50 years is a long time. Half a century. 50 years ago phone booths were still common. Doctor Who had just regenerated for the first time, changing from William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton. Dungeons and Dragons wouldn’t even be released for another 7 years. It’s longer than most of the people reading this article have probably been alive.
Gen Con is celebrating its 50th anniversary this August. A thundering herd of gamers, geeks, cosplayers, and board gamers will storm Indianapolis, 65,000 strong. My people. Our people. Nerds; and wearing that name like the +5 Field Plate it is in the age of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.
It’s a different convention than it once was. This year it will sprawl out of the Indiana Convention Center and onto the playing surface of the Lucas Oil Arena, home of the Colts. Consuming the heart of Indianapolis for four days. A far cry from Lake Geneva and its tiny Horticultural Hall; site of the original Gen Con in 1968. In fact, a full-scale replica of Horticultural Hall is going to be built right on the field.
A few yards down the field, barely a first-down away, will be the tables holding the 38th annual Nascrag tournament. Not a replica, not a faded Kodachrome photo, but a living, breathing, thriving survivor of the early days of Gen Con.
Nascrag was born back in 1980. Spawned from the disappointment of hundreds of people turned away from the AD&D Open. A group of friends, led by Len Bland and James Robert, decided that if the Open didn’t have room for them then they would put on their own tournament and do it their own way.
Their way was notably different than much of what was going on in the D&D world at the time. The tournaments that Nascrag ran were more about thinking your way through encounters than fighting your way through. That doesn’t sound like a big thing now, but remember, phone booths!
At first, Nascrag drew nearly as many players as the Open. The judges even juggled multiple tables at the same time, starting one off on a puzzle then switching back and forth, leaving the players to work out the challenge by themselves while they attended to the second team. (Note: that did not work particularly well). But the Open had the resources of TSR and the RPGA behind it and it continued to grow.
Nascrag found its niche in being a little different, a little strange. They focused on the roleplaying and the story and let other groups run the epic battles involving piles of dice and battle-mats. A Nascrag adventure could take place on a crashed spaceship, or the Addams Family mansion, or a dungeon complex populated only by clowns. They found their groove and it was a weird one.
Part of their longevity can be attributed to the folks at the top. Len Bland ran it for 24 years, before stepping down for his wife Carole who runs it to this day. Len and Carole met through gaming and made it part of their lives. Their son Gary just graduated Northwestern and is headed to MSU to get his masters in Game Design; he’s been a Nascrag judge for years now.
That’s the other secret to their longevity, the way they constantly replenish their staff. They have two methods: One, as alluded to above, is the breeding program. Nascrag has fielded eight second generation judges over the years. Kids whose annual vacation has always been in Milwaukee or Indianapolis. The other is cannibalism. The rest of the judging staff at Nascrag has been poached from the winning teams over the years. If you were on a team that kept being at the top of the heap, there was a good chance you’d eventually get an offer to come over to the dark side. Feeding on those top performing teams had the side benefit of giving newcomers a chance at the big pile of prizes.
And it is quite a pile. A dragon’s hoard of games, supplements, hard-cover books, miniatures and t-shirts. When you’ve been around for 38 years, you make a lot of friends. Friends like (deep breath) Paizo Publishing, Dwarven Forge, Fat Dragon Games, Gaming Paper, Green Ronin, Iron Wind Metals, Campaign Coins, Atlas Games, Evil Hat, Gamer Concepts, and Greater Than Games (exhale). It’s good to have friends.
Another thing that’s a little different about Nascrag is that every tournament comes with a couple of dozen pieces of original art. Your character isn’t just some words on paper and maybe a picture swiped from DeviantArt. Each piece is custom drawn by Nascrag’s Art Director (and resident Robert E. Howard expert), Bill Cavalier. Indy, as he likes to be called, has been drawing for Nascrag since their third year – 1982. He draws all the PCs and the major encounters so you can see the crazy stuff that’s going on in the game. He’s got a loopy, cartoonish style that has come to define the essence of Nascrag.
To be perfectly clear, Bill Cavalier the artist, is not the same as Bill Cavalier, the Dungeon Bastard. The Dungeon Bastard is Tom Lommel, Nascrag’s genial host. When Tom came up with the iconic Bastard for his web-series, he borrowed the Cavalier name to make him sound cooler. Tom’s an actor and improv artist who’s been hosting for Nascrag for about a decade now. If Nascrag was the A-Team, Tom would be Faceman.
Gen Con 50 is going to be huge. A mix of nostalgia and new. A timber-framed Horticultural Hall inside a 21st century domed sports arena. So, if you’re looking for something that kind of bridges the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, and especially if you’re looking for something a little weird, check out Nascrag. Don’t go looking for the D&D Open; it threw in the towel back in 2013. Nascrag is the oldest, continually run RPG tournament in existence.
And, if you don’t have time for the two-round Pathfinder tournament, you could always just do the one-round charity event. All the proceeds from that go towards the official Gen Con Charitable Partner, Child Advocates. Do some good while you have some fun.