This time last week I was preparing to play through the Dungeons of Dracula at North Texas RPG Con 2016.
For me, last week's convention helped underscore something it's taken
years for me to really internalize. My first NTRPGCON was 2015, for my
40th birthday, and it was the single greatest convention-type event I'd
ever attended. I didn't know if this year would repeat the experience.
Maybe it was just that I was turning 40 and needed a midlife crisis
convention. Maybe it was because I had some of my best friends in the
world along with me. This year couldn't possibly be as awesome as last
year, could it?
Yeah, it was. Maybe even moreso.
Bobby and I walked into the con Thursday morning, we immediately
started running into people who remembered us from the previous year.
Not just Austin folk who'd also made the trek, but other members of the
NTRPGCON community. It was welcoming. It was affirming. It was a
place I felt I belonged perhaps more than I have belonged anywhere at
any time in my life. And that made me think. Why the hell have I
always had to be apologetic about my interests to people outside the
Growing up, I wasn't exactly a good fit with
my family. I didn't get to see much of my Dad's side after the divorce,
and my Mom's side of the family was comprised of folks who just didn't
get me at all. I didn't hunt, didn't fish, didn't watch football, I was
famously told I couldn't drive a nail with a stick shift. My
bookishness and interest in sci-fi and fantasy were pretty roundly
ridiculed at every turn. My dad's side of the family regarded me with
something like amused curiosity - they didn't get me either, but at
least they appreciated my creativity and supported my strange and
In school, I fit in with the misfits. I
finally found my niche in the summer of 1986 when I discovered tabletop
gaming. Daniel Varner, wherever you are, I owe you one. I discovered
my lifelong fascination with games, simulations and writing. Our small
conclave of geeks explored the Keep on the Borderlands, we Boldly Went
where No Man has Gone Before, we ran the Death Star Trench and the dark
streets of Seattle and Night City. We may have been picked on, shunned,
and otherwise rendered social outcasts, but we'd found each other
through our passion for storytelling.
By the time I graduated
High School, though I didn't realize it until my 20th Reunion, I was
more everyone's favorite eccentric geek than an outcast, but that still
didn't get me on the guest list to all the good parties. My Friday
nights were rolling dice and weaving tales of heroism with friends who,
in some cases, I still roll dice with today. Many of my RRHS classmates
have stories about that time at that party, mine are about exploring
dank catacombs or running from the corporate cops after a datasteal.
In college, I found that my hobbies had prepared me well for my ROTC
courses. Thanks to being a Twilight:2000 and Morrow Project player I
was familiar with NATO and Warsaw Pact equipment, even to the point of
knowing the Russian language names for most of their armored vehicles.
This impressed my instructors. My PT scores did not, but I scraped by.
I thought I'd found my niche in life- until I got diagnosed with Sleep
Apnea and my hopes of an ROTC scholarship were dashed.
would think a geek like myself would fit in with an organization like
STARFLEET - The International Star Trek Fan Association. I did well in
SFI, but always felt a bit apart due to the martial manner in which I
approached my service. It impressed some, and alienated others. Later,
I would serve for a year in the Texas State Guard where I had the
opposite problem- my military bearing was a plus, but my status as a
non-prior-service member and my struggles with my weight held me back.
Not to mention what I now know was an epic example of overconfidence on
my part with my work load. I just couldn't do it all at once - so why
was I trying?
I've come to understand it's expectations and
duty. My family's expectations. Society's expectations. Hell, my own
expectations. I actually didn't respect myself very much until the day I
swore into the Guard. It's a citizen's duty to serve, I've always told
myself, and until the day I could render that service I felt less than
complete. Duty is the other part of the equation. My duty to my wife,
to my children, to keeping the household running and even to my friends
as their club president who is charged with making sure they're
entertained two Saturdays a month.
Becoming a Dad had a lot of
impact on me. I learned depths of love and selflessness I had never
realized were part of my makeup. I learned what stretching myself thin
REALLY was, because I had just returned to college mere months before
becoming a father of two overnight. I learned that I am not invincible.
I learned that I can break. I did.
Thanks to two wonderful
counselors, I've started to put myself back together. I've started
asking what makes me happy, and that answer is fairly simple.
Fatherhood, and gaming. The former is self-explanatory. The latter
perhaps bears some elaboration as those who are not gamers might not
understand how something that sounds, on the surface, so trivial could
be so central to a human's happiness.
Gaming is a creative
endeavor. It allows me an outlet through which to express those things I
cannot express in any other way. It's sort of like how the original
Star Trek could talk about racism or the Vietnam War. Gaming is a
social endeavor. My best and closest friends all roll dice with me.
Gaming creates a community, and a unique kind of bond that exists
nowhere else. The gamers I play with tend to be pretty inclusive - we
don't care about your ethnicity, political party, or any other
traditionally divisive personal factor.
This is why North Texas
RPG Con means so much to me. I used to attend Star Trek conventions,
and the Trek and massive Comic Cons of today are money-making
juggernauts. People pay money to stand in line to pay money again to
get autographs from the actors. I used to dig that quite a bit. But
NTRPGCON is different. At NT, I'm not standing in line for autographs
and maybe a word or two with an actor. I'm sitting at a table playing
with the folks who wrote and illustrated the games I grew up with. The
owner of the con, BadMike, is said to lose money on it every year. He
runs the con for the love of the community and the original creators who
attend the event.
I walk into that hotel, and I'm surrounded
by kindred spirits. I get them, they get me. In four days of gaming I
roll dice with seven tables worth of people, all of which I have a blast
with. We're all comrades in the love of the game, and what's more,
we're all celebrating the men and women that made those games happen and
in many cases playing alongside them. I've thanked more than one for
the products they wrote that thirty years ago back at Chisholm Trail
Middle School gave me a place to fit in when I didn't fit in anywhere
Last year I met Frank Mentzer and Larry Elmore, the
writer and illustrator of the Red Box, the Dungeons & Dragons Basic
Set, that got me started in the hobby in 1986. This year, I bought a
copy of the Red Box to hand down to Zane, and had Frank autograph it for
me. He told me that it meant a lot to him to have parents tell him
that his game, all these years later, is being taught to the kids of the
original generation for which it was written. Well, Frank, it meant a
lot to me to have something to turn my creative and imaginative energies
to when they weren't all that appreciated anywhere else. And it's an
honor to have been able to thank you in person, and toss dice with you
So what is it it's taken me all these years and all
these words to realize? That there is zero shame in being a grown-assed
adult who rolls dice for fun. That nobody's opinion but my own and
that of my fellow gamers matter when it comes to how I spend my spare
time and energy. I've spent 30 years putting up with disapproving
opinions on my chosen hobby. Why? I don't see the point of a lot of
other people's hobbies- but if they enjoy them, more power to them. And
so it is with me.
How different is it for me to be able to
tell tales my friends and I have collaboratively crafted thirty years
after they occurred than it is for any other devotee of any other hobby
to share their "fish stories?" What makes any pastime any more valid
than any other?
So, NTRPGCON has inspired me. I found a
community that I finally fit into without reservation. A group of
creative minds that are all there for the same hobby that carried me
through what would otherwise have been a pretty bleak adolescence. I
can safely ignore the derision and insults of my family and others when I
think about crawling wearily to bed after midnight and looking across
the atrium to see my friend Dennis rolling up a character and getting
ready for a game that took him past 3AM. Dennis, you see, is 76, a PhD,
and published author. So... folks who don't think gamers amount to
much? You can all stuff it.
Job #1 is Raise My Kids Right.
But I've been told that I can't take care of my family unless I take
care of myself. So I'm going to do both. Gaming keeps me happy. It
also gives me a great tool for inspiring my kids to read, do math, and
creatively problem solve. I am so gratified that the high school that
used to accuse us of gambling for having dice at lunch now has an actual
tabletop gaming club. Zane is learning to read more thanks to our
tabletop games, and choose-your-own-adventure books. I'm hoping Kaylee
follows suit with a love of reading and adventure.
RPG Con took me to my happy place two years in a row, and I'm already
planning my triumphant return next year with two (or more!) game
sessions to run. I want to give back to the con some of the fun it has
given others, and GMing a few games will help in that regard.
am actually feeling pretty content for the first time in ages. My
writing is possibly taking off in the next year. My teaching career is
set to begin in August or January. Zane and Kaylee are learning,
growing and learning to overcome their own issues. Zane has been having
a blast at Tae Kwon Do camp. Things are falling into place and I'm
finally coming to terms with the fact that I *like* who I am. I didn't
turn out to be a career soldier like I thought I would when I was a kid -
but that's OK. I'm a dad, and that's the most important job in the
world. I'm a teacher, both of my hobbies and as an (adjunct)
profession. I'm a creator of worlds and a teller of tales. Nothing
makes me smile so much as to hear one of my friends remembering one of
the amazing adventures we've had together over the decades.
yeah. I'm still working on my weight, and my anxiety/depression, but
I'm pretty damn happy to be me for the first time in a good long while.
And I'll see you all at the game table.