09 June 2016

North Texas RPG Con 2016 - What It Meant to The Old Dragoon

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.

When 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 gamer community?

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 different interests.
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.

One 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 else.

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 last year.

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.

North Texas 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.

I 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.

So, 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.

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