This year saw the first annual GrantCon in Sydney. The theme of GrantCon is simple; you play all of my games, all day.
A fundamentally important part of GrantCon is that your wife, the impossibly proficient Mary Hamilton, sets it up months in advance and leaves you with no idea that it’s happening until you’re walking through the front doors and you see a banner marked “GRANT CON” and a man asks you to register, and then you walk through into the hall and see that all of your friends are there, and they’re running three games that you wrote, and they ask you to join in.
This is a strange experience. This is a wonderful experience. As a man who struggles with impostor syndrome about four times a day, this is almost impossible to deal with. I ran around the room, thanked everyone, and immediately left to have a cigarette on the front steps of the building.
It was rather a lot to take in.
The surprise was total. I’d been lied to, thoroughly, by almost everyone I know – and my closest friends, too, especially. As far as I was aware, Mary was taking me out for breakfast in St Peters; she’d seeded the idea a while back, almost three weeks ago. It seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do. I couldn’t read the excitement in her face; and then, bang.
Imagine a surprise birthday party. Now imagine it’s not your birthday, and instead of it being a celebration of another year spent alive, it’s a celebration of your life’s work delivered by all your friends.
Now imagine they bring you a cake, and it’s got “GRANT CON” written on it.
Now imagine they keep bringing you beer.
Imagine they are fighting to offer you hip flasks to drink from.
Imagine you can hear people playing your games, your work, and laughing uproariously.
Imagine people are dancing on tables and clapping their hands as they imitate Drunken Bears; spending three hours poring over maps, creating worlds; shooting the moon down into the earth in the middle of a gunfight; setting a city ablaze and stealing the wreckage; and so on, and it’s all because of you.
Well, it’s all because of them, obviously. My heart fills up when I think of it.
There was even an improvised theme tune:
Anyway, I played in some of my own games, and didn’t run any tabletop… although, as the designer of the games, I ended up in a sort of pseudo-gamesmastery role throughout. I hope I didn’t step on any toes. (I totally stepped on toes.) When you go to Cons you write about the games you played, right? That’s a thing I’ve seen. Yeah. Let’s do it.
This game is bananas. We were retired supervillains; I was Senor Industries Jr, kind of a Mexican Tony Stark, and my associates were LexiCon (linguist, con artist, only had one arm), KGBear (Russian cyborg spetznaz bear who ate technology), Miss Completely (a gunfighter/songstress), and Pentium II (the world’s lowest-tech hacker). We had to steal the Framing Device from Doctor Exposition to save some kid’s superpowers, or something… I wasn’t listening. I was buzzing from walking in the door, still. I wrote down my name on the character sheet and my hands were shaking.
SEAN BEAN QUEST
Probably the most popular Goblin Quest spin-off I’ve written. Excellent fun, good group, made up a film where twenty-five Sean Beans fought werewolves on 18th-century Yorkshire moors, then accidentally ended it halfway through with a pretty thorough resolution… so one of the players said:
“And then my character closes the book he’s reading and says, “Aye son, that’s how we fought werewolves in the old days.”
And I’m all:
“Aye, but here on the Space Station, things are different.”
So we turned it into a game where werewolves are swarming a space station in orbit around Jupiter, and of course Jupiter has 17 moons or something so they’re 17 times as powerful, so we destroyed all the moons with an overclocked mining laser and had a poignant last stand in the engine room.
GUNMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE
So I didn’t write the system for this (it’s the excellent Wushu by Dan Bayn), but I came up with the setting and the characters and half of the scenario. I joined halfway through. I played Enki, an interpretation of the Famine Horseman, who’s a filthy hedonist with a whacking great blunderbuss. He eats entire banquets and shags angels on his days off.
There were betrayals; I can’t for the life of me tell you why half of the party betrayed us, I didn’t ask. It seemed fine. I had a protracted gunfight with another player, which morphed into a ballroom dance through an oncoming army, which ended as she plugged me in the chest and I, in a move that is now my signature, shot down an orbiting satellite and crashed it on both our heads in a fiery explosion.
The game ended with one player destroying the earth and becoming the new earth, but I’d wandered off by that point.
HEY KIDS, LET’S ALL MEET THE GIN WIZARD
Did you know that you can play this, that it’s not just a joke? And if you play it in a gaming club, coincidentally next to a load of costume supplies, you get a pretty good turnout of wizard disguises? I placed joint second. I feel that my giant becandled staff should have won it, to be honest, but it might have been strange if I won it at my own convention, and I’m willing to graciously accept defeat. (I’m not. I was robbed. I demand a rematch.)
DOCTOR MAGNETHANDS: THE EFFING LARP
I like a challenge. Setting up a Doctor Magnethands LARP wasn’t an especially hard one, given as a) everyone really wanted to play and b) they had to do what I said anyway because GrantCon.
It went well. Doctor Magnethands made a clone army, which explained my co-GMs, and every time I killed a player I just added them to my side and gave them a random power from a bag o’ superpowers that we all teamed up to write beforehand.
Seeing as it was GrantCon, a lot of people wrote down Grant-themed powers: “A swarm of Grant Howitts;” “Grant: A Legend in his own Lunchbox;” one that was just… “Grant Howitt.” It is a strange experience to say to someone – “Okay, you’re a swarm of me, and we’re fighting across the streets of St Petersberg – destroy my enemies!” You get satirised. In a game where people must use their enemy’s weaknesses to overcome them, it’s strange when those weaknesses are yours.
It is strange to feel so known; not bad, at all. Wonderful, in a way, to be seen, to be understood; open, unguarded, unjudged.
Anyway, enough of that. Doctor Magnethands stormed the club where we held the con whilst riding Simba from The Lion King, and a superhero from the future threatened to release candid pictures of the Doctor having sex with the lion that were apparently an inevitability, and after sending away the Prince of Beasts in shame another player cheered him up (and bought him off) by offering him Ludicrous Amounts of Wealth in exchange for going away. Which he did.
We then played a game where you played 5 Grants who had to design a game – a quick hack of Goblin Quest. If you think commanding a swarm of yourself into battle is strange, wait until people make up versions of you while you’re sat next to them. It was nice, again, to feel known, vulnerable in that way, to see people’s impressions of me. It was fucking weird, too; I think it’s not a thing you should take part in yourself. It’s a little like delivering the eulogy at your own funeral; uncanny, unusual, self-obsessed.
Grant shot and killed a giant version of Monopoly and changed it to be a game about fashionable beards.
We went home, after that; I’d been drunk for about six hours and the energy was dying down, so we said our goodbyes and the sadness kicked in; that this is a leaving party in all but name, that this is a last hoorah.
That, in a month’s time, things will never be the same again.
Australia was always temporary. We lived our lives like we were going to leave soon; we burned bright, made allegiances, did big things that left marks on the world, ourselves, others.
For a while we’d lied to ourselves and quietly believed that it was never going to end; that we’d just carry on in this wonderful limbo, forever three months away from leaving. Imagine the peak of a party where no-one’s heading off soon but everyone’s drunk enough to relax: that, in broader terms. We lived like roaring fires. We lived in freefall, never touching the ground. As quiet as I seem, sometimes, these have been some of the best years of my life, and the most exciting.
I no longer hate myself. What a glorious trick to have pulled.
And now: the next four weeks will be tinged with sadness because OH GOD WE ARE LEAVING, and it hangs over everything we do. For two years, now at least, I will not be able to see my friends normally; I will not, say, be able to ask them to go for a drink if we are bored, if they fancy getting in on a game I’m running, and so on, and so forth. I will turn to face them and they will not be there.
And that’s heartbreaking, of course, and it’s made sharper by what they all did; how cared for I was, how celebrated, how known.
Part of me – the scared, stupid part, the part that used to wish that a bus would clip me as I crossed the street on my way to work so I wouldn’t have to go in – is secretly wishing for some unseen disaster, some twist of fate, that lets me stay here. That perhaps this doesn’t have to occur.
That maybe I wake up tomorrow and News arrives and we’re not leaving, we’re going to carry on playing 13th Age forever, we’re going to always live near Sydney harbour and walk through the gardens and feed the cockatoos, we’ll finish all those games we started, run those LARPS we meant to, we’re going to slip back into the rhythm that we built up like someone running downstairs – saying Yes, over and over, running headlong into life because we didn’t know when it would end.
How lucky I am, I think, to be so sad to be leaving. How lucky I am to talk about holding another GrantCon next year, in the same space, and to have that be anything approaching a reality.