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A drag queen, squid, and a wolf on stilts all have a place at Montana's longest-running sci-fi convention

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"My husband's a huge nerd," says Amy Farrington, who's waiting for her spouse, Justin, to finish a role-playing game that's stretched past midnight. "When I first came to MisCon he'd be in a gaming room for four hours and I'd just wander around."

Now, Farrington counts herself among the nerds. She's been part of the same bi-weekly Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game—known as a campaign—for seven years. She says it's fun, but not nearly as intense as the other game her husband plays in every week. It's called Call of Cthulhu, and it's run by none other than Bob Lovely.

Again with the squid

Sooner or later, every MisCon story seems to find its way back to Bob Lovely. He hates that.

Lovely doesn't like to take credit for the event's success. Instead, he praises his staff and the local sci-fi community. He'll talk about his past—a non-combat veteran who worked on the electrical systems of ICBMs at Malstrom; graduated from UM law school—but he rushes through the details. The one topic that plugs him in is his game.

Call of Cthulhu, like his CthulhuBob nickname, comes from 1920s horror author H.P. Lovecraft. Cthulhu is sort of an ultimate evil presence that drives people insane. Artists have depicted it as a squid-like creature that sleeps at the bottom of the sea. "Lovecraft was a horrible, wretched writer, but he had some really cool nightmares," Lovely says.

Lovely describes the game as "low fantasy," meaning that magic is present, but not prevalent. Average folks like plumbers, professors, and cab drivers witness or experience super-natural events that threaten our very existence and vow to defend humanity against the darkness. Society at large will never know what sacrifices these folks make, but they risk their lives nonetheless for a greater good. Call of Cthulhu is gritty, tragic, thankless and, in a way, valiant. "I find it inspiring," says Lovely. "That may sound kinda goofy to say that I'm inspired by what my players do in a role-playing game, but you're depicting someone who's confronted with absolute horribleness and that person, in some way that will never be recognized by eight billion other people in the world, is willing to give a significant aspect of themselves to slightly delay the dark, horrible, tentacled, toothy thing."

click to enlarge The werewolf won the Judge’s Choice award during Saturday night’s costume contest. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • The werewolf won the Judge’s Choice award during Saturday night’s costume contest.

Lovely spent years writing the current campaign for Call of Cthulhu and then started to write two overlapping campaigns that will eventually factor into the game he's running. Every week, he does hours of homework and preparation to steer the game's next chapter. As long as people keep showing up to his house every Tuesday night, he expects the current campaign to continue for years. "I don't play video games," he says. "I don't sit around smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey. I sit around writing role-playing games, writing stories and planning MisCon. That's just what I do."

Everyone is in character

Kian, Kormak, Ugg and Eagon take turns whacking the hell out of each other's shields and armor. At one point, Eagon drops to his knees and absorbs a barrage of heavy blows from Kormack. He's getting slaughtered.

Sunday morning at MisCon belongs to the Society for Creative Anachronism. The courtyard that just hours earlier had been filled with costumed drunks escaping a fire alarm is now occupied by medieval sword fights. To the side of the courtyard an armored archer launches padded arrows toward a human target.

The SCA is dedicated to the preservation, research and recreation of all things Middle Ages. Unlike a Renaissance Fair, the SCA is participatory, meaning members assume new names and roles in whatever aspect of the Middle Ages interests them most. In other words, everyone is in character.

The SCA started as an offshoot of the original MisCon planning committee, and, like the Con, has managed to survive ever since. It represents yet another dimension of the weekend's festivities—an SCA sword fighter may never otherwise cross paths with a Sandbaggers gamer, but they still meet every year at Ruby's.

"I would never hang out with half the people here in any other setting," says Barba. "I just wouldn't. I'm a judgmental son of a bitch. I don't watch the SyFy network. I'm not into science fiction itself. I like epic fantasy. But I think one of the reasons I enjoy planning this weekend is that I can see all of these people come together and be weird."

Lovely puts it a different way. "There's a craving for that community embrace," he says. "You may prefer to write the stories. You may prefer to read the stories. You may prefer to tell the stories by running a role-playing game, or play out the stories by being a character in a role-playing game. Whatever you prefer, it's still the same sort of visceral craving for creativity and imagination.

"Part of what brings us together is that this is the community that understands and embraces that, no matter what," he continues. "I think it's an important outlet for people who may otherwise feel set aside in society...Happy people are nicer people. It might be a far cry from playing a role-playing game to ending a war, but at some point, if everyone's getting together to do something joyful..."

It comes back to why drag queens belong at a sci-fi convention just as much as a Call of Cthulhu gamer. Both share visions of a slightly different world—one not necessarily far off from where we live now, only more accepting, noble, brave or—even better—loving.

Until that place exists, they have MisCon.

This story was updated on June 23.
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