If you’ve ever been to Gen Con, you know it can be an overwhelming experience. More than 50,000 people surge through the halls of the Indiana Convention Center and Lucas Oil Stadium, attending thousands of individual events, often at the tops of their lungs. It’s a gathering that’s grown exponentially from its humble roots as a wargaming get together in the Horticultural Hall in Lake Geneva to become the premiere game convention in North America.
Not much remains of the early Gen Con these days. Its heart is the same as always, of course. Gamers who want to spend time with other gamers. A community of folks who think a little differently than the mainstream. But the particulars have evolved over the years. In addition to the wargames and board games and roleplaying games, there are video games, cosplay, collectible card games and so much more. And gamers aren’t outcasts these days. The crowd is a mix of races and sexes and orientations that the gamers of the 70’s could not have imagined. Good signs of a healthy and still developing hobby. But if you look very carefully, amidst all the hub-bub and growth, you can still find a few things that have endured.
One of those enduring things is NASCRAG; the National Association of Crazed Gamers. NASCRAG is a gaming group that has been putting on RPG tournaments at Gen Con since 1980. Think about it; 2019 will be our 40th consecutive Gen Con.
[Click the images for Gen Con-sized versions.]
Flyer from Fez 6 – 1985
It all began in 1979, really. A group of friends, including Len Bland and James Robert, lined up to play in the D&D Open – the progenitor of all RPG tournaments. But, the Gen Con registration system in those days was not particularly sophisticated, and hundreds of eager players were turned away. The Open just didn’t have enough seats for everyone.
This didn’t sit well with Bland and Robert. They were determined to come back the next year and run their own tournament, their own way. They sat down that winter and wrote Fez: Valley of Trees, a story of a time-traveling wizard and his brothers; the very first NASCRAG tournament. It was billed as “The Original Thinking Player’s Tournament” and was so successful that Mayfair began publishing them in 1983 for their Role-Aids line.
Of course, technically, the name NASCRAG wasn’t coined until 1983 in response to a change in Gen Con reimbursement policies. It was “The Fez Tournament” at first. At that time Gen Con stopped reimbursing individuals for their efforts, but still supported Gaming Groups. Since the tournament was so successful, the group easily qualified, and NASCRAG was born.
Carole Bland and Al Baker – 1999
There is actually some dispute what the acronym stands for. At various times it’s been the National Society of Crazed Gamers and at others it’s been the National Association of Crazed Gamers. It says something about us that we genuinely seem to have lost track over the years. If anyone ever asked, we’d always say that NASCRAG stood for whatever you wanted to stand for (and spread some wild rumors about it from time to time). The acronym isn’t really important. We’re NASCRAG, and the thing that NASCRAG really stands for is F.U.N., and not taking yourself too seriously.
A NASCRAG game is always going to be a good time. That’s the whole point. We keep things light, with less focus on rules and dice-rolling and a lot more on character and humor. Things in a NASCRAG adventure tend to be a little offbeat. Our trolls wear zoot suits and our kobolds are blue. (It’s not cobalt blue, it’s kobold blue. People are always mis-spelling that). One year you’ll be confronting the Mofo (Mouse Folk) in the castle plumbing while dressed in doll clothing and the next you’ll be exploring the Addam’s Family mansion in the lowest circle of hell. Yeah, we like things a little weird.
Randal, Dave and Ross 2012
Forty years is a looooong time. So, how does a group hang together for forty years? It’s more like a family really. People come and go, but the family endures. People are born and, yes, sometimes they die (we mis you Jim, Paul, and Jay).
At the heart of the family are Len and Carole Bland. Len and Carole ran NASCRAG from 1980 up until 2017 – first Len (with Carole’s help) and then Carole (with Len’s help). A task that ultimately gained Carole the title “Squirrel Queen” – because she ruled all the nuts. Even now that Ross Davidson and I have taken over the heavy lifting, they are both still active members.
Len Bland 2018
Len and Carole actually met at a NASCRAG playtest that Len was running. Gaming is a thread that runs through their lives: Running the tournament, hosting playtests, holding it all together. Even their son Gary judged for NASCRAG for many years and is in the process of getting a master’s degree in game design.
And Gary isn’t the only 2nd generation judge fielded by NASCRAG. At times as many as 8 of our judges have been our (grown) children. I sometimes refer to it as the “Breeding Program.” These are kids whose annual vacation to has always been to Milwaukee or Indianapolis and has always involved many dice and rulebooks.
Rei, Kat and Carol — 2nd Gen judges
In addition to growing our own judges we often cannibalize the winning teams. The best players make the best judges and by bringing the funnest people over to the dark side, we get to hang out with them even more. They keep us fresh and vital too. New voices and new viewpoints to keep us from getting stale. It also gives newer teams a better shot at the huge pile of prizes.
Rejoicing in victory with prizes
Oh, didn’t I mention the prizes? When you’ve been at Gen Con for 40 years, you make a lot of friends. Dwarven Forge, Gaming Paper, Green Ronin, Iron Wind Metals, Paizo Publishing, Campaign Coins, Atlas Games, Evil Hat, Gamer Concepts, Greater Than Games, Fantasy Flight Games, Pick Up and Go Games, and Monte Cook Games are all friends of NASCRAG and they give us stacks of their merch to give away. The prize pile often is worth $3000 or more. It’s good to have friends.
It occurs to me that the concept of a Roleplaying Game Tournament might need some explanation these days. After all the D&D Open (the one that didn’t have room for us in 1979?) gave up the ghost in 2008. NASCRAG is just about the only one left.
Tom Lommel getting into character in 2008
The basic idea is that each team of six plays through the same adventure, with the same party of characters, and in the same amount of time. Points get awarded based on how well you roleplay your character, how well your team handles the challenges (riddles, puzzles, combat, etc) that are part of the adventure, and how much you make your judge laugh. Bribes are allowed, although they won’t change your score (No money please. Chocolate is nice. Clever and funny is even better).
The first round is played at 1 pm and 7 pm on Thursday and Friday, and 1 pm on Saturday. At 7 pm Saturday the top 15 teams play the final round to determine who gets the honor, the glory, and the prizes that go to the top teams. The prizes get awarded at our raucous Saturday night Awards party (which has lately has featured live music from Nerd Rock Legend Captain Ambivalent).
Indy Bill Cavalier – Self Portrait
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 our 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.
We’re busily working on a book right now that will feature nearly all of the 1000+ illustrations that Indy has drawn for us over the years: The Book of NASCRAG. It will tell the story of NASCRAG, the adventures, the people, the history, and the art. It should be available for Gen Con and copies will be in the prize pile.
Marshalling Teams in 2008
In addition to the tournament, every year we run a one-round event whose proceeds get donated to the official Gen Con Charity Partners. The one-rounder is just for fun, and to do some good for folks who need some help. It’s also a nice entry point for people who are interested in NASCRAG but can’t fit two rounds into their busy Gen Con schedule. This year it’s a murder mystery set in a circus in a fantasy universe at Yule. It’s called A Very Merry Murder.
The Tournament is set in the wastes below the magical, gleaming city of Mana. The players are twisted mutant slaves known as the Wastoids who mine the magical Yellow Cake ore that supports the magical economy of Mana. They yearn to break their bonds and travel to The Never Been – a place of cool water, abundant food, and green grass. Things the Wastoids can hardly even imagine.
Carole Bland running a table in 2016
My journey with NASCRAG began in 1986, when a couple of excited guys lured me out of the event registration line in the Mecca in Milwaukee with promises of a D&D game that was happening right then. Their enthusiasm was what got me to go with them and that enthusiasm and excitement has kept me coming back for decades.
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