and be heard. It was honestly the best game to end the con on, a real high note. I made some quick rounds, said a few goodbyes, and we broke for the Texas hellscape.

This picture is a Fiasco. I really suck at taking these group photos.

The Takeaway

The RPG creative space is alive and well, and there are more talented and brilliant people working in it than ever. Of course, there was a lot of D&D going on, but there was tons of other games being played, too. Oh, and it looks like I’m back into Call of Cthulhu, too. Que the quote from Godfather Part 3.

I think I’m going to run some games next year. North Texas RPG Con is all but confirmed for me, and I’m hoping that ChupacabraCon in Austin opens back up to a live event again. I don’t think I’ll get back to Madison next year, but I am not done with GameHole Con, not by a long shot.

As a convention, if you’re within driving distance of Madison, Wisconsin and you’re the kind of person who does this anyway, then you must check out this convention.

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