My GenCon 1990 Convention Report

"What I did on my summer vacation", or Four-plus days and nights at GenCon by Terry O'Brien. Copyright 1990-1997.

Apologies in advance. This entire writeup or sections of it are going to several different audiences (At last count, around 7; the two gaming APAs I am involved with, Alarums & Excursions and Clobberin' Times; the local gaming club's newsletter; the GEnie Games and SFRT library; possibly Lan's Lantern; plus the Amber writeup also goes to Erick Wujcik) so if I pause to elucidate something that you may already know, please remember that all of the audience may not be familiar with a lot of the things I am describing.

First of all, GenCon is a four day gaming convention hosted by TSR, who are the people that publish the Dungeons and Dragons games. In the beginning GenCon was held in Lake Geneva (hence the name), the home of TSR, but it has expanded and moved several twice, and is now at MECCA in downtown Milwaukee. This was the 23rd year for GenCon, and my 13th.

GenCon is the major roleplaying games convention in the world, with a a very large amount of games-related programming, a sizeable dealers room, a very small video room, an art show and auction, and lots of different types of games played, both scheduled and unscheduled, and even a few parties in the evenings this year. Unfortunately, other than that, there are very few of the things that SF conventions normally have: a con suite, filks, GOH speeches, et cetera. There is also a frenetic atmosphere to the convention; so many games to play, and so little time to do it in. The day is scheduled such that there are four 4-hour blocks during the day, and officially scheduled games are during any of these blocks. (Officially scheduled games are listed in the preregistration book and have TSR supported/provided prizes.) Unofficial games can also be scheduled; several notice boards are available to advertise a game, and several tables are available for unscheduled ("pick-up") games.

There have been several improvements at GenCon over the past few years, and it may rival some SF conventions in the future. One of the things added was a professional art show and auction a couple of years ago; now they re drawing several professional and semi-professional artists. Rowena Morrill, Michael Whelan, and Mike Grell have been Artist GOHs since this trend started. This year, because of the art show, I got to meet fellow GEnie-ite Liz Danforth face to face, as well as Ruth Thompson, an up-and-coming artist whose work I have been steadily collecting. Liz has been doing art mainly for game companies, but it is every bit as good as other, better known SF artists. Ruth's art is excellent; she has real talent, especially considering that she has only started selling her artwork at art shows within the past two years.

Other GEnie people I met there included Dave Arneson, Mike Stackpole, Paul Hume, and Steve Peterson; unfortunately I didn't get to see the Author GOH Robin Bailey. It seemed that TSR got full use of their Author GOH, and considering both of our busy schedules, it was not surprising that we never met face-to-face. Other APA folk there included Spike Y. Jones, "Doc" Cross, and Rex Joyner.

Getting There: It is our custom (I usually attend with one or two local gaming friends, this year being Kim Metzger and Rex Joyner) to drive up to Milwaukee Wednesday so we can stand in line and collect our registration packets that afternoon and afterwards explore "The Bookstores of Cthulhu". That's my name for two bookstores about a half-mile from MECCA. These bookstores are packed to the (very tall) ceilings with paperbacks, hardcovers, records, cassettes, CDs, magazines; you name it, they've got it, all arranged in a way that would bring delight to any Discordian. Unfortunately, that means a long and dusty search for anyone else if you are looking for something in particular. The SF section is fairly large (and tall), but I did manage to find the SFBC edition of Judith Tarr's "The Hound and the Falcon" trilogy, which I have since read and enjoyed. After talking to a native friend, I have found another such bookstore on the other side of the hotel, which I am planning to raid next year. Other than that, there's very little else happening until the convention begins the following morning.

Old Friends: One of the delights of the convention is a Champions tournament that has been on-going for several years now. (Champions is an excellent superhero roleplaying system.) The heroes are the Texas Rangers,

(Sphinx, the leader and supernatural shapshifter; Monk, the stoic martial artist; Steel, the proverbial "man of steel"; Thunderson, Indian archer and shaman; Claw, almost bestial clawed killing machine; Weatherman, gonzo ex-stuntman and energy projector; White Lightning, high speed flyer with a force-field; and Firestar, a flying energy projector) who through a very complicated series of events several years ago, wound up being asked to take over the government of the U.S. That led to a number of interesting scenarios in the following years, including the team being turned out of office in 1988, ending last year with the death of Firestar.

This year all of the remaining team members gathered at Firestar's tomb on the anniversary of his death. There they met a man who strangely did not know about Firestar. As the players followed a series of memories of their dead comrade, they went further back into his past, reliving a series of episodes in the career of the Rangers, until they met Firestar when he had first discovered his powers, which resulted in the death of the stranger, Firestar's closest friend. (Speaking of strangers, there was an anonymous appearance by the Phantom Stranger to explain things during the scenario.) The final scene of the preliminary round was of the interior of the tomb, where Firestar was bound, crucified, and being tormented, in Hell.

I didn't advance to the finals; I didn't do as well as I had in earlier years. I made a couple of bad decisions playing Thunderson, including firing an Explosion attack into an adobe building. (Talk about bringing down the house!) I wanted something that would take out everyone inside the building, as there were several gunmen firing from inside, but instead I brought the roof down, probably killing everyone inside. Not too smart, and maybe just a touch too violent for the character.

The final session took place Sunday at noon. The two demonic creatures tormenting the crucified Firestar were difficult to defeat; Rot, a gigantic festering monster that drained characteristics every time he struck someone, and Malice, a tiny, mocking creature with the uncanny ability to sense and place doubts in the minds of anyone. It took several attacks to bring Rot down, the largest being Claw's massive hand-to-hand attack. (The first attack, with Malice sitting on Claw's shoulder whispering doubts that Claw was only an animal, was pitiful; the second attack, with Claw screaming "Claw human. Claw human!", was massive. When it was over, Sphinx approached Claw, who was dripping with gore, and held his jaw and looked him in the eyes and said "Claw is human.") With Firestar released and the Rangers united again, they started to leave by the doorway into the tomb, which was showing the sun shining on the landscape beyond.

That was when the door slammed shut in their faces.

The power that had lured the team to this place and imprisoned their friend had now trapped them as well, and there was seemingly nothing the characters could do to save themselves. No power they could call upon could help them. Not even their fabled team unity; the power that imprisoned them broke that unity as easily as swatting a fly. Then it made an offer for them to return to the world: return and continue to be heroes, and when they died, they would return to this place and suffer the same torment their friend had been going through for all eternity, or return and retire, and they would pass on to whatever reward they had coming to them. If they made no decision, then they would stay where they were, in a sort of Limbo until they decided.

The characters had only themselves to rely upon, and that was the key to escaping and victory. In a scenario finale several years, each Ranger was offered perfection; in order to defeat their opponent, they had to reject his offer and turn down perfection (in character). It wasn't easy, but the players (and I was one of them) did so. This year, the only way out was for each character to recognize that all of the powers they had (and any basis for any morality they possessed) came from not outside source, but within themselves, and with that power, they had no limitations (including morals) except what they imposed on themselves.

Once the players made that discovery and accepted that they had no limitations beyond what they themselves believed in, even the limitations of normal society, they were beyond the touch of that power that was holding them, and they could leave. Seven of the players made that decision, leaving the team leader Sphinx (No, they didn't leave him in Limbo, the other players took him with them as they left.) alone and undecided whether he could accept the realization and make the change or not.

The final was strongly played, but the philosophical argument was a bit above some of the players, and they were a little hesitant on how to approach the situation, until one of them (I think the player who was playing Weatherman) finally stumbled on to the their true situation, which started a chain reaction among the players, as they struggled to accept (albeit somewhat unwillingly in some cases) the idea that there were no limitations upon each of them except for what limitations they placed on themselves. At the end, the Phantom Stranger appeared again to state to the audience

Am I looking forward to next year? Yes, I am. For the past few years, I have been impressed as to how the people behind the tournament have exceeded themselves and improved on the tournament every year. Every year I have said to Keith Hannigan, who organizes the tournament, that they've outdone themselves again, and that I don't know how they can top this year's tournament, but each year they do. I'm wondering what's in store for next year.

Other games: I also entered two other events; one a Shadowrun event (Shadowrun is a roleplaying system with a mixture of cyberpunk and magic. Believe me, the combination works.) and a Call of Cthulhu event (based on the Cthulhu stories by Lovecraft et. al.) Both were a lot of fun themselves, and a nice counterpoint to the doom and gloom of the two Champions events.

The Shadowrun event involved six "shadowrunners" or free-lance operatives, hired by an unknown corporate exec (a 'Mr. Johnson') to make a "relatively easy" corporate extraction. This object of the extraction proved to be a new computer chip that seemed to allow magic to be used inside the cyberspace network, a feat thought impossible. (We weren't told about this ability; this was supposed to be a simple extraction mission.)

Since I wasn't really familiar with the game system, I asked for a character that could be pointed in a direction and told "kill" and wound up with a goblinized human (which are called 'Orcs': most of the Awakened (non-humans) hate Tolkien) Street Samuari nicknamed Slice, for the retractable knifeblades he has implanted in his fingertips. The other shadowrunners were a free-lance 'fixer', a decker, two magicians (one a shaman, the other a Hermetic mage), and a rigger (a decker who interfaces with vehicles, in this case small drone helicopters.) In other words, a standard shadowrunner grouping.

By using all of our contacts, we determined that the chip we were supposed to recover was in Argentina, so we flew down and checked out the area, then the decker went into the local cyberspace and started searching. He found the research facility in a rural part of Argentina, a good distance from where we were staying in Buenos Aires. We made arrangements with a local air service (run by a troll (another goblinized human) named "Tiny") to fly us to the research facility.

While we were settling in at the hotel and checking out the area, the rigger uncrates one of her drones and sends it around the outside of the hotel, peeking in windows. The Hermetic mage, sitting in his bedroom, writing haiku and not knowing what was going on, sees what looks like a giant bug-eyed dragonfly hovering outside his window and fires a magical energy bolt at it and misses. The noise brings everyone running into this room, weapons drawn, except for the rigger, who was bringing the drone back in via another window. As everyone is looking out the broken window and asking what happened, the rigger runs in, cradling her drone and screaming at the mage "You tried to hurt my baby!" A tense moment for the characters was defused, while we had a a good laugh at the excellent role-playing by the two players.

Later when we flying into to the town outside the research facility, we couldn't raise the airport. We landed and found a deserted terminal. Our rigger sent her observation drone into the town, finding cars with bodies in them. When we followed and checked out a car, we could only see a body (not enough light and no IR for anyone with thermographic vision) until the fixer reached in and took the body's arm. It came off in his hand, calcified. The body had been turned into (mostly) stone, and was disintegrating. (Gross.) I found out later from the GM that a pack of wild basilisks had went through the town, turning everyone into stone. We appropriated a large car and drove out to the facility.

The rigger sent her drone ahead to the research complex, and was monitoring it, when suddenly it stopped transmitting. We followed on foot through a forest, with Slice (me) taking point. Suddenly the GM pointed at me and told me to make an observation roll on four (six-sided) dice. Under the game rules, if you roll a six, you re-roll until you don't. I rolled two sixes on four dice, then rolled two more sixes. What it translated to is that I found a bird on the ground, neatly sliced in half. The facility was using monofilament wire (Stuff that's so thin that it can cut almost between molecular bonds? Nasty slice and dice stuff.) as a passive defense. Lucky I made the roll by so much or else I would have wound up looking like my name!

This was a two-round tournament, and our round ended with the team standing just outside the research facility trying to figure out a way past the monofiliment wire that surrounded the base. I stopped by the final round later the next day, and the players were well into the scenario, so I couldn't tell really what was happening, but it sounded like the 'Mr. Johnson' who had hired the team had disavowed us and was predicting a considerable penalty if they persisted in interfering with his affairs, which they almost had to do to stay alive.

The event had a lot of neat things going for it; the game master was one of the most well prepared I had played under, and his descriptions were very colorful and very evocative. (He emphasized the darker aspects of magic, like the basilisks, in order to maintain the dark feel for the cyberpunk universe.) If this guy runs another event next year, I'm going to try to get into it. (The convention program and game schedule lists the game master's names, a nice touch.)

The Call of Cthulhu event (named "Danger-Prone Daphne") involved the team of "Cthulhu-busters" of Freddie, Daphne, Velma, and Shaggy (with Scooby), from the Saturday morning cartoon, along with four "generic" characters. I played Freddie, the stalwart leader, who was not to be trusted with any firearms. Daphne had had a series of unlucky accidents in previous sessions (including Freddie hitting her in the back with a shotgun), finally having her soul placed into a succubus, her own body having been possessed by someone else and killed earlier.

The whole scenario was about picking up the pieces after the previous session, which saw us kill Aleister Crowley physically and trap his spirit in the Dreamlands. The gateway to the Dreamlands was accompanied by a set of teleportation booths; we knew the destinations of all except one, and that was marked by a symbol that the players would recognize but that the characters wouldn't. We experimented with the unknown booth for a while (with no success) and then used another booth to return to Arkham to investigate Crowley's quarters in town.

While we were in Arkham, Daphne and Freddie went out to dinner, followed by Velma, who thought that Daphne was acting very much out of character. (Considering her past treatment, it was no surprise that she hated men.) When Daphne and Freddie went up to their room, she followed, keeping in touch with the others by radio, only to be mysteriously silenced. The rest of the people showed up, to find Freddie and Velma asleep and Daphne missing.

When the finally woke Freddie (me) up, I told how I had seen Crowley barge into the room and toss some glittering dust at Daphne and me, and then I fell asleep. It turns out that Crowley had access to an arcane device that allowed him to take physical form in the waking world for limited periods. Since it was readily apparent that Crowley had kidnapped Daphne, we had to return to the Dreamlands again to rescue her.

When we got back into the Dreamlands, we faced a long trek, following Crowley's trail, until we found them in the large port city. There we saw a large golden barge, bearing the same symbol that we didn't recognize before. When the GM said "golden barges", everything clicked and I said to the GM "You are one sick puppy!" The symbol was the eight-armed symbol of Chaos, and the barges were Melnibonéan, straight out of Moorcock's Eternal Champion. Crowley has got some pretty powerful allies in the Dreamlands!

Late that night while we were sleeping at the inn we were visited by two beings, one a large ogre-ish creature, the other a small, lumped, boxy humanoid, who introduced themselves by saying "Duh, our master sent us to help you." Well, we're in the Dreamlands, right? What's more natural to find in the Dreamlands than the Sandman? In this case, the Jack Kirby DC comics character, and these were his two assistants. At this point, recognizing the characters, I stood up and started (faking) pounding my head on a nearby girder in disbelief. They gave us packets of sleeping sand and magic whistles that can put people to sleep to help us.

Later that same night, using the sand and the whistles, we snuck aboard the Melnibonéan ship and rescued Daphne. Well, we sort of snuck aboard. Just after we rescued Daphne and got back out on to the main aft deck, being very, very quiet, what do we hear but "Our master sent us to help you." Guess who's back? Unfortunately that woke the dragon whose (huge) cabin was in the middle of the aft deck. The dragon, being magical, was not affected by the whistles or the sand, and it took a bundle of dynamite to stun and damage it. Everyone jumped into the water to escape the blast, and that was where the scenario ended.

Saturday night I skipped the Justice, Incorporated tournament preliminary round to attend the GEnie dinner at Maders restaurant. JI is a Champions-based game set in the Thirties, done B-movie style. It has been a load of fun to play in over the years, and I will try to schedule it again. The final round on Sunday morning has always been a lot of fun, even to watch.

Maders is a fancy German restaurant three blocks from MECCA; it houses a large collection of late medieval armor and weapons, as well as serving some of the best German food in the city. A great time was had by all, as we stayed and talked until after 10:00pm.

Last Day: Sunday morning was occupied with a brief trip through the dealer's room, followed by the finals of the Champions tournament (described above.) By Sunday night you would think I'd be gamed out after four days of this, but nevertheless I got into an Amber game run by Erick Wujcik in his hotel room. A full writeup will appear in another section of this writeup. Besides the large number of usual suspects (Amber players of long standing) attending, Lisa and Mike Pondsmith were also in the same; Lisa is the editor for the game for the publisher, R. Talsorian Games, and Mike (I believe) is one of the owners of the company.

Monday morning (or actually afternoon, as all three of us got back to our room quite late that night) we checked out and drove home, making plans for next year's convention already.

It is hard to say what the big games were this year; Shadowrun and TORG were very visible, and the second edition of the Fantasy Hero rules for Champions was released at the convention. But there didn't seem to be the one big, omni-present game this year as there had been in years past.


(The following is an entry in the mental journal of my Amber campaign character, with parenthetical annotations and explanations, from the Amber scenario run Sunday night in Erick Wujcik's hotel room.)

(My character, Damarian, is a son of Fiona; there's not much he can do to disguise that, considering he's got her hair and complexion and (the beginnings of) her (considerable) psychic talents. He's also a bit of a pacifist, rarely moved to fighting, and only passable at it by Amber standards.)

Journal Entry: On the wrong side of a crazed trump.

Every time I encounter Mother, I know that something difficult is going to happen.

All I wanted to do is escape the life at Castle Amber for a few weeks among the relatively peaceful lands of the Shadow of my birth. Lo and behold, who do I find in residence there, but Fiona. From the hollows under her eyes and the weariness in her movements, it was obvious that she had been working long and hard on something she was taking great pains to keep a secret from me. No wonder, given the paranoia inbred in the children of Amber. Still, even though she had burned all of the notes and sketches she had been making before she had left, I did manage to discover the reference book she was using. Paging through it, a history of art from Shadow Earth that has fascinated Corwin so much, I discovered whatever must have caught her eye; a detail from an unknown piece of art that was obviously drawn by Brand. Mother's determined scribbling must have been an attempt to replicate or duplicate the art. Brand may have been disposed of permanently, but one of the reasons that we Amberites live long is that we don't take unnecessary chances, and a Trump created by Brand is about as dangerous as the man himself. And wherever Brand is concerned, we leave nothing to chance.

Well, I know little of such art, but I do know that large collections of such on Shadow Earth can be found in a city named Paris. I also have a cousin, Kelcey by name, residing in a close shadow. I know she doesn't take Trump calls under normal circumstances, but I thought I'd give her a try, anyway.

As I found out later, this was not a normal circumstance. After a hurried conversation, she broke contact. Very soon afterwards Elanor, another of my cousins, contacted me via my Trump and insistantly demanded to be pulled through at once. I pulled her through, and an unknown gentleman whom she then called Peter. Peter was obviously not a relative, which can have its advantages at times. Now I know that Kelcey has a boyfriend named Peter that she is very fond of and very protective of. She had also mentioned that Elanor was with her when I had talked to her. A number of thoughts passed through my mind, adding up to the (entirely-mistaken) belief that Elanor had just kidnapped Kelcey's Peter! And since I certainly did not want to an angry Kelcey hunting ME as well as Elanor, I was not very happy. (I have been described by Bronwyn as not having any backbone, but I prefer to stay outside the inter-relative quabbles over power and prestige among Amberites. I will protect the Pattern and all it entails, but power games I don't have any stomach for.)

Elanor did manage to calm me down (I wasn't that hysterical) and pointed out that the only reason she brought Peter along is that something was trying to kill Kelcey and everyone else in her apartment, and I was the fastest way of escape. Unfortunately, that left the matter of Kelcey, who at last report had turned herself into an ice statue to try and quench a device that was blasting away at anyone who moved.

That, we found out afterwards. Kelcey's brother, Kayen, was able to contact Kelcey and pull her through a Trump into the kitchen before the device she was confronting exploded. Another spherical object followed through the Trump contact. Marvelously persistent and stubborn things; they had the earmarks of something Brand would devise. Quite deadly, too; it immediately opened and began lancing out with a firey beam of light that destroyed anything it touched. Upon psychic examination I found the mechanism controlling these objects to be quite simple to control. Given the lack of time available, as it was apparently building up to a large explosion, I was forced to order it out of the castle (by one of the many holes it had blasted in the walls) and then to Trump itself away, anywhere. Pity there wasn't enough time to give it accurate coordinates; I wonder where it wound up? Still, if I encounter another such, I think I know where to put it.

I hope that Castle Amber has managed to repair the kitchens. I know from past experience not to anger the cooks too much, but large holes and lines carved in the walls would upset almost anyone. Still, they should be used to strange occurrences and people coming in at all hours looking for meals.

This ended the problem with the Trump bombs, at least until someone next used a Trump, and let us (myself, Eleanor, Kelcey, and Kayen, plus Kelcey's Peter, who was taking this all the sort of forced calmness you'd expect from someone who'd been suddenly dragged unawares through a Trump and now finds himself in an entirely strange place) introduce ourselves to the unfortunate cousin who was accompanying Kayen, who was uncontrollably shapeshifting into various relatives, including Brand, while drunk. Fortunately Kelcey was restrained upon seeing him before she could seriously harm him. (Brand is a sore spot among our generation, too.) Kayen sobered him up, which was apparently the cause of his unfortunate reaction. That accomplished, we decided to call in the older generation.

Unfortunately, our first choice, Random, was not available. The next choice, Fiona, turned out to be a surprise as she greeted me very warmly at the door to her suite. Mother has never greeted me with any more warmth than a mere acknowledgement of my existance, barely grudging the fact that she had had something to do with my birth. Upon psychic examination I found this image of Fiona quite shallow; in fact, an automaton, and a Trump-created one at that. This was getting serious. And when things start getting serious, the one thing that everyone looks towards is the Pattern.

I think we set a record for the fastest passage (by foot) to the Pattern room, to find its light fading. That meant BIG trouble, for us and for Amber.

Well, since this was a matter involving the Pattern, I thought I'd turn to my cousin Bronwyn. I know she has much more experience with matters concerning the Pattern than I, so I contacted her by Trump. I was much surprised by the change in Bronwyn, physical and psychic: the recent conclusion to an affair that I had an early part in left her with enhanced physical and psychic abilities, especially involving the powers of the Abyss. Bronwyn easily tracked down the Trump that was causing the problem with the Pattern: I followed along in her wake as the rest of the cousins congregated there, along with various members of the older generation, once they had been released from the Trump prisons in which they had been imprisoned.

Bronwyn was able to effect the return of the Pattern to Amber, and Dworkin was able to shut down the Trump machine that was causing the problem in the first place. With the Trump no longer a threat to Amber and the trapped family members rescued, I left as soon as I could; there was still the matter of a few weeks rest that I had promised to myself and that I was going to deliver. Preferably as far away from troubles of Amber as possible.

Isn't that where I started this whole affair, anyways?


The whole story of the game is a lot longer, with at least four other plot lines merging and intertwining into a final resolution. There were a dozen of us playing that night, with Erick bouncing back and forth between groups of people that would grow or merge or divide as someone would contact another and pull people through Trumps or someone else would go off in search of something else.

One plot line had Lisa Pondsmith searching for the artist responsible for creating a number of Trump-like paintings in the Shadow she was wandering in at the time. Another was Kelcey and Elanor finding a painting of Brand's in an auction in Paris that was actually a Trump artifact. (When they touched it to discover if it was a Trump, as Trumps have a characteristic psychic coldness readily apparent to any Amberite, they were told "It's cold." Dismayed, the two players looked at each other and repeated mournfully "It's cold.") Another group had met in a series of bars (one of them were shifting Shadows unconsciously while drunk.) Finally, Cousin Bronwyn was exploring a major shift in her abilities, the result of an encounter from a game earlier that afternoon.

The whole thing behind the scene was a massive Trump designed by Brand and his student, the artist Lisa was searching for, which was an entire city. The city had two functions; to capture Amberites and replace them with simulations (but only the ones he knew of at that time, which meant the players, who had started lives in Amber after he had been killed, were unaffected) and to sever the Pattern from Amber and its Shadows. The painting found by Kelcey and Elanor was the key to starting the Trump operating. Dworkin deactivated it at the end of the game. The Trump-bombs were, I think, part of the larger Trump, but that wasn't known for certain. (At least by me.)


Copyright © 1998 Terry O'Brien {dragonmage@sprynet}