Join me as I talk role-playing, the power of story, and Lord of the Rings music you may not know about with my old friend, Dr. Scott Hippensteel, Director of Instrumental Music at Shepherd University.
Let’s take a look at this whole “Letters to My Uncle” project I discussed in Episode 1. What is it all about? Who is this “Uncle” and who is this main character? Remember, if you see me at GenCon come say hello!
GenCon, for me, is an amazing place and it’s coming up next week. In honor of this I’ve made it the focus for this episode. I go through a brief history to get a perspective of how far the convention has come and then tell two stories that occurred to me at GenCon. One is from my very first GenCon and the second occurred just a few years ago.
Like most D&D geeks from the early 80’s, my first campaign was set in the first world released for the game, Greyhawk. After a few campaigns here and there, imagination called to me. I was yearning for a new place to build adventures and my next love, Forgotten Realms, had yet to be published. I think it happens to most gamemasters in time. I wanted something to call my very own so I cast off from the shores of Greyhawk and did what any self-respecting, geek gamemaster would do – I started my own game world.
The concept from my adolescent brain? A large, sparsely populated island filled with more monsters then civilization. It was to be a savage place where life was cheap except for small pockets of civilization along the coast. With so much danger, why would anyone go there? This was easy enough. Legends of an ancient civilization buried within the mountainous crags, vast halls of undiscovered wealth, knowledge and magical secrets, of course.
I called the island Ballushiam, the Lost Island
I grabbed a ballpoint pen, some grid paper and got to work. I scribbled rivers and mountains. I designed where different factions were located with crayon and marker. I drew out different territories and gave them horrible names. I drew my first compass rose. I worked on the project for several weeks.
And, of course, this was as far as it got. Sadly, it never got played. I hung on to my maps and my notes because I kept telling myself, “One day, monster island… one day…”
Years passed and the island held true to it’s name. Games came and went until a few years ago I was purging through things, going through boxes of older game material. I was getting back to only the simple, basic things I wanted to keep. Amidst the crumpled character sheets, half-drawn maps, odd sketches, old GM notes and brittle graph paper I came across an old, green school folder. I recognized it from my high school days. Forgetting what was placed within I opened it carefully and found, to my joy, Ballushiam, the lost island! All that was left from the numerous notes and sketches were two gaudy maps with little information. Yet, looking at them brought back all the memories, all the ideas.
Once again the lost island had been found and I had a decision to make. I was cleaning things out. I’d not done anything with it for decades. Why keep it? Would I keep it or did it just need to go into the trash after taking a few pictures for keepsakes?
Of course, I kept it. What kind of gamer would I be if I tossed out the very first horribly drawn world maps I ever created?
So, it went back in the worn green folder and stored with other memorabilia like my first dungeon, my first monster, and some old character sheets. Once again, the island sank back down under the waves of attention.
But, all was not lost. Recently, as I went looking for the GenCon XVI booklets I photographed for my previous post, the lost island rose again. When I found it, I made an important decision.
If I didn’t use it immediately and do something with it then I would toss it and move on.
Which, of course, means…
It’s time to explore the lost island of Ballushiam!
One of the ideas I had for this blog was to produce, from the ground up, a fantasy game world that could be free and open for everyone. This is exactly what I want to do with Ballushiam. It has, sadly, been unattended for decades but I’m breathing life into it and will be sharing the island with you. I’ll be doing the heavy lifting, of course, but I’ll be listening to comments and thoughts that come up on future posts. As things grow, you, as reader, will have chances to effect how aspects change and grow on the island in various ways. I want it to be a living, breathing island.
First steps will be getting the map done or, at least, part of the map. I love doing write-ups and background history pieces as well so these will be posted here too. Most of the pieces will not be to any specific game system but I may give some hints and examples how they might, for instance, into Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, FATE core, etc. Everything will go under the tag of “Ballushiam” and, if it gets hefty enough, I will give it it’s own page and cross-link everything as needed.
Are you hardy enough to visit the Lost Island?
I recently read this blog post on my podcast where I discussed Gencon. You can go ahead and read it or you can listen to it here.
It was 1983 and Gencon XVI was being held at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in Kenosha, Wisconsin. As a teenager I had read about it in my monthly issue of The Dragon magazine which I diligently picked up at a local hobby store. I wanted to go to Gencon as much as some kids wanted to go to Disneyland but unfortunately, I was still without a driver’s license. Even if I had a driver’s license, the concept of me taking the family car on a 6 hour drive and a multiple day trip was not even close to the realm of reality. Gencon might as well have been in Mongolia.
Yet, as they do, magical things occur. Another gift came my way. (The first gift was here.) Details are foggy but a very close friend in the family spoke to my parents about a trip they were taking. They had heard me talking about this special place called “GenCon” and knew about my love of this weird game I had been playing. It so happened they were going to be heading up to Milwaukee for the same weekend as the convention and asked my parents if I could go along with them? They would drop me off every morning at the convention, pick me up in the early evening and bring me back home when they came back from their trip.
To my stunned and stammering disbelief, my parents said, “Ok.”
As long as I took care of all of the logistics my parents were fine with me going. They agreed to help pay my way but they wanted me to pitch in as well. I had to check in every night by phone. Oh, wait, let’s be clear here – a pay phone. Remember those? There was no such thing as the internet then (hence the payphone) so I had to use stamps and the U.S. Mail to happily send in my entrance form and my fee. I happily agreed and started the process. One of the first things I did when I was picking out my gaming schedule was to enter into the D&D Open Championship that TSR would be running.
There was an agonizing long time to get my badge and my entrance packet back. August took forever to arrive. Patience, though, is still a virtue and in no time I was travelling up to Kenosha in the back seat of a car with a suitcase of clothes and a backpack of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons books and dice. After an incredibly long drive and a quick check of the surroundings by my family’s friend, I found myself in Geek Nirvana.
It’s a powerful thing to find a place where, no matter how much you were ostracized where you lived, you arrive and immediately feel at home, accepted and welcome. No matter where I went there was evidence I had found a place that accepted this wacky, geeky part of me. Like so many others who arrive at Gencon’s doors, after living off of poorly stocked hobby store shelves in my hometown, my first experience seeing the dealer floor was mind blowing.
The D&D Open Championship was a series of games, each about 4 hours in length, that played itself out over the course of the convention. Players were placed in a 9-10 player group that played together to see how far they could get and stay alive through a series of adventures. Through the culmination of different points acquired through the adventures, a final winning group would be chosen after the entire series. My first game started in the early afternoon of my first day.
I was paired up with the other players, two of which were a little older than me but also “newbies” to GenCon. My first character class love was Ranger and so I volunteered to play that character in the tournament. We were all called to a table, pulled out our dice, settled in, and prepared for the adventure. Things went fine at first. I honestly cannot remember the quest or what we were doing. However, I can remember how it all ended for me.
As the Ranger, I was in the lead/scout position with my long bow out as we moved along the edge of, I think, a swamp. The DM described the scene as we moved along and things were going well.
The dungeon master’s voice called out, “Suddenly, a wretched mass of clothing and rotted flesh staggers out of the reeds! It lunges out and onto the path. It is something undead and it’s moving fast towards the Ranger!”
Yikes! My first combat at Gencon! I was ready. I was excited! I never got to use the bow because the DM ruled it a surprise round. The undead creature ran right towards me, hitting me in the first die roll. I took solid damage. Our cleric in the group tried to Turn Undead but, “The creature is too powerful” said the DM.
Combat went on for only one or two more rounds. My group could do nothing to help me. The monster took me down, slaughtering me.
My character was dead.
It then shambled back into the swamp and disappeared into the water as my companions at least tried to avenge me.
I sat in silence, so confused, so upset. “What was that? I never had a chance!”
The DM replied, “You see, the creature was a revenant and it was after you.”
“A revenant? Why was it after me?”
“It was a revenant of a man you secretly murdered in cold blood. It’s an undead creature fueled by revenge. It’s sole motive was to finally track you down and kill you.” The DM showed me the entry for the creature in the book he had, The Fiend Folio. I had the book at home and when I saw the picture I remembered it.
But it only made me more confused. I looked down at my character sheet, looked at the background. There was no mention of being a murderer. Nothing. Just a normal “Rangerey” background. I clearly remember what my teenager mouth said next,
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Sorry. That is what is in the module. You’re character is dead,” and he gave a single dismissive motion that told me I was done at the table and I should leave.
Oh, I left the table alright but I was far from done. Even in my youthful, novice stage of RPG gaming, I knew a serious problem when it ran up to me and killed me.
I stormed over to the administration table for the tournament and explained what had happened
Even before I was done telling my story, the official was nodding his head in agreement. When I was finished he said (and, no, this is not exact but it’s how I remember it.) “I know. It sucks. The revenant is there to kill the Ranger because the Ranger is able to help the party get through a later challenge too easily. It’s possible to save the Ranger but near impossible. Sorry.”
I seriously had to have him repeat it to me twice.
This was the superior game design I had spent months looking forward toward, placing all my hopes and roleplaying dream on, saving for and riding 6 hours to get to? This? That was the answer? I came all of this way for this? I could have stayed at home and had a better game of Monopoly.
Now, with thirty years of experience and age under my belt, I have a feeling that there are only a few options possible about this entire situation. The first one is simple and something my ego likes to hear. The second, well, is just the opposite and NOT something my ego wants to here. I don’t like but I have to admit it as a possibility.
- They really designed something that stupid.
- I was a younger, annoying player and they had an option built in to weed such scallywags out.
Let’s look at #2 first. I don’t remember being an annoying chatterbox kid around the table. But, and this is important, who does? My memory is that I was excited but pretty well behaved. I was definitely new to the experience but I have no memories of interrupting someone or trying to hog every scene. In my adult gaming past I have had to run numerous games with that overly excited kid who is coming close to ruining the game for everyone else at the table. (This is why I have to accept it’s a possibility.) However, as a gamemaster, I feel it’s an important part of the skill set to use it as a chance for a teaching opportunity. This extends to other players around the table as well. As a player it’s a perfect time to take a misbehaving player under their wing for a bit.
Bottom line is, I don’t think I was that kid but I don’t know and may never know for sure. If I was that kid was it right of them to do what they did? I suppose you could chalk it up to game “style?”
There was no internet or forum boards back then to go complaining on. I was just a teenage kid who had been crushed over some really pathetic module design and sent packing back into the crowded hallway. I will never know. If someone is reading this and remembers this particular Gencon, this 1983 Championship and the damn revenant by the swamp with it’s hatred for a murderous ranger (that didn’t know he had murdered anyone) then, please, help a fellow gaming brother out!
What I do know is that it was the worse game of Dungeons and Dragons in my life.
Had I not been at GenCon and gone on to have an amazing series of days playing other games, sitting in pick-up games, and going on to be in the group to score 2nd place in the Top Secret RPG tournament, it might have turned me off forever.
Right then, in the moment when I was turned away with no options, I felt cheated and picked on. All my happy feelings of being there were turned on their ear and all the gamer geek baggage I thought I had left at the door simply fell back on me.
And this is one of the two lessons I want to pass on – Be mindful of how you are running your game and, most importantly, the contract of trust your players are putting on the table with you no matter who is playing. With that contract comes the prospect of a large amount of fun and even larger amount of trust going both ways. Be mindful that you do not break that contract.
The other lessson?
If you have a bad game, and you will, don’t let it spin you down. There are always more games. Dust yourself off, grab your dice bag and find another game where everyone involved understands the contract in place. Those games are out there and probably closer than you realize.
Go find them.