Jim Tinklenberg of South Haven helps friends and strangers fight dragons, and he’s looking forward to doing just that this month at Western Michigan University.
Tinklenberg, a “game master,” or referee, of the role-playing game Pathfinder, will be one of just many game-playing enthusiasts convening at the university’s Bernhard Center March 30–April 1 for the annual Marmalade Dog convention.
This will be the 23rd Marmalade Dog, which was named for a rock band that never actually formed. The event was started in 1994 by the WMU student organization Western Michigan Gamers Guild to bring game-loving students and others together. In its early years, the convention invited professional game designers and artists to speak and meet players, but in the last few years the convention has settled into a format of simply offering plenty of tables for board games and role-playing games for gamers of all types.
Organizers estimate the convention draws “several hundred” attendees over the course of the weekend; some sign up for pre-scheduled game sessions while others just drop in and play a board game someone has brought to the convention. Not everyone is a WMU student; high schoolers and adults in their 30s, 40s and beyond also play games at Marmalade Dog.
No checkers or Monopoly
Marmalade Dog 22, held in March 2017, had more than 50 tables for game players set up in the Bernhard Center’s ballroom from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon. Some tables hosted just two players going head-to-head across a game board; others had six to eight players, with one player, a game master like Tinklenberg, standing at the head of the table reading a story to the other players and keeping track of the rules.
You couldn’t find checkers or Monopoly; instead, the games were more complex, and many had fantasy or science fiction themes. More than two dozen tables hosted Pathfinder games, in which players take on the roles of knights, wizards and other fantasy heroes, confront monsters and seek out treasures using their imaginations, dice and books. Others featured detectives exploring haunted houses or 2-inch-long versions of the spaceships from Star Wars battling one another across a map of the stars.
On one side of the ballroom, a half-dozen “pods,” each about the size of a bathroom shower, were set up for Battletech, a computer game in which players’ giant fighting robots fight against each other (think of a digital version of Transformers). Nearby was a row of computers for another game, Artemis, that simulates the bridge of a starship, a game pretty close to Star Trek without actually violating any copyright laws.
Clayton Williams of Lansing was at the 2017 convention with his wife, hoping to meet new players of Dungeon Crawl Classics, a fantasy role-playing game. As a game master, Williams had the books and dice ready for a Classics game scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday, but no one sat down at his table (his wife was already playing Call of Cthulhu, a different role-playing game about investigating alien monsters). The 9 a.m. start time came and went, but Williams wasn’t worried.
“This is open gaming,” he said. “If a game session doesn’t happen, there are plenty of other games to join in. People (at a convention) are always open to new players.”
‘It runs on love’
Hundreds of game conventions like Marmalade Dog are held across the U.S. each year. The largest is Gen Con, held each August in Indianapolis. And while Marmalade Dog has grown in its 22 years, organizers say the convention struggles to attract new visitors. In 2017, Marmalade Dog fell on the same weekend as Gary Con, a gaming convention in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Created by some of the first players of the original role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Con hosts dozens of well-known game authors and artists to speak and play and is close enough to Kalamazoo to be competition to Marmalade Dog.
Marmalade Dog convention organizer Mike Pirkola says the availability of space to rent at the Bernhard Center affects the timing of the convention. He says the convention is listed online on sites like upcomingcons.com, and before each year’s convention organizers hang up “a lot of posters nobody reads.”
“We posted on (the online message site) Reddit,” says Pirkola. “People said, ‘I live in Grand Rapids, and I’ve never heard of you.’”
But Erin Flores of Ann Arbor, who graduated from WMU in 2004, returns to Kalamazoo each spring not only to participate in Marmalade Dog, but to help run the convention. She says a lot of what’s done for the convention, from renting the space to printing souvenir T-shirts, is done because everyone involved simply likes playing games.
“It runs on love and many other words,” she says. “People who know about the convention know they want to come back (every year).”
They come to play, not shop
In between game sessions, there’s a chance to peruse the wares of a handful of vendors. In 2017, there were 10 artists and game creators who had booths along the walls, where they sold everything from science fiction novels and the latest games to map boards for Pathfinder and handmade jewelry.
Gordon Donaldson of Elkhart, Indiana, brought copies of his creation, High Ball, a Monopoly-influenced board game that simulates running a railroad. Marmalade Dog 2017 was his first convention. He chose it because it was “close by, but not ‘ginormous,’” and he had people stopping by his booth all weekend, he said.
“I had no idea the game world was as big as it is,” Donaldson said. “It’s been a happy experience, talking with people who are trying the game.”
Frank Russell of Holland spent his time at Marmalade Dog as a game master for a session of Call of Cthulhu. He described each scene in the game to his players, augmenting it with pictures, sounds and video clips he had prepared ahead of time. His Marmalade Dog session was a practice run for what he called the “real” game, an elaborate production of his Call of Cthulhu scenario, which he has taken to Gen Con each year for more than 20 years.
“I spend too much time on it as it is,” he admitted. “Luckily, we have long winters in Michigan.”