Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Miller Park Memories

Yesterday I chaperoned my daughter's class on a field trip to Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington, Illinois. Despite the rain, we had a great time. We brown-bagged lunch at the Miller Park Pavilion, an august edifice undoubtedly erected during the grand period of civic construction in Illinois, circa 1900 to 1910. The Pavilion has a special place in my heart, as I attended my first game convention there.

The first con I attempted to attend was Wil-Con in Wilmington, Illinois. I talked my parents into driving my crew and I the considerable distance to Wilmington only to find a handwritten sign taped to the venue door: "Wil-Con is canceled." That's it. I never found out any more about what happened. Fortunately, Bloomington is much closer and the nearest place to my home to go for serious shopping. Otherwise, I doubt my parents would have tried this weird "con" thing again.

Anyhoo, the con in Bloomington was called Frontier Wars. It was 15 years or more later that I made the connection between the con name and the Frontier Wars of Traveller canon. If GDW was an official sponsor of the con, they were extremely laid back about it. We couldn't tell and I still don't know. Walking through the con during the mid to late eighties, you would have thought that FASA was the big dog in town, because BattleTech was the game to play.

My group discovered BattleTech at our first Frontier War. In the dealer area on the main floor one table had a Chessex hexmap (IIRC), some mode railroad terrain, and these little painted robots. My whole gang fell in love with the little painted robots. I immediately bought the boxed set (That'd be the 2nd edition, the one that came out after Lucas's lawyer told them that the original name of the game, BattleDroids, was not going to work.) I didn't have the money to get any robots, because earlier that weekend I had already bought the 3rd edition Call of Cthulhu boxed set.

Funny thing about CoC, I bought it several years before reading any H.P. Lovecraft. I got into CoC based upon the Dragon review alone. I couldn't find a Lovecraft book in my neck of the woods until 1988 or so. Now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure I discovered both Wil-Con and Frontier Wars in the Convention Calendar section of Dragon. And I learned about the existence of a game store in Bloomington by going to Frontier Wars. So basically you can draw a straight line from Dragon magazine to all my other participation with the rest of the hobby. The fact that Dragon could be found on the magazine rack of ordinary bookstores is pretty much why I'm blogging about stupid games a quarter century or so later. D&D got me into gaming, but it was a regular dose of Dragon that sustained my interest.

(But I'm sure Wizards of the Coast knew what they were doing when they pulled the plug on Dragon. It's not like they were killing an institution of the hobby. And it's not like video games have their own print magazines or anything, right? And since everybody buys music online these days, Rolling Stone has gone to an all-digital format.)

In addition to getting my group into BattleTech and, to a lesser extent, Call of Cthulhu, some of the events at the various Frontier Wars served as important negative examples. Some of the D&D games I played there were pretty effin' weak, which only spurred me to run my own con games and to do it better than those events. Not all the D&D at Frontier War was lame, but the average quality was so low that one year we decided that we'd be better off just breaking out my buddy Dave's campaign materials in the open gaming area. And then there was the Traveller game that put me off that system for almost two decades.

But we also played some great games at Frontier Wars. Foremost in my mind is a little adventure that was called "Fun on Skull Island". I recall my magic-user climbing to the top of the "smoking mountain", expecting for some reason to find the entrance to a lava dungeon. Instead I found an open Eversmoking Bottle set at the peak of an ordinary mountain. Then I got the bright idea that there might be a clue inside the bottle, so I attempt to peer inside despite the smoke. I nearly asphyxiated. Later we found a door that could only be opened by solving one of these puzzles:

After each real minute of manipulation of the puzzle you got zapped for an ever-increasing amount of electrical damage. My guy got fried pretty badly.

I won a competitive AD&D at Frontier War one year. It was called "Run, Hobbit, Run!" even though it had no hobbits in it whatsoever. I think the guy running it just liked the name. It was an every man for himself dungeon crawl, where the only monsters were the other players. Something like 20 people participated. The pregens were designed to be balanced, but not identical. I wound up with a fourth level fighter, one of the lowest level characters at the table, but I was armed with a sword +4 and a displacer cloak. All movement was pre-plotted and simultaneous, until two characters encountered one another, then normal AD&D combat was used. The last man standing was the winner.

Some of the older players were upset that a stupid kid won the event, but this stupid kid spent 3 and a half hours avoiding every fight he could. I ended up only having to fight just one foe to the death, a Lord whose hitpoints had been whittled down by several previous encounters. When I finally dropped him my crew cheered and patted me on the back. The prize for winning the event was a copy of this module:

My dad took one look at the cover and said something along the lines of "Huh. I think I'm starting to see the appeal of this Dungeons & Dragons stuff."