Cornfield Meet

Things collide here.

Epic quest: Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks

Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks landed on my “I-should-check-this-out” list when fellow GeekDad writer Michael Harrison reviewed it last year. I never got around to it, though – not even after a subsequent GeekDad interview in January brought it back into the “Oh Yeah, I Really Meant to Read That” zone.

Image: EthanGilsdorf.com

Of course, I forgot all about it again until Friday night at PAX East, when Fantasy Freaks author Ethan Gilsdorf joined the GeekDad panelists to hang out for a couple hours. I enjoyed talking with him so much that I ordered a copy as soon as I got back from the convention. It arrived Thursday, April 1, and for the next two days was my “Two free minutes? Gotta read!” go-to book.

I have mentioned before that while I had a huge interest in Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games when I was in middle and high school, I never managed to find enough like-minded kids to support a gaming group. Still, I’ve always liked reading RPG reference books and gaming modules and playing with polyhedral dice, even without the Experience Points to back me up.

So as soon as I saw the graph-paper dungeon on the end-papers and Ethan’s hand-drawn fantasy map opposite the Table of Contents, I knew I was in for a good read.

And I loved this book. Part of it’s a generational thing, I’m sure. Ethan’s got a few (not many) years on me, but the cultural backdrop of his childhood – the last years of the Cold War, worries of nuclear war and the Evil Empire, the mind-blowing release of Star Wars – is a familiar one. Even though the book as a whole isn’t a coming-of-age recollection, making that connection at the beginning put me in the right frame of mind for the quest which follows. (For me, this was a bonus, but I want to note that it’s definitely not a book geared solely to the children of the 1980s, so don’t let my nostalgia for that era oversell that angle.)

What you get in Fantasy Freaks is a great story about, well, just what the subtitle says: “An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.” And it’s not a dry sort of academic journey: Ethan’s in full-on geek mode (albeit sometimes reluctantly) as he revisits the books and games and culture that shaped his teenage years and gets back into their modern counterparts. Then he checks out previously-unexplored aspects like Live Action Role-Playing, convention attendance, World of Warcraft and the real-life tourist draws of New Zealand in the wake of The Lord of the Rings.

Ethan tells the story well, both as a geek and as a journalist, letting his fandom drive the journey without dominating it, and connecting with the real-world characters he meets along the way while never fearing to ask tough questions of himself, too.

There’s a lot of cultural crossover in geekdom anymore, with comics and science fiction and fantasy and gaming all appealing to a pretty broad group of people, and I think maybe that’s why someone like me, who’s never even played a true game of D&D, can still get so much enjoyment out of a book like this.

A couple weeks back, I started reading the D&D Fourth Edition rules at the invitation of some friends who run a semi-regular game and tell me it’s casual enough that I’m welcome to join in for a session and see how it goes. And when we were at PAX, I will admit that I looked maybe a little too long at some of the dice tables…

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April 9, 2010 Posted by | 1980s, Books, eighties, geek, Travel, writing | , , , , , , | 5 Comments

PAX East, Day Two Part 1: WheatonQuest

So, while my first day at PAX East had centered on the Bringing Up the Next Generation of Geeks panel and catching Wil Wheaton’s keynote – which I covered in this post for GeekDad – Saturday morning’s sunrise illuminated Me On A Quest.

Because over the past year, my daughter Kelsey has become a major Wil Wheaton fan. It started just before Penguicon 7.0 last May, when we watched video online of him playing Rock Band at a convention, and she has since enjoyed both The Happiest Days of Our Lives and Just A Geek. She was excited to see him show up on The Big Bang Theory and can’t wait for Evil Wil’s return to the show next month.

I was planning my PAX trip right around the time we were listening to the Happiest Days audiobook in the car, and while there’s a lot of stuff in that book she loves, nothing cracks her up like the story “Blue Light Special,” in which Wil relates a childhood trip to K-Mart and his moments of agony and indecision in the Star Wars figures aisle. Of course, what absolutely kills her is this bit of frustration internally voiced by young Wil upon finding a glut of Cloud City figures: “Lando Calrissian? He was a dick in the movie. There’s no way I’m getting him.”

When Kelsey heard Wil was going to be at PAX, she asked if I could get him to sign something cool, and we came up with what we thought he might think was a pretty funny idea: a vintage Kenner Lando Calrissian action figure cardback. A friend in the Rebelscum forums hooked me up with one in a flash, and the task was set. Adding to the pressure on me was the fact that Kelsey had just turned 13 on Friday, and I was really aiming to bring home a one-of-a-kind present from my trip to Boston and garner some bankable Dad Points with my newly-minted teenager.

All the way into Boston, I wrestled with a decision over how to begin my day. Cartoonist Bill Amend was scheduled for an hour-long 10 a.m. presentation on celebrating geekdom in FoxTrot – of which Kelsey and I are also big fans – and I desperately wanted to attend. Problem: Wil had tweeted the night before that he’d be at his signing table from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and I just knew that if I made it into Bill’s panel, that by the time I got out, there’d likely be an awfully long line for Wil’s signature, and maybe even a significant risk of not getting one. (I was planning to leave midafternoon in order to get a chance to spend the evening with my friends in Pawtucket, who graciously let me use their house as a base of operations over the weekend.)

In the end, I opted – hoping that Bill Amend would understand a Geek Dad’s dilemma – to aim for an early spot in Wil’s line, and I wound up among the first dozen people or so, along with my friends Paul & Wendy, who showed up not long after I did.

Wil arrived shortly after 11 a.m. – by which point the line had in fact become pretty sizable – and the reality that the Quest’s End was in sight settled over my shoulders.

Paul & Wendy were in front of me, and they have their own superfantasticool Meeting Wil story which they deserve to share themselves if they so choose, and then I was stepping up to the table.

Echoes of a Blue Light Special

Wil was incredibly kind and enthusiastic and friendly as I thanked him first for inspiring my daughter and me to attend Penguicon last year, and then briefly related Kelsey’s enthusiasm for “Blue Light Special,” handing him the Lando card and explaining that we thought it would be funny and then – “Ohmygod!” he interjected, just grinning and looking at this card and saying how cool it was and he hadn’t seen one in years. Suddenly I felt a little bad because I wished I’d brought an extra one for him to keep, even as he neatly printed “Happy Birthday Kelsey!” and then added his signature, reminding me that I should let it dry for a few minutes to keep the ink from smearing on the glossy card.

He signed a copy of Happiest Days for me, then, and the last thing I did was give him a copy of Collect All 21! His first reaction was to look at the cover and say thank you, and then he flipped it open for just a second, but it was long enough for him to smile and roll his eyes and say, “Of course I open right to the page where you get the Death Star.” (See his story “The Trade” for why this is a bit of a sore spot.)

The whole thing took maybe two minutes, tops, but it was awfully neat.

When I talked to Kelsey the night I got home to Ohio, I wouldn’t tell her whether or not I’d managed to fulfill her request. When my mom brought her back to our house this afternoon, I was greeted with a massive heart-crushing hug (yes, even before I brought out the gifts) and then I threw all my planned teasing delays out the window and just said, “Well, we did it,” and I handed her the Lando card. Moment of Awesome Achieved. (Thanks again, Wil!)

March 30, 2010 Posted by | 1980s, Books, eighties, geek, Travel, writing | , , , , , | 1 Comment

PAX East lookback, part 1.

PAX East relics

“Well,” as a certain hobbit once said, “I’m back.”

Total trip time, from leaving the bank on Thursday morning to pulling into our driveway last night: 84.5 hours, with more than a quarter of that time – 22 hours between Canton, Ohio and Pawtucket, R.I., and another 4.5 spent going to and from Boston on Friday and Saturday – spent sitting behind the steering wheel. Total mileage: 1,490.

And completely worth every highway minute and every white-lined mile.

After a late Thursday night hanging out with my friends and gracious hosts Aaron and Jessica, I headed into Boston late Friday morning and – after a maybe 45-minute extended detour due to my missing a massive sign reading, in effect, “BOSTON – THIS WAY” – I got to the Hynes Convention Center just after 1 p.m. and found a hugehugeHUGE entrance queue. (You will undoubtedly read elsewhere about the crowds and lines at the center – honestly, I come to expect them at things like this, so I adjust my expectations accordingly. Also, I know that a lot of people work extremely hard to organize these conventions, and they’re supposed to be fun after all.) Doors were set to open at 2 p.m.

I honestly didn’t expect that by the time I made my way up to the doors of the Main Hall that Wil Wheaton’s keynote speech venue would already be at capacity.  I mean, I knew that people would go straight there even though it wasn’t scheduled to start until 3 p.m., but I also figured maybe at some point, since they had divided the queue into “Expo Hall” and “Main Hall” lines, that someone would have established a cut-off point.

So, yeah, I was pretty disappointed, but I didn’t want to let it ruin my weekend, and besides, that’s when I ran into fellow GeekDad writer and panelist Dave Banks. While we were chatting and working our way over to the main expo hall, we caught up with two other contributors, Matt Blum and Doug Cornelius, who had also missed the keynote cut. Just after three o’clock, though, doing a little more wandering, we were passing the Main Hall doors and saw they were letting people in again, so we hopped in line. (Sadly, only Dave and I made it in,  since they cut things off again right behind us.)

See that blurry Wil Wheaton? That's the BIG screen. Actual Size Wil is the fuzzy dot BELOW that. Even from the wayback, though, he still kicked ass.

Wil was only about five minutes into his speech, so we got to take in most of it from our spots standing against the back wall, and while parts of it drew from stories he has told elsewhere, the keynote was by turns hilarious and nostalgic and heartfelt and inspiring.

A note on the convention offerings: Not being there for the video game industry displays and pre-release teasing and craziness, I was much more interested in the panels and kind off lower-key attractions like the old-school console gaming room – a working, playable Vectrex? are you KIDDING ME?!? and I wonder if anyone who sat down at the Atari 2600 actually put that E.T. cartridge in – and the American Classic Arcade Museum‘s free-play collection of games.

After the keynote, I met with my Ohio friends Paul and Wendy, and then it was time to go to dinner and establish what we believe to be the largest real-world gathering of GeekDad writers to date: With Michael Harrison and Natania Barron joining Matt and Dave and Doug and me, the bar is now set at a nice even half-dozen. I mentioned in an email to everyone this morning that it felt very much like we all had met before, even though most of us have only interacted through emails and podcasts.

We talked about a general framework for our 7 p.m. panel and wondered if anyone would show up other than to simply get off their feet for an hour. (A couple of us had peeked into the panel room earlier, and honestly, it looked awful big and seemed to have a great potential to be scarily empty.)

The six of us arrived back at that room at about 6:40 p.m., and figured the crowd in the hallway outside was lined up for something else. Ten minutes later, that line was gone, and we were looking at a fully-packed room of around 250-plus . Truthfully, this was nothing short of stunning, and I’m sure that words will utterly fail in describing how encouraging and wonderful it was, and though I know the odds are against it, if anyone who was in that audience stumbles across this blog: THANK YOU SO FREAKING MUCH!!!! Seriously – we each did a little introduction and talked about our kids and our geeklikes, and then as we started just generally talking about parenting and video games and movies and books and everything, people started raising their hands and asking questions and contributing their own experiences, and it was just a ton of fun. (Matt did a write-up at GeekDad, and Doug wrote a post for his blog, too, and both of them took photos so we know it was real.

Even with 70 minutes to fill – we had started early, since everyone was in the room anyway – the time just flew by, and there were still several hands up when we had to call it quits. Outside the room, a couple people came up to me to talk some more, and I saw other GeekDad writers having similar conversations. It’s almost three full days later and remembering it still makes me a little giddy.

Paul & Wendy had managed to get in, and they joined all of us for a post-panel trek for drinks, as did Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks author Ethan Gilsdorf, who, if I recall correctly, is a friend of Michael & Natania. His book has been on my to-read list for awhile, and even though it’s coming out in paperback this fall, after talking to him for awhile about writing, I couldn’t wait that long, so I ordered a copy this morning. He also bought a copy of Collect All 21!, which was an awfully nice thing to do.

We all went our separate ways once back at the convention center, since it was getting late, and while I was on my way out, I ran into Penny Arcade co-creator and PAX co-founder Mike Krahulik, capping a pretty damn fine day.

March 29, 2010 Posted by | 1980s, Books, Current Affairs, eighties, Games, geek, science fiction, Travel, Web/Tech, Weblogs, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

PAX East 2010: GeekDad Road Trip!

Though I made a brief note when this was initially approved and there has been some related Twitter chatter, I wanted to hold off on mentioning anything more about it until there was an official public announcement. So, check out this morning’s post over at WiredPlease Join GeekDad at PAX East 2010!

Boston. March 26-28. Be there, because This. Is Going. To. ROCK. \m/

Even with the 11- to 12-hour drive involved, I jumped at this as soon as GeekDad Assistant Editor and Frakking Genius Matt Blum put forth the proposal. And I can make it a totally budget-friendly trip since I’ve got a place to crash nearby, essentially making my costs for the weekend gas and food – and I’ve got no problem whatsoever packing myself a cooler loaded with bread and PB&J.

I absolutely cannot wait to meet and hang out with my fellow panelists and GeekDad writers, in whose mighty company I hope I shall not feel ashamed: Dave Banks, Natania Barron, Matt Blum, Doug Cornelius, Michael Harrison and Corrina Lawson. Sitting down and talking geek stuff and parenting with this crew is just so incredibly loaded with Potential Awesome.

(Penny Arcade? Of course the strip has addressed some of the issues of being a geek parent –just last month, in fact!)

And despite not considering myself a hardcore gamer, I have long been envious of those attending past Penny Arcade Expos out west, because it has always sounded like just a crazy fun nerdfest.  While the official Pax East site doesn’t have a schedule up yet, I did find a few unofficial compilations of just some of the stuff that should be going on, like this one, which mentions among others Bill Amend of Foxtrot(!!!) and writer Lev Grossman.

It also looks like this thing is going to be freaking HUGE: Joystiq is predicting 60,000 attendees, and the Penny Arcade founders said in mid-January that it’s going to be a sellout.

I’ve already got my T-shirt packed.

February 2, 2010 Posted by | Current Affairs, Games, geek, Science, science fiction, Travel, video games, Web/Tech, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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