The stage was set at Dragon Con 2004 for the 501st to step out of the background and pull the fans into an adventure. Tens of thousands of attendees poured into the Hyatt and Marriott hotels in downtown Atlanta. All of them wanted a thrill. Little did they know they’d soon be joining a galactic battle against the Empire itself.
Early Thursday morning, I had my team of lovely ladies deploying 1,000 faithful astromech droids into the population. The droids’ mission: evade all Imperials. They were, in fact, laminated cards but symbolically they were ambassadors of the good guys. On one side, a cute illustration of R2-D2 greeted you. On the other side were the complete rules of engagement: wear the droid in plain sight, run from stormtroopers if spotted, hand the droid over if a stormtrooper utters the phrase “How long have you had these droids?”. But winning wouldn’t be the aim of the game. Captured droids meant a raffle ticket promising prizes galore. No, playing the game was the fun of it. For one weekend, fans were the heroes fighting the good fight.
By Friday morning all the droids were deployed and a throng of armored stormtroopers marched up to the 501st table. The word had gone out and 200+ soldiers stood ready to do Vader’s bidding. They came from all over the country: Garrisons from Florida to New England, from New York to California. Kathy and her staff unveiled the score board. A cheer went up as the teams rallied, donned their buckets, and began barking orders. Within minutes Imperials were fanning out to cover the six square blocks of Dragon Con to search lobbies, sidewalks, escalators, and more than 100 event rooms.
Reports started coming in almost immediately. Stormtroopers bearing handfuls of captured droids ran up to the table to log their bounty before rushing off to find more. Armored soldiers could be seen bolting up and down hallways in pursuit of quarry. Officers, still technically in costume, used their unimpaired vision to scout ahead and deploy the troopers to deadly effect. Fans, now aware the hunt was on, could be heard running and laughing as they evaded capture. Some made the ill-fated mistake of trying to find refuge near the 501st table, only to find out too late it was the hub of Imperial activity.
The competition heated up early. The Florida Garrison, bolstered by large numbers, took an early commanding lead. Not to be out-done, Carolina troopers deployed to the escalators, hoping to pick off unwary Rebel sympathizers fleeing the lobbies. California troopers, banding together from three Garrisons, rallied near the panel rooms. The Midwestern Garrisons joined up in two groups: Bloodfin from Indiana on one side and Ohio and Carida Garrisons on another, both of them racking up impressive numbers.
But it was one trooper in particular who distinguished himself for his superhuman efforts. Leon Clarence, hailing from the UK, was there to represent the ECG. Living in New York at the time, Leon had gotten into the 501st from partying with the Empire City Garrison and had in fact trained to run marathons in armor. Midway through the day the Droid Hunt witnessed an incredible feat as Leon single-handedly raced over three floors of the Hyatt and captured more than 100 droids on his own! The word was out: hunting season was in full effect and one stormtrooper was going to try and win it solo!
Little did the troopers know that the Rebels had a secret weapon. Trooper Groupies, ladies bedecked in all-white in support of the Legion, were schemed as a way to add a wrinkle to the game. If they found a trooper carrying droid badges before they got to the table, they could clean the poor soldier out! Even some ladies dressed as Slave Leia got into the act. Soon the Imperials learned: the hunters could become the prey within seconds!
No area was safe from the carnage. Cheralyn Lambeth, a member of Carolina Garrison, was moderating a Star Trek panel in the afternoon while still wearing her Biker Scout armor. Once the attendees were seated, she plunked on her helmet and ordered everyone in the room to turn over all their droids. Down the hall, actors Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk were the guests of honor at a Firefly panel. When a stormtrooper appeared, a fast-acting Fillion bolted from the room, screaming “You’ll never catch me alive!” In true Han Solo fashion, he turned the corner into the waiting arms of five more stormtroopers outside.
As the sun set on Saturday, the tallies were wrapped up. A surprise surge toward the end put the Carolina Garrison on top to win it all. CO Sean Dudley had deployed his members in key spots to collect an unprecedented total. At the 501st Mixer that night, the golden droid trophy was held aloft among a throng of cheers.
The first Legion Droid Hunt had been a rousing success. More than 500 con goers gathered around the 501st table on Sunday and eagerly collected their raffle prizes. Faithful Star Wars fans even donated to Make-A-Wish to buy the first ever Droid Hunt badges as collectibles. Peter and Angie Mayhew awarded the valiant efforts of the 501st members in a number of categories including “Fastest Hunter,” “Most Droids Captured by an Individual” (the Brit, of course), and “Best Trooper Groupie Repo-Team Member.”
Stories buzzed among the Dragon Con attendees of the adventures they’d had safeguarding their droids and the lengths they went to avoiding capture. What had started out as a crazy idea had achieved its ultimate goal: to relive the excitement of the Star Wars universe and make the magic real to fans who still believe. After all, what good is costuming if you can’t live the magic?
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 atalbinjohnson.com.