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So THAT Happened...

Succeeding Beyond Imagination

Art by Ray VanTilburg

Art by Ray VanTilburg

In 1999, I got my first job ever on a convention.  I was the chairman of Capricon, a not-quite-thousand-person literary SF convention in Chicago.  I have a lot of stories about this particular convention that can be of interest to convention runners, but the one I will focus on today is how I (accidentally) and a few other people (purposefully) turned Capricon 19 into a LARP.


Part of the reason that I got the job for the convention was that the convention was in trouble.  The prior year the convention had ended with pretty much no money in the bank and $8,000 of debt it could not immediately pay.  For a lot of events, this would be the end of the road, and it almost was for Capricon.  One of the folks connected to the board of directors at the time was Tracy Lunquist and for reasons I am still not clear on she thought it would be a good idea for the convention not to fold, but instead run with me in charge.  I don’t know why she thought I could do a good job or what her theory was as to how this would be anything other than a giant nuclear explosion.  I had never had a convention job of my own before, I had just been coming to Capricon for almost 15 years at that point.  The closest thing I had to convention experience was that a couple of years prior, Mike Bakula had been in charge of operations for Capricon and when I got to the convention it looked to me like his plan for how to do the job involved him not sleeping for the entire event….so I volunteered to help him a bit each night on the promise he use that time to sleep.  Tracy and Mike were close, perhaps she saw something there that told her she thought I could do it.  It’s also possible that she hated me with a fiery passion and thought for sure this would blow up and kill me and her evil plan failed.  Almost 20 years later, I am still not sure which answer is the right one.


They didn’t want to put someone they hardly knew but were certain was inexperienced in charge.  If only more conventions acted that way.

Tracy went to the board for Capricon and proposed putting me in charge of the troubled event.  Now, the board made what I still think is a fairly rational and responsible decision.  They said no.  I had no experience and the event was in trouble and they didn’t want to put someone they hardly knew but were certain was inexperienced in charge.  If only more conventions acted that way.  Tracy, however, was hardly deterred at all.  She then proposed they let the pair of us do it together.  The board knew Tracy and had a fair expectation that with her at the top as well, they were limiting the way things could get worse than they currently were, so they signed on and said that was fine with them.


At this point, after she’d gotten them to sign off on me as chairman….that’s when Tracy thought it might be a good idea to ask me if I’d be interested.  She explained the position the convention was in and how we had to turn things around dramatically and quickly or the convention was over.  Now, I was naive at the time…I had no thought in my head that this might blow up in my face.  I had no worry that I was being set up to fail.  I don’t think I was, but I should have been at least a bit concerned about it.  Oblivious me just knew that the convention I loved most in the world, the first convention I had ever been dragged to when I was in high school, was in trouble.  It needed help and dammit, I was going to help.  So I volunteered.  Tracy then let me know about the shared nature of the job, which I was fine with because I understood there was a lot I didn’t know.  Again, if only more conventions acted that way.  Tracy said her goal was to be as supportive and informational as possible and let me run with the ball as much as I could.  So that’s how it started, sometime around May of 1998, getting ready for a convention coming up in 8 months.


Suddenly a plan was born.

In June at a cookout at a friend’s house, Tracy and I sat down and tried to come up with what our plan would be to save the convention.  I knew we needed to do something *more* than just run a good convention.  We needed to make money in a way that the convention usually didn’t.  We had debts to pay off.  Sitting around the party, I remember pondering what I might be able to do to get people to pay more money than they usually did for the same things they had gotten before without making people feel like they were being taken advantage of or shaken down.  We were also talking about if we needed to handle anything PR-wise with me being in charge…since I had (and still do) a bit of a reputation.  At the same time I was pondering what other local conventions were doing and reflected on the very recent Windycon, which had been themed “Scots in Space”.  The theme had seemed fun, but it didn’t feel like they’d done enough with it.  These three ideas fairly quickly co-mingled in my head and suddenly a plan was born.


As I had a bit of a reputation, and this theme thing seemed fun…I asked what if we weren’t actually throwing *Capricon*?  What if instead, we were holding the annual meeting of the International Order of Villains?  We treat the whole convention like it is some *other* event?  Tracy asked me why that would be and then I hit her with the nefarious money plan.  You see, if it’s a conference like that, when folks sign up, they would tell the convention organizers which kind of villain they were…be it henchmen, lackey, minion, mad scientist, Igor, etc.  We could badge each of those groups differently so you’d know who was who.  The kicker was that you could also choose to register as an Evil Overlord, but this would be a premium membership for which you would need to pay more money.  If you wanted to be an Evil Overlord, you had to pay.  We could work out getting them some tokens and souvenirs for it, but as long as we only spent a couple bucks on that, we were still helping the convention.  The idea excited me and it excited Tracy, so we shared it with a few other folks and it universally got folks excited and worked up.


We had our plan.  We might not die.  This might actually work.


Over the course of the next few months, we got guests of honor lined up, got out our mailing laying out the membership scheme and planned a bunch of things to play with the theme.  The keystone idea came from discussions with my friend Marcus Greek.  He suggested that if we had Evil Overlords gathered together, their natural inclination would be to compete with each other so we should hold a contest.  Marcus even went so far as to design the contest.  Whenever an Evil Overlord arrived at registration, in addition to their regular convention materials, they were handed a scroll containing a challenge.  The challenge stated that the Overlords were being challenged to an intellectual contest.  Each would have the weekend to craft a nefarious plan to take over the world using one brilliant device of their own creation and other parts purchasable at Home Depot for no more than $100.  Sunday morning the Overlords would be called to gather and present their plans.  Whoever presented the best plan would be named the Ultimate Evil Overlord.


This was our plan, such as it was.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.


Howie Harrison and Sue Cane, 1999

Howie Harrison and Sue Cane, 1999

From that point on we were in a world we’d never anticipated.  We got no small number of people to pay us extra money to be an Evil Overlord and boy howdy did that help us, but holy hell did it make for a convention that’s hard to forget.  See, quite a number of the Evil Overlords were going around the convention recruiting minions, henchmen, and lackeys to their cause.  Even more brilliantly, Howard Harrison was spending almost all of the time he wasn’t in the filk room going around and organizing the Union of Minions, Henchmen, and Lackeys Local 302.  When I asked him why, he told me (in his best Chicago Superfan imitation) “You see, I know that I am going to die in a fiery explosion, or be thrown into a volcano, or just act as fodder for my bosses escape.  I need to know what’s going to happen for my family!“.  These conversations and all the recruiting brought me to freaking tears.  Our whole convention was a LARP and almost everyone was playing and nobody was having a bad time or feeling pressured to participate.  Howard even invented the UMHL salute.  Take your right hand and make a tight thumbs-up, then flip it upside down (thumbs down).  Now, place  your knuckles against your temple in salute fashion.  There you go, union salute!  Howard then took his unionized brothers and sisters and started approaching the Evil Overlords to inquire about benefits and insurance and post-death family care to get his folks the best deal he could.


We were all flashing each other the salute all weekend.  It was absolutely flipping brilliant.  This was something we all created, none of us who planned the event had any idea this was going to happen, it was completely natural and organic.


Now, having said all that, I should let you know how the challenge went down.  The contest was judged by our Artist Guest of Honor (Todd Hamilton) and myself.  Overlords gathered and we placed them in order for presentation.  The only hiccup was that one Overlord specifically requested to present last.  As nobody else had requested it, we figured why not.


We were then entertained for most of the next 45 minutes with plans to take over the world that I still giggle over today.  There was the plan to create a fad diet that actually contained zero nutritional value and killed off 90% of the world’s population leaving an agrarian paradise for the Overlord to take charge of.  There was the plan to create a device that tricked GPS systems to get all the armies of the world to show up in a single location so they could be defeated all at once leaving the Overlord to step in.  There was the plan to create a combination trash compactor and fax machine, which took anything you fed it and spit out filled out government forms, which you would mail in and get more replies in return and feed that into the machine to spit out more forms and do that until you were producing so many forms that all the governments of the world were overloaded and shut down.


The plans were all fun and excellent.


Then the Overlord who asked to go last got up.  It was Matt Zell.  Matt Zell is short and has a beard (trust me, if you were on PLATO at the University of Illinois in the 80’s, that joke just killed you).  Matt grabbed the microphone and paced the stage like a caged lion.  He railed into the mic that he couldn’t believe the pitiful competition.  These people DARE call themselves “Evil Overlords”?  He said that the essence of being an Evil Overlord was understanding what it is you want to take and JUST TAKING IT!


He then reached into his back pocket, whipped out his checkbook, and wrote the convention a check for $500.


Todd Hamilton and I looked at each other and we nearly freaking died.  This was PERFECT, and not just because it helped us raise money to pay debt.  It was the PERFECT end to a contest to find the Ultimate Evil Overlord…and dammit, Matt Zell sure as hell fit the bill.  This was a much better capstone to the event than anything I’ve been able to imagine before or since, and it was so perfect because it was a game that we all jointly created and all played in with glee.


I have a lot of love for everyone who made that convention memorable, but most especially for Marcus Greek, Howard Harrison, and Matt Zell for their note perfect performances in a LARP that none of us knew we were going to be playing in before we showed up at the convention.



So why do I share that story today?  Because yesterday my friend Howie, who made something I worked hard on one of the best experiences of my life, passed away in Minnesota.  He’d been sick for a bunch of years, seriously so.  I know that most folks who know him only casually know him for his Reincarnation Song (“I’m a birdie!” in a little squeaky voice, for those who may have heard it before), which is still one of my favorite filk songs ever to hear at a convention…but for me, Howie is always going to be the guy who gave me one of the best gifts I ever got.  He took time and energy to make sure that the thing I was working so hard on was fun for me.  He cared that *I* had fun along with everyone else.


At the time, I told him how brilliant he was…but over the years, his playfulness that weekend grew to mean a lot more to me and I don’t think I ever really got to tell him what that grew into for me.  I’m sad that I can’t do that with him now, but I *can* share this story with all of you so that you know what a special guy he was.

Salute, Howie! We will miss you, brother.

Salute, Howie! We will miss you, brother.

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