Indianapolis Monthly

In 2005 reporter Tony Rehagen attended Gen Con to research an article for Indianapolis Monthly. While at GenCon he played in the 2005 NASCRAG tournament, “A Small Problem”. In August of 2006 that article, entitled “Revenge of the Nerds”, was printed to coincide with Gen Con. While the article is quite long and encompasses all of Gen Con, Rehagen’s Nascrag experience was clearly the highlight. The following excerpts pertain only to that part of his GenCon experience.

Revenge of the Nerds

By Tony Rehagen

Photos by Julianne Brand (photos not part of Indianapolis Monthly article)

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(non Nascrag stuff removed)

My name is Lieutenant Connor Proudfoot. I am a Halfling (something like a Hobbit) who also happens to be a fifth-level rogue. I have the ability to evade, sense traps and dodge attack; I’m proficient with a club, sling or mace; I speak common tongue, Halfling, Elvish and Orcish, but I’m supposed to do so with a limey English accent that I can’t seem to keep from letting slip into half-assed Australian. As one of the few members of this troupe with military experience, I’m supposed to help lead us through the Maze of Peril. Oh, and I, as an RPG rookie, have no freaking clue what I am doing.

Perhaps it was because I had shown promise with my rudimentary knowledge of pirates and ninjas, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, or maybe it was because Wells could sense the conflict between fantasy-dwelling dweeb and just-the-facts, real-world journalist within me. Or more likely it was just because they were short one player and desperate to enter the Gen Con NASCRAG—NAtional Society of CRAzed Gamers—tournament; but Wells has recruited me to be a member of his team, which Courtney and Kayla have named Mike Wellson and his Robot Pals.

 

That’s why I’m sitting here in Conference Room 116 at 11:45 p.m. at the tail end of a three-hour Friday-night gaming session, contemplating how an English Halfling might ask permission to go to the bathroom.

The basis of this game is that my teammates and I are all officers in the court of King Padraig, who is missing. We are now charged with babysitting the King’s son, Neville, a faerie godchild with divine blood who can wreak havoc with his mind and who has shrunken us all to mere inches and animated his toys so that we can “play war” against the army of tiny faerie assassins who’ve come to kill the boy. Two hours and 45 minutes into the first round, our weary miniature band has been crawling around in the castle’s plumbing and has managed to find the incapacitated King, who’s also been shrunken. Our goal at this stage is to acquire the ingredients necessary to revive the King. To do so, we have to enlist the help of the Mouse Folk who inhabit the pipes of the castle. And to earn their respect and trust, we’ve been forced to run through a particularly hazardous part of the castle’s inner workings known as the Maze of Peril.

But we’ve taken too long, got stuck on a few of the puzzles and, as the tables all around us are already empty, and the stroke of midnight that signifies the expiration of our time limit quickly approaches, we’re in panic mode, stuck at a crossroads in the maze.

Fortunately, our faithful Game Master is focused on the situation. In his current form, he is Finnegan Mulcahy, a fifth-level sorcerer who also happens to be a hippie with a magic holding bag full of food, dirty laundry and other seemingly useless objects. Calm and collected, he’s like Jordan at the charity stripe with the game on the line. “Let’s do a listen check.”

All six team members roll our 20-sided die; the higher the number we roll, the more we hear. I roll a three and hear nothing but my heart pounding in my chest. Meanwhile, Wells rolls a 17.

“From the right tunnel,” the judge says, “You hear a sound like this.” She then scrunches up her nose while making a sound somewhere between a cough and a pig-snort. It’s the exact same sound we heard earlier before being confronted with a giant diamond-back spider.

“Then we go left,” says Wells.

“The passage widens a bit to reveal a mousetrap with three slabs of cheese on the trigger,” the judge reads. “On the wall is a sign that reads, ‘One is safe to eat, bring it with you.”

“We don’t have time to do a sniff check,” says another team member.

Wells is poised. “The cheese on the sandwich in my holding bag,” he says, “is it the same kind of cheese in the trap?”

“Why yes, it is.”

“Let’s take that to the Mouse Folk.”

We hastily agree and the trick works. The Mouse Folk accept us. We save the king with two minutes to spare. The judge tells us that the names of the teams that advance to the second round will be posted outside the room sometime after 1 a.m. But we are not optimistic about our chances. Wells seems especially hopeless and deflated. On the walk down Washington Street, he says nothing.

(non Nascrag stuff removed)

It’s a quarter past 11 p.m., Saturday night, and it’s been a long day. After two NASCRAG sessions, six hours sitting at a table trying to maintain a cockney accent while solving puzzles, battling giant cats, communicating with Mouse Folk, distracting pixies long enough to steal their gold, fighting dragons and freeing imprisoned giants, all the while trying to keep my right leg from falling asleep, I’m beat.

Not Wells. He’s managed to steal a total of maybe 10 hours of sleep over the past four days, has ingested no foreign substances outside of sugar—not even caffeine—and yet he is sitting on his hands as he eagerly waits in the audience of nearly 100 gamers at the Regency Ballroom in the downtown Hyatt. This is the NASCRAG awards ceremony, where the top five teams will finally be unveiled and honored with canary yellow NASCRAG T-shirts. Except for the champion. That team will split a dragon’s hoard of gamer goodies: $2,700 worth of books, games, models, miniatures and CD-ROMs. That trove now sits on a vacant stage. Wells can hardly keep his eyes off it.

“I thought we did pretty well,” he says as much to himself as his teammates. “I mean, that first round might bring us down. But maybe … I’ve never won anything before.”

The rest of us on the team are tempering his hope with some cautious optimism. True, we were the first team to complete the task in the third round, we vanquished the evil Bubba and his band of wicked blue fairies, and we convinced the brat half-faerie prince to put on the Toque of Wisdom—a gray felt hat that we literally decorated with multicolored paint, ribbons and feathers we “purchased” with our stolen pixie gold—which finally made the youth aware of the damage he was inflicting and convinced him to reverse the spell, restoring us to normal size.

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But our first-round maze debacle and an adequate-if-unspectacular second-round performance had to have factored into the equation. In other words, the Robot Pals are thinking fourth or third place at best. “I just want to win something,” Wells says. “I’ve never won a tournament or anything before.”

Finally, the NASCRAG patriarch (a baby-faced 30-something man) emerges in his robes (bed linen) and towering white Pope hat (construction paper and poster board). After a 20-minute spiel, he senses the fever pitch of the crowd’s anticipation. “And without further ado … Fifth place: No Chance In Hell.”

 

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The six gamers of “No Chance In Hell” leap from their seats, hug and congratulate each other and then make their way to the stage to receive their shirts. Wells crosses his fingers.

“Fourth place: Darren What’s Our Team Name?”

Leaps, hugs, congratulations, T-shirts.

Wells releases two lungs’ full of air. In his magnified eyes, glaring at the stage, I sense the battle between desperate hope, fleeting fast …

“Third place: Moist Cabbage.”

and the painful realization that our name …

“Second place: Tastes More Like Mammal.”

probably isn’t coming at all.

The battle is over. Even in Wells’ wildest fantasy, where he’s truly Game Master, we couldn’t have been the best over all three rounds. Not after getting lost in the maze and struggling with the giant cat in the second round. There’s just no way.

I can see the spell of utter defeat cast upon Wells’ pallid face. Not just another rejection in the long log of real-world rejections, but a rebuke here, in Wells’ own world, where he’s supposed to belong, where he’s supposed to be Game Master. This cuts deep.

And yet …

“And finally …”

there’s still a lingering chance …

“… our 2005, Gen Con Indy …”

that just maybe …

“… NASCRAG champions …”

the great Game Master above …

“… are …”

could find it in his bag of dice …

The patriarch pauses for dramatic effect. Then he shouts, voice distorting over the microphone, “Mike Wellson and His Robot Pals.”

Jubilation. Wells leaps into the arms of Kayla and Courtney and screams “Holy ! Oh my God! Holy !” The team rushes the stage to accept the prize package and the adulation of the gamer masses all standing at attention and applauding Wells and his team. Wells puts his arms around Courtney, looks at the crowd, and takes it in.

He then stands up straight and with clenched teeth behind pursed lips, he thrusts his frail fists, atop toothpick arms, into the air, like something out of a campy ’80s action movie. But this is very real. On the verge of tears, utter joy seems to seep from his every freckled pore.

(non Nascrag ending removed)

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