My teenage Friday nights were not your teenage Friday nights.
Before CGI made the fantasies of J.R.R. Tolkien and Stan Lee as accessible as an episode of Seinfeld, I joined a few shy friends on the bus to Schenectady for our weekly trip to the Studio of Bridge and Games on Eastern Parkway.
Like other teenagers, we drank, but in pubs named after dragons and griffons. It was only on paper and in our minds, and we were dwarves and magic-users and half-orcs. Like other teenagers, we flirted and dated, but it was usually with elves, and our success or failure was based solely on our charisma modifier. Since the object of our characters' affections was usually an avatar for a 35-year-old guy even less attractive than we were, we were happy for the manifestation of those successes to go unseen and unrealized. Like other teenagers, we experimented with dangerous substances, but it wasn't by choice. It was usually because something huge chomped on us with its envenomed fangs, and if we failed our saving throw vs. poison, we suffered some kind of penalty to our hit points or our ability scores.
Trips to rehabilitation facilities never came into the picture.
Dave Cheng is a member of the Schenectady Wargamers Association -- the group that made those Friday nights possible. "Movies and TV are passive," Cheng says. "You sit there, and someone else tells you a story ... Some people want to take the next step, and actually want to participate in creating the story themselves."
This weekend Cheng and the SWA will host hundreds of gamers taking that "next step" in storytelling when the Council of Five Nations -- one of the country's oldest gaming conventions -- returns to Proctors this weekend for its 36th year.
Thinking back, it surprises me I didn't attend more Councils in my younger days. I only went twice, but both trips gave me some distinct memories.
During my first Council, I participated in a wonderfully ridiculous session of Dungeons & Dragons in which the Dungeon Master (or Game Master: the term to describe the man or woman - but yeah, usually it's a guy - running the event) transformed the more traditional dwarves and elves and mystical humans into more recognizable, licensed characters. I played Tarzan and my colleagues included James Bond, the Shadow, and the Wicked Witch of the West.
At another Council, my most enduring memory is of a pair of brothers from Burlington with rubber chickens hanging from their necks. They called themselves the Chicken Brothers and I know they're from Burlington because they regularly announced that they were from Burlington, that Burlington started with B, and then they would list a number of other words that started with B; most of which I'm sure AOA would prefer I didn't mention.
This weekend, for the 36th year, the Council of Five Nations will be back in Schenectady and will include role playing games, board games, collectible card games, miniature war games, and one of the con's signature events: the world's largest face-to-face tournament for the strategy game Star Fleet Battles.
While I haven't been attending all those 36 years, someone was, because in spite of a struggling economy Council of Five Nations has been growing. Attendance for Council has increased 10 to 15 percent every year for the past seven years. Dave Cheng says the con is renting more space from Proctors than before, increasing its square footage by 50 percent.
When I asked Cheng about why the numbers have been growing, I expected to hear about Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings adaptations, Marvel movies, the internet, and how pastimes that once bred pariahs are now considered cool or even chic. But he says he doesn't think that's a large factor.
"Some people theorize gaming is countercyclical," Cheng says. "When times are tight, people are looking for economical entertainment. Gaming does better in tough economic times."
The prices at Council are pretty reasonable, particularly compared to other cons. Registration for the entire weekend of Council is $37 at the door and individual events cost anywhere from nothing to $5 (most are $2). That's three movies and a soda. (Or, like, half a soda.) You can also pay for individual days. There are student discounts and kids 9 and younger get in for free.
Speaking of which, Cheng says the youngsters are the biggest change to the gaming demographic. The gaming world was still relatively young when I was taking buses after school to slay dragons. Guys my age (give or take a few) have spawned little gamers, and we're now dragging them along with us to raid dungeons and save the world. The con has responded with a rating system to make sure little kids don't stumble into something that will either inspire nightmares or just teach them risque vocabulary, as well as more events targeted at the younger gamers.
The Council of Five Nations begins this Friday at Proctors in Schenectady. Events begin as early as 9 am and run through Sunday.
PS: The con is named for the annual Upstate New York meeting of Iroquois nations.
Mick Martin made his saving throw vs. poison.
photos courtesy of the Council of Five Nations
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