History of the 501st Legion: Droid Hunting at Dragon Con, Part 1

By 2003 it was clear the 501st Legion was on its way to dynamite growth. Stormtroopers were  taking over conventions worldwide and were quickly becoming a staple of the fan scene. Long forgotten was my fledgling dream of assembling 10 whole stormtroopers in one place. Now I was finding myself marching with two hundred Imperials down Peach Tree Avenue in Atlanta. Traffic would stop as wave after wave of space soldiers tromped by.

The original Carolina Garrison banner led the 501st march

The original Carolina Garrison banner led the 501st march.

In the early days Dragon Con served as my personal laboratory for experimenting on how large-scale group costuming worked. It was fun to stand back and see how the collective army interacted with its environs, and interesting how organically the entity morphed as the numbers grew. Troopers were doing mash-ups with other sci-fi genres in photo ops, some were blending their armor with other themes, and group photos became more and more creative as we added costumes and pushed the boundaries. But as I kept my ears and eyes open to how the public responded to the 501st, I picked up on a low grumbling sound: “Oh look, more stormtroopers. Meh.”

By 2001 restaurants in Atlanta were hosting exclusive 501st parties

By 2001 restaurants in Atlanta were hosting exclusive 501st parties.

It was the sound of apathy. Quick success in our growth had given way to the unthinkable five years before: we were so big now, and so visible, that we didn’t make an impact visually like we used to. And really, how interesting is any costume after five minutes if you’ve seen it, admired it, and then moved on? I sensed the need for growth in another direction.

With Dragon Con as my test bed, I was ready to tinker with the formula again. I thought back to the moment when my lone trooper was joined by my pal Tom Crews in the movie theater in 1997. Where a single set of armor was a static museum display, two troopers became more of an interactive experience. That to me became the question. How could we make the 501st presence more of an interactive experience, one that captures the Star Wars experience? How could Vader’s Fist become more of a living part of fandom?

The logistics were there to make something happen. At a convention as big as Dragon Con you had a ready audience of thousands of open-minded fans. My mental gears turned. Why not engage in a game of some kind that gives fans something more to do at the convention? And what if it gave Star Wars costumers more to do to role-play their characters? Marching and standing at formation wasn’t enough. What else did stormtroopers do? How would they engage fans? What if it was a scavenger hunt of some kind? But what do stormtroopers look for?

I’d like to say the idea came right away, but I’m not that intelligent. It was only after several concepts that I recalled those poor sandtroopers on Tattooine fruitlessly roaming the desert chasing discarded droid parts. Hey, why not look for droids?

Early concept art for Droid Hunt flyers, courtesy of Mountain Garrison

Early concept art for Droid Hunt flyers, courtesy of Mountain Garrison.

I brainstormed the idea with fellow Legion member Dean Plantamura and my then-girlfriend, Kathy, who was herself a stormtrooper from New York’s Empire City Garrison. Dean had a keen mind for marketing and logistics. Kathy had a head for the social scene and what would catch on with fans. Over several weeks we worked out the idea. And it was pretty simple, but far from a guaranteed success.

Droids could be represented by cards decorated with eye-catching artwork. Con-goers could carry the droids, with the pitch that the poor droids carried sensitive information and were hiding from the mean stormtroopers. The rules: carry the droid in clear sight and if a costumed Imperial approached them with the phrase, “How long have you had these droids?” then the jig was up and the droid was turned in. But what were the incentives to drive the game? For the fans, give them a ticket good for a raffle at the end of the hunt. For the troopers, it was all about which unit could rack up the most points. And the big picture? Fun for all!

Building a brand

Building a brand.

Okay, so that was a good concept. If this worked, we could see the buzz hitting on several levels. But by this point I’d learned the hard way the only way to get anything done was to throw everything at the problem and roll the dice. When I approached Dragon Con about offering the droid cards at the registration booths all I got were strange looks. No one returned my calls from the head office. When I asked the Legion members if they could help us with the project there was a deafening silence. It seemed no one saw a need for changing the formula. In the end it fell to our little team to make it happen.

What to do with thousands of droids? Make a blanket!

What to do with thousands of droids? Make a blanket!

Dean went to work getting the artwork and designing a logo to build the brand of the game. Like Steve Jobs, he saw the badge as much more than just a means to an end. It would be a work of art! If folks were going to take this game seriously, the badges would have to look and feel like a piece of Star Wars. And why not build for the future, creating a signature look that could be duplicated in different versions for future games and create its own legacy? Star Wars fans were known for collecting, and this would be a new collectible.

The first Droid Hunt Badge: beautiful and functional

The first Droid Hunt Badge: beautiful and functional.

Meanwhile, Kathy worked her channels to get the buzz going. Where I was long on ideas, I was short on selling them. Without fear she would march up to celebrities at their tables and ask them to spread the word, wear the badges for the game, and autograph badges as special prizes. Most importantly, she knew the key to getting fans onboard: girl power! Forget distributing the badges at the registration desks, she called on her Trooper Groupies and other female costumers and asked them to be ready to hand out badges and talk the con goers into playing. Now who would say ‘no’ to a lovely lady asking help in playing a fun game at a show?

Early concept photo of the brand in action

Early concept photo of the brand in action.

So the plan was set: day one would be distributing the badges, day two would be the game, and day three would be the raffle. A three-part strategy to breathing new life into the con scene. Dragon Con would be our test, and mere months after that was Celebration III in Indianapolis. Dean poured his own money into producing the stock. I worked the Legion forums, throwing down the glove to see which Garrisons would step up to the challenge. Kathy had an army of support to make it work. All that was left was to see it through. Little did we know just how big this thing would get!

To be continued…

Albin Johnson was a lowly stormtrooper on Detention Block 2551 before Lord Vader lost a bet and allowed him to found the 501st Legion, “Vader’s Fist.” He’s also man-servant to R2-KT, “the pink Imperial droid with the heart of gold.” You can learn more at 501st.com and r2kt.com or follow Albin’s off-duty antics at albinjohnson.com.

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