Your Intrepid N.T.A.B. Field Research Team has just returned from the Fury Road Killing Fields of the Metroplex, where we set up a mobile field office at NTRPG Con, one of the three premiere OSR/RPG gaming conventions in the country. This was not my first outing, but it was my first attendance with the Human Gorilla table, and it was laden with wares; books, game zines, dice, and a few odd changemakers. We even brought worksheets for the kids.
The table was a great success, thanks to the engineering skills of Bunker Ops, who packed everything into four milk crates and two collapsible dollies. Set up and take down was measures in minutes. We are thinking about additional accoutrements for future field endeavors, but I’m determined to keep the footprint as small as possible.
We rode into town on Wednesday and threw ourselves into the chaos of everyone else showing up at the same time and watching con organizer Gary running in multiple directions at the same time. It seems everyone had a question only he could answer, but he got everyone squared away like a champ.
We were ensconced in one of the big rooms, along with a few other folks, including Mike Woo, selling his OOP RPG wares, and Ernst from 5th Field Fantasy Miniatures, who kept Bunker Ops company when the foot traffic was slow and Administration was away from the table in four-hour increments, killing mutants with dice. You must go check out Ernst’s wares, especially if you’re an original AD&D player. His minis are straight outta the Old School, very evocative of those classic minis of yesteryear. And cast in pewter! I got myself an owlbear. I nearly bought a brace of his lizardmen–they’re like Trampier Lizardmen, no foolin’. Go look for yourself.
I was signed up for four games, and ended up getting into a fifth. Everything I played this weekend was either OSR-Retro or Made in the 1980s. There were some 5e games going, and a couple of other systems, but they were one offs, for the most part. No one had a kind word to say about what Hasbro did/is doing/is fixing to do. Reactions ranged from a look of scorn and derision to chuckles and muttered curses whenever 5e was mentioned. I can’t blame them. No one could. Hasbro had no defenders.
And with the recent success of Arcane Library’s Shadowdark Kickstarter (well over a million dollars for an old school game that’s standing on it’s roots) and Ben Milton’s Knave 2nd Edition Kickstarter (over half a million dollars and eleven thousand backers), we’re not alone in being ready to move on, for the good of the hobby and the future of gaming. By the way, Shadowdark is taking late pledges if you missed out.
Speaking of which, I was lucky enough to bump into Kelsey Dionne, the architect of Arcane Library and the creator of Shadowdark. We had a mutual appreciation moment wherein she told me she nearly bought Blood & Thunder last week, and now here I am! Turns out, she’s a Robert E. Howard fan, and so we spent a few minutes mutually geeking out over that. She confessed that she’d been trying to get her wife into REH, and may have sold Jessee on giving Howard’s poetry a try.
I played in two Dungeon Crawl Classics derivatives, a Mutant Crawl Classics mash-up and a Weird Frontiers game, and both of them were gonzo and nutty and our tables had a blast playing. I was curious how Weird Frontiers played, and it was pretty smooth, but the addition of the deck of cards for pistol misfires and crits might have been one bit of management too much–I don’t know. I liked it, when I remembered to DO it, which was the rub for all of us gun-totin’ hombres. The only other off-putting thing about Weird Frontiers was the $85 price tag for the book…until I saw the damn thing and realized you could hide a body in a hollowed-out rulebook. It’s enormous. Gutenberg Bible-esque in execution. I dearly hope they do a second printing with two books of a manageable size. I’m all in if that happens.
I also got to play in two Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea games, with the same core group of folks, and man, that’s a fun setting (and great set of OSR rules). We had big fun finding crypts and stealing pendants. Not too many games out there where you can play a Pictish Barbarian! I also got to hang out with ASSH creator and publisher Jeff Talanian, and we spent a while talking comics, artwork, and stuff, like you do, and it was so good to just shoot the shit with him.
Both of these games are part of the Old School Renaissance/Revival, and also very strongly flavored for sword and sorcery as opposed to high fantasy or whatever we’re calling Tolkien-esque stuff these days, or D&D’s homogenized fantasy setting. That’s part of what makes their games so great. It’s not the rules, per se. That’s a delivery system. It’s the setting, and in particular, it’s the uniqueness of the setting, that makes those games work as well as they do. Gonzo sorcery and eldritch shenanigans are the buy-in, with no apologies. Death is certain. Life is cheap. Get what you can and try to stay alive. I miss playing that way. I really miss not being able to run games that way.
The last game I played was the one I was most looking forward to. Daredevils was a pulp-era based RPG put out in the early 1980s by Fantasy Games Unlimited. Robert Charrette wrote the rules, and to to call them crunchy would be an insult to hard rock candy. Charrette’s design style was steeped in math and mechanics, and there was a lot of math you had to do to get to a target number to roll on a d20 for your chance of success. It seemed like there was a better, or maybe just quicker, way to get to that number, but no matter. What Daredevils had going for it was a lifepath character generator that gave your character a checkered and interesting path, a weird variety of skills, and it was one of the few games where it was okay to be older rather than younger (it certainly made you wiser).
This game used the Daredevils rules, but it was set in the 1970s and it was an original adventure featuring Kolchak: the Night Stalker, using Karl himself as a character and all of the series regulars and a few guest stars, too. “The Wrong Goodbye” was a blast. I was excited to get to play Kolchak himself, and they even let me read the narrative voice-over to start the adventure. Cool!
This show was a blast. Getting to meet the people that wrote, drew, or otherwise created the role-playing game industry and say hi, shoot the breeze, ask questions, or just say ‘thank you,’ is awesome. That they are just as into all of this stuff as you are? A cool bonus. You never know who you’re gonna bump into, or where. It’s pretty damn awesome.
We sold many books: Gobsmack! went fast, when we started rolling up people’s goblin names for them. Tools of the Trade got a lot of attention, mostly from folks who said they were thinking about picking it up already and since I was here with it… and I sold several copies of Blood & Thunder, including a copy to Manda Dee, Jeff Dee’s wife, after a spirited conversation wherein I learned they were reading the Breckinridge Elkins stories! They are both big REH fans–there were a lot of them at this show–and I didn’t want for any conversations along those lines the whole weekend.
One last thing: I really like it when the hotel gets into the spirit of the convention. They had themed menus for both food and drink, with (very) slight discounts on gamer food. Oh, and the best of all: the convention employed runners to check on every game in progress at least one time per session, asking us if we needed anything like food or drink (nothing alcoholic, but so what!). Twice that saved my ass; they brought coffee, food, water bottles, what-have-you. It was the Grown-Up version of your mom yelling from the kitchen, “Do you boys want me to make you a pizza?” The answer was always “YeeEEEeess!” Killing monsters is thirsty work.
We’ll be back next year, with more stuff to sell, and I’ll be running at least one game. Thanks to everyone who stopped by, bought something cool, talked shop with me, or played in games with me. And thanks to the staff for the stellar job of running a con this size, focused on playing games, in such a concentrated area. The hard work was noticed and appreciated.
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